We all remember the fairy tales of science in our infancy, which played with the supposition that large animals could jump in the proportion of small ones. If an elephant were as strong as a grasshopper, he could (I suppose) spring clean out of the Zoological Gardens and alight trumpeting upon Primrose Hill. If a whale could leap from the sea like a trout, perhaps men might look up and see one soaring above Yarmouth like the winged island of Laputa. Such natural energy, though sublime, might certainly be inconvenient, and much of this inconvenience attended the gaiety and good intentions of the man in green. He was too large for everything, because he was lively as well as large. By a fortunate physical provision, most very substantial creatures are also reposeful; and middle-class boarding-houses in the lesser parts of London are not built for a man as big as a bull and excitable as a kitten.
When Inglewood followed the stranger into the boarding-house, he found him talking earnestly (and in his own opinion privately) to the helpless Mrs. Duke. That fat, faint lady could only goggle up like a dying fish at the enormous new gentleman, who politely offered himself as a lodger, with vast gestures of the wide white hat in one hand, and the yellow Gladstone bag in the other. Fortunately, Mrs. Duke’s more efficient niece and partner was there to complete the contract; for, indeed, all the people of the house had somehow collected in the room. This fact, in truth, was typical of the whole episode. The visitor created an atmosphere of comic crisis; and from the time he came into the house to the time he left it, he somehow got the company to gather and even follow (though in derision) as children gather and follow a Punch and Judy. An hour ago, and for four years previously, these people had avoided each other, even when they had really liked each other. They had slid in and out of dismal and deserted rooms in search of particular newspapers or private needlework. Even now they all came casually, as with varying interests; but they all came. There was the embarrassed Inglewood, still a sort of red shadow; there was the unembarrassed Warner, a pallid but solid substance. There was Michael Moon offering like a riddle the contrast of the horsy crudeness of his clothes and the sombre sagacity of his visage. He was now joined by his yet more comic crony, Moses Gould. Swaggering on short legs with a prosperous purple tie, he was the gayest of godless little dogs; but like a dog also in this, that however he danced and wagged with delight, the two dark eyes on each side of his protuberant nose glistened gloomily like black buttons. There was Miss Rosamund Hunt, still with the fine white hat framing her square, good-looking face, and still with her native air of being dressed for some party that never came off. She also, like Mr. Moon, had a new companion, new so far as this narrative goes, but in reality an old friend and a protegee. This was a slight young woman in dark gray, and in no way notable but for a load of dull red hair, of which the shape somehow gave her pale face that triangular, almost peaked, appearance which was given by the lowering headdress and deep rich ruff of the Elizabethan beauties. Her surname seemed to be Gray, and Miss Hunt called her Mary, in that indescribable tone applied to a dependent who has practically become a friend. She wore a small silver cross on her very business-like gray clothes, and was the only member of the party who went to church. Last, but the reverse of least, there was Diana Duke, studying the newcomer with eyes of steel, and listening carefully to every idiotic word he said. As for Mrs. Duke, she smiled up at him, but never dreamed of listening to him. She had never really listened to any one in her life; which, some said, was why she had survived.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Duke was pleased with her new guest’s concentration of courtesy upon herself; for no one ever spoke seriously to her any more than she listened seriously to any one. And she almost beamed as the stranger, with yet wider and almost whirling gestures of explanation with his huge hat and bag, apologized for having entered by the wall instead of the front door. He was understood to put it down to an unfortunate family tradition of neatness and care of his clothes.
“My mother was rather strict about it, to tell the truth,” he said, lowering his voice, to Mrs. Duke. “She never liked me to lose my cap at school. And when a man’s been taught to be tidy and neat it sticks to him.”
Mrs. Duke weakly gasped that she was sure he must have had a good mother; but her niece seemed inclined to probe the matter further.
“You’ve got a funny idea of neatness,” she said, “if it’s jumping garden walls and clambering up garden trees. A man can’t very well climb a tree tidily.”
“He can clear a wall neatly,” said Michael Moon; “I saw him do it.”
Smith seemed to be regarding the girl with genuine astonishment. “My dear young lady,” he said, “I was tidying the tree. You don’t want last year’s hats there, do you, any more than last year’s leaves? The wind takes off the leaves, but it couldn’t manage the hat; that wind, I suppose, has tidied whole forests today. Rum idea this is, that tidiness is a timid, quiet sort of thing; why, tidiness is a toil for giants. You can’t tidy anything without untidying yourself; just look at my trousers. Don’t you know that? Haven’t you ever had a spring cleaning?”
“Oh yes, sir,” said Mrs. Duke, almost eagerly. “You will find everything of that sort quite nice.” For the first time she had heard two words that she could understand.
Miss Diana Duke seemed to be studying the stranger with a sort of spasm of calculation; then her black eyes snapped with decision, and she said that he could have a particular bedroom on the top floor if he liked: and the silent and sensitive Inglewood, who had been on the rack through these cross-purposes, eagerly offered to show him up to the room. Smith went up the stairs four at a time, and when he bumped his head against the ultimate ceiling, Inglewood had an odd sensation that the tall house was much shorter than it used to be.
Arthur Inglewood followed his old friend — or his new friend, for he did not very clearly know which he was. The face looked very like his old schoolfellow’s at one second and very unlike at another. And when Inglewood broke through his native politeness so far as to say suddenly, “Is your name Smith?” he received only the unenlightening reply, “Quite right; quite right. Very good. Excellent!” Which appeared to Inglewood, on reflection, rather the speech of a new-born babe accepting a name than of a grown-up man admitting one.
Despite these doubts about identity, the hapless Inglewood watched the other unpack, and stood about his bedroom in all the impotent attitudes of the male friend. Mr. Smith unpacked with the same kind of whirling accuracy with which he climbed a tree — throwing things out of his bag as if they were rubbish, yet managing to distribute quite a regular pattern all round him on the floor.
As he did so he continued to talk in the same somewhat gasping manner (he had come upstairs four steps at a time, but even without this his style of speech was breathless and fragmentary), and his remarks were still a string of more or less significant but often separate pictures.
“Like the day of judgement,” he said, throwing a bottle so that it somehow settled, rocking on its right end. “People say vast universe . . . infinity and astronomy; not sure . . . I think things are too close together . . . packed up; for travelling . . . stars too close, really . . . why, the sun’s a star, too close to be seen properly; the earth’s a star, too close to be seen at all . . . too many pebbles on the beach; ought all to be put in rings; too many blades of grass to study . . . feathers on a bird make the brain reel; wait till the big bag is unpacked . . . may all be put in our right places then.”
Here he stopped, literally for breath — throwing a shirt to the other end of the room, and then a bottle of ink so that it fell quite neatly beyond it. Inglewood looked round on this strange, half-symmetrical disorder with an increasing doubt.
In fact, the more one explored Mr. Smith’s holiday luggage, the less one could make anything of it. One peculiarity of it was that almost everything seemed to be there for the wrong reason; what is secondary with every one else was primary with him. He would wrap up a pot or pan in brown paper; and the unthinking assistant would discover that the pot was valueless or even unnecessary, and that it was the brown paper that was truly precious. He produced two or three boxes of cigars, and explained with plain and perplexing sincerity that he was no smoker, but that cigar-box wood was by far the best for fretwork. He also exhibited about six small bottles of wine, white and red, and Inglewood, happening to note a Volnay which he knew to be excellent, supposed at first that the stranger was an epicure in vintages. He was therefore surprised to find that the next bottle was a vile sham claret from the colonies, which even colonials (to do them justice) do not drink. It was only then that he observed that all six bottles had those bright metallic seals of various tints, and seemed to have been chosen solely because they have the three primary and three secondary colours: red, blue, and yellow; green, violet and orange. There grew upon Inglewood an almost creepy sense of the real childishness of this creature. For Smith was really, so far as human psychology can be, innocent. He had the sensualities of innocence: he loved the stickiness of gum, and he cut white wood greedily as if he were cutting a cake. To this man wine was not a doubtful thing to be defended or denounced; it was a quaintly coloured syrup, such as a child sees in a shop window. He talked dominantly and rushed the social situation; but he was not asserting himself, like a superman in a modern play. He was simply forgetting himself, like a little boy at a party. He had somehow made the giant stride from babyhood to manhood, and missed that crisis in youth when most of us grow old.
As he shunted his big bag, Arthur observed the initials I. S. printed on one side of it, and remembered that Smith had been called Innocent Smith at school, though whether as a formal Christian name or a moral description he could not remember. He was just about to venture another question, when there was a knock at the door, and the short figure of Mr. Gould offered itself, with the melancholy Moon, standing like his tall crooked shadow, behind him. They had drifted up the stairs after the other two men with the wandering gregariousness of the male.
“Hope there’s no intrusion,” said the beaming Moses with a glow of good nature, but not the airiest tinge of apology.
“The truth is,” said Michael Moon with comparative courtesy, “we thought we might see if they had made you comfortable. Miss Duke is rather —”
“I know,” cried the stranger, looking up radiantly from his bag; “magnificent, isn’t she? Go close to her — hear military music going by, like Joan of Arc.”
Inglewood stared and stared at the speaker like one who has just heard a wild fairy tale, which nevertheless contains one small and forgotten fact. For he remembered how he had himself thought of Jeanne d’Arc years ago, when, hardly more than a schoolboy, he had first come to the boarding-house. Long since the pulverizing rationalism of his friend Dr. Warner had crushed such youthful ignorances and disproportionate dreams. Under the Warnerian scepticism and science of hopeless human types, Inglewood had long come to regard himself as a timid, insufficient, and “weak” type, who would never marry; to regard Diana Duke as a materialistic maidservant; and to regard his first fancy for her as the small, dull farce of a collegian kissing his landlady’s daughter. And yet the phrase about military music moved him queerly, as if he had heard those distant drums.
“She has to keep things pretty tight, as is only natural,” said Moon, glancing round the rather dwarfish room, with its wedge of slanted ceiling, like the conical hood of a dwarf.
“Rather a small box for you, sir,” said the waggish Mr. Gould.
“Splendid room, though,” answered Mr. Smith enthusiastically, with his head inside his Gladstone bag. “I love these pointed sorts of rooms, like Gothic. By the way,” he cried out, pointing in quite a startling way, “where does that door lead to?”
“To certain death, I should say,” answered Michael Moon, staring up at a dust-stained and disused trapdoor in the sloping roof of the attic. “I don’t think there’s a loft there; and I don’t know what else it could lead to.” Long before he had finished his sentence the man with the strong green legs had leapt at the door in the ceiling, swung himself somehow on to the ledge beneath it, wrenched it open after a struggle, and clambered through it. For a moment they saw the two symbolic legs standing like a truncated statue; then they vanished. Through the hole thus burst in the roof appeared the empty and lucid sky of evening, with one great many-coloured cloud sailing across it like a whole county upside down.
“Hullo, you fellows!” came the far cry of Innocent Smith, apparently from some remote pinnacle. “Come up here; and bring some of my things to eat and drink. It’s just the spot for a picnic.”
With a sudden impulse Michael snatched two of the small bottles of wine, one in each solid fist; and Arthur Inglewood, as if mesmerized, groped for a biscuit tin and a big jar of ginger. The enormous hand of Innocent Smith appearing through the aperture, like a giant’s in a fairy tale, received these tributes and bore them off to the eyrie; then they both hoisted themselves out of the window. They were both athletic, and even gymnastic; Inglewood through his concern for hygiene, and Moon through his concern for sport, which was not quite so idle and inactive as that of the average sportsman. Also they both had a light-headed burst of celestial sensation when the door was burst in the roof, as if a door had been burst in the sky, and they could climb out on to the very roof of the universe. They were both men who had long been unconsciously imprisoned in the commonplace, though one took it comically, and the other seriously. They were both men, nevertheless, in whom sentiment had never died. But Mr. Moses Gould had an equal contempt for their suicidal athletics and their subconscious transcendentalism, and he stood and laughed at the thing with the shameless rationality of another race.
When the singular Smith, astride of a chimney-pot, learnt that Gould was not following, his infantile officiousness and good nature forced him to dive back into the attic to comfort or persuade; and Inglewood and Moon were left alone on the long gray-green ridge of the slate roof, with their feet against gutters and their backs against chimney-pots, looking agnostically at each other. Their first feeling was that they had come out into eternity, and that eternity was very like topsy-turvydom. One definition occurred to both of them — that he had come out into the light of that lucid and radiant ignorance in which all beliefs had begun. The sky above them was full of mythology. Heaven seemed deep enough to hold all the gods. The round of the ether turned from green to yellow gradually like a great unripe fruit. All around the sunken sun it was like a lemon; round all the east it was a sort of golden green, more suggestive of a greengage; but the whole had still the emptiness of daylight and none of the secrecy of dusk. Tumbled here and there across this gold and pale green were shards and shattered masses of inky purple cloud, which seemed falling towards the earth in every kind of colossal perspective. One of them really had the character of some many-mitred, many-bearded, many-winged Assyrian image, huge head downwards, hurled out of heaven — a sort of false Jehovah, who was perhaps Satan. All the other clouds had preposterous pinnacled shapes, as if the god’s palaces had been flung after him.
And yet, while the empty heaven was full of silent catastrophe, the height of human buildings above which they sat held here and there a tiny trivial noise that was the exact antithesis; and they heard some six streets below a newsboy calling, and a bell bidding to chapel. They could also hear talk out of the garden below; and realized that the irrepressible Smith must have followed Gould downstairs, for his eager and pleading accents could be heard, followed by the half-humourous protests of Miss Duke and the full and very youthful laughter of Rosamund Hunt. The air had that cold kindness that comes after a storm. Michael Moon drank it in with as serious a relish as he had drunk the little bottle of cheap claret, which he had emptied almost at a draught. Inglewood went on eating ginger very slowly and with a solemnity unfathomable as the sky above him. There was still enough stir in the freshness of the atmosphere to make them almost fancy they could smell the garden soil and the last roses of autumn. Suddenly there came from the darkening room a silvery ping and pong which told them that Rosamund had brought out the long-neglected mandoline. After the first few notes there was more of the distant bell-like laughter.
“Inglewood,” said Michael Moon, “have you ever heard that I am a blackguard?”
“I haven’t heard it, and I don’t believe it,” answered Inglewood, after an odd pause. “But I have heard you were — what they call rather wild.”
“If you have heard that I am wild, you can contradict the rumour,” said Moon, with an extraordinary calm; “I am tame. I am quite tame; I am about the tamest beast that crawls. I drink too much of the same kind of whisky at the same time every night. I even drink about the same amount too much. I go to the same number of public-houses. I meet the same damned women with mauve faces. I hear the same number of dirty stories — generally the same dirty stories. You may assure my friends, Inglewood, that you see before you a person whom civilization has thoroughly tamed.”
Arthur Inglewood was staring with feelings that made him nearly fall off the roof, for indeed the Irishman’s face, always sinister, was now almost demoniacal.
“Christ confound it!” cried out Moon, suddenly clutching the empty claret bottle, “this is about the thinnest and filthiest wine I ever uncorked, and it’s the only drink I have really enjoyed for nine years. I was never wild until just ten minutes ago.” And he sent the bottle whizzing, a wheel of glass, far away beyond the garden into the road, where, in the profound evening silence, they could even hear it break and part upon the stones.
“Moon,” said Arthur Inglewood, rather huskily, “you mustn’t be so bitter about it. Everyone has to take the world as he finds it; of course one often finds it a bit dull —”
“That fellow doesn’t,” said Michael decisively; “I mean that fellow Smith. I have a fancy there’s some method in his madness. It looks as if he could turn into a sort of wonderland any minute by taking one step out of the plain road. Who would have thought of that trapdoor? Who would have thought that this cursed colonial claret could taste quite nice among the chimney-pots? Perhaps that is the real key of fairyland. Perhaps Nosey Gould’s beastly little Empire Cigarettes ought only to be smoked on stilts, or something of that sort. Perhaps Mrs. Duke’s cold leg of mutton would seem quite appetizing at the top of a tree. Perhaps even my damned, dirty, monotonous drizzle of Old Bill Whisky —”
“Don’t be so rough on yourself,” said Inglewood, in serious distress. “The dullness isn’t your fault or the whisky’s. Fellows who don’t — fellows like me I mean — have just the same feeling that it’s all rather flat and a failure. But the world’s made like that; it’s all survival. Some people are made to get on, like Warner; and some people are made to stick quiet, like me. You can’t help your temperament. I know you’re much cleverer than I am; but you can’t help having all the loose ways of a poor literary chap, and I can’t help having all the doubts and helplessness of a small scientific chap, any more than a fish can help floating or a fern can help curling up. Humanity, as Warner said so well in that lecture, really consists of quite different tribes of animals all disguised as men.”
In the dim garden below the buzz of talk was suddenly broken by Miss Hunt’s musical instrument banging with the abruptness of artillery into a vulgar but spirited tune.
Rosamund’s voice came up rich and strong in the words of some fatuous, fashionable coon song:—
“Darkies sing a song on the old plantation,
Sing it as we sang it in days long since gone by.”
Inglewood’s brown eyes softened and saddened still more as he continued his monologue of resignation to such a rollicking and romantic tune. But the blue eyes of Michael Moon brightened and hardened with a light that Inglewood did not understand. Many centuries, and many villages and valleys, would have been happier if Inglewood or Inglewood’s countrymen had ever understood that light, or guessed at the first blink that it was the battle star of Ireland.
“Nothing can ever alter it; it’s in the wheels of the universe,” went on Inglewood, in a low voice: “some men are weak and some strong, and the only thing we can do is to know that we are weak. I have been in love lots of times, but I could not do anything, for I remembered my own fickleness. I have formed opinions, but I haven’t the cheek to push them, because I’ve so often changed them. That’s the upshot, old fellow. We can’t trust ourselves — and we can’t help it.”
Michael had risen to his feet, and stood poised in a perilous position at the end of the roof, like some dark statue hung above its gable. Behind him, huge clouds of an almost impossible purple turned slowly topsy-turvy in the silent anarchy of heaven. Their gyration made the dark figure seem yet dizzier.
“Let us . . . ” he said, and was suddenly silent.
“Let us what?” asked Arthur Inglewood, rising equally quick though somewhat more cautiously, for his friend seemed to find some difficulty in speech.
“Let us go and do some of these things we can’t do,” said Michael.
At the same moment there burst out of the trapdoor below them the cockatoo hair and flushed face of Innocent Smith, calling to them that they must come down as the “concert” was in full swing, and Mr. Moses Gould was about to recite “Young Lochinvar.”
As they dropped into Innocent’s attic they nearly tumbled over its entertaining impedimenta again. Inglewood, staring at the littered floor, thought instinctively of the littered floor of a nursery. He was therefore the more moved, and even shocked, when his eye fell on a large well-polished American revolver.
“Hullo!” he cried, stepping back from the steely glitter as men step back from a serpent; “are you afraid of burglars? or when and why do you deal death out of that machine gun?”
“Oh, that!” said Smith, throwing it a single glance; “I deal life out of that,” and he went bounding down the stairs.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06