John Sherman and Dhoya
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They reset the men and began to play. Sherman relied most upon his bishops and queen. Howard was fondest of the knights. At first Sherman was the attacking party, but in his characteristic desire to scheme out his game many moves ahead, kept making slips, and at last had to give up, with his men nearly all gone and his king hopelessly cornered. Howard seemed to let nothing escape him. When the game was finished he leant back in his chair and said, as he rolled a cigarette —
“You do not play well.” It gave him satisfaction to feel his proficiency in many small arts. “You do not do any of these things at all well,” he went on, with an insolence peculiar to him when excited. “You have been really very badly brought up and stupidly educated in that intolerable Ballah. They do not understand there any, even the least, of the arts of life; they only believe in information. Men who are compelled to move in the great world, and who are also cultivated, only value the personal acquirements – self-possession, adaptability, how to dress well, how even to play tennis decently – you would be not so bad at that, by the by, if you practised – or how to paint or write effectively. They know that it is better to smoke one’s cigarette with a certain charm of gesture than to have by heart all the encyclopedias. I say this not merely as a man of the world, but as a teacher of religion. A man when he rises from the grave will take with him only the things that he is in himself. He will leave behind the things that he merely possesses, learning and information not less than money and high estate. They will stay behind with his house and his clothes and his body. A collection of facts will no more help him than a collection of stamps. The learned will not get into heaven as readily as the flute-player, or even as the man who smokes a cigarette gracefully. Now you are not learned, but you have been brought up almost as badly as if you were. In that wretched town they told you that education was to know that Russia is bounded on the north by the Arctic Sea, and on the west by the Baltic Ocean, and that Vienna is situated on the Danube, and that William the Third came to the throne in the year 1688. They have never taught you any personal art. Even chess-playing might have helped you at the day of judgment.”
“I am really not a worse chess-player than you. I am only more careless.”
There was a slight resentment in Sherman’s voice. The other noticed it, and said, changing his manner from the insolent air of a young beauty to a self-depreciatory one, which was wont to give him at times a very genuine charm —
“It is really a great pity, for you Shermans are a deep people, much deeper than we Howards. We are like moths or butterflies on rather rapid rivulets, while you and yours are deep pools in the forest where the beasts go to drink. No! I have a better metaphor. Your mind and mine are two arrows. Yours has got no feathers, and mine has no metal on the point.I don’t know which is most needed for right conduct. I wonder where we are going to strike earth. I suppose it will be all right some day when the world has gone by and they have collected all the arrows into one quiver.”
He went over to the mantlepiece to hunt for a match, as his cigarette had gone out. Sherman had lifted a corner of the blind and was gazing over the roofs shining from a recent shower, and thinking how on such a night as this he had sat with Mary Carton by the rectory fire listening to the rain without and talking of the future and of the training of village children.
“Have you seen Miss Leland in her last new dress from Paris?” said Howard, making one of his rapid transitions. “It is very rich in colour, and makes her look a little pale, like St. Cecilia. She is wonderful as she stands by the piano, a silver cross round her neck. We have been talking about you. She complains to me. She says you are a little barbarous; you seem to look down on style, and sometimes – you must forgive me – even on manners, and you are quite without small talk. You must really try and be worthy of that beautiful girl, with her great soul and religious genius. She told me quite sadly, too, that you are not improving.”
“No,” said Sherman, “I am not going forward; I am at present trying to go sideways like the crabs.”
“Be serious,” answered the other. “She told me these things with the most sad and touching voice. She makes me her confidant, you know, in many matters, because of my wide religious experience. You must really improve yourself. You must paint or something.”
“Well, I will paint or something.”
“I am quite serious, Sherman. Try and be worthy of her, a soul as gentle as St. Cecilia’s.”
“She is very wealthy,” said Sherman. “If she were engaged to you and not to me you might hope to die a bishop.”
Howard looked at him in a mystified way and the conversation dropped. Presently Howard got up and went to his room, and Sherman, resetting the chess-board, began to play again, and, letting longer and longer pauses of reverie come between his moves, played far into the morning, cheating now in favour of the red men now in favour of the white.
The next afternoon Howard found Miss Leland sitting, reading in an alcove in her drawing-room, between a stuffed paroquet and a blue De Morgan jar. As he was shown in he noticed, with a momentary shock, that her features were quite commonplace. Then she saw him, and at once seemed to vanish wrapped in an exulting flame of life. She stood up, flinging the book on to the seat with some violence.
“I have been reading that sweet ‘Imitation of Christ,’ and was just feeling that I should have to become a theosophist or a socialist, or go and join the Catholic Church, or do something. How delightful it is to see you again! How is my savage getting on? It is so good of you to try and help me to reform him.”
They talked on about Sherman, and Howard did his best to console her for his shortcomings. Time would certainly improve her savage. Several times she gazed at him with those large dark eyes of hers, of which the pupils to-day seemed larger than usual. They made him feel dizzy and clutch tightly the arm of his chair. Then she began to talk about her life since childhood – how they got to the subject he never knew – and made a number of those confidences which are so dangerous because so flattering. To love – there is nothing else worth living for; but then men are so shallow. She had never found a nature deep as her own. She would not pretend that she had not often been in love, but never had any heart rung back to her the true note. As she spoke her face quivered with excitement. The exulting flame of life seemed spreading from her to the other things in the room. To Howard’s eyes it seemed as though the bright pots and stuffed birds and plush curtains began to glow with a light not of this world – to glimmer like the strange and chaotic colours the mystic Blake imagined upon the scaled serpent of Eden. The light seemed gradually to dim his past and future, and to make pale his good resolves. Was it not in itself that which all men are seeking, and for which all else exists?
He leant forward and took her hand, timidly and doubtingly. She did not draw it away. He leant nearer and kissed her on the forehead. She gave a joyful cry, and, casting her arms round his neck, burst out, “Ah! you – and I. We were made for each other. I hate Sherman. He is an egotist. He is a beast. He is selfish and foolish.” Releasing one of her arms she struck the seat with her hand, excitedly, and went on, “How angry he will be! But it serves him right! How badly he is dressing. He does not know anything about anything. But you – you – I knew you were meant for me the moment I saw you.”
That evening Howard flung himself into a chair in the empty smoking-room. He lighted a cigarette; it went out. Again he lighted it; again it went out. “I am a traitor – and that good, stupid fellow, Sherman, never to be jealous!” he thought. “But then, how could I help it? And, besides, it cannot be a bad action to save her from a man she is so much above in refinement and feeling.” He was getting into good-humour with himself. He got up and went over and looked at the photograph of Raphael’s Madonna, which he had hung over the mantlepiece. “How like Margaret’s are her big eyes!”
The next day when Sherman came home from his office he saw an envelope lying on the smoking-room table. It contained a letter from Howard, saying that he had gone away, and that he hoped Sherman would forgive his treachery, but that he was hopelessly in love with Miss Leland, and that she returned his love.
Sherman went downstairs. His mother was helping the servant to set the table.
“You will never guess what has happened,” he said. “My affair with Margaret is over.”
“I cannot pretend to be sorry, John,” she replied. She had long considered Miss Leland among accepted things, like the chimney-pots on the roof, and submitted, as we do, to any unalterable fact, but had never praised her or expressed liking in any way. “She puts belladonna in her eyes, and is a vixen and a flirt, and I dare say her wealth is all talk. But how did it happen?”
Her son was, however, too excited to listen.
He went upstairs and wrote the following note —
Having posted this letter he sat down with Howard’s note spread out before him, and wondered whether there was anything mean and small-minded in neatness – he himself was somewhat untidy. He had often thought so before, for their strong friendship was founded in a great measure on mutual contempt, but now immediately added, being in good-humour with the world, “He is much cleverer than I am. He must have been very industrious at school.”
A week went by. He made up his mind to put an end to his London life. He broke to his mother his resolve to return to Ballah. She was delighted, and at once began to pack. Her old home had long seemed to her a kind of lost Eden, wherewith she was accustomed to contrast the present. When, in time, this present had grown into the past it became an Eden in turn. She was always ready for a change, if the change came to her in the form of a return to something old. Others place their ideals in the future; she laid hers in the past.
The only one this momentous resolution seemed to surprise was the old and deaf servant. She waited with ever-growing impatience. She would sit by the hour wool-gathering on the corner of a chair with a look of bewildered delight. As the hour of departure came near she sang continually in a cracked voice.
Sherman, a few days before leaving, was returning for the last time from his office when he saw, to his surprise, Howard and Miss Leland carrying each a brown paper bundle. He nodded good-humouredly, meaning to pass on.
“John,” she said, “look at this brooch William gave me – a ladder leaning against the moon and a butterfly climbing up it. Is it not sweet? We are going to visit the poor.”
“And I,” he said, “am going to catch eels. I am leaving town.”
He made his excuses, saying he had no time to wait, and hurried off. She looked after him with a mournful glance, strange in anybody who had exchanged one lover for another more favoured.
“Poor fellow,” murmured Howard, “he is broken-hearted.”
“Nonsense,” answered Miss Leland, somewhat snappishly.