It was a month or so since Lester Furnival had been buried. The plane crash had been explained and regretted by the authorities. Apologies and condolences had been sent to Mrs. Furnival’s husband and Miss Mercer’s mother. A correspondence on the possibility and propriety of compensation had taken place in the Press, and a question or two had been asked in the House. It was explained that nothing could be done, but that a whole set of new instructions had been issued to everyone connected with flying, from Air Marshals to factory hands.
The publicity of this discussion was almost a greater shock to Richard Furnival than his wife’s death; or, at least, the one confused the other. He was just enough to see that, for the sake of the poor, the Crown ought always at such times to be challenged to extend as a grace what it refused as a claim. He was even conscious that Lester, if the circumstances had been reversed, might properly have had no difficulty in taking what he would have rejected; not that she was less fastidious or less passionate than he, but it would have seemed to her natural and proper to spoil those whom he was content to ignore.
The Foreign Office in which through the war he had been serving, pressed on him prolonged leave. He had been half-inclined to refuse, for he guessed that, after the first shock, it was not now that his distress would begin. The most lasting quality of loss is its unexpectedness, No doubt he would know his own loss in the expected places and times — in streets and stations, in restaurants and theatres, in their own home. He expected that. What he also expected, and yet knew he could not by its nature expect, was his seizure by his own loss in places uniquely his — in his office while he read Norwegian minutes, in the Tube while he read the morning paper, at a bar while he drank with a friend. These habits had existed before he had known Lester, but they could not escape her. She had, remotely but certainly, and without her own knowledge, overruled all. Her entrance into all was absolute, and lacking her the entrance of the pain.
He went away; he returned. He went away to spare his office — companions the slight embarrassment of the sight of him. He returned because he could not bear to be away. He had not yet taken up his work; in a few days he would. Meanwhile he determined unexpectedly one afternoon to call on Jonathan Drayton.
He had known him for a number of years, long before Jonathan became a well-known painter. He was also a very good painter, though there were critics who disapproved of — him; they said his colour was too shrill. But he had been appointed one of the official war-artists, and two of his paintings — Submarine Submerging and Night Fighters over Paris — were among the remarkable artistic achievements of the war. He also had been for some time on leave, in preparation (it was understood) for the grand meetings after the peace, when he would be expected to produce historic records of historic occasions. He had been once or twice, a little before the accident, at the Furnivals’ flat, but he had then gone to Scotland and written to Richard from there. A later postcard had announced his return.
Richard had come across the card accidentally on this particular afternoon, and had suddenly made up his mind to go round. Jonathan had been living, or rather had left his things while he was away, on the top floor of a building in the City, not far from St. Paul’s, one room of which was sufficiently well-lit to be used as a studio. It was to the studio that he took Richard after a warm welcome. He was shorter and stockier than his friend, and he had a gencral habit of leaving Richard the most comfortable chair and himself sitting on the table. He settled himself there, and went on: “I’ve got several things to tell you; at least, I’ve got one to tell you and two to show you. If I tell you first . . . the fact is I’m practically engaged.”
“Splendid!” said Richard. Such thin s were unlikely to distress him, as Jonathan guessed; one could not altogether say what might, but not that. He was quite simply pleased. He said: “Do I know her? and what do you mean by’practically’?”
“I don’t know if you know her,” Jonathan said. “She’s Betty Wallingford, the daughter of the Air Marshal. She and her mother are coming here presently.”
“I remember hearing her name,” Richard said. “She was a friend of Lester’s — or rather not a friend, but they knew each other some time ago. But I rather gathered she was ill or something, and her mother didn’t let her go out much.”
“That’s true enough,” Jonathan answered. “It was the Air Marshal who asked me to dine one night after I’d painted him. He’s a nice creature, though not interesting to paint. Lady Wallingford keeps Betty rather close, and why I say ‘practically’ is because, when things came to a head with Betty the other day, she didn’t seem very keen. She didn’t exactly refuse, but she didn’t encourage. They’re both coming here presently. Don’t go, whatever you do. I’ve a particular reason for asking you to stay.”
“Have you?” Richard said. “What is it?”
Jonathan nodded at an easel on which was a canvas covered by a cloth. “That,” he said, and looked at his watch. “We’ve an hour before they come, and I’d like you to see it first. No; it’s not a painting of Betty, or of her mother. It’s something quite different, but it may — I don’t know, but it just may-be a little awkward with Lady Wallingford. However, there’s something else for you to see first — d’you mind? If you hadn’t come along, 1. was going to ring you up. I’m never quite happy about a thing till you’ve seen it.”
This, as Richard knew, was a little extreme. But it had a basis of truth, whenjonathan exaggerated, he exaggerated in the grand style. He never said the same thing to two people; something similar perhaps, but always distinguished, though occasionally hardly anyone but he could distinguish the distinction. Richard answered: “I’ve never known you take much notice of anything I said. But show it to me all the same, whatever it is.”
“Over here,” Jonathan said, and took his friend round to the other side of the room. A see ‘ond easel was standing back to back with the first, also holding a canvas, but this uncovered. Richard set himself to look at it.
It was of a part of London after a raid — he thought, of the City proper, for a shape on the right reminded him dimly of St. Paul’s. At the back were a few houses, but the rest of the painting was of a wide stretch of desolation. The time was late dawn; the sky was clear; the light came, it seemed at first, from the yet unrisen sun behind the single group of houses. The light was the most outstanding thing in the painting; presently, as Richard looked, it seemed to stand out from the painting, and almost to dominate the room itself. At least it so governed the painting that all other details and elements were contained within it. They floated in that imaginary light as the earth does in the sun’s. The colours were so heightened that they were almost at odds. Richard saw again what the critics meant when they said that Jonathan Drayton’s paintings “were shrill” or “shrieked”, but he saw also that what prevented this was a certain massiveness. The usual slight distinction between shape and hue seemed wholly to have vanished. Colour was more intensely image than it can usually manage to be, even in that art. A beam of wood painted amber was more than that; it was light which had become amber in order to become wood. All that massiveness of colour was led, by delicate gradations almost like the vibrations of light itself, towards the hidden sun; the eye encountered the gradations in their outward passage and moved inwards towards their source. It was then that the style of the painting came fully into its own. The spectator became convinced that the source, of that light was not only in that hidden sun; as, localized, it certainly was. “Here lies the east; does not the day break here?” The day did, but the light did not. The eye, nearing that particular day, realized that it was leaving the whole fullness of the light behind. It was everywhere in the painting — concealed in houses and in their projected shadows, lying in ambush in the cathedral, opening in the rubble, vivid in the vividness of the sky. It would everywhere have burst through, had it not chosen rather to be shaped into forms, and to restrain and change its greatness in the colours of those lesser limits. It was universal, and lived.
Richard said at last: “I wish you could have shown the sun.”
“Yes?” said Jonathan. “Why?”
“Because then I might have known whether the light’s in the sun or the sun’s in the light. For the life of me, I can’t be certain. It rather looks as though, if one could see the sun, it would be a kind of container . . . no, as if it would be made of the light as well as everything else.”
“And very agreeable criticism,” Jonathan said. “I admit you imply a whole lot of what I only hope are correct comments on the rest of it. You approve?”
“It’s far and away the best thing you’ve done,” Richard answered. “It’s almost the only thing you’ve done — now you’ve done it. It’s like a modern Creation of the World, or at least a Creation of London. How did you come to do it?”
“Sir Joshua Reynolds”, said Jonathan, “once alluded to ‘common observation and a plain understanding’ as the source of all art. I should like to think I agreed with Sir Joshua here.”
Richard still contemplated the painting. He said slowly: “You’ve always been good at light. I remember how you did the moon in that other thing — Doves on a Roof, and there was something of it in the Planes and the Submarine. Of course one rather expects light effects in the sea and the air, and perhaps one’s more startled when the earth becomes like the sea or the air, But I don’t think that counts much. The odd thing is that you don’t at any time lose weight. No one can say your mass isn’t massive.”
“I should hope they couldn’t,” said Jonathan. “I’ve no notion of losing one thing because I’ve put in another. Now to paint the massiveness of light — ”
“What do you call this?” Richard asked.
“A compromise, I fear,” Jonathan answered. “A necessary momentary compromise, I allow. Richard, you really are a blasted nuisance. I do wish you wouldn’t always be telling me what I ought to do next before I’ve been let enjoy what I’ve done. This, I now see, is compromising with light by turning it into things. Remains to leave out the things and get into the light. ”
Richard smiled. “What about the immediate future?” he asked. “Do you propose to turn Churchill into a series of vibrations in pure light?”
Jonathan hummed a little. “At that — ” he began and stopped. “No; I’m babbling. Come and see the other thing, which is different.”
He led the way back round the easels. He said: “Have you ever heard of Father Simon?”
“Have I not?” said Richard. “Is he or is he not in all the papers, almost as much as the Peace? The Foreign Office has been taking a mild concern in all these new prophets, including this one. Then there’s the Russian one and the Chinese. You get them at times like these. But they all seem, from our point of view, quite innocuous. I’ve not been very interested myself.”
“Nor was I, “ said Jonathan, “till I met Lady Wallingford. Since then I have read of him, listened to him, met him, and now painted him. Lady Wallingford came across him in America when she was there soon after the last war, and I gather fell for him then. During this war he became one of their great religious leaders, and when he came over she was one of — or rather she was — his reception committee. She’s devoted to him; Betty — not so much, but she goes with her mother.” He paused frowning, as if he were about to make a further remark about Betty and her mother, but he changed his mind and went on: “Lady Wallingford thought it would be a privilege for me to paint the Prophet.”
Richard said: “Is that what they call him?”
His hand on the covering of the canvas, Jonathan hesitated. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to be unfair. No. What she actually calls him is the Father. I asked her if he was a priest, but she took no notice. He’s got a quite enormous following in America, though here, in spite of the papers, he’s kept himself rather quiet. It’s been suggested that he’s the only man to evangelize Germany. It’s also been suggested that he and his opposite numbers in Russia and China shall make a threefold World Leadership. But so far he’s not done or said anything about it. He may be just waiting. Well, I did the best I could. Here’s the result.”
He threw the covering back and Richard was confronted with the painting. It was, at first glance, that of a man preaching. The congregation, of which there seemed a vast number, had their backs to the spectator. They were all a little inclined forward, as if (Richard supposed) in the act of listening, so that they were a mass of slightly curved backs. They were not in a church; they were not in a room; it was difficult to see where they were, and Richard did not particularly mind. It was in an open space somewhere; what he could see of the ground was not unlike the devastation in the other picture, though more rock — like, more in the nature of a wilderness than a City. Beyond them, in a kind of rock pulpit against a great cliff, was the preacher. He seemed to be a tallish dark man of late middle age, in a habit of some sort. His face, clean-shaven, heavy, emaciated, was bent a little downward towards his audience. One hand was stretched out towards them, also a little downward, but the hand was open and turned palm upward. Behind him his shadow was thrown on the rock; above, the sky was full of heavy and rushing cloud.
Richard began to speak, and checked himself. He looked more closely at the preaching figure, especially at the face. Though the canvas was large the face inevitably was small, but it was done with care, and as Richard studied it, the little painted oval began to loom out of the picture till its downward-leaning weight seemed to dominate and press on the audience below, and to make all — clouds and crowds and rock — pulpit greyer and less determined around it. If it was a pulpit; Richard was not clear whether the figure was casting a shadow on the rock or emerging from a cleft in the rock. But the face — it was almost as if the figure had lowered his face to avoid some expression being caught by the painter, and had failed, for Jonathan had caught it too soon. But what exactly had Jonathan caught? and why had Jonathan chosen to create precisely that effect of attempted escape and capture? Richard said at last: “It’s a wonderful effect — especially the colour of the face. I don’t know how you got that dark deadness. But what — ” He stopped.
“Richard,” Jonathan said accusingly, “you were going to ask what it meant.”
“I don’t think I was,” Richard answered. “I may have been going to ask what he meant. I feel as if there was something in him I hadn’t grasped. He’s . . . ” and again he paused.
“Go on!” Jonathan said. “The ladies won’t be here just yet, and you may now have got a general idea of why I’d like you to be here when they do come. Anyhow, go on; say anything that occurs to you.”
Richard obediently renewed his study and his reverie. They had done this together on a number of occasions before a new painting. Richard did not mind sounding foolish before his friend, and Jonathan did not mind being denigrated by his friend; in fact, he always swore that one soliloquy of this kind was worth a great deal of judicious criticism. Painting was the only art, he maintained, about which it could be done; one couldn’t hear a poem or a symphony as one could look at a painting; in time one could never get the whole at once, but one could in space — or all but; there was bound perhaps to be a very small time — lag even there. Except for that, all the aural arts aspired to escape from recollection into the immediate condition of the visual.
Richard said: “The skin looks almost as if it were painted; I mean — as if you were painting a painted effect. Very dark and very dull. Yet it’s a sort of massive dullness — much like your mass and light; only the opposite. But what I don’t get is the expression. At first he seems to be just a preacher driving his point home — convicting them of sin or something. Only, though that mass makes him effective enough — even his hand seems to be pressing down on them, though it is back downwards; it might almost be pulling the sky down on them by a kind of magic — a sort of Samson and the pillars of cloud — yet the more I look at what I can see of the face, the more I think that it doesn’t mean anything. It seems to be as near plain bewilderment as anything I ever saw.”
“Ho! “ said Jonathan, getting off the table to which he had retired. “Ho! You’re a genius, Richard. I thought that too. But I’ve looked at it so often that I can’t make out now who’s bewildered — him or me.”
Richard looked a question.
“ I began painting the damned fellow, as one does, “ Jonathan went on, pacing up and down the room and frowning at the floor; “of course, he wasn’t sitting for me, so I had to do the best I could from one meeting at St. Bartholomew’s, a couple of orations, seven photographs in Picture Post, a dozen daily papers, and other oddments. Lady Wallingford says he won’t sit because of his reserve, which may of course be true. But at a pinch I can manage to get something out of such a general hodge-podge fairly well, tiresome as the whole business always is, and this time I took particular notice. I wasn’t trying to paint his soul or anything; I just wanted to get him done well enough to please Betty’s mother. And when I’d done it I stared at it and I thought: ‘Either I don’t know what he is or he doesn’t know where he is.’ But a fellow who’s put it over all America and bits of England is likely to know where he is, I suppose, so I must just have got him completely wrong. It’s odd, all the same. I generally manage to make something more or less definite. This man looks as if he were being frightfully definite and completely indefinite at the same moment — an absolute master and a lost loony at once.”
“Perhaps he is,” said Richard doubtfully.
Jonathan came to a stop by the easel and sighed drearily. “No,” he said, “no. I’m afraid not. In fact, I’m afraid it’s a complete give-away for me. The main point is — do you think Lady Wallingford will notice it? And what will she say if she does?”
“I shouldn’t think she would,” said Richard. “After all, I only just did myself and I’m far more used to your style than she is.”
“She may not be used to me, but she’s extremely used to him,” Jonathan said gloomily. “She’s one of the real inner circle. Betty and I will have a much more difficult time if there’s any trouble. Otherwise, I shouldn’t mind in the least. What do you people know about him, Richard?”
“We know,” said Richard, “that his name is Simon Leclerc — sometimes called Father Simon and sometimes Simon the Clerk. We gather he’s ajew by descent, though born in France, and brought up in America. We know that he has a great power of oratory — at least, over there; he hasn’t tried it much here so far — and, that it’s said he’s performed a number of very remarkable cures, which I don’t suppose we’ve checked. We know that quite intelligent people are attached to him — and that’s about all we do know; at least, it’s all I know. But, as I told you, I’ve not been particularly interested. You say you’ve heard him preach; what does he preach?”
“Love,” said Jonathan, more gloomily than ever as he looked at his watch. “They’ll be here in a minute. Love, so far as I can gather, but I was more looking at him than listening to him, and it’s almost impossible for me really to do both at once. I could sort of feel his effect going on all round. But it was mostly Love, with a hint of some secret behind, which Love no doubt could find out. He sometimes gives private interviews, I know, but I really felt it’d be too embarrassing to go to one. So I can only generalize from the bits I caught while I was staring. Love, and something else.”
There was a ring at the front door bell, Jonathan threw the cover again over the painting, and said: “Richard, if you go now, I’ll never forgive you. And if you don’t say the right thing, I’ll never listen to a word of yours again.” He went hastily out.
He was back so soon that Richard had hardly time to do more than feel at a distance within him that full and recollected life which, whenever it did show itself, threatened to overthrow all other present experiences. It was his first experience of such a nature, of “another” life. Almost, as he too turned from the easel, he saw Lester’s dead face, as he had seen it, floating, dim and ill-defined, before his eyes; and the two women who came into the room, though more spectacular, were more empty and shell-like than she.
They were not unlike, with thirty years between. They were both smallish. Lady Wallingford was grey and thin, and had something almost of arrogance in her manner. Betty was fair and thinner than, at her age, one would have thought she ought to be. She looked tired and rather wan. Her eyes, as she entered, were turned on Jonathan, and Richard thought he saw her hand drop from his. Jonathan presented him. Lady Wallingford took him, so to speak, for granted — so granted as to be unnecessary. Betty gave him a quick little glance of interest, which for the moment he did not quite understand; having forgotten that she was supposed to have known Lester. He bowed twice, and stepped back a pace. Jonathan said: “You’ll have some tea first, Lady Wallingford? It’s not too warm today.”
Lady Wallingford said: “We’ll look at the picture first. I’m anxious to see it.”
“I’m very cold, Mother,” Betty said — a little nervously, Richard thought. “Couldn’t we have tea?”
Lady Wallingford entirely ignored this. She said: “Is that covered thing it? Let me see it.”
Jonathan, with the faintest shrug, obeyed. He went to the easel; he said, over his shoulder: “You’ll understand that this is rather an impression than a portrait,” and he pulled aside the covering. There was a silence, concentrated on the painting. Richard, discreetly in the background, waited for its first quiver.
The first he observed was in Betty. She was just behind her mother, and he saw her yield to a faint shudder. Jonathan saw it too; he almost made a movement towards her, and checked it before Lady Wallingfbrd’s immobility. After what seemed like minutes, she said: “What is our Father coming out of, Mr. Drayton?”
Jonathan pinched his lip, glanced at Betty, and answered: “What you choose, Lady Wallingford.”
Lady Wallingford said: “You must have some idea. What is he standing on? rock?”
“Oh yes, rock,” saidjonathan readily; and then, as if reluctantly truthful, added: “At least, you might as well call it rock.”
The private view was not going very well. Betty sat down, as if her power had failed. Lady Wallingford said: “Is he standing on it?”
Jonathan answered: “It doesn’t much matter, perhaps.” He glanced rather anxiously at Richard. Richard took a step forward, and said, as engagingly as he could: “It’s the whole impression that counts, don’t you think?”
It was quite certainly the wrong remark. Lady Wallingford took no notice of it. She went on, still addressing herself to Jonathan, “And why are the people so much like insects?”
Betty made an inarticulate sound. Jonathan and Richard both stared at the painting. It had not occurred to either of them — not even apparently to Jonathan — that the whole mass of inclined backs could be seen almost as a ranked mass of beetles, their oval backs dully reflecting a distant light. Once the word had been spoken, the painting became suddenly sinister. Jonathan broke out, but his voice was unconvincing: “They’re not . . . they weren’t meant . . . they don’t look like beetles.”
“They look exactly like beetles,” Lady Wallingford said. “They are not human beings at all. And Father Simon’s face is exactly the same shape.”
Richard saw that there at least she was right. The oval shape of the face differed only in its features and its downward inclination from the innumerable backs, and in the fact that it reflected no light. It was this lack of reflection which gave it its peculiar deadness; the backs had that dim reflection, but this face none. But now he saw it as so similar in shape that it seemed to him for half a second not a face at all, but another back; but this eyed and mouthed as if the living human form ended in a gruesomeness, and had a huge beetle for its head, only a beetle that looked out backward through its coat and had a wide speaking mouth there also; a speaking beetle, an orating beetle, but also a dead and watching beetle. He forgot the aesthetic remark he had been about to make.
Jonathan was saying: “I think that’s rather reading things into it.” It was not, for him, a particularly intelligent remark; but he was distracted by the thought of Betty, and yet his voice was as cold as Lady Wallingford’s own. He could manage his words but not his tone.
Lady Wallingford moved her head a little more forward. Richard saw the movement, and suddenly, as she stood in front of him, she too took on the shape of an overgrown insect. Outside the painting her back repeated the shapes in the painting. Richard suddenly found himself believing in the painting. This then was what the hearers of Father Simon looked like. He glanced at the face again, but he supposed he had lost that special angle of sight; it was now more like a face, though of that dead artificiality he had remarked before. Lady Wallingford leaned towards the picture, as if she were feeling for it with invisible tentacles. But she was feeling with a hideous and almost dangerous accuracy. She now said, and her voice was more than cold; it was indignant: “Why have you painted our Father as an imbecile?”
Here, however, Jonathan was driven to protest more strongly. He turned his back on the painting, and he said with some passion: “No, really, Lady Wallingford, I have not. I can see what you mean by complaining of the shapes, though honestly I never thought of anything of the sort, and I’ll do something. I mean, I’ll paint something different somehow. But I never had the slightest intention of painting Father Simon in any displeasing way. . . .
Lady Wallingford said: “You intended. . . . Look at it!” Jonathan stopped speaking; he looked at the woman; then he looked beyond her at Betty. She looked back despairingly. Richard observed the exchange of their eyes, and the full crisis became clear to him. He felt, as they did, Betty swept away on Lady Wallingford’s receding anger; he saw her throw out a hand towards Jonathan, and he saw Jonathan immediately respond. He saw him move away from the painting and go across to Betty, take her hands, and lift her from her chair so that she stood against him. His arm round her, he turned again towards the painting. And again Richard’s eyes went with his.
It was as he had last seen it. Or was it? Was the face not quite so down — turned? was it more lifted and already contemplating the room? Had he misjudged the angle? of course, he must have misjudged the angle. But to say it was “contemplating” was too much; it was not contemplating but only staring. What he had called bewilderment was now plain lack of meaning. Jonathan’s phrase — “an absolute master and a lost loony at the same time”-recurred to him. The extended hand was no longer a motion of exposition or of convincing energy, holding the congregation attentive, but rather drawing the congregation after it, a summons and a physical enchantment. It drew them towards the figure, and behind the figure itself perhaps to more; for the shadow of the figure on the cliff behind was not now a shadow, but the darkness of a cleft which ran back very deeply, almost infinitely deep, a corridor between two walls of rock. Into that corridor the figure, hovering on its shadowy platform, was about to recede; and below it all those inclined backs were on the point of similar movement. A crowd of winged beetles, their wings yet folded but at the very instant of loosing, was about to rise into the air and disappear into that crevice and away down the prolonged corridor. And the staring emaciated face that looked out at them and over them was the face of an imbecile. Richard said impatiently to himself — “This is all that old woman talking,” because, though one did get different angles on paintings, one did not usually so soon see on the same canvas what was practically a different painting. Blatant and blank in the grey twilight, where only a reflection of the sun shone from the beetles’ coats, the face hung receding; blank and blatant, the thousand insects rose towards it; and beyond them the narrow corridor hinted some extreme distance towards which the whole congregation and their master were on the point of unchecked flight. And yet the face was not a true face at all; it was not a mockery, but the hither side of something which was hidden and looking away, a face as much stranger than the face they saw as that — face or back — from the other insect backs below it.
They had all been silent; suddenly they all began to speak. Richard said recklessly: “At least the colouring’s superb.” Betty said: “Oh.jon, need you?” Jonathan said: “It’s a trick of this light. Don’t cry, Betty. I’ll do something else.” Lady Wallingford said: “We won’t keep you, Mr. Drayton. If that’s serious, we have very little in common. If it’s not serious, I didn’t expect to be insulted. We’ll go, Betty. My daughter will write to you, Mr. Drayton.”
“This is quite absurd,” jonathan said. “Ask Mr. Furnival, and he’ll tell you that it wasn’t in the least like that until you talked us into believing it. I’m extremely sorry you don’t like it, and I’ll do something different. But you can’t think that I meant to show you a painting of a madman and a mass of beetles as a portrait of your Father Simon. Especially when I know what you think about him. Is it likely?”
“It appears to be a fact,” said Lady Wallingford. She had turned her back on the canvas, and was looking bitterly at Jonathan. “If we are nothing more than vermin to you, Betty!”
Betty was still holding on to Jonathan. It seemed to give her some strength, for she lifted her head and said: “But, Mother, Jonathan is going to alter it.”
“Alter it!” said Lady Wallingford. “He will alter it to something still more like himself. You will have nothing more to do with him. Come.”
Jonathan interrupted. “Lady Wallingford,” he said, “I’ve apologized for something I never thought or intended. But Betty’s engagement to me is another matter. I shan’t accept any attempt to interfere with that.”
“No?” Lady Wallingford said. “Betty will do what I tell her, and I have other plans. This pretended engagement was always a ridiculous idea, and now it is finished.”
“Mother — ” Betty began. Lady Wallingford, who had been looking at Jonathan, turned her eyes slowly to her daughter. The slight movement of her head was so deliberate that it concentrated a power not felt in that -room till then. Her eyes held Betty as in the painting behind her the outstretched hand held the attentive congregation; they summoned as that summoned. Jonathan was thwarted, enraged, and abandoned. He stood, helpless and alone, at the side of an exchange of messages which he could not follow; he felt Betty flag in his arm and his arm was useless to her. He tightened it, but she seemed to fall through it as a hurt dove through the air by which it should be supported. Richard, as he saw that slow movement, was reminded suddenly of Lester’s way of throwing up her hand; the physical action held something even greater than the purpose which caused it. It was not only more than itself in its exhibition of the mind behind it, but it was in itself more than the mind. So killing, though it may express hate, is an utterly different thing from hate. There was hate in the room, but that particular act was not so much hate as killing, as pure deliberate murder. As a man weak from illness might try to wrestle with a murderer and fail, he thought he heard himself saying sillily: “Lady Wallingford, if I may speak, wouldn’t it be better if we talked about this another time? There’s no need to murder the girl at once, is there? I mean, if Jonathan did something different, perhaps we could avoid it? or we might look at it — at the portrait — in a different light? and then you might see her in a different light? Sometimes a little attention. . . . ”
He was not quite sure how much of this he had actually said, but he stopped because Jonathan was speaking. Jonathan was speaking very angrily and very quickly, and he was talking of Betty’s father the Air Marshal, and of his own aunt who would put Betty up for a few days, and how they would get married almost tomorrow, and how all the paintings and all the parents and all the prophets under heaven could not interfere. He spoke close above Betty’s ear, and several times he tried to get her to turn and look at him. But she did not; she had gone even paler than she had been before, and as Lady Wallingford took the first step towards the door she too began to turn towards it. She twisted herself suddenly out of Jonathan’s arm, and she said nothing in reply to the entreaties, persuasions, and commands which he continued to address to her. Richard thought her face as she did so was very like another face he had seen; the identification of that other troubled him for a moment, and then was suddenly presentit was Lester’s when he had last seen it, Lester’s when she was dead. The common likeness of the dead was greater than any difference between their living faces; they were both citizens of a remoter town than this London, and the other town was in this room. He saw beyond Betty Lady Wallingford, who had walked across the room and was looking back at Betty from the door, and her face, though it was not that of the dead, was like a hard cliff in the world of the dead, or like a building, if the dead had buildings, a house or a temple of some different and disastrous stone. The whole ordinary room became only an imitation of a room; Jonathan and he were ghosts in a ghostly chamber, the realities were the man in the cleft of the rock and the rising beetles, and the dead face of Betty, and the living face — but in what way living?-of her tyrant. Even while he shivered in a sudden bleakness, Betty had disengaged herself from Jonathan and gone over to her mother. Lady Wallingford opened the door. She said to Betty: “We will go to Holborn.” She motioned her daughter before her; they went out. The two men heard the shutting of the outer door.
They looked at each other. With that departure, the room became again a room, and no more the outskirts of another world. Richard drew a breath, and glanced again at the painting. It seemed to him now impossible to miss its actuality. Seen as human beings, those shapes had been motionless; seen as beetles, they were already in motion and on the point of flight. The painting lived, as the Mona Lisa does, in the moment of beginning, in the mathematical exactitude of beginning. Yet now Richard uncertainly felt more; there was an ambiguity in it, for the shapes might be either. That was its great, apparently unexpected, and certainly unwanted, success: men who were beetles, beetles who were men; insects who had just been men, men who had just become insects. Metamorphosis was still in them. But could he then, he wondered, still gazing, think of them the other way, insects who had just become men, men who had just been insects? why not? Could humanity be living out of them?-some miracle in process? animality made newly rational? and their motion the rising into erect man? and the stretched arm the sign and power that called them?
He looked along the arm; his eyes rose to the face that ruled and called them? He saw it was impossible. That blank face could never work miracles; or if it could, then only miracles of lowering and loss. He could not persuade himself that it was growing into power; the metempsychosis there, if any had been, was done. The distance in the cleft behind, which he now clearly saw, as if the walls of it palely shone with their own light, held no promise of a lordlier change. There was no life there but that of rock — “lutto di Pietra di color ferrigno — all iron-hued stone”. What other life that stone might hold in itself, the life in the woman’s face by the door, the life that had seemed to impinge on the room, could not be known by a face that had lost understanding. And then he remembered that this was but the backward-looking, the false, the devised face. What might the true face be that looked away down the cleft, between the walls, to the end of the corridor, if there was an end? That indeed might know more, much and very terribly more.
He made an effort and turned his eyes away. Jonathan was moving towards him; he said as he came, “What a mother!”
“But didn’t you guess anything of this?” Richard asked, almost with curiosity.
“Oh I don’t know,” Jonathan answered irritably. “I thought perhaps while I was doing it that there was something odd about it, and then I thought there wasn’t and that I was imagining things. One gets confused and can’t judge. And I certainly thought she wouldn’t notice it, or want to notice it. Nor would she, but she doesn’t mean me to marry Betty.”
Richard said: “But supposing to destroy it was the only way? Suppose Miss Wallingford asked you to?”
“Well, she hasn’t,” said Jonathan. “It’ll be time enough, when she does. I don’t know — probably I should. It’d be tiresome, but if it eased things. . . . She doesn’t care for this Simon herself; she only goes because her mother makes her.”
“I’d like to see him for myself,” Richard said. “Where is he? What was that remark about Holborn?”
“You go,” saidjonathan. “It’s a place just between Holborn and Red Lion Square — you’ll easily find it. Go and hear him speak. He doesn’t do it often, but you’ll find out when he’s going to. Go and see, and tell me the result.”
“Well, I think I will,” said Richard. “Tomorrow. I’m very sorry about all this. What do you think you’ll do?”
“Just think first,” Jonathan answered. “Shall I stick out or shall I try and come to terms? I don’t believe Sir Bartholomew’ll be much good, even when he does get back from Moscow, but at least I could see him, and it’s going to be damned difficult to keep in touch with Betty. She might be a novice or a nun, the way her mother keeps her. I believe she even reads her letters, and I’m sure she watches her telephone calls. Come round tomorrow, will you, if it’s not a bother? I shall want to talk to you.”
Richard promised and left. He came out into the London streets about the time when everyone else was also going home, and after a glance at the crowded transport he determined to walk. There was about the general hubbub something that eased and pleased him. He relaxed his spirit a little as he moved among them. He thought of Jonathan and Betty, and he thought also: “I wish Lester were here; she’d know what to do, and she knows Betty.” It would be very convenient now if Lester could call on Betty; he wished for Jonathan’s sake that she could. A little of Lester’s energy and Lester’s style and even Lester’s temper might be of a good deal of use to Betty now.
It occurred to him, with a light surprise, that he was thinking quite naturally of Lester. He was sincerely sorry, for Jonathan’s sake, that her strong femininity was lost — for Jonathan’s sake, not at that moment for his own. It was what she was that was needed. What she was — not what she was to him. It occurred to him then that he had on the whole been in the habit of thinking of Lester only in relation to himself. He saw suddenly in her the power that waited for use, and he saw also that he had not taken any trouble about that power; that he had, in fact, been vaguely content to suppose it was adequately used in attending to him. He said, almost aloud: “Darling, did I neglect you?” It was no ordinary neglect that he meant; of that certainly he had not been guilty — and of this other perhaps she had been as guilty as he. No — not as guilty; she knew more of him in himself than he had ever troubled to know of her in herself. It was why her comments on him, in gaiety or rage, always had such a tang of truth; whereas his were generally more like either cultured jesting or mere abuse. The infinite accuracy of a wife’s intelligence stared out at him. He acknowledged what, in all his sincere passion, he had been unwilling to acknowledge, that she was often simply right, and the admission bound him to her the closer, dead though she might be. He thought how many chances he had missed of delighting in her entire veracity, instead of excusing, protesting, denying. The glowing splendour of her beauty rose, and it was a beauty charged with knowledge. It was that, among much else, that he had neglected. And now they all needed her, and she was not there.
She was. It was along Holborn that he was walking, for he had half-thought of going that night to look for Simon’s hall or house or whatever it was. And there, on the very pavement, the other side of a crossing, she stood. He thought for the first second that there was someone with her. He was held by the appearance as motionless as in their early days he had thought he must bethough in fact in those early days he had never actually stopped. Now he did. It was as if that shock of her had at last compelled him to acknowledge it outwardly — at last, but as he had always almost believed he did, perhaps more in those days at the beginning when the strangeness was greater and the dear familiarity less. But the strangeness, for all the familiarity, had never quite gone, nor was it absent now; it was indeed, he felt, the greater, as well it might be. They stood on either side that Holborn by-way, and gazed.
He felt, as he gazed, more like a wraith than a man; against her vigour of existence he hung like a ghost, and was fixed by it. — He did not then remember the past hour in Jonathan’s room, nor the tomb-like image of Lady Wallingford. Had he done so, he would have felt Lester’s to be as much stronger than that woman’s as hers had seemed stronger than his own. Lester was not smiling any recognition; the recognition was in her stillness. The passionate mouth was serious and the eyes deep with wonder and knowledge: of him? certainly of him. He thought almost he saw her suspire with a relief beyond joy. Never, never again would he neglect. The broken oaths renewed themselves in him. One hand of hers was raised and still almost as if it rested on some other arm, but the other had flown to her breast where it lay as if in some way it held him there. They made, for those few seconds, no movement, but their stillness was natural and not strange; it was not because she was a ghost but because she was she that he could not stir. This was their thousandth meeting, but yet more their first, a new first and yet the only first. More stable than rock, more transient in herself than rivers, more distant — bright than stars, more comfortable than happy sleep, more pleasant than wind, more dangerous than fire — all known things similes of her; and beyond all known things the unknown power of her. He could perhaps in a little have spoken; but before he could, she had passed. She left with him precisely the sensation of seeing her go on; past him? no; up the by-way? no; but it was not disappearance or vanishing, for she had gone, as a hundred times she had, on her proper occasions, gone, kissing, laughing, waving. Now she neither kissed nor laughed nor waved, but that which was in all three lingered with him as he saw she was no longer there.
Lights were coming out in the houses; the confused sound of the City was in his ears. He was giddy with too much apprehension; he waited to recover; then he crossed the by-way, and he too went on.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02