Love and Mr. Lewisham

Chapter XXVIII

The Coming of the Roses

H.G. Wells

AND the roses miscarried!

When Lewisham returned from Vigours’ it was already nearly seven. He entered the house with a beating heart. He had expected to find Ethel excited, the roses displayed. But her face was white and jaded. He was so surprised by this that the greeting upon his lips died away. He was balked! He went into, the sitting-room and there were no roses to be seen. Ethel came past him and stood with her back to him looking out of the window. The suspense was suddenly painful. . . . 

He was obliged to ask, though he was certain of the answer, “Has nothing come?”

Ethel looked at him. “What did you think had come?”

“Oh! nothing.”

She looked out of the window again. “No,” she said slowly, “nothing has come.”

He tried to think of something to say that might bridge the distance between them, but he could think of nothing. He must wait until the roses came. He took out his books and a gaunt hour passed to supper time. Supper was a chilly ceremonial set with necessary over-polite remarks. Disappointment and exasperation darkened Lewisham’s soul. He began to feel angry with everything—even with her—he perceived she still judged him angry, and that made him angry with her. He was resuming his books and she was helping Madam Gadow’s servant to clear away, when they heard a rapping at the street door. “They have come at last,” he said to himself brightening, and hesitated whether he should bolt or witness her reception of them. The servant was a nuisance. Then he heard Chaffery’s voices and whispered a soft “damn!” to himself.

The only thing to do now if the roses came was to slip out into the passage, intercept them, and carry them into the bedroom by the door between that and the passage. It would be undesirable for Chaffery to witness that phase of sentiment. He might flash some dart of ridicule that would stick in their memory for ever.

Lewisham tried to show that he did not want a visitor. But Chaffery was in high spirits, and could have warmed a dozen cold welcomes. He sat down without any express invitation in the chair that he preferred.

Before Mr. and Mrs. Chaffery the Lewishams veiled whatever trouble might be between them beneath an insincere cordiality, and Chaffery was soon talking freely, unsuspicious of their crisis. He produced two cigars. “I had a wild moment,” he said. “‘For once,’ said I, ‘the honest shall smoke the admirable—or the admirable shall smoke the honest,’ whichever you like best. Try one? No? Those austere principles of yours! There will be more pleasure then. But really, I would as soon you smoked it as I. For to-night I radiate benevolence.”

He cut the cigar with care, he lit it with ceremony, waiting until nothing but honest wood was burning on the match, and for fully a minute he was silent, evolving huge puffs of smoke. And then he spoke again, punctuating his words by varied and beautiful spirals. “So far,” he said, “I have only trifled with knavery.”

As Lewisham said nothing he resumed after a pause.

“There are three sorts of men in the world, my boy, three and no more—and of women only one. There are happy men and there are knaves and fools. Hybrids I don’t count. And to my mind knaves and fools are very much alike.”

He paused again.

“I suppose they are,” said Lewisham flatly, and frowned at the fireplace.

Chaffery eyed him. “I am talking wisdom. To-night I am talking a particular brand of wisdom. I am broaching some of my oldest and finest, because—as you will find one day—this is a special occasion. And you are distrait!”

Lewisham looked up. “Birthday?” he said.

“You will see. But I was making golden observations about knaves and fools. I was early convinced of the absolute necessity of righteousness if a man is to be happy. I know it as surely as there is a sun in the heavens. Does that surprise you?”

“Well, it hardly squares—“

“No. I know. I will explain all that. But let me tell you the happy life. Let me give you that, as if I lay on my deathbed and this was a parting gift. In the first place, mental integrity. Prove all things, hold fast to that which is right. Let the world have no illusions for you, no surprises. Nature is full of cruel catastrophes, man is a physically degenerate ape, every appetite, every instinct, needs the curb; salvation is not in the nature of things, but whatever salvation there may be is in the nature of man; face all these painful things. I hope you follow that?”

“Go on,” said Lewisham, with the debating-society taste for a thesis prevailing for a minute over that matter of the roses.

“In youth, exercise and learning; in adolescence, ambition; and in early manhood, love—no footlight passion.” Chaffery was very solemn and insistent, with a lean extended finger, upon this point.

“Then marriage, young and decent, and then children and stout honest work for them, work too for the State in which they live; a life of self-devotion, indeed, and for sunset a decent pride—that is the happy life. Rest assured that is the happy life; the life Natural Selection has been shaping for man since life began. So a man may go happy from the cradle to the grave—at least—passably happy. And to do this needs just three things—a sound body, a sound intelligence, and a sound will . . .  A sound will.”

Chaffery paused on the repetition.

“No other happiness endures. And when all men are wise, all men will seek that life. Fame! Wealth! Art!—the Red Indians worship lunatics, and we are still by way of respecting the milder sorts. But I say that all men who do not lead that happy life are knaves and fools. The physical cripple, you know, poor devil, I count a sort of bodily fool.”

“Yes,” weighed Lewisham, “I suppose he is.”

“Now a fool fails of happiness because of his insufficient mind, he miscalculates, he stumbles and hobbles, some cant or claptrap whirls him away; he gets passion out of a book and a wife out of the stews, or he quarrels on a petty score; threats frighten him, vanity beguiles him, he fails by blindness. But the knave who is not a fool fails against the light. Many knaves are fools also—most are—but some are not. I know—I am a knave but no fool. The essence of your knave is that he lacks the will, the motive capacity to seek his own greater good. The knave abhors persistence. Strait is the way and narrow the gate; the knave cannot keep to it and the fool cannot find it.”

Lewisham lost something of what Chaffery was saying by reason of a rap outside. He rose, but Ethel was before him. He concealed his anxiety as well as he could; and was relieved when he heard the front door close again and her footsteps pass into the bedroom by the passage door. He reverted to Chaffery.

“Has it ever occurred to you,” asked Chaffery, apparently apropos of nothing, “that intellectual conviction is no motive at all? Any more than a railway map will run a train a mile.”

“Eh?” said Lewisham. “Map—run a train a mile—of course, yes. No, it won’t.”

“That is precisely my case,” said Chaffery. “That is the case of your pure knave everywhere. We are not fools—because we know. But yonder runs the highway, windy, hard, and austere, a sort of dry happiness that will endure; and here is the pleasant by-way—lush, my boy, lush, as the poets have it, and with its certain man-trap among the flowers . . . ”

Ethel returned through the folding doors. She glanced at Lewisham, remained standing for awhile, sat down in the basket chair as if to resume some domestic needlework that lay upon the table, then rose and went back into the bedroom.

Chaffery proceeded to expatiate on the transitory nature of passion and all glorious and acute experiences. Whole passages of that discourse Lewisham did not hear, so intent was he upon those roses. Why had Ethel gone back into the bedroom? Was it possible—? Presently she returned, but she sat down so that he could not see her face.

“If there is one thing to set against the wholesome life it is adventure,” Chaffery was saying. “But let every adventurer pray for an early death, for with adventure come wounds, and with wounds come sickness, and—except in romances—sickness affects the nervous system. Your nerve goes. Where are you then, my boy?”

“Ssh! what’s that?” said Lewisham.

It was a rap at the house door. Heedless of the flow of golden wisdom, he went out at once and admitted a gentleman friend of Madam Gadow, who passed along the passage and vanished down the staircase. When he returned Chaffery was standing to go.

“I could have talked with you longer,” he said, “but you have something on your mind, I see. I will not worry you by guessing what. Some day you will remember . . . ” He said no more, but laid his hand on Lewisham’s shoulder.

One might almost fancy he was offended at something.

At any other time Lewisham might have been propitiatory, but now he offered no apology. Chaffery turned to Ethel and looked at her curiously for a moment. “Good-bye,” he said, holding out his hand to her.

On the doorstep Chaffery regarded Lewisham with the same curious look, and seemed to weigh some remark. “Good-bye,” he said at last with something in his manner that kept Lewisham at the door for a moment looking after his stepfather’s receding figure. But immediately the roses were uppermost again.

When he re-entered the living room he found Ethel sitting idly at her typewriter, playing with the keys. She got up at his return and sat down in the armchair with a novelette that hid her face. He stared at her, full of questions. After all, then, they had not come. He was intensely disappointed now, he was intensely angry with the ineffable young shop-woman in black. He looked at his watch and then again, he took a book and pretended to read and found himself composing a scathing speech of remonstrance to be delivered on the morrow at the flower-shop. He put his book down, went to his black bag, opened and closed it aimlessly. He glanced covertly at Ethel, and found her looking covertly at him. He could not quite understand her expression.

He fidgeted into the bedroom and stopped as dead as a pointer.

He felt an extraordinary persuasion of the scent of roses. So strong did it seem that he glanced outside the room door, expecting to find a box there, mysteriously arrived. But there was no scent of roses in the passage.

Then he saw close by his foot an enigmatical pale object, and stooping, picked up the creamy petal of a rose. He stood with it in his hand, perplexed beyond measure. He perceived a slight disorder of the valence of the dressing-table and linked it with this petal by a swift intuition.

He made two steps, lifted the valence, and behold! there lay his roses crushed together!

He gasped like a man who plunges suddenly into cold water. He remained stooping with the valence raised.

Ethel appeared in the half doorway and her, expression was unfamiliar. He stared at her white face.

“Why on earth did you put my roses here?” he asked.

She stared back at him. Her face reflected his astonishment.

“Why did you put my roses here?” he asked again.

“Your roses!” she cried, “What! Did you send those roses?”

Love and Mr. Lewisham - Contents    |     Chapter XXIX - Thorns and Rose Petals

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