The Island Pharisees/Part II/CHAPTER XVII

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Shelton continued to travel with his college friend, and on Wednesday night, four days after joining company, they reached the village of Dowdenhame. All day long the road had lain through pastureland, with thick green hedges and heavily feathered elms. Once or twice they had broken the monotony by a stretch along the towing-path of a canal, which, choked with water-lily plants and shining weeds, brooded sluggishly beside the fields. Nature, in one of her ironic moods, had cast a grey and iron-hard cloak over all the country's bland luxuriance. From dawn till darkness fell there had been no movement in the steely distant sky; a cold wind ruffed in the hedge-tops, and sent shivers through the branches of the elms. The cattle, dappled, pied, or bay, or white, continued grazing with an air of grumbling at their birthright. In a meadow close to the canal Shelton saw five magpies, and about five o'clock the rain began, a steady, coldly-sneering rain, which Crocker, looking at the sky, declared was going to be over in a minute. But it was not over in a minute; they were soon drenched. Shelton was tired, and it annoyed him very much that his companion, who was also tired, should grow more cheerful. His thoughts kept harping upon Ferrand: "This must be something like what he described to me, tramping on and on when you're dead-beat, until you can cadge up supper and a bed." And sulkily he kept on ploughing through the mud with glances at the exasperating Crocker, who had skinned one heel and was limping horribly. It suddenly came home to him that life for three quarters of the world meant physical exhaustion every day, without a possibility of alternative, and that as soon as, for some cause beyond control, they failed thus to exhaust themselves, they were reduced to beg or starve. "And then we, who don't know the meaning of the word exhaustion, call them 'idle scamps,'" he said aloud.

It was past nine and dark when they reached Dowdenhame. The street yielded no accommodation, and while debating where to go they passed the church, with a square tower, and next to it a house which was certainly the parsonage.

"Suppose," said Crocker, leaning on his arms upon the gate, "we ask him where to go"; and, without waiting for Shelton's answer, he rang the bell.

The door was opened by the parson, a bloodless and clean-shaven man, whose hollow cheeks and bony hands suggested a perpetual struggle. Ascetically benevolent were his grey eyes; a pale and ghostly smile played on the curves of his thin lips.

"What can I do for you?" he asked. "Inn? yes, there's the Blue Chequers, but I 'm afraid you 'll find it shut. They 're early people, I 'm glad to say"; and his eyes seemed to muse over the proper fold for these damp sheep. "Are you Oxford men, by any chance?" he asked, as if that might throw some light upon the matter. "Of Mary's? Really! I'm of Paul's myself. Ladyman—Billington Ladyman; you might remember my youngest brother. I could give you a room here if you could manage without sheets. My housekeeper has two days' holiday; she's foolishly taken the keys."

Shelton accepted gladly, feeling that the intonation in the parson's voice was necessary unto his calling, and that he did not want to patronise.

"You 're hungry, I expect, after your tramp. I'm very much afraid there 's—er—nothing in the house but bread; I could boil you water; hot lemonade is better than nothing."

Conducting them into the kitchen, he made a fire, and put a kettle on to boil; then, after leaving them to shed their soaking clothes, returned with ancient, greenish coats, some carpet slippers, and some blankets. Wrapped in these, and carrying their glasses, the travellers followed to the study, where, by doubtful lamp-light, he seemed, from books upon the table, to have been working at his sermon.

"We 're giving you a lot of trouble," said Shelton, "it's really very good of you."

"Not at all," the parson answered; "I'm only grieved the house is empty."

It was a truly dismal contrast to the fatness of the land they had been passing through, and the parson's voice issuing from bloodless lips, although complacent, was pathetic. It was peculiar, that voice of his, seeming to indicate an intimate acquaintanceship with what was fat and fine, to convey contempt for the vulgar need of money, while all the time his eyes—those watery, ascetic eyes—as plain as speech they said, "Oh, to know what it must be like to have a pound or two to spare just once a year, or so!"

Everything in the room had been bought for cheapness; no luxuries were there, and necessaries not enough. It was bleak and bare; the ceiling cracked, the wall-paper discoloured, and those books—prim, shining books, fat-backed, with arms stamped on them—glared in the surrounding barrenness.

"My predecessor," said the parson, "played rather havoc with the house. The poor fellow had a dreadful struggle, I was told. You can, unfortunately, expect nothing else these days, when livings have come down so terribly in value! He was a married man—large family!"

Crocker, who had drunk his steaming lemonade, was smiling and already nodding in his chair; with his black garment buttoned closely round his throat, his long legs rolled up in a blanket, and stretched towards the feeble flame of the newly-lighted fire, he had a rather patchy air. Shelton, on the other hand, had lost his feeling of fatigue; the strangeness of the place was stimulating his brain; he kept stealing glances at the scantiness around; the room, the parson, the furniture, the very fire, all gave him the feeling caused by seeing legs that have outgrown their trousers. But there was something underlying that leanness of the landscape, something superior and academic, which defied all sympathy. It was pure nervousness which made him say:

"Ah! why do they have such families?"

A faint red mounted to the parson's cheeks; its appearance there was startling, and Crocker chuckled, as a sleepy man will chuckle who feels bound to show that he is not asleep.

"It's very unfortunate," murmured the parson, "certainly, in many cases."

Shelton would now have changed the subject, but at this moment the unhappy Crocker snored. Being a man of action, he had gone to sleep.

"It seems to me," said Shelton hurriedly, as he saw the parson's eyebrows rising at the sound, "almost what you might call wrong."

"Dear me, but how can it be wrong?"

Shelton now felt that he must justify his saying somehow.

"I don't know," he said, "only one hears of such a lot of cases—clergymen's families; I've two uncles of my own, who—"

A new expression gathered on the parson's face; his mouth had tightened, and his chin receded slightly. "Why, he 's like a mule!" thought Shelton. His eyes, too, had grown harder, greyer, and more parroty. Shelton no longer liked his face.

"Perhaps you and I," the parson said, "would not understand each other on such matters."

And Shelton felt ashamed.

"I should like to ask you a question in turn, however," the parson said, as if desirous of meeting Shelton on his low ground: "How do you justify marriage if it is not to follow the laws of nature?"

"I can only tell you what I personally feel."

"My dear sir, you forget that a woman's chief delight is in her motherhood."

"I should have thought it a pleasure likely to pall with too much repetition. Motherhood is motherhood, whether of one or of a dozen."

"I 'm afraid," replied the parson, with impatience, though still keeping on his guest's low ground, "your theories are not calculated to populate the world."

"Have you ever lived in London?" Shelton asked. "It always makes me feel a doubt whether we have any right to have children at all."

"Surely," said the parson with wonderful restraint, and the joints of his fingers cracked with the grip he had upon his chair, "you are leaving out duty towards the country; national growth is paramount!"

"There are two ways of looking at that. It depends on what you want your country to become."

"I did n't know," said the parson—fanaticism now had crept into his smile—"there could be any doubt on such a subject."

The more Shelton felt that commands were being given him, the more controversial he naturally became—apart from the merits of this subject, to which he had hardly ever given thought.

"I dare say I'm wrong," he said, fastening his eyes on the blanket in which his legs were wrapped; "but it seems to me at least an open question whether it's better for the country to be so well populated as to be quite incapable of supporting itself."

"Surely," said the parson, whose face regained its pallor, "you're not a Little Englander?"

On Shelton this phrase had a mysterious effect. Resisting an impulse to discover what he really was, he answered hastily:

"Of course I'm not!"

The parson followed up his triumph, and, shifting the ground of the discussion from Shelton's to his own, he gravely said:

"Surely you must see that your theory is founded in immorality. It is, if I may say so, extravagant, even wicked."

But Shelton, suffering from irritation at his own dishonesty, replied with heat:

"Why not say at once, sir, 'hysterical, unhealthy'? Any opinion which goes contrary to that of the majority is always called so, I believe."

"Well," returned the parson, whose eyes seemed trying to bind Shelton to his will, "I must say your ideas do seem to me both extravagant and unhealthy. The propagation of children is enjoined of marriage."

Shelton bowed above his blanket, but the parson did not smile.

"We live in very dangerous times," he said, "and it grieves me when a man of your standing panders to these notions."

"Those," said Shelton, "whom the shoe does n't pinch make this rule of morality, and thrust it on to such as the shoe does pinch."

"The rule was never made," said the parson; "it was given us."

"Oh!" said Shelton, "I beg your pardon." He was in danger of forgetting the delicate position he was in. "He wants to ram his notions down my throat," he thought; and it seemed to him that the parson's face had grown more like a mule's, his accent more superior, his eyes more dictatorial: To be right in this argument seemed now of great importance, whereas, in truth, it was of no importance whatsoever. That which, however, was important was the fact that in nothing could they ever have agreed.

But Crocker had suddenly ceased to snore; his head had fallen so that a peculiar whistling arose instead. Both Shelton and the parson looked at him, and the sight sobered them.

"Your friend seems very tired," said the parson.

Shelton forgot all his annoyance, for his host seemed suddenly pathetic, with those baggy garments, hollow cheeks, and the slightly reddened nose that comes from not imbibing quite enough. A kind fellow, after all!

The kind fellow rose, and, putting his hands behind his back, placed himself before the blackening fire. Whole centuries of authority stood behind him. It was an accident that the mantelpiece was chipped and rusty, the fire-irons bent and worn, his linen frayed about the cuffs.

"I don't wish to dictate," said he, "but where it seems to me that you are wholly wrong in that your ideas foster in women those lax views of the family life that are so prevalent in Society nowadays."

Thoughts of Antonia with her candid eyes, the touch of freckling on her pink-white skin, the fair hair gathered back, sprang up in Shelton, and that word—"lax" seemed ridiculous. And the women he was wont to see dragging about the streets of London with two or three small children, Women bent beneath the weight of babies that they could not leave, women going to work with babies still unborn, anaemic-looking women, impecunious mothers in his own class, with twelve or fourteen children, all the victims of the sanctity of marriage, and again the word "lax" seemed to be ridiculous.

"We are not put into the world to exercise our wits,"—muttered Shelton.

"Our wanton wills," the parson said severely.

"That, sir, may have been all right for the last generation, the country is more crowded now. I can't see why we should n't decide it for ourselves."

"Such a view of morality," said the parson, looking down at Crocker with a ghostly smile, "to me is unintelligible."

Cracker's whistling grew in tone and in variety.

"What I hate," said Shelton, "is the way we men decide what women are to bear, and then call them immoral, decadent, or what you will, if they don't fall in with our views."

"Mr. Shelton," said the parson, "I think we may safely leave it in the hands of God."

Shelton was silent.

"The questions of morality," said the parson promptly, "have always lain through God in the hands of men, not women. We are the reasonable sex."

Shelton stubbornly replied

"We 're certainly the greater humbugs, if that 's the same."

"This is too bad," exclaimed the parson with some heat.

"I 'm sorry, sir; but how can you expect women nowadays to have the same views as our grandmothers? We men, by our commercial enterprise, have brought about a different state of things; yet, for the sake of our own comfort, we try to keep women where they were. It's always those men who are most keen about their comfort"—and in his heat the sarcasm of using the word "comfort" in that room was lost on him—"who are so ready to accuse women of deserting the old morality."

The parson quivered with impatient irony.

"Old morality! new morality!" he said. "These are strange words."

"Forgive me," explained Shelton; "we 're talking of working morality, I imagine. There's not a man in a million fit to talk of true morality."

The eyes of his host contracted.

"I think," he said—and his voice sounded as if he had pinched it in the endeavour to impress his listener—"that any well-educated man who honestly tries to serve his God has the right humbly—I say humbly—to claim morality."

Shelton was on the point of saying something bitter, but checked himself. "Here am I," thought he, "trying to get the last word, like an old woman."

At this moment there was heard a piteous mewing; the parson went towards the door.

"Excuse me a moment; I 'm afraid that's one of my cats out in the wet." He returned a minute later with a wet cat in his arms. "They will get out," he said to Shelton, with a smile on his thin face, suffused by stooping. And absently he stroked the dripping cat, while a drop of wet ran off his nose. "Poor pussy, poor pussy!" The sound of that "Poor pussy!" like nothing human in its cracked superiority, the softness of that smile, like the smile of gentleness itself, haunted Shelton till he fell asleep.