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THIS IS THE END

BY STELLA BENSON

1917







This is the end, for the moment, of all my thinking, this is my
unfinal conclusion. There is no reason in tangible things, and no
system in the ordinary ways of the world. Hands were made to grope,
and feet to stumble, and the only things you may count on are the
unaccountable things. System is a fairy and a dream, you never find
system where or when you expect it. There are no reasons except
reasons you and I don't know.

I should not be really surprised if the policeman across the way grew
wings, or if the deep sea rose and washed out the chaos of the land. I
should not raise my eyebrows if the daily press became the Little Sunbeam
of the Home, or if Cabinet Ministers struck for a decrease of wages. I
feel no security in facts, precedent seems no protection to me. The
wisdom you can find in an Encyclopedia, or in Selfridge's Information
Bureau, seems to me just a transitory adaptation to quicksand
circumstances.

But if the things which I know in spite of my education were false, if
the eyes of the sea forgot their secret, or if the accent of the steep
woods became vulgar, if the fairy adventures that happen in my heart fell
flat, if the good friends my eyes have never seen failed me, - then indeed
should I know emptiness, and an astonishment that would kill.

I want to introduce you to Jay, a 'bus-conductor and an idealist. She is
not the heroine, but the most constantly apparent woman in this book. I
cannot introduce you to a heroine because I have never met one.

She was a person who took nothing in the world for granted, but as she
had only a slight connection with the world, that is not saying very
much. Her answer to everything was "Why?" The fundamental facts that you
and I accept from our youth upwards, like Be Good and You Will Be Happy,
or Change Your Boots When You Come In Out Of The Wet, or Respect Your
Elders, or Love Your Neighbour, or Never Cross Your Legs Above The Knee,
did not impress Jay.

I never knew her as a baby, but I am sure she must have been born a
propounder of questions, and a smiler at the answers she received. I
daresay she used to ask questions - without result - long before she could
talk, but I am quite sure she was not embittered by the lack of result.
Nothing ever embittered Jay, not even her own pessimism. There is a
finality about bitterness, and Jay was never final. Her last word was
always on a questioning note. Her mind was always open, waiting for more.
"Oh no," she would tell her pillow at night, "there must be a better
answer than that ..."

Perhaps it is hardly necessary to add that she had quarrelled with her
Family, and run away from home. Her Family knew neither what she was
doing nor where she was doing it. Families are incurably conceited, and
this one supposed that, having broken away from it, Jay was going to
the bad. On the contrary, she was a 'bus-conductor, but I only tell you
this in confidence. I repeat the Family did not know it, and does not
know it yet.

The Family sometimes said that Jay was an idealist, but it did not really
think so. The Family sometimes said that she was rather mad, but it did
not know how mad she was, or it would have sent her away to live in a
doctor's establishment at Margate. It never realised that it had only
come in contact with about one-fifth of its young relation, and that the
other four-fifths were shut away from it. Shut away in a shining bubble
world with only room in it for one - for One, and a shining bubble Story.

I do not know how universal an experience a Secret Story and a Secret
Friend may be. Perhaps this wonder is a commonplace to you, only you are
more reticent about it than Jay or I. But to me, even after twenty years'
intimacy with what I can only describe as a supplementary life that I
cannot describe, it still seems so very wonderful that I cannot believe I
share it with every man and woman in the street.

The great advantage of a Secret Story over other stories is that you
cannot put it into print. So I can only show you the initial letter,
and you may if you choose look upon it as an imaginary hieroglyphic. Or
you may not.

Just this, that a bubble world can contain a round and russet horizon of
high woods which you can attain, and from the horizon a long view of an
unending sea. You can run down across the dappled fields, you can run
down into the cove and stroke the sea and hear the intimate minor singing
of it. And when you feel as strong as the morning, you can shout and run
against the wind, against the flying sand that never blows above your
knees. And when you feel as tired as the night, you can climb slowly up
the cliff path and go into the House, the House you know much better than
any house your ordinary eyes have seen, and there you will find your
Secret Friends. The best part about Secret Friends is that they will
never weary you by knowing you. You share their House, your passing hand
helps to polish the base of that wooden figure that ends the banisters,
you know the childish delight of that wide short chimney in the big
turret room, a chimney so wide and so short that you can stand inside the
great crooked fireplace and whisper to the birds that look down from the
edge of the chimney only a yard or two above you. You know how comfy
those big beds are, you sit at the long clothless table in the brown
dining-room. With all these things you are intimate, and yet you pass
through the place as a ghost, your bubble enchantment encloses you, your
Secret Friends have no knowledge of you, their story runs without you.
Your unnecessary identity is tactfully ignored, and you know the heaven
of being dispassionate and detached among things you love.

All these things can a bubble world contain. You have to get inside
things to find out how limitless they are. And I think if you don't
believe it all, it is none the less true for that, because in that case
you are the sort of person who believes a thing less the truer it is.

If Jay's Family did not know she was a 'bus-conductor, and did not know
she was a story-possessor, what did it know about her? It knew she
disliked the smell of bananas, and that she had not taken advantage of an
expensive education, and that she was Stock Size (Small Ladies'), and
that she was christened Jane Elizabeth, and that she took after her
father to an excessive extent, and that she was rather too apt to swallow
this Socialist nonsense. As Families go, it was fairly well informed
about her.

The Family was a rather promiscuous one. It had more tortuous
relationships than most families have, although there were only four in
it, not counting Mr. Russell.

I might as well introduce you to the Family before I settle down to the
story. From careful study of the press reviews I gather that a story is
considered a necessary thing in a novel, so this time I am going to try
and include one.

You may, if you please, meet the Family after breakfast at Mr. Russell's
house in Kensington, about three months after Jay had run away. There
were four people in the room. They were Cousin Gustus, Mrs. Gustus, Kew,
and Mr. Russell.

It behoves me to try and tell you very simply about Mrs. Gustus,
because she prided herself on simplicity. Spelt with a capital S, it
constituted her Deity; her heaven was a severe and shadowless
eternity, and plain words were the flowers that grew in her Elysian
fields. She had simplified her life and her looks. Even her smile was
shorn of all accessories like dimples or twinkles. Her hair, which
was not abundant, was the colour of corn, straight and shining. Her
eyes were a cold dark grey.

Now to be simple is all very well, but turn it into an active verb and
you spoil the whole idea. To simplify seems forced, and I think Mrs.
Gustus struck harder on the note of simplification than that of
simplicity. I should not dare to criticise her, however, and Cousin
Gustus was satisfied, so criticism in any case would be intrusive. It is
just possible that he occasionally wished that she would dress herself in
a more human way - patronise in winter the humble Viyella stripe, for
instance, or in summer the flippant sprig. But a large proportion of Mrs.
Gustus's faith was founded on simple strong colours in wide expanses,
introduced, as it were, one to another by judicious black. Anybody but
Mrs. Gustus would have been drowned in her clothes. But she was conceived
on a generous scale, she was almost gorgeous, she barely missed
exaggeration. In her manner I think she did not miss it. She had
therefore the gift of coping with colour. It remains for me to add that
her age was five-and-forty, and that she was a novelist. The recording
angel had probably noted the fact of her novelism among her virtues, but
she had an imperceptible earthly public. She wrote laborious books, full
of short peevish sentences, of such very pure construction that they were
extremely difficult to understand. She wore spectacles with aggressive
tortoise-shell rims. She said, "I am short-sighted. I am obliged to wear
spectacles. Why should I try to conceal the fact? I will not have a pair
of rimless ghosts haunting my face. I will wear spectacles without
shame." But the real truth was that the tortoise-shell rims were more
becoming to her. Mrs. Gustus was known to her husband's family as
Anonyma. The origin of this habit was an old joke, and I have forgotten
the point of it.

Cousin Gustus was second cousin once removed to Kew and Kew's sister
Jay, and had kindly brought them up from childhood. He was now at the
further end of the sixties, and embittered by many things: an unsuitable
marriage, the approach of the psalmist's age-limit, incurably modern
surroundings, an internal complaint, and a haunting wish to relieve the
Government of the management of the War. These drawbacks were to a
certain extent linked, they accounted for each other. The complaint
hindered him from offering his services as Secretary of State; it made
of him a slave, so he could not pretend to be a master. He cherished his
slavery, for it happened to be painless, and supplied him with a certain
dignity which would otherwise have been difficult to secure. During the
summer the complaint hibernated, and ceased to interest either doctors
or relations, which was naturally hard to bear. To these trials you may
add the disgraceful behaviour of his young cousin Jay, and admit that
Cousin Gustus had every excuse for encouraging pessimism of the most
pronounced type.

Jay's brother Kew was twenty-five, and from this it follows that he had
already drunk the surprising beverage of War. His military history
included a little splinter of hate in the left shoulder, followed by a
depressing period almost entirely spent in the society of medical boards,
three months of light duty consisting of weary instruction of fools in an
East coast town, and now an interval of leave at the end of which the
battalion to which he had lately been attached hoped to go to France. In
one way it was a pity he ever joined the Army, for khaki clashed badly
with most of Mrs. Gustus's colour theories. But he had never noticed
that: his eye and his ear and his mind were all equally slow to
appreciate clashings of any kind. He was rather aloof from comparison and
criticism, but not on principle. He had no principles - at least no
original ones, just the ordinary stuffy old principles of decency and all
that. He never turned his eyes inward, as far as the passer-by could see;
he lived a breezy life outside himself. He never tried to make a fine Kew
of himself; he never propounded riddles to his Creator, which is the way
most of us make our reputations.

Mr. Russell, the host and adopted member of the Family, was fifty-two. He
did not know Jay, having only lately been culled by Mrs. Gustus - that
assiduous collector - and placed in the bosom of the Family. She had found
him blossoming unloved in the wilderness of a War Work Committee. He was
well informed, yet a good listener; perhaps he possessed both these
virtues to excess. At any rate Mrs. Gustus had decided that he was worthy
of Family friendship, and, being naturally extravagant, she conferred it
upon him with both hands. Mr. Russell was married to a woman who had not
properly realised the fact that she was Mrs. Russell. She spent her life
in distant lands, helping the world to become better. At present she was
understood to be propagating peace in the United States, and was never
mentioned by or to her husband. My first impression of Mr. Russell was
that he was rather fat, but I never could trace this impression to its
origin. He had not exactly a double chin, but rather a chin and a half,
and the rest of him followed this moderate example. His grey hair retired
in a pronounced estuary over each temple, leaving a beautifully brushed
peninsula between. He had no sense of humour, but hid this deformity
skillfully. Hardly anybody knew that he was a poet, except presumably his
dog. He often talked to his dog; he told it every speakable thought that
he had. This was his only bad habit. Occasionally his dog was heard to
reply in a small curious voice proceeding also from Mr. Russell.

These four people looked out at Kensington Gardens, which were rejoicing
in the very babyhood of the year. The naked trees were like pillars in
the mist, the grass was grey and whitened to the distance, the world had
mislaid its horizon, and one's eye slid up without check between the
trees to where the last word of a daylight moon whispered in the sky.

"I glory in a view that dispenses with colour," said Mrs. Gustus
severely. She always spoke as though she were sure of the whole of what
she intended to say. When she did hesitate, it only meant that she was
seeking for the simplest word, and she would cap her pause with a
monosyllable as curt as an explosion.

But glory is the right word, I think, for London in some moods. Do you
know the feeling of a heart beating too high, when you see the great
cliffs of London under rain or vague sunshine, or rising out of yellow
air? Do you ever want, as I do, to stand with arms out against the
London wind, and shout your own unmade poetry on the top of a 'bus?
With this sort of grotesque glorying does London inspire me, so that I
spend whole days together feeling that the essential _I_ is too big for
what encloses it.

Anonyma never felt like this. She often spoke the right word, but she
nearly always spoke it coldly.

"This morning," said Kew, "when I looked out, I felt the futility of bed,
so I made an assignation with the Hound when I met it trooping along with
Russ in single file to the bathroom. Why does your Hound always accompany
you there, Russ? Dogs must think us awfully irrational beasts, and
yet - does that Hound really think you could elope for ever and be no more
seen, with nothing on but pyjamas and a towel? I suppose he thinks 'You
can't be too careful.' It makes one humble to live with a dog. I always
blush when I see a dog dreaming, because I'm afraid they give us an
undignified place in their dreams. Your Hound, Russ, dreams of you
plunging into the Serpentine after a Canadian Goose, with your topper
floating behind you, or Anonyma with her tongue hanging out, scratching
at a little mousehole in Piccadilly. It is humiliating, isn't it? Anyway,
before breakfast, Russ's Hound and I went and jumped over things in the
Gardens. The park-keeper mistook us for young lambs."

Russell's Hound was called so by courtesy, in order to lend him a dignity
which he lacked. He may have been twelve inches high at the shoulder, and
he thought that he was exactly like a lion, except for a trifling
difference in size. Dignity is not, of course, incompatible with small
stature, but I think it was the twinkling gait of Mr. Russell's Hound
that robbed him of moral weight, and prevented you from attaching great
importance to his views.

"Young lambs!" exclaimed Mrs. Gustus. "Really, my good Kew, had you
nothing better to do?"

"Not at that time," replied Kew. "You weren't up." And he sang to drown
her sigh. Kew was the only person I ever knew who really sang to the tune
of his moods. He sang Albert Hall sort of music very loudly when he was
happy, and when he was extremely happy he roared so that his voice broke
out of tune. When he was silent it was almost always because he was
asleep, or because some other member of the Family was talking. When, by
some accident, the whole Family was simultaneously silent, you could not
help noticing what an oppressively still place London was. The sound of
Russell's Hound sneezing in the hall was like a bomb.

But at the present moment Kew only sang a few bars of Beethoven in a
small voice. He was rather sad, because of Jay. He had not realised
till he came home how very thoroughly Jay had disappeared. He led
the conversation to Jay. It often happened that Kew led conversations,
because conversations, like the public, generally follow the loudest
voice.

"Why so sudden?" asked Kew, apparently of the Round Pond, so loud was his
voice. "That's what I can't make out. She used to be such a human sort,
and anybody with half an ear could hear the decisions bubbling about
under the lid for weeks before they boiled over."

Everybody - even Cousin Gustus - knew that he was talking of Jay. Kew said
so much that he might be excused for forgetting occasionally what he had
not said. Besides, he had talked of little else but Jay since he rejoined
his Family two days before.

"She used to be a good girl," sighed Cousin Gustus. "So few girls
are good."

Cousin Gustus is an expert pessimist. Vice, accidents, and terrible ends
are his speciality. All virtue is to him an exception, and by him is
immediately forgotten. In sudden deaths you cannot catch him out. If you
were tossed from the horns of a bull into the jaws of a crocodile, and
died of pneumonia contracted during the flight, you would not surprise
Cousin Gustus. He is never at a loss for a precedent. The only way you
could really astonish him would be by living a blameless life without
adventure, and dying of old age in your bed.

"There were warnings," said Anonyma. "Little disagreements with Gustus."

"She wanted to bring vermin into the house," mourned Cousin Gustus.

Kew suggested: "White mice?"

"Not vermin unattended," Anonyma explained. "She wanted to adopt Brown
Borough babies. She had been working desultorily in the Brown Borough
since War broke out."

"That might explain the peculiar and un-Jay-like remark in her letter to
you - that she would settle in no home except the Perfect Home. I hate
things in capital letters."

"Why didn't she get married?" grumbled Cousin Gustus. "She was engaged
for nearly three weeks to young William Morgan, a most respectable young
man. So few young men - "

"She wrote to me that she couldn't keep up that engagement," said Kew.
"Not even by looking upon it as War Work. She called him a 'Surface young
man,' and that again seemed unlike her. She usen't to mind surfaceness.
The War seems to have turned her upside down. But then, of course, the
War has turned us all upside down, and in that position you generally get
a rush of brains to the head. We're all feverish, that's what's the
matter with us. When I was in hospital I lived for three weeks on the top
of a high temperature, laughing. I want to laugh now.... It's a damn
funny world."

"I once knew a man who died of apoplexy while swearing," sniffed
Cousin Gustus.

"You have been damned unlucky in your friends, Cousin Gustus," said Kew.
He paused, and then added: "Besides, I hardly ever say Damn without
saying Un-damn to myself afterwards. It seems a pity to waste a precious
word on an inadequate cause, and I always retrieve it if I can."

"Before you came down to breakfast this morning, Kew," said Anonyma, "we
had an idea."

"Only one between you in all that time?" said Kew. "I was half an
hour late."

"Now, Kew, be an angel and agree with the idea. I've set my heart on it,"
said Mrs. Gustus.

When Mrs. Gustus talked in a womanly way like this, the change was always
unmistakable. She was naturally an unnatural talker, and when she
mentioned such natural things as angels, you knew she was resorting
deliberately to womanly charm in order to attain her end. There was
something very cold-blooded about Anonyma's womanly charm.

"Good Lord," said Kew, "I wish angels had never been invented. I never
am one, only people always tell me to be one. I never get officially
recognised in heaven. What is the plan?"

"There is Russell's car doing nothing," began Mrs. Gustus.

"Do you mean Christina?" interrupted Kew, shocked at such formality.
"Don't call her Russell's car, it sounds so cold."

"There is Russell's Christina doing nothing," compromised Anonyma. "And
petrol isn't so bad as it will be. And it's a beautiful time of year. And
you are not strong yet, really. And we want Jay back."

"A procession of facts doesn't make a plan," objected Kew.

"It may lead to one, eventually," said Mrs. Gustus. "Oh, Kew, I want to
go out into the country, I want to thread the pale Spring air, and hear
the lambs cry. I want to brush my face against the grass, and wade in a
wave of bluebells. I want to forget blood and Belgians and kiss Nature."

"Take a twenty-eight 'bus, and kiss Hampstead Heath," suggested Kew.
"The Spring has got there all right."

Anonyma, behind the coffee-pot, was jotting down in a notebook the
salient points in her outburst. She always placed her literary calling
first. And anyway, I should be rather proud if I could talk like that
about the Spring without any preparation.

"The idea originally," began Mr. Russell tentatively, "was not only
formed to allow Mrs. Gustus to enjoy the Spring, but also to make you
quite strong before you go back to work. And, again, not only that, but
also to try and trace your sister Jay."

Will you please imagine that continual intercourse with very talkative
people had made Mr. Russell an adept at vocal compression. He had now
almost lost the use of his vowels, and if I wrote as he spoke, the effect
would be like an advertisement for a housemaid during the shortage of
wood-pulp. I spare you this.

"There are three objections to the plan," said Kew. "First, that
Anonyma doesn't really want to kiss the Spring; second, that I don't
really want convalescent treatment; third, that Jay doesn't really want
to be traced."

When Mrs. Gustus did not know the answer to an objection she left
it unanswered. This is, of course, the simplest way. She snapped
her notebook.

"Oh, Kew," she said, "you promised you'd be an angel." The double row of
semi-detached buttons down her breast trembled with eagerness.

"Angeller and angeller," sighed Kew, "I never committed myself so far."

"I have a clue with which to trace Jay," said Mrs. Gustus. "I had a
letter from her this morning."

Kew was a satisfactory person to surprise. He is never supercilious.

"You heard from Jay!" he said, in a voice as high as his eyebrows.

The letter which Mrs. Gustus showed to Kew may be quoted here:

"This place has stood since the year twelve something, and its windows
look down without even the interruption of a sill at the coming and going
of the tides. It has hardly any garden, and immediately to the right and
the left of it the green down brims over the top of the cliff like the
froth of ale over a silver goblet. To-night the tide is low, the sea is
golden where the shallow waves break upon the sand, and ghostly green in
the distance. When the tide is high, the sound and the sight of it seem
to meet and make one thing. The waves press up the cliff then, and fall
back on each other. Do you know the lines that are written on the face of
a disappointed wave? To-night the clouds are like castles built on the
plain of the sea. There is an aeroplane at this moment - dim as a little
thought - coming between two turrets of cloud. I suppose it is that I can
hear, but it sounds like the distant singing of the moon. I have come
here to count up my theories, to count them and pile them up like money,
in heaps, according to their value. Theories are such beautiful things,
there must be some use in them. Or perhaps they are like money from a
distant country, and not in currency here. Yet just as sheer metal, they
must have some value.... It is wonderful that such happiness should come
to me, and that it should last. I have the Sea and a Friend; there is
nothing in the world I lack, and nothing that I regret...."


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