After missing his vocation with the young man Butterfield, Michael had hesitated in the hall. At last he had not gone upstairs again, but quietly out. He walked past the Houses of Parliament and up Whitehall. In Trafalgar Square, it occurred to him that he had a father. Bart might be at ‘Snooks’, The Coffee House, The Aeroplane; and, with the thought, ‘He’d be restful,’ he sought the most modern of the three.
“Yes, Sir Lawrence Mont is in the lounge, sir.”
He was sitting with knees crossed, and a cigar between his finger-tips, waiting for some one to talk to.
“Ah! Michael! Can you tell me why I come here?”
“To wait for the end of the world, sir?”
Sir Lawrence sniggered. “An idea,” he said. “When the skies are wrecking civilisation, this will be the best-informed tape in London. The wish to be in at the death is perhaps the strongest of our passions, Michael. I should very much dislike being blown up, especially after dinner; but I should still more dislike missing the next show if it’s to be a really good one. The air raids were great fun, after all.”
“Yes,” he said, “the war got us used to thinking of the millennium, and then it went and stopped, and left the millennium hanging over us. Now we shall never be happy till we get it. Can I take one of your cigars, sir?”
“My dear fellow! I’ve been reading Frazer again. Extraordinary how remote all superstition seems, now that we’ve reached the ultimate truth: That enlightenment never can prevail.”
Michael stopped the lighting of his cigar.
“Do you really think that, sir?”
“What else can one think? Who can have any reasonable doubt now that with the aid of mechanics the headstrong part of man must do him in? It’s an unavoidable conclusion from all recent facts. ‘Per ardua ad astra,’ ‘Through hard knocks we shall see stars.’”
“But it’s always been like that, sir, and here we are alive?”
“They say so, but I doubt it. I fancy we’re really dead, Michael. I fancy we’re only living in the past. I don’t think — no, I don’t think we can be said to expect a future. We talk of it, but I hardly think we hope for one. Underneath our protestations we subconsciously deduce. From the mess we’ve made of it these last ten years, we can feel the far greater mess we shall make of it in the next thirty. Human nature can argue the hind leg off a donkey, but the donkey will be four-legged at the end of the discussion.”
Michael sat down suddenly and said:
“You’re a bad, bold Bart!”
Sir Lawrence smiled.
“I should be glad to think that men really believed in humanity, and all that, but you know they don’t — they believe in novelty and getting their own way. With rare exceptions they’re still monkeys, especially the scientific variety; and when you put gunpowder and a lighted match into the paws of monkeys, they blow themselves up to see the fun. Monkeys are only safe when deprived of means to be otherwise.”
“Lively, that!” said Michael.
“Not livelier than the occasion warrants, my dear boy. I’ve been thinking. We’ve got a member here who knows a trick worth twenty of any played in the war — an extraordinarily valuable fellow. The Government have got their eye on him. He’ll help the other valuable fellows in France and Germany and America and Russia to make history. Between them, they’ll do something really proud — something that’ll knock all the other achievements of man into a cocked hat. By the way, Michael, new device of ‘homo sapiens’— the cocked hat.”
“Well,” said Michael, “what are you going to do about it?”
Sir Lawrence’s eyebrow sought his hair.
“Do, my dear fellow? What should I do? Can I go out and grab him and the Government by the slack of their breeches; yes, and all the valuable fellows and Governments of the other countries? No! All I can do is to smoke my cigar and say: ‘God rest you, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!’ By hook or crook, they will come into their own, Michael; but in the normal course of things I shall be dead before they do.”
“I shan’t,” said Michael
“No, my dear; but think of the explosions, the sights, the smells. By Jove, you’ve got something to live for, yet. Sometimes I wish I were your age. And sometimes,” Sir Lawrence relighted his cigar, “I don’t. Sometimes I think I’ve had enough of our pretences, and that there’s nothing left but to die like gentlemen.”
“Some Jeremiad, Dad!”
“Well,” said Sir Lawrence, with a twirl of his little grizzled moustache, “I hope I’m wrong. But we’re driving fast to a condition of things when millions can be killed by the pressing of a few buttons. What reason is there to suppose that our bumps of benevolence will increase in time to stop our using these great new toys of destruction, Michael!”
“‘Where you know little, place terrors.’”
“Very nice; where did you get that?”
“Out of a life of Christopher Columbus.”
“Old C. C.! I could bring myself to wish sometimes that he hadn’t been so deucedly inquisitive. We were snugger in the dark ages. There was something to be said for not discovering the Yanks.”
“Well,” said Michael, “I think we shall pedal through, yet. By the way, about this Elderson stunt: I’ve just seen the clerk — he doesn’t look to me the sort that would have made that up.”
“Ah! That! But if Elderson could do such a thing, well — really, anything might happen. It’s a complete stumper. He was such a pretty bat, always went in first wicket down. He and I put on fifty-four against Eton. I suppose old Forsyte told you?”
“Yes, he wanted me to find the chap a job.”
“Butterfield. Ask him if he’s related to old Butterfield the gardener? It would be something to go on. D’you find old Forsyte rather trying?”
Loyal to Fleur, Michael concealed his lips. “No, I get on very well with him.”
“He’s straight, I admit that.”
“Yes,” said Michael, “very straight.”
“But somewhat reticent.”
“Yes,” said Michael.
On this conclusion they were silent, as though terrors had been placed beyond it. And soon Michael rose. “Past ten, I’d better go home.”
Returning the way he came, he could think of nothing but Wilfrid. What wouldn’t he give to hear him say: “It’s all right, old man; I’ve got over it!”— to wring him by the hand again. Why should one catch this fatal disease called love? Why should one be driven half crazy by it? They said love was Nature’s provision against Bart’s terrors, against the valuable fellows. An insistent urge — lest the race die out. Prosaic, if true! Not that he cared whether Fleur had children. Queer how Nature camouflaged her schemes — leery old bird! But overreaching herself a bit, wasn’t she? Children might yet go clean out of fashion if Bart was right. A very little more would do it; who would have children for the mere pleasure of seeing them blown up, poisoned, starved to death? A few fanatics would hold on, the rest of the world go barren. The cocked hat! Instinctively Michael straightened his own, ready for crossing under Big Ben. He had reached the centre of Parliament Square, when a figure coming towards him swerved suddenly to its left and made in the direction of Victoria. Tall, with a swing in its walk. Wilfrid! Michael stood still. Coming from — South Square! And suddenly he gave chase. He did not run, but he walked his hardest. The blood beat in his temples, and he felt confused to a pitch past bearing. Wilfrid must have seen him, or he wouldn’t have swerved, wouldn’t be legging it away like a demon. Black! — black! He was not gaining, Wilfrid had the legs of him — to overtake him, he must run! But there rose in Michael a sort of exaltation. His best friend — his wife! There was a limit. One might be too proud to fight that. Let him go his ways! He stood still, watched the swift figure disappear, and slowly, head down under the now cocked hat, turned towards home. He walked quite quietly, and with a sense of finality. No use making a song about it! No fuss, but no retreat! In the few hundred yards before he reached his Square he was chiefly conscious of the tallness of houses, the shortness of men. Such midgets to have made this monstrous pile, lighted it so that it shone in an enormous glittering heap whose glow blurred the colour of the sky! What a vast business this midget activity! Absurd to think that his love for another midget mattered! He turned his key in the lock, took off his cocked hat and went into the drawing-room. Unlighted — empty? No. She and Ting-a-ling were on the floor before the fire! He sat down on the settee, and was abruptly conscious that he was trembling and sweating as if he had smoked a too strong cigar. Fleur had raised herself, cross-legged, and was staring up at him. He waited to get the better of his trembling. Why didn’t she speak? Why was she sitting there, in the dark? ‘She knows’; he thought: ‘we both know this is the end. O God, let me at least be a sport!’ He took a cushion, put it behind him, crossed his legs, and leaned back. His voice surprised him suddenly:
“May I ask you something, Fleur? And will you please answer me quite truly?”
“It’s this: I know you didn’t love me when you married me. I don’t think you love me now. Do you want me to clear out?”
A long time seemed to pass.
“Do you mean that?”
“Because I don’t.”
Michael got up.
“Will you answer one thing more?”
“Was Wilfrid here to-night?”
“Yes — no. That is —”
His hands clutched each other; he saw her eyes fix on them, and kept them still.
“I’m not. He came to the window there. I saw his face — that’s all. His face — it — Oh! Michael, don’t be unkind to-night!”
Unkind! Unkind! Michael’s heart swelled at that strange word.
“It’s all right,” he stammered: “So long as you tell me what it is you want.”
Fleur said, without moving:
“I want to be comforted.”
Ah! She knew exactly what to say, how to say it! And going on his knees, he began to comfort her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54