‘Why are you obstinately silent? [wrote Earwaker, in a letter addressed to Godwin at his Peckham lodgings]. I take it for granted that you must by this time be back from your holiday. Why haven’t you replied to my letter of a fortnight ago? Nothing yet from The Critical. If you are really at work as usual, come and see me tomorrow evening, any time after eight. The posture of my affairs grows dubious; the shadow of Kenyon thickens about me. In all seriousness I think I shall be driven from The Weekly Post before long. My quarrels with Runcorn are too frequent, and his blackguardism keeps more than pace with the times. Come or write, for I want to know how things go with you.
Peak read this at breakfast on a Saturday morning. It was early in September, and three weeks had elapsed since his return from the west of England. Upon the autumn had fallen a blight of cold and rainy weather, which did not enhance the cheerfulness of daily journeying between Peckham Rye and Rotherhithe. When it was necessary for him to set forth to the train, he muttered imprecations, for a mood of inactivity possessed him; he would gladly have stayed in his comfortable sitting-room, idling over books or only occupied with languid thought.
In the afternoon he was at liberty to follow his impulse, and this directed him to the British Museum, whither of late he had several times resorted as a reader. Among the half-dozen books for which he applied was one in German, Reusch’s Bibel und Natur. After a little dallying, he became absorbed in this work, and two or three hours passed before its hold on his attention slackened. He seldom changed his position; the volume was propped against others, and he sat bending forward, his arms folded upon the desk. When he was thus deeply engaged, his face had a hard, stern aspect; if by chance his eye wandered for a moment, its look seemed to express resentment of interruption.
At length he threw himself back with a sudden yielding to weariness, crossed his legs, sank together in the chair, and for half-an-hour brooded darkly. A fit of yawning admonished him that it was time to quit the atmosphere of study. He betook himself to a restaurant in the Strand, and thence about eight o’clock made his way to Staple Inn, where the journalist gave him cheerful welcome.
‘Day after day I have meant to write,’ thus he excused himself. ‘But I had really nothing to say.’
‘You don’t look any better for your holiday,’ Earwaker remarked.
‘Holiday? Oh, I had forgotten all about it. When do you go?’
‘The situation is comical. I feel sure that if I leave town, my connection with the Post will come to an end. I shall have a note from Runcorn saying that we had better take this opportunity of terminating my engagement. On the whole I should be glad, yet I can’t make up my mind to be ousted by Kenyon — that’s what it means. They want to get me away, but I stick on, postponing holiday from week to week. Runcorn can’t decide to send me about my business, yet every leader I write enrages him. But for Kenyon, I should gain my point; I feel sure of it. It’s one of those cases in which homicide would be justified by public interest. If Kenyon gets my place, the paper becomes at once an organ of ruffiandom, the delight of the blackguardry.’
‘How’s the circulation?’ inquired Peak.
‘Pretty sound; that adds to the joke. This series of stories by Doubleday has helped us a good deal, and my contention is, if we can keep financially right by help of this kind, why not make a little sacrifice for the sake of raising our political tone? Runcorn won’t see it; he listens eagerly to Kenyon’s assurance that we might sell several thousand more by striking the true pot-house note.’
‘Then pitch the thing over! Wash your hands, and go to cleaner work.’
‘The work I am doing is clean enough,’ replied Earwaker. ‘Let me have my way, and I can make the paper a decent one and a useful one. I shan’t easily find another such chance.’
‘Your idealism has a strong root,’ said Godwin, rather contemptuously. ‘I half envy you. There must be a distinct pleasure in believing that any intellectual influence will exalt the English democracy.’
‘I’m not sure that I do believe it, but I enjoy the experiment. The chief pleasure, I suppose, is in fighting Runcorn and Kenyon.’
‘They are too strong for you, Earwaker. They have the spirit of the age to back them up.’
The journalist became silent; he smiled, but the harassment of conflict marked his features.
‘I hear nothing about “The New Sophistry”,’ he remarked, when Godwin had begun to examine some books that lay on the table. ‘Dolby has the trick of keeping manuscripts a long time. Everything that seems at the first glance tolerable, he sends to the printer, then muses over it at his leisure. Probably your paper is in type.’
‘I don’t care a rap whether it is or not. What do you think of this book of Oldwinkle’s?’
He was holding a volume of humorous stories, which had greatly taken the fancy of the public.
‘It’s uncommonly good,’ replied the journalist, laughing. ‘I had a prejudice against the fellow, but he has overcome me. It’s more than good farce — something like really strong humour here and there.’
‘I quite believe it,’ said Peak, ‘yet I couldn’t read a page. Whatever the mob enjoys is at once spoilt for me, however good I should otherwise think it. I am sick of seeing and hearing the man’s name.’
Earwaker shook his head in deprecation.
‘Narrow, my boy. One must be able to judge and enjoy impartially.’
‘I know it, but I shall never improve. This book seems to me to have a bad smell; it looks mauled with dirty fingers. I despise Oldwinkle for his popularity. To make them laugh, and to laugh with them — pah!’
They debated this point for some time, Peak growing more violent, though his friend preserved a smiling equanimity. A tirade of virulent contempt, in which Godwin exhibited all his powers of savage eloquence, was broken by a visitor’s summons at the door.
‘Here’s Malkin,’ said the journalist; ‘you’ll see each other at last.’
Peak could not at once command himself to the look and tone desirable in meeting a stranger; leaning against the mantelpiece, he gazed with a scowl of curiosity at the man who presented himself, and when he shook hands, it was in silence. But Malkin made speech from the others unnecessary for several minutes. With animated voice and gesture, he poured forth apologies for his failure to keep the appointment of six or seven weeks ago.
‘Only the gravest call of duty could have kept me away, I do assure you! No doubt Earwaker has informed you of the circumstances. I telegraphed — I think I telegraphed; didn’t I, Earwaker?’
‘I have some recollection of a word or two of scant excuse,’ replied the journalist.
‘But I implore you to consider the haste I was in,’ cried Malkin; ‘not five minutes, Mr. Peak, to book, to register luggage, to do everything; not five minutes, I protest! But here we are at last. Let us talk! Let us talk!’
He seated himself with an air of supreme enjoyment, and began to cram the bowl of a large pipe from a bulky pouch.
‘How stands the fight with Kenyon and Co.?’ he cried, as soon as the tobacco was glowing.
Earwaker briefly repeated what he had told Peak.
‘Hold out! No surrender and no compromise! What’s your opinion, Mr Peak, on the abstract question? Is a popular paper likely, or not, to be damaged in its circulation by improvement of style and tone — within the limits of discretion?’
‘I shouldn’t be surprised if it were,’ Peak answered, drily.
‘I’m afraid you’re right. There’s no use in blinking truths, however disagreeable. But, for Earwaker, that isn’t the main issue. What he has to do is to assert himself. Every man’s first duty is to assert himself. At all events, this is how I regard the matter. I am all for individualism, for the development of one’s personality at whatever cost. No compromise on points of faith! Earwaker has his ideal of journalistic duty, and in a fight with fellows like Runcorn and Kenyon he must stand firm as a rock.’
‘I can’t see that he’s called upon to fight at all,’ said Peak. ‘He’s in a false position; let him get out of it.’
‘A false position? I can’t see that. No man better fitted than Earwaker to raise the tone of Radical journalism. Here’s a big Sunday newspaper practically in his hands; it seems to me that the circumstances give him a grand opportunity of making his force felt. What are we all seeking but an opportunity for striking out with effect?’
Godwin listened with a sceptical smile, and made answer in slow, careless tones.
‘Earwaker happens to be employed and paid by certain capitalists to increase the sale of their paper.’
‘My dear sir!’ cried the other, bouncing upon his seat. ‘How can you take such a view? A great newspaper surely cannot be regarded as a mere source of income. These capitalists declare that they have at heart the interests of the working classes; so has Earwaker, and he is far better able than they to promote those interests. His duty is to apply their money to the best use, morally speaking. If he were lukewarm in the matter, I should be the first to advise his retirement; but this fight is entirely congenial to him. I trust he will hold his own to the last possible moment.’
‘You must remember,’ put in the journalist, with a look of amusement, ‘that Peak has no sympathy with Radicalism.’
‘I lament it, but that does not affect my argument. If you were a high Tory, I should urge you just as strongly to assert yourself. Surely you agree with this point of mine, Mr. Peak? You admit that a man must develop whatever strength is in him.’
‘I’m not at all sure of that.’
Malkin fixed himself sideways in the chair, and examined his collocutor’s face earnestly. He endeavoured to subdue his excitement to the tone of courteous debate, but the words that at length escaped him were humorously blunt.
‘Then of what are you sure?’
‘Now we touch bottom!’ cried Malkin. ‘Philosophically speaking, I agree with you. But we have to live our lives, and I suppose we must direct ourselves by some conscious principle.’
‘I don’t see the necessity,’ Peak replied, still in an impassive tone. ‘We may very well be guided by circumstances as they arise. To be sure, there’s a principle in that, but I take it you mean something different.’
‘Yes I do. I hold that the will must direct circumstances, not receive its impulse from them. How, then, are we to be guided? What do you set before yourself?’
‘To get through life with as much satisfaction and as little pain as possible.’
‘You are a hedonist, then. Well and good! Then that is your conscious principle’—
‘No, it isn’t.’
‘How am I to understand you?’
‘By recognising that a man’s intellectual and moral principles as likely as not tend to anything but his happiness.’
‘I can’t admit it!’ exclaimed Malkin, leaping from his chair. ‘What is happiness?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Earwaker, what is happiness? What is happiness?’
‘I really don’t know,’ answered the journalist, mirthfully.
‘This is trifling with a grave question. We all know perfectly well that happiness is the conscious exertion of individual powers. Why is there so much suffering under our present social system? Because the majority of men are crushed to a dead level of mechanical toil, with no opportunity of developing their special faculties. Give a man scope, and happiness is put within his reach.’
‘What do you mean by scope?’ inquired Godwin.
‘Scope? Scope? Why, room to expand. The vice of our society is hypocrisy; it comes of over-crowding. When a man isn’t allowed to be himself, he takes refuge in a mean imitation of those other men who appear to be better off. That was what sent me off to South America. I got into politics, and found that I was in danger of growing dishonest, of compromising, and toadying. In the wilderness, I found myself again. — Do you seriously believe that happiness can be obtained by ignoring one’s convictions?’
He addressed the question to both, snuffing the air with head thrown back.
‘What if you have no convictions?’ asked Peak.
‘Then you are incapable of happiness in any worthy sense! You may graze, but you will never feast.’
The listeners joined in laughter, and Malkin, after a moment’s hesitation, allowed his face to relax in good-humoured sympathy.
‘Now look here!’ he cried. ‘You — Earwaker; suppose you sent conscience to the devil, and set yourself to please Runcorn by increasing the circulation of your paper by whatever means. You would flourish, undoubtedly. In a short time you would be chief editor, and your pockets would burst with money. But what about your peace of mind? What about happiness?’
‘Why, I’m disposed to agree with Peak,’ answered the journalist. ‘If I could take that line, I should be a happier man than conscientiousness will ever make me.’
Malkin swelled with indignation.
‘You don’t mean it! You are turning a grave argument into jest! — Where’s my hat? Where the devil is my hat? Send for me again when you are disposed to talk seriously.’
He strode towards the door, but Earwaker arrested him with a shout.
‘You’re leaving your pipe!’
‘So I am. Where is it? — Did I tell you where I bought this pipe?’
‘No. What’s the wood?’
On the instant Malkin fell into a cheerful vein of reminiscence. In five minutes he was giving a rapturous description of tropical scenes, laughing joyously as he addressed now one now the other of his companions.
‘I hear you have a mind to see those countries, Mr. Peak,’ he said at length. ‘If you care for a travelling companion — rather short-tempered, but you’ll pardon that — pray give me the preference. I should enjoy above all things to travel with a man of science.’
‘It’s very doubtful whether I shall ever get so far,’ Godwin replied, musingly.
And, as he spoke, he rose to take leave. Earwaker’s protest that it was not yet ten o’clock did not influence him.
‘I want to reflect on the meaning of happiness,’ he said, extending his hand to Malkin; and, in spite of the smile, his face had a sombre cast.
The two who were left of course discussed him.
‘You won’t care much for Peak,’ said Earwaker. ‘He and I suit each other, because there’s a good deal of indifferentism in both of us. Moral earnestness always goes against the grain with him; I’ve noticed it frequently.’
‘I’m sorry I spoke so dogmatically. It wasn’t altogether good manners. Suppose I write him a short letter, just expressing my regret for having been led away’—
‘Needless, needless,’ laughed the journalist. ‘He thinks all the better of you for your zeal. But happiness is a sore point with him; few men, I should think, have known less of it. I can’t imagine any circumstances which would make him thoroughly at peace with himself and the world.’
‘Poor fellow! You can see something of that in his face. Why doesn’t he get married?’
‘A remarkable suggestion! — By the way, why don’t you?’.
‘My dear boy, there’s nothing I wish more, but it’s a business of such fearful precariousness. I’m one of those men whom marriage will either make or ruin. You know my characteristics; the slightest check upon my independence, and all’s up with me. The woman I marry must be perfectly reasonable, perfectly good-tempered; she must have excellent education, and every delicacy of breeding. Where am I to find this paragon?’
‘Society is open to you.’
‘True, but I am not open to society. I don’t take kindly to the people of my own class. No, I tell you what — my only chance of getting a suitable wife is to train some very young girl for the purpose. Don’t misunderstand me, for heaven’s sake! I mean that I must make a friendship with some schoolgirl in whose education I can have a voice, whose relatives will permit me to influence her mind and develop her character. What do you think of this idea?’
‘Not bad, but it demands patience.’
‘And who more patient than I? But let us talk of that poor Mrs. Jacox and her girls. You feel that you know them pretty well from my letters, don’t you? Nothing more monstrous can be imagined than the treatment to which this poor woman has been subjected! I couldn’t have believed that such dishonesty and brutality were possible in English families of decent position. Her husband deserted her, her brother robbed her, her sister-inlaw libelled her — the whole story is nauseating!’
‘You’re quite sure that she tells you the truth?’
Malkin glared with sudden resentment.
‘The truth? What! you also desire to calumniate her? For shame, Earwaker! A poor widow toiling to support herself in a foreign country, with two children dependent on her.’
‘Yes, yes, yes; but you seem to know very little of her.’
‘I know her perfectly, and all her circumstances!’
Mrs. Jacox was the mother of the two girls whom Malkin had escorted to Rouen, after an hour or so of all but casual acquaintance. She and her history had come in a very slight degree under the notice of certain good-natured people with whom Malkin was on friendly terms, and hearing that the children, Bella and Lily, aged fourteen and twelve respectively, were about to undertake alone a journey to the Continent, the erratic hero felt it incumbent upon him to see them safe at their mother’s side. Instead of returning forthwith, he lingered in Normandy for several weeks, striking off at length, on the summons of a friend, to Orleans, whence he was only today returned. Two or three letters had kept Earwaker informed of his movements. Of Mrs. Jacox he wrote as he now spoke, with compassionate respect, and the girls, according to him, were exquisite models of budding maidenhood.
‘You haven’t told me,’ said Earwaker, calmly fronting the indignant outburst, ‘what her circumstances are — at present.’
‘She assists an English lady in the management of a boardinghouse,’ Malkin replied, with an air which forbade trivial comment. ‘Bella and Lily will of course continue their studies. I daresay I shall run over now and then to see them.’
‘May I, without offence, inquire if either of these young ladies seems suitable for the ideal training of which you spoke?’
Malkin smiled thoughtfully. He stood with his legs apart and stroked his blond beard.
‘The surmise is not unnatural. Well, I confess that Bella has inspired me with no little interest. She is rather mature, unfortunately; I wish she had been Lily’s age. We shall see; we shall see.’
Musing, he refilled his pipe, and gossip was prolonged till something after one o’clock. Malkin was never known to retire willingly from an evening’s congenial talk until the small hours were in progress.
Peak, on reaching home about eleven, was surprised to see a light in his sitting-room window. As he entered, his landlady informed him that Mr. Moxey had been waiting upstairs for an hour or two. Christian was reading. He laid down the book and rose languidly. His face was flushed, and he spoke with a laugh which suggested that a fit of despondency (as occasionally happened) had tempted him to excess in cordials. Godwin understood these signs. He knew that his friend’s intellect was rather brightened than impaired by such stimulus, and he affected not to be conscious of any peculiarity.
‘As you wouldn’t come to me,’ Christian began, ‘I had no choice but to come to you. My visit isn’t unwelcome, I hope?’
‘Certainly not. But how are you going to get home? You know the time?’
‘Don’t trouble. I shan’t go to bed to-night. Let me sit here and read, will you? If I feel tired I can lie down on the sofa. What a delightful book this is! I must get it.’
It was a history of the Italian Renaissance, recently published.
‘Where does this phrase come from?’ he continued, pointing to a scrap of paper, used as a book-mark, on which Godwin had pencilled a note. The words were: ‘Foris ut moris, intus ut libet.’
‘It’s mentioned there,’ Peak replied, ‘as the motto of those humanists who outwardly conformed to the common faith.’
‘I see. All very well when the Inquisition was flourishing, but sounds ignoble nowadays.’
‘Do you think so? In a half-civilised age, whether the sixteenth or the nineteenth century, a wise man may do worse than adopt it.’
‘Better be honest, surely?’
Peak stood for a moment as if in doubt, then exclaimed irritably:
‘Honest? Honest? Who is or can be honest? Who truly declares himself? When a man has learnt that truth is indeterminable, how is it more moral to go about crying that you don’t believe a certain dogma than to concede that the dogma may possibly be true? This new morality of the agnostics is mere paltry conceit. Why must I make solemn declaration that I don’t believe in absolute knowledge? I might as well be called upon to inform all my acquaintances how I stand with regard to the theories of chemical affinity. One’s philosophy has nothing to do with the business of life. If I chose to become a Church of England clergyman, what moral objection could be made?’
This illustration was so amusing to Moxey, that his surprise at what preceded gave way to laughter.
‘I wonder,’ he exclaimed, ‘that you never seriously thought of a profession for which you are so evidently cut out.’
Godwin kept silence; his face had darkened, and he seated himself with sullen weariness.
‘Tell me what you’ve been doing,’ resumed Moxey. ‘Why haven’t I heard from you?’
‘I should have come in a day or two. I thought you were probably out of town.’
‘Her husband is ill,’ said the other, by way of reply. He leaned forward with his arms upon the table, and gazed at Godwin with eyes of peculiar brightness.
‘Ill, is he?’ returned Godwin, with slow interest. ‘In the same way as before?’
‘Yes, but much worse.’
Christian paused; and when he again spoke it was hurriedly, confusedly.
‘How can I help getting excited about it? How can I behave decently? You’re the only man I ever speak to on the subject, and no doubt I both weary and disgust you; but I must speak to some one. My nerves are strung beyond endurance; it’s only by speaking that I can ease myself from the intolerable strain.’
‘Have you seen her lately?’
‘Yesterday, for a moment, in the street. It’s ten months since the last meeting.’
‘Well,’ remarked Godwin, abruptly, ‘it’s probable the man will die one of these days, then your trials will have a happy end. I see no harm in hoping that his life may be short — that’s a conventional feeling. If two people can be benefited by the death of a single person, why shouldn’t we be glad in the prospect of his dying? Not of his suffering — that’s quite another thing. But die he must; and to curtail the life of a being who at length wholly ceases to exist is no injury. You can’t injure a nonentity. Do you think I should take it ill if I knew that some persons were wishing my death? Why, look, if ever I crush a little green fly that crawls upon me in the fields, at once I am filled with envy of its fate — sincerest envy. To have passed so suddenly from being into nothingness — how blessed an extinction! To feel in that way, instinctively, in the very depths of your soul, is to be a true pessimist. If I had ever doubted my sincerity in pessimism, this experience, several times repeated, would have reassured me.’
Christian covered his face, and brooded for a long time, whilst Godwin sat with his eyes on vacancy.
‘Come and see us tomorrow,’ said the former, at length.
‘Why do you keep away?’
‘I’m in no mood for society.’
‘We’ll have no one. Only Marcella and I.’
Again a long silence.
‘Marcella is going in for comparative philology,’ Christian resumed, with the gentle tone in which he invariably spoke of his sister. ‘What a mind that girl has! I never knew any woman of half her powers.’
Godwin said nothing.
‘No,’ continued the other fervently, ‘nor of half her goodness. I sometimes think that no mortal could come nearer to our ideal of moral justice and purity. If it were not for her, I should long ago have gone to perdition, in one way or another. It’s her strength, not my own, that has saved me. I daresay you know this?’
‘There’s some truth in it, I believe,’ Peak answered, his eye wandering.
‘See how circumstances can affect one’s judgment. If, just about the time I first knew you, I had abandoned myself to a life of sottish despair, of course I should have charged Constance with the blame of it. Now that I have struggled on, I can see that she has been a blessing to me instead of a curse. If Marcella has given me strength, I have to thank Constance for the spiritual joy which otherwise I should never have known.’
Peak uttered a short laugh.
‘That is only saying that she might have been ruinous, but in the course of circumstances has proved helpful. I envy your power of deriving comfort from such reflections.’
‘Well, we view things differently. I have the habit of looking to the consolatory facts of life, you to the depressing. There’s an unfortunate lack in you, Peak; you seem insensible to female influence, and I believe that is closely connected with your desperate pessimism.’
Godwin laughed again, this time with mocking length of note. ‘Come now, isn’t it true?’ urged the other. ‘Sincerely, do you care for women at all?’
‘A grave misfortune, depend upon it! It accounts for nearly everything that is unsatisfactory in your life. If you had ever been sincerely devoted to a woman, be assured your powers would have developed in a way of which you have no conception. It’s no answer to tell me that I am still a mere trifler, never likely to do anything of account; I haven’t it in me to be anything better, and I might easily have become much worse. But you might have made yourself a great position — I mean, you might do so; you are still very young. If only you knew the desire of a woman’s help.’
‘You really think so?’ said Godwin, with grave irony.
‘I am sure of it! There’s no harm in repeating what you have often told me — your egoism oppresses you. A woman’s influence takes one out of oneself. No man can be a better authority on this than I. For more than eleven years I have worshipped one woman with absolute faithfulness’——
‘Absolute?’ interrupted Godwin, bluntly.
‘What exception occurs to you?’
‘As you challenge inquiry, forgive me for asking what your interest was in one of your cousins at Twybridge?’
Christian started, and averted his face with a look of embarrassment.
‘Do you mean to say that you knew anything about that?’
‘I was always an observer,’ Peak replied, smiling. ‘You don’t remember, perhaps, that I happened to be present when a letter had just arrived for you at your uncle’s house — a letter which evidently disturbed you?’
‘This is astonishing! Peak, you’re a terrible fellow! Heaven forbid that I should ever be at your mercy! Yes, you are quite right,’ he continued, despondently. ‘But that was no real unfaithfulness. I don’t quite know how to explain it. I did make love to poor Janet, and with the result that I have never since seen any of the family. My uncle, when he found I had drawn back, was very savage — naturally enough. Marcella and I never again went to Twybridge. I liked Janet; she was a good, kind girl. I believed just then that my love for Constance was hopeless; my mood impelled me to the conviction that the best thing I could do was to marry Janet and settle down to a peaceful domestic life. Then came that letter — it was from Constance herself. It meant nothing, yet it was enough to revive all my hopes. I rushed off —! How brutally I had behaved! Poor little Janet!’
He let his face fall upon his hands.
‘Allow me an indiscreet question,’ said Peak, after a silence. ‘Have you any founded hope of marrying Constance if she becomes a widow?’
Christian started and looked up with wide eyes.
‘Hope? Every hope! I have the absolute assurance of her love.’
‘But I mustn’t mislead you,’ pursued the other, hurriedly. ‘Our relations are absolutely pure. I have only allowed myself to see her at very long intervals. Why shouldn’t I tell you? It was less than a year after her marriage; I found her alone in a room in a friend’s house; her eyes were red with weeping. I couldn’t help holding my hand to her. She took it, and held it for a moment, and looked at me steadily, and whispered my name — that was all. I knew then that she repented of her marriage — who can say what led her into it? I was poor, you know; perhaps — but in spite of all, she did love me. There has never since been anything like a scene of emotion between us —that her conscience couldn’t allow. She is a noble-minded woman, and has done her duty. But if she is free’—
He quivered with passionate feeling.
‘And you are content,’ said Godwin, drily, ‘to have wasted ten years of your life for such a possibility?’
‘Wasted!’ Christian exclaimed. ‘Come, come, Peak; why will you affect this wretched cynicism? Is it waste of years to have lived with the highest and purest ideal perpetually before one’s mind? What can a man do better than, having found an admirable woman, to worship her thenceforth, and defy every temptation that could lead him astray? I don’t like to seem boastful, but I have lived purely and devotedly. And if the test endured to the end of my life, I could sustain it. Is the consciousness of my love nothing to Constance? Has it not helped her?’
Such profound sincerity was astonishing to Peak. He did not admire it, for it seemed to him, in this case at all events, the fatal weakness of a character it was impossible not to love. Though he could not declare his doubts, he thought it more than probable that this Laura of the voiceless Petrarch was unworthy of such constancy, and that she had no intention whatever of rewarding it, even if the opportunity arrived. But this was the mere speculation of a pessimist; he might be altogether wrong, for he had never denied the existence of high virtue, in man or woman.
‘There goes midnight!’ he remarked, turning from the subject. ‘You can’t sleep, neither can I. Why shouldn’t we walk into town?’
‘By all means; on condition that you will come home with me, and spend tomorrow there.’
They set forth, and with varied talk, often broken by long silences, made their way through sleeping suburbs to the dark valley of Thames.
There passed another month, during which Peak was neither seen nor heard of by his friends. One evening in October, as he sat studying at the British Museum, a friendly voice claimed his attention. He rose nervously and met the searching eye of Buckland Warricombe.
‘I had it in mind to write to you,’ said the latter. ‘Since we parted down yonder I have been running about a good deal, with few days in town. Do you often read here?’
‘Generally on Saturday afternoon.’
Buckland glanced at the open volume, and caught a heading, ‘Apologetic Theology.’
‘Still at the works?’
‘Yes; I shall be there till Christmas — no longer.’
‘Are you by chance disengaged tomorrow? Could you dine with me? I shall be alone; perhaps you don’t mind that? We could exchange views on “fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute”.’
Godwin accepted the invitation, and Warricombe, unable to linger, took leave of him.
They met the next evening in Buckland’s rooms, not far from the Houses of Parliament. Commonplace comfort was the note of these quarters. Peak wondered that a man who had it in his power to surround himself with evidences of taste should be content to dwell thus. His host seemed to detect this thought in the glances Godwin cast about him.
‘Nothing but a pied-a-terre. I have been here three or four years, but I don’t think of it as a home. I suppose I shall settle somewhere before long: yet, on the whole, what does it matter where one lives? There’s something in the atmosphere of our time that makes one indisposed to strike roots in the old way. Who knows how long there’ll be such a thing as real property? We are getting to think of ourselves as lodgers; it’s as well to be indifferent about a notice to quit.’
‘Many people would still make a good fight for the old homes,’ replied Peak.
‘Yes; I daresay I should myself, if I were a family man. A wife and children are strong persuasions to conservatism. In those who have anything, that’s to say. Let the families who have nothing learn how they stand in point of numbers, and we shall see what we shall see.’
‘And you are doing your best to teach them that.’
‘A few other things at the same time. One isn’t necessarily an anarchist, you know.’
‘What enormous faith you must have in the metaphysical powers of the multitude!’
‘Trenchant! But say, rather, in the universal self-interest. That’s the trait of human nature which we have in mind when we speak of enlightenment. The aim of practical Radicalism is to instruct men’s selfishness. Astonishing how capable it is of being instructed! The mistake of the Socialist lies in his crediting men with far too much self-esteem, far too little perception of their own limits. The characteristic of mankind at large is humility.’
Peak began to understand his old acquaintance; he had imagined him less acute. Gratified by the smile of interest, Warricombe added:
‘There are forces of madness; I have shown you that I make allowance for them. But they are only dangerous so long as privilege allies itself with hypocrisy. The task of the modern civiliser is to sweep away sham idealisms.’
‘I agree with you,’ Godwin replied.
With sudden change of mood, Buckland began to speak of an indifferent topic of the day, and in a few minutes they sat down to dinner.
Not till the welcome tobacco blended its aroma with that of coffee did a frankly personal note sound in their conversation.
‘So at Christmas you are free,’ said Warricombe. ‘You still think of leaving London?’
‘I have decided to go down into Devonshire.’
‘I shall stay first of all in Exeter,’ Godwin replied, with deliberation; ‘one can get hold of books there.’
‘Yes, especially of the ecclesiastical colour.’
‘You are still unable to regard my position with anything but contempt?’ Peak asked, looking steadily at the critical face.
‘Come now; what does it all mean? Of course I quite understand how tolerant the Church is becoming: I know what latitude it permits in its servants. But what do you propose to yourself?’
‘Precisely what you call the work of the civiliser — to attack sham ideals.’
‘As for instance —?’
‘The authority of the mob,’ answered Peak, suavely.
‘Your clericalism is political, then?’
‘To a great extent.’
‘I discern a vague sort of consistency in this. You regard the Church formulas as merely symbolical — useful for the purposes of the day?’
‘Rather for the purposes of eternity.’
‘In the human sense.’
‘In every sense.’
Warricombe perceived that no directness of questioning would elicit literal response, and on the whole this relieved him. To hear Godwin Peak using the language of a fervent curate would have excited in him something more than disgust. It did not seem impossible that a nature like Peak’s — intellectually arrogant, vehemently anti-popular — should have been attracted by the traditions, the social prestige, of the Anglican Church; nor at all unlikely that a mind so constituted should justify a seeming acceptance of dogmas, which in the strict sense it despised. But he was made uneasy by his ignorance of Peak’s private life during the years since their parting at College. He did not like to think of the possible establishment of intimacy between this man of low origin, uncertain career, boundless ambition, and the household of Martin Warricombe. There could be no doubt that Peak had decided to go to Exeter because of the social prospects recently opened to him. In the vulgar phrase, he had probably ‘taken stock’ of Mr. Warricombe’s idiosyncrasy, and saw therein a valuable opportunity for a theological student, who at the same time was a devotee of natural science. To be sure, the people at Exeter could be put on their guard. On the other hand, Peak had plainly avowed his desire to form social connections of the useful kind; in his position such an aim was essential, a mere matter of course.
Godwin’s voice interrupted this train of thought.
‘Let me ask you a plain question. You have twice been kind enough to introduce me to your home as a friend of yours. Am I guilty of presumption in hoping that your parents will continue to regard me as an acquaintance? I trust there’s no need to assure you that I know the meaning of discretion.’
An appeal to Buckland’s generosity seldom failed. Yes, it was true that he had more than once encouraged the hope now frankly expressed. Indulging a correspondent frankness, he might explain that Peak’s position was so distasteful to him that it disturbed the future with many kinds of uncertainty. But this would be churlish. He must treat his guest as a gentleman, so long as nothing compelled him to take the less agreeable view.
‘My dear Peak, let us have none of these formalities. My parents have distinctly invited you to go and see them whenever you are in the neighbourhood. I am quite sure they will help to make your stay in Exeter a pleasant one.’
Therewith closed the hazardous dialogue. Warricombe turned at once to a safe topic — that of contemporary fiction, and they chatted pleasantly enough for the rest of the evening.
Not many days after this, Godwin received by post an envelope which contained certain proof sheets, and therewith a note in which the editor of The Critical Review signified his acceptance of a paper entitled ‘The New Sophistry’. The communication was originally addressed to Earwaker, who had scribbled at the foot, ‘Correct, if you are alive, and send back to Dolby.’
The next morning he did not set out as usual for Rotherhithe. Through the night he had not closed his eyes; he was in a state of nervousness which bordered on fever. A dozen times he had read over the proofs, with throbbing pulse, with exultant self-admiration: but the printer’s errors which had caught his eye, and a few faults of phrase, were still uncorrected. What a capital piece of writing it was! What a flagellation of M’Naughten and all his tribe! If this did not rouse echoes in the literary world —
Through the long day he sat in languor or paced his room like one made restless by pain. Only when the gloom of nightfall obliged him to light his lamp did he at length sit down to the table and carefully revise the proofs, pen in hand. When he had made up the packet for post, he wrote to Earwaker.
‘I had forgotten all about this thing. Proofs have gone to Dolby. I have not signed; probably he would object to my doing so. As it is, the paper can be ascribed to anyone, and attention thus excited. We shall see paragraphs attributing it to men of mark — perhaps scandal will fix it on a bishop. In any case, don’t let out the secret. I beg this seriously, and for a solid reason. Not a word to anyone, however intimate. If Dolby betrays your name, grin and bear it. I depend upon your friendship.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54