Antic Hay/Chapter 2

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Gumbril senior occupied a tall, narrow-shouldered and rachitic house in a little obscure square not far from Paddington. There were five floors, and a basement with beetles, and nearly a hundred stairs, which shook when any one ran too rudely down them. It was a prematurely old and decaying house in a decaying quarter. The square in which it stood was steadily coming down in the world. The houses which a few years ago had all been occupied by respectable families, were now split up into squalid little maisonnettes, and from the neighbouring slums, which along with most other unpleasant things the old bourgeois families had been able to ignore, invading bands of children came to sport on the once sacred pavements.

Mr. Gumbril was almost the last survivor of the old inhabitants. He liked his house, and he liked his square. Social decadence had not affected the fourteen plane trees which adorned its little garden, and the gambols of the dirty children did not disturb the starlings who came, evening by evening in summer-time, to roost in their branches.

On fine evenings he used to sit out on his balcony waiting for the coming of the birds. And just at sunset, when the sky was most golden, there would be a twittering overhead, and the black, innumerable flocks of starlings would come sweeping across on the way from their daily haunts to their roosting-places, chosen so capriciously among the tree-planted squares and gardens of the city and so tenaciously retained, year after year, to the exclusion of every other place. Why his fourteen plane trees should have been chosen, Mr. Gumbril could never imagine. There were plenty of larger and more umbrageous gardens all round; but they remained birdless, while every evening, from the larger flocks, a faithful legion detached itself to settle clamorously among his trees. They sat and chattered till the sun went down and twilight was past, with intervals every now and then of silence that fell suddenly and inexplicably on all the birds at once, lasted through a few seconds of thrilling suspense, to end as suddenly and senselessly in an outburst of the same loud and simultaneous conversation.

The starlings were Mr. Gumbril’s most affectionately cherished friends; sitting out on his balcony to watch and listen to them, he had caught at the shut of treacherous evenings many colds and chills on the liver, he had laid up for himself many painful hours of rheumatism. These little accidents did nothing, however, to damp his affection for the birds; and still on every evening that could possibly be called fine, he was always to be seen in the twilight, sitting on the balcony, gazing up, round-spectacled and rapt, at the fourteen plane trees. The breezes stirred in his grey hair, tossing it up in long, light wisps that fell across his forehead and over his spectacles; and then he would shake his head impatiently, and the bony hand would be freed for a moment from its unceasing combing and clutching of the sparse grey beard to push back the strayed tendrils, to smooth and reduce to order the whole ruffled head. The birds chattered on, the hand went back to its clutching and combing; once more the wind blew; darkness came down, and the gas lamps round the square lit up the outer leaves of the plane trees, touched the privet bushes inside the railings with an emerald light; behind them was impenetrable night; instead of shorn grass and bedded geraniums there was mystery, there were endless depths. And the birds at last were silent.

Mr. Gumbril would get up from his iron chair, stretch his arms and his stiff cold legs and go in through the French window to work. The birds were his diversion; when they were silent, it was time to think of serious matters.

To-night, however, he was not working; for always on Sunday evenings his old friend Porteous came to dine and talk. Breaking in unexpectedly at midnight, Gumbril Junior found them sitting in front of the gas fire in his father’s study.

“My dear fellow, what on earth are you doing here?” Gumbril Senior jumped up excitedly at his son’s entrance. The light silky hair floated up with the movement, turned for a moment into a silver aureole, then subsided again. Mr. Porteous stayed where he was, calm, solid and undishevelled as a seated pillar-box. He wore a monocle on a black ribbon, a black stock tie that revealed above its double folds a quarter of an inch of stiff white collar, a double-breasted black coat, a pair of pale checked trousers and patent leather boots with cloth tops. Mr. Porteous was very particular about his appearance. Meeting him casually for the first time, one would not have guessed that Mr. Porteous was an expert on Late Latin poetry; and he did not mean that you should guess. Thin-limbed, bent and agile in his loose, crumpled clothes, Gumbril Senior had the air, beside Mr. Porteous, of a strangely animated scarecrow.

“What on earth?” the old gentleman repeated his question.

Gumbril Junior shrugged his shoulders. “I was bored, I decided to cease being a schoolmaster.” He spoke with a fine airy assumption of carelessness. “How are you, Mr. Porteous?”

“Thank you, invariably well.”

“Well, well,” said Gumbril Senior, sitting down again, “I must say I’m not surprised. I’m only surprised that you stood it, not being a born pedagogue, for as long as you did. What ever induced you to think of turning usher, I can’t imagine.” He looked at his son first through his spectacles, then over the top of them; the motives of the boy’s conduct revealed themselves to neither vision.

“What else was there for me to do?” asked Gumbril Junior, pulling up a chair towards the fire. “You gave me a pedagogue’s education and washed your hands of me. No opportunities, no openings. I had no alternative. And now you reproach me.”

Mr. Gumbril made an impatient gesture. “You’re talking nonsense,” he said. “The only point of the kind of education you had is this, it gives a young man leisure to find out what he’s interested in. You apparently weren’t sufficiently interested in anything——”

“I am interested in everything,” interrupted Gumbril Junior.

“Which comes to the same thing,” said his father parenthetically, “as being interested in nothing.” And he went on from the point at which he had been interrupted. “You weren’t sufficiently interested in anything to want to devote yourself to it. That was why you sought the last refuge of feeble minds with classical educations, you became a schoolmaster.”

“Come, come,” said Mr. Porteous. “I do a little teaching myself; I must stand up for the profession.”

Gumbril Senior let go his beard and brushed back the hair that the wind of his own vehemence had brought tumbling into his eyes. “I don’t denigrate the profession,” he said. “Not at all. It would be an excellent profession if every one who went into it were as much interested in teaching as you are in your job, Porteous, or I in mine. It’s these undecided creatures like Theodore, who ruin it by drifting in. Until all teachers are geniuses and enthusiasts, nobody will learn anything, except what they teach themselves.”

“Still,” said Mr. Porteous, “I wish I hadn’t had to learn so much by myself. I wasted a lot of time finding out how to set to work and where to discover what I wanted.”

Gumbril Junior was lighting his pipe. “I have come to the conclusion,” he said, speaking in little jerks between each suck of the flame into the bowl, “that most people ... ought never ... to be taught anything at all.” He threw away the match. “Lord have mercy upon us, they’re dogs. What’s the use of teaching them anything except to behave well, to work and obey. Facts, theories, the truth about the universe—what good are those to them? Teach them to understand—why, it only confuses them; makes them lose hold of the simple real appearance. Not more than one in a hundred can get any good out of a scientific or literary education.”

“And you’re one of the ones?” asked his father.

“That goes without saying,” Gumbril Junior replied.

“I think you mayn’t be so far wrong,” said Mr. Porteous. “When I think of my own children, for example....” he sighed, “I thought they’d be interested in the things that interested me; they don’t seem to be interested in anything but behaving like little apes—not very anthropoid ones either, for that matter. At my eldest boy’s age I used to sit up most of the night reading Latin texts. He sits up—or rather stands, reels, trots up—dancing and drinking. Do you remember St. Bernard? ‘Vigilet tota nocte luxuriosus non solum patienter’ (the ascetic and the scholar only watch patiently); ‘sed et libenter, ut suam expleat voluptatem.’ What the wise man does out of a sense of duty, the fool does for fun. And I’ve tried very hard to make him like Latin.”

“Well in any case,” said Gumbril Junior, “you didn’t try to feed him on history. That’s the real unforgivable sin. And that’s what I’ve been doing, up till this evening—encouraging boys of fifteen and sixteen to specialize in history, hours and hours a week, making them read bad writers’ generalizations about subjects on which only our ignorance allows us to generalize; teaching them to reproduce these generalizations in horrid little ‘Essays’ of their own; rotting their minds, in fact, with a diet of soft vagueness; scandalous it was. If these creatures are to be taught anything, it should be something hard and definite. Latin—that’s excellent. Mathematics, physical science. Let them read history for amusement, certainly. But for Heaven’s sake don’t make it the staple of education!” Gumbril Junior spoke with the greatest earnestness, as though he were an inspector of schools, making a report. It was a subject on which, at the moment, he felt very profoundly; he felt profoundly on all subjects while he was talking about them. “I wrote a long letter to the Headmaster about the teaching of history this evening,” he added. “It’s most important.” He shook his head thoughtfully, “Most important.”

“Hora novissima, tempora pessimma sunt, vigilemus,” said Mr. Porteous, in the words of St. Peter Damianus.

“Very true,” Gumbril Senior applauded. “And talking about bad times, Theodore, what do you propose to do now, may I ask?”

“I mean to begin by making some money.”

Gumbril Senior put his hands on his knees, bent forward and laughed, “Ha, ha, ha!” He had a profound bell-like laugh that was like the croaking of a very large and melodious frog. “You won’t,” he said, and shook his head till the hair fell into his eyes. “You won’t,” and he laughed again.

“To make money,” said Mr. Porteous, “one must be really interested in money.”

“And he’s not,” said Gumbril Senior. “None of us are.”

“When I was still uncommonly hard up,” Mr. Porteous continued, “we used to lodge in the same house with a Russian Jew, who was a furrier. That man was interested in money, if you like. It was a passion, an enthusiasm, an ideal. He could have led a comfortable, easy life, and still have made enough to put by something for his old age. But for his high abstract ideal of money he suffered more than Michelangelo ever suffered for his art. He used to work nineteen hours a day, and the other five he slept, lying under his bench, in the dirt, breathing into his lungs the stink and the broken hairs. He is now very rich indeed and does nothing with his money, doesn’t want to do anything, doesn’t know what one does do with it. He desires neither power nor pleasure. His desire for lucre is purely disinterested. He reminds me of Browning’s ‘Grammarian.’ I have a great admiration for him.”

Mr. Porteous’s own passion had been for the poems of Notker Balbulus and St. Bernard. It had taken him nearly twenty years to get himself and his family out of the house where the Russian furrier used to lodge. But Notker was worth it, he used to say; Notker was worth even the weariness and the pallor of a wife who worked beyond her strength, even the shabbiness of ill-dressed and none too well-fed children. He had readjusted his monocle and gone on. But there had been occasions when it needed more than the monocle and the careful, distinguished clothes to keep up his morale. Still, those times were over now; Notker had brought him at last a kind of fame—even, indirectly, a certain small prosperity.

Gumbril Senior turned once more towards his son. “And how do you propose,” he asked, “to make this money?”

Gumbril Junior explained. He had thought it all out in the cab on the way from the station. “It came to me this morning,” he said, “in chapel, during service.”

“Monstrous,” put in Gumbril Senior, with a genuine indignation, “monstrous these mediæval survivals in schools! Chapel, indeed!”

“It came,” Gumbril Junior went on, “like an apocalypse, suddenly, like a divine inspiration. A grand and luminous idea came to me—the idea of Gumbril’s Patent Small-Clothes.”

“And what are Gumbril’s Patent Small-Clothes?”

“A boon to those whose occupation is sedentary”; Gumbril Junior had already composed his prospectus and his first advertisements: “a comfort to all travellers, civilization’s substitute for steatopygism, indispensable to first-nighters, the concert-goers’ friend, the....”

“Lectulus Dei floridus,” intoned Mr. Porteous.

“Gazophylacium Ecclesiæ,

Cithara benesonans Dei,

Cymbalum jubilationis Christi,

Promptuarium mysteriorum fidei, ora pro nobis.

Your small-clothes sound to me very like one of my old litanies, Theodore.”

“We want scientific descriptions, not litanies,” said Gumbril Senior. “What are Gumbril’s Patent Small-Clothes?”

“Scientifically, then,” said Gumbril Junior, “my Patent Small-Clothes may be described as trousers with a pneumatic seat, inflateable by means of a tube fitted with a valve; the whole constructed of stout seamless red rubber, enclosed between two layers of cloth.”

“I must say,” said Gumbril Senior on a tone of somewhat grudging approbation, “I have heard of worse inventions. You are too stout, Porteous, to be able to appreciate the idea. We Gumbrils are all a bony lot.”

“When I have taken out a patent for my invention,” his son went on, very business-like and cool, “I shall either sell it to some capitalist, or I shall exploit it commercially myself. In either case, I shall make money, which is more, I may say, than you or any other Gumbril have ever done.”

“Quite right,” said Gumbril Senior, “quite right”; and he laughed very cheerfully. “And nor will you. You can be grateful to your intolerable Aunt Flo for having left you that three hundred a year. You’ll need it. But if you really want a capitalist,” he went on, “I have exactly the man for you. He’s a man who has a mania for buying Tudor houses and making them more Tudor than they are. I’ve pulled half a dozen of the wretched things to pieces and put them together again differently for him.”

“He doesn’t sound much good to me,” said his son.

“Ah, but that’s only his vice. Only his amusement. His business,” Gumbril Senior hesitated.

“Well, what is his business?”

“Well, it seems to be everything. Patent medicine, trade newspapers, bankrupt tobacconist’s stock—he’s talked to me about those and heaps more. He seems to flit like a butterfly in search of honey, or rather money.”

“And he makes it?”

“Well, he pays my fees and he buys more Tudor houses, and he gives me luncheons at the Ritz. That’s all I know.”

“Well, there’s no harm in trying.”

“I’ll write to him,” said Gumbril Senior. “His name is Boldero. He’ll either laugh at your idea or take it and give you nothing for it. Still,” he looked at his son over the top of his spectacles, “if by any conceivable chance you ever should become rich; if, if, if....” And he emphasized the remoteness of the conditional by raising his eyebrows a little higher, by throwing out his hands in a dubious gesture a little farther at every repetition of the word, “if—why, then I’ve got exactly the thing for you. Look at this really delightful little idea I had this afternoon.” He put his hand in his coat pocket and after some sorting and sifting produced a sheet of squared paper on which was roughly drawn the elevation of a house. “For any one with eight or ten thousand to spend, this would be—this would be....” Gumbril Senior smoothed his hair and hesitated, searching for something strong enough to say of his little idea. “Well, this would be much too good for most of the greasy devils who do have eight or ten thousand to spend.”

He passed the sheet to Gumbril Junior, who held it out so that both Mr. Porteous and himself could look at it. Gumbril Senior got up from his chair and, standing behind them, leant over to elucidate and explain.

“You see the idea,” he said, anxious lest they should fail to understand. “A central block of three stories, with low wings of only one, ending in pavilions with a second floor. And the flat roofs of the wings are used as gardens—you see?—protected from the north by a wall. In the east wing there is the kitchen and the garage, with the maids’ rooms in the pavilion at the end. The west is a library, and it has an arcaded loggia along the front. And instead of a solid superstructure corresponding to the maids’ rooms, there’s a pergola with brick piers. You see? And in the main block there’s a Spanish sort of balcony along the whole length at first-floor level; that gives a good horizontal line. And you get the perpendiculars with coigns and raised panels. And the roof’s hidden by a balustrade, and there are balustrades along the open sides of the roof gardens on the wings. All in brick it is. This is the garden front; the entrance front will be admirable too. Do you like it?”

Gumbril Junior nodded. “Very much,” he said.

His father sighed and taking the sketch put it back in his pocket. “You must hurry up with your ten thousand,” he said. “And you Porteous, and you. I’ve been waiting so long to build your splendid house.”

Laughing, Mr. Porteous got up from his chair. “And long, dear Gumbril,” he said, “may you continue to wait. For my splendid house won’t be built this side of New Jerusalem, and you must go on living a long time yet. A long, long time,” Mr. Porteous repeated; and carefully he buttoned up his double-breasted coat, carefully, as though he were adjusting an instrument of precision, he took out and replaced his monocle. Then, very erect and neat, very soldierly and pillar-boxical, he marched towards the door. “You’ve kept me very late to-night,” he said. “Unconscionably late.”

The front door closed heavily behind Mr. Porteous’s departure. Gumbril Senior came upstairs again into the big room on the first floor smoothing down his hair, which the impetuosity of his ascent had once more disarranged.

“That’s a good fellow,” he said of his departed guest, “a splendid fellow.”

“I always admire the monocle,” said Gumbril Junior irrelevantly. But his father turned the irrelevance into relevance.

“He couldn’t have come through without it, I believe. It was a symbol, a proud flag. Poverty’s squalid, not fine at all. The monocle made a kind of difference, you understand. I’m always so enormously thankful I had a little money. I couldn’t have stuck it without. It needs strength, more strength than I’ve got.” He clutched his beard close under the chin and remained for a moment pensively silent. “The advantage of Porteous’s line of business,” he went on at last, reflectively, “is that it can be carried on by oneself, without collaboration. There’s no need to appeal to any one outside oneself, or to have any dealings with other people at all, if one doesn’t want to. That’s so deplorable about architecture. There’s no privacy, so to speak; always this horrible jostling with clients and builders and contractors and people, before one can get anything done. It’s really revolting. I’m not good at people. Most of them I don’t like at all, not at all,” Mr. Gumbril repeated with vehemence. “I don’t deal with them very well; it isn’t my business. My business is architecture. But I don’t often get a chance of practising it. Not properly.”

Gumbril Senior smiled rather sadly. “Still,” he said, “I can do something. I have my talent, I have my imagination. They can’t take those from me. Come and see what I’ve been doing lately.”

He led the way out of the room and mounted, two steps at a time, towards a higher floor. He opened the door of what should have been, in a well-ordered house, the Best Bedroom, and slipped into the darkness.

“Don’t rush in,” he called back to his son, “for God’s sake don’t rush in. You’ll smash something. Wait till I’ve turned on the light. It’s so like these asinine electricians to have hidden the switch behind the door like this.” Gumbril Junior heard him fumbling in the darkness; there was suddenly light. He stepped in.

The only furniture in the room consisted of a couple of long trestle tables. On these, on the mantelpiece and all over the floor, were scattered confusedly, like the elements of a jumbled city, a vast collection of architectural models. There were cathedrals, there were town halls, universities, public libraries, there were three or four elegant little sky-scrapers, there were blocks of offices, huge warehouses, factories, and finally dozens of magnificent country mansions, complete with their terraced gardens, their noble flights of steps, their fountains and ornamental waters and grandly bridged canals, their little rococo pavilions and garden houses.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” Gumbril Senior turned enthusiastically towards his son. His long grey hair floated wispily about his head, his spectacles flashed, and behind them his eyes shone with emotion.

“Beautiful,” Gumbril Junior agreed.

“When you’re really rich,” said his father, “I’ll build you one of these.” And he pointed to a little village of Chatsworths clustering, at one end of a long table, round the dome of a vaster and austerer St. Peter’s. “Look at this one, for example.” He picked his way nimbly across the room, seized the little electric reading-lamp that stood between a railway station and a baptistery on the mantelpiece, and was back again in an instant, trailing behind him a long flex that, as it tautened out, twitched one of the crowning pinnacles off the top of a sky-scraper near the fireplace. “Look,” he repeated, “look.” He switched on the current, and moving the lamp back and forth, up and down in front of the miniature palace. “See the beauty of the light and shade,” he said. “There, underneath the great, ponderous cornice, isn’t that fine? And look how splendidly the pilasters carry up the vertical lines. And then the solidity of it, the size, the immense, impending bleakness of it!” He threw up his arms, he turned his eyes upwards as though standing overwhelmed at the foot of some huge precipitous façade. The lights and shadows vacillated wildly through all the city of palaces and domes as he brandished the lamp in ecstasy above his head.

“And then,” he had suddenly stooped down, he was peering and pointing once more into the details of his palace, “then there’s the doorway—all florid and rich with carving. How magnificently and surprisingly it flowers out of the bare walls! Like the colossal writing of Darius, like the figures graven in the bald face of the precipice over Behistun—unexpected and beautiful and human, human in the surrounding emptiness.”

Gumbril Senior brushed back his hair and turned, smiling, to look at his son over the top of his spectacles.

“Very fine,” Gumbril Junior nodded to him. “But isn’t the wall a little too blank? You seem to allow very few windows in this vast palazzo.”

“True,” his father replied, “very true.” He sighed. “I’m afraid this design would hardly do for England. It’s meant for a place where there’s some sun—where you do your best to keep the light out, instead of letting it in, as you have to do here. Windows are the curse of architecture in this country. Your walls have to be like sieves, all holes, it’s heart-breaking. If you wanted me to build you this house, you’d have to live in Barbados or somewhere like that.”

“There’s nothing I should like better,” said Gumbril Junior.

“Another great advantage of sunny countries,” Gumbril Senior pursued, “is that one can really live like an aristocrat, in privacy, by oneself. No need to look out on the dirty world or to let the dirty world look in on you. Here’s this great house, for example, looking out on the world through a few dark portholes and a single cavernous doorway. But look inside.” He held his lamp above the courtyard that was at the heart of the palace. Gumbril Junior leaned and looked, like his father. “All the life looks inwards—into a lovely courtyard, a more than Spanish patio. Look there at the treble tiers of arcades, the vaulted cloisters for your cool peripatetic meditations, the central Triton spouting white water into a marble pool, the mosaic work on the floor and flowering up the walls, brilliant against the white stucco. And there’s the archway that leads out into the gardens. And now you must come and have a look at the garden front.”

He walked round with his lamp to the other side of the table. There was suddenly a crash; the wire had twitched a cathedral from off the table. It lay on the floor in disastrous ruin as though shattered by some appalling cataclysm.

“Hell and death!” said Gumbril Senior in an outburst of Elizabethan fury. He put down the lamp and ran to see how irreparable the disaster had been. “They’re so horribly expensive, these models,” he explained, as he bent over the ruins. Tenderly he picked up the pieces and replaced them on the table. “It might have been worse,” he said at last, brushing the dust off his hands. “Though I’m afraid that dome will never be quite the same again.” Picking up the lamp once more, he held it high above his head and stood looking out, with a melancholy satisfaction, over his creations. “And to think,” he said after a pause, “that I’ve been spending these last days designing model cottages for workmen at Bletchley! I’m in luck to have got the job, of course, but really, that a civilized man should have to do jobs like that! It’s too much. In the old days these creatures built their own hovels, and very nice and suitable they were too. The architects busied themselves with architecture—which is the expression of human dignity and greatness, which is man’s protest, not his miserable acquiescence. You can’t do much protesting in a model cottage at seven hundred pounds a time. A little, no doubt, you can protest a little; you can give your cottage decent proportions and avoid sordidness and vulgarity. But that’s all; it’s really a negative process. You can only begin to protest positively and actively when you abandon the petty human scale and build for giants—when you build for the spirit and the imagination of man, not for his little body. Model cottages, indeed!”

Mr. Gumbril snorted with indignation. “When I think of Alberti!” And he thought of Alberti—Alberti, the noblest Roman of them all, the true and only Roman. For the Romans themselves had lived their own actual lives, sordidly and extravagantly in the middle of a vulgar empire. Alberti and his followers in the Renaissance lived the ideal Roman life. They put Plutarch into their architecture. They took the detestable real Cato, the Brutus of history, and made of them Roman heroes to walk as guides and models before them. Before Alberti there were no true Romans, and with Piranesi’s death the race began to wither towards extinction.

“And when I think of Brunelleschi!” Gumbril Senior went on to remember with passion the architect who had suspended on eight thin flying ribs of marble the lightest of all domes and the loveliest.

“And when of Michelangelo! The grim, enormous apse.... And of Wren and of Palladio, when I think of all these——” Gumbril Senior waved his arms and was silent. He could not put into words what he felt when he thought of them.

Gumbril Junior looked at his watch. “Half-past two,” he said. “Time to go to bed.”