AT THIS POINT I shall interrupt my account of my conversation with Victor on his abortive wedding day to tell, mainly in my own words, about my relations with him at Oxford.
During the rest of the term I saw a good deal of him. We made expeditions on Cumnor Hill. We punted on the Cher. We sat up late in my room or his, talking about everything under the sun, and far beyond it.
The set with whom Victor normally consorted, the bloods and their hangers-on, found his sudden interest in a colourless nobody from a secondary school quite inexplicable, and ridiculous. It was assumed that the big fair athlete had conceived a more than platonic friendship for the small dark bookworm. I myself was as puzzled as anyone by Victor’s interest in me, and still more puzzled by his violent thirst for knowledge. It was all so inconsistent with everything that I had known of him before. On the very few occasions when our ways had crossed he had overawed me with that “self-satisfied air of effortless superiority” which was supposed to be characteristic of our college. And though later I was to learn from the awakened Victor that this imposing demeanour of his was just a carefully cultivated affectation concealing a bewildered and morally timid self, in those early days it impressed me; and at the same time exasperated me against myself for being cowed by an assurance which I vaguely felt to be meretricious. But on that memorable evening, when we first talked seriously together, Victor’s manner suggested an unselfconscious modesty. In the subsequent weeks of our increasingly close friendship, I was often put to shame by the intellectual humility that accompanied even his most penetrating remarks. I set out to be his mentor in his new-found interests, but to my chagrin I found that in many ways it was he that was the leader in our mental partnership. Far from being merely the superficially clever but unoriginal mind that I had supposed him to be, he soared far beyond me in sheer imaginative power; and this in spite of the fact that at the outset he was ludicrously ignorant of the spheres of knowledge that seemed to me most important. Previously I had written him off as one of those glib intelligences that could, indeed, easily amass enough of Greek and Latin literature to secure a First in Honour Mods, but had neither the curiosity nor the power of vision to explore the living, growing tissue of human culture. Not only so, but he had always seemed a thoroughly hidebound and insensitive personality. Though in his own set he had a reputation for shrewd character-judgment, it had always seemed to me that he had merely a certain slickness in docketing his acquaintances according to their obvious failings, often ticking them off with some Latin or Greek quotation. And generally the classification which he adopted implied that there was one correct type, and that all others were more or less ridiculous aberrations. Of course, the correct type was the ideal of complacent gentility which he and his set embodied, and to which the rest of us, in spite of our better judgment, vainly aspired. Never, so far as I know, had Victor shown any sign of realizing any human being as a living and unique person. Never did he greet any sincere expression of anyone’s authentic personality otherwise than with derision or an uncomprehending and insolent stare.
Such was the James Victor Cadogan–Smith that I had known, from afar and had apparently so shockingly misjudged. For now, after the invasion of my room, and during the following few months, I came into contact with a mind that extended sensitive antennae toward every acquaintance, and seemed magically aware of the other’s ever-changing moods. For my new friend was earnestly, constantly, almost feverishly, absorbed in exploring every aspect of experience, and above all every aspect of human nature and human society.
His interest in myself, of course, was largely due to my comparatively wide knowledge of fields which he had formerly ignored. For, though officially I was reading history, I made time for a great deal of general reading, and my interest had led me into regions that were in those days little explored by Oxford undergraduates. Not only was I an ardent admirer of the early Wells; I was also reading Freud with more enthusiasm than judgment. The advancing study of heredity also fascinated me. In philosophy and social thought Bertrand Russell was opening many new windows for me. Karl Marx, too, I had discovered; and his strictly sociological attitude I counterbalanced with a half-guilty addiction to popular astronomy.
These fields were all apparently new to Victor. Under my guidance he entered them with a childlike zest, a power of assimilation which I envied, and a critical acumen which I could not always at the time appreciate. Again and again I dismissed as unimportant some suggestion of his which, years afterwards, turned out to be sound. The case of Freud was specially significant. Victor apparently felt none of the horror and fascination with which most new readers of the great pioneer greeted his theory of sex and of unconscious motivation. He was merely intrigued, and demurely amused at the general uproar. On the other hand he never plunged into unquestioning partizanship, as I myself had done. He seemed to leap at once to the more detached and balanced attitude which most of us were to arrive at twenty or twenty-five years later.
Even in theoretical matters, then, where I was supposed to be the leader, Victor often went ahead of me, but in the sphere of personal contacts his leadership was unmistakable. His “feminine intuition,” as I called it, expressed itself sometimes in devastating but never vindictive comments on his own friends and mine, and in sudden probings into my own dark heart. His exposures were often painful, but somehow I could never seriously resent them. His uncanny awareness of my unacknowledged motives often stung me to indignant denial; but a minute later, or a day or a week, or in some cases not till middle age, I had to admit to myself that he was right. The entirely unself-righteous way in which he delivered these judgments was disarming. Once when he had been telling me of a tennis victory, and I had duly congratulated him, he looked silently at me, grinned broadly, punched me amiably in the chest, and said, “Damn it! You’re grudging me my poor little triumph. You’re wishing I had been beaten. Just as I wished you hadn’t won that essay prize. Or rather, a sneaking spiteful bit of me did.”
His power of imaginative insight and sympathy varied a good deal from day to day. Sometimes I found with relief that he had missed (or had not troubled to notice) some ungenerous impulse of mine. On the other hand there were occasions when, having scrutinized me steadily for a while, he would break in on some pronouncement of mine with, “No, no! You’re not really feeling that way about it. You’re merely feeling you ought to feel that way.”
It was this heightened personal consciousness that brought me so greatly into Victor’s debt. For under his influence I was gradually forced to become aware of depth beyond depth of mental activity. Priding myself on my honesty and self-criticism, I discovered that I had all along been deceiving myself. As a good Freudian I accepted the theory of unconscious motivation, but only in the abstract, not in detailed application to myself. Now, without any special technique of analysis, Victor made me aware that, for instance, under my noble passion for truth lurked an impulse to impute dishonesty to others. Under my social consciousness and my revolutionary zeal lay a purely vindictive lust to see the “bloods” discomfited.
I became increasingly dependent on Victor’s psychological insight, on his intuitive power of analysing and cleansing the psyche; a power far more effective than my own ill-digested psycho-analytical precepts. I shall have more to say on this matter, but for the moment I merely want to record that, if I was of any service to Victor in those early days, he was far more helpful to me. He became my father confessor, but without any assumption of spiritual superiority. The relationship was always a man-to-man relationship, and nearly always tinged with humour. Moreover, nine times out of ten it was by the example of his own self-analysis that he led me to discover my own hidden depths. And toward the primitive, submerged denizens of his own mind he felt no shame but merely an amused interest. He knew that their antics could never seriously disturb him, so long as he was in his awakened state; and so he could watch them with scientific detachment. Friendly toward the archaic fauna of his own mind, he was equally friendly toward the more contemptible creatures that he fished up into the light from my mind’s turgid depths. And because he could regard them with such composure, I myself grew able to face them without either horror or inverted pride; and with some hope of disciplining them.
In one rather surprising respect Victor seemed to be my inferior. He had a reputation for dash and pluck, both with the gloves and on the rugger field; yet I found him childishly nervous at the prospect of physical pain, and shattered by its actual presence. The task of taking a splinter out of his hand was too much for him to face without the stimulus of a spectator’s ridicule; while the distress caused by the splinter itself seemed to paralyse his mind. When I laughed over the contrast of his present cowardice and his reputed hardihood, he let slip a remark to which at the time I paid little attention, but on his wedding day it became luminous. “Everything I nowadays becomes so unendurably vivid.” Not until long afterwards, in fact on his wedding day, when he made his lengthy confession to me, did I learn that Victor’s awakened consciousness had two distinct phases, the one less, the other more developed. In both there was that intensification of the sensory life; but while in the commoner and less fully awakened phase hyperaesthesia was an uncontrollable and devastating thing, in the rarer and still more lucid state he had a strange power of regarding the electric storm of his sensations (and indeed his whole intensified passional life) with serene detachment, as though through the eyes of some all-seeing all-feeling but utterly imperturbable deity. But in our undergraduate days he never reached this height, and so he often laid himself open to my friendly ridicule of his fastidiousness and his I unmanly timidity. Friendly? On one occasion he retorted, smiling through his distress, “Vindictive blighter! Under your taunting, of course, there’s your real kindliness, but under that again, you devil, you’re licking your lips.”
For the rest of the term, and most of the next one, our friendship developed, though spasmodically. And during that period Victor himself, the awakened Victor, developed rapidly. Like a plant retarded by a cold spring, and then suddenly crowding forth all its leaves and flowers, his mind burgeoned with experience. His official studies suffered, but he ate his way through the libraries, seizing upon everything that promised light on his central problem, which was the problem of us all, the problem of man and the universe. The rest, no matter how reputable, he ignored, as a caterpillar ignores all but its own distinctive food. In this feverish pursuit of wisdom (as he told me long afterwards on his wedding day) he was goaded constantly by the knowledge that “death” might seize him any day, the death of his awakened self into “that somnambulent and loathsome snob.”
He had one great advantage over the rest of us, namely that in the wakened state he seldom needed more than two or three hours of sleep, with an occasional indulgence to the extent of five. But it was necessary for him to lie in bed for six or seven hours or so every night to rest his body. All these unsleeping hours were therefore spent in reading, or in “getting his thoughts in order.” While the rest of us were sunk in the archaic vegetative life, he would lie in bed methodically going through his memories and re-assessing them. Vast tracts of experience which the sleep-walker had allowed to slip into oblivion were now available to him. Memories that were formerly the vaguest and most illusive wraiths now presented themselves almost with the detail of the original event. All this wealth of personal experience had to be regarded afresh, from the point of view of the awakened Victor. Its inner essence, untasted by the sleep-walker, had to be pressed from it and assimilated.
All his nights, I said, were spent in this way; but no, for besides book-learning and self-knowledge he needed other kinds of experience, of which I must tell.
Freeing himself in a few weeks from all the inhibitions of his set, his social class, and the historical moment, he seemed in a manner to have rushed headlong by sheer imaginative power through much of the cultural evolution which was to occupy his fellows for some twenty years. Starting as a respectable Tory Christian who accepted without question the moral code that had been imposed on him by his Victorian parents, he now passed at a gallop through a kind of Liberal Nonconformity, and on through Marxian Communism and Atheism, and before he lapsed solidly back into the “sleep-walker” state he was already groping beyond these. Thus in the second and third weeks of our friendship he was affirming that, though the Christian doctrines were sheer myth, he recognized in the universe “a power making for righteousness.” And though his eyes were opened to the hideous facts of social injustice, and he was already taking on “social work” in a boys’ club, he still believed that the “great change” would come through the leadership of a morally awakened middle class. Similarly, though intellectually he recognized the wrong-headedness of nineteenth-century sexual prudery, he was still emotionally bound up with it. But already by the end of that term he was “breathing the cold exhilarating air of atheism,” seeking how best to devote his life to work for “the coming proletarian revolution,” and deliberately spurning the sexual conventions to which his class paid lip-service even while it violated them in actual conduct.
But later in his life, as I shall tell, he outgrew all these attitudes, which he came to regard as adolescent.
During his last term at Oxford, and the second term of our friendship, he must have pursued his sexual experiments very thoroughly, for he was seldom available in the evenings; and though he was reticent about his adventures, I know that he spent many nights out, stealing back into college in the early morning by a climber’s route, up a drain-pipe and along a cornice.
At the time he told me nothing of his amatory life. I remember noting, in his manner, when he must have been still fresh to them, a new complacency, even defiance. “The bloods,” he once said, “make a great song about their dashing amours, but nearly always they’re mythical. Those who do it, hold their tongues; those who daren’t, brag.” On another occasion he said, “To talk against the taboos is merely to stand shivering on the springboard. It’s the act that counts.” A few weeks later I became aware that Victor’s mood had changed. Exhilaration had given place to despond, and an irritability which he had not hitherto shown. And he seemed dissatisfied with many of the ideas that we had recently agreed upon. He was already beginning to poke fun at our confident atheism and to express doubts about the all-importance of economic determinism. This shocked me, for at that time I was coming increasingly under the influence of Marx, priding myself on my lonely vision; for few undergraduates had even heard of the prophet of Communism. I was shocked, too, by Victor’s new sense that Freud’s gospel, also, was somehow insufficient. As a good Marxist, I ought not to have minded this; but I had not yet reached the stage of pushing either of my new faiths to the exclusion of the other.
Victor’s doubts about Freud were not merely intellectual. While he had often charged the great Viennese with a non sequitur in his arguments, and had laughingly forgiven him, now he was more radically critical. One evening (he was becoming more available in the evenings), when we were deep in one of our usual discussions, smoking our pipes in the armchairs before my fire, he made a long and disillusioned confession. At first I put his gloominess down to mere physical lassitude after his spell of concentrated debauchery. But it turned out to be far more than the expression of a passing mood. With my usual meticulous industry I jotted down all I could remember of Victor’s confession as soon as he had left me. Using those notes some thirty-five years later, I must do my best to reconstruct his actual words.
We had been discussing the importance of instinct, if I remember rightly. Victor charged me with overestimating it. He rose from his chair and walked about the room, like a caged lion. “It’s all very well,” he said, “but if you had lived as I have lived in the last few weeks you’d probably feel as I do. You probably know that I have been-doing a bit of practical research in sex. Well, at first it was magnificently refreshing to be free of the taboos. And the sense of being animal-to-animal with a woman at last was somehow spiritually fulfilling; though also, in my first experiment, hellishly torturing, because we neither of us knew how to adapt to the other. We hadn’t the technique. After a few nights I got her rhythm, so to speak, and things went better. But presently I had to try another girl, and then Number One cut up rough about it. She had sworn she wouldn’t mind, because there was no question of our being ‘in love’; but I sensed that as a matter of fact she was falling for me pretty thoroughly, which was one reason why I tried Number Two. Number One was so terribly upset about it that I felt perfectly bloody, because — well, in spite of Freud and all that, just couldn’t help feeling that I had messed up something sacred. That in itself was a revelation. Freud seemed pretty foolish to me then. As for her — well she’ll get over it, of course, but with a twist in her that need not have been there. O God! I feel foul about it even now. And what could I do to mend matters but clear out? Which seemed like running away. Well, the harm had been done, so I went on with my research, more cautiously.” Here Victor interrupted himself to turn on me with an unusual sharpness, even contempt. “For God’s sake,’” he said “don’t sit there oozing self-righteousness at me, and fairly stinking of hypocrisy!” I had said nothing, and I was not consciously feeling self-righteous; and if I was a hypocrite, I had deceived myself. But I had been feeling a curiously violent distaste for Victor’s sexual adventures. And though I had carefully maintained a façade of sympathetic interest, Victor’s antennae had reached behind it. “You accept Freud in theory,” he said, “but when I set about testing the theory in action you go emotionally Victorian.” I could only protest that, whatever tricks my old emotional habits might play me, I was fully emancipated. Victor continued his story.
“My Number Two,” he said, “was much older. She helped me a lot. She had style, and she taught me style, too. Each of us was a musical instrument for the other to play on in the sex duet. It was exquisite for a time, and I’ll never forget her. But presently we began to know one another better mentally. And like so many artists she had practically nothing in her mind but her art, namely, love-making. At first I didn’t care. She did that so superlatively well, with touch and voice and looks, that for a whole week I was in a sort of ecstasy. What a thing touch can be, ranging from zephyrs to high-tension flashes! And tone of voice! Like fingers rippling over all the keys of one’s emotions! And looks! The faint, faint changes of lips and eyelids! But I’m wandering. What I wanted to say was — well, I was beginning to slip back toward the somnambulist again. One night I actually fell asleep with her. Before that I had stayed wide awake when she slept, with my mind careering over the universe. Falling asleep warned me. Then I began to realize that I was not properly awake even by day. The cutting edge of my mind was not what it had been. And images of her kept interrupting my thought. Her voice sang in my ears all day. Remembering the feel of her body next mine made me gasp — like getting into a very hot bath. I longed for night. I realized I had got properly caught in my own experiment, but I didn’t care. This was life, I said. But after a few days I began to be frightened. Somehow our duet was no longer the exquisite thing it had been, and yet I couldn’t keep away from her. I felt I wanted something more of her, and it was more than she had in her to give. I told myself that though she was a superb executant she was not a creative artist. But one night, instead of falling asleep beside her, as I had recently done, I stayed fully awake, puzzling desperately over the whole business. She was asleep. I listened to her breathing. Presently I had a sort of revelation. Not a mystical revelation, but a sudden flash of insight into the implications of my own experience. You know those old puzzle pictures. There’s a forest of trees and undergrowth and rocks, and you’re told to ‘find the Red Indian.’ You turn it about, this way and that; there’s nothing but what you saw before. Then suddenly there he is, larger than life and clear as your own hand. Well, in the same way I suddenly saw a new pattern in my recent experience, the essential pattern. Suddenly I realized that I was most desperately lonely. I realized with horrible clearness that, in spite of all the delight we had had together, we were poles apart.
“No, a bad metaphor that; because ‘poles’ are poles of some one thing, and we simply didn’t make one thing together, really. Of course we made our little perfect duet of love-making, but we weren’t one underneath that. The thing didn’t express any deeper oneness. In a sort of vision I felt what that oneness should be. I imagined myself lying in bed with the right person. The feel of the whole thing would be different, and the love-making would be not only perfect in technique but perfect in meaning. It would be a bodily union expressing unity of — well, spirit, or personality. I mean — each mind contributing to the other on every level, and reaching to a sort of stereoscopic vision, seeing the world from two points of view but seeing it singly, and seeing it solid. And the wider apart the two points of view, the better; provided they fuse together. Now God, if there is one, must see the world from every possible point of view, and yet see it singly. And human love (real love, I mean) must be like that, though in a very small way. How do I know? Not having loved, how do I know? I suppose I must have extrapolated from the experiences I have had. For instance, from knowing you, you queer fish. Well, next day I told all this to my Number Two, hoping we should somehow get somewhere. She agreed, verbally; but she didn’t really understand at all. So the affair just fizzled out, leaving me richer in a way, but horribly twisted, and desperately lonely; hungry for the thing I couldn’t have. And now I realized that the whole approach was wrong. There’s something in the old conventions after all; if they weren’t so rigid and prude, and so tangled up with sheer snobbery. I mean, people keep the moral code of sex (or pretend to) not because they really see that it’s right, but because they’re afraid of losing caste. And when they come up against someone who has violated it, generally they are not so much morally outraged (though they pretend to be) as vindictive against someone who is no longer one of us, and can therefore be persecuted, like a sick animal by the herd.”
I was impressed by Victor’s change of attitude, but I could not resist pointing out that Freud could give a very convincing account of his dissatisfaction with his amours, simply in terms of repressed infantile cravings. Unconsciously he was longing for his mother, and no other woman could give him the peace and comfort that he demanded. Of course, I admitted, it was not really quite as simple as that. The psycho-analyst would be able to discover in him a vast mesh of past experience leading inevitably to just the particular reaction which had actually been manifested.
Victor was silent for a moment. Then he surprised me with a curiously hearty laugh. It reminded me of an occasion in my boyhood when my father and I had been completely lost in mist on the hills, and were expecting to spend the night out, drenched and in a cutting wind. Dusk was already far advanced, and we believed ourselves to be many miles from the farm where we were staying. At last we found ourselves going down hill in pitch darkness, into a strange valley. The mist cleared a little, and far away we saw a light. After floundering through hedges and over walls we reached the light, and found it was the lamp in our own sitting-room window. My father’s laugh of relief and triumph was echoed now in Victor’s.
“No!” he said, “Freud’s sometimes too clever to see the truth. It’s like preCopernican astronomy. With enough epicycles you can make your theory explain anything. But if you had been through my researches you would see that Freud, brilliant and valuable as he is, has missed the key to understanding the — well, the most developed, most conscious kind of human relationships.”
I was not convinced. But now, near my sixtieth year, I see what he meant.
Henceforth, I believe, Victor refrained from continuing his sexual researches. Instead he seemed to devote himself more earnestly to research into society. Once more he was seldom available in the evenings, because he was so frequently engaged at the Boys’ Club, or at political meetings and on other activities, not merely of undergraduate societies but in the town, and occasionally in London. I soon came to realize that, though he was very ready to talk about most of these activities, something was afoot about which he was being secretive. He told me quite freely that with the aid of a small group of working-class acquaintances of his he was seeking first-hand experience of the conditions of the poorer sections of society. He haunted pubs. He was taken into houses in back streets, not as an officious social worker, but as a friend of a friend of the family. And through his extraordinary gift of imaginative insight into the minds of others he was able to discover the right approach, so as to establish a genuinely friendly relation. “The class barrier,” he once said, “is like one of those deep trenches that divide animals from spectators in the newest sort of zoo. You can see each other quite clearly with nothing in the way, and yet you can’t possibly get at each other. At least, in the human zoo you can make contact, but in one way only. You must be doing something that puts you definitely on their side, not on ours. And you must be able to convince someone on their side (whom they know to be sound) that you really are doing it, that you mean business. Once you have got yourself accepted by him, he can get you accepted everywhere. You find yourself across the trench. You get into that other world of theirs. Of course you’re not really one of them. You can’t possibly be. But you’ll be a welcome visitor instead of a bloody intruder. And if you are quick in the uptake and a bit imaginative, you’ll learn a lot, oh, the hell of a lot! You’ll learn their language, the language of their minds, I mean. And you’ll see ‘us’ looking mighty different from what we look like to ourselves.”
When I asked Victor what it was that he had been doing, that was a passport to that other world, he looked at me hard and long, and said, “I mustn’t tell you.”
It soon became clear that he was giving more and more of his time and his thought to his exploration of the “other world,” and that he was over-straining himself. I saw very little of him. It was as though he were in a desperate hurry to finish some task before it was too late. Long afterwards, on his wedding day, he told me that at this time he was expecting to “die” at any minute, to slip back irrevocably into his normal sluggish state. He never knew whether, if he allowed himself to sleep at night, he would wake up in the morning as himself or the hated other. He was therefore desperately anxious to make the fullest possible use of his remaining days or hours, or minutes. Whether through the soporific influence of his recent disappointing sexual adventures, or through the actual strain of his new social exploration itself, he was becoming subject to frequent lapses into a state of drowsiness in which, though he was still (he said) at heart his awakened self, his thoughts wandered and the desires and purposes of the awakened self lost something of their power. In fact he was a little red; and yet outraged by his own boredom. Sometimes, too, he caught himself secretly fingering and even relishing memories of his own unregenerate past. Occasionally he even made cautious advances to the more human of his former friends.
For days at a time he would not come near me. If I sought him out, I was generally received with a show of friendliness, but somehow conversation flagged. None of the subjects which we usually discussed with such zest seemed to have any significance for him. Often I suspected that he had simply forgotten nearly everything connected with our previous talk. I was shocked and bewildered by his lack of intelligent grasp of the very problems which formerly his keen wit had illuminated for me. Sometimes even superficial friendliness was allowed to lapse. He would even speak with an affected “Oxford drawl,” to shame my North Country accent. In fact he would use every means short of slamming the door in my face to make it clear that I was not wanted. Yet, strangely, no sooner did he see that I was leaving than he blurted out apologies, and excused himself on the plea of “feeling rotten,” or “having a thick head,” or “being quite unfit for decent people to talk to today.” It was obvious that something queer had happened to him; but I never suspected that the Victor who rebuffed me was a distinct personality struggling to oust the Victor who was my friend.
One incident is worth recording. I went round to Victor’s rooms to return a book which he had left with me on the previous evening. I found to my surprise that he had with him two of his former friends, Biglands, prominent as a speaker in Union debates, and Moulton, a minor aristocrat. All three were a bit sozzled. They were sitting round the table, from which the cloth had been removed, playing a childish game with pellets of bread. A whole loaf had been disembowelled to provide the material for the dozens of bread-pills with which the game was being played. The three of them were frantically blowing pellets across the smooth table at one another. I was so surprised that I stood in the doorway silent. Victor’s face, red from much blowing, was itself a playing-board where conflicting emotions struggled for mastery. Presently he said, “Come in, Tomlinson, old man. We want a fourth player. Have a drink, won’t you?” The words were harmless; the drawling voice was obviously meant to tell his companions that, though of course he had to seem friendly to this wretched outsider with whom he had somehow got himself entangled, he deplored the intrusion. “No, thanks,” I said, and turned to go. With my hand on the door-knob, I heard Victor’s voice again, but this time its tone was altered. In a couple of seconds, apparently, his temper had changed from bleak east wind to bright warm sunlight. “Harry, don’t go, please!” He had risen; and as I turned, he took me gently by the arm, to lead me into the room. “I want to make a public apology,” he said, “for being offensive to you, Harry, and for saying false and spiteful things about you before you came in.” Turning to the others, he added, “I’m sorry to be so inconsistent, but before, I was not myself.” A glance passed between Biglands and Moulton, signifying that Cadogan–Smith was evidently still crazy. Biglands rose with a bored look. Moulton sat tight, and said, “Very well, C.S., give us some more beer and we’ll have Tomlinson in the game.” Victor looked at the mess on the table for a moment. “No!” he said. “If you don’t mind, I think perhaps we had better stop.” Victor was looking extremely uncomfortable. He flashed an appeasing smile at the couple. “I enjoyed the game,” he said, “but now, in a new light, it looks a bit silly. I mean, for people who are no longer kids. Oh, well! Sorry, you two! Maybe we’ll have a return match some time. But I really must talk to Harry Tomlinson just now.” He picked up a few pellets and looked at them with an awkward little snigger. In a voice that developed into a rapt recitative, he said, “People in America or somewhere tilled the ground and sowed the seed. Rain, sun, wind. A waving sea of corn to the horizon. People come with reaping machines, working from dawn to dark. Stooks everywhere. Threshing machines. Grain in railway trucks, and in elevators; poured into ships’ holds. Wild Atlantic weather. The look-out freezing and the stokers sweating. Docking the ship. (Ticklish work. Like coaxing a shy horse.) More trains. Mill hands hard at it in the mills. The corn becomes flour. Some reaches the baker who serves this College. Dough. Lovely loaves. One of them came here. And now look! God! I don’t know what you fellows feel but I feel a swine. Well, I started it.” Biglands and Moulton had looked very uncomfortable during this harangue. After it, Biglands merely said, “O Christ, I’m going.” His companion followed him.
One morning the college was fluttered by a rumour that Cadogan–Smith was in gaol. Apparently he had been mixed up in a fight with the police over in Cowley. It was no ordinary undergraduate brawl. Victor was the only undergraduate, and his associates were said to be extremely undesirable characters who were known to be ring-leaders in recent disturbances at the factory. Rumour had it that the police had finally tracked the culprits down to a certain house in the working-class district, that a scuffle had followed, and that C.S. had given one of the constables a black eye.
With great difficulty I managed to gain access to Victor while he was in custody. It all sounded a pretty bad business, and probably he would have to serve a term in gaol, so the least I could do was to see if I could help him in any way. On my way to the police station I wondered what mood I should find him in, whether exultant that he had made a protest against social tyranny, or calm and self-contained. It was a shock to find that he did not really want to see me as a friend at all, though he was very ready to make use of me. It was a still greater shock to find that he was thoroughly ashamed of his recent escapade, and indignant with his accomplices for having enticed him into it. He did not at the time divulge the fact that he had no memory of the incident, and that all his scanty knowledge of it was gleaned from his gaolers. His behaviour to me was so bewilderingly inconsistent with his past attitude that I found myself completely at a loss. I felt an odd sort of vertigo. Needless to say, I was hurt and angry, but I told myself that, of course, the whole affair must have put him to a great strain, and that he had momentarily lost his bearings. He looked at me from under the drooping eyelids of a camel, I thought, and with a camel’s sulky pout. Yes, and with that air of aristocratic and offensive superiority which camels innocently wear. When I tried to make contact by leading the talk round to subjects formerly interesting to us both, he looked at me in a puzzled and hostile way, casting occasional anxious glances at the warder who was supervising our meeting. When I referred to recent events in which he had shared, he seemed to have only a very confused recollection of them. I tried to get him to talk about the incident that had landed him in prison, but he kept on saying, “Hell, hell! I must have been tight or mad or something.” The only thing that seemed to interest him was the hope of gaining his liberty as quickly as possible. He implored me to go round to certain big-wigs who, he thought, might be able to use their influence to interfere with the normal process of the law and set him free. He was desperately anxious to persuade these big-wigs that he was not really a reprobate but a young man with generous though misguided impulses who had got himself into a scrape through sheer love of adventure. Naturally I felt very uncomfortable about his attitude. I was ready to pull wires for him if I could, but I wished he had not asked me to do so. It was a relief when, after staring silently at me for several seconds, he said, “No, Tomlinson, I’d rather you did nothing. You would probably do more harm than good. I’ll get Biglands and Moulton on to the job.” Having come to this decision he made it clear that he had no further use for me, or interest in me. Our conversation fell dead between us. I remember feeling that the real Victor had simply disappeared, and that the creature in front of me was a sort of animated husk with no real inner life of its own. It was as though one had reached out to grasp the hand of a friend, and had grasped nothing but air. With a vague shame and guilt, which I irrationally felt on my own account, I left him.
The Cadogan–Smith Incident caused a flare-up of the inveterate “town and gown” feeling in the local press. Editors demanded that an example should be made of this turbulent undergraduate. Let him stand his trial with his accomplices and serve full sentence. But presently the tone of the press began to change. It was said that C.-S. turned out to be a decent young man who was mentally rather unbalanced and had had some sort of mental storm through over-working. In this condition he had been led astray by evil company. Severe punishment would probably turn him permanently toward anti-social behaviour. Let him finish his university career. Give him a chance to turn over a new leaf.
We had all supposed that C.-S. would at the very least be sent down from the university, but to our surprise he suddenly appeared once more in residence, and was merely gated for the rest of the term.
I made several efforts to open up friendly relations with Victor again, but he resolutely rebuffed me. He had become once more the young “blood” who had invaded my room at the beginning of the previous term. We were in our last year, and by the end of our university career we were practically strangers.
Reading over this chapter, I feel that I have presented only one side of Victor’s character as he was during our undergraduate days. I have been so concerned with what may be called his supernormal powers that I have failed to show him as a real human being with idiosyncrasies and weaknesses like the rest of us. He was no superman, and no saint. Much in him seemed to be even a sheer reaction against the conventional virtues of his own other self. For instance, the somnolent Victor had always scorned sweets as inappropriate to the mature men that undergraduates took themselves to be. But the awake Victor made a point of being rather a pig about sweets. Indeed, on one occasion he made himself sick by eating a large box of fudge at a sitting. I was righteously indignant; but he, wiping his greenish face and blowing his nose after this disgraceful incident, remarked with a wan smile, “Harry, you’re just an unimaginative prig. I despise you. Damn it, it was worth it, if only to discover one’s limitations. Some day I shall do it again.”
The somnolent Victor was a very methodical and tidy creature; but the awake Victor seemed incapable of keeping his possessions in their right places. He was apt to drop things where he had last used them. His rooms in college soon lost their former neatness, and became a chaos of books, papers, clothes, cakes, sweets, pipes and all sorts of queer oddities which he had picked up on our country walks. He had become something of a jackdaw with an irrational itch to collect attractive trifles. There were about a dozen large pieces of flint, some of which he had laboriously chipped into arrow-heads, celts and “leaf-blade” knives. Once, when he had bashed his own thumb by mistake, he said, “This is the way to learn respect for our paleolithic ancestors. Not for nothing did they have brains rather bigger than ours.” I noticed, by the way, that though his first efforts would certainly have been a disgrace to the prehistoric craftsmen, he learned rapidly, and in the end produced several presentable celts and one really beautiful little translucent arrow-head, like an accurately cut jewel. Of this he was unashamedly proud, carrying it about in his pocket, and showing it to everyone likely to admire it. This exquisite little object became one of his most treasured “toys.” For Victor had a thoroughly childish craving to finger small articles which he invariably carried in his pocket for this purpose. In conversation, and even during serious writing or reading, he would absent-mindedly play with his arrow-head, or with one of the pebbles, acorns, crystals, and so on, that had taken his fancy on our walks. Amongst his most valued treasures were two heavy silver Ptolemaic Egyptian coins that he had bought in an old junk shop. While talking, he would finger one of these amply moulded pieces, or gaze intently at the detail of the profile or coiffure. Yet his attention never seemed to wander from the subject of conversation. In his rooms, all sorts of objects generally lay about on table, desk, couch and chairs. Along with notebooks and works on history and philosophy, were tobacco-pipes, queer old books of prints, two small granite boulders (one grey and one pink), a number of bits of wood that showed an attractive grain, a seventeenth-century silver spoon, a fallow deer’s antler (acquired from the Magdalen herd), and a number of unframed pictures of young women who appealed to his rather queer taste in feminine beauty.
Strangely, he never seemed to have any difficulty in finding what he wanted in this chaos. He could always go straight to the desired object with the precision of a monkey finding its way among the chaos of branches in the jungle.
Another queer and often exasperating trait was this. In spite of his remarkably coherent, integrated behaviour in all important matters, his extravagantly keen zest in the life of the senses often led him to sacrifice a seemingly major end to a seemingly trivial sensuous experience. He would become so enthralled with a particularly good brew of cider (not a popular drink in those days) that he would keep me waiting for half an hour while he savoured every sip, with all the seriousness of an expert wine-taster. Often our planned walk was completely upset while he strayed about watching the flight of gulls or swallows, or the hovering of a kestrel. Once, when this had led to our missing a train and an important Union debate, I protested rather violently. He rounded on me with scorn, declaring that if only I had used my eyes and my wits properly I should have got far more out of those birds than a “gas-bag politician” could ever give.
Victor seemed to have a special feeling about birds, a combination of primitive lust in the chase, scientific and aesthetic interest, and something else, difficult to define, but in a way almost religious. When an unfamiliar bird appeared, he would throw all his plans to the winds to stalk and watch it. He made a careful study of bird-flight, particularly in the case of gulls, swallows, hawks and other expert fliers. He would often spend hours experimenting with little home-made gliders, made of paper for indoor work, and of wood and oiled silk for the windy crests of ridges. He was fascinated by the admirably functional shapes of the master fliers among birds. Evolution, he used to say, had moulded them to fit beautifully into the air-streams that their speed created. He was fascinated not only by their perfection of form and action in the air but also by their temperament, their attitude to life. “Man,” he once said, “concentrated on intelligence, birds on artistry. And in a way all their art is sacred art.” When I protested, he laughed, and said, “Watch a gull cruising around. No doubt he’s in search of food, spying after titbits, but that is not all. How he lives in the sheer skill of flight, like a skater! His cruising is flight become a religious exercise, an ecstatic harmony with the universe, only possible to creatures that have I perfected their adaptation to the environment; quite impossible for man, that half-made clumsy flutterer in a more difficult medium.” I broke in with the remark that a gull’s cruising was no more religious than a woman’s cruising for bargains in a general store. He laughed again, and pointed out that the gull had been fashioned by millions of years of life in the air, and the woman had not been fashioned by general stores, or not to the same extent. He said, “On a fine day, and with a reasonably full belly, the gull’s cruising is a sheer act of worship. Can’t you feel into it enough to recognize that? And think of all the rest of the pure artistry of birds. Think of courtship, nest-building, and song. No doubt the robin’s song begins as sheer sexiness or sheer defiance to his neighbours; but the immediate end is soon overlaid with pure artistry, and worship. If you took more notice of birds, you old stick-inthe-mud, you might be able to get inside them a bit and feel how they feel.”
Another consequence of Victor’s addiction for “living in the moment” was one which, in spite of my vaunted emancipation from the conventions, I regarded as reprehensible. Whenever he saw a girl that strongly attracted him, he used to watch her with frank delight, and if possible find some way of striking up a casual conversation with her. Such conduct might pass unnoticed today, but when we were undergraduates, before the First World War, it looked bad. Besides, it was annoying to me because it often upset our plans. My expostulation seldom availed to bring him to his senses. Nearly always he scornfully insisted that it was sheer folly not to gather rosebuds while one might. It must be admitted that these casual encounters were very different from the minor flirtations of other young men. I cannot think of a better way of describing Victor’s technique than by saying that, in spite of his unconcealed admiration, he seemed rather to aim at establishing a comradely relation than to invite dalliance. If the girl reacted by putting up a veil of virgin modesty or, on the other hand, by “leading him on,” he would promptly turn away. He once told me that he supposed what he really wanted of these brief encounters was to “add to the picture-gallery of his memory,” so that by contemplating these treasures he might improve his sensitivity both to physical beauty and to the beauty of personality. I remarked that his taste was very different from mine, and that he seemed to fall for very queer-looking girls. He replied with spirit, “Damn it, man, it’s time you outgrew the mere chocolate-box lovelies. They are too easy to appreciate. The really enthralling girls are rare. That’s why I have to pursue them a bit, lest I should miss a treasure.” In passing, perhaps I should remind the reader that though the awake Victor had a rather odd taste in feminine beauty, the somnolent Victor’s taste was strictly orthodox. Hence Edith. I sometimes felt that Victor’s interest in strange girls was a special case of his lively zoological interest. All through his life Victor retained what I used to regard as a childish interest in birds and all animals. Once he dragged me up to London to visit the Zoo. I was soon as tired as a middle-aged uncle piloting a vigorous young nephew around. Or rather Victor did the piloting, and I trailed after him. I was really more interested in Victor’s reactions than in the beasts. Some cages he passed after half a minute’s careful study, but others enthralled him. He would stand perfectly still with an expression in which scientific scrutiny, schoolboy delight and sorrowful insight succeeded each other like moments of sunshine and shade. In those days the “newest type of zoo” had not yet been adopted in England. The creatures were kept in much more wretched conditions than is now customary. They were all quite obviously bored prisoners, and their despond affected Victor deeply. After a while, to my embarrassment, he took to talking to the beasts, as a completely unselfconscious child might do. But what he said was not childish. Speaking quietly, and as to an equal, he would express diffident compassion, apologizing for the unimaginative and ruthless conduct of his own species toward other species. Onlookers sniggered at him; but he turned to them with his wry smile that was half comic, half tragic, and said, “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” The onlookers ceased to snigger. We came to a polar bear that was pacing ceaselessly behind its bars, ignoring the spectators. As it turned at the end of its cage, it rubbed its shoulders against the partition. This endlessly repeated action had resulted in a patch of bare skin on each shoulder. Victor watched in silence for some time; then he said, “You poor devil! It’s a change from the Arctic! You’re cut out for ice and snow hunting, and look what we do to you.” Surprisingly, the bear came to a halt and faced him. It sniffed at him through the bars and gave a rumbling whimper, for all the world as though in some obscure way it recognized a friend.
I mention this incident because it gave me a little shock at the time, and because it fell in line with a number of other queer encounters between Victor and dumb animals. The strange thing was that they often seemed to notice him and like him even when he was not attending to them. I have no plausible explanation to offer, but it is a fact that animals took to Victor. Dogs, for instance, had a habit of attaching themselves to him for companionship on a walk. Several times when we sat down to rest in a field a dog arrived and settled itself against him for no apparent reason.
Once, when we were sitting talking in a field near a village, an obviously verminous tike accosted him in this way and he gently threw it off; but it kept on returning. “Go!” he cried, “Hop it! Va t’en! Imshi!” He made fierce noises at it, and pretended to throw a stone, but it merely wagged its tail. Then it calmly sat down against him and began catching fleas. Victor jumped to his feet and said very firmly, “Look here, brother! You have fleas and I haven’t, so kindly keep off.” The animal put its head on one side and looked at him in a puzzled genial way, again vaguely wagging its tail. Victor dropped on one knee, took its head between his hands, looked into its eyes, and said very solemnly. “I know we’re friends. I know mutual understanding binds us eternally as comrades. I know you’re horribly misunderstood at home and you still retain a glorious faith in humanity in spite of everything. But for reasons not apparent to you I suggest we love one another at a distance.” He then gently pushed the creature away and sat down again beside me. The dog hesitated for a moment, then squatted where it was, looking reproachfully at Victor. Presently it turned its attention once more to its fleas. When we continued our walk, it came with us for some distance, but after a while it wandered off on its own.
I once asked Victor why dogs liked him. “God knows!” he said. “Perhaps I smell right.”
Children also seemed to take a fancy to him. He never made advances to them, but when they opened up relations with him, he responded in his detached though friendly man-to-man way, and was at once taken into partnership. He had little experience of children, but he seemed to enter imaginatively into any child’s point of view. When he was drawn into a child’s play, he behaved sometimes, of course, with humour and mischief, but often with great seriousness, as though the game were quite as important to him as to the child. For example, once we entered a crowded London train, and a compartment in which a tired and disheartened mother was trying to cope with a tired and cantankerous little boy. It so happened that I sat next the woman, and Victor opposite. We buried ourselves in our books. The ceaseless complaining kept up by the child made it impossible for me to concentrate, but Victor was soon wholly absorbed in his History of Socialism. The child fidgeted and whined and yelled. Presently it fell silent, gazing at Victor. Though I was next it, it took no notice of me. It leaned forward from its mother’s lap and banged Victor’s knee. He looked up, smiled, and continued reading. It grabbed at the pages; he gently removed its fingers. The mother scolded the unruly infant, but it continued to take an interest in the mysteriously attractive young man sitting opposite. When other methods of approach had failed, the little boy took the chocolate out of his own mouth and offered it to Victor. The spectators laughed, but Victor said politely, “It’s awfully good of you but I’d rather you had it.” Meanwhile he had closed his book, and after fumbling in a pocket he produced (of all unlikely things) the curb-chain of a horse’s bridle. This treasure he had acquired a few days earlier at a village saddler’s. We had been passing through the village, and he was attracted by the window full of harness, curry-combs and horse-cloths. He insisted on entering the shop in search of a new treasure, and presently he hit on the chain. Evidently it had been in his pocket ever since. He now laid the six inches of shining metal neatly on his knee, remarking, “Nice, isn’t it?” Then he picked it up and twisted it into a tight spiral, then shook it out into its normal looseness and handed it to the child, who took it and examined it with solemn eyes. Victor returned to his reading. But presently the child, still holding the chain, reached forward with both arms toward Victor, and said “Dadad,” to everyone’s amusement. Victor closed his book with a sigh and received the infant. For half an hour he entertained his new friend with the contents of his pockets, telling him a simple story about each article, and obviously enjoying himself.
I record these little incidents because they throw light on Victor’s character as a young man. But indeed throughout his life incidents of this sort were apt to occur to the awake Victor. And even when he was nearly sixty he still combined with his exceptionally adult nature many childlike, or positively childish, traits. The toy habit remained with him. Dogs and even horses continued to follow him about. And throughout my acquaintance with him he was apt to allow immediate sensory pleasures to upset relatively serious enterprises, and to be completely unashamed of doing so. He once said, “No doubt man triumphed by taking thought for the morrow, and he must learn to take thought even for a very distant morrow, thousands of years ahead; but sometimes the present’s claim is more urgent than the future’s. And if you never live in the present moment, never let it soak right through you at every pore, you never really live at all.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00