The Garden of Survival/Chapter VI
I RETURNED to England with an expectant hunger born of this love of beauty that was now ingrained in me. I came home with the belief that my yearning would be satisfied in a deeper measure; and more--that, somehow, it would be justified and explained. I may put it plainly, if only to show how difficult this confession would have been to any one but yourself; it sounds so visionary from a mere soldier and man of action such as I am. For my belief included a singular dream that, in the familiar scenes I now revisited, some link, already half established, would be strengthened, and might probably be realized, even proved.
In Africa, as you know, I had been set upon the clue at home in England. Among the places and conditions where this link had been first established in the flesh, must surely come a fuller revelation. Beauty, the channel of my inspiration, but this time the old sweet English beauty, so intimate, so woven through with the fresh wonder of earliest childhood days, would reveal the cause of my first failure to respond, and so, perhaps, the intention of those final pathetic sentences that still haunted me with their freight of undelivered meaning. In England, T believed, my "thrill" must bring authentic revelation.
I came back, that precarious entity, a successful man. I was to be that thing we used to laugh about together in your Cambridge days, a distinguished personality; I should belong to the breed of little lions. Yet, during the long, tedious voyage, I realized that this held no meaning for me; I did not feel myself a little lion, the idea only proved that the boy in me was not yet dead. My one desire, though inarticulate until this moment of confessing it, was to renew the thrills, and so to gather from an intenser, sweeter beauty some measure of greater understanding they seemed to promise. It was a personal hope, a personal desire; and, deep at the heart of it, Memory, passionate though elusive, flashed her strange signal of a personal love. In this dream that mocked at time, this yearning that forgot the intervening years, I nursed the impossible illusion that, somehow or other, I should become aware of Marion.
Now, I have treated you in this letter as though you were a woman who reads a novel, for in my first pages I have let you turn to the end and see that the climax is a happy one, lest you should faint by the way and close my story with a yawn. You need not do that, however, since you already know this in advance. You will bear with me, too, when I tell you that my return to England was in the nature of a failure that, at first, involved sharpest disappointment. I was unaware, as a whole, of the thrills I had anticipated with such longing. The sweet picture of English loveliness I had cherished with sentimental passion during my long exile hardly materialized.
That I was not a lion, but an insignificant quasi-colonial adventurer among many others, may have sprinkled acid upon my daily diet of sensation, but you will do me the justice to believe that this wounded vanity was the smallest item in my disenchantment. Ten years, especially in primitive, godforsaken Africa, is a considerable interval; I found the relationship between myself and my beloved home-land changed, and in an unexpected way.
I was not missed for one thing, I had been forgotten. Except from our mother and yourself, I had no welcome. But, apart from this immediate circle, and apart from the deep, comfortable glow experienced at the first sight of the "old country," I found England and the English dull, conventional, and uninspired. There was no poignancy. The habits and the outlook stood precisely where I had left them. The English had not moved. They played golf as of yore, they went to the races at the appointed time and in the appointed garb, they gave heavy dinner-parties, they wrote letters to the Times, and ignored an outside world beyond their island. Their estimate of themselves and of foreigners remained unaltered, their estimate of rich or influential neighbours was what it always had been, there were many more motor-cars and a few more peers, it was more difficult than formerly to get into a good club; but otherwise, God bless them, they were worthier than ever. The "dear old country," that which "out there" we had loved and venerated, worked and fought for, was stolid and unshaken; the stream of advancing life that elsewhere rushed, had left England complaisantly unmoved and unresponsive.
You have no idea how vividly--and in what curious minor details--the general note of England strikes a traveller returning after an interval of years. Later, of course, the single impression is modified and obscured by other feelings. I give it, therefore, before it was forgotten. England had not budged. Had it been winter instead of early spring, I might sum up for you what I mean in one short sentence: I travelled to London in a third-class railway carriage that had no heating apparatus.
But to all this, and with a touch of something akin to pride in me, I speedily adjusted myself. I had been exiled, I had come home. As our old nurse, aged and withered, but otherwise unaltered, said to me quietly by way of greeting: "Well, they didn't kill you, Master Richard!" I was, therefore, alive. It was for me, the unimportant atom, to recover my place in the parent mass. I did so. I was English. I recovered proportion. I wore the accustomed mask; I hid both my person and my new emotions, as was obviously expected of me. Having reported my insignificance to the Foreign Office. . . . I came down to the Manor House.
Yet, having changed, and knowing that I had changed, I was aware of a cleft between me and my native stock. Something un-English was alive in me and eager to assert itself. Another essence in my blood had quickened, a secret yearning that I dared not mention to my kind, a new hunger in my heart that clamoured to be satisfied, yet remained, speaking generally, un-nourished. Looking for beauty among my surroundings and among my kith and kin, I found it not; there was no great Thrill from England or from home. The slowness, the absence of colour, imagination, rhythm, baffled me, while the ugliness of common things and common usages afflicted my new sensitiveness. Not that I am peculiarly alert to beauty, nor claim superior perception--I am no artist, either by virtue of vision or power of expression--but that a certain stagnant obtuseness, a kind of sordid and conservative veneration of the ugly that the English favour, distressed and even tortured me in a way I had never realized formerly. They were so proud to live without perception. An artist was a curiosity, not a leader, far less a prophet. There was no imagination.
In little things, as I said, a change was manifest, however. Much that tradition had made lovely with the perfume of many centuries I found modernized until the ancient spirit had entirely fled, leaving a shell that was artificial to the point of being false. The sanction of olden time that used to haunt with beauty was deceived by a mockery I found almost hideous. The ancient inns, for instance, adapted to week-end motor traffic, were pretentious and uncomfortable, their "menus" of inferior food written elaborately in French. The courtliness had vanished, and the cost had come. Telephones everywhere not only destroyed privacy, but brought dismay into countless gentle intimacies, their nuisance hardly justified by their usefulness. Life, it seemed, in a frantic hurry, had been cheapened, not improved; there was no real progress, but only more unrest. England--too solid to go fast, had made ungainly efforts; but she had moved towards ungraciousness where she had moved at all; I found her a cross between a museum and an American mushroom town that advertises all the modern comforts with a violent insistence that is meant to cloak their very absence.
This, my first impression, toned down, of course, a little later; but it was my first impression. The people, however, even in the countryside, seemed proud both of mushroom and museum, and commercial ugliness, greedy and unashamed, now distorted every old-world village. The natives were pleased to the point of vanity.
For myself, I could not manage this atrocious compromise, and looking for the dear old England of our boyhood days, I found it not. The change, of course, was not in the country only, but in myself. The soul in me, awakened to a new standard, had turned round to face another way.
The Manor House was very still when I arrived from London--& late May evening between the sunset and the dark. Mother, as you know, met me at the station, for they had stopped the down-train by special orders, so that I stepped out upon the deserted platform of the countryside quite alone, a distinguished man, with my rug and umbrella. A strange footman touched his hat, an old, stooping porter stared hard at me, then smiled vaguely, while the guard, eyeing respectfully the individual for whom his train had halted, waved his red flag, and swung himself into the disappearing van with the approved manner we once thought marvellous. I left the empty platform, gave up my ticket to an untidy boy, and crossed the gloomy booking-hall. The mournfulness of the whole place was depressing. I heard a blackbird whistle in a bush against the signal-box. It seemed to scream.
Mother I first saw, seated in the big barouche. She was leaning back, but sat forwards as I came. She looked into my face across the wide interval of years now ended, and my heart gave a great boyish leap, then sank into stillness again abruptly. She seemed to me exactly the same as usual--only so much smaller. We embraced with a kind of dignity:
"So here you are, my boy, at last," I heard her say in a quiet voice, and as though she had seen me a month or two ago, "and very, very tired, I'll be bound."
I took my seat beside her. I felt awkward, stiff, self-conscious; there was disappointment somewhere.
"Oh, I'm all right, mother, thanks," I answered. "But how are you?" And the next moment, it seemed to me, I heard her asking if I was hungry;-- whereupon, absurd as it must sound, I was aware of an immense emotion that interfered with my breathing. It broke up through some repressive layer that had apparently concealed it, and made me feel--well, had I been thirty-five years younger, I could have cried--for pleasure. Mother, I think, forgot those years perhaps. To her I was still in overalls and wanted food. We drove, then, in comparative silence the four miles behind the big pair of greys, the only remark that memory credits me with being an enquiry about the identity of the coachman whose dim outline I saw looming in the darkness just above me. The lamplight showed one shoulder, one arm, one ear, the rest concealed; but the way he drove was, of course, unmistakeable; slowly, more cautiously, perhaps, but with the same flourish of the whip, the same air of untold responsibility as ever. And, will you believe it, my chief memory of all that scene of anticipated tenderness and home-emotion is the few words he gave in reply to my enquiry and recognition when at length the carriage stopped and I got out:
"Well, Brown, I'm glad to see you again. All well at home, I hope?" followed by something of sympathy about his beloved horses.
He looked down sideways at me from the box, touching his cockade with the long yellow whip in his thick, gloved hand. I can hear his warm, respectful answer now; I can see the gleam of proud pleasure in his eye:
"Yes, sir, thank you, Sir Richard, and glad to see you back again, sir, and with such success upon you."
I moved back to help our mother out. I remember thinking how calm, how solid, how characteristically inarticulate it all was. Did I wish it otherwise? I think not. Only there was something in me beating its wings impatiently like a wild bird that felt the bars close round it. . . . Mother, I realized, could not have said even what the old coachman had said to save her life, and I remember wondering what would move her into the expression of natural joy. All that half-hour, as the hoofs echoed along the silence of the country road, and the old familiar woods and fields slid past, no sign of deep emotion had escaped her. She had asked if I was hungry. . . .
And then the smells! The sweet, faint garden smell in the English twilight:--of laurels and laurestinus, of lilac, pinks, and the heavy scent of May, wall-flowers and sweet william too--these, with the poignant aroma of the old childhood house, were the background of familiar loveliness against which my subsequent disillusion of the homeland set itself in such afflicting contrast. I remember, as we entered the dim hall, the carriage lamps fell on, the flowering horse-chestnut by the door; the bats were flitting; a big white moth whirred softly against the brilliant glass as though you and I were after it again with nets and killing-bottles. . . and, helping mother out, I noticed, besides her smallness, how slow and aged her movements were.
"Mother, let me help you. That's what I've come home for," I said, feeling for her little hand. And she replied so quietly, so calmly it was almost frigid, "Thank you, dear boy; your arm, perhaps--a moment. They are so stupid about the lamps in the hall, I've had to speak so often. There, now! It is an awkward step." I felt myself a giant beside her. She seemed so tiny now. There was something very strong in her silence and her calm; and though a portion of me liked it, another portion resented it and felt afraid. Her attitude was like a refusal, a denial, a refusal to live, a denial of life almost. A tinge of depression, not far removed from melancholy, stole over my spirit. The change in me, I realized then, indeed, was radical.
Now, lest this narrative should seem confused, you must understand that my disillusions with regard to England were realized subsequently, when I had moved about the counties, paid many solid visits, and tasted the land and people in some detail. And the disappointment was the keener owing to the fact that very soon after my arrival in the old Home Place, the "thrill" came to me with a direct appeal that was disconcerting. For coming unexpectedly, as it did, in this familiar scene where yet previously I had never known it, it had the effect of marking the change in me with a certainty from which there was no withdrawal possible. It standardized this change. The new judgment was made uncompromisingly clear; people and places must inevitably stand or fall by it. And the first to fall--since the test lies beyond all control of affection or respect--was our own dear, faithful mother.
You share my reverence and devotion, so you will feel no pain that I would dishonour a tie that is sacred to us both in the old Bible sense. But, also, you know what a sturdy and typical soul of England she has proved herself, and that a sense of beauty is not, alas, by any stretch of kindliest allowance, a national characteristic. Culture and knowledge we may fairly claim, no doubt, but the imaginative sense of beauty is o rare among us that its possession is a peculiarity good form would suppress. It is a pose, an affectation, it is unmanly--it is not English. We are too strong to thrill. And that one so near and dear to me, so honoured and so deeply loved, should prove herself to my new standard thus typically English, while it came as sharpest pain, ought not, I suppose, to have caused me the surprise it did. It made me aware, however, of the importance of my new criterion, while at the same time aware of a lack of sympathy between us that amounted to disenchantment. It was a shock, to put it plainly. A breath of solitude, of isolation, stole on me and, close behind it, melancholy.
From the smallest clue imaginable the truth came into me, from a clue so small, indeed, that you may smile to think I dared draw such big deductions from premises so insignificant. You will probably deny me a sense of humour even when you hear. So let me say at once, before you judge me hastily, that the words, and the incident which drew them forth, were admittedly inadequate to the deduction. Only, mark this, please--I drew no deduction. Reason played no part. Cause and effect were unrelated. It was simply that the truth flashed into me. I knew.
What did I know? Perhaps that the gulf between us lay as wide as that between the earth and Sirius; perhaps that we were, individually, of a kind so separate, so different, that mutual understanding was impossible; perhaps that while she was of To-day and proud of it, I was of another time, another century, and proud of that. I cannot say precisely. Her words, while they increased my sense of isolation, of solitude, of melancholy, at the same time also made me laugh, as assuredly they will now make you laugh.
For, while she was behind me in the morning-room, fingering some letters on the table, I stood six feet away beside the open window, listening to the nightingales--the English nightingales--that sang across the quiet garden in the dusk. The high-pitched clamour of the jungle choruses with their monstrous turmoil, their prolific detail, came back to me in startling contrast. This exquisite and delicious sound I now heard belonged still to England. And it had not changed. "No hungry generations tread thee down. . ." rose in some forgotten corner of my mind, and my yearning that would be satisfied moved forth to catch the notes.
"Listen, mother," I said, turning towards her.
She raised her head and smiled a little before reading the rest of the letter that she held.
"I only pray they won't keep you awake, dear boy," she answered gently. "They give us very little peace, I'm afraid, just now."
Perhaps she caught some expression in my face, for she added a trifle more quickly: "That's the worst of the spring--our English spring--it is so noisy!" Still smiling, she picked up her letter again, while I, though still listening by the window, heard only the harsh scream and rattle of the jungle voices, thousands and thousands of miles away across the world.