One day in October while that table talk of Keppel’s was still very vivid in the mind of Mr. Joseph Davis, G. B. Query, his Literary Agent, called to see him and discuss his prospects for the coming year. How was the great work getting on about which Davis had spoken a year ago? Was it sufficiently in shape to negotiate? What had he called it after all? The Glorious Succession? Sword and Cross? The Undying Past? Our Mighty Heritage? Grand Parade of Humanity?
G. B. Q. couldn’t remember. G. B. Q. had heard nothing about Davis for months. He was quite out of touch.
Davis stood defiantly in front of his study fire.
‘I’ve not looked at it for half a year,’ he said.
‘I’ve decided at last — I’m not going to finish it. Ever. It’s on the wrong lines.’
‘But you had done a lot of work upon it. You even let me see some passages. They seemed to me quite a splendid beginning.’
‘It got more and more splendid. It became like an altar screen of saints and heroes. It became like a cathedral. It became like the great grotto at Han. It became a sort of compendium of all the epics and sagas and all the patriotic history and all the romance and all the brave stuff human beings have told themselves about themselves since the very beginning of things. It took on more colour and more. It blew out like a magnificent bubble. And it burst. There’s heaps of it in these drawers.’
‘But —’ protested Mr. Query. ‘The Pageant of Mankind.’
‘The bankruptcy,’ said Davis compactly.
‘You of all people! You’re not joining the pessimists!?’
‘Have you never heard of the Martians?’
‘But that I thought was just a pseudo-scientific mystification.’
‘It’s a fact. Our world is in liquidation. We are played out. And they are coming, they are coming now, to succeed us and make a new world.’
Mr. Query considered this announcement. It was not his business to measure the mental balance of his clients. Davis was not joking. He believed what he was saying, simply and entirely.
‘Maybe you will write something about that?’ said Mr. Query.
‘I belong to the bankrupt system,’ said Davis, ‘one of the inconvertibles — one of the encumbrances. Gradually as our agreements fall in I mean all my books to go out of print.’
Mr. Query opened out his hand helplessly. On the spur of the moment he could summon no argument against this immense withdrawal.
‘A new world is coming,’ said Davis, ‘and I have tied myself to the old. I know better now, but there it is.’
Query roused himself to say something more, but he knew the case was hopeless even while he spoke. He didn’t argue now. He lamented.
‘Just now,’ he said. ‘When people need encouragement. They feel so doubtful. Where they are going? What is happening? Even about the Coronation? Perplexing issues everywhere. Armament? After the Peace Ballot! America too. Profoundly unsettled. And now you too! Your book would have been a great success — a heartening success. A certainty. It would have sold like hot cakes. Even H. V. Morton would have had to look to his laurels. . . . ’
He stood up. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
‘It is a very great pity.’
Davis showed his visitor out and returned to his study. For a time he stood on his hearth-rug staring at nothing. Then with a certain deliberation he unlocked various drawers and took out a number of folders. He arranged these carefully on his writing-desk and contemplated the accumulation. He opened one or two and read passages. He grimaced, pushed his chair back a foot or so, turned aside from his work, and fell into a profound meditation.
The great book was dead.
It was stillborn — an abortion. He would never publish any of it.
‘And I wrote that stuff,’ he reflected. ‘I wrote that. Only a few months ago. . . .
‘I’ve done with it.’
He repeated Query’s words aloud. He mimicked his manner. ‘It would have sold like hot cakes . . . A great success. A certainty. . . . ’
He discovered a new streak in his own composition. What was it in him that had turned now against successfulness? he asked himself. What was it in him that was making him thrust himself contrariwise to his own reasonable disposition to go with the swim? What had divided him against himself? He realized quite vividly that people were eager beyond measure to be told that all was right with the world. Never had the market for reassurance, for brave optimism, been so promising as in these frightened years. It was true as Query had said that the piled MSS before him represented a sure success. His phrase-making mind struck out: ‘I’ve done with lullabies. Let them wake up as I am doing. . . .
‘Wake up to what?’ he asked and started another train of thought.
Suddenly he felt very small and feeble and lonely, and it seemed to him that his universe, his immense bare modern universe, said to him: ‘Well?’
He felt that for a moment, he must leave that challenge unanswered. A desire to go to his wife and talk to her arose in him.
He found her waiting to give him his tea. She smiled a silent welcome. ‘So you saw Query?’ she said.
‘I told him the great book was off.’
‘I thought you might do that.’
‘I haven’t touched it for ages.’
He sat down on the sofa and found there a book she had put down on his entry. He picked up the slender volume. It was one of his earliest successes in the heroic style, Alexander, or Youth the Conqueror.
‘You don’t often read me, Mary,’ he said.
‘I’ve been reading a lot of you lately.’
‘Because — I’m no good at talking, dear, and I want more and more to understand you.’
‘Latterly I’ve been trying to understand myself.’
‘I know that,’ she said, and poured out his tea.
He turned over the pages of the book. ‘I wonder what you make of this. . . .
‘If you were really a properly cultivated woman, Mary, instead of being a wild, natural, poetic thing out of Lewis and Glasgow, you’d reel off a yard of trite criticism straightaway. But you, being you, sit there, too wise to chatter. Because for you, you of all people, it would be an incredibly difficult thing to say, truly and gently, what you think of me. But that book puzzles you. Well, it puzzles me too now. . . .
‘Mary, I want to talk to you. I’m frightfully troubled — in my mind.’
‘I’ve known that. I know. It is something about these Martians. I don’t understand. But I feel it there.’
‘Tremendous things, Mary, are happening to the world — incredible things. It is time I said something. These so-called Martians — you have seen foolish and inexact things in the papers. You do not realize how close it comes to us, how nearly it touches us. It means something new in the world is being born again, Mary. And strangely. . . . I cannot tell you everything. But I have been drifting all my life, and all the time I have drifted, this tremendous thing I speak of has been happening to the world. The world has swung round with a sort of smooth swiftness into a new course. How can I tell you? I was deaf and blind. . . . Now I see. . . . ’
He felt his great explanation was impossible, for the present at any rate.
‘I want to rest for a time. I want to think.’
‘I have known your work was worrying you,’ she said. ‘Dear, I’ve known that. I have felt you wanted a rest. . . . Whatever I can do to help you. . . . ’
‘Bear with me,’ he whispered and felt he could tell no more.
‘I must rest, dear,’ he repeated. ‘I must think things over. I must get things clearer in my head. I must make new plans.’
He walked to the door of his study and she followed him. He stared at the files of the abandoned opus and with her at his side went across the landing to the nursery.
He surveyed his sleeping son for a while and then let his eyes wander about the neat, bright room.
‘That’s a fine big rubbish basket,’ he said abruptly.
She thought that a queer thing for him to say.
‘It’s a good basket to bundle things into when they get too much in the way,’ she admitted. ‘I bought it yesterday.’
‘It’s a great basket,’ he agreed and seemed to forget about it.
He returned to his study and sat down there among the piled manuscripts. Mary after a thoughtful moment went downstairs. When she came upstairs again she went to look at him in his study but she found he had gone back to the nursery. There she discovered him seated in the nurse’s armchair with that fine big rubbish basket he had admired before his knees. On a chair at his side was a large pile of manuscript and this he was taking twenty or thirty sheets at a time and tearing, tearing into little fragments. He was facing the cot. It was as if he was tearing the paper at the sleeping child.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘Tearing it up. Tearing it all up.’
‘The Pageant of Mankind?’
‘But there was such good writing in it.’
‘No matter, nothing to the writing that will come.’
He pointed to his son. ‘He will do better,’ he said. ‘He will do better. I’m tearing up the past to make way for him. Him and his kind — in their turn.’
‘No one can tear up the past,’ she said.
‘You can tear up every lie that has ever been told about it. And mostly we have lied about it. Mythology, fantasy, elaborated misconceptions. Some of the truth is coming out now. But it is only beginning to be told. Let the new race begin clean.’
‘The new race?’ she questioned.
He went on tearing and thinking while he tore,
Should he tell her what he knew she was? Should he tell her what their child was? No. The creatures must find themselves out in their own time. They must realize in their own fashion the reason for their instinctive detachment from this old played-out world. Maybe she was on the verge of that awakening. But it must come by degrees.
He glanced up for a moment and then averted his eyes from her grave scrutiny. He took up another handful of sheets and began to tear them.
‘Every generation,’ he quibbled, ‘is a new race. Every generation begins again.’
‘But every one,’ she said, ‘is always beginning.’
‘No. It has taken me half a lifetime to free even myself — even to begin to free myself — from religious falsehoods and from historical lies and from tradition and slavish carrying on with the patterns of past things. Even now am I sure that I am free?’
‘But you have begun!’
‘I doubt,’ he said, ‘whether I and my sort are made for fresh beginnings.’
‘But what else are you made for?’ she asked. ‘You of all people! Look even at this that you are doing and saying now!’
And then she did a wonderful thing for him. She could have done nothing better. She came across the room to him and bent down over him and brought her face very close to his. ‘If I could help you. . . . ’ she whispered.
‘You see, dear,’ she said, in a low, hurried voice, with both hands on his shoulders, ‘I know you are terribly troubled in your mind — bothered with new ideas that crowd and crowd upon one another. I know you are worried — even about these Martians in the papers. I know that. I wish I understood better. I’m slow. I don’t keep pace with you. If I could —! If only I could! I feel very often I don’t get what you are driving at until it is too late, I make some flat reply. And then you are hurt. Darling, you are so easily hurt. That imagination of yours dances about like quicksilver. Sometimes I think — you seem hardly to belong to this world . . . ’
She had a freakish idea.
‘Is it that?’ she said.
She moved round to look him in the face. ‘Joe! Joe, dear! Tell me. . . . ’
Would the jest offend him? No. She stood away from him and put out a finger at him. ‘Joe! You aren’t by any chance a sort of fairy changeling? Not — not one of these Martians?’
He stopped tearing the scraps of paper in his hand. A sort of fairy changeling? Not one of these Martians? He stared at this new, this tremendous idea, for a time. ‘Me!’ he said at last. ‘You think that of me!’
The miracle happened in an instant.
A great light seemed to irradiate and in a moment to tranquillize the troubled ocean of his disordered mind. The final phase of his mental pacification was very swift indeed. At a stroke everything became coherent and plain to him. Everything fell into place. He had, he realized, completed his great disclosure with this culminating discovery. His mind swung round full compass and clicked into place. He too was star-born! He too was one of these invaders and strangers and innovators to our fantastic planet, who were crowding into life and making it over anew! Throwing the torn scraps into a basket and beginning again in the nursery. Fantastic how long it had taken him to realize this!
‘Of course!’ he whispered.
His mind had gone all round the world indeed, but only to discover himself and his home again in a new orientation. He stood up abruptly, stared at Mary as though he had that moment realized her existence, and then slowly and silently took her in his arms and put his cheek to hers.
‘You were star-begotten,’ he said, ‘and so was I.’
She nodded agreement. If he wished it, so be it.
‘Starry changelings both,’ he said presently. ‘And not afraid — even of the uttermost change.’
‘Why should one fear change?’ she asked, trying hard to follow these flickering thoughts of his. ‘Why should one be afraid of change? All life is change. Why should we fear it?’
The child lay on its side in its cot in a dreamless sleep. It scarcely seemed to breathe. The expression of that flushed little face with its closed eyes was one of veiled determination. One small clenched fist peeped over the coverlet. Afraid of change? Afraid of the renascence to come?
Never, he thought, had anything in the world looked so calmly and steadfastly resolved to assert its right to think and act in its own way in its own time.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01