He saw below the surface of this drama played before his eyes, and set his face, as a man might who found himself assisting at a sacrifice. The words fell, unrelenting, on his ears: "For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health—" and opening the Prayer Book he found the Marriage Service, which he had not looked at since he was a boy, and as he read he had some very curious sensations.
All this would soon be happening to himself! He went on reading in a kind of stupor, until aroused by his companion whispering, "No luck!" All around there rose a rustling of skirts; he saw a tall figure mount the pulpit and stand motionless. Massive and high-featured, sunken of eye, he towered, in snowy cambric and a crimson stole, above the blackness of his rostrum; it seemed he had been chosen for his beauty. Shelton was still gazing at the stitching of his gloves, when once again the organ played the Wedding March. All were smiling, and a few were weeping, craning their heads towards the bride. "Carnival of second-hand emotions!" thought Shelton; and he, too, craned his head and brushed his hat. Then, smirking at his friends, he made his way towards the door.
In the Casserols' house he found himself at last going round the presents with the eldest Casserol surviving, a tall girl in pale violet, who had been chief bridesmaid.
"Did n't it go off well, Mr. Shelton?" she was saying
"I always think it's so awkward for the man waiting up there for the bride to come."
"Yes," murmured Shelton.
"Don't you think it's smart, the bridesmaids having no hats?"
Shelton had not noticed this improvement, but he agreed.
"That was my idea; I think it 's very chic. They 've had fifteen tea-sets-so dull, is n't it?"
"By Jove!" Shelton hastened to remark.
"Oh, its fearfully useful to have a lot of things you don't want; of course, you change them for those you do."
The whole of London seemed to have disgorged its shops into this room; he looked at Miss Casserol's face, and was greatly struck by the shrewd acquisitiveness of her small eyes.
"Is that your future brother-in-law?" she asked, pointing to Bill Dennant with a little movement of her chin; "I think he's such a bright boy. I want you both to come to dinner, and help to keep things jolly. It's so deadly after a wedding."
And Shelton said they would.
They adjourned to the hall now, to wait for the bride's departure. Her face as she came down the stairs was impassive, gay, with a furtive trouble in the eyes, and once more Shelton had the odd sensation of having sinned against his manhood. Jammed close to him was her old nurse, whose puffy, yellow face was pouting with emotion, while tears rolled from her eyes. She was trying to say something, but in the hubbub her farewell was lost. There was a scamper to the carriage, a flurry of rice and flowers; the shoe was flung against the sharply drawn-up window. Then Benjy's shaven face was seen a moment, bland and steely; the footman folded his arms, and with a solemn crunch the brougham wheels rolled away. "How splendidly it went off!" said a voice on Shelton's right. "She looked a little pale," said a voice on Shelton's left. He put his hand up to his forehead; behind him the old nurse sniffed.
"Dick," said young Dennant in his ear, "this isn't good enough; I vote we bolt."
Shelton assenting, they walked towards the Park; nor could he tell whether the slight nausea he experienced was due to afternoon champagne or to the ceremony that had gone so well.
"What's up with you?" asked Dennant; "you look as glum as any m-monkey."
"Nothing," said Shelton; "I was only thinking what humbugs we all are!"
Bill Dennant stopped in the middle of the crossing, and clapped his future brother-in-law upon the shoulder.
"Oh," said he, "if you're going to talk shop, I 'm off."
The dinner at the Casserols' was given to those of the bride's friends who had been conspicuous in the day's festivities. Shelton found himself between Miss Casserol and a lady undressed to much the same degree. Opposite sat a man with a single diamond stud, a white waistcoat, black moustache, and hawk-like face. This was, in fact, one of those interesting houses occupied by people of the upper middle class who have imbibed a taste for smart society. Its inhabitants, by nature acquisitive and cautious, economical, tenacious, had learnt to worship the word "smart." The result was a kind of heavy froth, an air of thoroughly domestic vice. In addition to the conventionally fast, Shelton had met there one or two ladies, who, having been divorced, or having yet to be, still maintained their position in "society." Divorced ladies who did not so maintain their place were never to be found, for the Casserols had a great respect for marriage. He had also met there American ladies who were "too amusing"—never, of course, American men, Mesopotamians of the financial or the racing type, and several of those gentlemen who had been, or were about to be, engaged in a transaction which might or again might not, "come off," and in conduct of an order which might, or again might not be spotted. The line he knew, was always drawn at those in any category who were actually found out, for the value of these ladies and these gentlemen was not their claim to pity—nothing so sentimental—but their "smartness," clothes, jokes, racing tips, their "bridge parties," and their motors.
In sum, the house was one whose fundamental domesticity attracted and sheltered those who were too "smart" to keep their heads for long above the water.
His host, a grey, clean-shaven city man, with a long upper lip, was trying to understand a lady the audacity of whose speech came ringing down the table. Shelton himself had given up the effort with his neighbours, and made love to his dinner, which, surviving the incoherence of the atmosphere, emerged as a work of art. It was with surprise that he found Miss Casserol addressing him.
"I always say that the great thing is to be jolly. If you can't find anything to make you laugh, pretend you do; it's so much 'smarter to be amusin'. Now don't you agree?"
The philosophy seemed excellent.
"We can't all be geniuses, but we can all look jolly."
Shelton hastened to look jolly.
"I tell the governor, when he 's glum, that I shall put up the shutters and leave him. What's the good of mopin' and lookin' miserable? Are you going to the Four-in-Hand Meet? We're making a party. Such fun; all the smart people!"
The splendour of her shoulders, her frizzy hair (clearly not two hours out of the barber's hands), might have made him doubtful; but the frank shrewdness in her eyes, and her carefully clipped tone of voice, were guarantees that she was part of the element at the table which was really quite respectable. He had never realised before how "smart" she was, and with an effort abandoned himself to a sort of gaiety that would have killed a Frenchman.
And when she left him, he reflected upon the expression of her eyes when they rested on a lady opposite, who was a true bird-of-prey. "What is it," their envious, inquisitive glance had seemed to say, "that makes you so really 'smart'?" And while still seeking for the reason, he noticed his host pointing out the merits of his port to the hawk-like man, with a deferential air quite pitiful to see, for the hawk-like man was clearly a "bad hat." What in the name of goodness did these staid bourgeois mean by making up to vice? Was it a craving to be thought distinguished, a dread of being dull, or merely an effect of overfeeding? Again he looked at his host, who had not yet enumerated all the virtues of his port, and again felt sorry for him.
"So you're going to marry Antonia Dennant?" said a voice on his right, with that easy coarseness which is a mark of caste. "Pretty girl! They've a nice place, the, Dennants. D' ye know, you're a lucky feller!"
The speaker was an old baronet, with small eyes, a dusky, ruddy face, and peculiar hail-fellow-well-met expression, at once morose and sly. He was always hard up, but being a man of enterprise knew all the best people, as well as all the worst, so that he dined out every night.
"You're a lucky feller," he repeated; "he's got some deuced good shootin', Dennant! They come too high for me, though; never touched a feather last time I shot there. She's a pretty girl. You 're a lucky feller!"
"I know that," said Shelton humbly.
"Wish I were in your shoes. Who was that sittin' on the other side of you? I'm so dashed short-sighted. Mrs. Carruther? Oh, ay!" An expression which, if he had not been a baronet, would have been a leer, came on his lips.
Shelton felt that he was referring to the leaf in his mental pocket-book covered with the anecdotes, figures, and facts about that lady. "The old ogre means," thought he, "that I'm lucky because his leaf is blank about Antonia." But the old baronet had turned, with his smile, and his sardonic, well-bred air, to listen to a bit of scandal on the other side.
The two men to Shelton's left were talking.
"What! You don't collect anything? How's that? Everybody collects something. I should be lost without my pictures."
"No, I don't collect anything. Given it up; I was too awfully had over my Walkers."
Shelton had expected a more lofty reason; he applied himself to the Madeira in his glass. That, had been "collected" by his host, and its price was going up! You couldn't get it every day; worth two guineas a bottle! How precious the idea that other people couldn't get it, made it seem! Liquid delight; the price was going up! Soon there would be none left; immense! Absolutely no one, then, could drink it!
"Wish I had some of this," said the old baronet, "but I have drunk all mine."
"Poor old chap!" thought Shelton; "after all, he's not a bad old boy. I wish I had his pluck. His liver must be splendid."
The drawing-room was full of people playing a game concerned with horses ridden by jockeys with the latest seat. And Shelton was compelled to help in carrying on this sport till early in the morning. At last he left, exhausted by his animation.
He thought of the wedding; he thought over his dinner and the wine that he had drunk. His mood of satisfaction fizzled out. These people were incapable of being real, even the smartest, even the most respectable; they seemed to weigh their pleasures in the scales and to get the most that could be gotten for their money.
Between the dark, safe houses stretching for miles and miles, his thoughts were of Antonia; and as he reached his rooms he was overtaken by the moment when the town is born again. The first new air had stolen down; the sky was living, but not yet alight; the trees were quivering faintly; no living creature stirred, and nothing spoke except his heart. Suddenly the city seemed to breathe, and Shelton saw that he was not alone; an unconsidered trifle with inferior boots was asleep upon his doorstep.
The individual on the doorstep had fallen into slumber over his own knees. No greater air of prosperity clung about him than is conveyed by a rusty overcoat and wisps of cloth in place of socks. Shelton endeavoured to pass unseen, but the sleeper woke.
"Ah, it's you, monsieur!" he said "I received your letter this evening, and have lost no time." He looked down at himself and tittered, as though to say, "But what a state I 'm in!"
The young foreigner's condition was indeed more desperate than on the occasion of their first meeting, and Shelton invited him upstairs.
"You can well understand," stammered Ferrand, following his host, "that I did n't want to miss you this time. When one is like this—" and a spasm gripped his face.
"I 'm very glad you came," said Shelton doubtfully.
His visitor's face had a week's growth of reddish beard; the deep tan of his cheeks gave him a robust appearance at variance with the fit of, trembling which had seized on him as soon as he had entered.
"Sit down-sit down," said Shelton; "you 're feeling ill!"
Ferrand smiled. "It's nothing," said he; "bad nourishment."
Shelton left him seated on the edge of an armchair, and brought him in some whisky.
"Clothes," said Ferrand, when he had drunk, "are what I want. These are really not good enough."
The statement was correct, and Shelton, placing some garments in the bath-room, invited his visitor to make himself at home. While the latter, then, was doing this, Shelton enjoyed the luxuries of self-denial, hunting up things he did not want, and laying them in two portmanteaus. This done, he waited for his visitor's return.
The young foreigner at length emerged, unshaved indeed, and innocent of boots, but having in other respects an air of gratifying affluence.
"This is a little different," he said. "The boots, I fear"—and, pulling down his, or rather Shelton's, socks he exhibited sores the size of half a crown. "One does n't sow without reaping some harvest or another. My stomach has shrunk," he added simply. "To see things one must suffer. 'Voyager, c'est plus fort que moi'!"
Shelton failed to perceive that this was one way of disguising the human animal's natural dislike of work—there was a touch of pathos, a suggestion of God-knows-what-might-have-been, about this fellow.
"I have eaten my illusions," said the young foreigner, smoking a cigarette. "When you've starved a few times, your eyes are opened. 'Savoir, c'est mon metier; mais remarquez ceci, monsieur': It 's not always the intellectuals who succeed."
"When you get a job," said Shelton, "you throw it away, I suppose."
"You accuse me of restlessness? Shall I explain what I think about that? I'm restless because of ambition; I want to reconquer an independent position. I put all my soul into my trials, but as soon as I see there's no future for me in that line, I give it up and go elsewhere. 'Je ne veux pas etre rond de cuir,' breaking my back to economise sixpence a day, and save enough after forty years to drag out the remains of an exhausted existence. That's not in my character." This ingenious paraphrase of the words "I soon get tired of things" he pronounced with an air of letting Shelton into a precious secret.
"Yes; it must be hard," agreed the latter.
Ferrand shrugged his shoulders.
"It's not all butter," he replied; "one is obliged to do things that are not too delicate. There's nothing I pride myself on but frankness."
Like a good chemist, however, he administered what Shelton could stand in a judicious way. "Yes, yes," he seemed to say, "you'd like me to think that you have a perfect knowledge of life: no morality, no prejudices, no illusions; you'd like me to think that you feel yourself on an equality with me, one human animal talking to another, without any barriers of position, money, clothes, or the rest—'ca c'est un peu trop fort'! You're as good an imitation as I 've come across in your class, notwithstanding your unfortunate education, and I 'm grateful to you, but to tell you everything, as it passes through my mind would damage my prospects. You can hardly expect that."
In one of Shelton's old frock-coats he was impressive, with his air of natural, almost sensitive refinement. The room looked as if it were accustomed to him, and more amazing still was the sense of familiarity that he inspired, as, though he were a part of Shelton's soul. It came as a shock to realise that this young foreign vagabond had taken such a place within his thoughts. The pose of his limbs and head, irregular but not ungraceful; his disillusioned lips; the rings of smoke that issued from them—all signified rebellion, and the overthrow of law and order. His thin, lopsided nose, the rapid glances of his goggling, prominent eyes, were subtlety itself; he stood for discontent with the accepted.
"How do I live when I am on the tramp?" he said, "well, there are the consuls. The system is not delicate, but when it's a question of starving, much is permissible; besides, these gentlemen were created for the purpose. There's a coterie of German Jews in Paris living entirely upon consuls." He hesitated for the fraction of a second, and resumed: "Yes, monsieur; if you have papers that fit you, you can try six or seven consuls in a single town. You must know a language or two; but most of these gentlemen are not too well up in the tongues of the country they represent. Obtaining money under false pretences? Well, it is. But what's the difference at bottom between all this honourable crowd of directors, fashionable physicians, employers of labour, ferry-builders, military men, country priests, and consuls themselves perhaps, who take money and give no value for it, and poor devils who do the same at far greater risk? Necessity makes the law. If those gentlemen were in my position, do you think that they would hesitate?"
Shelton's face remaining doubtful, Ferrand went on instantly: "You're right; they would, from fear, not principle. One must be hard pressed before committing these indelicacies. Look deep enough, and you will see what indelicate things are daily done by the respectable for not half so good a reason as the want of meals."
Shelton also took a cigarette—his own income was derived from property for which he gave no value in labour.
"I can give you an instance," said Ferrand, "of what can be done by resolution. One day in a German town, 'etant dans la misere', I decided to try the French consul. Well, as you know, I am a Fleming, but something had to be screwed out somewhere. He refused to see me; I sat down to wait. After about two hours a voice bellowed: 'Has n't the brute gone?' and my consul appears. 'I 've nothing for fellows like you,' says he; 'clear out!'
"'Monsieur,' I answered, 'I am skin and bone; I really must have assistance.'
"'Clear out,' he says, 'or the police shall throw you out!'
"I don't budge. Another hour passes, and back he comes again.
"'Still here?' says he. 'Fetch a sergeant.'
"The sergeant comes.
"'Sergeant,' says the consul, 'turn this creature out.'
"'Sergeant,' I say, 'this house is France!' Naturally, I had calculated upon that. In Germany they're not too fond of those who undertake the business of the French.
"'He is right,' says the sergeant; 'I can do nothing.'
"'Absolutely.' And he went away.
"'What do you think you'll get by staying?' says my consul.
"'I have nothing to eat or drink, and nowhere to sleep,' says I.
"'What will you go for?'
"'Here, then, get out!' I can tell you, monsieur, one must n't have a thin skin if one wants to exploit consuls."
His yellow fingers slowly rolled the stump of his cigarette, his ironical lips flickered. Shelton thought of his own ignorance of life. He could not recollect ever having gone without a meal.
"I suppose," he said feebly, "you've often starved." For, having always been so well fed, the idea of starvation was attractive.
"Four days is the longest," said he. "You won't believe that story.... It was in Paris, and I had lost my money on the race-course. There was some due from home which didn't come. Four days and nights I lived on water. My clothes were excellent, and I had jewellery; but I never even thought of pawning them. I suffered most from the notion that people might guess my state. You don't recognise me now?"
"How old were you then?" said Shelton.
"Seventeen; it's curious what one's like at that age."
By a flash of insight Shelton saw the well-dressed boy, with sensitive, smooth face, always on the move about the streets of Paris, for fear that people should observe the condition of his stomach. The story was a valuable commentary. His thoughts were brusquely interrupted; looking in Ferrand's face, he saw to his dismay tears rolling down his cheeks.
"I 've suffered too much," he stammered; "what do I care now what becomes of me?"
Shelton was disconcerted; he wished 'to say something sympathetic,' but, being an Englishman, could only turn away his eyes.
"Your turn 's coming," he said at last.
"Ah! when you've lived my life," broke out his visitor, "nothing 's any good. My heart's in rags. Find me anything worth keeping, in this menagerie."
Moved though he was, Shelton wriggled in his chair, a prey to racial instinct, to an ingrained over-tenderness, perhaps, of soul that forbade him from exposing his emotions, and recoiled from the revelation of other people's. He could stand it on the stage, he could stand it in a book, but in real life he could not stand it. When Ferrand had gone off with a portmanteau in each hand, he sat down and told Antonia:
. . . The poor chap broke down and sat crying like a child; and instead of making me feel sorry, it turned me into stone. The more sympathetic I wanted to be, the gruffer I grew. Is it fear of ridicule, independence, or consideration, for others that prevents one from showing one's feelings?
He went on to tell her of Ferrand's starving four days sooner than face a pawnbroker; and, reading the letter over before addressing it, the faces of the three ladies round their snowy cloth arose before him—Antonia's face, so fair and calm and wind-fresh; her mother's face, a little creased by time and weather; the maiden aunt's somewhat too thin-and they seemed to lean at him, alert and decorous, and the words "That's rather nice!" rang in his ears. He went out to post the letter, and buying a five-shilling order enclosed it to the little barber, Carolan, as a reward for delivering his note to Ferrand. He omitted to send his address with this donation, but whether from delicacy or from caution he could not have said. Beyond doubt, however, on receiving through Ferrand the following reply, he felt ashamed and pleased.
3, BLANK ROW, WESTMINSTER.
From every well-born soul humanity is owing. A thousand thanks. I received this morning your postal order; your heart henceforth for me will be placed beyond all praise.
A few days later he received a letter from Antonia which filled him with excitement:
. . . Aunt Charlotte is ever so much better, so mother thinks we can go home-hurrah! But she says that you and I must keep to our arrangement not to see each other till July. There will be something fine in being so near and having the strength to keep apart . . . All the English are gone. I feel it so empty out here; these people are so funny-all foreign and shallow. Oh, Dick! how splendid to have an ideal to look up to! Write at once to Brewer's Hotel and tell me you think the same.... We arrive at Charing Cross on Sunday at half-past seven, stay at Brewer's for a couple of nights, and go down on Tuesday to Holm Oaks.
"To-morrow!" he thought; "she's coming tomorrow!" and, leaving his neglected breakfast, he started out to walk off his emotion. His square ran into one of those slums that still rub shoulders with the most distinguished situations, and in it he came upon a little crowd assembled round a dogfight. One of the dogs was being mauled, but the day was muddy, and Shelton, like any well-bred Englishman, had a horror of making himself conspicuous even in a decent cause; he looked for a policeman. One was standing by, to see fair play, and Shelton made appeal to him. The official suggested that he should not have brought out a fighting dog, and advised him to throw cold water over them.
"It is n 't my dog," said Shelton.
"Then I should let 'em be," remarked the policeman with evident surprise.
Shelton appealed indefinitely to the lower orders. The lower orders, however, were afraid of being bitten.
"I would n't meddle with that there job if I was you," said one.
"Nasty breed o' dawg is that."
He was therefore obliged to cast away respectability, spoil his trousers and his gloves, break his umbrella, drop his hat in the mud, and separate the dogs. At the conclusion of the "job," the lower orders said to him in a rather shamefaced spanner:
"Well, I never thought you'd have managed that, sir"; but, like all men of inaction, Shelton after action was more dangerous.
"D——n it!" he said, "one can't let a dog be killed"; and he marched off, towing the injured dog with his pocket-handkerchief, and looking scornfully at harmless passers-by. Having satisfied for once the smouldering fires within him, he felt entitled to hold a low opinion of these men in the street. "The brutes," he thought, "won't stir a finger to save a poor dumb creature, and as for policemen—" But, growing cooler, he began to see that people weighted down by "honest toil" could not afford to tear their trousers or get a bitten hand, and that even the policeman, though he had looked so like a demi-god, was absolutely made of flesh and blood. He took the dog home, and, sending for a vet., had him sewn up.
He was already tortured by the doubt whether or no he might venture to meet Antonia at the station, and, after sending his servant with the dog to the address marked on its collar, he formed the resolve to go and see his mother, with some vague notion that she might help him to decide. She lived in Kensington, and, crossing the Brompton Road, he was soon amongst that maze of houses into the fibre of whose structure architects have wrought the motto: "Keep what you have—wives, money, a good address, and all the blessings of a moral state!"
Shelton pondered as he passed house after house of such intense respectability that even dogs were known to bark at them. His blood was still too hot; it is amazing what incidents will promote the loftiest philosophy. He had been reading in his favourite review an article eulogising the freedom and expansion which had made the upper middle class so fine a body; and with eyes wandering from side to side he nodded his head ironically. "Expansion and freedom," ran his thoughts: "Freedom and expansion!"
Each house-front was cold and formal, the shell of an owner with from three to five thousand pounds a year, and each one was armoured against the opinion of its neighbours by a sort of daring regularity. "Conscious of my rectitude; and by the strict observance of exactly what is necessary and no more, I am enabled to hold my head up in the world. The person who lives in me has only four thousand two hundred and fifty-five pounds each year, after allowing for the income tax." Such seemed the legend of these houses.
Shelton passed ladies in ones and twos and threes going out shopping, or to classes of drawing, cooking, ambulance. Hardly any men were seen, and they were mostly policemen; but a few disillusioned children were being wheeled towards the Park by fresh-cheeked nurses, accompanied by a great army of hairy or of hairless dogs.
There was something of her brother's large liberality about Mrs. Shelton, a tiny lady with affectionate eyes, warm cheeks, and chilly feet; fond as a cat of a chair by the fire, and full of the sympathy that has no insight. She kissed her son at once with rapture, and, as usual, began to talk of his engagement. For the first time a tremor of doubt ran through her son; his mother's view of it grated on him like the sight of a blue-pink dress; it was too rosy. Her splendid optimism, damped him; it had too little traffic with the reasoning powers.
"What right," he asked himself, "has she to be so certain? It seems to me a kind of blasphemy."
"The dear!" she cooed. "And she is coming back to-morrow? Hurrah! how I long to see her!"
"But you know, mother, we've agreed not to meet again until July."
Mrs. Shelton rocked her foot, and, holding her head on one side like a little bird, looked at her son with shining eyes.