At about nine o’clock at night, on every alternate Wednesday, Miss Mary Datchet made the same resolve, that she would never again lend her rooms for any purposes whatsoever. Being, as they were, rather large and conveniently situated in a street mostly dedicated to offices off the Strand, people who wished to meet, either for purposes of enjoyment, or to discuss art, or to reform the State, had a way of suggesting that Mary had better be asked to lend them her rooms. She always met the request with the same frown of well-simulated annoyance, which presently dissolved in a kind of half-humorous, half-surly shrug, as of a large dog tormented by children who shakes his ears. She would lend her room, but only on condition that all the arrangements were made by her. This fortnightly meeting of a society for the free discussion of everything entailed a great deal of moving, and pulling, and ranging of furniture against the wall, and placing of breakable and precious things in safe places. Miss Datchet was quite capable of lifting a kitchen table on her back, if need were, for although well-proportioned and dressed becomingly, she had the appearance of unusual strength and determination.
She was some twenty-five years of age, but looked older because she earned, or intended to earn, her own living, and had already lost the look of the irresponsible spectator, and taken on that of the private in the army of workers. Her gestures seemed to have a certain purpose, the muscles round eyes and lips were set rather firmly, as though the senses had undergone some discipline, and were held ready for a call on them. She had contracted two faint lines between her eyebrows, not from anxiety but from thought, and it was quite evident that all the feminine instincts of pleasing, soothing, and charming were crossed by others in no way peculiar to her sex. For the rest she was brown-eyed, a little clumsy in movement, and suggested country birth and a descent from respectable hard-working ancestors, who had been men of faith and integrity rather than doubters or fanatics.
At the end of a fairly hard day’s work it was certainly something of an effort to clear one’s room, to pull the mattress off one’s bed, and lay it on the floor, to fill a pitcher with cold coffee, and to sweep a long table clear for plates and cups and saucers, with pyramids of little pink biscuits between them; but when these alterations were effected, Mary felt a lightness of spirit come to her, as if she had put off the stout stuff of her working hours and slipped over her entire being some vesture of thin, bright silk. She knelt before the fire and looked out into the room. The light fell softly, but with clear radiance, through shades of yellow and blue paper, and the room, which was set with one or two sofas resembling grassy mounds in their lack of shape, looked unusually large and quiet. Mary was led to think of the heights of a Sussex down, and the swelling green circle of some camp of ancient warriors. The moonlight would be falling there so peacefully now, and she could fancy the rough pathway of silver upon the wrinkled skin of the sea.
“And here we are,” she said, half aloud, half satirically, yet with evident pride, “talking about art.”
She pulled a basket containing balls of differently colored wools and a pair of stockings which needed darning towards her, and began to set her fingers to work; while her mind, reflecting the lassitude of her body, went on perversely, conjuring up visions of solitude and quiet, and she pictured herself laying aside her knitting and walking out on to the down, and hearing nothing but the sheep cropping the grass close to the roots, while the shadows of the little trees moved very slightly this way and that in the moonlight, as the breeze went through them. But she was perfectly conscious of her present situation, and derived some pleasure from the reflection that she could rejoice equally in solitude, and in the presence of the many very different people who were now making their way, by divers paths, across London to the spot where she was sitting.
As she ran her needle in and out of the wool, she thought of the various stages in her own life which made her present position seem the culmination of successive miracles. She thought of her clerical father in his country parsonage, and of her mother’s death, and of her own determination to obtain education, and of her college life, which had merged, not so very long ago, in the wonderful maze of London, which still seemed to her, in spite of her constitutional level-headedness, like a vast electric light, casting radiance upon the myriads of men and women who crowded round it. And here she was at the very center of it all, that center which was constantly in the minds of people in remote Canadian forests and on the plains of India, when their thoughts turned to England. The nine mellow strokes, by which she was now apprised of the hour, were a message from the great clock at Westminster itself. As the last of them died away, there was a firm knocking on her own door, and she rose and opened it. She returned to the room, with a look of steady pleasure in her eyes, and she was talking to Ralph Denham, who followed her.
“Alone?” he said, as if he were pleasantly surprised by that fact.
“I am sometimes alone,” she replied.
“But you expect a great many people,” he added, looking round him. “It’s like a room on the stage. Who is it to-night?”
“William Rodney, upon the Elizabethan use of metaphor. I expect a good solid paper, with plenty of quotations from the classics.”
Ralph warmed his hands at the fire, which was flapping bravely in the grate, while Mary took up her stocking again.
“I suppose you are the only woman in London who darns her own stockings,” he observed.
“I’m only one of a great many thousands really,” she replied, “though I must admit that I was thinking myself very remarkable when you came in. And now that you’re here I don’t think myself remarkable at all. How horrid of you! But I’m afraid you’re much more remarkable than I am. You’ve done much more than I’ve done.”
“If that’s your standard, you’ve nothing to be proud of,” said Ralph grimly.
“Well, I must reflect with Emerson that it’s being and not doing that matters,” she continued.
“Emerson?” Ralph exclaimed, with derision. “You don’t mean to say you read Emerson?”
“Perhaps it wasn’t Emerson; but why shouldn’t I read Emerson?” she asked, with a tinge of anxiety.
“There’s no reason that I know of. It’s the combination that’s odd—books and stockings. The combination is very odd.” But it seemed to recommend itself to him. Mary gave a little laugh, expressive of happiness, and the particular stitches that she was now putting into her work appeared to her to be done with singular grace and felicity. She held out the stocking and looked at it approvingly.
“You always say that,” she said. “I assure you it’s a common ‘combination,’ as you call it, in the houses of the clergy. The only thing that’s odd about me is that I enjoy them both—Emerson and the stocking.”
A knock was heard, and Ralph exclaimed:
“Damn those people! I wish they weren’t coming!”
“It’s only Mr. Turner, on the floor below,” said Mary, and she felt grateful to Mr. Turner for having alarmed Ralph, and for having given a false alarm.
“Will there be a crowd?” Ralph asked, after a pause.
“There’ll be the Morrises and the Crashaws, and Dick Osborne, and Septimus, and all that set. Katharine Hilbery is coming, by the way, so William Rodney told me.”
“Katharine Hilbery!” Ralph exclaimed.
“You know her?” Mary asked, with some surprise.
“I went to a tea-party at her house.”
Mary pressed him to tell her all about it, and Ralph was not at all unwilling to exhibit proofs of the extent of his knowledge. He described the scene with certain additions and exaggerations which interested Mary very much.
“But, in spite of what you say, I do admire her,” she said. “I’ve only seen her once or twice, but she seems to me to be what one calls a ‘personality.’”
“I didn’t mean to abuse her. I only felt that she wasn’t very sympathetic to me.”
“They say she’s going to marry that queer creature Rodney.”
“Marry Rodney? Then she must be more deluded than I thought her.”
“Now that’s my door, all right,” Mary exclaimed, carefully putting her wools away, as a succession of knocks reverberated unnecessarily, accompanied by a sound of people stamping their feet and laughing. A moment later the room was full of young men and women, who came in with a peculiar look of expectation, exclaimed “Oh!” when they saw Denham, and then stood still, gaping rather foolishly.
The room very soon contained between twenty and thirty people, who found seats for the most part upon the floor, occupying the mattresses, and hunching themselves together into triangular shapes. They were all young and some of them seemed to make a protest by their hair and dress, and something somber and truculent in the expression of their faces, against the more normal type, who would have passed unnoticed in an omnibus or an underground railway. It was notable that the talk was confined to groups, and was, at first, entirely spasmodic in character, and muttered in undertones as if the speakers were suspicious of their fellow-guests.
Katharine Hilbery came in rather late, and took up a position on the floor, with her back against the wall. She looked round quickly, recognized about half a dozen people, to whom she nodded, but failed to see Ralph, or, if so, had already forgotten to attach any name to him. But in a second these heterogeneous elements were all united by the voice of Mr. Rodney, who suddenly strode up to the table, and began very rapidly in high-strained tones:
“In undertaking to speak of the Elizabethan use of metaphor in poetry—”
All the different heads swung slightly or steadied themselves into a position in which they could gaze straight at the speaker’s face, and the same rather solemn expression was visible on all of them. But, at the same time, even the faces that were most exposed to view, and therefore most tautly under control, disclosed a sudden impulsive tremor which, unless directly checked, would have developed into an outburst of laughter. The first sight of Mr. Rodney was irresistibly ludicrous. He was very red in the face, whether from the cool November night or nervousness, and every movement, from the way he wrung his hands to the way he jerked his head to right and left, as though a vision drew him now to the door, now to the window, bespoke his horrible discomfort under the stare of so many eyes. He was scrupulously well dressed, and a pearl in the center of his tie seemed to give him a touch of aristocratic opulence. But the rather prominent eyes and the impulsive stammering manner, which seemed to indicate a torrent of ideas intermittently pressing for utterance and always checked in their course by a clutch of nervousness, drew no pity, as in the case of a more imposing personage, but a desire to laugh, which was, however, entirely lacking in malice. Mr. Rodney was evidently so painfully conscious of the oddity of his appearance, and his very redness and the starts to which his body was liable gave such proof of his own discomfort, that there was something endearing in this ridiculous susceptibility, although most people would probably have echoed Denham’s private exclamation, “Fancy marrying a creature like that!”
His paper was carefully written out, but in spite of this precaution Mr. Rodney managed to turn over two sheets instead of one, to choose the wrong sentence where two were written together, and to discover his own handwriting suddenly illegible. When he found himself possessed of a coherent passage, he shook it at his audience almost aggressively, and then fumbled for another. After a distressing search a fresh discovery would be made, and produced in the same way, until, by means of repeated attacks, he had stirred his audience to a degree of animation quite remarkable in these gatherings. Whether they were stirred by his enthusiasm for poetry or by the contortions which a human being was going through for their benefit, it would be hard to say. At length Mr. Rodney sat down impulsively in the middle of a sentence, and, after a pause of bewilderment, the audience expressed its relief at being able to laugh aloud in a decided outburst of applause.
Mr. Rodney acknowledged this with a wild glance round him, and, instead of waiting to answer questions, he jumped up, thrust himself through the seated bodies into the corner where Katharine was sitting, and exclaimed, very audibly:
“Well, Katharine, I hope I’ve made a big enough fool of myself even for you! It was terrible! terrible! terrible!”
“Hush! You must answer their questions,” Katharine whispered, desiring, at all costs, to keep him quiet. Oddly enough, when the speaker was no longer in front of them, there seemed to be much that was suggestive in what he had said. At any rate, a pale-faced young man with sad eyes was already on his feet, delivering an accurately worded speech with perfect composure. William Rodney listened with a curious lifting of his upper lip, although his face was still quivering slightly with emotion.
“Idiot!” he whispered. “He’s misunderstood every word I said!”
“Well then, answer him,” Katharine whispered back.
“No, I shan’t! They’d only laugh at me. Why did I let you persuade me that these sort of people care for literature?” he continued.
There was much to be said both for and against Mr. Rodney’s paper. It had been crammed with assertions that such-and-such passages, taken liberally from English, French, and Italian, are the supreme pearls of literature. Further, he was fond of using metaphors which, compounded in the study, were apt to sound either cramped or out of place as he delivered them in fragments. Literature was a fresh garland of spring flowers, he said, in which yew-berries and the purple nightshade mingled with the various tints of the anemone; and somehow or other this garland encircled marble brows. He had read very badly some very beautiful quotations. But through his manner and his confusion of language there had emerged some passion of feeling which, as he spoke, formed in the majority of the audience a little picture or an idea which each now was eager to give expression to. Most of the people there proposed to spend their lives in the practice either of writing or painting, and merely by looking at them it could be seen that, as they listened to Mr. Purvis first, and then to Mr. Greenhalgh, they were seeing something done by these gentlemen to a possession which they thought to be their own. One person after another rose, and, as with an ill-balanced axe, attempted to hew out his conception of art a little more clearly, and sat down with the feeling that, for some reason which he could not grasp, his strokes had gone awry. As they sat down they turned almost invariably to the person sitting next them, and rectified and continued what they had just said in public. Before long, therefore, the groups on the mattresses and the groups on the chairs were all in communication with each other, and Mary Datchet, who had begun to darn stockings again, stooped down and remarked to Ralph:
“That was what I call a first-rate paper.”
Both of them instinctively turned their eyes in the direction of the reader of the paper. He was lying back against the wall, with his eyes apparently shut, and his chin sunk upon his collar. Katharine was turning over the pages of his manuscript as if she were looking for some passage that had particularly struck her, and had a difficulty in finding it.
“Let’s go and tell him how much we liked it,” said Mary, thus suggesting an action which Ralph was anxious to take, though without her he would have been too proud to do it, for he suspected that he had more interest in Katharine than she had in him.
“That was a very interesting paper,” Mary began, without any shyness, seating herself on the floor opposite to Rodney and Katharine. “Will you lend me the manuscript to read in peace?”
Rodney, who had opened his eyes on their approach, regarded her for a moment in suspicious silence.
“Do you say that merely to disguise the fact of my ridiculous failure?” he asked.
Katharine looked up from her reading with a smile.
“He says he doesn’t mind what we think of him,” she remarked. “He says we don’t care a rap for art of any kind.”
“I asked her to pity me, and she teases me!” Rodney exclaimed.
“I don’t intend to pity you, Mr. Rodney,” Mary remarked, kindly, but firmly. “When a paper’s a failure, nobody says anything, whereas now, just listen to them!”
The sound, which filled the room, with its hurry of short syllables, its sudden pauses, and its sudden attacks, might be compared to some animal hubbub, frantic and inarticulate.
“D’you think that’s all about my paper?” Rodney inquired, after a moment’s attention, with a distinct brightening of expression.
“Of course it is,” said Mary. “It was a very suggestive paper.”
She turned to Denham for confirmation, and he corroborated her.
“It’s the ten minutes after a paper is read that proves whether it’s been a success or not,” he said. “If I were you, Rodney, I should be very pleased with myself.”
This commendation seemed to comfort Mr. Rodney completely, and he began to bethink him of all the passages in his paper which deserved to be called “suggestive.”
“Did you agree at all, Denham, with what I said about Shakespeare’s later use of imagery? I’m afraid I didn’t altogether make my meaning plain.”
Here he gathered himself together, and by means of a series of frog-like jerks, succeeded in bringing himself close to Denham.
Denham answered him with the brevity which is the result of having another sentence in the mind to be addressed to another person. He wished to say to Katharine: “Did you remember to get that picture glazed before your aunt came to dinner?” but, besides having to answer Rodney, he was not sure that the remark, with its assertion of intimacy, would not strike Katharine as impertinent. She was listening to what some one in another group was saying. Rodney, meanwhile, was talking about the Elizabethan dramatists.
He was a curious-looking man since, upon first sight, especially if he chanced to be talking with animation, he appeared, in some way, ridiculous; but, next moment, in repose, his face, with its large nose, thin cheeks and lips expressing the utmost sensibility, somehow recalled a Roman head bound with laurel, cut upon a circle of semi-transparent reddish stone. It had dignity and character. By profession a clerk in a Government office, he was one of those martyred spirits to whom literature is at once a source of divine joy and of almost intolerable irritation. Not content to rest in their love of it, they must attempt to practise it themselves, and they are generally endowed with very little facility in composition. They condemn whatever they produce. Moreover, the violence of their feelings is such that they seldom meet with adequate sympathy, and being rendered very sensitive by their cultivated perceptions, suffer constant slights both to their own persons and to the thing they worship. But Rodney could never resist making trial of the sympathies of any one who seemed favorably disposed, and Denham’s praise had stimulated his very susceptible vanity.
“You remember the passage just before the death of the Duchess?” he continued, edging still closer to Denham, and adjusting his elbow and knee in an incredibly angular combination. Here, Katharine, who had been cut off by these maneuvers from all communication with the outer world, rose, and seated herself upon the window-sill, where she was joined by Mary Datchet. The two young women could thus survey the whole party. Denham looked after them, and made as if he were tearing handfuls of grass up by the roots from the carpet. But as it fell in accurately with his conception of life that all one’s desires were bound to be frustrated, he concentrated his mind upon literature, and determined, philosophically, to get what he could out of that.
Katharine was pleasantly excited. A variety of courses was open to her. She knew several people slightly, and at any moment one of them might rise from the floor and come and speak to her; on the other hand, she might select somebody for herself, or she might strike into Rodney’s discourse, to which she was intermittently attentive. She was conscious of Mary’s body beside her, but, at the same time, the consciousness of being both of them women made it unnecessary to speak to her. But Mary, feeling, as she had said, that Katharine was a “personality,” wished so much to speak to her that in a few moments she did.
“They’re exactly like a flock of sheep, aren’t they?” she said, referring to the noise that rose from the scattered bodies beneath her.
Katharine turned and smiled.
“I wonder what they’re making such a noise about?” she said.
“The Elizabethans, I suppose.”
“No, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with the Elizabethans. There! Didn’t you hear them say, ‘Insurance Bill’?”
“I wonder why men always talk about politics?” Mary speculated. “I suppose, if we had votes, we should, too.”
“I dare say we should. And you spend your life in getting us votes, don’t you?”
“I do,” said Mary, stoutly. “From ten to six every day I’m at it.”
Katharine looked at Ralph Denham, who was now pounding his way through the metaphysics of metaphor with Rodney, and was reminded of his talk that Sunday afternoon. She connected him vaguely with Mary.
“I suppose you’re one of the people who think we should all have professions,” she said, rather distantly, as if feeling her way among the phantoms of an unknown world.
“Oh dear no,” said Mary at once.
“Well, I think I do,” Katharine continued, with half a sigh. “You will always be able to say that you’ve done something, whereas, in a crowd like this, I feel rather melancholy.”
“In a crowd? Why in a crowd?” Mary asked, deepening the two lines between her eyes, and hoisting herself nearer to Katharine upon the window-sill.
“Don’t you see how many different things these people care about? And I want to beat them down—I only mean,” she corrected herself, “that I want to assert myself, and it’s difficult, if one hasn’t a profession.”
Mary smiled, thinking that to beat people down was a process that should present no difficulty to Miss Katharine Hilbery. They knew each other so slightly that the beginning of intimacy, which Katharine seemed to initiate by talking about herself, had something solemn in it, and they were silent, as if to decide whether to proceed or not. They tested the ground.
“Ah, but I want to trample upon their prostrate bodies!” Katharine announced, a moment later, with a laugh, as if at the train of thought which had led her to this conclusion.
“One doesn’t necessarily trample upon people’s bodies because one runs an office,” Mary remarked.
“No. Perhaps not,” Katharine replied. The conversation lapsed, and Mary saw Katharine looking out into the room rather moodily with closed lips, the desire to talk about herself or to initiate a friendship having, apparently, left her. Mary was struck by her capacity for being thus easily silent, and occupied with her own thoughts. It was a habit that spoke of loneliness and a mind thinking for itself. When Katharine remained silent Mary was slightly embarrassed.
“Yes, they’re very like sheep,” she repeated, foolishly.
“And yet they are very clever—at least,” Katharine added, “I suppose they have all read Webster.”
“Surely you don’t think that a proof of cleverness? I’ve read Webster, I’ve read Ben Jonson, but I don’t think myself clever—not exactly, at least.”
“I think you must be very clever,” Katharine observed.
“Why? Because I run an office?”
“I wasn’t thinking of that. I was thinking how you live alone in this room, and have parties.”
Mary reflected for a second.
“It means, chiefly, a power of being disagreeable to one’s own family, I think. I have that, perhaps. I didn’t want to live at home, and I told my father. He didn’t like it.... But then I have a sister, and you haven’t, have you?”
“No, I haven’t any sisters.”
“You are writing a life of your grandfather?” Mary pursued.
Katharine seemed instantly to be confronted by some familiar thought from which she wished to escape. She replied, “Yes, I am helping my mother,” in such a way that Mary felt herself baffled, and put back again into the position in which she had been at the beginning of their talk. It seemed to her that Katharine possessed a curious power of drawing near and receding, which sent alternate emotions through her far more quickly than was usual, and kept her in a condition of curious alertness. Desiring to classify her, Mary bethought her of the convenient term “egoist.”
“She’s an egoist,” she said to herself, and stored that word up to give to Ralph one day when, as it would certainly fall out, they were discussing Miss Hilbery.
“Heavens, what a mess there’ll be to-morrow morning!” Katharine exclaimed. “I hope you don’t sleep in this room, Miss Datchet?”
“What are you laughing at?” Katharine demanded.
“I won’t tell you.”
“Let me guess. You were laughing because you thought I’d changed the conversation?”
“Because you think—” She paused.
“If you want to know, I was laughing at the way you said Miss Datchet.”
“Mary, then. Mary, Mary, Mary.”
So saying, Katharine drew back the curtain in order, perhaps, to conceal the momentary flush of pleasure which is caused by coming perceptibly nearer to another person.
“Mary Datchet,” said Mary. “It’s not such an imposing name as Katharine Hilbery, I’m afraid.”
They both looked out of the window, first up at the hard silver moon, stationary among a hurry of little grey-blue clouds, and then down upon the roofs of London, with all their upright chimneys, and then below them at the empty moonlit pavement of the street, upon which the joint of each paving-stone was clearly marked out. Mary then saw Katharine raise her eyes again to the moon, with a contemplative look in them, as though she were setting that moon against the moon of other nights, held in memory. Some one in the room behind them made a joke about star-gazing, which destroyed their pleasure in it, and they looked back into the room again.
Ralph had been watching for this moment, and he instantly produced his sentence.
“I wonder, Miss Hilbery, whether you remembered to get that picture glazed?” His voice showed that the question was one that had been prepared.
“Oh, you idiot!” Mary exclaimed, very nearly aloud, with a sense that Ralph had said something very stupid. So, after three lessons in Latin grammar, one might correct a fellow student, whose knowledge did not embrace the ablative of “mensa.”
“Picture—what picture?” Katharine asked. “Oh, at home, you mean—that Sunday afternoon. Was it the day Mr. Fortescue came? Yes, I think I remembered it.”
The three of them stood for a moment awkwardly silent, and then Mary left them in order to see that the great pitcher of coffee was properly handled, for beneath all her education she preserved the anxieties of one who owns china.
Ralph could think of nothing further to say; but could one have stripped off his mask of flesh, one would have seen that his will-power was rigidly set upon a single object—that Miss Hilbery should obey him. He wished her to stay there until, by some measures not yet apparent to him, he had conquered her interest. These states of mind transmit themselves very often without the use of language, and it was evident to Katharine that this young man had fixed his mind upon her. She instantly recalled her first impressions of him, and saw herself again proffering family relics. She reverted to the state of mind in which he had left her that Sunday afternoon. She supposed that he judged her very severely. She argued naturally that, if this were the case, the burden of the conversation should rest with him. But she submitted so far as to stand perfectly still, her eyes upon the opposite wall, and her lips very nearly closed, though the desire to laugh stirred them slightly.
“You know the names of the stars, I suppose?” Denham remarked, and from the tone of his voice one might have thought that he grudged Katharine the knowledge he attributed to her.
She kept her voice steady with some difficulty.
“I know how to find the Pole star if I’m lost.”
“I don’t suppose that often happens to you.”
“No. Nothing interesting ever happens to me,” she said.
“I think you make a system of saying disagreeable things, Miss Hilbery,” he broke out, again going further than he meant to. “I suppose it’s one of the characteristics of your class. They never talk seriously to their inferiors.”
Whether it was that they were meeting on neutral ground to-night, or whether the carelessness of an old grey coat that Denham wore gave an ease to his bearing that he lacked in conventional dress, Katharine certainly felt no impulse to consider him outside the particular set in which she lived.
“In what sense are you my inferior?” she asked, looking at him gravely, as though honestly searching for his meaning. The look gave him great pleasure. For the first time he felt himself on perfectly equal terms with a woman whom he wished to think well of him, although he could not have explained why her opinion of him mattered one way or another. Perhaps, after all, he only wanted to have something of her to take home to think about. But he was not destined to profit by his advantage.
“I don’t think I understand what you mean,” Katharine repeated, and then she was obliged to stop and answer some one who wished to know whether she would buy a ticket for an opera from them, at a reduction. Indeed, the temper of the meeting was now unfavorable to separate conversation; it had become rather debauched and hilarious, and people who scarcely knew each other were making use of Christian names with apparent cordiality, and had reached that kind of gay tolerance and general friendliness which human beings in England only attain after sitting together for three hours or so, and the first cold blast in the air of the street freezes them into isolation once more. Cloaks were being flung round the shoulders, hats swiftly pinned to the head; and Denham had the mortification of seeing Katharine helped to prepare herself by the ridiculous Rodney. It was not the convention of the meeting to say good-bye, or necessarily even to nod to the person with whom one was talking; but, nevertheless, Denham was disappointed by the completeness with which Katharine parted from him, without any attempt to finish her sentence. She left with Rodney.