Story type: Literature
The first time we met, to speak, he was sitting with his back against a pollard willow, smoking a clay pipe. He smoked it very slowly, but very conscientiously. After each whiff he removed the pipe from his mouth and fanned away the smoke with his cap.
“Feeling bad?” I asked from behind a tree, at the same time making ready for a run, big boys’ answers to small boys’ impertinences being usually of the nature of things best avoided.
To my surprise and relief–for at second glance I perceived I had under- estimated the length of his legs–he appeared to regard the question as a natural and proper one, replying with unaffected candour, “Not yet.”
My desire became to comfort him–a sentiment I think he understood and was grateful for. Advancing into the open, I sat down over against him, and watched him for a while in silence. Presently he said:–
“Have you ever tried drinking beer?”
I admitted I had not.
“Oh, it is beastly stuff,” he rejoined with an involuntary shudder.
Rendered forgetful of present trouble by bitter recollection of the past, he puffed away at his pipe carelessly and without judgment.
“Do you often drink it?” I inquired.
“Yes,” he replied gloomily; “all we fellows in the fifth form drink beer and smoke pipes.”
A deeper tinge of green spread itself over his face.
He rose suddenly and made towards the hedge. Before he reached it, however, he stopped and addressed me, but without turning round.
“If you follow me, young ‘un, or look, I’ll punch your head,” he said swiftly, and disappeared with a gurgle.
He left at the end of the terms and I did not see him again until we were both young men. Then one day I ran against him in Oxford Street, and he asked me to come and spend a few days with his people in Surrey.
I found him wan-looking and depressed, and every now and then he sighed. During a walk across the common he cheered up considerably, but the moment we got back to the house door he seemed to recollect himself, and began to sigh again. He ate no dinner whatever, merely sipping a glass of wine and crumbling a piece of bread. I was troubled at noticing this, but his relatives–a maiden aunt, who kept house, two elder sisters, and a weak-eyed female cousin who had left her husband behind her in India–were evidently charmed. They glanced at each other, and nodded and smiled. Once in a fit of abstraction he swallowed a bit of crust, and immediately they all looked pained and surprised.
In the drawing-room, under cover of a sentimental song, sung by the female cousin, I questioned his aunt on the subject.
“What’s the matter with him?” I said. “Is he ill?”
The old lady chuckled.
“You’ll be like that one day,” she whispered gleefully.
“When,” I asked, not unnaturally alarmed.
“When you’re in love,” she answered.
“Is he in love?” I inquired after a pause.
“Can’t you see he is?” she replied somewhat scornfully.
I was a young man, and interested in the question.
“Won’t he ever eat any dinner till he’s got over it?” I asked.
She looked round sharply at me, but apparently decided that I was only foolish.
“You wait till your time comes,” she answered, shaking her curls at me. “You won’t care much about your dinner–not if you are really in love.”
In the night, about half-past eleven, I heard, as I thought, footsteps in the passage, and creeping to the door and opening it I saw the figure of my friend in dressing-gown and slippers, vanishing down the stairs. My idea was that, his brain weakened by trouble, he had developed sleep-walking tendencies. Partly out of curiosity, partly to watch over him, I slipped on a pair of trousers and followed him.
He placed his candle on the kitchen table and made a bee-line for the pantry door, from where he subsequently emerged with two pounds of cold beef on a plate and about a quart of beer in a jug; and I came away, leaving him fumbling for pickles.
I assisted at his wedding, where it seemed to me he endeavoured to display more ecstasy than it was possible for any human being to feel; and fifteen months later, happening to catch sight of an advertisement in the births column of The Times, I called on my way home from the City to congratulate him. He was pacing up and down the passage with his hat on, pausing at intervals to partake of an uninviting-looking meal, consisting of a cold mutton chop and a glass of lemonade, spread out upon a chair. Seeing that the cook and the housemaid were wandering about the house evidently bored for want of something to do, and that the dining- room, where he would have been much more out of the way, was empty and quite in order, I failed at first to understand the reason for his deliberate choice of discomfort. I, however, kept my reflections to myself, and inquired after the mother and child.
“Couldn’t be better,” he replied with a groan. “The doctor said he’d never had a more satisfactory case in all his experience.”
“Oh, I’m glad to hear that,” I answered; “I was afraid you’d been worrying yourself.”
“Worried!” he exclaimed. “My dear boy, I don’t know whether I’m standing on my head or my heels” (he gave one that idea). “This is the first morsel of food that’s passed my lips for twenty-four hours.”
At this moment the nurse appeared at the top of the stairs. He flew towards her, upsetting the lemonade in his excitement.
“What is it?” he asked hoarsely. “Is it all right?”
The old lady glanced from him to his cold chop, and smiled approvingly.
“They’re doing splendidly,” she answered, patting him on the shoulder in a motherly fashion. “Don’t you worry.”
“I can’t help it, Mrs. Jobson,” he replied, sitting down upon the bottom stair, and leaning his head against the banisters.
“Of course you can’t,” said Mrs. Jobson admiringly; “and you wouldn’t be much of a man if you could.” Then it was borne in upon me why he wore his hat, and dined off cold chops in the passage.
The following summer they rented a picturesque old house in Berkshire, and invited me down from a Saturday to Monday. Their place was near the river, so I slipped a suit of flannels in my bag, and on the Sunday morning I came down in them. He met me in the garden. He was dressed in a frock coat and a white waistcoat; and I noticed that he kept looking at me out of the corner of his eye, and that he seemed to have a trouble on his mind. The first breakfast bell rang, and then he said, “You haven’t got any proper clothes with you, have you?”
“Proper clothes!” I exclaimed, stopping in some alarm. “Why, has anything given way?”
“No, not that,” he explained. “I mean clothes to go to church in.”
“Church,” I said. “You’re surely not going to church a fine day like this? I made sure you’d be playing tennis, or going on the river. You always used to.”
“Yes,” he replied, nervously flicking a rose-bush with a twig he had picked up. “You see, it isn’t ourselves exactly. Maud and I would rather like to, but our cook, she’s Scotch, and a little strict in her notions.”
“And does she insist on your going to church every Sunday morning?” I inquired.
“Well,” he answered, “she thinks it strange if we don’t, and so we generally do, just in the morning–and evening. And then in the afternoon a few of the village girls drop in, and we have a little singing and that sort of thing. I never like hurting anyone’s feelings if I can help it.”
I did not say what I thought. Instead I said, “I’ve got that tweed suit I wore yesterday. I can put that on if you like.”
He ceased flicking the rose-bush, and knitted his brows. He seemed to be recalling it to his imagination.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m afraid it would shock her. It’s my fault, I know,” he added, remorsefully. “I ought to have told you.”
Then an idea came to him.
“I suppose,” he said, “you wouldn’t care to pretend you were ill, and stop in bed just for the day?”
I explained that my conscience would not permit my being a party to such deception
“No, I thought you wouldn’t,” he replied. “I must explain it to her. I think I’ll say you’ve lost your bag. I shouldn’t like her to think bad of us.”
Later on a fourteenth cousin died, leaving him a large fortune. He purchased an estate in Yorkshire, and became a “county family,” and then his real troubles began.
From May to the middle of August, save for a little fly fishing, which generally resulted in his getting his feet wet and catching a cold, life was fairly peaceful; but from early autumn to late spring he found the work decidedly trying. He was a stout man, constitutionally nervous of fire-arms, and a six-hours’ tramp with a heavy gun across ploughed fields, in company with a crowd of careless persons who kept blazing away within an inch of other people’s noses, harassed and exhausted him. He had to get out of bed at four on chilly October mornings to go cub-hunting, and twice a week throughout the winter–except when a blessed frost brought him a brief respite–he had to ride to hounds. That he usually got off with nothing more serious than mere bruises and slight concussions of the spine, he probably owed to the fortunate circumstances of his being little and fat. At stiff timber he shut his eyes and rode hard; and ten yards from a river he would begin to think about bridges.
Yet he never complained.
“If you are a country gentleman,” he would say, “you must behave as a country gentleman, and take the rough with the smooth.”
As ill fate would have it a chance speculation doubled his fortune, and it became necessary that he should go into Parliament and start a yacht. Parliament made his head ache, and the yacht made him sick. Notwithstanding, every summer he would fill it with a lot of expensive people who bored him, and sail away for a month’s misery in the Mediterranean.
During one cruise his guests built up a highly-interesting gambling scandal. He himself was confined to his cabin at the time, and knew nothing about it; but the Opposition papers, getting hold of the story, referred casually to the yacht as a “floating hell,” and The Police News awarded his portrait the place of honour as the chief criminal of the week.
Later on he got into a cultured set, ruled by a thick-lipped undergraduate. His favourite literature had hitherto been of the Corelli and Tit-Bits order, but now he read Meredith and the yellow book, and tried to understand them; and instead of the Gaiety, he subscribed to the Independent Theatre, and fed “his soul,” on Dutch Shakespeares. What he liked in art was a pretty girl by a cottage-door with an eligible young man in the background, or a child and a dog doing something funny. They told him these things were wrong and made him buy “Impressions” that stirred his liver to its deepest depths every time he looked at them–green cows on red hills by pink moonlight, or scarlet-haired corpses with three feet of neck.
He said meekly that such seemed to him unnatural, but they answered that nature had nothing to do with the question; that the artist saw things like that, and that whatever an artist saw–no matter in what condition he may have been when he saw it–that was art.
They took him to Wagner festivals and Burne-Jones’s private views. They read him all the minor poets. They booked seats for him at all Ibsen’s plays. They introduced him into all the most soulful circles of artistic society. His days were one long feast of other people’s enjoyments.
One morning I met him coming down the steps of the Arts Club. He looked weary. He was just off to a private view at the New Gallery. In the afternoon he had to attend an amateur performance of “The Cenci,” given by the Shelley Society. Then followed three literary and artistic At Homes, a dinner with an Indian nabob who couldn’t speak a word of English, “Tristam and Isolde” at Covent Garden Theatre, and a ball at Lord Salisbury’s to wind up the day.
I laid my hand upon his shoulder.
“Come with me to Epping Forest,” I said. “There’s a four-horse brake starts from Charing Cross at eleven. It’s Saturday, and there’s bound to be a crowd down there. I’ll play you a game of skittles, and we will have a shy at the cocoa-nuts. You used to be rather smart at cocoa-nuts. We can have lunch there and be back at seven, dine at the Troc., spend the evening at the Empire, and sup at the Savoy. What do you say?”
He stood hesitating on the steps, a wistful look in his eyes.
His brougham drew up against the curb, and he started as if from a dream.
“My dear fellow,” he replied, “what would people say?” And shaking me by the hand, he took his seat, and the footman slammed the door upon him.