I HAVE TOLD about the beginning of my friendship with Victor as it appeared from my point of view. On his wedding day, while we were on our walk, he went over those already remote events, describing his own side of the experience. And so the whole affair took on a new meaning for me. His occasional lapses into unfriendliness, and his final complete withdrawal, all of which had at the time seemed such gratuitous and wilful violations of a valued relationship, now appeared in a new light. Victor had not betrayed our friendship. He had simply ceased to exist. The Victor that I knew had been spirited away. I could no more blame him than I could blame an unconscious man.
This discovery that Victor had not been himself, and so had not betrayed our friendship, had a surprisingly deep effect on me. Evidently I had never quite realized how much the friendship had meant to me, and how its breakdown had disturbed the foundations of my mind. Now that the explanation had been given, I felt a rather extravagant elation, which I was at pains to conceal. Somehow the whole universe took on a different aspect. Friends might die, or might helplessly suffer a psychological change; but friendship remained, after all, a reliable thing.
After we left Oxford I saw nothing of Victor for some years; but I had occasional letters from him, written (I now learned) during periods in which the more lucid personality held the field. He passed into the shipping firm where his father had a certain influence. I, lacking his opportunities, took a post as English master in a secondary school. We were stationed in different parts of the country, and our paths never met. My report of the next phase of his life therefore depends entirely on his own account, given to me on his wedding day.
Nothing unusual happened during his first year as a businessman. Like so many young university men flung into office life, he found the routine very irksome, and was much more interested in his leisure occupations than in his work. He became a typical young provincial man-about-town, of the lazier and more genteel sort. He was made a member of one of the leading clubs. He danced. He was thoroughly spoilt by the daughters of the business community on account of his good looks and a certain lordly carelessness in his attitude to them. He took them out in his sports car, always returning them safely at night. He played a good deal of tennis, and was a brilliant three-quarter in the first fifteen of the best local rugger club.
On several occasions he was probably on the verge of waking to his true self, for he had strange bouts of restlessness, in which the great shipping firm became a clear and rather exciting whole in his mind. In these spells he would stay late at the office, reading up old correspondence files, studying the plans of ships, puzzling over problems of naval architecture, examining the ledgers, and the accounts of individual voyages, particularly those which showed a loss, and were dramatically recorded in red ink. But his chief interest, during these spells of semi-lucidity, was in the working conditions of crews, dockers and other employees. He would take every possible opportunity of being present when one of the directors interviewed a ship’s captain at the beginning or end of a voyage. On one occasion he got himself assigned to work in connection with the actual loading of ships in dock; and ten days later, when the mood had passed, he cursed his folly; for when the interest had waned, the practical upshot was simply that he had removed himself further from the centres of his pleasure.
The difference between his brighter moods and his normal apathetic condition was distinct enough to attract the attention of his superiors, particularly on one occasion. While he was doing a spell of work in the naval architect’s department, he hit upon a bright idea for a new form of rudder. At first the professionals treated it lightly, as the extravagance of a bright young man. But in spite of themselves they kept on discussing it; and finally, after a great deal of calculation and draftmanship had been devoted to it, the finished design was adopted by the firm as the standard rudder of all their ships. But, long before this happened, its inventor had slipped back into his normal phase. During the preliminary stages of the detailed consideration of the rudder he had been intensely interested, and fertile in suggestions. But suddenly he seemed to lose both interest and ability. He was unable to make any useful contribution, and indeed could scarcely conceal the fact that he could not properly understand the point of his own brilliant idea. So marked was the difference between his former brightness and his subsequent dullness, that those who had not actually seen him at work in the creative period were inclined to believe that young Cadogan–Smith had simply stolen his great invention from someone else. But those who had worked with him, and remembered his leaping imagination, rejected this theory. Victor himself now ceased to take any spontaneous interest in his achievement, save as a means of acquiring credit in the eyes of his superiors.
In his “half-awake” state Victor seems to have been not only rather more interested and rather more intelligent than in his normal state; he was also rather more aware of others as persons. Hence his concern for the living conditions of the employees. He went so far as to agitate discreetly for improvements in the crew-accommodation in the fo’castles of the company’s ships. He even suggested an innovation which in those days seemed quite fantastic, namely that each member of the crew should have a single-berth cabin. Victor’s criticism of existing accommodation somewhat outraged the directors, as they prided themselves on being in the forefront in respect of amenities for crews, and the suggestion that they should raise the standard of comfort even further seemed to them “sheer idealism.”
“My dear boy,” said the head of the firm, “if we were to carry out your plans, we should soon fail to pay dividends. After all, the company is not a charitable institution. And anyhow, surely you must realize that the class of man who goes to sea as a deck-hand or stoker simply doesn’t need the sort of thing you want to give him. And he wouldn’t know how to use it properly. Everything would go to rack and ruin in no time.” As soon as Victor saw that his philanthropy was damaging his reputation with his superiors, he dropped the subject. This surrender was not entirely due to cynical self-regard. He was genuinely persuaded that his ideas were Utopian, and that if he wanted to be a successful business man, he must outgrow that sort of thing.
On one occasion only, during his early business career, did Victor pass beyond his “half-awake” state and attain full clarity of consciousness. Having served some time in each of the departments of the great office, he had been appointed secretary to the directors. In this position he would gain some experience of the general policy of the firm; and in due course he himself, if all went well, might become a junior director.
One day he was present at a discussion on pilfering at the docks. The firm had employed detectives to bring the culprits to book, but without results. Victor was at the time in his “partially awake” condition. He had evidently shown some intelligence in the discussion, for his suggestion that he himself should do a bit of detective work at the docks was accepted.
I had better describe this incident as nearly as possible in Victor’s own words, as he recounted the adventure to me while we were returning from our walk on his wedding day.
“In my half-awake state,” he said, “I was rather more sensitive to people’s minds than in my normal somnolent state. I was able to make use of this power in a number of ways in the service of the firm. I don’t think telepathy played a part. I was just more sensitive to people’s reactions. I seemed to read in their faces and their gestures and tones of voice what they were feeling. Another thing that probably helped me in my adventure was my experience with the lads in the factory at Oxford. Mind you, I couldn’t remember about that, because it belonged to my fully awake phase; but automatically I seemed to behave in the right way to make contact with working people. I intuitively put on the right mental disguise. I was able to pose effectively to the dockers as a bloke who had seen rather better days, and was now forced to take to dock-labouring for a living. I was the helpless and amiable novice who had to be initiated into every side of the dockers’ life, and I gradually got myself accepted as ‘one of us.’
“I was supposed to be completely reliable, and of course I made a point of persuading everyone that I was entirely on the side of the workers against the employers. On this subject I took a high moral line, which increased my reputation. Presently I discovered that there was an organized system of pilfering and selling the swag for the benefit of certain down-and-out families. The gang had a very strict moral code of its own, a rigid ‘honour among thieves.’ If anyone in the gang was known to be pilfering for his own private use, failing to deliver the proceeds for the common purpose, he suffered for it. One man, who was believed to be a spy in the pay of the detectives, was got rid of by an ingeniously staged fatal accident. He was cleverly induced to pitch himself head first into an empty hold, seemingly through sheer carelessness. This incident made me a bit anxious lest I should eventually share his fate. So I made up my mind to retire to my own world on the following day. But something happened that upset my plans. I woke. Suddenly, as I was coaxing a swinging case of machinery into the right position for stowing (I believe it was at the very moment when my docker’s hook gripped the wood) I saw the whole wretched affair as it really was. I saw myself as a supporter of an economic tyranny spying on a group of people who, whatever their faults, felt themselves to be under no obligation towards their masters, and were stealing for a very laudable purpose, namely to succour the distressed. I saw that, though in a just society the pilfering would have been inexcusable, in our unjust society one ought at any rate, to approve of the courage and comradeship and self-dedication in a generous cause. Of course one couldn’t approve of the murder, but one really couldn’t take a high moral line about it. Now I was faced with a very unpleasant problem. I had the necessary information for convicting the gang not only of pilfering but of murder. This information must be kept from the authorities. So long as I remained fully awake, it was safe. But I might go somnolent again at any time, and then I should certainly blab.
“I went on working in the hold, with a mate who was also in the gang. He was a hearty lad who kept up a patter of mildly obscene humour. He had an angel’s smile, and red hair on his bare arms. Looking at him, I saw quite clearly that I must be loyal to him and his mates at all costs. But how save the situation? I racked my brains for a plan. Should I write a note to the office saying that I felt I was going mad, and any stories I might tell would be pure fabrication? Too feeble! Should I give myself up to the gang and let them dispose of me? Not fair to saddle them with another crime. And quite unnecessary. For gradually it dawned on me that the only way to save the gang was to dispose of myself. At first this, seemed a silly quixotic thing to do. But the more I thought about it, sweating with the labour of shifting those packing cases, the more important it seemed to save the gang, and the less important to keep my own life; such a scrappy, ineffective life as it was.”
At this point of Victor’s narrative I interrupted to say that his resolve to kill himself seemed to me quite fantastic. He was silent for a few seconds, and then replied, “I had another motive also, an obscure sense that in sacrificing myself I should be performing a symbolic act, sacrificing one of the exploiters (my baser self) for the welfare of the people.” To this I snorted something about sheer sentimentality; but Victor said only, “Oh, well, that is how it struck me.”
Presently he continued his story. “How I remember slogging away in that hold, with the fine feeling of muscles skilfully used; and gradually facing up to the fact that I must kill myself! While I was working I got the hell of a bump from one of the swinging cases, and in my awake state it hurt extravagantly. And yet deeper down I was merely smiling at it. In the same way, the prospect of death hurt like hell, and yet I was also contemptuously laughing at it. I did so want to live. Everything was so vivid and difficult and beautiful, from my mate’s heavenly grin to the smooth steel of my hook. And yet — what matter? If I didn’t have it, other ‘I’s’ would have it. So long as it was had, what matter? I hung on to that thought, like a drowning man to his straw; till at last I began to feel that in some queer way the ‘I’ that was now choosing death was identical with all the other ‘I’s’; and therefore would in some sense not die at all. And yet I was convinced that in some other, simpler, sense I should cease to exist.
“Well, as we were leaving the ship for the dinner hour, I looked round for something heavy, and found a large iron pulley, for one of the derricks. When I thought no one was looking, I picked this up and began to tie it round my neck with a bit of line. Unfortunately a stevedore had been watching my strange antics, and when he saw what I was up to he came at me. I had to hurry with the tying, and didn’t get it done properly before I had to go overboard or be caught. I went over, hugging the thing; but presumably when I lost consciousness I let it go, and the pulley dragged itself free. Anyhow, they got me out and brought me round with artificial respiration. I woke in the somnolent state; and very confused, because, of course, I couldn’t remember what had happened in the awake state. But I did remember all that had occurred before I woke. I had enough evidence to convict a bunch of men of theft and one or two of murder.
“Naturally my attempt at suicide caused a stir, and had somehow to be explained. Of course, I gave my true name, and accounted for my disguise. I made my report to my future father-inlaw, who came to see me at the hospital. I said that spying had got on my nerves and given me an irrational sense of guilt to such an extent that I daren’t face the world any more. This was certainly a good line. Everyone was full of sympathy and admiration, and I acted up to the part very thoroughly. In due season ten men were accused. At the trial, I gave my evidence with seeming reluctance and distress, and I pleaded for mercy. But at heart I didn’t feel any distress at all. I simply felt I had done rather a good piece of work, and the men must take the consequences of their anti-social behaviour. All received heavy sentences. The two who had brought off the murder were hanged, poor devils. Or lucky devils. May be they really fared better than the others.”
By the time that Victor had finished this story, we had almost completed our circuit in the country, and were hurrying to catch the last bus back to our hotel. In the bus he mentioned that after this incident he had formed much more steady business habits, even though he was in his normal somnolent state. Whether this change was due to some slight infection from his suppressed personality or to a natural bent for business, I do not know. Certainly it is fairly common for young men flung from the university into business to go through a phase of restlessness before finally accepting the routine of office work. But the single-mindedness with which he devoted himself to his business career was remarkable. He was determined, at all costs, to “make good.” The firm was so pleased with his new keenness and shrewdness that they planned to give him managerial status, sooner than had been intended.
But in 1914, when war was declared, Victor at once began to feel restless. (It was while we were sitting at dinner in our hotel after the abortive wedding that Victor told me about his war experiences.) All the most reputable young men were soon flocking to the colours. And the normal Victor was very susceptible to public opinion. After a few months of restlessness, during which the firm did its best to retain him, he enlisted, and became an infantry officer. When he had told me this, Victor lapsed into one of his silences, so I had to prompt him again. I knew that he had been at one time in disgrace, but I did not know why. I also knew that he had redeemed his character, and ended in some fairly important staff job. At first he seemed reluctant to talk, and I assumed that he did not want to tell me about his disgrace. When I deliberately made it easy for him to divert the whole conversation, he looked at me sharply, and said, “You think I’m ashamed of being court-martialled. (The first time it was for cowardice, the second for insubordination.) No! It’s something else that I find distasteful. However, here goes!”
He told me that “the somnolent cad” quickly made himself known for intelligence and dash; and that, as he combined these qualities with great docility toward his superiors, he soon began climbing the ladder of promotion. But on two occasions the true Victor woke into being, and nearly wrecked the laboriously built-up reputation of the somnambulist.
“When it first happened,” he said, “I was still a subaltern. There was to be an attack. Throughout the preparations, when everyone was anxiously concealing his fear and loathing of the whole bloody prospect, I was — well, ‘magnificent’ is the inevitable word. I put heart into the platoon, and into my brother officers. I was full of exultation and eagerness for the coming battle. Of real fear I felt practically nothing, for I was hypnotized by the idea that I was going to behave splendidly and cover myself with glory. The whole affair was just an opportunity for self-display. My imagination was too sluggish to realize anything but the romantic aspect. I had to pretend to feel some anxiety (pretend even to myself, I mean), so that I could triumph over it with a brave face. But I really felt no more than the stage-fright that a schoolboy feels before going out to bat for the school. Well, zero hour came, and I led my lads over the top with my customary dash. Several of the poor devils dropped. One showed signs of turning tail, so I promptly shot him. Soon we were using bayonets in the enemy’s first-line trench, and soon our position was secure.”
Victor was silent for a moment, and began eating faster, as though trying to release some pent-up energy. Presently he said, “Then it happened. I don’t know what actually caused the waking, perhaps the appealing look on the face of a dying German, like a mouse in a trap. But that was nothing new. Perhaps the real cause was that the Boche’s face was a bit like yours. I remember noticing that. Or perhaps it was just that when the scrap was over I had time to feel that I had a splinter under my thumbnail. Anyhow, I, the real I, suddenly came on the scene, and found that everything was silly and horrible, and very terrifying. Shells were falling unpleasantly near; and now, of course, I could imagine quite well what might happen. If I had been fully awake, I could have faced it; but I wasn’t. I was just abnormally sensitive, but not properly integrated, I suppose. And so I was frightened clean out of my wits. No, not out of my wits, for I didn’t rush about screaming. I just waited in a cold sweat for the next move in the preposterous game. The folly of people driving themselves to face all this just to capture a bloody ditch made me terrified of my own kind, and of myself. The whole war, which I had never really thought about, but only talked about parrot-wise, suddenly appeared as a huge and diabolical booby-trap. All the high-sounding phrases that I thought I believed seemed now sheer mockery. ‘A War to end War!’ ‘Making the world safe for democracy!’ Christ! It suddenly became clear to me, as of course it had done to many others, that killing people just wasn’t the way to make a decent world. It suddenly appeared to me that every human life was absolutely sacred and must never be destroyed. And I remembered the lad I had shot for hesitating. You see, I wasn’t fully awake, just tormented by quickened sensitivity. My thumb, for instance, was hurting like a violent toothache. And I had no comprehensive vision that could put my pain in proper perspective, still less put the war in perspective. And I had no self-detachment. I just stood there fidgeting; torn between the impulse to bury my face in my hands and blub, and the impulse to jump on the parapet and shout ‘God is Love.’ Then came an order to advance, and I think I did scream out ‘God is Love,’ and then I collapsed in a whimpering heap in the mud. The lads went over all right, and left me. They probably thought I had been hit. Well, that was what I was court-martialled for. Long before the time of the trial, of course, I was my normal somnolent self, and quite ignorant of the events of the awake spell. I was let off lightly, on the strength of my previous record, and the obvious fact that I was a bit crazy. But it dished my precious career for some time. I was sent home for a rest-cure, and supervision by the psychiatrists. They were not very clever in those days, and I managed to conceal the fact that I had always been subject to spells of dissociation of some sort. They just treated me for ‘shell shock,’ and gave me a good holiday. Of course I (or the somnolent ass who masqueraded as me) was terribly upset at the damage done to my career, and impatient to start again, and anxious lest another slip should once more bring me to the bottom of the ladder. No! I must be fair to the fool. He had been badly wounded in his self-respect, and he had betrayed his soldierly ideal, and guilt gnawed at him. He didn’t really know that he cared far more for his own career than for a victory for the Allies.”
Victor paused; then, stabbing at his potatoes with his fork, he said bitterly, “Fancy being tied for life to an insensitive snob! It’s like being a Siamese twin, and the other partner a half-wit.”
I began to commiserate; but to my surprise he brushed my sympathy aside, and said, “Have you noticed the girl who is serving us?” I had not; and I was surprised that he had been able to do so while he was absorbed in telling me about events that were obviously still very much on his mind. But I remembered that one of the most striking characteristics of the awakened Victor was his power of attending to two things at once.
He said, “I have been watching her ever since we came in. And this morning at breakfast, when I was the Dolt, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. I thought her the ugliest thing I had ever seen, and thanked my lucky stars for Edith. But now — god, she’s lovely! I wonder whether seeing her had something to do with waking me. Look at her! Look at her!”
I could see the girl in the big mirror on the opposite wall. She was serving the sweet at the table behind me. She was a well-built wench, certainly, but there was a juvenile or country clumsiness about her action, and her shape was somehow rather unfinished, rather like a statue in the rough, that still needed a lot of trimming. And as to her face I should have advised the sculptor to begin again on fresh stone. The eyes were very wide apart, and of a curious dark grey, the colour of tarns overhung by rocks; but with flecks of russet in the grey, like the ruddy weathering one sometimes sees on grey slate or shale. The eyes were indeed quite good eyes. Remembering them afterwards, I had to admit that they were striking eyes, large and intelligent, serious, but rippled over with laughter when a small boy, whom she was serving, carefully selected the biggest jam tart. Strange eyes, certainly, with lashes and eyebrows of an unusual red-brown, as though they were originally black, but had gone rusty. The hair, too, was rust-red, but bright, heavy, and voluminous. It threatened to collapse on the large shoulders at any moment. But the nose! The sculptor must have broken the first nose and tried to do something with the stump. It was broad and flat, merely a place where a large nose might have been. The mouth was fantastically wide and full. The sculptor had evidently been frightened of having another accident, so he had left a great deal of spare rock to play about with. The complexion was surprisingly good. The rock’s texture was silky and even. The sculptor could not spoil the actual material, save by misshaping it. Nor could he extinguish the warm glow that seemed to come from some inner fire. Suddenly I realized that the girl was blushing.
I looked at Victor. He was gazing at her with a frank grin of admiration, most out-of-place in the circumstances. “She reminds me of a hippopotamus,” I said. “Me too,” he answered gaily, “a lovely blushing hippo!” He added more seriously, “The tragic thing is that a human face may perfectly express a lovely soul, and yet have no soul at all behind it. Has she a soul, do you think?”
“Maybe she has,” I answered, “but if so, the tragic thing is that it’s not able to express itself through a face like that.”
“Good God, man,” he protested, “have you no eyes, no eyes? Insensitive blockhead!” He was laughing, but genuinely outraged.
He suddenly changed the subject. “I must tell you of the other waking I had during the war. I was in command of a company, and we had been left in a tight place during an unexpected German attack. Our instructions were to hang on at all costs. My somnolent self gloried in the situation, at first, and behaved with his customary rectitude. We were very heavily shelled, and had a lot of casualties. Presently the Boches came at us from their trench, and in our reduced state we hadn’t an earthly.” Victor paused, thinking. Suddenly he said, “Oh, hell! What do the details matter! The point is that the survivors, en masse, gave up resisting, and made off down a communication trench. My morale then broke too, and I followed them, helter-skelter. Suddenly I woke; more thoroughly than on the previous occasion. As before, there was the increased vividness of sensation, but also something else, which I can only describe as an increased grasp of the total situation, both military and — well, cosmological. When I woke, I was already mixed up with the others again, stampeding; and the surprise of waking was so startling that I came to a standstill and laughed, crouching in that trench. I was terrifically conscious of my body, and of the strained faces of the lads staggering past me. But also, I was aware of all this as one might be aware of animalcules on a brilliantly illuminated microscope slide. I felt a sort of lofty pity for us all, but I was utterly remote and detached; because I was also at the very same time intensely aware of so much more. I saw us as simply the visible bit of mankind. I knew vividly that just round the corner, so to speak, there were all the armies, all the peoples, all the historical ages of man’s floundering struggle; and enclosing the whole thing, black heaven, pointed with stars. This happened in a flash, and was mixed up with thoughts of Socrates and Jesus Christ and the problem of good and evil.
“Of course it’s nonsense to talk about all this happening ‘in a flash.’ But something happened in that flash, something that I cannot describe in any other way. Well, suddenly it was borne in on me that this business of running away to save my skin was somehow a surrender of my spiritual freedom, in fact a sorry act of self-destruction on the part of — well — not simply on the part of me, Victor, in this skin, but of humanity in all its skins, or (better) the very spirit in us all. How that word makes me squirm! But what other is there? Well, something had to be done to re-assert the universal thing in me, in us all, I mean; the supreme thing that really matters. I cautiously looked over the top, and spotted a machine-gun that was enfilading the next lap of the trench, where most of my men were still struggling along. There was a chance that I could get at it from the rear without being noticed, if I crawled round by a line of overlapping shell-holes. It was a very poor chance, but what matter? Even if I didn’t get through, I should have ‘asserted the spirit.’ So I set about and did that little job, and had the luck not to be spotted. Note, I didn’t do it out of patriotism, or because I believed that an Allied victory was necessary to humanity. Nor did I do it out of simple self-pride. I just did it because I had to do something to assert the integrity of the universal thing in us. I took the German boys completely by surprise, poor devils, and pitched a hand-grenade at them. It was a messy business. One of them was still able to cause trouble when I ran in, but I put a bullet in his face with my pistol. As I did it, I felt a strong friendliness toward him, but this didn’t make me hesitate, any more than I had hesitated to chuck away my own life. I did both things just because the something in me had undertaken a job and must carry it through.”
At this point I interrupted Victor to get him to explain more fully what he meant by the “something” in him. He considered for a while; at least I suppose he did, but his far-away look seemed to focus on the ugly waitress, who was serving at the other end of the room.
At last he said, “I can only repeat that something universal in me protested against my individual cowardice. Or perhaps it was as though the little ordinary ‘I’ woke to be the universal ‘I’ for a few minutes. I woke to be something more than Victor, even the awakened Victor. Did I? I wonder!”
Before I could ask him to pursue the explanation, he continued. “This affair, of course, put me in the limelight. I was recommended for a Victoria Cross. But I never got it, because of subsequent events. You see, after that show, I remained awake for some months, carrying on with my job in a mood of glorious detachment and amusement, much as an adult may enter into a children’s game. For in my prevailing mood at that time I generally felt as though I were an actor; yes, an actor playing a part in a children’s game, entering into it with immense zest, but enjoying it mainly out of a nostalgia for my own long-lost childhood. In fact I was playing at soldiers, keeping the rules meticulously, but always with secret amusement. I never really cared which side won, so long as the game itself was interesting.”
“But, Victor,” I interrupted, “you were not like that when I knew you. You took sides. You did care which side won. You once said you were on the side of the light, against darkness.”
He laughed, and replied, cryptically, “My dear fellow, there’s a time for protest, and a time for acceptance. But best is to do both at once, always. But that, believe me, takes some doing. And I had still to learn it. You’ll see.”
He paused again, and I urged him to go on with the story. “Well,” he said, “I was an immense success with the children. I played soldiers so well that they too played better. They had been flagging, poor boys, because they really had struck a pretty gruelling patch in the game. But now they were all keyed up again. Somehow I kidded them into thinking that mud and blood were rather stimulating. I knew they couldn’t stick it indefinitely, but I might keep them up to scratch till we were relieved. Of course the high-ups were vastly pleased with me, and I was obviously invaluable to them. But presently I spoilt it all (from their point of view) by breaking the rules. We had been on a very tough job, and done it well, and come out of the line to rest, those of us who were left. And, God, we needed it. Most of us were just at breaking point, and it was touch and go. Well, the day after we had come down from the front we happened to be inspected by a brigadier who was a blockhead. He found the men’s rifles dirty, and he raised hell. Suddenly, I realized that I had done with acceptance, and was all set for protest. The bloke was quite entitled to take the line he did, according to the rules of the game, but I had had enough. I just quietly told him what I thought of him, and what I thought of brass-hats in general, and the whole bloody war. I was court-martialled again. But again, because of my record, and because the brigadier was known to be a cad and fool, I was let off lightly. I was sent home for a long rest. Of course I never got the cross, which didn’t at all matter to me; but while I was in England I went somnolent again; and the somnolent me, when he had succeeded in piecing the past together from what people said, was bitterly mortified.”
Victor paused, but before I had said anything he added. “How I detest that somnolent self of mine! And yet of course that’s quite unjustified. He can’t help being like that. And of course, when I think quietly about him, I don’t detest him. I don’t even despise him. I’m just sorry for him, and determined to keep awake as long as I can. I wonder how long I shall have this time. Somehow I feel more solidly awake than ever before, more secure. But one can’t tell. This may be the last five minutes.”
I said, “Is it at all in your own power to keep awake? You said he couldn’t help being himself. Can you do anything to avoid slipping back into being him?”
Victor answered, “I really believe I am beginning to learn. But I shall probably need help.” His eyes turned to the waitress. (Did that look mean anything, I wondered?) He beckoned her over to us, but all he said was, “We should like our coffee in the lounge, please.”
We found two fairly secluded chairs where we could carry on our conversation. But for a few seconds we sat silent. Victor was looking at our fellow guests, and I at him; for I was again struck by the extraordinary change in his appearance since the morning. It seemed to have affected even his profile; for not only were the eyes now wide open and alert, the lips seemed at once fuller and firmer.
Presently Victor said, “Does it strike you, Harry, that several of these people are trying not to wake, and trying all too well?” I turned to look at the very commonplace crowd, sipping their coffee in little groups. I said they didn’t seem to me to be trying to do anything at all. But Victor snorted and declared. “They’ve been trying so long (some of them), and so hypnotically, that they don’t know they’re trying. Look at that bloke lighting his pipe. Watch his action. There! He has blown out the match with unnecessary vigour. It’s his own soul he blows out every time. But, unlike the match, his soul somehow comes alight again always, often inconveniently.”
The coffee arrived, brought by the same waitress. As she put the tray on the table, Victor said to her, “Do you try to keep your soul from waking? I bet you don’t.” She tried to prim up her hippopotamus lips, but a smile broke through. Then, with a queer sort of Scotch accent that I could not identify, she said, “My soul, sir? I haven’t got one. The management doesn’t allow them.” She left us, and Victor laughed after her, trying to recall her.
Waiting for him to continue our conversation, I watched his expression change from merriment to tenderness and deep seriousness. Presently I said, “I believe you have fallen for that girl.” To this he answered, “Oh, I have, I have; but I was thinking of Edith. She really has a soul, you know, but she won’t give it a chance. And I did my best to kill it for her. And now, well, I have given her a nasty knock, poor girl. But perhaps that will shock her into life. God, I wish I could do something about her. But probably it’s best to leave her alone.”
“She’ll get over it,” I said, “but your name will be dirt with the whole family, and the office too.”
“Yes,” he said, “and with my father. It has been the hell of a knock for him. Curious! I care much more for our father than my doltish other self ever did. Between my father and me there’s a gulf, but I can see him across the gulf fairly clearly. The Dolt, though he’s on our father’s side of the gulf, can’t really see him at all, can’t appreciate him as he really is; but I can, perhaps better than our father can appreciate himself.” Victor was lighting his pipe, but at this point he paused, looking intently at the flame of the match that he had not yet used. It burned right back to his fingers, till the sudden heat forced him to notice it and blow it out. “Yes,” he said, “the somnolent ass thinks our father is a sentimentalist. And so he is, in a way, but so much more besides. He’s a sentimental imperialist and a sentimental careerist. But all that is just an addiction that he cannot properly control, a sort of mental hiccough that he’s really ashamed of, but can’t stop. The Dolt thinks he reads our father like a book. But he doesn’t really. He sees him as a ‘realist’ whose nerve fails every now and then; for instance when he begins caring for some wretched ‘hard case’ of a black man rather than the white man’s colonial government.” Victor nodded slowly, as if well satisfied with his insight into his father. “In a way,” he said, “my father’s character contains both the Dolt and me in a single personality. For instance, of course he’s a snob and a thruster, but he knows he is, and tries quite hard not to be. And even when he does behave snobbishly he laughs at himself. Yes, and though he generally treats people as pawns in a game, sometimes he upsets the whole game for the pawn’s sake. And the game, mind you, is not just his own career (though that is certainly fatally dear to him). No, the game is really History with a big H, with himself as one of the pawns, zestfully and conscientiously playing its part in the game; but always with an underlying tenderness toward his fellow pawns, a tenderness that he sometimes quite deliberately allows to break all the rules. That is what the Dolt thinks is mere muddle-headed weakness, but by God it’s not. It’s far-seeing wisdom, and it needs courage, for a man like my father, in his position. I sometimes wonder what my mother was like. Probably like Edith.” He laughed, sourly.
Then at last he lit his pipe, and pulled at it in silence.
After a while I fetched him out of his reverie by remarking again that the wedding fiasco would make it very difficult for him at the office. He said, “Oh, I shall not go back to that life, not so long as I am awake.” I asked if he had any plans, No, he had not; but he must do something that offered scope for “absorbing the world”; and something that afforded some possibility of action, “some creative paying back to the world.” He said, “I must get to know what people are like, all sorts of them. Maybe it’s just revulsion from the Dolt, but I do feel I want to learn a lot from people, ordinary decent people. Those dockers, for instance, could have taught me a lot, if I had been awake,” He deplored his wasted opportunities, and his ignorance. “I shall plan,” he said, “for a long life. But, of course, it may all be over before I finish this pipe.”
We talked well into the night, and gradually a decision formed itself in his mind, largely owing to scraps of information that I was able to give him. After a lot of desultory consideration of many possible lines of action, he suddenly remarked, “Yes, of course! I see what to do. When I have cleared up the mess here, I shall cut right adrift, settle in another town and try to get some kind of adult educational work. That way, I shall both absorb and create, in a small way. At first, of course, there’ll be very little creating, but it’s clear I must do a great deal of absorbing before I can attempt anything much in the way of creating.”
Lest he should be expecting too much of this work, I suggested that he might find it irksome to be constantly dealing with uneducated minds. Journalism, I thought, might afford him more diverse and stimulating contacts, and might be used as a stepping-stone to a literary career.
His reply was emphatic. “No, no!” he said. “Reporting murders and football matches, and occasionally having an article accepted by a literary weekly, would not satisfy me at all. I need a solid foundation of understanding of the lives of ordinary people, preferably working people. I want to work with minds that have not already been stereotyped by middle-class education and comfortable middle-class values. Those dockers taught me something, and I think I can teach them and their like something in return. Strange, isn’t it? Although, while I was with them, I was the somnolent ass, now, looking back, I find I have stored up a lot of valuable material from those days.” To my suggestion that he was sentimentalising them in reaction against the snobbery of his somnolent state, he answered frankly that I with my lower-middle-class origins and unconscious respect for my social “superiors,” was the real snob, and that I could not be fair to the workers.
“Besides,” he added, “you yourself have often said that the only hope for our rotten old society is education, real education, not for the few privileged people but for all of us. Democracy can’t possibly work unless there is a truly educated mass of citizens. Well, I shall try my hand at this most important of all jobs, educating ordinary adults. Oh, I know it’s a pretty hopeless task. And of course it can’t be done properly so long as economic conditions and the whole social climate are forcing us in the wrong direction. But we must make a beginning. And it’s going to be my job to help. Yes, I see quite clearly that this is my job.” Then he made a remark that stirred me in spite of my scepticism. “Some day, Harry, probably long after we are dead, the great majority of people in this island, yes, and in the world, will be decent, friendly, well-balanced, informed, critical, really human beings. And then, God, what glorious new horizons will begin to open up for our species! At present we are a self-frustrating, self-wounding, hobbled species, blinded by its conditions. But then we shall find ourselves.”
As I had to leave by a very early train next day, I brought our conversation to a close. Persuading Victor not to rise early on my account, I said “goodbye” there and then in the lounge. I promised to do what I could to help him to secure the kind of work he wanted, and he thanked me for befriending him in his crisis. Of course I replied that I was very glad to have been taken fully into his confidence, and that I hoped we might see more of each other. To this suggestion he heartily assented. I went upstairs to pack my hired wedding garments.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00