A.S. M. Hutchinson.

If Winter Comes online

. (page 3 of 27)
Online LibraryA.S. M. HutchinsonIf Winter Comes → online text (page 3 of 27)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


It's very steadying; very steadying...."

And his small hearers, desiring, like young colts in a field, nothing so
little as anything steadying, paid as much attention to this "jaw" as to
any precept not supported by cane or imposition. They made of it,
indeed, a popular school joke, "Oh, go and write a little every day and
boil yourself, you ass!" But it appealed, dimly, to the reflective
quality in the child Sabre's mind. He contracted the habit of writing,
in a "bagged" exercise book, sentences beginning laboriously with "I
thought to-day - ." It remained with him, as he grew up, in the practice
of writing sometimes ideas that occurred to him, as in the case of his
feelings about his books and - much more strongly - in deliberately
thinking out ideas.

"You yourself. The real you."

In the increasing solitariness of his married life, it came to be
something into which he could retire, as into a private chamber; which
he could put on, as a garment: and in the privacy of the chamber, or
within the sleeves of the garment, he received a sense of detachment
from normal life in which, vaguely, he pondered things.


VIII

Vaguely, - without solution of most of the problems that puzzled him, and
without even definite knowledge of the line along which solution might
lie. Here, in these cloisters of another world - his own world - he paced
among his ideas as a man might pace around the dismantled and scattered
intricacies of an intricate machine, knowing the parts could be put
together and the thing worked usefully, not knowing how on earth it
could be done.... "This goes in there, and that goes in there, but how
on earth - ?" Here, into these cloisters, he dragged the parts of all the
puzzles that perplexed him; his relations with Mabel; his sense, in a
hundred ways as they came up, of the odd business that life was; his
strong interest in the social and industrial problems, and in the
political questions from time to time before the public attention.

He could be imagined assembling the parts, dragging them in, checking
them over, slamming the door, and - "How on earth? What on earth?" There
was a key to all these problems. There was a definite way of
co√ґrdinating the parts of each. But what?

He began to have the feeling that in all the puzzles, not only, though
particularly, of his own life as he had come to live it, but of life in
general as it is lived, some mysterious part was missing.

That was as far as he could get. He was like a man groping with his hand
through a hole in a great door for a key lying on the other side.
Nothing was to be seen through the hole, and only the arm to the elbow
could get through it. Not the shape of the key nor its position was
known.

But he was absolutely certain it was there.

One day he might put his hand on it.



CHAPTER IV


I

Mabel was two years younger than Sabre, twenty-five at the time of her
marriage and just past her thirtieth birthday when the separate rooms
were first occupied. Her habit of sudden laughter, rather loud, which
Sabre first noticed in connection with their differing views on the mean
streets visit, was rather characteristic of her. Her laugh came
suddenly, and very heartily, at anything that amused her and without her
first smiling or suggesting by any other sign that she was amused. And
it came thus abruptly out of a face whose expression was normally rather
severe. Probably of the same mentality was her habit of what Sabre
called "flying up." She "flew up" without her speech first warming up;
but of her flying up, unlike her sudden burst of laughter, Sabre came to
know certain premonitory symptoms in her face. Her face what he called
"tightened." In particular he used to notice a curious little
constriction of the sides of her nose, rather as though invisible
tweezers were pressing it.

She had rather a long nose and this pleased her, for she once read
somewhere that long noses were aristocratic. She stroked her nose as she
read.

Her complexion was pale, though this was perhaps exaggerated by her
colouring, which was dark. Her features were noticeably regular and
noticeably refined, though her eyes were the least little bit inclined
to be prominent: when Sabre married the Dean of Tidborough's only
daughter, it was said that he had married "a good-looking girl"; also
that he had married "a very nice girl"; those were the expressions used.
She liked the company of men and she was much liked by men (the opinion
of the garrulous Hapgood may be recalled in this connection). She very
much liked the society of women of her own age or older than herself,
and she was very popular with such. She did not like girls, married or
unmarried.


II

Mabel belonged to that considerable class of persons who, in
conversation, begin half their sentences with "And just imagine - "; or
"And only fancy - "; or "And do you know - ." These exclamations,
delivered with much excitement, are introductory to matters considered
extraordinary. Their users might therefore be imagined somewhat easily
astonished. But they have a compensatory steadiness of mind in regard to
much that mystifies other people. To Mabel there was nothing mysterious
in birth, or in living, or in death. She simply would not have
understood had she been told there was any mystery in these things. One
was born, one lived, one died. What was there odd about it? Nor did she
see anything mysterious in the intense preoccupation of an insect, or
the astounding placidity of a primrose growing at the foot of a tree. An
insect - you killed it. A flower - you plucked it. What's the mystery?

Her life was living among people of her own class. Her measure of a man
or of a woman was, Were they of her class? If they were, she gladly
accepted them and appeared to find considerable pleasure in their
society. Whether they had attractive qualities or unattractive qualities
or no qualities at all did not affect her. The only quality that
mattered was the quality of being well-bred. She called the classes
beneath her own standard of breeding "the lower classes", and so long as
they left her alone she was perfectly content to leave them alone. In
certain aspects the liked them. She liked "a civil tradesman" immensely;
she liked a civil charwoman immensely; and she liked a civil workman
immensely. It gave her as much pleasure, real pleasure that she felt in
all her emotions, to receive civility from the classes that ministered
to her class - servants, tradespeople, gardeners, carpenters, plumbers,
postmen, policemen - as to meet any one in her own class. It never
occurred to her to reckon up how enormously varied was the class whose
happy fortune it was to minister to her class and she would not have
been in the remotest degree interested if any one had told her how
numerous the class was. It never occurred to her that any of these
people had homes and it never occurred to her that the whole of the
lower classes lived without any margin at all beyond keeping their homes
together, or that if they stopped working they lost their homes, or that
they looked forward to nothing beyond their working years because there
was nothing beyond their working years for them to look forward to. Nor
would it have interested her in the remotest degree to hear this. The
only fact she knew about the lower classes was that they were
disgustingly extravagant and spent every penny they earned. The woman
across the Green who did her washing had six children and a husband who
was an agricultural labourer and earned eighteen and sixpence a week.
These eight lived in three rooms and "if you please" they actually
bought a gramophone! Mabel instanced it for years after she first heard
it. The idea of that class of person spending money on anything to make
their three rooms lively of an evening was scandalous to Mabel. She
heard of the gramophone outrage in 1908 and she was still instancing it
in 1912. "And those are the people, mind you," she said in 1912, "that
we have to buy these National Insurance stamps for!"


III

Mabel was not demonstrative. She had no enthusiasms and no sympathies.
Enthusiasms and sympathies in other people made her laugh with her
characteristic burst of sudden laughter. It was not, as with some
persons, that matters calling for sympathy made her impatient, - as very
robust people are often intensely impatient with sickness and infirmity.
She never would say, "I have no patience with such and such or so and
so." She had plenty of patience. It was simply that she had no
imagination whatsoever. Whatever she saw or heard or read, she saw or
heard or read exactly as the thing presented itself. If she saw a door
she saw merely a piece of wood with a handle and a keyhole. It may be
argued that a door is merely a piece of wood with a handle and a
keyhole, and that is what Mabel would have argued. But a door is in fact
the most intriguing mystery in the world because of what may be the
other side of it and of what goes on behind it. To Mabel nothing was on
the other side of anything she saw and nothing went on behind it.

A person or a creature in pain was to Mabel a person or a creature "laid
up." Laid up - out of action - not working properly: like a pencil without
a point. A picture was a decoration in paint and was either a pretty
decoration in paint or a not pretty decoration in paint. Music was a
tune, and was either a tune or merely music. A book was a story, and if
it was not a story it was simply a book. A flower was a decoration.
Poetry, such as

"While the still morn went out with sandals grey,"

was simply writing which, obviously, had no real meaning whatsoever, and
obviously - well, read the thing - was not intended to have any meaning. A
fine deed was fine precisely in proportion to the social position of the
person who performed it. Scott's death at the South Pole, when that was
announced in 1913, was fine because he was a gentleman. The disaster of
the colliers entombed in the Welsh Senghenydd mine which happened in the
same year was sad. "How sad!" She read the account, on the first day,
with the paper held up wide open and said "How sad!" and turned on to
something for which the paper might be folded back at the place and read
comfortably. Scott's death she read with the paper folded back at the
account. She liked seeing the pictures of Lady Scott and of Scott's
little boy. She read the caption under one of the pictures of the wives
and families of the four hundred and twenty-nine colliers killed in the
Senghenydd mine, but not under any of the others. The point she noted
was that all the women "of that class" wore "those awful cloth
caps", - the colliers' women just the same as the women in the mean
streets of Tidborough Old Town.

She was never particularly grateful for anything given to her or done
for her; not because she was not pleased and glad but because she could
invest a gift with no imagination of the feelings of the giver. The
thing was a present just as a pound of bacon was a pound of bacon. You
said thank you for the present just as you ate the bacon. What more was
to be said?

She revelled in gossip, that is to say in discussion with her own class
of the manners and doings of other people. She thought charity meant
giving jelly and red flannel to the poor; she thought generosity meant
giving money to some one; she thought selfishness meant not giving money
to some one. She had no idea that the only real charity is charity of
mind, and the only real generosity generosity of mind, and the only real
selfishness selfishness of mind. And she simply would not have
understood it if it had been explained to her. As people are judged, she
was entirely nice, entirely worthy, entirely estimable. And with that,
for it does not enter into such estimates, she had neither feelings of
the mind nor of the heart but only of the senses. All that her senses
set before her she either overvalued or undervalued: she was the
complete and perfect snob in the most refined and purest meaning of the
word.

She was much liked, and she liked many.



CHAPTER V


I

The Penny Green Garden House Development Scheme was begun in 1910. In
1908, the year of the measles and the separated bedrooms, no shadow of
it had yet been thrown. It never occurred to any one that a railway
would one day link Penny Green with Tidborough and all the rest of the
surrounding world, or that a railway to Tidborough was desirable. Sabre
bicycled in daily to Fortune, East and Sabre's, and the daily ride to
and fro had become a curious pleasure to him.

There had once occurred to him as he rode, and thereafter had persisted
and accumulated, the feeling that, on the daily, solitary passage
between Tidborough and Penny Green, he was mysteriously detached from,
mysteriously suspended between, the two centres that were his two
worlds, - his business world and his home world.

With its daily recurrence the thought developed: it enlarged to the
whimsical notion that here, on his bicycle on the road, he was magically
escaped out of his two worlds, not belonging to or responsible to either
of his two worlds, which amounted to delicious detachment from all the
universe. A mysteriously aloof, free, irresponsible attitude of mind was
thus obtained: it was a condition in which - as one looking down from a
high tower on scurrying, antlike human beings - their oddness, their
futility, the apparent aimlessness of their excited scurrying became
apparent; hence frequent thought, on these rides, on the rather odd
thing that life was.

He was not in the least aware that so simple, so practical and so
obviously essential a thing as his daily ride - as simple, practical and
obviously essential as getting out of bed in the morning and returning
to bed at night - was moulding a mind always prone to develop meditative
grooves. But it did develop his mind in the extraordinary way in which
minds are moulded by the most simple habits. In this mere matter of
conveyance a philosopher might trace back a singularly brutal and
callous murder to the moulding into callous and brutal regard of other
people's sufferings rendered into a perfectly gentle mind by the habit
of daily travelling to business in London on the top of a motor omnibus.
It would only need to be shown that the gentle mind secured his seat
with dignity and comfort at the bus's starting point and daily for years
watched with amusement, and then with callousness and so with brutality
the struggles of the unhappy fellow creatures who fought to assail it at
its stopping places on the way to the City.

Mark Sabre was not in the least aware of any steadily permeating
influence from his sense of detachment on this daily habit of years. But
he was influenced. On entering his Penny Green world on the return home,
or on entering his Tidborough office world, on the way out, he had
sometimes a curious feeling of descending into this odd affair of life
to which he did not really belong. And for the few moments while the
feeling persisted he sometimes, more or less unconsciously, took towards
affairs a rather whimsical attitude, as though they did not really
matter: an irritating attitude, unpractical, it was sometimes hinted by
his partners; an irritating attitude - "You really are very difficult to
understand sometimes" - it was often told him by Mabel.


II

This very matter of the bicycle ride, indeed, apart altogether from its
effect upon his mood, supplied an instance of the kind of thing Mabel
found it so difficult to understand in her husband.

He made what she called a childish game of it. Every day on the ride
home, Sabre ceased pedalling at precisely the same point on the slope
down into Penny Green and coasted until the machine came to a standstill
within a few yards of his own gate. This point of cessation was never
twice in a week at the same spot; and Sabre found great interest in
seeing every day exactly where it would be, and by intense wriggling of
his front wheel and prodigious feats of balancing, squeezing out of the
machine's momentum the last possible fraction of an inch. There was a
magnificent distance record when, on one single occasion only, he had
been deposited plumb in line with his own gate; and there was a
divertingly lamentable shortage record, touched on more than one
occasion, when he had come to ground plumb in line with the gate of Mr.
Fargus, his neighbour on that side.

Each of these records, though marked by the gates, was also and more
exactly marked by a peg hammered into the edge of the Green.

This was childish; and Mabel said it was childish when her attention was
drawn to the diversion. On the day the great distance record was created
he came rather animatedly into the kitchen where she happened to be. "I
say, what's happened to that small wood axe? Is it in here?"

Mabel followed the direction of the convulsive start made by Low Jinks
and produced the small wood axe from under the dresser, also directing
at Low Jinks a glance which told Low Jinks what she perfectly well
knew: namely that under the dresser was not the place for the small
wood axe. "Whatever do you want it for all of a sudden?" Mabel asked.

He felt the edge with his thumb. "Low" - Mabel's face twitched. He had
persisted in the idiotic and indecorous names, and her face always
twitched when he used them - "Low, do you keep my axe for chopping coal
or what?" And he addressed Mabel. "I'm getting fat, I think. I don't
want the axe to cut lumps off myself, though. I'm going to chop a
marking peg. I've done a heavyweight world's record on that run in on my
bike - "

"Oh, _that_!" said Mabel.

And when he had gone out into the wood yard, Low Jinks staring after him
with the uplifted eyebrows with which both sisters, the glum and the
grim, commonly received the master's "ways", Mabel said in the gently
pained way which was her admirable method of administering rebukes in
the kitchen: "The woodshed is the place for the small wood axe,
Rebecca."

Rebecca promptly unsmirked her smirk. "Yes, m'm."

A little later the sound of loud hammering took Mabel to the gate.
Across the road, at the edge of the Green, Sabre was energetically
driving in the peg with the back of the axe. He was squatting and he
looked up highly pleased with himself and, his words implied, with her.
"Come to see it? Good! How's that for an effort, eh? Look here now.
Yesterday I only got as far as here," and he walked some paces towards
Mr. Fargus's gate and struck his heel in the ground and looked at her,
smiling. "Absolutely the same conditions, mind you. No wind. And I
always start from the top practically at rest; and yet always finish up
different. Jolly funny, eh?"

She opened the gate for him. "What you can see in it!" she murmured.

He said, "Oh, well!"


III

But on the following day he was surprised and intensely pleased to see
his champion peg gleaming white in the sunshine. Mabel was in the
morning room, sewing.

"Hullo, sewing? I say, did you paint my peg? How jolly nice of you!"

She looked up. "Your peg? Whatever do you mean?"

"That record distance peg of mine. Painted it white, haven't you?"

"No, I didn't paint it!"

"Who the dickens - ? Well, I'll just wash my hands. Not had tea, have
you? Good."

When Low Jinks came to his room with hot water - a detail of the perfect
appointment of the house under Mabel's management was her rule that
Rebecca always came to the door for the master's bicycle, handed him the
brush for his shoes and trousers, and then took hot water to his
room - he asked her, "I say, Low Jinks, did you paint that peg of mine?"

Low Jinks coloured and spoke apologetically: "Well, I thought it would
show up better, sir. There was a drop of whitewash in - "

"By Jove, it does. It looks like a regular winning-post. Jolly nice of
you, Low."

Two months afterwards the bicycle did the worst on record. This was a
surprising affair; the runs had recently been excitingly good; and when
Low Jinks came out to take the bicycle he greeted her: "I say, Low
Jinks, I only got just up to Mr. Fargus's gate just now. Worst I've
ever done."

Low Jinks was enormously concerned. "Well! I never did!" exclaimed Low
Jinks. "If those bicycles aren't just things! You'll want a peg for
that, sir. Like you had one for the best."

"That's an idea, Low. What about painting it?"

"Oh, I _will_, sir!"

But he did not mention the new record to Mabel.



CHAPTER VI


I

The other end of the daily bicycle ride, the Tidborough end, provided no
feats of cycling interest. The extremely narrow, cobbled thoroughfare in
which the offices of Fortune, East and Sabre were situated usually
caused Sabre's approach to them to be made on foot, wheeling his
machine.

Fortune, East and Sabre, Ecclesiastical and Scholastic Furnishers and
Designers, had in Tidborough what is called, in business and
professional circles, a good address. A good address for a metropolitan
money lender is the West End in the neighbourhood of Bond Street; a good
address for a solicitor is Bloomsbury in the neighbourhood of Bedford
Square: for an architect Westminster in the neighbourhood of Victoria
Street, for commerce the City in the neighbourhood of the Bank. The idea
is that, though clothes do not make the man, a good address makes, or
rather bestows the reputation, and conveys the impression that the owner
of the good address, being in that neighbourhood, is not within many
thousands of miles (or pounds) of the neighbourhood of Bankruptcy.

The address of Fortune, East and Sabre was emphatically a good address
because its business was with the Church and for the Church; with
colleges, universities and schools and for colleges, universities and
schools; with bishops, priests and clergy, churchwardens, headmasters,
headmistresses, governors and bursars, and for bishops, priests and
clergy, churchwardens, headmasters, headmistresses, governors and
bursars.

Its address was The Precincts, - Fortune, East and Sabre, The Precincts,
Tidborough.

The Precincts has a discreet and beautiful sound, a discreet and
beautiful suggestiveness. High Street, Tidborough, or Cheapside,
Tidborough, or Commercial Street, Tidborough, have only to be compared
with The Precincts, Tidborough, to establish the discretion and beauty
of the situation of the firm. And the names of the firm were equally
euphonious and equally suggestive of high decorum and cultured
efficiency. Fortune, East and Sabre had a discreet and beautiful sound.
Finally Tidborough, the last line of the poem, though not in itself
either discreet or beautiful, being intensely busy, suggested to all the
cultured persons from bishops to bursars, with whom business was done,
the discreet and beautiful lines of Tidborough Cathedral and of
Tidborough School, together with all that these venerable and famous
institutions connoted. Not Winchester itself conveys to the cultured
mind thoughts more discreet and beautiful than are conveyed by
Tidborough. The care of the cathedral, for many years in a highly
delicate state of health, and the care of the school, yearly ravaged by
successive generations of the sons of those who could afford to educate
their sons there were, it may be mentioned, established sources of
income to the firm.

Thus the whole style and title of the firm had a discreet and beautiful
sound, in admirable keeping with its business. Fortune, East and Sabre,
The Precincts, Tidborough. Was any one so utterly removed from affairs
as not to know them as ecclesiastical furnishers? "They're at
Tidborough. They _do_ Tidborough" (meaning the world-famous cathedral).
Or as scholastic providers? "They're at Tidborough. They _do_
Tidborough" (meaning the empire-famous school).

The frontage of Fortune, East and Sabre on The Precincts consisted of a
range of three double-fronted shops. The central shop gave one window to
a superb lectern in the style of a brass eagle whose outstretched wings
supported a magnificent Bible; to a richly embroidered altar cloth on
which stood a strikingly handsome set of communion plate; to a font
chastely carried out in marble; to an altar chair in oak and velvet that
few less than a suffragan bishop would have dared take seat in; and to
an example or two of highest art in needlework and embroidery in the
form of offertory bags and testament markers. The other window of the
central shop was a lesson to the profane in the beauty, the dignity and
the variety of vestments. It also informed rural choirboys, haply in
Tidborough on a treat, what surplices can be like if the funds and the
faith are sufficiently high to support them.



Online LibraryA.S. M. HutchinsonIf Winter Comes → online text (page 3 of 27)