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_our_ wealth and luxury!' I thought; for I was just beginning, at that
period, to be interested in the disquieting aspects of the social
organism, and my ideas were hot and crude. I was aware of these people on
paper, but now, for the first time, I realized the immense rush and sweep
of their existence, their nearness to Nature, their formidable
directness. They frightened me with their vivid humanity.

I could find no first-class carriage on the train, and I got into a
compartment where there were several girls and one young man. The girls
were evidently employed in the earthenware manufacture. Each had her
dinner-basket. Most of them were extremely neat; one or two wore gloves.
From the young man's soiled white jacket under his black coat, I
gathered that he was an engineer. The train moved out of the station and
left the platform nearly empty. I pictured the train, a long procession
of compartments like ours, full of rough, natural, ungenteel people.
None of my companions spoke; none gave me more than a passing glance. It
was uncanny.

Still, the fundamental, cardinal quality of my adventure remained
prominent in my being, and it gave me countenance among these taciturn,
musing workgirls, who were always at grips with the realities of life.
'Ah,' I thought, 'you little know what I know! I may appear a butterfly,
but I have learnt the secret meaning of existence. I am above you, beyond
you, by my experience, and by my terrible situation, and by the turmoil
in my heart!' And then, quite suddenly, I reflected that they probably
knew all that I knew, that some of them might have forgotten more than I
had ever learnt. I remembered an absorbing correspondence about the
manners of the Five Towns in the columns of the _Staffordshire
Recorder_ - a correspondence which had driven Aunt Constance to conceal
the paper after the second week. I guessed that they might smile at the
simplicity of my heart could they see it. Meaning of existence! Why, they
were reared in it! The naturalness of natural people and of natural acts
struck me like a blow, and I withdrew, whipped, into myself. My adventure
grew smaller. But I recalled its ecstasies. I dwelt on the romantic
perfection of Diaz. It seemed to me amazing, incredible, that Diaz, the
glorious and incomparable Diaz, had loved me - _me_! out of all the
ardent, worshipping women that the world contained. I wondered if he had
wakened up, and I felt sorry for him. So far, I had not decided how soon,
if at all, I should communicate with him. My mind was incapable of
reaching past the next few hours - the next hour.

We stopped at a station surrounded by the evidences of that tireless,
unceasing, and tremendous manufacturing industry which distinguishes the
Five Towns, and I was left alone in the compartment. The train rumbled on
through a landscape of fiery furnaces, and burning slag-heaps, and foul
canals reflecting great smoking chimneys, all steeped in the mild
sunshine. Could the toil-worn agents of this never-ending and gigantic
productiveness find time for love? Perhaps they loved quickly and forgot,
like animals. Thoughts such as these lurked sinister and carnal, strange
beasts in the jungle of my poor brain. Then the train arrived at
Shawport, and I was obliged to get out. I say 'obliged,' because I
violently wished not to get out. I wished to travel on in that train to
some impossible place, where things were arranged differently.

The station clock showed only five minutes to seven. I was astounded. It
seemed to me that all the real world had been astir and busy for hours.
And this extraordinary activity went on every morning while Aunt
Constance and I lay in our beds and thought well of ourselves.

I shivered, and walked quickly up the street. I had positively not
noticed that I was cold. I had scarcely left the station before Fred
Ryley appeared in front of me. I saw that his face was swollen. My
heart stopped. Of course, he would tell Ethel.... He passed me
sheepishly without stopping, merely raising his hat, and murmuring the
singular words:

'We're both very, very sorry.'

What in the name of Heaven could they possibly know, he and Ethel? And
what right had he to ...? Did he smile furtively? Fred Ryley had
sometimes a strange smile. I reddened, angry and frightened.

The distance between the station and our house proved horribly short. And
when I arrived in front of the green gates, and put my hand on the latch,
I knew that I had formed no plan whatever. I opened the right-hand gate
and entered the garden. The blinds were still down, and the house looked
so decorous and innocent in its age. My poor aunt! What a night she must
have been through! It was inconceivable that I should tell her what had
happened to me. Indeed, under the windows of that house it seemed
inconceivable that the thing had happened which had happened.
Inconceivable! Grotesque! Monstrous!

But could I lie? Could I rise to the height of some sufficient and
kindly lie?

A hand drew slightly aside the blind of the window over the porch. I
sighed, and went wearily, in my boat-shaped straw, up the gravelled path
to the door.

Rebecca met me at the door. It was so early that she had not yet put on
an apron. She looked tired, as if she had not slept.

'Come in, miss,' she said weakly, holding open the door.

It seemed to me that I did not need this invitation from a servant.

'I suppose you've all been fearfully upset, wondering where I was,' I
began, entering the hall.

My adventure appeared fantastically unreal to me in the presence of this
buxom creature, whom I knew to be incapable of imagining anything one
hundredth part so dreadful.

'No, miss; I wasn't upset on account of you. You're always so sensible
like. You always know what to do. I knew as you must have stopped the
night with friends in Hanbridge on account of the heavy rain, and perhaps
that there silly cabman not turning up, and them tramcars all crowded;
and, of course, you couldn't telegraph.'

This view that I was specially sagacious and equal to emergencies rather
surprised me.

'But auntie?' I demanded, trembling.

'Oh, miss!' cried Rebecca, glancing timidly over her shoulder, 'I want
you to come with me into the dining-room before you go upstairs.'

She snuffled.

In the dining-room I went at once to the window to draw up the blinds.

'Not that, not that!' Rebecca appealed, weeping. 'For pity's sake!' And
she caught my hand.

I then noticed that Lucy was standing in the doorway, also weeping.
Rebecca noticed this too.

'Lucy, you go to your kitchen this minute,' she said sharply, and then
turned to me and began to cry again. 'Miss Peel - how can I tell you?'

'Why do you call me Miss Peel?' I asked her.

But I knew why. The thing flashed over me instantly. My dear aunt was

'You've got no aunt,' said Rebecca. 'My poor dear! And you at the

I dropped my head and my bosom on the bare mahogany table and cried.
Never before, and never since, have I spilt such tears - hot, painful
drops, distilled plenteously from a heart too crushed and torn.

'There, there!' muttered Rebecca. 'I wish I could have told you
different - less cruel; but it wasn't in me to do it.'

'And she's lying upstairs this very moment all cold and stiff,' a wailing
voice broke in.

It was Lucy, who could not keep herself away from us.

'Will you go to your kitchen, my girl!'

Rebecca drove her off. 'And the poor thing's not stiff either. Her poor
body's as soft as if she was only asleep, and doctor says it will be for
a day or two. It's like that when they're took off like that, he says.
Oh, Miss Carlotta - '

'Tell me all about it before I go upstairs,' I said.

I had recovered.

'Your poor aunt went to bed just as soon as you were gone, miss,' said
Rebecca. 'She would have it she was quite well, only tired. I took her up
a cup of cocoa at ten o'clock, and she seemed all right, and then I sends
Lucy to bed, and I sits up in the kitchen to wait for you. Not a sound
from your poor aunt. I must have dropped asleep, miss, in my chair, and I
woke up with a start like, and the kitchen clock was near on one. Thinks
I, perhaps Miss Carlotta's been knocking and ringing all this time and me
not heard, and I rushes to the front door. But of course you weren't
there. The porch was nothing but a pool o' water. I says to myself she's
stopping somewhere, I says. And I felt it was my duty to go and tell your
aunt, whether she was asleep or whether she wasn't asleep.... Well, and
there she was, miss, with her eyes closed, and as soft as a child. I
spoke to her, loud, more than once. "Miss Carlotta a'n't come," I says.
"Miss Carlotta a'n't come, ma'am," I says. She never stirred. Thinks I,
this is queer this is. And I goes up to her and touches her. Chilly! Then
I takes the liberty of pushing back your poor aunt's eyelids, and I could
but see the whites of her eyes; the eyeballs was gone up, and a bit
outwards. Yes; and her poor dear chin was dropped. Thinks I, here's
trouble, and Miss Carlotta at the concert. I runs to our bedroom, and I
tells Lucy to put a cloak on and fetch Dr. Roycroft. "Who for?" she says.
"Never you mind who for!" I says, says I. "You up and quick. But you can
tell the doctor it's missis as is took." And in ten minutes he was here,
miss. But it's only across the garden, like. "Yes," he said, "she's been
dead an hour or more. Failure of the heart's action," he said. "She died
in her sleep," he said. "Thank God she died in her sleep if she was to
die, the pure angel!" I says. I told the doctor as you were away for the
night, miss. And I laid her out, miss, and your poor auntie wasn't my
first, either. I've seen trouble - I've - '

And Rebecca's tears overcame her voice.

'I'll go upstairs with you, miss,' she struggled out.

One thought that flew across my mind was that Doctor Roycroft was very
intimate with the Ryleys, and had doubtless somehow informed them of my
aunt's death. This explained Fred Ryley's strange words and attitude to
me on the way from the station. The young man had been too timid to stop
me. The matter was a trifle, but another idea that struck me was not a
trifle, though I strove to make it so. My aunt had died about midnight,
and it was at midnight that Diaz and I had heard the mysterious knock on
his sitting-room door. At the time I had remarked how it resembled my
aunt's knock. Occasionally, when the servants overslept themselves, Aunt
Constance would go to their rooms in her pale-blue dressing-gown and
knock on their door exactly like that. Could it be that this was one of
those psychical manifestations of which I had read? Had my aunt, in
passing from this existence to the next, paused a moment to warn me of
my terrible danger? My intellect replied that a disembodied soul could
not knock, and that the phenomenon had been due simply to some guest or
servant of the hotel who had mistaken the room, and discovered his error
in time. Nevertheless, the instinctive part of me - that part of us which
refuses to fraternize with reason, and which we call the superstitious
because we cannot explain it - would not let go the spiritualistic
theory, and during all my life has never quite surrendered it to the
attacks of my brain.

There was a long pause.

'No,' I said; 'I will go upstairs alone;' and I went, leaving my cloak
and hat with Rebecca.

Already, to my hypersensitive nostrils, there was a slight odour in the
darkened bedroom. What lay on the bed, straight and long and thin,
resembled almost exactly my aunt as she lived. I forced myself to look on
it. Except that the face was paler than usual, and had a curious
transparent, waxy appearance, and that the cheeks were a little hollowed,
and the lines from the nose to the corners of the mouth somewhat
deepened, there had been no outward change.... And _this_ once was she! I
thought, Where is she, then? Where is the soul? Where is that which loved
me without understanding me? Where is that which I loved? The baffling,
sad enigma of death confronted me in all its terrifying crudity. The
shaft of love and the desolation of death had struck me almost in the
same hour, and before these twin mysteries, supremely equal, I recoiled
and quailed. I had neither faith nor friend. I was solitary, and my soul
also was solitary. The difficulties of Being seemed insoluble. I was not
a moral coward, I was not prone to facile repentances; but as I gazed at
that calm and unsullied mask I realized, whatever I had gained, how much
I had lost. At twenty-one I knew more of the fountains of life than Aunt
Constance at over sixty. Poor aged thing that had walked among men for
interminable years, and never _known_! It seemed impossible, shockingly
against Nature, that my aunt's existence should have been so! I pitied
her profoundly. I felt that essentially she was girlish compared to me.
And yet - and yet - that which she had kept and which I had given away was
precious, too - indefinably and wonderfully precious! The price of
knowledge and of ecstasy seemed heavy to me then. The girl that had gone
with Diaz into that hotel apartment had come out no more. She had expired
there, and her extinction was the price, Oh, innocence! Oh, divine
ignorance! Oh, refusal! None knows your value save her who has bartered
you! And herein is the woman's tragedy.

There in that mausoleum I decided that I must never see Diaz again. He
was fast in my heart, a flashing, glorious treasure, but I must never see
him again. I must devote myself to memory.

On the dressing-table lay a brown-paper parcel which seemed out of place
there. I opened it, and it contained a magnificently-bound copy of _The
Imitation of Christ_. Upon the flyleaf was written: 'To dearest Carlotta
on attaining her majority. With fondest love. C.P.'

It was too much; it was overwhelming. I wept again. Soul so kind and
pure! The sense of my loss, the sense of the simple, proud rectitude of
her life, laid me low.


Train journeys have too often been sorrowful for me, so much so that the
conception itself of a train, crawling over the country like a snake, or
flying across it like a winged monster, fills me with melancholy. Trains
loaded with human parcels of sadness and illusion and brief joy,
wandering about, crossing, and occasionally colliding in the murk of
existence; trains warmed and lighted in winter; trains open to catch the
air of your own passage in summer; night-trains that pierce the night
with your yellow, glaring eyes, and waken mysterious villages, and leave
the night behind and run into the dawn as into a station; trains that
carry bread and meats for the human parcels, and pillows and fountains of
fresh water; trains that sweep haughtily and wearily indifferent through
the landscapes and the towns, sufficient unto yourselves, hasty, panting,
formidable, and yet mournful entities: I have understood you in your
arrogance and your pathos.

That little journey from Knype to Shawport had implanted itself painfully
in my memory, as though during it I had peered too close into the face of
life. And now I had undertaken another, and a longer one. Three months
had elapsed - three months of growing misery and despair; three months of
tedious familiarity with lawyers and distant relatives, and all the
exasperating camp-followers of death; three months of secret and strange
fear, waxing daily. And at last, amid the expostulations and the shrugs
of wisdom and age, I had decided to go to London. I had little energy,
and no interest, but I saw that I must go to London; I was driven there
by my secret fear; I dared not delay. And not a soul in the wide waste of
the Five Towns comprehended me, or could have comprehended me had it been
so minded. I might have shut up the house for a time. But no; I would
not. Always I have been sudden, violent, and arbitrary; I have never been
able to tolerate half-measures, or to wait upon occasion. I sold the
house; I sold the furniture. Yes; and I dismissed my faithful Rebecca
and the clinging Lucy, and they departed, God knows where; it was as
though I had sold them into slavery. Again and again, in the final week,
I cut myself to the quick, recklessly, perhaps purposely; I moved in a
sort of terrible languor, deaf to every appeal, pretending to be stony,
and yet tortured by my secret fear, and by a hemorrhage of the heart that
no philosophy could stanch. And I swear that nothing desolated me more
than the strapping and the labelling of my trunks that morning after I
had slept, dreamfully, in the bed that I should never use again - the bed
that, indeed, was even then the property of a furniture dealer. Had I
wept at all, I should have wept as I wrote out the labels for my trunks:
'Miss Peel, passenger to Golden Cross Hotel, London. Euston via Rugby,'
with two thick lines drawn under the 'Euston.' That writing of labels was
the climax. With a desperate effort I tore myself up by the roots, and
all bleeding I left the Five Towns. I have never seen them since. Some
day, when I shall have attained serenity and peace, when the battle has
been fought and lost, I will revisit my youth. I have always loved
passionately the disfigured hills and valleys of the Five Towns. And as I
think of Oldcastle Street, dropping away sleepily and respectably from
the Town Hall of Bursley, with the gold angel holding a gold crown on its
spire, I vibrate with an inexplicable emotion. What is there in Oldcastle
Street to disturb the dust of the soul?

I must tell you here that Diaz had gone to South America on a triumphal
tour of concerts, lest I forget! I read it in the paper.

So I arrived in London on a February day, about one o'clock. And the
hall-porter at the Golden Cross Hotel, and the two pale girls in the
bureau of the hotel, were sympathetic and sweet to me, because I was
young and alone, and in mourning, and because I had great rings round my
eyes. It was a fine day, blue and mild. At half-past three I had nothing
in the world to do. I had come to London without a plan, without a
purpose, with scarcely an introduction; I wished simply to plunge myself
into its solitude, and to be alone with my secret fear. I walked out into
the street, slowly, like one whom ennui has taught to lose no chance of
dissipating time. I neither liked nor disliked London. I had no feelings
towards it save one of perplexity. I thought it noisy, dirty, and
hurried. Its great name roused no thrill in my bosom. On the morrow, I
said, I would seek a lodging, and perhaps write to Ethel Ryley.
Meanwhile I strolled up into Trafalgar Square, and so into Charing Cross
Road. And in Charing Cross Road - it was the curst accident of fate - I saw
the signboard of the celebrated old firm of publishers, Oakley and
Dalbiac. It is my intention to speak of my books as little as possible in
this history. I must, however, explain that six months before my aunt's
death I had already written my first novel, _The Jest_, and sent it to
precisely Oakley and Dalbiac. It was a wild welter of youthful
extravagances, and it aimed to depict London society, of which I knew
nothing whatever, with a flippant and cynical pen. Oakley and Dalbiac had
kept silence for several months, and had then stated, in an extremely
formal epistle, that they thought the book might have some chance of
success, and that they would be prepared to publish it on certain terms,
but that I must not expect, etc. By that time I had lost my original
sublime faith in the exceeding excellence of my story, and I replied that
I preferred to withdraw the book. To this letter I had received no
answer. When I saw the famous sign over a doorway the impulse seized me
to enter and get the manuscript, with the object of rewriting it. Soon, I
reflected, I might not be able to enter; the portals of mankind might be
barred to me for a space.... I saw in a flash of insight that my
salvation lay in work, and in nothing else. I entered, resolutely. A
brougham was waiting at the doors.

After passing along counters furnished with ledgers and clerks, through a
long, lofty room lined with great pigeon-holes containing thousands of
books each wrapped separately in white paper, I was shown into what the
clerk who acted as chamberlain called the office of the principal. This
room, too, was spacious, but so sombre that the electric light was
already burning. The first thing I noticed was that the window gave on a
wall of white tiles. In the middle of the somewhat dingy apartment was a
vast, square table, and at this table sat a pale, tall man, whose youth
astonished me - for the firm of Oakley and Dalbiac was historic.

He did not look up exactly at the instant of my entering, but when he did
look up, when he saw me, he stared for an instant, and then sprang from
his chair as though magically startled into activity. His age was about
thirty, and he had large, dark eyes, and a slight, dark moustache, and
his face generally was interesting; he wore a dark gray suit. I was
nervous, but he was even more nervous; yet in the moment of looking up he
had not seemed nervous. He could not do enough, apparently, to make me
feel at ease, and to show his appreciation of me and my work. He spoke
enthusiastically of _The Jest_, begging me neither to suppress it nor to
alter it. And, without the least suggestion from me, he offered me a
considerable sum of money in advance of royalties. At that time I
scarcely knew what royalties were. But although my ignorance of business
was complete, I guessed that this man was behaving in a manner highly
unusual among publishers. He was also patently contradicting the tenor of
his firm's letter to me. I thanked him, and said I should like, at any
rate, to glance through the manuscript.

'Don't alter it, Miss Peel, I beg,' he said. 'It is "young," I know;
but it ought to be. I remember my wife said - my wife reads many of our
manuscripts - by the way - ' He went to a door, opened it, and called
out, 'Mary!'

A tall and slim woman, extremely elegant, appeared in reply to this
appeal. Her hair was gray above the ears, and I judged that she was four
or five years older than the man. She had a kind, thin face, with shining
gray eyes, and she was wearing a hat.

'Mary, this is Miss Peel, the author of _The Jest_ - you remember. Miss
Peel, my wife.'

The woman welcomed me with quick, sincere gestures. Her smile was very
pleasant, and yet a sad smile. The husband also had an air of quiet,
restrained, cheerful sadness.

'My wife is frequently here in the afternoon like this,' said the

'Yes,' she laughed; 'it's quite a family affair, and I'm almost on the
staff. I distinctly remember your manuscript, Miss Peel, and how very
clever and amusing it was.'

Her praise was spontaneous and cordial, but it was a different thing from
the praise of her husband. He obviously noticed the difference.

'I was just saying to Miss Peel - ' he began, with increased nervousness.

'Pardon me,' I interrupted. 'But am I speaking to Mr. Oakley or
Mr. Dalbiac?'

'To neither,' said he. 'My name is Ispenlove, and I am the nephew of the
late Mr. Dalbiac. Mr. Oakley died thirty years ago. I have no partner.'

'You expected to see a very old gentleman, no doubt,' Mrs.
Ispenlove remarked.

'Yes,' I smiled.

'People often do. And Frank is so very young. You live in London?'

'No,' I said; 'I have just come up.'

'To stay?'

'To stay.'


'Yes. My aunt died a few months ago. I am all that is left of my

Mrs. Ispenlove's eyes filled with tears, and she fingered a gold chain
that hung from her neck.

'But have you got rooms - a house?'

'I am at a hotel for the moment.'

'But you have friends?'

I shook my head. Mr. Ispenlove was glancing rapidly from one to the
other of us.

'My dear young lady!' exclaimed his wife. Then she hesitated, and said:
'Excuse my abruptness, but do let me beg you to come and have tea with us
this afternoon. We live quite near - in Bloomsbury Square. The carriage is
waiting. Frank, you can come?'

'I can come for an hour,' said Mr. Ispenlove.

I wanted very much to decline, but I could not. I could not disappoint
that honest and generous kindliness, with its touch of melancholy. I
could not refuse those shining gray eyes. I saw that my situation and my
youth had lacerated Mrs. Ispenlove's sensitive heart, and that she wished
to give it balm by being humane to me.

We seemed, so rapid was our passage, to be whisked on an Arabian carpet
to a spacious drawing-room, richly furnished, with thick rugs and ample
cushions and countless knicknacks and photographs and delicately-tinted

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Online LibraryArnold BennettSacred and Profane Love → online text (page 4 of 14)