The Ball and the Cross/XIV
|←XIII: The Garden of Peace||The Ball and the Cross by
XIV: A Museum of Souls
|XV: The Dream of MacIan→|
The man with the good hat and the jumping elbow went by very quickly; yet the man with the bad hat, who thought he was God, overtook him. He ran after him and jumped over a bed of geraniums to catch him.
"I beg your Majesty's pardon," he said, with mock humility, "but here is a quarrel which you ought really to judge."
Then as he led the heavy, silk-hatted man back towards the group, he caught MacIan's ear in order to whisper: "This poor gentleman is mad; he thinks he is Edward VII." At this the self-appointed Creator slightly winked. "Of course you won't trust him much; come to me for everything. But in my position one has to meet so many people. One has to be broadminded."
The big banker in the black frock-coat and hat was standing quite grave and dignified on the lawn, save for his slight twitch of one limb, and he did not seem by any means unworthy of the part which the other promptly forced upon him.
"My dear fellow," said the man in the straw hat, "these two gentlemen are going to fight a duel of the utmost importance. Your own royal position and my much humbler one surely indicate us as the proper seconds. Seconds--yes, seconds----" and here the speaker was once more shaken with his old malady of laughter.
"Yes, you and I are both seconds--and these two gentlemen can obviously fight in front of us. You, he-he, are the king. I am God; really, they could hardly have better supporters. They have come to the right place."
Then Turnbull, who had been staring with a frown at the fresh turf, burst out with a rather bitter laugh and cried, throwing his red head in the air:
"Yes, by God, MacIan, I think we have come to the right place!" And MacIan answered, with an adamantine stupidity:
"Any place is the right place where they will let us do it."
There was a long stillness, and their eyes involuntarily took in the landscape, as they had taken in all the landscapes of their everlasting combat; the bright, square garden behind the shop; the whole lift and leaning of the side of Hampstead Heath; the little garden of the decadent choked with flowers; the square of sand beside the sea at sunrise. They both felt at the same moment all the breadth and blossoming beauty of that paradise, the coloured trees, the natural and restful nooks and also the great wall of stone--more awful than the wall of China--from which no flesh could flee.
Turnbull was moodily balancing his sword in his hand as the other spoke; then he started, for a mouth whispered quite close to his ear. With a softness incredible in any cat, the huge, heavy man in the black hat and frock-coat had crept across the lawn from his own side and was saying in his ear: "Don't trust that second of yours. He's mad and not so mad, either; for he frightfully cunning and sharp. Don't believe the story he tells you about why I hate him. I know the story he'll tell; I overheard it when the housekeeper was talking to the postman. It's too long to talk about now, and I expect we're watched, but----"
Something in Turnbull made him want suddenly to be sick on the grass; the mere healthy and heathen horror of the unclean; the mere inhumane hatred of the inhuman state of madness. He seemed to hear all round him the hateful whispers of that place, innumerable as leaves whispering in the wind, and each of them telling eagerly some evil that had not happened or some terrific secret which was not true. All the rationalist and plain man revolted within him against bowing down for a moment in that forest of deception and egotistical darkness. He wanted to blow up that palace of delusions with dynamite; and in some wild way, which I will not defend, he tried to do it.
He looked across at MacIan and said: "Oh, I can't stand this!"
"Can't stand what?" asked his opponent, eyeing him doubtfully.
"Shall we say the atmosphere?" replied Turnbull; "one can't use uncivil expressions even to a--deity. The fact is, I don't like having God for my second."
"Sir!" said that being in a state of great offence, "in my position I am not used to having my favours refused. Do you know who I am?"
The editor of The Atheist turned upon him like one who has lost all patience, and exploded: "Yes, you are God, aren't you?" he said, abruptly, "why do we have two sets of teeth?"
"Teeth?" spluttered the genteel lunatic; "teeth?"
"Yes," cried Turnbull, advancing on him swiftly and with animated gestures, "why does teething hurt? Why do growing pains hurt? Why are measles catching? Why does a rose have thorns? Why do rhinoceroses have horns? Why is the horn on the top of the nose? Why haven't I a horn on the top of my nose, eh?" And he struck the bridge of his nose smartly with his forefinger to indicate the place of the omission and then wagged the finger menacingly at the Creator.
"I've often wanted to meet you," he resumed, sternly, after a pause, "to hold you accountable for all the idiocy and cruelty of this muddled and meaningless world of yours. You make a hundred seeds and only one bears fruit. You make a million worlds and only one seems inhabited. What do you mean by it, eh? What do you mean by it?"
The unhappy lunatic had fallen back before this quite novel form of attack, and lifted his burnt-out cigarette almost like one warding off a blow. Turnbull went on like a torrent.
"A man died yesterday in Ealing. You murdered him. A girl had the toothache in Croydon. You gave it her. Fifty sailors were drowned off Selsey Bill. You scuttled their ship. What have you got to say for yourself, eh?"
The representative of omnipotence looked as if he had left most of these things to his subordinates; he passed a hand over his wrinkling brow and said in a voice much saner than any he had yet used:
"Well, if you dislike my assistance, of course--perhaps the other gentleman----"
"The other gentleman," cried Turnbull, scornfully, "is a submissive and loyal and obedient gentleman. He likes the people who wear crowns, whether of diamonds or of stars. He believes in the divine right of kings, and it is appropriate enough that he should have the king for his second. But it is not appropriate to me that I should have God for my second. God is not good enough. I dislike and I deny the divine right of kings. But I dislike more and I deny more the divine right of divinity."
Then after a pause in which he swallowed his passion, he said to MacIan: "You have got the right second, anyhow."
The Highlander did not answer, but stood as if thunderstruck with one long and heavy thought. Then at last he turned abruptly to his second in the silk hat and said: "Who are you?"
The man in the silk hat blinked and bridled in affected surprise, like one who was in truth accustomed to be doubted.
"I am King Edward VII," he said, with shaky arrogance. "Do you doubt my word?"
"I do not doubt it in the least," answered MacIan.
"Then, why," said the large man in the silk hat, trembling from head to foot, "why do you wear your hat before the king?"
"Why should I take it off," retorted MacIan, with equal heat, "before a usurper?"
Turnbull swung round on his heel. "Well, really," he said, "I thought at least you were a loyal subject."
"I am the only loyal subject," answered the Gael. "For nearly thirty years I have walked these islands and have not found another."
"You are always hard to follow," remarked Turnbull, genially, "and sometimes so much so as to be hardly worth following."
"I alone am loyal," insisted MacIan; "for I alone am in rebellion. I am ready at any instant to restore the Stuarts. I am ready at any instant to defy the Hanoverian brood--and I defy it now even when face to face with the actual ruler of the enormous British Empire!"
And folding his arms and throwing back his lean, hawklike face, he haughtily confronted the man with the formal frock-coat and the eccentric elbow.
"What right had you stunted German squires," he cried, "to interfere in a quarrel between Scotch and English and Irish gentlemen? Who made you, whose fathers could not splutter English while they walked in Whitehall, who made you the judge between the republic of Sidney and the monarchy of Montrose? What had your sires to do with England that they should have the foul offering of the blood of Derwentwater and the heart of Jimmy Dawson? Where are the corpses of Culloden? Where is the blood of Lochiel?" MacIan advanced upon his opponent with a bony and pointed finger, as if indicating the exact pocket in which the blood of that Cameron was probably kept; and Edward VII fell back a few paces in considerable confusion.
"What good have you ever done to us?" he continued in harsher and harsher accents, forcing the other back towards the flower-beds. "What good have you ever done, you race of German sausages? Yards of barbarian etiquette, to throttle the freedom of aristocracy! Gas of northern metaphysics to blow up Broad Church bishops like balloons. Bad pictures and bad manners and pantheism and the Albert Memorial. Go back to Hanover, you humbug? Go to----"
Before the end of this tirade the arrogance of the monarch had entirely given way; he had fairly turned tail and was trundling away down the path. MacIan strode after him still preaching and flourishing his large, lean hands. The other two remained in the centre of the lawn--Turnbull in convulsions of laughter, the lunatic in convulsions of disgust. Almost at the same moment a third figure came stepping swiftly across the lawn.
The advancing figure walked with a stoop, and yet somehow flung his forked and narrow beard forward. That carefully cut and pointed yellow beard was, indeed, the most emphatic thing about him. When he clasped his hands behind him, under the tails of his coat, he would wag his beard at a man like a big forefinger. It performed almost all his gestures; it was more important than the glittering eye-glasses through which he looked or the beautiful bleating voice in which he spoke. His face and neck were of a lusty red, but lean and stringy; he always wore his expensive gold-rim eye-glasses slightly askew upon his aquiline nose; and he always showed two gleaming foreteeth under his moustache, in a smile so perpetual as to earn the reputation of a sneer. But for the crooked glasses his dress was always exquisite; and but for the smile he was perfectly and perennially depressed.
"Don't you think," said the new-comer, with a sort of supercilious entreaty, "that we had better all come into breakfast? It is such a mistake to wait for breakfast. It spoils one's temper so much."
"Quite so," replied Turnbull, seriously.
"There seems almost to have been a little quarrelling here," said the man with the goatish beard.
"It is rather a long story," said Turnbull, smiling. "Originally, it might be called a phase in the quarrel between science and religion."
The new-comer started slightly, and Turnbull replied to the question on his face.
"Oh, yes," he said, "I am science!"
"I congratulate you heartily," answered the other, "I am Doctor Quayle."
Turnbull's eyes did not move, but he realized that the man in the panama hat had lost all his ease of a landed proprietor and had withdrawn to a distance of thirty yards, where he stood glaring with all the contraction of fear and hatred that can stiffen a cat.
* * *
MacIan was sitting somewhat disconsolately on a stump of tree, his large black head half buried in his large brown hands, when Turnbull strode up to him chewing a cigarette. He did not look up, but his comrade and enemy addressed him like one who must free himself of his feelings.
"Well, I hope, at any rate," he said, "that you like your precious religion now. I hope you like the society of this poor devil whom your damned tracts and hymns and priests have driven out of his wits. Five men in this place, they tell me, five men in this place who might have been fathers of families, and every one of them thinks he is God the Father. Oh! you may talk about the ugliness of science, but there is no one here who thinks he is Protoplasm."
"They naturally prefer a bright part," said MacIan, wearily. "Protoplasm is not worth going mad about."
"At least," said Turnbull, savagely, "it was your Jesus Christ who started all this bosh about being God."
For one instant MacIan opened the eyes of battle; then his tightened lips took a crooked smile and he said, quite calmly:
"No, the idea is older; it was Satan who first said that he was God."
"Then, what," asked Turnbull, very slowly, as he softly picked a flower, "what is the difference between Christ and Satan?"
"It is quite simple," replied the Highlander. "Christ descended into hell; Satan fell into it."
"Does it make much odds?" asked the free-thinker.
"It makes all the odds," said the other. "One of them wanted to go up and went down; the other wanted to go down and went up. A god can be humble, a devil can only be humbled."
"Why are you always wanting to humble a man?" asked Turnbull, knitting his brows. "It affects me as ungenerous."
"Why were you wanting to humble a god when you found him in this garden?" asked MacIan.
"That was an extreme case of impudence," said Turnbull.
"Granting the man his almighty pretensions, I think he was very modest," said MacIan. "It is we who are arrogant, who know we are only men. The ordinary man in the street is more of a monster than that poor fellow; for the man in the street treats himself as God Almighty when he knows he isn't. He expects the universe to turn round him, though he knows he isn't the centre."
"Well," said Turnbull, sitting down on the grass, "this is a digression, anyhow. What I want to point out is, that your faith does end in asylums and my science doesn't."
"Doesn't it, by George!" cried MacIan, scornfully. "There are a few men here who are mad on God and a few who are mad on the Bible. But I bet there are many more who are simply mad on madness."
"Do you really believe it?" asked the other.
"Scores of them, I should say," answered MacIan. "Fellows who have read medical books or fellows whose fathers and uncles had something hereditary in their heads--the whole air they breathe is mad."
"All the same," said Turnbull, shrewdly, "I bet you haven't found a madman of that sort."
"I bet I have!" cried Evan, with unusual animation. "I've been walking about the garden talking to a poor chap all the morning. He's simply been broken down and driven raving by your damned science. Talk about believing one is God--why, it's quite an old, comfortable, fireside fancy compared with the sort of things this fellow believes. He believes that there is a God, but that he is better than God. He says God will be afraid to face him. He says one is always progressing beyond the best. He put his arm in mine and whispered in my ear, as if it were the apocalypse: 'Never trust a God that you can't improve on.'"
"What can he have meant?" said the atheist, with all his logic awake. "Obviously one should not trust any God that one can improve on."
"It is the way he talks," said MacIan, almost indifferently; "but he says rummier things than that. He says that a man's doctor ought to decide what woman he marries; and he says that children ought not to be brought up by their parents, because a physical partiality will then distort the judgement of the educator."
"Oh, dear!" said Turnbull, laughing, "you have certainly come across a pretty bad case, and incidentally proved your own. I suppose some men do lose their wits through science as through love and other good things."
"And he says," went on MacIan, monotonously, "that he cannot see why anyone should suppose that a triangle is a three-sided figure. He says that on some higher plane----"
Turnbull leapt to his feet as by an electric shock. "I never could have believed," he cried, "that you had humour enough to tell a lie. You've gone a bit too far, old man, with your little joke. Even in a lunatic asylum there can't be anybody who, having thought about the matter, thinks that a triangle has not got three sides. If he exists he must be a new era in human psychology. But he doesn't exist."
"I will go and fetch him," said MacIan, calmly; "I left the poor fellow wandering about by the nasturtium bed."
MacIan vanished, and in a few moments returned, trailing with him his own discovery among lunatics, who was a slender man with a fixed smile and an unfixed and rolling head. He had a goatlike beard just long enough to be shaken in a strong wind. Turnbull sprang to his feet and was like one who is speechless through choking a sudden shout of laughter.
"Why, you great donkey," he shouted, in an ear-shattering whisper, "that's not one of the patients at all. That's one of the doctors."
Evan looked back at the leering head with the long-pointed beard and repeated the word inquiringly: "One of the doctors?"
"Oh, you know what I mean," said Turnbull, impatiently. "The medical authorities of the place."
Evan was still staring back curiously at the beaming and bearded creature behind him.
"The mad doctors," said Turnbull, shortly.
"Quite so," said MacIan.
After a rather restless silence Turnbull plucked MacIan by the elbow and pulled him aside.
"For goodness sake," he said, "don't offend this fellow; he may be as mad as ten hatters, if you like, but he has us between his finger and thumb. This is the very time he appointed to talk with us about our--well, our exeat."
"But what can it matter?" asked the wondering MacIan. "He can't keep us in the asylum. We're not mad."
"Jackass!" said Turnbull, heartily, "of course we're not mad. Of course, if we are medically examined and the thing is thrashed out, they will find we are not mad. But don't you see that if the thing is thrashed out it will mean letters to this reference and telegrams to that; and at the first word of who we are, we shall be taken out of a madhouse, where we may smoke, to a jail, where we mayn't. No, if we manage this very quietly, he may merely let us out at the front door as stray revellers. If there's half an hour of inquiry, we are cooked."
MacIan looked at the grass frowningly for a few seconds, and then said in a new, small and childish voice: "I am awfully stupid, Mr. Turnbull; you must be patient with me."
Turnbull caught Evan's elbow again with quite another gesture. "Come," he cried, with the harsh voice of one who hides emotion, "come and let us be tactful in chorus."
The doctor with the pointed beard was already slanting it forward at a more than usually acute angle, with the smile that expressed expectancy.
"I hope I do not hurry you, gentlemen," he said, with the faintest suggestion of a sneer at their hurried consultation, "but I believe you wanted to see me at half past eleven."
"I am most awfully sorry, Doctor," said Turnbull, with ready amiability; "I never meant to keep you waiting; but the silly accident that has landed us in your garden may have some rather serious consequences to our friends elsewhere, and my friend here was just drawing my attention to some of them."
"Quite so! Quite so!" said the doctor, hurriedly. "If you really want to put anything before me, I can give you a few moments in my consulting-room."
He led them rapidly into a small but imposing apartment, which seemed to be built and furnished entirely in red-varnished wood. There was one desk occupied with carefully docketed papers; and there were several chairs of the red-varnished wood--though of different shape. All along the wall ran something that might have been a bookcase, only that it was not filled with books, but with flat, oblong slabs or cases of the same polished dark-red consistency. What those flat wooden cases were they could form no conception.
The doctor sat down with a polite impatience on his professional perch; MacIan remained standing, but Turnbull threw himself almost with luxury into a hard wooden arm-chair.
"This is a most absurd business, Doctor," he said, "and I am ashamed to take up the time of busy professional men with such pranks from outside. The plain fact is, that he and I and a pack of silly men and girls have organized a game across this part of the country--a sort of combination of hare and hounds and hide and seek--I dare say you've heard of it. We are the hares, and, seeing your high wall look so inviting, we tumbled over it, and naturally were a little startled with what we found on the other side."
"Quite so!" said the doctor, mildly. "I can understand that you were startled."
Turnbull had expected him to ask what place was the headquarters of the new exhilarating game, and who were the male and female enthusiasts who had brought it to such perfection; in fact, Turnbull was busy making up these personal and topographical particulars. As the doctor did not ask the question, he grew slightly uneasy, and risked the question: "I hope you will accept my assurance that the thing was an accident and that no intrusion was meant."
"Oh, yes, sir," replied the doctor, smiling, "I accept everything that you say."
"In that case," said Turnbull, rising genially, "we must not further interrupt your important duties. I suppose there will be someone to let us out?"
"No," said the doctor, still smiling steadily and pleasantly, "there will be no one to let you out."
"Can we let ourselves out, then?" asked Turnbull, in some surprise.
"Why, of course not," said the beaming scientist; "think how dangerous that would be in a place like this."
"Then, how the devil are we to get out?" cried Turnbull, losing his manners for the first time.
"It is a question of time, of receptivity, and treatment," said the doctor, arching his eyebrows indifferently. "I do not regard either of your cases as incurable."
And with that the man of the world was struck dumb, and, as in all intolerable moments, the word was with the unworldly.
MacIan took one stride to the table, leant across it, and said: "We can't stop here, we're not mad people!"
"We don't use the crude phrase," said the doctor, smiling at his patent-leather boots.
"But you can't think us mad," thundered MacIan. "You never saw us before. You know nothing about us. You haven't even examined us."
The doctor threw back his head and beard. "Oh, yes," he said, "very thoroughly."
"But you can't shut a man up on your mere impressions without documents or certificates or anything?"
The doctor got languidly to his feet. "Quite so," he said. "You certainly ought to see the documents."
He went across to the curious mock book-shelves and took down one of the flat mahogany cases. This he opened with a curious key at his watch-chain, and laying back a flap revealed a quire of foolscap covered with close but quite clear writing. The first three words were in such large copy-book hand that they caught the eye even at a distance. They were: "MacIan, Evan Stuart."
Evan bent his angry eagle face over it; yet something blurred it and he could never swear he saw it distinctly. He saw something that began: "Prenatal influences predisposing to mania. Grandfather believed in return of the Stuarts. Mother carried bone of St. Eulalia with which she touched children in sickness. Marked religious mania at early age----"
Evan fell back and fought for his speech. "Oh!" he burst out at last. "Oh! if all this world I have walked in had been as sane as my mother was."
Then he compressed his temples with his hands, as if to crush them. And then lifted suddenly a face that looked fresh and young, as if he had dipped and washed it in some holy well.
"Very well," he cried; "I will take the sour with the sweet. I will pay the penalty of having enjoyed God in this monstrous modern earth that cannot enjoy man or beast. I will die happy in your madhouse, only because I know what I know. Let it be granted, then--MacIan is a mystic; MacIan is a maniac. But this honest shopkeeper and editor whom I have dragged on my inhuman escapades, you cannot keep him. He will go free, thank God, he is not down in any damned document. His ancestor, I am certain, did not die at Culloden. His mother, I swear, had no relics. Let my friend out of your front door, and as for me----"
The doctor had already gone across to the laden shelves, and after a few minutes' short-sighted peering, had pulled down another parallelogram of dark-red wood.
This also he unlocked on the table, and with the same unerring egotistic eye on of the company saw the words, written in large letters: "Turnbull, James."
Hitherto Turnbull himself had somewhat scornfully surrendered his part in the whole business; but he was too honest and unaffected not to start at his own name. After the name, the inscription appeared to run: "Unique case of Eleutheromania. Parentage, as so often in such cases, prosaic and healthy. Eleutheromaniac signs occurred early, however, leading him to attach himself to the individualist Bradlaugh. Recent outbreak of pure anarchy----"
Turnbull slammed the case to, almost smashing it, and said with a burst of savage laughter: "Oh! come along, MacIan; I don't care so much, even about getting out of the madhouse, if only we get out of this room. You were right enough, MacIan, when you spoke about--about mad doctors."
Somehow they found themselves outside in the cool, green garden, and then, after a stunned silence, Turnbull said: "There is one thing that was puzzling me all the time, and I understand it now."
"What do you mean?" asked Evan.
"No man by will or wit," answered Turnbull, "can get out of this garden; and yet we got into it merely by jumping over a garden wall. The whole thing explains itself easily enough. That undefended wall was an open trap. It was a trap laid for two celebrated lunatics. They saw us get in right enough. And they will see that we do not get out."
Evan gazed at the garden wall, gravely for more than a minute, and then he nodded without a word.