Chapter XIV: The Six Philosophers
ACROSS green fields, and breaking through blooming hedges, toiled six draggled detectives, about five miles out of London. The optimist of the party had at first proposed that they should follow the balloon across South England in hansom-cabs. But he was ultimately convinced of the persistent refusal of the balloon to follow the roads, and the still more persistent refusal of the cabmen to follow the balloon. Consequently the tireless though exasperated travellers broke through black thickets and ploughed through ploughed fields till each was turned into a figure too outrageous to be mistaken for a tramp. Those green hills of Surrey saw the final collapse and tragedy of the admirable light grey suit in which Syme had set out from Saffron Park. His silk hat was broken over his nose by a swinging bough, his coat-tails were torn to the shoulder by arresting thorns, the clay of England was splashed up to his collar; but he still carried his yellow beard forward with a silent and furious determination, and his eyes were still fixed on that floating ball of gas, which in the full flush of sunset seemed coloured like a sunset cloud.
“After all,” he said, “it is very beautiful!”
“It is singularly and strangely beautiful!” said the Professor. “I wish the beastly gas-bag would burst!”
“No,” said Dr. Bull, “I hope it won’t. It might hurt the old boy.”
“Hurt him!” said the vindictive Professor, “hurt him! Not as much as I’d hurt him if I could get up with him. Little Snowdrop!”
“I don’t want him hurt, somehow,” said Dr. Bull.
“What!” cried the Secretary bitterly. “Do you believe all that tale about his being our man in the dark room? Sunday would say he was anybody.”
“I don’t know whether I believe it or not,” said Dr. Bull. “But it isn’t that that I mean. I can’t wish old Sunday’s balloon to burst because—”
“Well,” said Syme impatiently, “because?”
“Well, because he’s so jolly like a balloon himself,” said Dr. Bull desperately. “I don’t understand a word of all that idea of his being the same man who gave us all our blue cards. It seems to make everything nonsense. But I don’t care who knows it, I always had a sympathy for old Sunday himself, wicked as he was. Just as if he was a great bouncing baby. How can I explain what my queer sympathy was? It didn’t prevent my fighting him like hell! Shall I make it clear if I say that I liked him because he was so fat?”
“You will not,” said the Secretary.
“I’ve got it now,” cried Bull, “it was because he was so fat and so light. Just like a balloon. We always think of fat people as heavy, but he could have danced against a sylph. I see now what I mean. Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity. It was like the old speculations—what would happen if an elephant could leap up in the sky like a grasshopper?”
“Our elephant,” said Syme, looking upwards, “has leapt into the sky like a grasshopper.”
“And somehow,” concluded Bull, “that’s why I can’t help liking old Sunday. No, it’s not an admiration of force, or any silly thing like that. There is a kind of gaiety in the thing, as if he were bursting with some good news. Haven’t you sometimes felt it on a spring day? You know Nature plays tricks, but somehow that day proves they are good-natured tricks. I never read the Bible myself, but that part they laugh at is literal truth, ‘Why leap ye, ye high hills?’ The hills do leap—at least, they try to.... Why do I like Sunday?... how can I tell you?... because he’s such a Bounder.”
There was a long silence, and then the Secretary said in a curious, strained voice—
“You do not know Sunday at all. Perhaps it is because you are better than I, and do not know hell. I was a fierce fellow, and a trifle morbid from the first. The man who sits in darkness, and who chose us all, chose me because I had all the crazy look of a conspirator—because my smile went crooked, and my eyes were gloomy, even when I smiled. But there must have been something in me that answered to the nerves in all these anarchic men. For when I first saw Sunday he expressed to me, not your airy vitality, but something both gross and sad in the Nature of Things. I found him smoking in a twilight room, a room with brown blind down, infinitely more depressing than the genial darkness in which our master lives. He sat there on a bench, a huge heap of a man, dark and out of shape. He listened to all my words without speaking or even stirring. I poured out my most passionate appeals, and asked my most eloquent questions. Then, after a long silence, the Thing began to shake, and I thought it was shaken by some secret malady. It shook like a loathsome and living jelly. It reminded me of everything I had ever read about the base bodies that are the origin of life—the deep sea lumps and protoplasm. It seemed like the final form of matter, the most shapeless and the most shameful. I could only tell myself, from its shudderings, that it was something at least that such a monster could be miserable. And then it broke upon me that the bestial mountain was shaking with a lonely laughter, and the laughter was at me. Do you ask me to forgive him that? It is no small thing to be laughed at by something at once lower and stronger than oneself.”
“Surely you fellows are exaggerating wildly,” cut in the clear voice of Inspector Ratcliffe. “President Sunday is a terrible fellow for one’s intellect, but he is not such a Barnum’s freak physically as you make out. He received me in an ordinary office, in a grey check coat, in broad daylight. He talked to me in an ordinary way. But I’ll tell you what is a trifle creepy about Sunday. His room is neat, his clothes are neat, everything seems in order; but he’s absent-minded. Sometimes his great bright eyes go quite blind. For hours he forgets that you are there. Now absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man. We think of a wicked man as vigilant. We can’t think of a wicked man who is honestly and sincerely dreamy, because we daren’t think of a wicked man alone with himself. An absentminded man means a good-natured man. It means a man who, if he happens to see you, will apologise. But how will you bear an absentminded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?”
“And what do you think of Sunday, Gogol?” asked Syme.
“I don’t think of Sunday on principle,” said Gogol simply, “any more than I stare at the sun at noonday.”
“Well, that is a point of view,” said Syme thoughtfully. “What do you say, Professor?”
The Professor was walking with bent head and trailing stick, and he did not answer at all.
“Wake up, Professor!” said Syme genially. “Tell us what you think of Sunday.”
The Professor spoke at last very slowly.
“I think something,” he said, “that I cannot say clearly. Or, rather, I think something that I cannot even think clearly. But it is something like this. My early life, as you know, was a bit too large and loose.
“Well, when I saw Sunday’s face I thought it was too large—everybody does, but I also thought it was too loose. The face was so big, that one couldn’t focus it or make it a face at all. The eye was so far away from the nose, that it wasn’t an eye. The mouth was so much by itself, that one had to think of it by itself. The whole thing is too hard to explain.”
He paused for a little, still trailing his stick, and then went on—
“But put it this way. Walking up a road at night, I have seen a lamp and a lighted window and a cloud make together a most complete and unmistakable face. If anyone in heaven has that face I shall know him again. Yet when I walked a little farther I found that there was no face, that the window was ten yards away, the lamp ten hundred yards, the cloud beyond the world. Well, Sunday’s face escaped me; it ran away to right and left, as such chance pictures run away. And so his face has made me, somehow, doubt whether there are any faces. I don’t know whether your face, Bull, is a face or a combination in perspective. Perhaps one black disc of your beastly glasses is quite close and another fifty miles away. Oh, the doubts of a materialist are not worth a dump. Sunday has taught me the last and the worst doubts, the doubts of a spiritualist. I am a Buddhist, I suppose; and Buddhism is not a creed, it is a doubt. My poor dear Bull, I do not believe that you really have a face. I have not faith enough to believe in matter.”
Syme’s eyes were still fixed upon the errant orb, which, reddened in the evening light, looked like some rosier and more innocent world.
“Have you noticed an odd thing,” he said, “about all your descriptions? Each man of you finds Sunday quite different, yet each man of you can only find one thing to compare him to—the universe itself. Bull finds him like the earth in spring, Gogol like the sun at noonday. The Secretary is reminded of the shapeless protoplasm, and the Inspector of the carelessness of virgin forests. The Professor says he is like a changing landscape. This is queer, but it is queerer still that I also have had my odd notion about the President, and I also find that I think of Sunday as I think of the whole world.”
“Get on a little faster, Syme,” said Bull; “never mind the balloon.”
“When I first saw Sunday,” said Syme slowly, “I only saw his back; and when I saw his back, I knew he was the worst man in the world. His neck and shoulders were brutal, like those of some apish god. His head had a stoop that was hardly human, like the stoop of an ox. In fact, I had at once the revolting fancy that this was not a man at all, but a beast dressed up in men’s clothes.”
“Get on,” said Dr. Bull.
“And then the queer thing happened. I had seen his back from the street, as he sat in the balcony. Then I entered the hotel, and coming round the other side of him, saw his face in the sunlight. His face frightened me, as it did everyone; but not because it was brutal, not because it was evil. On the contrary, it frightened me because it was so beautiful, because it was so good.”
“Syme,” exclaimed the Secretary, “are you ill?”
“It was like the face of some ancient archangel, judging justly after heroic wars. There was laughter in the eyes, and in the mouth honour and sorrow. There was the same white hair, the same great, grey-clad shoulders that I had seen from behind. But when I saw him from behind I was certain he was an animal, and when I saw him in front I knew he was a god.”
“Pan,” said the Professor dreamily, “was a god and an animal.”
“Then, and again and always,” went on Syme like a man talking to himself, “that has been for me the mystery of Sunday, and it is also the mystery of the world. When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained. But the whole came to a kind of crest yesterday when I raced Sunday for the cab, and was just behind him all the way.”
“Had you time for thinking then?” asked Ratcliffe.
“Time,” replied Syme, “for one outrageous thought. I was suddenly possessed with the idea that the blind, blank back of his head really was his face—an awful, eyeless face staring at me! And I fancied that the figure running in front of me was really a figure running backwards, and dancing as he ran.”
“Horrible!” said Dr. Bull, and shuddered.
“Horrible is not the word,” said Syme. “It was exactly the worst instant of my life. And yet ten minutes afterwards, when he put his head out of the cab and made a grimace like a gargoyle, I knew that he was only like a father playing hide-and-seek with his children.”
“It is a long game,” said the Secretary, and frowned at his broken boots.
“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—”
“Look!” cried out Bull clamorously, “the balloon is coming down!”
There was no need to cry out to Syme, who had never taken his eyes off it. He saw the great luminous globe suddenly stagger in the sky, right itself, and then sink slowly behind the trees like a setting sun.
The man called Gogol, who had hardly spoken through all their weary travels, suddenly threw up his hands like a lost spirit.
“He is dead!” he cried. “And now I know he was my friend—my friend in the dark!”
“Dead!” snorted the Secretary. “You will not find him dead easily. If he has been tipped out of the car, we shall find him rolling as a colt rolls in a field, kicking his legs for fun.”
“Clashing his hoofs,” said the Professor. “The colts do, and so did Pan.”
“Pan again!” said Dr. Bull irritably. “You seem to think Pan is everything.”
“So he is,” said the Professor, “in Greek. He means everything.”
“Don’t forget,” said the Secretary, looking down, “that he also means Panic.”
Syme had stood without hearing any of the exclamations.
“It fell over there,” he said shortly. “Let us follow it!”
Then he added with an indescribable gesture—
“Oh, if he has cheated us all by getting killed! It would be like one of his larks.”
He strode off towards the distant trees with a new energy, his rags and ribbons fluttering in the wind. The others followed him in a more footsore and dubious manner. And almost at the same moment all six men realised that they were not alone in the little field.
Across the square of turf a tall man was advancing towards them, leaning on a strange long staff like a sceptre. He was clad in a fine but old-fashioned suit with knee-breeches; its colour was that shade between blue, violet and grey which can be seen in certain shadows of the woodland. His hair was whitish grey, and at the first glance, taken along with his knee-breeches, looked as if it was powdered. His advance was very quiet; but for the silver frost upon his head, he might have been one to the shadows of the wood.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “my master has a carriage waiting for you in the road just by.”
“Who is your master?” asked Syme, standing quite still.
“I was told you knew his name,” said the man respectfully.
There was a silence, and then the Secretary said—
“Where is this carriage?”
“It has been waiting only a few moments,” said the stranger. “My master has only just come home.”
Syme looked left and right upon the patch of green field in which he found himself. The hedges were ordinary hedges, the trees seemed ordinary trees; yet he felt like a man entrapped in fairyland.
He looked the mysterious ambassador up and down, but he could discover nothing except that the man’s coat was the exact colour of the purple shadows, and that the man’s face was the exact colour of the red and brown and golden sky.
“Show us the place,” Syme said briefly, and without a word the man in the violet coat turned his back and walked towards a gap in the hedge, which let in suddenly the light of a white road.
As the six wanderers broke out upon this thoroughfare, they saw the white road blocked by what looked like a long row of carriages, such a row of carriages as might close the approach to some house in Park Lane. Along the side of these carriages stood a rank of splendid servants, all dressed in the grey-blue uniform, and all having a certain quality of stateliness and freedom which would not commonly belong to the servants of a gentleman, but rather to the officials and ambassadors of a great king. There were no less than six carriages waiting, one for each of the tattered and miserable band. All the attendants (as if in court-dress) wore swords, and as each man crawled into his carriage they drew them, and saluted with a sudden blaze of steel.
“What can it all mean?” asked Bull of Syme as they separated. “Is this another joke of Sunday’s?”
“I don’t know,” said Syme as he sank wearily back in the cushions of his carriage; “but if it is, it’s one of the jokes you talk about. It’s a good-natured one.”
The six adventurers had passed through many adventures, but not one had carried them so utterly off their feet as this last adventure of comfort. They had all become inured to things going roughly; but things suddenly going smoothly swamped them. They could not even feebly imagine what the carriages were; it was enough for them to know that they were carriages, and carriages with cushions. They could not conceive who the old man was who had led them; but it was quite enough that he had certainly led them to the carriages.
Syme drove through a drifting darkness of trees in utter abandonment. It was typical of him that while he had carried his bearded chin forward fiercely so long as anything could be done, when the whole business was taken out of his hands he fell back on the cushions in a frank collapse.
Very gradually and very vaguely he realised into what rich roads the carriage was carrying him. He saw that they passed the stone gates of what might have been a park, that they began gradually to climb a hill which, while wooded on both sides, was somewhat more orderly than a forest. Then there began to grow upon him, as upon a man slowly waking from a healthy sleep, a pleasure in everything. He felt that the hedges were what hedges should be, living walls; that a hedge is like a human army, disciplined, but all the more alive. He saw high elms behind the hedges, and vaguely thought how happy boys would be climbing there. Then his carriage took a turn of the path, and he saw suddenly and quietly, like a long, low, sunset cloud, a long, low house, mellow in the mild light of sunset. All the six friends compared notes afterwards and quarrelled; but they all agreed that in some unaccountable way the place reminded them of their boyhood. It was either this elm-top or that crooked path, it was either this scrap of orchard or that shape of a window; but each man of them declared that he could remember this place before he could remember his mother.
When the carriages eventually rolled up to a large, low, cavernous gateway, another man in the same uniform, but wearing a silver star on the grey breast of his coat, came out to meet them. This impressive person said to the bewildered Syme—
“Refreshments are provided for you in your room.”
Syme, under the influence of the same mesmeric sleep of amazement, went up the large oaken stairs after the respectful attendant. He entered a splendid suite of apartments that seemed to be designed specially for him. He walked up to a long mirror with the ordinary instinct of his class, to pull his tie straight or to smooth his hair; and there he saw the frightful figure that he was—blood running down his face from where the bough had struck him, his hair standing out like yellow rags of rank grass, his clothes torn into long, wavering tatters. At once the whole enigma sprang up, simply as the question of how he had got there, and how he was to get out again. Exactly at the same moment a man in blue, who had been appointed as his valet, said very solemnly—
“I have put out your clothes, sir.”
“Clothes!” said Syme sardonically. “I have no clothes except these,” and he lifted two long strips of his frock-coat in fascinating festoons, and made a movement as if to twirl like a ballet girl.
“My master asks me to say,” said the attendant, “that there is a fancy dress ball tonight, and that he desires you to put on the costume that I have laid out. Meanwhile, sir, there is a bottle of Burgundy and some cold pheasant, which he hopes you will not refuse, as it is some hours before supper.”
“Cold pheasant is a good thing,” said Syme reflectively, “and Burgundy is a spanking good thing. But really I do not want either of them so much as I want to know what the devil all this means, and what sort of costume you have got laid out for me. Where is it?”
The servant lifted off a kind of ottoman a long peacock-blue drapery, rather of the nature of a domino, on the front of which was emblazoned a large golden sun, and which was splashed here and there with flaming stars and crescents.
“You’re to be dressed as Thursday, sir,” said the valet somewhat affably.
“Dressed as Thursday!” said Syme in meditation. “It doesn’t sound a warm costume.”
“Oh, yes, sir,” said the other eagerly, “the Thursday costume is quite warm, sir. It fastens up to the chin.”
“Well, I don’t understand anything,” said Syme, sighing. “I have been used so long to uncomfortable adventures that comfortable adventures knock me out. Still, I may be allowed to ask why I should be particularly like Thursday in a green frock spotted all over with the sun and moon. Those orbs, I think, shine on other days. I once saw the moon on Tuesday, I remember.”
“Beg pardon, sir,” said the valet, “Bible also provided for you,” and with a respectful and rigid finger he pointed out a passage in the first chapter of Genesis. Syme read it wondering. It was that in which the fourth day of the week is associated with the creation of the sun and moon. Here, however, they reckoned from a Christian Sunday.
“This is getting wilder and wilder,” said Syme, as he sat down in a chair. “Who are these people who provide cold pheasant and Burgundy, and green clothes and Bibles? Do they provide everything?”
“Yes, sir, everything,” said the attendant gravely. “Shall I help you on with your costume?”
“Oh, hitch the bally thing on!” said Syme impatiently.
But though he affected to despise the mummery, he felt a curious freedom and naturalness in his movements as the blue and gold garment fell about him; and when he found that he had to wear a sword, it stirred a boyish dream. As he passed out of the room he flung the folds across his shoulder with a gesture, his sword stood out at an angle, and he had all the swagger of a troubadour. For these disguises did not disguise, but reveal.