Antic Hay/Chapter 3

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Mister Gumbril!” Surprise was mingled with delight. “This is indeed a pleasure!” Delight was now the prevailing emotion expressed by the voice that advanced, as yet without a visible source, from the dark recesses of the shop.

“The pleasure, Mr. Bojanus, is mine.” Gumbril closed the shop door behind him.

A very small man, dressed in a frock-coat, popped out from a canyon that opened, a mere black crevice, between two stratified precipices of mid-season suitings, and advancing into the open space before the door bowed with an old-world grace, revealing a nacreous scalp thinly mantled with long damp creepers of brown hair.

“And to what, may I ask, do I owe this pleasure, sir?” Mr. Bojanus looked up archly with a sideways cock of his head that tilted the rigid points of his waxed moustache. The fingers of his right hand were thrust into the bosom of his frock-coat and his toes were turned out in the dancing-master’s First Position. “A light spring great-coat, is it? Or a new suit? I notice,” his eye travelled professionally up and down Gumbril’s long, thin form, “I notice that the garments you are wearing at present, Mr. Gumbril, look—how shall I say?—well, a trifle negleejay, as the French would put it, a trifle negleejay.”

Gumbril looked down at himself. He resented Mr. Bojanus’s negleejay, he was pained and wounded by the aspersion. Negleejay? And he had fancied that he really looked rather elegant and distinguished (but, after all, he always looked that, even in rags)—no, that he looked positively neat, like Mr. Porteous, positively soldierly in his black jacket and his musical comedy trousers and his patent leather shoes. And the black felt hat—didn’t that just add the foreign, the Southern touch which saved the whole composition from banality? He regarded himself, trying to see his clothes—garments, Mr. Bojanus had called them; garments, good Lord!—through the tailor’s expert eyes. There were sagging folds about the overloaded pockets, there was a stain on his waistcoat, the knees of his trousers were baggy and puckered like the bare knees of Hélène Fourmont in Rubens’s fur-coat portrait at Vienna. Yes, it was all horribly negleejay. He felt depressed; but looking at Mr. Bojanus’s studied and professional correctness, he was a little comforted. That frock-coat, for example. It was like something in a very modern picture—such a smooth, unwrinkled cylinder about the chest, such a sense of pure and abstract conic-ness in the sleekly rounded skirts! Nothing could have been less negleejay. He was reassured.

“I want you,” he said at last, clearing his throat importantly, “to make me a pair of trousers to a novel specification of my own. It’s a new idea.” And he gave a brief description of Gumbril’s Patent Small Clothes.

Mr. Bojanus listened with attention.

“I can make them for you,” he said, when the description was finished. “I can make them for you—if you really wish, Mr. Gumbril,” he added.

“Thank you,” said Gumbril.

“And do you intend, may I ask, Mr. Gumbril, to wear these ... these garments?”

Guiltily, Gumbril denied himself. “Only to demonstrate the idea, Mr. Bojanus. I am exploiting the invention commercially, you see.”

“Commercially? I see, Mr. Gumbril.”

“Perhaps you would like a share,” suggested Gumbril.

Mr. Bojanus shook his head. “It wouldn’t do for my cleeantail, I fear, Mr. Gumbril. You could ’ardly expect the Best People to wear such things.”

“Couldn’t you?”

Mr. Bojanus went on shaking his head. “I know them,” he said, “I know the Best People. Well.” And he added with an irrelevance that was, perhaps, only apparent, “Between ourselves, Mr. Gumbril, I am a great admirer of Lenin....”

“So am I,” said Gumbril, “theoretically. But then I have so little to lose to Lenin. I can afford to admire him. But you, Mr. Bojanus, you, the prosperous bourgeois—oh, purely in the economic sense of the word, Mr. Bojanus....”

Mr. Bojanus accepted the explanation with one of his old-world bows.

“... you would be among the first to suffer if an English Lenin were to start his activities here.”

“There, Mr. Gumbril, if I may be allowed to say so, you are wrong.” Mr. Bojanus removed his hand from his bosom and employed it to emphasize the points of his discourse. “When the revolution comes, Mr. Gumbril—the great and necessary revolution, as Alderman Beckford called it—it won’t be the owning of a little money that’ll get a man into trouble. It’ll be his class-habits, Mr. Gumbril, his class-speech, his class-education. It’ll be Shibboleth all over again, Mr. Gumbril; mark my words. The Red Guards will stop people in the street and ask them to say some such word as ‘towel.’ If they call it ‘towel,’ like you and your friends, Mr. Gumbril, why then....” Mr. Bojanus went through the gestures of pointing a rifle and pulling the trigger; he clicked his tongue against his teeth to symbolize the report.... “That’ll be the end of them. But if they say ‘tèaul,’ like the rest of us, Mr. Gumbril, it’ll be: ‘Pass Friend and Long Live the Proletariat.’ Long live Tèaul.”

“I’m afraid you may be right,” said Gumbril.

“I’m convinced of it,” said Mr. Bojanus. “It’s my clients, Mr. Gumbril, it’s the Best People that the other people resent. It’s their confidence, their ease, it’s the habit their money and their position give them of ordering people about, it’s the way they take their place in the world for granted, it’s their prestige, which the other people would like to deny, but can’t—it’s all that, Mr. Gumbril, that’s so galling.”

Gumbril nodded. He himself had envied his securer friends their power of ignoring the humanity of those who were not of their class. To do that really well, one must always have lived in a large house full of clockwork servants; one must never have been short of money, never at a restaurant ordered the cheaper thing instead of the more delicious; one must never have regarded a policeman as anything but one’s paid defender against the lower orders, never for a moment have doubted one’s divine right to do, within the accepted limits, exactly what one liked without a further thought to anything or any one but oneself and one’s own enjoyment. Gumbril had been brought up among these blessed beings; but he was not one of them. Alas? or fortunately? He hardly knew which.

“And what good do you expect the revolution to do, Mr. Bojanus?” he asked at last.

Mr. Bojanus replaced his hand in his bosom. “None whatever, Mr. Gumbril,” he said. “None whatever.”

“But Liberty,” Gumbril suggested, “equality and all that. What about those, Mr. Bojanus?”

Mr. Bojanus smiled up at him tolerantly and kindly, as he might have smiled at some one who had suggested, shall we say, that evening trousers should be turned up at the bottom. “Liberty, Mr. Gumbril?” he said; “you don’t suppose any serious-minded person imagines a revolution is going to bring liberty, do you?”

“The people who make the revolution always seem to ask for liberty.”

“But do they ever get it, Mr. Gumbril?” Mr. Bojanus cocked his head playfully and smiled. “Look at ’istory, Mr. Gumbril, look at ’istory. First it’s the French Revolution. They ask for political liberty. And they gets it. Then comes the Reform Bill, then Forty-Eight, then all the Franchise Acts and Votes for Women—always more and more political liberty. And what’s the result, Mr. Gumbril? Nothing at all. Who’s freer for political liberty? Not a soul, Mr. Gumbril. There was never a greater swindle ’atched in the ’ole of ’istory. And when you think ’ow those poor young men like Shelley talked about it—it’s pathetic,” said Mr. Bojanus, shaking his head, “reelly pathetic. Political liberty’s a swindle because a man doesn’t spend his time being political. He spends it sleeping, eating, amusing himself a little and working—mostly working. When they’d got all the political liberty they wanted—or found they didn’t want—they began to understand this. And so now it’s all for the industrial revolution, Mr. Gumbril. But bless you, that’s as big a swindle as the other. How can there ever be liberty under any system? No amount of profit-sharing or self-government by the workers, no amount of hyjeenic conditions or cocoa villages or recreation grounds can get rid of the fundamental slavery—the necessity of working. Liberty? why, it doesn’t exist! There’s no liberty in this world; only gilded cages. And then, Mr. Gumbril, even suppose you could somehow get rid of the necessity of working, suppose a man’s time were all leisure. Would he be free then? I say nothing of the natural slavery of eating and sleeping and all that, Mr. Gumbril; I say nothing of that, because that, if I may say so, would be too ’air-splitting and metaphysical. But what I do ask you is this,” and Mr. Bojanus wagged his forefinger almost menacingly at the sleeping partner in this dialogue: “would a man with unlimited leisure be free, Mr. Gumbril? I say he would not. Not unless he ’appened to be a man like you or me, Mr. Gumbril, a man of sense, a man of independent judgment. An ordinary man would not be free. Because he wouldn’t know how to occupy his leisure except in some way that would be forced on ’im by other people. People don’t know ’ow to entertain themselves now; they leave it to other people to do it for them. They swallow what’s given them. They ’ave to swallow it, whether they like it or not. Cinemas, newspapers, magazines, gramophones, football matches, wireless telephones—take them or leave them, if you want to amuse youself. The ordinary man can’t leave them. He takes; and what’s that but slavery? And so you see, Mr. Gumbril,” Mr. Bojanus smiled with a kind of roguish triumph, “you see that even in the purely ’ypothetical case of a man with indefinite leisure, there still would be no freedom.... And the case, as I have said, is purely ’ypothetical; at any rate so far as concerns the sort of people who want a revolution. And as for the sort of people who do enjoy leisure, even now—why I think, Mr. Gumbril, you and I know enough about the Best People to know that freedom, except possibly sexual freedom, is not their strongest point. And sexual freedom—what’s that?” Mr. Bojanus dramatically inquired. “You and I, Mr. Gumbril,” he answered confidentially, “we know. It’s an ’orrible, ’ideous slavery. That’s what it is. Or am I wrong, Mr. Gumbril?”

“Quite right, quite right, Mr. Bojanus,” Gumbril hastened to reply.

“From all of which,” continued Mr. Bojanus, “it follows that, except for a few, a very few people like you and me, Mr. Gumbril, there’s no such thing as liberty. It’s an ’oax, Mr. Gumbril. An ’orrible plant. And if I may be allowed to say so,” Mr. Bojanus lowered his voice, but still spoke with emphasis, “a bloody swindle.”

“But in that case, Mr. Bojanus, why are you so anxious to have a revolution?” Gumbril inquired.

Thoughtfully, Mr. Bojanus twisted to a finer point his waxed moustaches. “Well,” he said at last, “it would be a nice change. I was always one for change and a little excitement. And then there’s the scientific interest. You never quite know ’ow an experiment will turn out, do you, Mr. Gumbril? I remember when I was a boy, my old dad—a great gardener he was, a regular floriculturist, you might say, Mr. Gumbril—he tried the experiment of grafting a sprig of Gloire de Dijon on to a black currant bush. And, would you believe it? the roses came out black, coal black, Mr. Gumbril. Nobody would ever have guessed that if the thing had never been tried. And that’s what I say about the revolution. You don’t know what’ll come of it till you try. Black roses, blue roses—’oo knows, Mr. Gumbril, ’oo knows?”

“Who indeed?” Gumbril looked at his watch. “About those trousers ...” he added.

“Those garments,” corrected Mr. Bojanus. “Ah, yes. Should we say next Tuesday?”

“Let us say next Tuesday.” Gumbril opened the shop door. “Good morning, Mr. Bojanus.”

Mr. Bojanus bowed him out, as though he had been a prince of the blood.

The sun was shining and at the end of the street between the houses the sky was blue. Gauzily the distances faded to a soft rich indistinctness; there were veils of golden muslin thickening down the length of every vista. On the trees in the Hanover Square gardens the young leaves were still so green that they seemed to be alight, green fire, and the sooty trunks looked blacker and dirtier than ever. It would have been a pleasant and apposite thing if a cuckoo had started calling. But though the cuckoo was silent it was a happy day. A day, Gumbril reflected, as he strolled idly along, to be in love.

From the world of tailors Gumbril passed into that of the artificial pearl merchants and with a still keener appreciation of the amorous qualities of this clear spring day, he began a leisured march along the perfumed pavements of Bond Street. He thought with a profound satisfaction of those sixty-three papers on the Risorgimento. How pleasant it was to waste time! And Bond Street offered so many opportunities for wasting it agreeably. He trotted round the Spring Exhibition at the Grosvenor and came out, a little regretting, he had to confess, his eighteen pence for admission. After that, he pretended that he wanted to buy a grand piano. When he had finished practising his favourite passages on the magnificent instrument to which they obsequiously introduced him, he looked in for a few moments at Sotheby’s, sniffed among the ancient books and strolled on again, admiring the cigars, the lucid scent-bottles, the socks, the old masters, the emerald necklaces, everything, in fact, in all the shops he passed.

‘Forthcoming Exhibition of Works by Casimir Lypiatt.’ The announcement caught his eye. And so poor old Lypiatt was on the warpath again, he reflected, as he pushed open the doors of the Albemarle Galleries. Poor old Lypiatt! Dear old Lypiatt, even. He liked Lypiatt. Though he had his defects. It would be fun to see him again.

Gumbril found himself in the midst of a dismal collection of etchings. He passed them in review, wondering why it was that, in these hard days when no painter can sell a picture, almost any dull fool who can scratch a conventional etcher’s view of two boats, a suggested cloud and the flat sea should be able to get rid of his prints by the dozen and at guineas apiece. He was interrupted in his speculations by the approach of the assistant in charge of the gallery. He came up shyly and uncomfortably, but with the conscientious determination of one ambitious to do his duty and make good. He was a very young man with pale hair, to which heavy oiling had given a curious greyish colour, and a face of such childish contour and so imberb that he looked like a little boy playing at grown-ups. He had only been at this job a few weeks and he found it very difficult.

“This,” he remarked, with a little introductory cough, pointing to one view of the two boats and the flat sea, “is an earlier state than this.” And he pointed to another view, where the boats were still two and the sea seemed just as flat—though possibly, on a closer inspection, it might really have been flatter.

“Indeed,” said Gumbril.

The assistant was rather pained by his coldness. He blushed; but constrained himself to go on. “Some excellent judges,” he said, “prefer the earlier state, though it is less highly finished.”

“Ah?”

“Beautiful atmosphere, isn’t it?” The assistant put his head on one side and pursed his childish lips appreciatively.

Gumbril nodded.

With desperation, the assistant indicated the shadowed rump of one of the boats. “A wonderful feeling in this passage,” he said, redder than ever.

“Very intense,” said Gumbril.

The assistant smiled at him gratefully. “That’s the word,” he said, delighted. “Intense. That’s it. Very intense.” He repeated the word several times as though to make sure of remembering it when the occasion next presented itself. He was determined to make good.

“I see Mr. Lypiatt is to have a show here soon,” remarked Gumbril, who had had enough of the boats.

“He is making the final arrangements with Mr. Albemarle at this very moment,” said the assistant triumphantly, with the air of one who produces, at the dramatic and critical moment, a rabbit out of the empty hat.

“You don’t say so?” Gumbril was duly impressed. “Then I’ll wait till he comes out,” he said, and sat down with his back to the boats.

The assistant returned to his desk and picked up the gold-belted fountain pen which his Aunt had given him when he first went into business, last Christmas. “Very intense,” he wrote in capitals on a half-sheet of notepaper. “The feeling in this passage is very intense.” He studied the paper for a few moments, then folded it up carefully and put it away in his waistcoat pocket. “Always make a note of it.” That was one of the business mottoes he had himself written out so laboriously in Indian ink and old English lettering. It hung over his bed between “The Lord is my Shepherd,” which his mother had given him, and a quotation from Dr. Frank Crane, “A smiling face sells more goods than a clever tongue.” Still, a clever tongue, the young assistant had often reflected, was a very useful thing, especially in this job. He wondered whether one could say that the composition of a picture was very intense. Mr. Albemarle was very keen on the composition, he noticed. But perhaps it was better to stick to plain ‘fine,’ which was a little commonplace, perhaps, but very safe. He would ask Mr. Albemarle about it. And then there was all that stuff about plastic values and pure plasticity. He sighed. It was all very difficult. A chap might be as willing and eager to make good as he liked; but when it came to this about atmosphere and intense passages and plasticity—well, really, what could a chap do? Make a note of it. It was the only thing.

In Mr. Albemarle’s private room Casimir Lypiatt thumped the table. “Size, Mr. Albemarle,” he was saying, “size and vehemence and spiritual significance—that’s 45what the old fellows had, and we haven’t....” He gesticulated as he talked, his face worked and his green eyes, set in their dark, charred orbits, were full of a troubled light. The forehead was precipitous, the nose long and sharp; in the bony and almost fleshless face, the lips of the wide mouth were surprisingly full.

“Precisely, precisely,” said Mr. Albemarle in his juicy voice. He was a round, smooth, little man with a head like an egg; he spoke, he moved with a certain pomp, a butlerish gravity, that were evidently meant to be ducal.

“That’s what I’ve set myself to recapture,” Lypiatt went on: “the size, the masterfulness of the masters.” He felt a warmth running through him as he spoke, flushing his cheeks, pulsing hotly behind the eyes, as though he had drunk a draught of some heartening red wine. His own words elated him, and drunkenly gesticulating, he was as though drunken. The greatness of the masters—he felt it in him. He knew his own power, he knew, he knew. He could do all that they had done. Nothing was beyond his strength.

Egg-headed Albemarle confronted him, impeccably the butler, exacerbatingly serene. Albemarle too should be fired. He struck the table once more, he broke out again:

“It’s been my mission,” he shouted, “all these years.”

All these years.... Time had worn the hair from his temples; the high, steep forehead seemed higher than it really was. He was forty now; the turbulent young Lypiatt who had once declared that no man could do anything worth doing after he was thirty, was forty now. But in these fiery moments he could forget the years, he could forget the disappointments, the unsold pictures, the bad reviews. “My mission,” he repeated; “and by God! I feel, I know I can carry it through.”

Warmly the blood pulsed behind his eyes.

“Quite,” said Mr. Albemarle, nodding the egg. “Quite.”

“And how small the scale is nowadays!” Lypiatt went on, rhapsodically. “How trivial the conception, how limited the scope! You see no painter-sculptor-poets, like Michelangelo; no scientist-artists, like Leonardo; no mathematician-courtiers, like Boscovitch; no impresario-musicians, like Handel; no geniuses of all trades, like Wren. I have set myself against this abject specialization of ours. I stand alone, opposing it with my example.” Lypiatt raised his hand. Like the statue of Liberty, standing colossal and alone.

“Nevertheless,” began Mr. Albemarle.

“Painter, poet, musician,” cried Lypiatt. “I am all three. I....”

“... there is a danger of—how shall I put it—dissipating one’s energies,” Mr. Albemarle went on with determination. Discreetly, he looked at his watch. This conversation, he thought, seemed to be prolonging itself unnecessarily.

“There is a greater danger in letting them stagnate and atrophy,” Lypiatt retorted. “Let me give you my experience.” Vehemently, he gave it.

Out in the gallery, among the boats, the views of the Grand Canal, and the Firth of Forth, Gumbril placidly ruminated. Poor old Lypiatt, he was thinking. Dear old Lypiatt, even, in spite of his fantastic egotism. Such a bad painter, such a bombinating poet, such a loud emotional improviser on the piano! And going on like this, year after year, pegging away at the same old things—always badly! And always without a penny, always living in the most hideous squalor! Magnificent and pathetic old Lypiatt!

A door suddenly opened and a loud, unsteady voice, now deep and harsh, now breaking to shrillness, exploded into the gallery.

“... like a Veronese,” it was saying; “enormous, vehement, a great swirling composition” (‘swirling composition’—mentally, the young assistant made a note of that), “but much more serious, of course, much more spiritually significant, much more——”

“Lypiatt!” Gumbril had risen from his chair, had turned, had advanced, holding out his hand.

“Why, it’s Gumbril. Good Lord!” and Lypiatt seized the proffered hand with an excruciating cordiality. He seemed to be in exuberantly good spirits. “We’re settling about my show, Mr. Albemarle and I,” he explained. “You know Gumbril, Mr. Albemarle?”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Mr. Albemarle. “Our friend, Mr. Lypiatt,” he added richly, “has the true artistic temp——”

“It’s going to be magnificent.” Lypiatt could not wait till Mr. Albemarle had finished speaking. He gave Gumbril a heroic blow on the shoulder.

“... artistic temperament, as I was saying,” pursued Mr. Albemarle. “He is altogether too impatient and enthusiastic for us poor people ...” a ducal smile of condescension accompanied this graceful act of self-abasement ... “who move in the prosaic, practical, workaday world.”

Lypiatt laughed, a loud, discordant peal. He didn’t seem to mind being accused of having an artistic temperament; he seemed, indeed, to enjoy it, if anything. “Fire and water,” he said aphoristically, “brought together, beget steam. Mr. Albemarle and I go driving along like a steam engine. Psh, psh!” He worked his arms like a pair of alternate pistons. He laughed; but Mr. Albemarle only coldly and courteously smiled. “I was just telling Mr. Albemarle about the great Crucifixion I’ve just been doing. It’s as big and headlong as a Veronese, but much more serious, more....”

Behind them the little assistant was expounding to a new visitor the beauties of the etchings. “Very intense,” he was saying, “the feeling in this passage.” The shadow, indeed, clung with an insistent affection round the stern of the boat. “And what a fine, what a——” he hesitated for an instant, and under his pale, oiled hair his face became suddenly very red—“what a swirling composition.” He looked anxiously at the visitor. The remark had been received without comment. He felt immensely relieved.

They left the galleries together. Lypiatt set the pace, striding along at a great rate and with a magnificent brutality through the elegant and leisured crowd, gesticulating and loudly talking as he went. He carried his hat in his hand; his tie was brilliantly orange. People turned to look at him as he passed and he liked it. He had, indeed, a remarkable face—a face that ought by rights to have belonged to a man of genius. Lypiatt was aware of it. The man of genius, he liked to say, bears upon his brow a kind of mark of Cain, by which men recognize him at once—“and having recognized, generally stone him,” he would add with that peculiar laugh he always uttered whenever he said anything rather bitter or cynical; a laugh that was meant to show that the bitterness, the cynicism, justifiable as events might have made them, were really only a mask, and that beneath it the artist was still serenely and tragically smiling. Lypiatt thought a great deal about the ideal artist. That titanic abstraction stalked within his own skin. He was it—a little too consciously, perhaps.

“This time,” he kept repeating, “they’ll be bowled over. This time.... It’s going to be terrific.” And with the blood beating behind his eyes, with the exultant consciousness and certainty of power growing and growing in him with every word he spoke, Lypiatt began to describe the pictures there would be at his show; he talked about the preface he was writing to the catalogue, the poems that would be printed in it by way of literary complement to the pictures. He talked, he talked.

Gumbril listened, not very attentively. He was wondering how any one could talk so loud, could boast so extravagantly. It was as though the man had to shout in order to convince himself of his own existence. Poor Lypiatt; after all these years, Gumbril supposed, he must have some doubts about it. Ah, but this time, this time he was going to bowl them all over.

“You’re pleased, then, with what you’ve done recently,” he said at the end of one of Lypiatt’s long tirades.

“Pleased?” exclaimed Lypiatt; “I should think I was.”

Gumbril might have reminded him that he had been as well pleased in the past and that ‘they’ had by no means been bowled over. He preferred, however, to say nothing. Lypiatt went on about the size and universality of the old masters. He himself, it was tacitly understood, was one of them.

They parted near the bottom of the Tottenham Court Road, Lypiatt to go northward to his studio off Maple Street, Gumbril to pay one of his secret visits to those rooms of his in Great Russell Street. He had taken them nearly a year ago now, two little rooms over a grocer’s shop, promising himself goodness only knew what adventures in them. But somehow there had been no adventures. Still, it had pleased him, all the same, to be able to go there from time to time when he was in London and to think, as he sat in solitude before his gas fire, that there was literally not a soul in the universe who knew where he was. He had an almost childish affection for mysteries and secrets.

“Good-bye,” said Gumbril, raising his hand to the salute. “And I’ll beat up some people for dinner on Friday.” (For they had agreed to meet again.) He turned away, thinking that he had spoken the last words; but he was mistaken.

“Oh, by the way,” said Lypiatt, who had also turned to go, but who now came stepping quickly after his companion. “Can you, by any chance, lend me five pounds. Only till after the exhibition, you know. I’m a bit short.”

Poor old Lypiatt! But it was with reluctance that Gumbril parted from his Treasury notes.