The Flying Inn/Chapter XVII
Chapter XVII: The Poet in Parliament
DURING the singular entrance and exit of Dorian Wimpole, M.P., J.P., etc., Lady Joan was looking out of the magic casements of that turret room which was now literally, and not only poetically, the last limit of Ivywood House. The old broken hole and black staircase up which the lost dog Quoodle used to come and go, had long ago been sealed up and cemented with a wall of exquisite Eastern workmanship. All through the patterns Lord Ivywood had preserved and repeated the principle that no animal shape must appear. But, like all lucid dogmatists, he perceived all the liberties his dogma allowed him. And he had irradiated this remote end of Ivywood with sun and moon and solar and starry systems, with the Milky Way for a dado and a few comets for comic relief. The thing was well done of its kind (as were all the things that Philip Ivywood got done for him); and if all the windows of the turret were closed with their peacock curtains, a poet with anything like a Hibbsian appreciation of the family champagne might almost fancy he was looking out across the sea on a night crowded with stars. And (what was yet more important) even Misysra (that exact thinker) could not call the moon a live animal without falling into idolatry.
But Joan, looking out of real windows on a real sky and sea, thought no more about the astronomical wall-paper than about any other wall-paper. She was asking herself in sullen emotionalism, and for the thousandth time, a question she had never been able to decide. It was the final choice between an ambition and a memory. And there was this heavy weight in the scale: that the ambition would probably materialise, and the memory probably wouldn't. It has been the same weight in the same scale a million times since Satan became the prince of this world. But the evening stars were strengthening over the old sea-shore, and they also wanted weighing like diamonds.
As once before at the same stage of brooding, she heard behind her the swish of Lady Enid's skirts, that never came so fast save for serious cause.
"Joan! Please do come! Nobody but you, I do believe, could move him." Joan looked at Lady Enid and realised that the lady was close on crying. She turned a trifle pale and asked quietly for the question. "Philip says he's going to London now, with that leg and all," cried Enid, "and he won't let us say a word."
"But how did it all happen?" asked Joan.
Lady Enid Wimpole was quite incapable of explaining how it all happened, so the task must for the moment devolve on the author. The simple fact was that Ivywood in the course of turning over magazines on his sofa, happened to look at a paper from the Midlands.
"The Turkish news," said Mr. Leveson, rather nervously, "is on the other side of the page."
But Lord Ivywood continued to look at the side of the paper that did not contain the Turkish news, with the same dignity of lowered eyelids and unconscious brow with which he had looked at the Captain's message when Joan found him by the turret.
On the page covered merely with casual, provincial happenings was a paragraph, "Echo of Pebblewick Mystery. Reported Reappearance of the Vanishing Inn." Underneath was printed, in smaller letters:
"An almost incredible report from Wyddington announces that the mysterious 'Sign of the Old Ship' has once more been seen in this country; though it has long been relegated by scientific investigators to the limbo of old rustic superstitions. According to the local version, Mr. Simmons, a dairyman of Wyddington, was serving in his shop when two motorists entered, one of them asking for a glass of milk. They were in the most impenetrable motoring panoply, with darkened goggles and waterproof collars turned up, so that nothing can be recalled of them personally, except that one was a person of unusual stature. In a few moments, this latter individual went out of the shop again and returned with a miserable specimen out of the street, one of the tattered loafers that linger about our most prosperous towns, tramping the streets all night and even begging in defiance of the police. The filth and disease of the creature were so squalid that Mr. Simmons at first refused to serve him with the glass of milk which the taller motorist wished to provide for him. At length, however, Mr. Simmons consented, and was immediately astonished by an incident against which he certainly had a more assured right to protest.
"The taller motorist, saying to the loafer, 'but, man, you're blue in the face,' made a species of signs to the smaller motorist, who thereupon appears to have pierced a sort of cylindrical trunk or chest that seemed to be his only luggage, and drawn from it a few drops of a yellow liquid which he deliberately dropped into the ragged creature's milk. It was afterward discovered to be rum, and the protests of Mr. Simmons may be imagined. The tall motorist, however, warmly defended his action, having apparently some wild idea that he was doing an act of kindness. 'Why, I found the man nearly fainting,' he said. 'If you'd picked him off a raft, he couldn't be more collapsed with cold and sickness; and if you'd picked him off a raft you'd have given him rum--yes, by St. Patrick, if you were a bloody pirate and made him walk the plank afterward.' Mr. Simmons replied with dignity, that he did not know how it was with rafts, and could not permit such language in his shop. He added that he would lay himself open to a police prosecution if he permitted the consumption of alcohol in his shop; since he did not display a sign. The motorist then made the amazing reply, 'But you _do_ display a sign, you jolly old man. Did you think I couldn't find my way to the sign of The Old Ship, you sly boots?' Mr. Simmons was now fully convinced of the intoxication of his visitors, and refusing a glass of rum rather boisterously offered him, went outside his shop to look round for a policeman. To his surprise he found the officer engaged in dispersing a considerable crowd, which was staring up at some object behind him. On looking round (he states in his deposition) he 'saw what was undoubtedly one of the low tavern signs at one time common in England.' He was wholly unable to explain its presence outside his premises, and as it undoubtedly legalised the motorist's action, the police declined to move in the matter.
"Later. The two motorists have apparently left the town, unmolested, in a small second-hand two-seater. There is no clue to their destination, except it be indicated by a single incident. It appears that when they were waiting for the second glass of milk, one of them drew attention to a milk can of a shape seemingly unfamiliar to him, which was, of course, the Mountain Milk now so much recommended by doctors. The taller motorist (who seemed in every way strangely ignorant of modern science and social life) asked his companion where it came from, receiving, of course, the reply that it is manufactured in the model village of Peaceways, under the personal superintendence of its distinguished and philanthropic inventor, Dr. Meadows. Upon this the taller person, who appeared highly irresponsible, actually bought the whole can; observing, as he tucked it under his arm, that it would help him to remember the address.
"Later. Our readers will be glad to hear that the legend of 'The Old Ship' sign has once more yielded to the wholesome scepticism of science. Our representative reached Wyddington after the practical jokers, or whatever they were, had left; but he searched the whole frontage of Mr. Simmons's shop, and we are in a position to assure the public that there is no trace of the alleged sign."
Lord Ivywood laid down the newspaper and looked at the rich and serpentine embroideries on the wall with the expression that a great general might have if he saw a chance of really ruining his enemy, if he would also ruin all his previous plan of campaign. His pallid and classic profile was as immovable as a cameo; but anyone who had known him at all would have known that his brain was going like a motor car that has broken the speed limit long ago.
Then he turned his head and said, "Please tell Hicks to bring round the long blue car in half an hour; it can be fitted up for a sofa. And ask the gardener to cut a pole of about four feet nine inches, and put a cross-piece for a crutch. I'm going up to London to-night."
Mr. Leveson's lower jaw literally fell with astonishment.
"The Doctor said three weeks," he said. "If I may ask it, where are you going?"
"St. Stephens, Westminster," answered Ivywood.
"Surely," said Mr. Leveson, "I could take a message."
"You could take a message," assented Ivywood, "I'm afraid they would not allow you to make a speech."
It was a moment or two afterward that Enid Wimpole had come into the room, and striven in vain to shake his decision. Then it was that Joan had been brought out of the turret and saw Philip standing, sustained upon a crutch of garden timber; and admired him as she had never admired him before. While he was being helped downstairs, while he was being propped in the car with such limited comfort as was possible, she did really feel in him something worthy of his ancient roots, worthy of such hills and of such a sea. For she felt God's wind from nowhere which is called the Will; and is man's only excuse upon this earth. In the small toot of the starting motor she could hear a hundred trumpets, such as might have called her ancestors and his to the glories of the Third Crusade.
Such imaginary military honours were not, at least in the strategic sense, undeserved. Lord Ivywood really had seen the whole map of the situation in front of him, and swiftly formed a plan to meet it, in a manner not unworthy of Napoleon. The realities of the situation unrolled themselves before him, and his mind was marking them one by one as with a pencil.
First, he knew that Dalroy would probably go to the Model Village. It was just the sort of place he would go to. He knew Dalroy was almost constitutionally incapable of not kicking up some kind of row in a place of that kind.
Second, he knew that if he missed Dalroy at this address, it was very likely to be his last address; he and Mr. Pump were quite clever enough to leave no more hints behind.
Third, he guessed, by careful consideration of map and clock, that they could not get to so remote a region in so cheap a car under something like two days, nor do anything very conclusive in less than three. Thus, he had just time to turn round in.
Fourth, he realised that ever since that day when Dalroy swung round the sign-board and smote the policeman into the ditch, Dalroy had swung round the Ivywood Act on Lord Ivywood. He (Lord Ivywood) had thought, and might well have thought rightly, that by restricting the old sign-posts to a few places so select that they can afford to be eccentric, and forbidding such artistic symbols to all other places, he could sweep fermented liquor for all practical purposes out of the land. The arrangement was exactly that at which all such legislation is consciously or unconsciously aiming. A sign-board could be a favour granted by the governing class to itself. If a gentleman wished to claim the liberties of a Bohemian, the path would be open. If a Bohemian wished to claim the liberties of a gentleman, the path would be shut. So, gradually, Lord Ivywood had thought, the old signs which can alone sell alcohol, will dwindle down to mere curiosities, like Audit Ale or the Mead that may still be found in the New Forest. The calculation was by no means unstatesmanlike. But, like many other statesmanlike calculations, it did not take into account the idea of dead wood walking about. So long as his flying foes might set up their sign anywhere, it mattered little whether the result was enjoyment or disappointment for the populace. In either case it must mean constant scandal or riot. If there was one thing worse than the appearance of "The Old Ship" it was its disappearance.
He realised that his own law was letting them loose every time; for the local authorities hesitated to act on the spot, in defiance of a symbol now so exclusive and therefore impressive. He realised that the law must be altered. Must be altered at once. Must be altered, if possible, before the fugitives broke away from the Model Village of Peaceways.
He realised that it was Thursday. This was the day on which any private member of Parliament could introduce any private bill of the kind called "non-contentious," and pass it without a division, so long as no particular member made any particular fuss. He realised that it was improbable that any particular member would make any particular fuss about Lord Ivywood's own improvement on Lord Ivywood's own Act.
Finally, he realised that the whole case could be met by so slight an improvement as this. Change the words of the Act (which he knew by heart, as happier men might know a song): "If such sign be present liquids containing alcohol can be sold on the premises," to these other words: "Liquids containing alcohol can be sold, if previously preserved for three days on the premises"; it was mate in a few moves. Parliament could never reject or even examine so slight an emendation. And the revolution of "The Old Ship" and the late King of Ithaca would be crushed for ever.
It does undoubtedly show, as we have said, something Napoleonic in the man's mind that the whole of this excellent and even successful plan was complete long before he saw the great glowing clock on the towers of Westminster; and knew he was in time.
It was unfortunate, perhaps, that about the same time, or not long after, another gentleman of the same rank, and indirectly of the same family, having left the restaurant in Regent Street and the tangle of Piccadilly, had drifted serenely down Whitehall, and had seen the same great golden goblin's eye on the tall tower of St. Stephen.
The Poet of the Birds, like most aesthetes, had known as little of the real town as he had of the real country. But he had remembered a good place for supper; and as he passed certain great cold clubs, built of stone and looking like Assyrian Sarcophagi, he remembered that he belonged to many of them. And so when he saw afar off, sitting above the river, what has been very erroneously described as the best club in London, he suddenly remembered that he belonged to that too. He could not at the moment recall what constituency in South England it was that he sat for; but he knew he could walk into the place if he wanted to. He might not so have expressed the matter, but he knew that in an oligarchy things go by respect for persons and not for claims; by visiting cards and not by voting cards. He had not been near the place for years, being permanently paired against a famous Patriot who had accepted an important government appointment in a private madhouse. Even in his silliest days, he had never pretended to feel any respect for modern politics, and made all haste to put his "leaders" and the mad patriot's "leaders" on the well selected list of the creatures whom man forgets. He had made one really eloquent speech in the House (on the subject of gorillas), and then found he was speaking against his party. It was an indescribable sort of place, anyhow. Even Lord Ivywood did not go to it except to do some business that could be done nowhere else; as was the case that night.
Ivywood was what is called a peer by courtesy; his place was in the Commons, and for the time being on the Opposition side. But, though he visited the House but seldom, he knew far too much about it to go into the Chamber itself. He limped into the Smoking Room (though he did not smoke), procured a needless cigarette and a much-needed sheet of note-paper, and composed a curt but careful note to the one member of the government whom he knew must be in the House. Having sent it up to him, he waited.
Outside, Mr. Dorian Wimpole also waited, leaning on the parapet of Westminster Bridge and looking down the river. He was becoming one with the oysters in a more solemn and solid sense than he had hitherto conceived possible, and also with a strictly Vegetarian beverage which bears the noble and starry name of Nuits. He felt at peace with all things, even in a manner with politics. It was one of those magic hours of evening when the red and golden lights of men are already lit along the river, and look like the lights of goblins, but daylight still lingers in a cold and delicate green. He felt about the river something of that smiling and glorious sadness which two Englishmen have expressed under the figure of the white wood of an old ship fading like a phantom; Turner, in painting, and Henry Newbolt, in poetry. He had come back to earth like a man fallen from the moon; he was at bottom not only a poet but a patriot, and a patriot is always a little sad. Yet his melancholy was mixed up with that immutable yet meaningless faith which few Englishmen, even in modern times, fail to feel at the unexpected sight either of Westminster or of that height on which stands the temple of St. Paul.
"While flows the sacred river, While stands the sacred hill,"
he murmured in some schoolboy echo of the ballad of Lake Regillus,
"While flows the sacred river, While stands the sacred hill, The proud old pantaloons and nincompoops, Who yawn at the very length of their own lies in that accursed sanhedrim where people put each other's hats on in a poisonous room with no more windows than hell Shall have such honour still."
Relieved by this rendering of Macaulay in the style known among his cultured friends as _vers libre_, or poesy set free from the shackles of formal metre, he strolled toward the members' entrance and went in.
Lacking Lord Ivywood's experience, he strolled into the Common's Chamber itself and sat down on a green bench, under the impression that the House was not sitting. He was, however, gradually able to distinguish some six or eight drowsy human forms from the seats on which they sat; and to hear a senile voice with an Essex accent, saying, all on one note, and without beginning or end, in a manner which it is quite impossible to punctuate,
". . . no wish at all that this proposal should be regarded except in the right way and have tried to put it in the right way and cannot think the honourable member was altogether adding to his reputation in putting it in what those who think with me must of course consider the wrong way and I for one am free to say that if in his desire to settle this great question he takes this hasty course and this revolutionary course about slate pencils he may not be able to prevent the extremists behind him from applying it to lead pencils and while I should be the last to increase the heat and the excitement and the personalities of this debate if I could possibly help it I must confess that in my opinion the honourable gentleman has himself encouraged that heat and personality in a manner that he now doubtless regrets I have no desire to use abusive terms indeed you Mr. Speaker would not allow me of course to use abusive terms but I must tell the honourable member face to face that the perambulators with which he has twitted me cannot be germane to this discussion I should be the last person. . . ."
Dorian Wimpole had softly risen to go, when he was arrested by the sight of someone sliding into the House and handing a note to the solitary young man with heavy eyelids who was at that moment governing all England from the Treasury Bench. Seeing him go out, Dorian had a sickening sweetness of hope (as he might have said in his earlier poems), that something intelligible might happen after all, and followed him out almost with alacrity.
The solitary and sleepy governor of Great Britain went down into the lower crypts of its temple of freedom and turned into an apartment where Wimpole was astonished to see his cousin Ivywood sitting at a little table with a large crutch leaning beside him, as serene as Long John Silver. The young man with the heavy eyelids sat down opposite him and they had a conversation which Wimpole, of course, did not hear. He withdrew into an adjoining room where he managed to procure coffee and a liqueur; an excellent liqueur which he had forgotten and of which he had more than one glass.
But he had so posted himself that Ivywood could not come out without passing him, and he waited for what might happen with exquisite patience. The only thing that seemed to him queer was that every now and then a bell rang in several rooms at once. And whenever the bell rang, Lord Ivywood nodded, as if he were part of the electrical machinery. And whenever Lord Ivywood nodded the young man turned and sped upstairs like a mountaineer, returning in a short time to resume the conversation. On the third occasion the poet began to observe that many others from the other rooms could be heard running upstairs at the sound of this bell, and returning with the slightly less rapid step which expresses relief after a duty done. Yet did he not know that this duty was Representative Government; and that it is thus that the cry of Cumberland or Cornwall can come to the ears of an English King.
Suddenly the sleepy young man sprang erect, uninspired by any bell, and strode out once more. The poet could not help hearing him say as he left the table, jotting down something with a pencil: "Alcohol can be sold if previously preserved for three days on the premises. I think we can do it, but you can't come on for half an hour."
Saying this, he darted upstairs again, and when Dorian saw Ivywood come out laboriously, afterward, on his large country crutch, he had exactly the same revulsion in his favour that Joan had had. Jumping up from his table, which was in one of the private dining-rooms, he touched the other on the elbow and said:
"I want to apologise to you, Philip, for my rudeness this afternoon. Honestly, I am sorry. Pinewoods and prison-cells try a man's temper, but I had no rag of excuse for not seeing that for neither of them were you to blame. I'd no notion you were coming up to town tonight; with your leg and all. You mustn't knock yourself up like this. Do sit down a minute."
It seemed to him that the bleak face of Philip softened a little; how far he really softened will never be known until such men as he are understood by their fellows. It is certain that he carefully unhooked himself from his crutch and sat down opposite his cousin. Whereupon his cousin struck the table so that it rang like a dinner-bell and called out, "Waiter!" as if he were in a crowded restaurant. Then, before Lord Ivywood could protest, he said:
"It's awfully jolly that we've met. I suppose you've come up to make a speech. I _should_ like to hear it. We haven't always agreed; but, by God, if there's anything good left in literature it's your speeches reported in a newspaper. That thing of yours that ended, 'death and the last shutting of the iron doors of defeat'--Why you must go back to Strafford's last speech for such English. Do let me hear your speech! I've got a seat upstairs, you know."
"If you wish it," said Ivywood hurriedly, "but I shan't make much of a speech to-night." And he looked at the wall behind Wimpole's head with thunderous wrinkles thickening on his brow. It was essential to his brilliant and rapid scheme, of course, that the Commons should make no comment at all on his little alteration in the law.
An attendant hovered near in response to the demand for a waiter, and was much impressed by the presence and condition of Lord Ivywood. But as that exalted cripple resolutely refused anything in the way of liquor, his cousin was so kind as to have a little more himself, and resumed his remarks.
"It's about this public-house affair of yours, I suppose. I'd like to hear you speak on that. P'raps I'll speak myself. I've been thinking about it a good deal all day, and a good deal of last night, too. Now, here's what I should say to the House, if I were you. To begin with, can you abolish the public-house? Are you _important_ enough now to abolish the public-house? Whether it's right or wrong, can you in the long run prevent haymakers having ale any more than you can prevent me having this glass of Chartreuse?"
The attendant, hearing the word, once more drew near; but heard no further order; or, rather, the orders he heard were such as he was less able to cope with.
"Remember the curate!" said Dorian, abstractedly shaking his head at the functionary, "remember the sensible little High-Church curate, who when asked for a Temperance Sermon preached on the text 'Suffer us not to be overwhelmed in the water-floods.' Indeed, indeed, Philip, you are in deeper waters than you know. _You_ will abolish ale! _You_ will make Kent forget hop-poles, and Devonshire forget cider! The fate of the Inn is to be settled in that hot little room upstairs! Take care its fate and yours are not settled in the Inn. Take care Englishmen don't sit in judgment on you as they do on many another corpse at an inquest--at a common public-house! Take care that the one tavern that is really neglected and shut up and passed like a house of pestilence is not the tavern in which I drink to-night, and that merely because it is the worst tavern on the King's highway. Take care this place where we sit does not get a name like any pub where sailors are hocussed or girls debauched. That is what I shall say to them," said he, rising cheerfully, "that's what I shall say. See you to it," he cried with sudden passion and apparently to the waiter, "see you to it if the sign that is destroyed is not the sign of 'The Old Ship' but the sign of the Mace and Bauble, and, in the words of a highly historical brewer, if we see a dog bark at your going."
Lord Ivywood was observing him with a deathly quietude; another idea had come into his fertile mind. He knew his cousin, though excited, was not in the least intoxicated; he knew he was quite capable of making a speech and even a good one. He knew that any speech, good or bad, would wreck his whole plan and send the wild inn flying again. But the orator had resumed his seat and drained his glass, passing a hand across his brow. And he remembered that a man who keeps a vigil in a wood all night and drinks wine on the following evening is liable to an accident that is not drunkenness, but something much healthier.
"I suppose your speech will come on pretty soon," said Dorian, looking at the table. "You'll let me know when it does, of course. Really and truly, I don't want to miss it. And I've forgotten all the ways here, and feel pretty tired. You'll let me know?"
"Yes," said Lord Ivywood.
Stillness fell along all the rooms until Lord Ivywood broke it by saying:
"Debate is a most necessary thing; but there are times when it rather impedes than assists parliamentary government."
He received no reply. Dorian still sat as if looking at the table, but his eyelids had lightly fallen; he was asleep. Almost at the same moment the Member of Government, who was nearly asleep, appeared at the entrance of the long room and made some sort of weary signal.
Philip Ivywood raised himself on his crutch and stood for a moment looking at the sleeping man. Then he and his crutch trailed out of the long room, leaving the sleeping man behind. Nor was that the only thing that he left behind. He also left behind an unlighted cigarette and his honour and all the England of his father's; everything that could really distinguish that high house beside the river from any tavern for the hocussing of sailors. He went upstairs and did his business in twenty minutes in the only speech he had ever delivered without any trace of eloquence. And from that hour forth he was the naked fanatic; and could feed on nothing but the future.