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Chapter 1-7

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« on: September 19, 2023, 05:25:53 am »



ADRIAN SAVAGE, meanwhile, his native buoyancy of spirit notwithstanding, became increasingly sensible of the depressing moral atmosphere surrounding him. He was impatient of it. For did they not really take things rather ridiculously hard, these excellent English people? Had they no sense of proportion? Had they no power of averaging, no little consolations of good-tempered philosophy? He went so far, in moments of levity, as to accuse le bon Dieu of reprehensible squandering by thus bestowing the eminently good gift of life upon persons so deplorably incapable of profiting by it. To him they appeared thankless, cowardly, and quite unpardonably clumsy in their handling of opportunity. Moreover, while curiously clannish, ready on the slightest provocation to stand back to back against the world, they waged internecine war, being permanently suspicious of, and unamiable toward, one another. If this represented a fair sample of the much-vaunted English home and the English character---well, for his part, Adrian was of opinion they did these things quite as well, if not a great deal better, in France!

He shrugged his shoulders, elevated his black eyebrows, stroked his neat beard, trying at once to overcome his sense of depression and stifle his sense of humour. The atmosphere would, he told himself, no doubt become more exhilarating when poor Montagu Smyrthwaite’s body had been removed from that rather terrible best bedroom---apparently “turned up,” as the maids have it, for spring cleaning---and finally consigned to the tomb. Never had he seen a dead fellow-creature treated with such meagre tribute, either in language or symbol, of human pity or eternal hope! It shocked his sensibility that the corpse should lie there, locked away by itself in a cold, dismal twilight of drawn blinds, without any orderly setting-out of the death-chamber, without watchers, or prayer offered, or lighted candles, or flowers, or other suggestion either of tenderness or of religious obligation. Observances of this sort, he was given to understand by Joseph Challoner, were discredited in highly intellectual circles, such as that in which the Smyrthwaites moved, as savouring of antiquated and unscientific superstitions. The result, to Adrian’s thinking, presented an effect at once so abjectly domestic, and so miserably deficient in any appreciation of the eternal mystery of human fate, that the crudest death-rites of the most degraded aborigines would have been preferable.

And then, by a singular inversion of sentiment, it was held necessary as a testimony of respect to keep the poor, disagreeable old gentleman’s body waiting such a quite inordinately long time for interment! During a, to Adrian, positively endless week did it remain there, amid a doleful array of dusting-sheets and disinfectants! So that, what with the dark, snow-patched fir woods without, and the dark, neutral-tinted house within; what with conventionally hushed footsteps and lowered voices, plus an all-pervasive odour of iodiform tainting the close, heated air, the young man found the present among quite the most trying and distasteful of all his personal experiences.

Yet, as the interminable days went by---while Joseph Challoner, jealous alike of his own position and of the newcomer’s breeding and ability, alternately bluffed, snarled and flattered, and pompous, little Colonel Haig fell headlong from attempted patronage to a certain fulsomeness of conciliation---against this dismal background the figure of Joanna Smyrthwaite came to stand out, to Adrian’s seeing, with an intensity of moral effort and sustained determination of duty both impressive and admirable. Beneath the bloodless surface, behind the anxious, unlovely countenance and coldly nervous manner, he began to divine a remarkable character. He had been mistaken in calling her a shadow. She was a distinct entity, but she was also, to him, quite arrestingly unattractive. And, just on that account, the chivalry both of the man and the artist grew alert to be very gentle to her, to omit no smallest offering of friendliness or courtesy. The very reason and purpose of woman’s existence being charm and beauty---his thought turned with a great yearning to remembrance of a certain enigmatic fair lady, the windows of whose rose-red and canvas-colored drawing-room overlooked the heart of Paris from above the Quai Malaquais—it was pitiful in the extreme to see any woman thus disfranchised.

The inherent tragedy of that disfranchisement was brought home to him, with peculiar force, on the evening following Montagu Smyrthwaite’s funeral. For eventually, almost to Adrian’s surprise, the poor lonely corpse really did get itself buried! Then, at the Tower House, the blinds were drawn up, and the mourners, local and official, returning thither, discarding the appointed countenance assumed as due to the mournful character of the rites lately accomplished and resuming that common to them under ordinary conditions, prepared almost jovially to do justice to an excellent luncheon. The Miss Smyrthwaites excused themselves from attendance, no other ladies being there, so it fell to Adrian’s lot to preside at the banquet. He was amused to note the fact that they had left all which was mortal of the late owner of the house in the new West Stourmouth cemetery---which, with its pale monuments, roads and pathways, showed as a gigantic scar upon the face of the dusky moorland---in no perceptible degree impaired the healthy appetite of any member of the company. To eat offers agreeably convincing testimony that one is as yet well within the pale of the living; and none of the eighteen or twenty gentlemen present, whatever their diversities of profession or of social standing, entertained the faintest desire to follow Montagu Smyrthwaite---their neighbour, kinsman, patron, or employer---to the grave in any sense save a strictly complimentary one. That final civility being now duly paid in respect of him, it was in the spirit of those who receive well-earned reward for well-performed labour that they sat down to feed.

In Adrian, both the Latin and the Catholic were still somewhat in revolt against this scant tenderness shown toward death. The whole matter from start to finish had been, as he reflected, notably of the earth-to-earth order. The alacrity, displayed by the assistants, in the direction of food and drink, was of the earth earthy, too. It, however, had at least the merit of being very human. Therefore, to him, it came as a rather humorous relief. Since his childhood his visits to England had been infrequent. With London and London society he was fairly well acquainted, but of provincial life and its social conditions he knew next to nothing. It followed that, in their racial and psychological aspects, the members of the present company were interesting to him. He tried to forget the poor unloved corpse lying beneath the rattling snow-sodden gravel of the moorland and absorb himself in observation of the men seated on either side of the dinner-table; to where, at the opposite end of it, the hard-featured, taciturn, sagacious, Yorkshire manufacturer, Andrew Merriman, manager and part proprietor of the Priestly woollen mills, faced him. This man had not taken off the appointed countenance, for the very good reason that he had never put it on, his nature being of a type which disdains conventional manifestations, either of joy or woe. Throughout the day, in this as in other particulars, Merriman’s personality had struck Adrian as distinct, standing away from the rest of the company, silently declaring itself as possessed of unusual vigour and independence. He tried to enter into conversation, but invariably Joseph Challoner contrived to intervene; and it was not till evening, shortly before Merriman and the rest of the Yorkshire contingent were due to depart to Stourmouth on their return journey by the night mail to Leeds, that he succeeded in getting private speech of him.

Then, after some brief mention of certain business details, Merriman said to him, gruffly, and as though grudgingly: “I own I am more satisfied now I have met you, Mr. Savage. I did not much care about your appointment as executor. But I might have trusted Mr. Smyrthwaite’s judgment. I have seldom known him wrong in his estimate of a man.”

“You wish me to understand that you believe me to be quite fairly honest and competent?” Adrian returned, in mingled annoyance and pleasure. The intention was complimentary, but the address so singularly blunt! “I venture to agree with you, my dear sir. Without vanity, I have reason to believe I really am both.”

“So much the better,” Merriman answered, sardonically. “I have no wish to offend you. But an uncommon amount of property, in which I am interested, is changing hands; and honest, trustworthy persons are pretty scarce.” He glanced from under penthouse eyebrows across the room to where Challoner, shifting his weight uneasily from one foot to the other, dancing-bear fashion, stood talking to Colonel Haig. “At least in my experience they are, Mr. Savage. When a family is dying out you generally find the males are debilitated specimens and the females the strongest. In this family, if Miss Smyrthwaite had been born a boy it would have been better for the name and for the business. Only, then, you and I shouldn’t have met here to-day, because Mr. Smyrthwaite would never have left Highdene, and I should never have been manager at the mills.”

“Which would have been a misfortune---for me, in any case,” Adrian returned, suavely.

“Maybe,” the other said. “But I can tell you Joanna Smyrthwaite’s all right. She has sound commercial instincts if she’s allowed to use them. It is an all-fired pity she’s a woman.”

An idea occurred to Adrian.

“She should have married,” he said. This bluntness of statement became lamentably infectious! “Every woman should marry. Then her abilities find their natural expression and development.”

“Quite right, sir. And it is on the cards, I am thinking, Joanna would have married if a man had not been too much afraid of her father to ask her. Mind,” he added, “I have no quarrel with our late head. My father was a national schoolmaster. My grandfather was a mill-hand. I should not be where I am but for Mr. Smyrthwaite. He fancied my looks when I was quite a little nipper, picked me out and gave me my start. And I’m not boasting, any more than you were just now, if I say I know he never had reason to regret doing that.”

The speaker straightened up his heavy figure, looking Adrian steadily in the eyes.

“I told you he was a sure judge of men. But women, except to bring him children, and mind his house, and put up with his tempers, and fetch and carry for him, didn’t enter into his calculations at all. He was a bit of a Grand Turk was Mr. Smyrthwaite. And Joanna, from quite a little mite, made herself useful as his amanuensis and reader and so on. He looked upon her as his private property, and kept her busy, I promise you; so that the man who wanted to take her away from him didn’t have a fighting chance.”

“But now the Grand Turk is finally removed,” Adrian declared. “Haven’t we just concluded all that?”

“And now a man is afraid of her money, I’m thinking,” the big Yorkshireman returned, slowly, a grim smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Joanna was always the plain one of the two girls. And she has aged lately. You can’t seem to picture her with a healthy baby on her lap. And so, nobody would believe---the man, though he wished it ever so, would hardly believe himself---it was the woman he wanted, the woman he was after, and not just her wealth.”

He stood silent a moment, his jaw set, and then held out a large, hard, but not unkindly hand to Adrian.

“I reckon our time’s about up,” he said. “Write or wire me to come if I am needed, Mr. Savage. And, when you leave, I should be obliged if you’ll remind Joanna I’m always at her service. I shall look after the girls’ interest at the mills right enough, but I can get away down here for twenty-four hours almost any time at a push. Good-day to you, sir. I am glad we’ve met. Now I must round up my lads and take ’em back home to work.”

This conversation, in its crude sincerity of language and statement, remained by Adrian, and was still present to his mind next morning when he rose. Early in his stay at the Tower House he had petitioned Smallbridge to bring him rolls and coffee when calling him, since a solid breakfast at nine, followed by a solid luncheon at one-thirty, proved too serious an undertaking for the comfort of the Latin stomach. By the above arrangement he secured two or three hours to himself either for writing or for exercise. This morning he went out soon after eight and walked down the wide avenue, past large, jealously secluded villas, each standing in its acre or half acre of thickly planted grounds, to where the mouth of the long dark wooded valley opens between striated grey and orange sand-cliffs, as through a giant gateway, upon the sea. Thin, primrose-yellow sunlight glinted on the backs of the steel-blue waves. A great flight of gulls, driven inshore by stress of weather, swept, and dropped, and lifted again, with wild, yelping laughter, above the flowing tide. Fringing the cliff edge the purple boles, red trunks, and black, ragged heads of a line of wind-tormented Scotch firs, detached themselves, from foot to crown, against the colourless winter sky.

The thirty or forty yards of level sand, stretching from the turn of the road in the valley bottom to the dark windrows of sea-wrack marking the tide-line, were pocketed by footsteps. But, at this hour, the place was wholly deserted, it being too early in the day, and too early in the season, for invasion by any advance guard of the mighty army of tourists and trippers which infests the coast from Marychurch and Stourmouth, westward to Barryport, during the summer and autumn months. Adrian found himself solitary, in a silent wilderness, save for the murmur of the pines, the plunge and hush of the waves, and harsh laughter of the strong-winged gulls. From where he stood, looking inland, the surface of the vast, sombre amphitheatre of blue-black fir forest, variegated here and there by the purple-brown of a grove of bare, deciduous trees, or the pallor of a snow-dusted space of tussock-grass and heather, was unbroken by house-roof or other sign of human habitation. Looking seaward no shipping was visible. To Adrian the scene appeared arrestingly northern in character, the spirit of it questioning, introspective, coldly complex, yet primitive and elfin, reminding him of Grieg’s Occasional Music to the haunting parable-poem of Peer Gynt. Then, as he paced the harder sand to the seaward side of the tide-mark, the chill breeze pushing against him and the keen smell of the brine in his nostrils, his thought carried back vividly to his conversation of last night with Andrew Merriman.

For, now that he came to think of it, might not Joanna, the main subject of that conversation, in all her feminine leanness and overstrained mentality, have stepped straight out of one of those plays of Ibsen’s which, heretofore, had so perplexed him by their distance from any moral and racial conditions with which he was familiar? Northern, joyless, uncertain in faith, burdened by scruples, prey to a misplaced intellectualism, yet clear-headed and able in practical matters, could not her prototype be found again and again in the Norwegian playwright’s penetrating and disheartening pages? And, if it came to that, in the relentless common-sense of the big Yorkshireman’s cruelly sagacious estimate of his own attitude toward her was there not an Ibsenish element, too? For that Andrew Merriman was, himself, “the man” of whom he had spoken, Adrian entertained no doubt.

So he paced the sand, absorbed in analysis and in apprehension, while ripples of spent waves slipped, in foam-outlined curves, near and nearer to his feet. It seemed to him he touched something new here in human tendencies and human development; something which, in the coming social order, might very widely obtain, especially among Protestant English-speaking peoples.---A democratic, scientific, unsparing self-knowledge, physical and mental, on the one hand, and a narrow, sectarian, self-sufficiency on the other; a morbidly cold-blooded acknowledgment of fact and application of means to ends, in which neither poetry nor religion had any determining part. The artist in him protested hotly. For really a world so ordered did not look enticing in the very least!

Then, his thought fixing itself again exclusively on Joanna, played around the everlastingly baffling problem of woman’s mind, woman’s outlook, in itself, divorced from her relation to man. It was not the first time his imagination had been held up by this problem, nor was he conceited enough to suppose it would be the last. Woman in her relation to man was a stale enough, obvious enough, story. But in her relation to her fellow-woman, in her relation to herself---had not this tripped even the cleverest novelists and dramatists of his own sex? Wasn’t it, after all, easier for a woman rightly to imagine the life a man lives among men, than for a man to conceive woman’s life with his own great self left out of it? He feared so, though the admission was far from flattering to masculine perspicacity. He resented his own inability to negotiate those moral and emotional lines of cleavage which do, so very actually, divide the sexes. To think, for example, that Joanna Smyrthwaite and Gabrielle St. Leger---their radical differences of circumstances, endowment, and experience notwithstanding---were still essentially nearer to each other, more capable of mutual sympathy and understanding in the deep places of their nature, than he, with all his acute sensibility and dramatic insight, could ever be to either of them!

But there the young man stopped and fairly laughed outright. For to class Gabrielle St. Leger, the devoutly worshiped and desired, and poor Joanna Smyrthwaite together, even in passing, was a little too outrageously far-fetched. Here, indeed, the study of psychology ran frankly and, in a sense, almost profanely mad.

He looked away, through the shifting cloud of screaming gulls, over the steel-blue levels of the Channel toward far-distant France, and a strong nostalgia took him for the delightful, quick-witted land of his birth. It seemed a thousand years since he left Paris. What were they all doing over there, the dear people whose friendship spelled for him more than half the joy of living? Save for one brief note, in the response to the announcement of his arrival, Madame St. Leger had given no sign. And he, in face of his last interview with her, wanted to know---wanted so very badly to know. He wanted to look at her. He wanted to hear her voice.---Whereupon he turned positively vindictive. Oh! most consoling doctrine of purgatory!---Might Montagu Smyrthwaite very thoroughly suffer the depleting pains of it as punishment for this fiendishly tiresome legacy of an executorship! Why couldn’t he have left Adrian free to pursue his delicious love campaign, and appointed somebody else---the unpleasant, heavy-weight Challoner, say, or the worldly, feather-weight Haig? Either of them would have revelled in the brief authority it conferred, while to him it constituted an intolerable waste of time. He was sick to death, interesting racial and psychological researches notwithstanding, sick to death of the whole corvée.

And then he skipped aside with quite undignified haste, for an incoming wave threatened his long-toed French boots with total immersion.
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