IT WAS NEARLY THREE YEARS before I saw Victor again. A few weeks after the wedding fiasco I put him in touch with a friend of mine in the adult education movement, and in due course he was accepted as staff tutor for extra-mural work under one of the northern universities. I had hoped to meet him during the latter part of the summer, but we could not arrange a date suitable to both of us. Meanwhile I had an attractive offer of a post as teacher of English in a school in France. Before I left the country, Victor wrote to say that he was hard at work preparing his lectures for the winter. He was doubtful about his capacity for the job. “Honour Mods” and “Greats,” Greek and Latin Literature and Philosophy, seemed a poor equipment for teaching English artisans and housewives industrial history and economics. But in those days a classical education was thought to fit one for any kind of teaching post, certainly for the informal work which Victor had chosen. Moreover Victor was a very attractive candidate. His enthusiasm could not be doubted, for he had given up a brilliant career in business for the sake of adult education; and he obviously had a gift for personal contacts and for interesting people in the life of the mind. I had no doubt that he would make a success of the job; but he was anxious, and he felt compelled to devote the remainder of the summer to studying his new subjects. So he settled into cheap lodgings in the great provincial town which was to be his headquarters, and divided his time between study and making contacts with local people connected with the movement. While I was in France I occasionally wrote to Victor, and I received a few very brief and uninformative notes from him. Evidently he was making a good start. The work, he said, was “immensely stimulating, but exasperating.” We planned to meet during the summer vacation. But when I suggested a walking tour in the Lakes, it proved impossible to fix a date. He had to attend summer schools where members of adult classes gathered together to combine further education and holiday-making. “Also,” he said, “I have new ties, which I will tell you about sometime.”
It was clear that Victor felt no need to see me; and so, with some disappointment, I refrained from pressing the matter. I tried to persuade him to write to me about those “new ties,” but he remained silent.
The same thing happened when I suggested a meeting during the second summer; and again in the third.
But late in the fourth summer, when I was already in London on my way back to France, I received a note from Victor, forwarded from home by my mother. He proposed that we should meet and have a talk about “something important to me and interesting to you.” The reasonable reply was that unfortunately it was too late, as I was crossing the Channel on the following day. And after all, why should I put myself out for someone who had practically ignored me for three years? But where Victor was concerned, I often found it hard to be reasonable. I telephoned to him, saying that if he really wanted to see me, he must come up to London on the following day. To my surprise, he agreed. I booked a room for him at my hotel, for the one night. Then I cabled to France postponing my arrival for a day.
Next day, I met him at Euston, and we went to a modest Soho restaurant with a Balkan flavour. When we had given our order, we smilingly studied each other, and made small talk. I reminded him of the previous occasion when we had fed together; and I asked him if he remembered the ugly waitress. He paused for a moment as though trying to recollect, then said, “Oh, yes, of course. Ugly, but very beautiful. Curious how blind you are in some directions, Harry!” He fell silent, and I waited.
Over our minestrone we at first talked at random, and I studied his appearance. He had not changed much, but he did look appreciably older. His forehead bore upright lines above the nose. Crow’s feet spread from the corners of his eyes. But he seemed physically fit, and his eyes were obviously the eyes of the awake Victor. There was no camel-like droop of the eyelids, no mulish complacency about the mouth.
Before we had finished our soup I brought Victor to the point by reminding him that he wanted to discuss something. He hesitated.
“Well,” he said, “I thought I’d like to tell you a thing or two. In the old days I often found I could straighten things out in my mind by talking to you. You’re such a damned good listener.”
Then he fell silent again, and seemed wholly intent on the flavour of his beer. I waited some time, and then I said, “I hope your job is suiting you.” He raised his eyes to mine with an expression (I thought) of relief.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “it suits me alright. Things haven’t quite gone according to plan, but they’re certainly going somewhere.”
He poured out a long and interesting account of his work, but I suspected that he clung to this theme in order to put off opening up some other, more ticklish subject. He said he was kept fairly busy, with five evening classes a week, and occasional lectures at week-ends. Much time was occupied by travelling. One of his classes was in the university itself, but the others were in towns ranging from thirty to a hundred-and-fifty miles distant. He had constantly to be working up his subjects, and he had acquired the habit of doing a lot of serious reading and lecture-preparing in the train.
“My real trouble,” he said, “is that I don’t feel that economics and industrial history are the right medium for genuine education. Of course they’re very important. People who are already more or less educated can use them, and indeed must have them; but for uneducated people they can be the very devil. A lot of people who come to us are simple souls who are generously aware of the rottenness of society, and impatient for a theory about it; and eager for action. Others are badly warped by sheer class-hatred (I don’t blame them), and they simply want to have material for proving the capitalists wicked and the workers saints.”
I suggested that you could only educate people through subjects that interested them and had some relation to their own lives.
“Oh, yes!” he said, “In theory that’s fine; but if the subject is too close to them, they can’t think objectively about it at all. They have made up their minds before they begin to study; like a certain brass-founder in one of my classes, who was stumped by some argument of mine, so he just looked at me with great ox-eyes, and said, ‘Young man, I don’t rightly know where you’re wrong, but I know you are wrong!’”
Victor gave me one of his boyish grins. Presently he continued, “You see, we are supposed to be creating an educated democracy, but we haven’t really even begun to tackle that job yet; and I don’t see that we ever shall, unless we change our whole approach. We are supposed to be giving something like a university education to the working population of this country. But of course we can’t possibly do anything of the sort, except in a few cases. A university education involves all sorts of things that the members of our extramural classes can’t possibly bring. It involves young and supple minds full of vigour and curiosity. It involves access to plenty of books. It involves intensive tuition, and heaps of time for reading and writing. But our students are mostly far from young; their minds are already set; they come to the job after a hard day’s work; they’re not capable of serious study, because they have never learnt what serious study means; they can’t read heavy books; they find great difficulty in expressing themselves in writing; they mostly mistake asseveration for genuine discussion. Then again, we are supposed to be appealing to every man’s latent passion to be an intelligent and responsible citizen and a fully conscious human being; but even if Everyman unwittingly needs culture, the need is seldom a conscious desire, let alone a passion that will drive him to surmount the frightful difficulties that stand in his way. The good souls we do get hold of don’t really want the life of the mind at all. They want either a little easy entertainment after the serious part of the day is over, or the cachet of being an educated person. Or else they come in search of data and propaganda to use against their political opponents. Mind you, I don’t blame them for these motives. In their circumstances they were bound to want these things. But you can’t create an educated democracy on that basis. We are supposed to be building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant minds (and, God, they’re green all right); but we are not going about it in the right way. Mind you, we are doing something well worth doing, in its own little way. But we are not doing what we pretend we are doing; because (a) we are affecting only a minute proportion of the total population, and (b) the few that we do catch absorb merely a smattering.”
Victor’s tirade was interrupted by the arrival of the waiter with our pseudo-exotic Balkan dish. To my surprise Victor asked the lean and swarthy young man whether he had read the works of some writer with a Slavonic name, unknown to me. The waiter froze into immobility, with my helping of vegetables poised in the air. Then he looked down at Victor’s upturned face for a moment, and said with emphasis and a smile, “Yes, and you?”
“No,” said Victor, “but I have heard of him. You are not afraid?”
The waiter replied, “Because of him I must leave my country.” He moved away.
“You see,” said Victor, “lots of these fellows from the backward fringes of Europe are ready to take risks for what they regard as education; but our people, mostly, just don’t care.” I protested that the man must be unique, and I asked how Victor had spotted him as one of the few who cared. Victor refused to admit that the man was unique. “His sort are a minority, no doubt, but a considerable minority. How did I spot him? Surely it’s written all over his face, his walk, the way he moves his hands. And didn’t you see how he handled the book I asked him to put aside for me?”
Without waiting for my reply he continued, “What I want to know is, why is there no such considerable minority in this country? Why are we nearly all such bone-headed philistines, and proud of it? Is it, I wonder, just because bad education has been forced on us at school, so that we are hardened against the life of the mind for ever? You ought to know, as a schoolteacher. What do you really do with the little animals when you have them in your clutches?” I pointed out that the school was forced to concentrate on fitting the child to earn a living in a commercial society, which involved simply drumming in the three R’s and a lot of necessary facts. “Yes,” he said. “That’s the snag. But do you or don’t you try to make it all come alive in their minds? And do you help them to get some sense of life as — well, a spiritual adventure?” I laughed, and protested that this was impossible, in view of the mental limitations of the average child and the economic limitations of the average home. But I claimed that some few of us did try; and still fewer actually succeeded, in a small way, with a few of our pupils. But most teachers themselves lacked the vision, and anyhow they were much too hard pressed to do anything about it. Victor sighed, and said, “Oh, yes, I know, I know. In fact we’re in a vicious infinite regress. You can’t educate adults unless they have been properly educated as children; and you can’t get them properly educated as children unless you have enough properly educated teachers, and a sound educational system, and unless in their homes they are in contact with educated parents. In adult education we are supposed to satisfy a native need for culture. I’m not saying there’s no such need, but simply that in this country it has been suffocated. And so, instead of attracting millions to our adult classes, we laboriously rope in thousands.”
I protested that the movement had done wonders, in spite of everything. He replied, “Oh, no doubt, in a way, particularly in the early days; and with quite a different sort of result from what was intended.”
I asked him to explain. For some moments he ate in silence, then said, “The pioneers of our great movement (and it is a great movement in spite of everything) had a romantic purpose. On the one hand were the universities, seats of culture and refinement, on the other the workers, unconsciously needing culture and refinement, starving for it, though unwittingly. Or again, on the one hand, the universities could provide the inspiration for dispassionate study and objective investigation; on the other the workers could provide the drive for thoroughgoing social change. Our movement, obviously, was intended to bring the two together. What the pioneers had to do was to present culture to the workers in the right way (not the academic way precisely, but a warm, human, simplified way that was yet academically sound), and the workers would come flocking to the movement. And so, in time there would arise a new kind of democracy, in which the plain man would be right-hearted, and right-headed, reasonably well informed about society and about true values, capable of wise action and wise voting. It was a glorious vision. At last philosophers would rule; because power would lie with the people, and the great majority of the people would be philosophers. Well, it’s difficult enough to produce one philosopher, let alone forty-five million.”
I said he was exaggerating. The aim was not to produce philosophers but responsible citizens. I insisted that the ordinary human being had it in him to be a responsible citizen, given decent conditions. “Oh, quite,” said Victor, “he has it in him while he is a baby, but conditions go all wrong from then onwards.”
After a pause, he continued, “But that is not the whole trouble. In fact there are two other troubles. First, the best academic brains, the really first-class people, are (quite rightly) so intent on research, and so hard pressed with teaching and administration in the university, that they don’t take on extramural work and do it whole-heartedly. And, anyhow, few of them have the gift for it; for, believe me, it demands a very special technique, which we are only just beginning to learn. So the job has to be done largely by people who, though they may be first-class human beings, are not quite first-class academically; because, no matter how intelligent they may be, their hearts are not wholly devoted to academic study and research. What they really care about is rather kindling the masses. Take me, for instance; though perhaps I am worse than the average, because, of course, I simply had to cram to do the job at all.”
I interrupted, “But what does it matter that they’re not quite first-class academically? They have to teach the essentials not the minutiae. It’s their gift for teaching that matters. And I’m sure you have that.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, “the teaching-gift does matter a lot, but so does the academic expertism. If you haven’t got it, you can’t always deal properly either with honest criticism or with the propaganda bilge; not absolutely adequately. But this is where my second point comes in, and it’s more fundamental. The whole idea of giving the essence of culture without the details, in fact of ‘university standard’ without minutiae, is impossible. It’s trying to have the cake and eat it. The result is that some of our adult students, hypnotized by the academic ideal, plunge for thoroughness, get mental indigestion, and are obsessed with the idea of ‘seeing both sides of every question,’ so that they become paralysed, and useless for the revolution, which, after all, is the supreme goal; while others, feeling in their bones that something is amiss, become more prejudiced and propagandist than ever.”
Suddenly Victor saw that my plate was empty and his own scarcely touched. He attacked it with fury, while I sat wondering how to bring him to the point. When he had finished, the waiter returned to take away our plates. Victor said to him, “Do you find time to read much over here?”
“Not much time,” he answered. “Here I read only English, difficultly.”
I asked him what he had read. With a deprecating shrug he replied, “Lord Byron, Shakespeare (he is difficult), Mill (‘On Liberty’), Bertrand Russell (on happiness). But why,” he said with animation, “do the English not read their own great literature?”
Victor laughed triumphantly, and said, “Because at school they are made to hate it.”
I was increasingly wondering what it was that Victor had come all the way to London to talk about; so over the sweet I challenged him to come to the point. Instead of answering, he plunged back into the old subject.
He said, “Don’t suppose I think the thing we are doing is just a waste of time. It’s quite important as a first step. We are not creating an educated democracy, but we are creating — I was going to say ‘an educated élite’ within the great Labour Movement; but I had better say, a socially informed élite who have at least some idea of what the aim of education ought to be. I foresee a time when the House of Commons will be dominated by a Labour Party whose members will mostly have been mentally formed in our classes. It’s tempting to think that such a House will really get going on the job of creating an educated democracy. But it won’t be able to do it unless it forms an adult education movement of a new kind, not giving sham university education, but working out new aims and methods, much freer and less formal. Yes, and if those enlightened Labour M.P.s mean business, they will have to insist on compulsory adult education for everyone.” Here I burst in with a protest that real education could never be compulsory. He replied, “That’s an over-simplification. The stalwarts of our movement insist on it, but I’m beginning to doubt it. We shall have to change our minds in the end, otherwise we shall never catch the people who need education most. Of course, when they are compelled, we shall have to find out how to make them glad they were compelled. People will put up with compulsion all right if the aim of the compulsion is manifestly a good one, and if they believe that they themselves gave power to the compelling government. Think how much compulsion is accepted in Russia, for the sake of the new revolutionary state.”
I snorted indignantly, but he carried on, “Oh, yes, you’ll see. What I’m afraid of is that sooner or later some semi-political or pseudo-religious movement, that really has the courage of its convictions, will persuade the masses to accept compulsion for quite wrong ends. Maybe it won’t happen here, but it might quite well happen in some socially tormented and half-crazy country; like Germany, for instance, when the pathetic republic has gone phut. And then!”
Over the coffee I tried again to bring Victor to the point. “Do you ever regret your old life?” I said. “Do you ever — slip back into your old self?”
“No,” he answered, “I certainly never regret the old life; and so far I have not slipped back into my old self. But I don’t feel really secure. Sometimes I have a sort of dizzy feeling, which is a warning. And sometimes I feel I must have more than my normal two or three hours’ sleep. So I may slip away at any time. That is why every moment is so precious. As for regretting the old life, good God, no! There’s so much more to be learnt and enjoyed in the new one, exasperating as it is. I like the people better. Not that I have a grudge against business people. Fundamentally they’re just as good stuff as the artisans, teachers and housewives that I deal with. But they’re under the spell of the commercial system that they run. They can’t see that it’s played out. And so they’re mentally backward, and it’s very hard to make any real contact with them. I don’t mean they’re unintelligent. Probably on the average they’re brighter than our people. But they can’t use their intelligence except within the commercial universe of discourse. They are incredibly backward in social, thought; and they’re blinkered by a false view of human nature, inherited from the nineteenth century, and the doctrine of economic man. They tend to believe that man is ‘fundamentally’ or ‘essentially’ a self-regarding animal. And, of course, this is a fine excuse for cut-throat commercialism. Even when they want to be genuinely loyal to things other than themselves, they tend to feel ashamed of doing so, regarding it as ‘sheer sentimentality,’ And when at last their nature rebels against commercialism, they tend to flounder back into a very naïve Christianity.”
I said I thought all classes had come under the influence of the false view of human nature, and that artisans and teachers were really just as backward as clerks and business magnates.
“Many of them, no doubt are,” he said. “But some really are breaking away from the old ideas and values. They can’t very well help it. Their circumstances force it on them. You see they’re up against it. The men are either actually unemployed or scared stiff of becoming unemployed. They see and feel the system breaking up; and the old values breaking up, too. Individualism stinks in their nostrils. And they feel they’re all members of one another, dependent on one another. And so there’s quite often a very effective social goodwill about them; which is rare among the business people, just because they’re mentally hobbled by the commercial ideology. But, of course, the social goodwill of the workers is often restricted to working-class loyalty, or side-tracked by the bread-winner’s desperate need to fight individualistically in the struggle for a job. And, of course, there are plenty of rotters, people who think nothing matters so long as one spouts class war; people who are socialists in theory and individualists in action. For instance, there’s a man in one of my classes, always gassing, always propaganding, always dishonest in argument, never reads the stuff I set, never writes an essay, always arrives late and expects to be recorded on the register as present (for grant-earning purposes), always imputes bad motives to the secretary (who keeps the register and doesn’t falsify it), or to me, or to the wicked capitalists. Contrast that blighter with another talkative bloke, superficially similar, but how different! He’s fat, keen, equally doctrinaire, theoretically a hard-boiled materialist and stern self-seeker; but, in practice he’s well above the average of kindliness and self-sacrifice; in fact, unwittingly a worshipper of the Christian God who is Love, whom he consciously pokes fun at on every possible occasion, much to the annoyance of other members. Then there’s an old grey-head who is an orthodox rationalist. He keeps giving me ribald verses about Jesus Christ and the Church, and about Queen Victoria. One of the best men I have come across is a boiler-maker. Sometimes I have a meal in his home. A real good type, but desperately harassed. Likely to be sacked any day, because trade is bad, and a real slump is coming. Wife and two children. Nice clean little kitchen-sitting-room, overcrowded with nicknacks — china dogs, toby jugs, bright copper kettles, antimacassars, and the proverbial aspidistra. Last time, I noticed that the piano had gone. They didn’t refer to it, and I didn’t like to be nosy, but I feel sure it has been pawned. Bright little talkative wife, but too obviously anxious to keep the skeleton unseen in the cupboard. Boy at the local grammar school; girl hoping for a scholarship at the university. The father is pathetically keen to give them both a good education, but his very real enthusiasm for the life of the mind gets on the boy’s nerves. In fact he is reacting pretty violently against it. He obviously prefers toughness, and is always getting into scrapes as leader of a gang of hooligans at school.”
Victor paused, so I said, “And the women?”
“Educationally,” he said, “they are generally below the male standard. And it’s very difficult to get them talking. But they are certainly quite as intelligent as the men; only less informed, and diffident.”
Maliciously I asked if any attractive ones came to the classes.
“What you mean,” he said, “is, have I succumbed to any of them. Of course not. It would interfere with business. Besides, the younger ones are mostly rather dim; though a few are quite charming in a way — sweet rosebuds blighted by a hostile climate. The really attractive girls mostly don’t come, because of course, they have a better way of amusing themselves. Some of the women who do come take it very seriously. But most of these are middle-aged. There are a good many hard-working housewives, who obviously have no time to read or write, but like to be on the fringes of intellectual life. Then there are the inevitable spinsters who have nothing else to do, and are apt to take the line that if only people would be kind to each other, we shouldn’t have any social problems. The more frustrated women, of all ages, are too ready to fall in love with the class tutor, which complicates matters. The unfrustrated ones naturally have other fish to fry.” After a pause, he added, “And so have I.”
He did not develop this statement, but called the waiter for the bill. After a polite wrangle as to who should pay, in which Victor, as usual got the best of it, I suggested that we should go to the hotel and find a quiet corner where we could discuss whatever it was that he had on his mind. He nodded assent as he paid the bill.
I was staying in a cheap little hotel near Euston, run by a Swiss couple, and much patronized by foreigners. As we entered the stuffy lounge, a babel of foreign speech assailed us. I remember a middle-aged man with hair cut en brosse, who was leaning forward earnestly talking German to a sullen woman with smooth black hair and a streamlined black velvet; dress. Further afield, two children were building cardhouses, and occasionally exclaiming in French. A Nordic god was arguing in too-correct English with a scraggy little Cockney. Slavonic speech came from a group clustered round a table.
We found a vacant couch with the leather split and horsehair protruding, and I ordered drinks. When we had toasted each other, I said, “Well?”
“Well,” said Victor, “I’m ready now. I wanted to get the background clear for you first. And I wanted to see how my problem felt in your presence, before I began telling you about it. I guess you’ve guessed that it’s concerned with the ugly waitress, the superbly beautiful Maggie.”
He then plunged into his story; but I shall not attempt to report it in his words. Instead, I shall give my own account of it, based partly on his version and partly on what I subsequently learned from Maggie herself. Not that there was any serious discrepancy. But Maggie’s comments were often enlightening.
Evidently she had had a deeper effect on him than I had supposed. He had stayed on at his hotel for some days in order to make a secure contact with her. Apparently his courtship was of a very eccentric kind, and her reception of it was equally odd.
On the morning after the wedding day, he had met her in a corridor. “Good morning,” he said; and she replied with her hippopotamus smile, “Good morning, sir.” He smilingly barred her way, and remarked, “You are the loveliest thing I have ever seen.” With a gasp of indignation, she turned to retreat; but he said, “Hi! Don’t run away! This is important for us both, and you know it is.” She turned and looked at him (he said) with contempt; and he felt so abashed that he could do nothing but stare dumbly at her. She said, “It’s cruel to tell a girl she’s lovely when she has a face like mine.” There were tears in her eyes as she added, “I suppose you think you’ll get me cheap because I’m ugly. I suppose you think I’m so ugly I’ll do anything for a bit of flattery.” He still gazed at her, and said nothing. (She afterwards told me that he looked like a dog asking for a tit-bit.) Presently he said, “The night before I came here, when I was falling asleep, I saw your face as clearly as I do now, just for a moment, and then you were gone. I have seen your face, between sleeping and waking, off and on ever since I was a child. I can’t really remember the time when I didn’t see it. At first it was always the face of a very little girl, but as I grew it grew. When I was a schoolboy, I was rather annoyed that a silly, little, podgy girl should butt in like that. Later I got interested, and tried to hold you longer, but you always vanished after a few seconds. Sometimes I saw you in a brown jersey, sometimes in a little black sou’wester.”
She interrupted, “It’s a pretty story, but it won’t do. On the first day when you were here, you took no notice of me, except to scowl at me as if I was a mess. What’s more, you seem to forget that you have dined here lots of times before, generally with the young lady you didn’t marry yesterday. And you never took any notice of me, except once when you looked at me and then said something to her, and you both laughed.”
He answered, “I can explain all that, but it’s a strange story, and it will take some time. First, I can easily prove that I really have seen you, in that drowsy state before sleeping. As a schoolgirl you used to wear your hair in two heavy pigtails hanging down in front of your shoulders. One night, about five years ago, when you were in the late teens, I saw you with your left eye tight shut, with blood and tears oozing out of it, and tears streaming from the other eye. After that you used to have a black shade over the left eye. It was many months before I saw you without it.”
This bit of information had startled her. In a serious voice she said, “I fell against a fence with a big nail in it. They thought I should lose the eye.”
At that moment their conversation was interrupted by someone walking along the corridor. They parted.
Later, he contrived to meet her again, and said, “About my not noticing you on those times —” But again they were interrupted. He had only time to say, “When is your day off? I must tell you more. It’s important for both of us.” She moved off without replying.
However, two days later he did secure her for her free afternoon. At her request, he took her to walk in the country. She was a country girl; and although she had deserted the country for the town, she liked to use her free time for fresh air and exercise. They travelled out by bus, and she took him along one of her favourite tracks through fields and woods.
He told her about his divided personality, and explained that, though he could have his waking dream of her in either of his two states, yet in the somnolent state he could never remember anything about it. Consequently, when he actually met her in that state, she meant nothing to him, except that he felt an unreasonable loathing of her. But in the lucid state he could remember even the occasions when she had appeared to him in the other state. “When at last,” he said, “I (the real ‘I’) met you in the flesh, I recognized you at once.”
After a while they rested in a meadow. She lay at full length with her hand behind her head (so he told me), and her ample breasts (very unfashionable in those days) rising and falling under her cheap cotton dress. The sun was full on her face, and her eyes were shut. Her sturdy coltish legs, in the precious black silk stockings that were then displacing cashmere, were crossed like a crusader’s on his tomb. She was chewing a feathery grass stem.
He said, “How I long to make love to you, but I won’t, not yet. I want to explain things properly first.” She turned her head and looked at him quizzically through one screwed-up eye, because of the sun. “Aren’t you a caution!” she said. “But go on, it’s interesting.”
“Well,” he said, “before I met you (before ‘I’ met you, not the other blighter that I hate), I grew to get a terrific kick out of your rare visitations. I don’t quite know why. It wasn’t just that I had grown to see that you were beautiful, in a queer way that I had never come across before; in addition I seemed to make some sort of direct contact with your personality, simply through my visual image of your face in all its fluctuating expression.”
“Don’t be so pompous,” she said. “Speak ordinary. I’m not a public meeting. And I’m not clever.”
He explained his meaning in simpler words, and added, “Funny isn’t it? I don’t know anything about your life; and yet I do know, just from knowing your face so well, that you’re intelligent and sensitive, and quite able to understand anything I want to say to you, so long as I don’t use words you’re not used to.” Maggie told me later that at this she was secretly pleased, because she had always wanted to be intelligent and sensitive, and able to appreciate the subtleties of language. But she would not tell Victor this; not at this early stage of their acquaintance. She said, “You think you know me, but I bet you don’t really. You have told yourself a lot of pretty rubbish about that face you used to see. And it just happens to be a bit like my awful mug.”
“We shall see,” he said. “And what about the damaged eye? Anyhow, one thing I am absolutely sure about. We need each other. Neither of us can be fully alive without the other.”
Laughing, she threw her chewed grass in his face, and said, “Speak for yourself, Mr. Stranger! I’m quite happy without you.” She jumped up, like a fresh colt, and said, “Come along! I want my tea.” They continued their walk.
They came to a stile; and as she was climbing over it, her foot slipped on the mossy wood, and she fell rather heavily. She expected him to rush to her assistance and lift her to her feet, and fuss over her; but though he made a quick movement, he stopped, and stood with his hands in his pockets, while she sat on the ground rubbing her knee and grieving over her torn stocking. He merely said, “Bad luck! The step must be slippery,” and waited for her to pick herself up. She clambered to her feet again, and limped along the path. They walked in silence, and she deliberately maintained the limp after the knee had recovered. She could not help being mortified at his indifference. Also she was startled to find how disappointed she was that he had not put his arms round her to lift her, nor even offered her an arm for walking. A horrid thought haunted her. He was not really in love with her at all. He was in love with his dream-pictures of her. Probably he secretly found her repulsive, as so many other men obviously did. He wouldn’t let himself see this fact; but when an opportunity arose to touch her, he couldn’t bring himself to do so. The thought hardened her against him. She suddenly felt desperately lonely.
As if in answer to this thought, he lightly, fleetingly, and yet (she said) lingeringly held her hand, and murmured, “To find you at last is to find home.”
“You are a queer one,” she said, “not my sort at all.”
He promptly answered, “Oh, yes I am. You’ll see. But there’s something I must make quite clear before I clamour for you. You see, I earnestly want to spend all my life with you, but the other fellow, my hateful other self, may oust me at any moment. And he loathes you, and he would treat you horribly. So I must make you see the danger you are up against in loving me.”
She stood still and faced him. “Look here,” she said, “you’re forgetting something. It takes two to make a love affair, and I’m not in love with you.”
“No,” he said. “Thank God you’re not — yet. That’s why I want to get it all clear at once. Because when you are, you will find it hard to judge the situation dispassionately.
“You and your long words!” she said. Then she added, “I suppose it never struck you I might have other fish to fry?”
He answered, “Oh, yes, I know. Just as I had. But you and I belong together. You will soon find that’s true — unless we nip the whole thing in the bud right now. But I don’t really think we can keep apart; we are tangled up together fundamentally, somehow.”
At this she exclaimed, “But I tell you I don’t feel the slightest need of you. I don’t know you at all, except that you are a bit cracked. And you don’t know me at all.”
He answered, “I know almost nothing about you, and yet I know so much. I know you want to be — well, fully alive, awake. To experience as fully as possible, and — to behave creatively.” She sighed, and said, “I don’t even know what you mean by that. All I want is to have a good time, and a job I can enjoy doing. I’m quite happy at the hotel for the present.”
They walked on in silence, for the length of a field. Then Victor said, “Well, I’m putting my cards on the table. I’m certain we need one another; but there’s my accursed other self. Yet, in spite of that, I’m sure it’s really best for you that you should take me on. But you must realize the danger fully, and face it calmly. So must I, on your account. Some men in my position would just hold off, for the girl’s sake; even if they needed her as desperately as I do. And indeed, my dear, I do need you desperately. If you won’t have me, I shall never be fully myself. I shall break up, sooner or later. But objectively that doesn’t greatly matter. The point is that for your sake, quite as much as my own, I believe we should unite. What I offer you is a possibility of real fullness of life, though a life that will often be unhappy and may bring you disaster. But without me you will certainly miss what is best in life.”
“Look!” she said, “I’m not in love with you, but if I was really in love with you, I wouldn’t funk it because of the danger. I’d go through hell for you. And even now, when I don’t love you, I don’t say ‘Keep off, it’s not fair to make love to a girl if you know you may betray her.’ No! If you can show me that you are the man for me, I’ll not be afraid. I’ll take you on.” She swung round, smiled squarely at him, put out a hand, and said, “Shake on it!” Laughing, he took her hand, shook it heartily, and held it till she took it from him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00