I have told already how I came to devote myself to this system of inquiries, how in a sort of disgust with the common adventure of life I took up the dropped ends of my college studies, taking them up again with a man’s resolution instead of a boy’s ambition. From the first I did well at this work. It—was, I think, largely a case of special aptitude, of a peculiar irrelevant vein of faculty running through my mind. It is one of those things men seem to have by chance, that has little or nothing to do with their general merit, and which it is ridiculous to be either conceited or modest about. I did get through a very big mass of work in those years, working for a time with a concentrated fierceness that left little of such energy or capacity as I possess unused. I worked out a series of problems connected with the stability of bodies pitching in the air and the internal movements of the wind, and I also revolutionised one leading part at last of the theory of explosive engines. These things are to be found in the Philosophical Transactions, the Mathematical Journal, and less frequently in one or two other such publications, and they needn’t detain us here. Indeed, I doubt if I could write about them here. One acquires a sort of shorthand for one’s notes and mind in relation to such special work. I have never taught; nor lectured, that is to say, I have never had to express my thoughts about mechanical things in ordinary everyday language, and I doubt very much if I could do so now without extreme tedium.
My work was, to begin with, very largely theoretical. I was able to attack such early necessities of verification as arose with quite little models, using a turntable to get the motion through the air, and cane, whalebone and silk as building material. But a time came when incalculable factors crept in, factors of human capacity and factors of insufficient experimental knowledge, when one must needs guess and try. Then I had to enlarge the scale of my operations, and soon I had enlarged them very greatly. I set to work almost concurrently on the balance and stability of gliders and upon the steering of inflated bags, the latter a particularly expensive branch of work. I was no doubt moved by something of the same spirit of lavish expenditure that was running away with my uncle in these developments. Presently my establishment above Lady Grove had grown to a painted wood chalet big enough to accommodate six men, and in which I would sometimes live for three weeks together; to a gasometer, to a motor-house, to three big corrugated-roofed sheds and lock-up houses, to a stage from which to start gliders, to a workshop and so forth. A rough road was made. We brought up gas from Cheaping and electricity from Woking, which place I found also afforded a friendly workshop for larger operations than I could manage. I had the luck also to find a man who seemed my heaven-sent second-in-command—Cothope his name was. He was a self-educated-man; he had formerly been a sapper and he was one of the best and handiest working engineers alive. Without him I do not think I could have achieved half what I have done. At times he has been not so much my assistant as my collaborator, and has followed my fortunes to this day. Other men came and went as I needed them.
I do not know how far it is possible to convey to any one who has not experienced it, the peculiar interest, the peculiar satisfaction that lies in a sustained research when one is not hampered by want of money. It is a different thing from any other sort of human effort. You are free from the exasperating conflict with your fellow-creatures altogether—at least so far as the essential work goes; that for me is its peculiar merit. Scientific truth is the remotest of mistresses; she hides in strange places, she is attained by tortuous and laborious roads, but she is always there! Win to her and she will not fail you; she is yours and mankind’s for ever. She is reality, the one reality I have found in this strange disorder of existence. She will not sulk with you nor misunderstand you nor cheat you of your reward upon some petty doubt. You cannot change her by advertisement or clamour, nor stifle her in vulgarities. Things grow under your hands when you serve her, things that are permanent as nothing else is permanent in the whole life of man. That, I think, is the peculiar satisfaction of science and its enduring reward. . . .
The taking up of experimental work produced a great change in my personal habits. I have told how already once in my life at Wimblehurst I had a period of discipline and continuous effort, and how, when I came to South Kensington, I became demoralised by the immense effect of London, by its innumerable imperative demands upon my attention and curiosity. And I parted with much of my personal pride when I gave up science for the development of Tono-Bungay. But my poverty kept me abstinent and my youthful romanticism kept me chaste until my married life was well under way. Then in all directions I relaxed. I did a large amount of work, but I never troubled to think whether it was my maximum nor whether the moods and indolences that came to me at times were avoidable things. With the coming of plenty I ate abundantly and foolishly, drank freely and followed my impulses more and more carelessly. I felt no reason why I should do anything else. Never at any point did I use myself to the edge of my capacity. The emotional crisis of my divorce did not produce any immediate change in these matters of personal discipline. I found some difficulty at first in concentrating my mind upon scientific work, it was so much more exacting than business, but I got over that difficulty by smoking. I became an inordinate cigar smoker; it gave me moods of profound depression, but I treated these usually by the homeopathic method,—by lighting another cigar. I didn’t realise at all how loose my moral and nervous fibre had become until I reached the practical side of my investigations and was face to face with the necessity of finding out just how it felt to use a glider and just what a man could do with one.
I got into this relaxed habit of living in spite of very real tendencies in my nature towards discipline. I’ve never been in love with self-indulgence. That philosophy of the loose lip and the lax paunch is one for which I’ve always had an instinctive distrust. I like bare things, stripped things, plain, austere and continent things, fine lines and cold colours. But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbour’s eye, when there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, we find ourselves by accident. Always before these times the bulk of the people did not over-eat themselves, because they couldn’t, whether they wanted to do so or not, and all but a very few were kept “fit” by unavoidable exercise and personal danger. Now, if only he pitch his standard low enough and keep free from pride, almost any one can achieve a sort of excess. You can go through contemporary life fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred, your highest moment a mere sentimental orgasm, and your first real contact with primary and elemental necessities, the sweat of your death-bed. So I think it was with my uncle; so, very nearly, it was with me.
But the glider brought me up smartly. I had to find out how these things went down the air, and the only way to find out is to go down with one. And for a time I wouldn’t face it.
There is something impersonal about a book, I suppose. At any rate I find myself able to write down here just the confession I’ve never been able to make to any one face to face, the frightful trouble it was to me to bring myself to do what I suppose every other coloured boy in the West Indies could do without turning a hair, and that is to fling myself off for my first soar down the wind. The first trial was bound to be the worst; it was an experiment I made with life, and the chance of death or injury was, I supposed, about equal to the chance of success. I believed that with a dawn-like lucidity. I had begun with a glider that I imagined was on the lines of the Wright brothers’ aeroplane, but I could not be sure. It might turn over. I might upset it. It might burrow its nose at the end and smash itself and me. The conditions of the flight necessitated alert attention; it wasn’t a thing to be done by jumping off and shutting one’s eyes or getting angry or drunk to do it. One had to use one’s weight to balance. And when at last I did it it was horrible—for ten seconds. For ten seconds or so, as I swept down the air flattened on my infernal framework and with the wind in my eyes, the rush of the ground beneath me filled me with sick and helpless terror; I felt as though some violent oscillatory current was throbbing in brain and back bone, and I groaned aloud. I set my teeth and groaned. It was a groan wrung out of me in spite of myself. My sensations of terror swooped to a climax. And then, you know, they ended!
Suddenly my terror was over and done with. I was soaring through the air right way up, steadily, and no mischance had happened. I felt intensely alive and my nerves were strung like a bow. I shifted a limb, swerved and shouted between fear and triumph as I recovered from the swerve and heeled the other way and steadied myself.
I thought I was going to hit a rook that was flying athwart me,—it was queer with what projectile silence that jumped upon me out of nothingness, and I yelled helplessly, “Get out of the way!” The bird doubled itself up like a partly inverted V, flapped, went up to the right abruptly and vanished from my circle of interest. Then I saw the shadow of my aeroplane keeping a fixed distance before me and very steady, and the turf as it seemed streaming out behind it. The turf!—it wasn’t after all streaming so impossibly fast.
When I came gliding down to the safe spread of level green I had chosen, I was as cool and ready as a city clerk who drops off an omnibus in motion, and I had learnt much more than soaring. I tilted up her nose at the right moment, levelled again and grounded like a snowflake on a windless day. I lay flat for an instant and then knelt up and got on my feet atremble, but very satisfied with myself. Cothope was running down the hill to me. . . .
But from that day I went into training, and I kept myself in training for many months. I had delayed my experiments for very nearly six weeks on various excuses because of my dread of this first flight, because of the slackness of body and spirit that had come to me with the business life. The shame of that cowardice spurred me none the less because it was probably altogether my own secret. I felt that Cothope at any rate might suspect. Well,—he shouldn’t suspect again.
It is curious that I remember that shame and self accusation and its consequences far more distinctly than I recall the weeks of vacillation before I soared. For a time I went altogether without alcohol, I stopped smoking altogether and ate very sparingly, and every day I did something that called a little upon my nerves and muscles. I soared as frequently as I could. I substituted a motor-bicycle for the London train and took my chances in the southward traffic, and I even tried what thrills were to be got upon a horse. But they put me on made horses, and I conceived a perhaps unworthy contempt for the certitudes of equestrian exercise in comparison with the adventures of mechanism. Also I walked along the high wall at the back of Lady Grove garden, and at last brought myself to stride the gap where the gate comes. If I didn’t altogether get rid of a certain giddy instinct by such exercises, at least I trained my will until it didn’t matter. And soon I no longer dreaded flight, but was eager to go higher into the air, and I came to esteem soaring upon a glider, that even over the deepest dip in the ground had barely forty feet of fall beneath it, a mere mockery of what flight might be. I began to dream of the keener freshness in the air high above the beechwoods, and it was rather to satisfy that desire than as any legitimate development of my proper work that presently I turned a part of my energies and the bulk of my private income to the problem of the navigable balloon.
I had gone far beyond that initial stage; I had had two smashes and a broken rib which my aunt nursed with great energy, and was getting some reputation in the aeronautic world when, suddenly, as though she had never really left it, the Honourable Beatrice Normandy, dark-eyed, and with the old disorderly wave of the hair from her brow, came back into my life. She came riding down a grass path in the thickets below Lady Grove, perched up on a huge black horse, and the old Earl of Carnaby and Archie Garvell, her half-brother, were with her. My uncle had been bothering me about the Crest Hill hot-water pipes, and we were returning by a path transverse to theirs and came out upon them suddenly. Old Carnaby was trespassing on our ground, and so he hailed us in a friendly fashion and pulled up to talk to us.
I didn’t note Beatrice at all at first. I was interested in Lord Carnaby, that remarkable vestige of his own brilliant youth. I had heard of him, but never seen him. For a man of sixty-five who had sinned all the sins, so they said, and laid waste the most magnificent political debut of any man of his generation, he seemed to me to be looking remarkably fit and fresh. He was a lean little man with grey-blue eyes in his brown face, and his cracked voice was the worst thing in his effect.
“Hope you don’t mind us coming this way, Ponderevo,” he cried; and my uncle, who was sometimes a little too general and generous with titles, answered, “Not at all, my lord, not at all! Glad you make use of it!”
“You’re building a great place over the hill,” said Carnaby.
“Thought I’d make a show for once,” said my uncle. “It looks big because it’s spread out for the sun.”
“Air and sunlight,” said the earl. “You can’t have too much of them. But before our time they used to build for shelter and water and the high road.”
Then I discovered that the silent figure behind the earl was Beatrice.
I’d forgotten her sufficiently to think for a moment that she hadn’t changed at all since she had watched me from behind the skirts of Lady Drew. She was looking at me, and her dainty brow under her broad brimmed hat—she was wearing a grey hat and loose unbuttoned coat—was knit with perplexity, trying, I suppose, to remember where she had seen me before. Her shaded eyes met mine with that mute question. . . .
It seemed incredible to me she didn’t remember.
“Well,” said the earl and touched his horse.
Garvell was patting the neck of his horse, which was inclined to fidget, and disregarding me. He nodded over his shoulder and followed. His movement seemed to release a train of memories in her. She glanced suddenly at him and then back at me with a flash of recognition that warmed instantly to a faint smile. She hesitated as if to speak to me, smiled broadly and understandingly and turned to follow the others. All three broke into a canter and she did not look back. I stood for a second or so at the crossing of the lanes, watching her recede, and then became aware that my uncle was already some paces off and talking over his shoulder in the belief that I was close behind. I turned about and strode to overtake him. My mind was full of Beatrice and this surprise. I remembered her simply as a Normandy. I’d clean forgotten that Garvell was the son and she the step-daughter of our neighbour, Lady Osprey. Indeed, I’d probably forgotten at that time that we had Lady Osprey as a neighbour. There was no reason at all for remembering it. It was amazing to find her in this Surrey countryside, when I’d never thought of her as living anywhere in the world but at Bladesover Park, near forty miles and twenty years away. She was so alive—so unchanged! The same quick warm blood was in her cheeks. It seemed only yesterday that we had kissed among the bracken stems. . . .
“Eh?” I said.
“I say he’s good stuff,” said my uncle. “You can say what you like against the aristocracy, George; Lord Carnaby’s rattling good stuff. There’s a sort of Savoir Faire, something—it’s an old-fashioned phrase, George, but a good one there’s a Bong-Tong. . . . It’s like the Oxford turf, George, you can’t grow it in a year. I wonder how they do it. It’s living always on a Scale, George. It’s being there from the beginning.” . . .
“She might,” I said to myself, “be a picture by Romney come alive!”
“They tell all these stories about him,” said my uncle, “but what do they all amount to?”
“Gods!” I said to myself; “but why have I forgotten for so long? Those queer little brows of hers, the touch of mischief in her eyes—the way she breaks into a smile!”
“I don’t blame him,” said my uncle. “Mostly it’s imagination. That and leisure, George. When I was a young man I was kept pretty busy. So were you. Even then—!”
What puzzled me more particularly was the queer trick of my memory that had never recalled anything vital of Beatrice whatever when I met Garvell again that had, indeed, recalled nothing except a boyish antagonism and our fight. Now when my senses were full of her, it seemed incredible that I could ever have forgotten. . . .
“Oh, Crikey!” said my aunt, reading a letter behind her coffee-machine. “Here’s a young woman, George!”
We were breakfasting together in the big window bay at Lady Grove that looks upon the iris beds; my uncle was in London.
I sounded an interrogative note and decapitated an egg.
“Who’s Beatrice Normandy?” asked my aunt. “I’ve not heard of her before.”
“She the young woman?”
“Yes. Says she knows you. I’m no hand at old etiquette, George, but her line is a bit unusual. Practically she says she’s going to make her mother—”
“Eh? Step-mother, isn’t it?”
“You seem to know a lot about her. She says ‘mother’—Lady Osprey. They’re to call on me, anyhow, next Wednesday week at four, and there’s got to be you for tea.”
“H’m. She had rather—force of character. When I knew her before.”
I became aware of my aunt’s head sticking out obliquely from behind the coffee-machine and regarding me with wide blue curiosity. I met her gaze for a moment, flinched, coloured, and laughed.
“I’ve known her longer than I’ve known you,” I said, and explained at length.
My aunt kept her eye on me over and round the coffee-machine as I did so. She was greatly interested, and asked several elucidatory questions.
“Why didn’t you tell me the day you saw her? You’ve had her on your mind for a week,” she said.
“It is odd I didn’t tell you,” I admitted.
“You thought I’d get a Down on her,” said my aunt conclusively. “That’s what you thought” and opened the rest of her letters.
The two ladies came in a pony-carriage with conspicuous punctuality, and I had the unusual experience of seeing my aunt entertaining callers. We had tea upon the terrace under the cedar, but old Lady Osprey, being an embittered Protestant, had never before seen the inside of the house, and we made a sort of tour of inspection that reminded me of my first visit to the place. In spite of my preoccupation with Beatrice, I stored a queer little memory of the contrast between the two other women; my aunt, tall, slender and awkward, in a simple blue homekeeping dress, an omnivorous reader and a very authentic wit, and the lady of pedigree, short and plump, dressed with Victorian fussiness, living at the intellectual level of palmistry and genteel fiction, pink in the face and generally flustered by a sense of my aunt’s social strangeness and disposed under the circumstances to behave rather like an imitation of the more queenly moments of her own cook. The one seemed made of whalebone, the other of dough. My aunt was nervous, partly through the intrinsic difficulty of handling the lady and partly because of her passionate desire to watch Beatrice and me, and her nervousness took a common form with her, a wider clumsiness of gesture and an exacerbation of her habitual oddity of phrase which did much to deepen the pink perplexity of the lady of title. For instance, I heard my aunt admit that one of the Stuart Durgan ladies did look a bit “balmy on the crumpet”; she described the knights of the age of chivalry as “korvorting about on the off-chance of a dragon”; she explained she was “always old mucking about the garden,” and instead of offering me a Garibaldi biscuit, she asked me with that faint lisp of hers, to “have some squashed flies, George.” I felt convinced Lady Osprey would describe her as “a most eccentric person” on the very first opportunity;— “a most eccentric person.” One could see her, as people say, “shaping” for that.
Beatrice was dressed very quietly in brown, with a simple but courageous broad-brimmed hat, and an unexpected quality of being grown-up and responsible. She guided her step-mother through the first encounter, scrutinised my aunt, and got us all well in movement through the house, and then she turned her attention to me with a quick and half-confident smile.
“We haven’t met,” she said, “since—”
“It was in the Warren.”
“Of course,” she said, “the Warren! I remembered it all except just the name. . . . I was eight.”
Her smiling eyes insisted on my memories being thorough. I looked up and met them squarely, a little at a loss for what I should say.
“I gave you away pretty completely,” she said, meditating upon my face. “And afterwards I gave way Archie.”
She turned her face away from the others, and her voice fell ever so little.
“They gave him a licking for telling lies!” she said, as though that was a pleasant memory. “And when it was all over I went to our wigwam. You remember the wigwam?”
“Out in the West Wood?”
“Yes—and cried—for all the evil I had done you, I suppose. . . . I’ve often thought of it since.” . . .
Lady Osprey stopped for us to overtake her. “My dear!” she said to Beatrice. “Such a beautiful gallery!” Then she stared very hard at me, puzzled in the most naked fashion to understand who I might be.
“People say the oak staircase is rather good,” said my aunt, and led the way.
Lady Osprey, with her skirts gathered for the ascent to the gallery and her hand on the newel, turned and addressed a look full of meaning overflowing indeed with meanings—at her charge. The chief meaning no doubt was caution about myself, but much of it was just meaning at large. I chanced to catch the response in a mirror and detected Beatrice with her nose wrinkled into a swift and entirely diabolical grimace. Lady Osprey became a deeper shade of pink and speechless with indignation—it was evident she disavowed all further responsibility, as she followed my aunt upstairs.
“It’s dark, but there’s a sort of dignity,” said Beatrice very distinctly, regarding the hall with serene tranquillity, and allowing the unwilling feet on the stairs to widen their distance from us. She stood a step up, so that she looked down a little upon me and over me at the old hall.
She turned upon me abruptly when she thought her step-mother was beyond ear-shot.
“But how did you get here?” she asked.
“All this.” She indicated space and leisure by a wave of the hand at hall and tall windows and sunlit terrace. “Weren’t you the housekeeper’s son?”
“I’ve adventured. My uncle has become—a great financier. He used to be a little chemist about twenty miles from Bladesover. We’re promoters now, amalgamators, big people on the new model.”
“I understand.” She regarded me with interested eyes, visibly thinking me out.
“And you recognised me?” I asked.
“After a second or so. I saw you recognised me. I couldn’t place you, but I knew I knew you. Then Archie being there helped me to remember.”
“I’m glad to meet again,” I ventured. “I’d never forgotten you.”
“One doesn’t forget those childish things.”
We regarded one another for a moment with a curiously easy and confident satisfaction in coming together again. I can’t explain our ready zest in one another. The thing was so. We pleased each other, we had no doubt in our minds that we pleased each other. From the first we were at our ease with one another. “So picturesque, so very picturesque,” came a voice from above, and then: “Bee-atrice!”
“I’ve a hundred things I want to know about you,” she said with an easy intimacy, as we went up the winding steps. . . .
As the four of us sat at tea together under the cedar on the terrace she asked questions about my aeronautics. My aunt helped with a word or so about my broken ribs. Lady Osprey evidently regarded flying as a most indesirable and improper topic—a blasphemous intrusion upon the angels. “It isn’t flying,” I explained. “We don’t fly yet.”
“You never will,” she said compactly. “You never will.”
“Well,” I said, “we do what we can.”
The little lady lifted a small gloved hand and indicated a height of about four feet from the ground. “Thus far,” she said, “thus far—and no farther! No!”
She became emphatically pink. “No,” she said again quite conclusively, and coughed shortly. “Thank you,” she said to her ninth or tenth cake. Beatrice burst into cheerful laughter with her eye on me. I was lying on the turf, and this perhaps caused a slight confusion about the primordial curse in Lady Osprey’s mind.
“Upon his belly shall he go,” she said with quiet distinctness, “all the days of his life.”
After which we talked no more of aeronautics.
Beatrice sat bunched together in a chair and regarded me with exactly the same scrutiny, I thought, the same adventurous aggression, that I had faced long ago at the tea-table in my mother’s room. She was amazingly like that little Princess of my Bladesover memories, the wilful misbehaviours of her hair seemed the same—her voice; things one would have expected to be changed altogether. She formed her plans in the same quick way, and acted with the same irresponsible decision.
She stood up abruptly.
“What is there beyond the terrace?” she said, and found me promptly beside her.
I invented a view for her.
At the further corner from the cedar she perched herself up upon the parapet and achieved an air of comfort among the lichenous stones. “Now tell me,” she said, “all about yourself. Tell me about yourself; I know such duffers of men! They all do the same things. How did you get—here? All my men were here. They couldn’t have got here if they hadn’t been here always. They wouldn’t have thought it right. You’ve climbed.”
“If it’s climbing,” I said.
She went off at a tangent. “It’s—I don’t know if you’ll understand—interesting to meet you again. I’ve remembered you. I don’t know why, but I have. I’ve used you as a sort of lay figure—when I’ve told myself stories. But you’ve always been rather stiff and difficult in my stories—in ready-made clothes—a Labour Member or a Bradlaugh, or something like that. You’re not like that a bit. And yet you are!”
She looked at me. “Was it much of a fight? They make out it is. I don’t know why.”
“I was shot up here by an accident,” I said. “There was no fight at all. Except to keep honest, perhaps and I made no great figure in that. I and my uncle mixed a medicine and it blew us up. No merit in that! But you’ve been here all the time. Tell me what you have done first.”
“One thing we didn’t do.” She meditated for a moment.
“What?” said I.
“Produce a little half-brother for Bladesover. So it went to the Phillbrick gang. And they let it! And I and my step-mother—we let, too. And live in a little house.”
She nodded her head vaguely over her shoulder and turned to me again. “Well, suppose it was an accident. Here you are! Now you’re here, what are you going to do? You’re young. Is it to be Parliament? heard some men the other day talking about you. Before I knew you were you. They said that was what you ought to do.” . . .
She put me through my intentions with a close and vital curiosity. It was just as she had tried to imagine me a soldier and place me years ago. She made me feel more planless and incidental than ever. “You want to make a flying-machine,” she pursued, “and when you fly? What then? Would it be for fighting?
I told her something of my experimental work. She had never heard of the soaring aeroplane, and was excited by the thought, and keen to hear about it. She had thought all the work so far had been a mere projecting of impossible machines. For her Pilcher and Lilienthal had died in vain. She did not know such men had lived in the world.
“But that’s dangerous!” she said, with a note of discovery.
“Bee-atrice!” Lady Osprey called.
Beatrice dropped from the wall to her feet.
“Where do you do this soaring?”
“Beyond the high Barrows. East of Crest Hill and the wood.”
“Do you mind people coming to see?”
“Whenever you please. Only let me know”
“I’ll take my chance some day. Some day soon.” She looked at me thoughtfully, smiled, and our talk was at an end.
All my later work in aeronautics is associated in my memory with the quality of Beatrice, with her incidental presence, with things she said and did and things I thought of that had reference to her.
In the spring of that year I had got to a flying machine that lacked nothing but longitudinal stability. My model flew like a bird for fifty or a hundred yards or so, and then either dived and broke its nose or, what was commoner, reared up, slid back and smashed its propeller. The rhythm of the pitching puzzled me. I felt it must obey some laws not yet quite clearly stated. I became therefore a student of theory and literature for a time; I hit upon the string of considerations that led me to what is called Ponderevo’s Principle and my F.R.S., and I worked this out in three long papers. Meanwhile I made a lot of turn-table and glider models and started in upon an idea of combining gas-bags and gliders. Balloon work was new to me. I had made one or two ascents in the balloons of the Aero Club before I started my gasometer and the balloon shed and gave Cothope a couple of months with Sir Peter Rumchase. My uncle found part of the money for these developments; he was growing interested and competitive in this business because of Lord Boom’s prize and the amount of reclame involved, and it was at his request that I named my first navigable balloon Lord Roberts Alpha.
Lord Roberts A very nearly terminated all my investigations. My idea both in this and its more successful and famous younger brother, Lord Roberts B, was to utilise the idea of a contractile balloon with a rigid flat base, a balloon shaped rather like an inverted boat that should almost support the apparatus, but not quite. The gas-bag was of the chambered sort used for these long forms, and not with an internal balloonette. The trouble was to make the thing contractile. This I sought to do by fixing a long, fine-meshed silk net over it that was fastened to be rolled up on two longitudinal rods. Practically I contracted my sausage gas-bag by netting it down. The ends were too complex for me to describe here, but I thought them out elaborately and they were very carefully planned. Lord Roberts A was furnished with a single big screw forward, and there was a rudder aft. The engine was the first one to be, so to speak, right in the plane of the gas-bag. I lay immediately under the balloon on a sort of glider framework, far away from either engine or rudder, controlling them by wire-pulls constructed on the principle of the well-known Bowden brake of the cyclist.
But Lord Roberts A has been pretty exhaustively figured and described in various aeronautical publications. The unforeseen defect was the badness of the work in the silk netting. It tore aft as soon as I began to contract the balloon, and the last two segments immediately bulged through the hole, exactly as an inner tube will bulge through the ruptured outer cover of a pneumatic tire, and then the sharp edge of the torn net cut the oiled-silk of the distended last segment along a weak seam and burst it with a loud report.
Up to that point the whole thing had been going on extremely well. As a navigable balloon and before I contracted it, the Lord Roberts A was an unqualified success. It had run out of the shed admirably at nine or ten miles an hour or more, and although there was a gentle southwester blowing, it had gone up and turned and faced it as well as any craft of the sort I have ever seen.
I lay in my customary glider position, horizontal and face downward, and the invisibility of all the machinery gave an extraordinary effect of independent levitation. Only by looking up, as it were, and turning my head back could I see the flat aeroplane bottom of the balloon and the rapid successive passages, swish, swish, swish of the vans of the propeller. I made a wide circle over Lady Grove and Duffield and out towards Effingham and came back quite successfully to the starting-point.
Down below in the October sunlight were my sheds and the little group that had been summoned to witness the start, their faces craned upward and most of them scrutinising my expression through field-glasses. I could see Carnaby and Beatrice on horseback, and two girls I did not know with them; Cothope and three or four workmen I employed; my aunt and Mrs. Levinstein, who was staying with her, on foot, and Dimmock, the veterinary surgeon, and one or two others. My shadow moved a little to the north of them like the shadow of a fish. At Lady Grove the servants were out on the lawn, and the Duffield school playground swarmed with children too indifferent to aeronautics to cease their playing. But in the Crest Hill direction—the place looked extraordinarily squat and ugly from above—there were knots and strings of staring workmen everywhere—not one of them working, but all agape. (But now I write it, it occurs to me that perhaps it was their dinner hour; it was certainly near twelve.) I hung for a moment or so enjoying the soar, then turned about to face a clear stretch of open down, let the engine out to full speed and set my rollers at work rolling in the net, and so tightening the gas-bags. Instantly the pace quickened with the diminished resistance . . .
In that moment before the bang I think I must have been really flying. Before the net ripped, just in the instant when my balloon was at its systole, the whole apparatus was, I am convinced, heavier than air. That, however, is a claim that has been disputed, and in any case this sort of priority is a very trivial thing.
Then came a sudden retardation, instantly followed by an inexpressibly disconcerting tilt downward of the machine. That I still recall with horror. I couldn’t see what was happening at all and I couldn’t imagine. It was a mysterious, inexplicable dive. The thing, it seemed, without rhyme or reason, was kicking up its heels in the air. The bang followed immediately, and I perceived I was falling rapidly.
I was too much taken by surprise to think of the proper cause of the report. I don’t even know what I made of it. I was obsessed, I suppose, by that perpetual dread of the modern aeronaut, a flash between engine and balloon. Yet obviously I wasn’t wrapped in flames. I ought to have realised instantly it wasn’t that. I did, at any rate, whatever other impressions there were, release the winding of the outer net and let the balloon expand again, and that no doubt did something to break my fall. I don’t remember doing that. Indeed, all I do remember is the giddy effect upon the landscape of falling swiftly upon it down a flat spiral, the hurried rush of fields and trees and cottages on my left shoulder and the overhung feeling as if the whole apparatus was pressing down the top of my head. I didn’t stop or attempt to stop the screw. That was going on, swish, swish, swish all the time.
Cothope really knows more about the fall than I do. He describes the easterly start, the tilt, and the appearance and bursting of a sort of bladder aft. Then down I swooped, very swiftly, but not nearly so steeply as I imagined I was doing. “Fifteen or twenty degrees,” said Cothope, “to be exact.” From him it was that I learnt that I let the nets loose again, and so arrested my fall. He thinks I was more in control of myself than I remember.
But I do not see why I should have forgotten so excellent a resolution. His impression is that I was really steering and trying to drop into the Farthing Down beeches. “You hit the trees,” he said, “and the whole affair stood on its nose among them, and then very slowly crumpled up. I saw you’d been jerked out, as I thought, and I didn’t stay for more. I rushed for my bicycle.”
As a matter of fact, it was purely accidental that I came down in the woods. I am reasonably certain that I had no more control then than a thing in a parcel. I remember I felt a sort of wincing, “Now it comes!” as the trees rushed up to me. If I remember that, I should remember steering. Then the propeller smashed, everything stopped with a jerk, and I was falling into a mass of yellowing leaves, and Lord Roberts A, so it seemed to me, was going back into the sky.
I felt twigs and things hit me in the face, but I didn’t feel injured at the time; I clutched at things that broke, tumbled through a froth of green and yellow into a shadowy world of great bark-covered arms, and there, snatching wildly, got a grip on a fair round branch, and hung.
I became intensely alert and clear-headed. I held by that branch for a moment and then looked about me, and caught at another, and then found myself holding to a practicable fork. I swung forward to that and got a leg around it below its junction, and so was able presently to clamber down, climbing very coolly and deliberately. I dropped ten feet or so from the lowest branch and fell on my feet. “That’s all right,” I said, and stared up through the tree to see what I could of the deflated and crumpled remains that had once been Lord Roberts A festooned on the branches it had broken. “Gods!” I said, “what a tumble!”
I wiped something that trickled from my face and was shocked to see my hand covered with blood. I looked at myself and saw what seemed to me an astonishing quantity of blood running down my arm and shoulder. I perceived my mouth was full of blood. It’s a queer moment when one realises one is hurt, and perhaps badly hurt, and has still to discover just how far one is hurt. I explored my face carefully and found unfamiliar contours on the left side. The broken end of a branch had driven right through my cheek, damaging my cheek and teeth and gums, and left a splinter of itself stuck, like an explorer’s fartherest-point flag, in the upper maxillary. That and a sprained wrist were all my damage. But I bled as though I had been chopped to pieces, and it seemed to me that my face had been driven in. I can’t describe just the horrible disgust I felt at that.
“This blood must be stopped, anyhow,” I said, thickheadedly.
“I wonder where there’s a spider’s web”—an odd twist for my mind to take. But it was the only treatment that occurred to me.
I must have conceived some idea of going home unaided, because I was thirty yards from the tree before I dropped.
Then a kind of black disc appeared in the middle of the world and rushed out to the edge of things and blotted them out. I don’t remember falling down. I fainted from excitement, disgust at my injury and loss of blood, and lay there until Cothope found me.
He was the first to find me, scorching as he did over the downland turf, and making a wide course to get the Carnaby plantations at their narrowest. Then presently, while he was trying to apply the methodical teachings of the St. John’s Ambulance classes to a rather abnormal case, Beatrice came galloping through the trees full-tilt, with Lord Carnaby hard behind her, and she was hatless, muddy from a fall, and white as death. “And cool as a cucumber, too,” said Cothope, turning it over in his mind as he told me.
(“They never seem quite to have their heads, and never seem quite to lose ’em,” said Cothope, generalising about the sex.)
Also he witnessed she acted with remarkable decision. The question was whether I should be taken to the house her step-mother occupied at Bedley Corner, the Carnaby dower house, or down to Carnaby’s place at Easting. Beatrice had no doubt in the matter, for she meant to nurse me. Carnaby didn’t seem to want that to happen. “She would have it wasn’t half so far,” said Cothope. “She faced us out. . . .
“I hate to be faced out of my opinion, so I’ve taken a pedometer over it since. It’s exactly forty-three yards further.
“Lord Carnaby looked at her pretty straight,” said Cothope, finishing the picture; “and then he give in.”
But my story has made a jump from June to October, and during that time my relations with Beatrice and the countryside that was her setting had developed in many directions. She came and went, moving in an orbit for which I had no data, going to London and Paris, into Wales and Northampton, while her stepmother, on some independent system of her own, also vanished and recurred intermittently. At home they obeyed the rule of an inflexible old maid, Charlotte, and Beatrice exercised all the rights of proprietorship in Carnaby’s extensive stables. Her interest in me was from the first undisguised. She found her way to my worksheds and developed rapidly, in spite of the sincere discouragement of Cothope, into a keen amateur of aeronautics. She would come sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes afoot with an Irish terrier, sometimes riding. She would come for three or four days every day, vanish for a fortnight or three weeks, return.
It was not long before I came to look for her. From the first I found her immensely interesting. To me she was a new feminine type altogether—I have made it plain, I think, how limited was my knowledge of women. But she made me not simply interested in her, but in myself. She became for me something that greatly changes a man’s world. How shall I put it? She became an audience. Since I’ve emerged from the emotional developments of the affair I have thought it out in a hundred aspects, and it does seem to me that this way in which men and women make audiences for one another is a curiously influential force in their lives. For some it seems an audience is a vital necessity, they seek audiences as creatures seek food; others again, my uncle among them, can play to an imaginary audience. I, I think, have lived and can live without one. In my adolescence I was my own audience and my own court of honour. And to have an audience in one’s mind is to play a part, to become self-conscious and dramatic. For many years I had been self-forgetful and scientific. I had lived for work and impersonal interests until I found scrutiny, applause and expectation in Beatrice’s eyes. Then I began to live for the effect I imagined I made upon her, to make that very soon the principal value in my life. I played to her. I did things for the look of them. I began to dream more and more of beautiful situations and fine poses and groupings with her and for her.
I put these things down because they puzzle me. I think I was in love with Beatrice, as being in love is usually understood; but it was quite a different state altogether from my passionate hunger for Marion, or my keen, sensuous desire for and pleasure in Effie. These were selfish, sincere things, fundamental and instinctive, as sincere as the leap of a tiger. But until matters drew to a crisis with Beatrice, there was an immense imaginative insurgence of a quite different quality. I am setting down here very gravely, and perhaps absurdly, what are no doubt elementary commonplaces for innumerable people. This love that grew up between Beatrice and myself was, I think—I put it quite tentatively and rather curiously—romantic love. That unfortunate and truncated affair of my uncle and the Scrymgeour lady was really of the same stuff, if a little different in quality. I have to admit that. The factor of audience was of primary importance in either else.
Its effect upon me was to make me in many respects adolescent again. It made me keener upon the point of honour, and anxious and eager to do high and splendid things, and in particular, brave things. So far it ennobled and upheld me. But it did also push me towards vulgar and showy things. At bottom it was disingenuous; it gave my life the quality of stage scenery, with one side to the audience, another side that wasn’t meant to show, and an economy of substance. It certainly robbed my work of high patience and quality. I cut down the toil of research in my eagerness and her eagerness for fine flourishes in the air, flights that would tell. I shirked the longer road.
And it robbed me, too, of any fine perception of absurdity.
Yet that was not everything in our relationship. The elemental thing was there also. It came in very suddenly.
It was one day in the summer, though I do not now recall without reference to my experimental memoranda whether it was in July or August. I was working with a new and more bird-like aeroplane with wing curvatures studied from Lilienthal, Pilcher and Phillips, that I thought would give a different rhythm for the pitching oscillations than anything I’d had before. I was soaring my long course from the framework on the old barrow by my sheds down to Tinker’s Corner. It is a clear stretch of downland, except for two or three thickets of box and thorn to the right of my course; one transverse trough, in which there is bush and a small rabbit warren, comes in from the east. I had started, and was very intent on the peculiar long swoop with which any new arrangement flew. Then, without any sort of notice, right ahead of me appeared Beatrice, riding towards Tinker’s Corner to waylay and talk to me. She looked round over her shoulder, saw me coming, touched her horse to a gallop, and then the brute bolted right into the path of my machine.
There was a queer moment of doubt whether we shouldn’t all smash together. I had to make up my mind very quickly whether I would pitch-up and drop backward at once and take my chance of falling undamaged—a poor chance it would have been—in order to avoid any risk to her, or whether I would lift against the wind and soar right over her. This latter I did. She had already got her horse in hand when I came up to her. Her woman’s body lay along his neck, and she glanced up as I, with wings aspread, and every nerve in a state of tension, swept over her.
Then I had landed, and was going back to where her horse stood still and trembling.
We exchanged no greetings. She slid from her saddle into my arms, and for one instant I held her.
“Those great wings,” she said, and that was all.
She lay in my arms, and I thought for a moment she had fainted.
“Very near a nasty accident,” said Cothope, coming up and regarding our grouping with disfavour. He took her horse by the bridle. “Very dangerous thing coming across us like that.”
Beatrice disengaged herself from me, stood for a moment trembling, and then sat down on the turf “I’ll just sit down for a moment,” she said.
“Oh!” she said.
She covered her face with her hands, while Cothope looked at her with an expression between suspicion and impatience.
For some moments nobody moved. Then Cothope remarked that perhaps he’d better get her water.
As for me, I was filled with a new outrageous idea, begotten I scarcely know how from this incident, with its instant contacts and swift emotions, and that was that I must make love to and possess Beatrice. I see no particular reason why that thought should have come to me in that moment, but it did. I do not believe that before then I had thought of our relations in such terms at all. Suddenly, as I remember it, the factor of passion came. She crouched there, and I stood over her, and neither of us said a word. But it was just as though something had been shouted from the sky.
Cothope had gone twenty paces perhaps when she uncovered her face. “I shan’t want any water,” she said. “Call him back.”
After that the spirit of our relations changed. The old ease had gone. She came to me less frequently, and when she came she would have some one with her, usually old Carnaby, and he would do the bulk of the talking. All through September she was away. When we were alone together there was a curious constraint. We became clouds of inexpressible feeling towards one another; we could think of nothing that was not too momentous for words.
Then came the smash of Lord Roberts A, and I found myself with a bandaged face in a bedroom in the Bedley Corner dower-house with Beatrice presiding over an inefficient nurse, Lady Osprey very pink and shocked in the background, and my aunt jealously intervening.
My injuries were much more showy than serious, and I could have been taken to Lady Grove next day, but Beatrice would not permit that, and kept me at Bedley Corner three clear days. In the afternoon of the second day she became extremely solicitous for the proper aeration of the nurse, packed her off for an hour in a brisk rain, and sat by me alone.
I asked her to marry me.
All the whole I must admit it was not a situation that lent itself to eloquence. I lay on my back and talked through bandages, and with some little difficulty, for my tongue and mouth had swollen. But I was feverish and in pain, and the emotional suspense I had been in so long with regard to her became now an unendurable impatience.
“Comfortable?” she asked.
“Shall I read to you?”
“No. I want to talk.”
“You can’t. I’d better talk to you.”
“No,” I said, “I want to talk to you.”
She came and stood by my bedside and looked me in the eyes. “I don’t—I don’t want you to talk to me,” she said. “I thought you couldn’t talk.”
“I get few chances—of you.”
“You’d better not talk. Don’t talk now. Let me chatter instead. You ought not to talk.”
“It isn’t much” I said.
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“I’m not going to be disfigured,” I said. “Only a scar.”
“Oh!” she said, as if she had expected something quite different. “Did you think you’d become a sort of gargoyle?”
“L’Homme qui Rit!—I didn’t know. But that’s all right. Jolly flowers those are!”
“Michaelmas daisies,” she said. “I’m glad you’r not disfigured, and those are perennial sunflowers. Do you know no flowers at all? When I saw you on the ground I certainly thought you were dead. You ought to have been, by all the rules of the game.”
She said some other things, but I was thinking of my next move.
“Are we social equals?” I said abruptly.
She stared at me. “Queer question,” she said.
“But are we?”
“H’m. Difficult to say. But why do you ask? Is the daughter of a courtesy Baron who died—of general disreputableness, I believe—before his father—? I give it up. Does it matter?”
“No. My mind is confused. I want to know if you will marry me.”
She whitened and said nothing. I suddenly felt I must plead with her. “Damn these bandages!” I said, breaking into ineffectual febrile rage.
She roused herself to her duties as nurse. “What are you doing? Why are you trying to sit up? Sit down! Don’t touch your bandages. I told you not to talk.”
She stood helpless for a moment, then took me firmly by the shoulders and pushed me back upon the pillow. She gripped the wrist of the hand I had raised to my face.
“I told you not to talk,” she whispered close to my face. “I asked you not to talk. Why couldn’t you do as I asked you?”
“You’ve been avoiding me for a month,” I said.
“I know. You might have known. Put your hand back—down by your side.”
I obeyed. She sat on the edge of the bed. A flush had come to her cheeks, and her eyes were very bright. “I asked you,” she repeated, “not to talk.”
My eyes questioned her mutely.
She put her hand on my chest. Her eyes were tormented.
“How can I answer you now?” she said.
“How can I say anything now?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She made no answer.
“Do you mean it must be ‘No’?”
“But” I said, and my whole soul was full of accusations.
“I know,” she said. “I can’t explain. I can’t. But it has to be ‘No!’ It can’t be. It’s utterly, finally, for ever impossible. . . . Keep your hands still!”
“But,” I said, “when we met again—”
“I can’t marry. I can’t and won’t.”
She stood up. “Why did you talk?” she cried, “couldn’t you see?”
She seemed to have something it was impossible to say.
She came to the table beside my bed and pulled the Michaelmas daisies awry. “Why did you talk like that?” she said in a tone of infinite bitterness. “To begin like that!”
“But what is it?” I said. “Is it some circumstance—my social position?”
“Oh, damn your social position!” she cried.
She went and stood at the further window, staring out at the rain. For a long time we were absolutely still. The wind and rain came in little gusts upon the pane. She turned to me abruptly.
“You didn’t ask me if I loved you,” she said.
“Oh, if it’s that!” said I.
“It’s not that,” she said. “But if you want to know—” She paused.
“I do,” she said.
We stared at one another.
“I do—with all my heart, if you want to know.”
“Then, why the devil—?” I asked.
She made no answer. She walked across the room to the piano and began to play, rather noisily and rapidly, with odd gusts of emphasis, the shepherd’s pipe music from the last act in “Tristan and Isolde.” Presently she missed a note, failed again, ran her finger heavily up the scale, struck the piano passionately with her fist, making a feeble jar in the treble, jumped up, and went out of the room. . . .
The nurse found me still wearing my helmet of bandages, partially dressed, and pottering round the room to find the rest of my clothes. I was in a state of exasperated hunger for Beatrice, and I was too inflamed and weakened to conceal the state of my mind. I was feebly angry because of the irritation of dressing, and particularly of the struggle to put on my trousers without being able to see my legs. I was staggering about, and once I had fallen over a chair and I had upset the jar of Michaelmas daisies.
I must have been a detestable spectacle. “I’ll go back to bed,” said I, “if I may have a word with Miss Beatrice. I’ve got something to say to her. That’s why I’m dressing.”
My point was conceded, but there were long delays. Whether the household had my ultimatum or whether she told Beatrice directly I do not know, and what Lady Osprey can have made of it in the former case I don’t imagine.
At last Beatrice came and stood by my bedside. “Well?” she said.
“All I want to say,” I said with the querulous note of a misunderstood child, “is that I can’t take this as final. I want to see you and talk when I’m better, and write. I can’t do anything now. I can’t argue.”
I was overtaken with self-pity and began to snivel, “I can’t rest. You see? I can’t do anything.”
She sat down beside me again and spoke softly. “I promise I will talk it all over with you again. When you are well. I promise I will meet you somewhere so that we can talk. You can’t talk now. I asked you not to talk now. All you want to know you shall know . . . Will that do?”
“I’d like to know”
She looked round to see the door was closed, stood up and went to it.
Then she crouched beside me and began whispering very softly and rapidly with her face close to me.
“Dear,” she said, “I love you. If it will make you happy to marry me, I will marry you. I was in a mood just now—a stupid, inconsiderate mood. Of course I will marry you. You are my prince, my king. Women are such things of mood—or I would have behaved differently. We say ‘No’ when we mean ‘Yes’—and fly into crises. So now, Yes—yes—yes. I will. I can’t even kiss you. Give me your hand to kiss that. Understand, I am yours. Do you understand? I am yours just as if we had been married fifty years. Your wife—Beatrice. Is that enough? Now—now will you rest?”
“Yes,” I said, “but why?”
“There are complications. There are difficulties. When you are better you will be able to—understand them. But now they don’t matter. Only you know this must be secret—for a time. Absolutely secret between us. Will you promise that?”
“Yes,” I said, “I understand. I wish I could kiss you.”
She laid her head down beside mine for a moment and then she kissed my hand.
“I don’t care what difficulties there are,” I said, and I shut my eyes.
But I was only beginning to gauge the unaccountable elements in Beatrice. For a week after my return to Lady Grove I had no sign of her, and then she called with Lady Osprey and brought a huge bunch of perennial sunflowers and Michaelmas daisies, “just the old flowers there were in your room,” said my aunt, with a relentless eye on me. I didn’t get any talk alone with Beatrice then, and she took occasion to tell us she was going to London for some indefinite number of weeks. I couldn’t even pledge her to write to me, and when she did it was a brief, enigmatical, friendly letter with not a word of the reality between us.
I wrote back a love letter—my first love letter—and she made no reply for eight days. Then came a scrawl: “I can’t write letters. Wait till we can talk. Are you better?”
I think the reader would be amused if he could see the papers on my desk as I write all this, the mangled and disfigured pages, the experimental arrangements of notes, the sheets of suggestions balanced in constellations, the blottesque intellectual battlegrounds over which I have been fighting. I find this account of my relations to Beatrice quite the most difficult part of my story to write. I happen to be a very objective-minded person, I forget my moods, and this was so much an affair of moods. And even such moods and emotions as I recall are very difficult to convey. To me it is about as difficult as describing a taste or a scent.
Then the objective story is made up of little things that are difficult to set in a proper order. And love in an hysterical passion, now high, now low, now exalted, and now intensely physical. No one has ever yet dared to tell a love story completely, its alternations, its comings and goings, its debased moments, its hate. The love stories we tell, tell only the net consequence, the ruling effect. . . .
How can I rescue from the past now the mystical quality of Beatrice; my intense longing for her; the overwhelming, irrational, formless desire? How can I explain how intimately that worship mingled with a high, impatient resolve to make her mine, to take her by strength and courage, to do my loving in a violent heroic manner? And then the doubts, the puzzled arrest at the fact of her fluctuations, at her refusal to marry me, at the fact that even when at last she returned to Bedley Corner she seemed to evade me?
That exasperated me and perplexed me beyond measure.
I felt that it was treachery. I thought of every conceivable explanation, and the most exalted and romantic confidence in her did not simply alternate, but mingled with the basest misgivings.
And into the tangle of memories comes the figure of Carnaby, coming out slowly from the background to a position of significance, as an influence, as a predominant strand in the nets that kept us apart, as a rival. What were the forces that pulled her away from me when it was so clearly manifest she loved me? Did she think of marrying him? Had I invaded some long-planned scheme? It was evident he did not like me, that in some way I spoilt the world for him. She returned to Bedley Corner, and for some weeks she was flitting about me, and never once could I have talk with her alone. When she came to my sheds Carnaby was always with her, jealously observant. (Why the devil couldn’t she send him about his business?) The days slipped by and my anger gathered.
All this mingles with the making of Lord Roberts B. I had resolved upon that one night as I lay awake at Bedley Corner; I got it planned out before the bandages were off my face. I conceived this second navigable balloon in a grandiose manner. It was to be a second Lord Roberts A, only more so; it was to be three times as big, large enough to carry three men, and it was to be an altogether triumphant vindication of my claims upon the air. The framework was to be hollow like a bird’s bones, airtight, and the air pumped in or out, and the weight of fuel I carried changed. I talked much and boasted to Cothope—whom I suspected of scepticisms about this new type—of what it would do, and it progressed—slowly. It progressed slowly because I was restless and uncertain. At times I would go away to London to snatch some chance of seeing Beatrice there, at times nothing but a day of gliding and hard and dangerous exercise would satisfy me. And now in the newspapers, in conversation, in everything about me, arose a new invader of my mental states. Something was happening to the great schemes of my uncle’s affairs; people were beginning to doubt, to question. It was the first quiver of his tremendous insecurity, the first wobble of that gigantic credit top he had kept spinning so long.
There were comings and goings, November and December slipped by. I had two unsatisfactory meetings with Beatrice, meetings that had no privacy—in which we said things of the sort that need atmosphere, baldly and furtively. I wrote to her several times and she wrote back notes that I would sometimes respond to altogether, sometimes condemn as insincere evasions. “You don’t understand. I can’t just now explain. Be patient with me. Leave things a little while to me.” She wrote.
I would talk aloud to these notes and wrangle over them in my workroom—while the plans of Lord Roberts B waited.
“You don’t give me a chance!” I would say. “Why don’t you let me know the secret? That’s what I’m for—to settle difficulties! to tell difficulties to!”
And at last I could hold out no longer against these accumulating pressures.
I took an arrogant, outrageous line that left her no loopholes; I behaved as though we were living in a melodrama.
“You must come and talk to me,” I wrote, “or I will come and take you. I want you—and the time runs away.”
We met in a ride in the upper plantations. It must have been early in January, for there was snow on the ground and on the branches of the trees. We walked to and fro for an hour or more, and from the first I pitched the key high in romance and made understandings impossible. It was our worst time together. I boasted like an actor, and she, I know not why, was tired and spiritless.
Now I think over that talk in the light of all that has happened since, I can imagine how she came to me full of a human appeal I was too foolish to let her make. I don’t know. I confess I have never completely understood Beatrice. I confess I am still perplexed at many things she said and did. That afternoon, anyhow, I was impossible. I posed and scolded. I was—I said it—for “taking the Universe by the throat!”
“If it was only that,” she said, but though I heard, I did not heed her.
At last she gave way to me and talked no more. Instead she looked at me—as a thing beyond her controlling, but none the less interesting—much as she had looked at me from behind the skirts of Lady Drew in the Warren when we were children together.
Once even I thought she smiled faintly.
“What are the difficulties” I cried. “there’s no difficulty I will not overcome for you! Do your people think I’m no equal for you? Who says it? My dear, tell me to win a title! I’ll do it in five years! . . .
“Here am I just grown a man at the sight of you. I have wanted something to fight for. Let me fight for you! . . .
“I’m rich without intending it. Let me mean it, give me an honourable excuse for it, and I’ll put all this rotten old Warren of England at your feet!”
I said such things as that. I write them down here in all their resounding base pride. I said these empty and foolish things, and they are part of me. Why should I still cling to pride and be ashamed? I shouted her down.
I passed from such megalomania to petty accusations.
“You think Carnaby is a better man than I?” I said.
“No!” she cried, stung to speech. “No!”
“You think we’re unsubstantial. You’ve listened to all these rumours Boom has started because we talked of a newspaper of our own. When you are with me you know I’m a man; when you get away from me you think I’m a cheat and a cad. . . . There’s not a word of truth in the things they say about us. I’ve been slack. I’ve left things. But we have only to exert ourselves. You do not know how wide and far we have spread our nets. Even now we have a coup—an expedition—in hand. It will put us on a footing.” . . .
Her eyes asked mutely and asked in vain that I would cease to boast of the very qualities she admired in me.
In the night I could not sleep for thinking of that talk and the vulgar things I had said in it. I could not understand the drift my mind had taken. I was acutely disgusted. And my unwonted doubts about myself spread from a merely personal discontent to our financial position. It was all very well to talk as I had done of wealth and power and peerages, but what did I know nowadays of my uncle’s position? Suppose in the midst of such boasting and confidence there came some turn I did not suspect, some rottenness he had concealed from me? I resolved I had been playing with aeronautics long enough; that next morning I would go to him and have things clear between us.
I caught an early train and went up to the Hardingham.
I went up to the Hardingham through a dense London fog to see how things really stood. Before I had talked to my uncle for ten minutes I felt like a man who has just awakened in a bleak, inhospitable room out of a grandiose dream.