Antic Hay/Chapter 4

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Lypiatt had a habit, which some of his friends found rather trying—and not only friends, for Lypiatt was ready to let the merest acquaintances, the most absolute strangers, even, into the secrets of his inspiration—a habit of reciting at every possible opportunity his own verses. He would declaim in a voice loud and tremulous, with an emotion that never seemed to vary with the varying subject-matter of his poems, for whole quarters of an hour at a stretch; would go on declaiming till his auditors were overwhelmed with such a confusion of embarrassment and shame, that the blood rushed to their cheeks and they dared not meet one another’s eyes.

He was declaiming now; not merely across the dinner table to his own friends, but to the whole restaurant. For at the first reverberating lines of his latest, “The Conquistador,” there had been a startled turning of heads, a craning of necks from every corner of the room. The people who came to this Soho restaurant because it was, notoriously, so ‘artistic,’ looked at one another significantly and nodded; they were getting their money’s worth, this time. And Lypiatt, with a fine air of rapt unconsciousness, went on with his recitation.

“Look down on Mexico, Conquistador”—that was the refrain.

The Conquistador, Lypiatt had made it clear, was the Artist, and the Vale of Mexico on which he looked down, the towered cities of Tlacopan and Chalco, of Tenochtitlan and Iztapalapan symbolized—well, it was difficult to say precisely what. The universe, perhaps?

“Look down,” cried Lypiatt, with a quivering voice.

“Look down, Conquistador!

There on the valley’s broad green floor,

There lies the lake; the jewelled cities gleam;

Chalco and Tlacopan

Awaiting the coming Man.

Look down on Mexico, Conquistador,

Land of your golden dream.”

“Not ‘dream,’” said Gumbril, putting down the glass from which he had been profoundly drinking. “You can’t possibly say ‘dream,’ you know.”

“Why do you interrupt me?” Lypiatt turned on him angrily. His wide mouth twitched at the corners, his whole long face worked with excitement. “Why don’t you let me finish?” He allowed his hand, which had hung awkwardly in the air above him, suspended, as it were, at the top of a gesture, to sink slowly to the table. “Imbecile!” he said, and once more picked up his knife and fork.

“But really,” Gumbril insisted, “you can’t say ‘dream.’ Can you now, seriously?” He had drunk the best part of a bottle of Burgundy and he felt good-humoured, obstinate and a little bellicose.

“And why not?” Lypiatt asked.

“Oh, because one simply can’t.” Gumbril leaned back in his chair, smiled and caressed his drooping blond moustache. “Not in this year of grace, nineteen twenty-two.”

“But why?” Lypiatt repeated, with exasperation.

“Because it’s altogether too late in the day,” declared precious Mr. Mercaptan, rushing up to his emphasis with flutes and roaring, like a true Conquistador, to fall back, however, at the end of the sentence rather ignominiously into a breathless confusion. He was a sleek, comfortable young man with smooth brown hair parted in the centre and conducted in a pair of flowing curves across the temples, to be looped in damp curls behind his ears. His face ought to have been rather more exquisite, rather more refinedly dix-huitième than it actually was. It had a rather gross, snouty look, which was sadly out of harmony with Mr. Mercaptan’s inimitably graceful style. For Mr. Mercaptan had a style and used it, delightfully, in his middle articles for the literary weeklies. His most precious work, however, was that little volume of essays, prose poems, vignettes and paradoxes, in which he had so brilliantly illustrated his favourite theme—the pettiness, the simian limitations, the insignificance and the absurd pretentiousness of Homo soi-disant Sapiens. Those who met Mr. Mercaptan personally often came away with the feeling that perhaps, after all, he was right in judging so severely of humanity.

Too late in the day,” he repeated. “Times have changed. Sunt lacrymæ rerum, nos et mutamur in illis.” He laughed his own applause.

Quot homines, tot disputandum est,” said Gumbril, taking another sip of his Beaune Supérieure. At the moment, he was all for Mercaptan.

“But why is it too late?” Lypiatt insisted.

Mr. Mercaptan made a delicate gesture. “Ça se sent, mon cher ami,” he said, “ça ne s’explique pas.” Satan, it is said, carries hell in his heart; so it was with Mr. Mercaptan—wherever he was, it was Paris. “Dreams in nineteen twenty-two....” He shrugged his shoulders.

“After you’ve accepted the war, swallowed the Russian famine,” said Gumbril. “Dreams!”

“They belonged to the Rostand epoch,” said Mr. Mercaptan, with a little titter. “Le Rève—ah!”

Lypiatt dropped his knife and fork with a clatter and leaned forward, eager for battle. “Now I have you,” he said, “now I have you on the hip. You’ve given yourselves away. You’ve given away the secret of your spiritual poverty, your weakness and pettiness and impotence....”

“Impotence? You malign me, sir,” said Gumbril.

Shearwater ponderously stirred. He had been silent all this time, sitting with hunched shoulders, his elbows on the table, his big round head bent forward, absorbed, apparently, in the slow meticulous crumbling of a piece of bread. Sometimes he put a piece of crust in his mouth and under the bushy brown moustache his jaw moved slowly, ruminatively, with a sideways motion, like a cow’s. He nudged Gumbril with his elbow. “Ass,” he said, “be quiet.”

Lypiatt went on torrentially. “You’re afraid of ideals, that’s what it is. You daren’t admit to having dreams. Oh, I call them dreams,” he added parenthetically. “I don’t mind being thought a fool and old-fashioned. The word’s shorter and more English. Besides, it rhymes with gleams. Ha, ha!” And Lypiatt laughed his loud Titan’s laugh, the laugh of cynicism which seems to belie, but which, for those who have understanding, reveals the high, positive spirit within. “Ideals—they’re not sufficiently genteel for you civilized young men. You’ve quite outgrown that sort of thing. No dream, no religion, no morality.”

“I glory in the name of earwig,” said Gumbril. He was pleased with that little invention. It was felicitous; it was well chosen. “One’s an earwig in sheer self-protection,” he explained.

But Mr. Mercaptan refused to accept the name of earwig at any price. “What there is to be ashamed of in being civilized, I really don’t know,” he said, in a voice that was now the bull’s, now the piping robin’s. “No, if I glory in anything, it’s in my little rococo boudoir, and the conversations across the polished mahogany, and the delicate, lascivious, witty little flirtations on ample sofas inhabited by the soul of Crebillon Fils. We needn’t all be Russians, I hope. These revolting Dostoievskys.” Mr. Mercaptan spoke with a profound feeling. “Nor all Utopians. Homo au naturel——” Mr. Mercaptan applied his thumb and forefinger to his, alas! too snout-like nose, “ça pue. And as for Homo à la H. G. Wells—ça ne pue pas assez. What I glory in is the civilized, middle way between stink and asepsis. Give me a little musk, a little intoxicating feminine exhalation, the bouquet of old wine and strawberries, a lavender bag under every pillow and pot-pourri in the corners of the drawing-room. Readable books, amusing conversation, civilized women, graceful art and dry vintage, music, with a quiet life and reasonable comfort—that’s all I ask for.”

“Talking about comfort,” Gumbril put in, before Lypiatt had time to fling his answering thunders, “I must tell you about my new invention. Pneumatic trousers,” he explained. “Blow them up. Perfect comfort. You see the idea? You’re a sedentary man, Mercaptan. Let me put you down for a couple of pairs.”

Mr. Mercaptan shook his head. “Too Wellsian,” he said. “Too horribly Utopian. They’d be ludicrously out of place in my boudoir. And besides, my sofa is well enough sprung already, thank you.”

“But what about Tolstoy?” shouted Lypiatt, letting out his impatience in a violent blast.

Mr. Mercaptan waved his hand. “Russian,” he said, “Russian.”

“And Michelangelo?”

“Alberti,” said Gumbril, very seriously, giving them all a piece of his father’s mind—“Alberti was much the better architect, I assure you.”

“And pretentiousness for pretentiousness,” said Mr. Mercaptan, “I prefer old Borromini and the baroque.”

“What about Beethoven?” went on Lypiatt. “What about Blake? Where do they come in under your scheme of things?”

Mr. Mercaptan shrugged his shoulders. “They stay in the hall,” he said. “I don’t let them into the boudoir.”

“You disgust me,” said Lypiatt, with rising indignation, and making wider gestures. “You disgust me—you and your odious little sham eighteenth-century civilization; your piddling little poetry; your art for art’s sake instead of for God’s sake; your nauseating little copulations without love or passion; your hoggish materialism; your bestial indifference to all that’s unhappy and your yelping hatred of all that’s great.”

“Charming, charming,” murmured Mr. Mercaptan, who was pouring oil on his salad.

“How can you ever hope to achieve anything decent or solid, when you don’t even believe in decency or solidity? I look about me,” and Lypiatt cast his eyes wildly round the crowded room, “and I find myself alone, spiritually alone. I strive on by myself, by myself.” He struck his breast, a giant, a solitary giant. “I have set myself to restore painting and poetry to their rightful position among the great moral forces. They have been amusements, they have been mere games for too long. I am giving my life for that. My life.” His voice trembled a little. “People mock me, hate me, stone me, deride me. But I go on, I go on. For I know I’m right. And in the end they too will recognize that I’ve been right.” It was a loud soliloquy. One could fancy that Lypiatt had been engaged in recognizing himself.

“All the same,” said Gumbril with a cheerful stubbornness, “I persist that the word ‘dreams’ is inadmissible.”

Inadmissible,” repeated Mr. Mercaptan, imparting to the word an additional significance by giving it its French pronunciation. “In the age of Rostand, well and good. But now....”

“Now,” said Gumbril, “the word merely connotes Freud.”

“It’s a matter of literary tact,” explained Mr. Mercaptan. “Have you no literary tact?”

“No,” said Lypiatt, with emphasis, “thank God, I haven’t. I have no tact of any kind. I do things straightforwardly, frankly, as the spirit moves me. I don’t like compromises.”

He struck the table. The gesture startlingly let loose a peal of cracked and diabolic laughter. Gumbril and Lypiatt and Mr. Mercaptan looked quickly up; even Shearwater lifted his great spherical head and turned towards the sound the large disk of his face. A young man with a blond, fan-shaped beard stood by the table, looking down at them through a pair of bright blue eyes and smiling equivocally and disquietingly as though his mind were full of some nameless and fantastic malice.

Come sta la Sua Terribiltà?” he asked; and, taking off his preposterous bowler hat, he bowed profoundly to Lypiatt. “How I recognize my Buonarotti!” he added affectionately.

Lypiatt laughed, rather uncomfortably, and no longer on the Titanic scale. “How I recognize my Coleman!” he echoed, rather feebly.

“On the contrary,” Gumbril corrected, “how almost completely I fail to recognize. This beard”—he pointed to the blond fan—“why, may I ask?”

“More Russianism,” said Mr. Mercaptan, and shook his head.

“Ah, why indeed?” Coleman lowered his voice to a confidential whisper. “For religious reasons,” he said, and made the sign of the cross.

“Christlike in my behaviour,

Like every good believer,

I imitate the Saviour,

And cultivate a beaver.

There be beavers which have made themselves beavers for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. But there are some beavers, on the other hand, which were so born from their mother’s womb.” He burst into a fit of outrageous laughter which stopped as suddenly and as voluntarily as it had begun.

Lypiatt shook his head. “Hideous,” he said, “hideous.”

“Moreover,” Coleman went on, without paying any attention, “I have other and, alas! less holy reasons for this change of face. It enables one to make such delightful acquaintances in the street. You hear some one saying, ‘Beaver,’ as you pass, and you immediately have the right to rush up and get into conversation. I owe to this dear symbol,” and he caressed the golden beard tenderly with the palm of his hand, “the most admirably dangerous relations.”

“Magnificent,” said Gumbril, drinking his own health. “I shall stop shaving at once.”

Shearwater looked round the table with raised eyebrows and a wrinkled forehead. “This conversation is rather beyond me,” he said gravely. Under the formidable moustache, under the thick, tufted eyebrows, the mouth was small and ingenuous, the mild grey eyes full of an almost childish inquiry. “What does the word ‘beaver’ signify in this context? You don’t refer, I suppose, to the rodent, Castor fiber?”

“But this is a very great man,” said Coleman, raising his bowler. “Tell me who he is?”

“Our friend Shearwater,” said Gumbril, “the physiologist.”

Coleman bowed. “Physiological Shearwater,” he said. “Accept my homage. To one who doesn’t know what a beaver is, I resign all my claims to superiority. There’s nothing else but beavers in all the papers. Tell me, do you never read the ?”

“No.”

“Nor the ?”

Shearwater shook his head.

“Nor the ? nor the ? nor the ? nor even (for I was forgetting that physiologists must surely have Liberal opinions)—even the ?”

Shearwater continued to shake his large spherical head.

“Nor any of the evening papers?”

“No.”

Coleman once more lifted his hat. “O eloquent, just and mighty Death!” he exclaimed, and replaced it on his head. “You never read any papers at all—not even our friend Mercaptan’s delicious little middles in the weeklies? How is your delicious little middle, by the way?” Coleman turned to Mr. Mercaptan and with the point of his huge stick gave him a little prod in the stomach. “Ça marche—les tripes? Hein?” He turned back to Shearwater. “Not even those?” he asked.

“Never,” said Shearwater. “I have more serious things to think about than newspapers.”

“And what serious thing, may I ask?”

“Well, at the present moment,” said Shearwater, “I am chiefly preoccupied with the kidneys.”

“The kidneys!” In an ecstasy of delight, Coleman thumped the floor with the ferrule of his stick. “The kidneys! Tell me all about kidneys. This is of the first importance. This is really life. And I shall sit down at your table without asking permission of Buonarotti here, and in the teeth of Mercaptan, and without so much as thinking about this species of Gumbril, who might as well not be there at all. I shall sit down and——”

“Talking of sitting,” said Gumbril, “I wish I could persuade you to order a pair of my patent pneumatic trousers. They will——”

Coleman waved him away. “Not now, not now,” he said. “I shall sit down and listen to the physiologue talking about runions, while I myself actually eat them—sautés. Sautés, mark my words.”

Laying his hat and stick on the floor beside him, he sat down at the end of the table, between Lypiatt and Shearwater.

“Two believers,” he said, laying his hand for a moment on Lypiatt’s arm, “and three black-hearted unbelievers—confronted. Eh, Buonarotti? You and I are both croyants et pratiquants, as Mercaptan would say. I believe in one devil, father quasi-almighty, Samael and his wife, the Woman of Whoredom. Ha, ha!” He laughed his ferocious, artificial laugh.

“Here’s an end to any civilized conversation,” Mr. Mercaptan complained, hissing on the c, labiating lingeringly on the v of ‘civilized’ and giving the first two i’s their fullest value. The word, in his mouth, seemed to take on a special and a richer significance.

Coleman ignored him. “Tell me, you physiologue,” he went on, “tell me about the physiology of the Archetypal Man. This is most important; Buonarotti shares my opinion about this, I know. Has the Archetypal Man a boyau rectum, as Mercaptan would say again, or not? Everything depends on this, as Voltaire realized ages ago. ‘His feet,’ as we know already on inspired authority, ‘were straight feet; and the sole of his feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot.’ But the viscera, you must tell us something about the viscera. Mustn’t he, Buonarotti? And where are my rognons sautés?” he shouted at the waiter.

“You revolt me,” said Lypiatt.

“Not mortually, I ’ope?” Coleman turned with solicitude to his neighbour; then shook his head. “Mortually I fear. Kiss me ’Ardy, and I die happy.” He blew a kiss into the air. “But why is the physiologue so slow? Up, pachyderm, up! Answer. You hold the key to everything. The key, I tell you, the key. I remember, when I used to hang about the biological laboratories at school, eviscerating frogs—crucified with pins, they were, belly upwards, like little green Christs—I remember once, when I was sitting there, quietly poring over the entrails, in came the laboratory boy and said to the stinks usher: ‘Please, sir, may I have the key of the Absolute?’ And, would you believe it, that usher calmly put his hand in his trouser pocket and fished out a small Yale key and gave it him without a word. What a gesture! The key of the Absolute. But it was only the absolute alcohol the urchin wanted—to pickle some loathsome fœtus in, I suppose. God rot his soul in peace! And now, Castor Fiber, out with your key. Tell us about the Archetypal Man, tell us about the primordial Adam. Tell us all about the boyau rectum.”

Ponderously, Shearwater moved his clumsy frame; leaning back in his chair he scrutinized Coleman with a large, benevolent curiosity. The eyes under the savage eyebrows were mild and gentle; behind the fearful disguise of the moustache he smiled poutingly, like a baby who sees the approaching bottle. The broad, domed forehead was serene. He ran his hand through his thick brown hair, scratched his head meditatively and then, when he had thoroughly examined, had comprehended and duly classified the strange phenomenon of Coleman, opened his mouth and uttered a little good-natured laugh of amusement.

“Voltaire’s question,” he said at last, in his slow, deep voice, “seemed at the time he asked it an unanswerable piece of irony. It would have seemed almost equally ironic to his contemporaries, if he had asked whether God had a pair of kidneys. We know a little more about the kidneys nowadays. If he had asked me, I should answer: why not? The kidneys are so beautifully organized; they do their work of regulation with such a miraculous—it’s hard to find another word—such a positively divine precision, such knowledge and wisdom, that there’s no reason why your archetypal man, whoever he is, or any one else, for that matter, should be ashamed of owning a pair.”

Coleman clapped his hands. “The key,” he cried, “the key. Out of the trouser pocket of babes and sucklings it comes. The genuine, the unique Yale. How right I was to come here to-night! But, holy Sephiroth, there’s my trollop.”

He picked up his stick, jumped from his chair and threaded his way between the tables. A woman was standing near the door. Coleman came up to her, pointed without speaking to the table, and returned, driving her along in front of him, tapping her gently over the haunches with his stick, as one might drive a docile animal to the slaughter.

“Allow me to introduce,” said Coleman. “The sharer of my joys and sorrows. La compagne de mes nuits blanches et de mes jours plutôt sales. In a word, Zoe. Qui ne comprend pas le français, qui me déteste avec une passion égale à la mienne, et qui mangera, ma foi, des rognons pour faire honneur au physiologue.

“Have some Burgundy?” Gumbril proffered the bottle.

Zoe nodded and pushed forward her glass. She was dark-haired, had a pale skin and eyes like round blackberries. Her mouth was small and floridly curved. She was dressed, rather depressingly, like a picture by Augustus John, in blue and orange. Her expression was sullen and ferocious, and she looked about her with an air of profound contempt.

“Shearwater’s no better than a mystic,” fluted Mr. Mercaptan. “A mystical scientist; really, one hadn’t reckoned on that.”

“Like a Liberal Pope,” said Gumbril. “Poor Metternich, you remember? Pio Nono.” And he burst into a fit of esoteric laughter. “Of less than average intelligence,” he murmured delightedly, and refilled his glass.

“It’s only the deliberately blind who wouldn’t reckon on the combination,” Lypiatt put in, indignantly. “What are science and art, what are religion and philosophy but so many expressions in human terms of some reality more than human? Newton and Boehme and Michelangelo—what are they doing but expressing, in different ways, different aspects of the same thing?”

“Alberti, I beg you,” said Gumbril. “I assure you he was the better architect.”

Fi donc!” said Mr. Mercaptan. “San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane——” But he got no further. Lypiatt abolished him with a gesture.

“One reality,” he cried, “there is only one reality.”

“One reality,” Coleman reached out a hand across the table and caressed Zoe’s bare white arm, “and that is callipygous.” Zoe jabbed at his hand with her fork.

“We are all trying to talk about it,” continued Lypiatt. “The physicists have formulated their laws, which are after all no more than stammering provisional theories about a part of it. The physiologists are penetrating into the secrets of life, psychologists into the mind. And we artists are trying to say what is revealed to us about the moral nature, the personality of that reality, which is the universe.”

Mr. Mercaptan threw up his hands in affected horror. “Oh, barbaridad, barbaridad!” Nothing less than the pure Castilian would relieve his feelings. “But all this is meaningless.”

“Quite right about the chemists and physicists,” said Shearwater. “They’re always trying to pretend that they’re nearer the truth than we are. They take their crude theories as facts and try to make us accept them when we’re dealing with life. Oh, they are sacred, their theories. Laws of Nature they call them; and they talk about their known truths and our romantic biological fancies. What a fuss they make when we talk about life! Bloody fools!” said Shearwater, mild and crushing. “Nobody but a fool could talk of mechanism in face of the kidneys. And there are actually imbeciles who talk about the mechanism of heredity and reproduction.”

“All the same,” began Mr. Mercaptan very earnestly, anxious to deny his own life, “there are eminent authorities. I can only quote what they say, of course. I can’t pretend to know anything about it myself. But——”

“Reproduction, reproduction,” Coleman murmured the word to himself ecstatically. “Delightful and horrifying to think they all come to that, even the most virginal; that they were all made for that, little she-dogs, in spite of their china blue eyes. What sort of a mandrake shall we produce, Zoe and I?” he asked, turning to Shearwater. “How I should like to have a child,” he went on without waiting for an answer. “I shouldn’t teach it anything; no language, nothing at all. Just a child of nature. I believe it would really be the devil. And then what fun it would be if it suddenly started to say ‘Bekkos,’ like the children in Herodotus. And Buonarotti here would paint an allegorical picture of it and write an epic called ‘The Ignoble Savage.’ And Castor Fiber would come and sound its kidneys and investigate its sexual instincts. And Mercaptan would write one of his inimitable middle articles about it. And Gumbril would make it a pair of patent trousers. And Zoe and I would look parentally on and fairly swell with pride. Shouldn’t we, Zoe?” Zoe preserved her expression of sullen, unchanging contempt and did not deign to answer. “Ah, how delightful it would be! I long for posterity. I live in hopes. I stope against Stopes. I——”

Zoe threw a piece of bread, which caught him on the cheek, a little below the eye. Coleman leaned back and laughed and laughed till the tears rolled down his face.