Read The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare Page 2


THE suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red andragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout;its sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It hadbeen the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, whocalled its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne,apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical.It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, thoughit never in any definable way produced any art. But although itspretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, itspretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable. The strangerwho looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only thinkhow very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit in to them. Norwhen he met the people was he disappointed in this respect. The placewas not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as adeception but rather as a dream. Even if the people were not ”artists,”the whole was nevertheless artistic. That young man with the long,auburn hair and the impudent face--that young man was not really a poet;but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, whitebeard and the wild, white hat--that venerable humbug was not really aphilosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others.That scientific gentleman with the bald, egg-like head and the bare,bird-like neck had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed.He had not discovered anything new in biology; but what biologicalcreature could he have discovered more singular than himself? Thus, andthus only, the whole place had properly to be regarded; it had to beconsidered not so much as a workshop for artists, but as a frail butfinished work of art. A man who stepped into its social atmosphere feltas if he had stepped into a written comedy.

More especially this attractive unreality fell upon it about nightfall,when the extravagant roofs were dark against the afterglow and the wholeinsane village seemed as separate as a drifting cloud. This again wasmore strongly true of the many nights of local festivity, when thelittle gardens were often illuminated, and the big Chinese lanternsglowed in the dwarfish trees like some fierce and monstrous fruit.And this was strongest of all on one particular evening, still vaguelyremembered in the locality, of which the auburn-haired poet was thehero. It was not by any means the only evening of which he was the hero.On many nights those passing by his little back garden might hear hishigh, didactic voice laying down the law to men and particularlyto women. The attitude of women in such cases was indeed one of theparadoxes of the place. Most of the women were of the kind vaguelycalled emancipated, and professed some protest against male supremacy.Yet these new women would always pay to a man the extravagant complimentwhich no ordinary woman ever pays to him, that of listening while heis talking. And Mr. Lucian Gregory, the red-haired poet, was really (insome sense) a man worth listening to, even if one only laughed at theend of it. He put the old cant of the lawlessness of art and the artof lawlessness with a certain impudent freshness which gave at least amomentary pleasure. He was helped in some degree by the arresting oddityof his appearance, which he worked, as the phrase goes, for all itwas worth. His dark red hair parted in the middle was literally like awoman's, and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelitepicture. From within this almost saintly oval, however, his faceprojected suddenly broad and brutal, the chin carried forward with alook of cockney contempt. This combination at once tickled and terrifiedthe nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy,a blend of the angel and the ape.

This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will beremembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like theend of the world. All the heaven seemed covered with a quite vivid andpalpable plumage; you could only say that the sky was full of feathers,and of feathers that almost brushed the face. Across the great part ofthe dome they were grey, with the strangest tints of violet and mauveand an unnatural pink or pale green; but towards the west the wholegrew past description, transparent and passionate, and the last red-hotplumes of it covered up the sun like something too good to be seen. Thewhole was so close about the earth, as to express nothing but a violentsecrecy. The very empyrean seemed to be a secret. It expressed thatsplendid smallness which is the soul of local patriotism. The very skyseemed small.

I say that there are some inhabitants who may remember the eveningif only by that oppressive sky. There are others who may remember itbecause it marked the first appearance in the place of the secondpoet of Saffron Park. For a long time the red-haired revolutionary hadreigned without a rival; it was upon the night of the sunset that hissolitude suddenly ended. The new poet, who introduced himself by thename of Gabriel Syme was a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair,pointed beard and faint, yellow hair. But an impression grew that he wasless meek than he looked. He signalised his entrance by differing withthe established poet, Gregory, upon the whole nature of poetry. He saidthat he (Syme) was poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said he was apoet of respectability. So all the Saffron Parkers looked at him as ifhe had that moment fallen out of that impossible sky.

In fact, Mr. Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet, connected the twoevents.

”It may well be,” he said, in his sudden lyrical manner, ”it may well beon such a night of clouds and cruel colours that there is brought forthupon the earth such a portent as a respectable poet. You say you are apoet of law; I say you are a contradiction in terms. I only wonderthere were not comets and earthquakes on the night you appeared in thisgarden.”

The man with the meek blue eyes and the pale, pointed beard enduredthese thunders with a certain submissive solemnity. The third party ofthe group, Gregory's sister Rosamond, who had her brother's braids ofred hair, but a kindlier face underneath them, laughed with such mixtureof admiration and disapproval as she gave commonly to the family oracle.

Gregory resumed in high oratorical good humour.

”An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. ”You mighttranspose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The manwho throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment toeverything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazinglight, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a fewshapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes allconventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, themost poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

”So it is,” said Mr. Syme.

”Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone elseattempted paradox. ”Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railwaytrains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. Itis because they know that the train is going right. It is because theyknow that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place theywill reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they knowthat the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh,their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again inEden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”

”It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. ”If what you sayof clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare,strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to missit. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distantbird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes adistant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeedgo anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, andhis whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it isVictoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read atime table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates thedefeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Giveme Bradshaw, I say!”

”Must you go?” inquired Gregory sarcastically.

”I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, ”that every time a train comesin I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that manhas won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one hasleft Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might doa thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I havethe sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out theword 'Victoria,' it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry ofa herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is thevictory of Adam.”

Gregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.

”And even then,” he said, ”we poets always ask the question, 'And whatis Victoria now that you have got there?' You think Victoria is likethe New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be likeVictoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets ofheaven. The poet is always in revolt.”

”There again,” said Syme irritably, ”what is there poetical about beingin revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick.Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be thewholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I'm hanged if I cansee why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is--revolting. It'smere vomiting.”

The girl winced for a flash at the unpleasant word, but Syme was too hotto heed her.

”It is things going right,” he cried, ”that is poetical! Our digestions,for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundationof all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than theflowers, more poetical than the stars--the most poetical thing in theworld is not being sick.”

”Really,” said Gregory superciliously, ”the examples you choose--”

”I beg your pardon,” said Syme grimly, ”I forgot we had abolished allconventions.”

For the first time a red patch appeared on Gregory's forehead.

”You don't expect me,” he said, ”to revolutionise society on this lawn?”

Syme looked straight into his eyes and smiled sweetly.

”No, I don't,” he said; ”but I suppose that if you were serious aboutyour anarchism, that is exactly what you would do.”

Gregory's big bull's eyes blinked suddenly like those of an angry lion,and one could almost fancy that his red mane rose.

”Don't you think, then,” he said in a dangerous voice, ”that I amserious about my anarchism?”

”I beg your pardon?” said Syme.

”Am I not serious about my anarchism?” cried Gregory, with knottedfists.

”My dear fellow!” said Syme, and strolled away.

With surprise, but with a curious pleasure, he found Rosamond Gregorystill in his company.

”Mr. Syme,” she said, ”do the people who talk like you and my brotheroften mean what they say? Do you mean what you say now?”

Syme smiled.

”Do you?” he asked.

”What do you mean?” asked the girl, with grave eyes.

”My dear Miss Gregory,” said Syme gently, ”there are many kinds ofsincerity and insincerity. When you say 'thank you' for the salt, do youmean what you say? No. When you say 'the world is round,' do you meanwhat you say? No. It is true, but you don't mean it. Now, sometimes aman like your brother really finds a thing he does mean. It may be onlya half-truth, quarter-truth, tenth-truth; but then he says more than hemeans--from sheer force of meaning it.”

She was looking at him from under level brows; her face was graveand open, and there had fallen upon it the shadow of that unreasoningresponsibility which is at the bottom of the most frivolous woman, thematernal watch which is as old as the world.

”Is he really an anarchist, then?” she asked.

”Only in that sense I speak of,” replied Syme; ”or if you prefer it, inthat nonsense.”

She drew her broad brows together and said abruptly--

”He wouldn't really use--bombs or that sort of thing?”

Syme broke into a great laugh, that seemed too large for his slight andsomewhat dandified figure.

”Good Lord, no!” he said, ”that has to be done anonymously.”

And at that the corners of her own mouth broke into a smile, and shethought with a simultaneous pleasure of Gregory's absurdity and of hissafety.

Syme strolled with her to a seat in the corner of the garden, andcontinued to pour out his opinions. For he was a sincere man, and inspite of his superficial airs and graces, at root a humble one. Andit is always the humble man who talks too much; the proud man watcheshimself too closely. He defended respectability with violence andexaggeration. He grew passionate in his praise of tidiness andpropriety. All the time there was a smell of lilac all round him. Oncehe heard very faintly in some distant street a barrel-organ begin toplay, and it seemed to him that his heroic words were moving to a tinytune from under or beyond the world.

He stared and talked at the girl's red hair and amused face for whatseemed to be a few minutes; and then, feeling that the groups in such aplace should mix, rose to his feet. To his astonishment, he discoveredthe whole garden empty. Everyone had gone long ago, and he went himselfwith a rather hurried apology. He left with a sense of champagne in hishead, which he could not afterwards explain. In the wild events whichwere to follow this girl had no part at all; he never saw her againuntil all his tale was over. And yet, in some indescribable way, shekept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventuresafterwards, and the glory of her strange hair ran like a red threadthrough those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night. For whatfollowed was so improbable, that it might well have been a dream.

When Syme went out into the starlit street, he found it for the momentempty. Then he realised (in some odd way) that the silence was rather aliving silence than a dead one. Directly outside the door stood a streetlamp, whose gleam gilded the leaves of the tree that bent out over thefence behind him. About a foot from the lamp-post stood a figure almostas rigid and motionless as the lamp-post itself. The tall hat and longfrock coat were black; the face, in an abrupt shadow, was almost asdark. Only a fringe of fiery hair against the light, and also somethingaggressive in the attitude, proclaimed that it was the poet Gregory. Hehad something of the look of a masked bravo waiting sword in hand forhis foe.

He made a sort of doubtful salute, which Syme somewhat more formallyreturned.

”I was waiting for you,” said Gregory. ”Might I have a moment'sconversation?”

”Certainly. About what?” asked Syme in a sort of weak wonder.

Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at thetree. ”About this and this,” he cried; ”about order and anarchy. Thereis your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and thereis anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself--there is anarchy, splendidin green and gold.”

”All the same,” replied Syme patiently, ”just at present you only seethe tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see thelamp by the light of the tree.” Then after a pause he said, ”But may Iask if you have been standing out here in the dark only to resume ourlittle argument?”

”No,” cried out Gregory, in a voice that rang down the street, ”I didnot stand here to resume our argument, but to end it for ever.”

The silence fell again, and Syme, though he understood nothing, listenedinstinctively for something serious. Gregory began in a smooth voice andwith a rather bewildering smile.

”Mr. Syme,” he said, ”this evening you succeeded in doing somethingrather remarkable. You did something to me that no man born of woman hasever succeeded in doing before.”


”Now I remember,” resumed Gregory reflectively, ”one other personsucceeded in doing it. The captain of a penny steamer (if I remembercorrectly) at Southend. You have irritated me.”

”I am very sorry,” replied Syme with gravity.

”I am afraid my fury and your insult are too shocking to be wiped outeven with an apology,” said Gregory very calmly. ”No duel could wipe itout. If I struck you dead I could not wipe it out. There is only one wayby which that insult can be erased, and that way I choose. I am going,at the possible sacrifice of my life and honour, to prove to you thatyou were wrong in what you said.”

”In what I said?”

”You said I was not serious about being an anarchist.”

”There are degrees of seriousness,” replied Syme. ”I have never doubtedthat you were perfectly sincere in this sense, that you thought what yousaid well worth saying, that you thought a paradox might wake men up toa neglected truth.”

Gregory stared at him steadily and painfully.

”And in no other sense,” he asked, ”you think me serious? You think mea flaneur who lets fall occasional truths. You do not think that in adeeper, a more deadly sense, I am serious.”

Syme struck his stick violently on the stones of the road.

”Serious!” he cried. ”Good Lord! is this street serious? Are thesedamned Chinese lanterns serious? Is the whole caboodle serious? Onecomes here and talks a pack of bosh, and perhaps some sense as well,but I should think very little of a man who didn't keep something inthe background of his life that was more serious than all thistalking--something more serious, whether it was religion or only drink.”

”Very well,” said Gregory, his face darkening, ”you shall see somethingmore serious than either drink or religion.”

Syme stood waiting with his usual air of mildness until Gregory againopened his lips.

”You spoke just now of having a religion. Is it really true that youhave one?”

”Oh,” said Syme with a beaming smile, ”we are all Catholics now.”

”Then may I ask you to swear by whatever gods or saints your religioninvolves that you will not reveal what I am now going to tell you to anyson of Adam, and especially not to the police? Will you swear that! Ifyou will take upon yourself this awful abnegation if you will consentto burden your soul with a vow that you should never make and aknowledge you should never dream about, I will promise you in return--”

”You will promise me in return?” inquired Syme, as the other paused.

”I will promise you a very entertaining evening.” Syme suddenly took offhis hat.

”Your offer,” he said, ”is far too idiotic to be declined. You say thata poet is always an anarchist. I disagree; but I hope at least that heis always a sportsman. Permit me, here and now, to swear as a Christian,and promise as a good comrade and a fellow-artist, that I will notreport anything of this, whatever it is, to the police. And now, in thename of Colney Hatch, what is it?”

”I think,” said Gregory, with placid irrelevancy, ”that we will call acab.”

He gave two long whistles, and a hansom came rattling down the road. Thetwo got into it in silence. Gregory gave through the trap the addressof an obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river. The cabwhisked itself away again, and in it these two fantastics quitted theirfantastic town.