Vladimir Soldi heard the name “Sylvia Edwards” twice before he saw it in the newspaper. The first time had been from one of his patients; a nervous woman who clutched a pamphlet and talked endlessly of coming things; the second was at the club, where a group of young men sat speculating about her sexual preferences.
In the morning paper, however, he saw an advertisement, probably placed by Sylvia Edwards herself, announcing her next series of speeches: Gold, Grain and Goodness. They started the following evening.
Gazing at the paper, Vladimir Soldi took another sip of coffee. Something interesting about this… It was odd enough that a woman should be giving a public speech; odder still was the topic. Money, food and morals; she seemed to be attempting to corner a rather extensive market…
He took out his notebook and made a careful note of the time and place. I shall probably be the only man there, he reflected, but that mattered little, for Vladimir Soldi had made the study of women his life’s work.
He was a compact man in his early thirties, with an intense walnut face and short black hair. There was nothing loose about him; he moved deliberately, wasting little effort; he had an ideal physicality, having no fat, no odd protrusions or eccentric physical habits. A great easy energy floated about him; he was an excellent listener.
Despite his name, Vladimir was London born and bred. His mother had developed a strong attachment to Russian culture before he was born, when stationed in Moscow for two years with her husband, a minor diplomat. Vladimir still occasionally found his name surprising, because his parents were extraordinarily unhasty people. One of the reasons his father had not risen far in the diplomatic ranks was that he had a powerful resistance to quick (i.e. hasty) decisions. When asked for advice, he would listen so patiently that the questioner would be almost exhausted by his explanation. After hearing all possible variables, Vladimir’s father would thank the person for his trust and leave without saying another word. This, of course, was rather perplexing, for the person seeking advice did not know that Vladimir’s father would go into his study and make voluminous notes about the problem, consulting books on philosophy, ethics and protocol, making diagrams and charting relationships. After a time, he would have whittled down the problem to a “Thesis of Action”, outlining all possible choices and their consequences. He would then present his thesis to the person who had asked him for advice, by which time the problem had long been solved. Were he informed of this, he would smile and hand his thesis to the person anyway, murmuring that it would be useful for future reference.
The utility of this “future reference” was somewhat questionable, for as long as Vladimir had known his father (about thirty years, until his quiet death), he had never known his father to increase the pace of his advice. Indeed, the timeframe of his deliberations seemed to increase from the historical to the geological, for, as his father was fond of saying, he found himself regretting some of the hastier decisions of his youth.
His father’s glacial judgments caused a happy division of labour within the family. Vladimir’s mother, finding that asking her husband whether they should buy coffee or tea generated a vast collection of articles on the possible prices and health effects of both substances, quickly decided to take total control of the household. Furthermore, in the matter of finances, a discussion of investment possibilities resulted in a virtual encyclopedia of economic conditions around the world, thus control of the family fortune also found its way into the hands of Vladimir’s mother. Accountants, stockbrokers and lawyers swallowed their distaste for feminine competence on learning that a suggestion to sell a stock was often not responded to until the company in question had gone out of business – and almost out of mortal memory – and so also began directing their advice to Mr. Soldi’s worthy wife.
This bothered Vladimir’s father not at all. He loved his wife very much, and she returned his affection. She loved him for his calm, his perception, his generosity. None of the symptoms of emotion haste; rage, jealousy, rejection, retaliation, pettiness, were ever present in the Soldi household. Vladimir’s first memory was of his father leaning over his crib, arranging his blankets, staring at them, arranging them again, kissing him gently, then arranging the blankets again. This behaviour – alarming perhaps to those made uneasy by the possibility of mild obsession – was enormously comforting to Vladimir; he felt an enveloping sense of security and care.
If the excitability of children can result from the chaotic emotions of their parents, then this would explain why Vladimir grew up with neither the boisterous explosivity of the overstimulated child nor the somber seriousness of the neglected child. What was most astounding, he often reflected as an adult, was that there was no repression of feeling in the Soldi household. Affection was openly expressed; his father seemed neither perplexed or disturbed by his child’s occasional outbursts of temper; he accepted them openly, then retired to his study to chart them. Knowing little of other families, Vladimir did not find it odd that his father would often sit him down and go over a Thesis of Action with him.
“You see, son,” Vladimir’s father would say (he rarely used Vladimir’s name, the only indication that he may have disapproved of the choice), “if we trace the pattern of this particular upset – your anger at being denied seconds of dessert, we can see that it is quite similar to this one,” (and here he flipped some pages), “where you shouted at the milk-boy for spilling some milk – and this one, where you sulked at me for criticizing your study habits. You see that when you get a certain expectation in your head – I must have two deserts, the milk must not be spilled, I do not need to study very much – this becomes to you not a habit, or an idea, but a fixed principle, a moral. Now the number of truly fixed principles in this world is very small; murder, theft, violence and so on. It is a great mistake in this life to confuse personal habits with moral absolutes. One ends up punishing others for not conforming to one’s own preferences. This leaves one hasty, short-tempered and intolerant. Do you understand?”
The odd thing was that Vladimir very often did understand. These talks began when Vladimir was seven; the “Age of Reason,” his father said. Vladimir felt such a depth of care and sympathy from his father that he found it a pleasure to follow his thoughts. Mr. Soldi always explained the other person’s point of view first; not with a mind to criticize, but to understand the factors influencing his or her behaviour. “When you are right,” he often said, “the end justifies the means.” This meant that if you were in a conflict, and sure you were right, it was perfectly acceptable to adjust one’s argument to address one’s opponents irrational preconceptions. Vladimir found this principle one of his father’s most valuable lessons.
Another interesting side effect of his father’s approach was that Vladimir grew up with a vast awareness of the endless factors that influence a person’s emotional makeup, and a strong understanding of the cause of misunderstandings between men. He did not follow his father’s habit of making voluminous notes – his father never pressed him to, commenting that pioneers always had to work harder than inheritors – but found himself able to perform the abstract gymnastics of introspection with calm precision.
In this world, however, self-knowledge is a double-edged sword. When one strives hard to know oneself, one often becomes closer to oneself and more distant from others. Vladimir called it the “benevolent eye”; a sense of perspective about oneself which remains uncoupled with the “critical eye”, whose main purpose often seems to view oneself in a bitter, haranguing manner. The benevolent eye regards one’s actions with a curious air – I did this because of that; the critical eye is always alert to failings: I should never have done that! Since the critical eye is inevitably hasty, it had little presence in the Soldi household.
As a teenager, Vladimir was utterly at a loss as to what to do with his unusual skills. Having seen his father’s lack of progress, he vowed to find a profession where his talents would be rewarded. He thought long and hard, and finally decided to become a doctor. Mr. Soldi examined his son’s choice with his habitual thoroughness; not with the air of finding the correct profession, but with the goal of ensuring that this choice would make Vladimir the most happy. The medical arts being a welcome home for sober judgment, the choice was eventually applauded.
So Vladimir left to study at Trinity. He found many of his scientific courses rather dry, though he excelled in them due to the natural discipline of a conscious desire. Many other disciplines attracted him, notably literature and philosophy, and he sat in on many courses outside his curriculum, finding the virtue of self-knowledge admirably expressed by the great masters – though sorely lacking in his fellow students. Vladimir was often amazed at the vast gap between theory and practice at university; he knew a man writing an enormous thesis on Augustine’s theory of lying who was later expelled for plagiarism; he also met graduate students of political theory who could not give him the name of a single cabinet minister or recently-enacted law. Pondering this problem, he realized that there are many to whom the pursuit of knowledge is a kind of mental manipulation, an irrelevant riddle of “compare and contrast” where ideas are slotted into theories in a grown-up version of pegs and holes. These students do not seek understanding, but control. The natural uncertainty of creativity is anathema to them; they seek to rise above the original thoughts of others by placing them in perspective. They set themselves up as the judges of other’s thoughts, hoping that none will notice their fundamental lack of ideas.
In the sciences it was, if possible, even stranger. There, knowledge was a fortress of facts. The world was not a riddle, enigma, or cohesion of wholes, but a sort of untied shoelace; all problems were solvable by applying the correct procedures. Everything which fell outside the realm of formula seemed to have no existence. Arts students were ridiculed as parasitic dreamers; the hardness of science was exalted; these students were problem-solvers, and any problem which proved intractable in the face of quantifiable approaches was not a problem but a simple waste of time.
Thus Vladimir found himself little at home in either camp. However, he found solace in the elaboration of a singular vision.
In his third year, at exam time, he began noticing an extraordinary increase in the number of physical ailments. He knew that there is no more hypochondriacal place on earth than a gaggle of medical students; headaches became tumours; stomachaches became gout. Serious young men would gather in the cafeteria and press their hands in each other’s abdomens, murmuring fearfully, eyes darting, gruesome diagrams in the open books on the table. Vladimir would watch them, astounded. He felt no panic during exams; he actually could never remember feeling the glossy sheen of sweaty fear. This did not seem to arise from an excess of talent – though he was very intelligent – for the most brilliant students were often prone to extraordinarily hasty outbursts.
One day, however, when he was taking his afternoon tea break in the common room, he found his attention captured by a young man named Francis. Francis was a tense boy eternally in search of attention. He was prone to senselessly cross-examining the professors in a high, tense voice, and was more often seen complaining of his excessive work load than doing anything constructive to alleviate it. Francis was staring at a book, writing frantically, his pale face looking clammy to the touch. Vladimir watched his tight jaw, thinking that it would take a crowbar and a dozen husky men to pry it open. Suddenly, almost without noticing it, Francis had gagged and spewed a stream of vomit on his books. This was discreetly ignored, as was any obvious transgression of polite protocol, and Francis had stared at his book, unmoving, his cheeks flushing violently. Perplexed at his lack of response, Vladimir had watched him curiously. The boy took his book, closed it, thrust it under his jacket, and left the room.
A thought seemed to spring fully-formed into Vladimir’s head as he watched Francis leave: what if the true illness is in the mind? His father’s meticulous approach to perspective served his son well; may not the body be exhausted by continual overstimulation? Vladimir knew that the mind was disordered by a lack of sleep; if the body, say, was unable to “sleep” due to a constant condition of stress, might it not also be subject to similar disruptions?
Vladimir found excuses to speak to Francis often after that incident. He found the boy to be extraordinarily excitable. Emotions seemed to stream across his face like racehorses; disgust, anger, cloying affection, fear, concern; one almost expected a chaos of hoofprints on his cheeks. Asking about his past, Vladimir found Francis oddly evasive; his childhood had been boring, he said; he had chafed at every restriction; he had always been emotional; he was lonely because everyone was stupid; he could find no sympathy; everyone expected him to be different; being very intelligent was a great trial; he wanted to strangle the ignorant; he believed that all the other students had banded against him; he was becoming a doctor because it was the least boring choice; all professors were blind slaves of old theories; he was always on the brink of an amazing breakthrough; he intended to make such changes to the medical arts that the title of “doctor” would be damn well unrecognizable when he was through…
Vladimir found all this fascinating. The idea of being at war with the world was so unfamiliar to him that he struggled hard to understand it. He did not doubt that Francis was intelligent – some of his comments were quite insightful – yet there was such a striving air of incompleteness about him; his wild plans, his endless edge of constant expectation, his strange resentments and chaotic visions. His cheeks were so often discoloured by the random force of his feelings that Vladimir could scarcely imagine their natural colour. The logic of Francis’s world-view was utterly complete; when Vladimir once tried countering his hostile views, he found himself instantly relegated to the ranks of the enemy.
Francis was also afflicted by a constant stream of petty physical ailments; his lymph glands were constantly infected, causing him to wear a colourful handkerchief on his head; he had extensive colonies of pimples, and was prey to strange gassy attacks which produced the most astounding flatulence. His body had the appearance of a horse ridden too hard, too long, too far, which survived only through an exercise of exhausted will; still walking, but labouring with every step.
Halfway through their fourth year, Francis announced that he had decided that the current state of medicine was hopeless, studying was utterly worthless, and he was going to India instead. This seemed strange because he was by this time doing much better at university; Vladimir had commented many times on his intelligence and, as a result, Francis had gained a reputation as an unstable possible genius. His hostility was thus transformed from an irritating habit to a natural symptom of extraordinary talent. The professors became much more patient; the other students slowly began to respect him. Like all whose habitual irritation is undermined by sudden acceptance, he quickly became peremptory and arrogant. This, of course, fitted the role of genius even better, and he almost became popular; it was for a time the height of fashion to be seen speaking with him. Then, suddenly, Francis announced his departure and vanished almost overnight.
Vladimir regretted his departure, but consoled himself by further developing a new approach to medicine. The idea that certain physical ailments may have a mental origin became as close to an obsession as his calm soul could allow. After his graduation, he traveled for a time, then set up an independent practice in London.
The young doctor spoke nothing of his new ideas; he knew that Francis had been correct in his assessment of medical conservatism. This did not arise, Vladimir believed, from any innate hostility to new ideas, but from the natural hazard of medicine, which is that any experimental approach requires human subjects, and such subjects have a tendency to display rather intense legal aggression if the experiment goes poorly.
So Vladimir proceeded with caution. He listened very carefully to those patients complaining of nervous symptoms; dizziness, headaches, attacks of irrational panic and so on. He treated them as best as he could for their complaints, but was always on the lookout for some mental explanation for their ailments. Many of these patients tended to display great agitation, fear, confusion, hostility, and seemed unaware of their constant contradictions. They all – especially the men – seemed to have developed a deep-seated dislike for a life of leisure; the women had an endless stream of words at their command; they seemed compelled to chatter, as it were.
On the other hand, there were those who came into his office complaining of listlessness. They sagged in the chair, their faces blank, their hands quietly folded in their laps. They spoke with great difficulty, as if through a glass wall; they reminded Vladimir of a friend whose wife was almost completely deaf; he had almost given up on communicating verbally with her, the effort required was so great. Far from complaining, these people seemed to have nothing but praise for their surroundings; they spoke of the virtues of those around them in a dead, monotonous voice. They also apologized a lot, though Vladimir could occasionally see a flicker of resentment in their dull eyes.
At home, in the evening, Vladimir made long lists of these various characteristics and stared at them for hours. They are in the grip of something, he thought. His father’s teachings: every perspective comes from somewhere, constantly ran through his mind. It seemed an insoluble problem: what could so alter a person’s perspective? He almost felt that he was dealing with a different species, as if he were an anthropologist in the grass huts of a foreign tribe.
He wrestled with the problem for years. He asked a great many questions of his nervous and listless patients, but found them universally incommunicative. The nervous ones talked about everything but what he wanted to know; the listless ones spoke little of anything. Of course, the process of investigation would have been vastly improved if Vladimir had any real idea of what he was looking for. These patients came and went, and most of them returned, still complaining of the same ailments. Vladimir felt confused, baffled, but not frustrated. He knew he was dealing with a certain sort of great unknown and, like most pioneers, the essential value was not the discovery, but the search.
When he was in his late twenties, Vladimir had a sudden inspiration. Being an only child, and unmarried, he had had little exposure to children, and so his patients were mostly older people. He had looked long and hard for any signs of change over the years in his patients; very few of them seemed to improve, and those that did tended not to come back. Thus he saw only the chronic, and began to think that he must cast his net for younger fish.
Hoping to increase his skills with children, Vladimir volunteered at an orphanage near his office. Every Saturday, at his own expense, he went and treated the children there. What he saw astounded him.
He saw the orphans divided into two camps; the aggressive and the withdrawn. The aggressive children were prone to cruel jokes, swaggering postures, violent impulses and a marked aggression towards the weak. The withdrawn children were quiet, compliant, furtive, and prone to deep, silent self-criticism. Here, he thought, here is where it may begin… The question still remained, however: what? The children had plenty of company, seemed well-fed, well-schooled and were often put to good use at an early age. They were enormously self-sufficient; even the withdrawn children rarely asked for anything. These were traits that Vladimir would admire in an adult, yet there was still a strange tension in these children, an excessiveness, a core of strain, pressure and unease. By all appearances, they were coping quite well, yet appearances contradicted some sort of instinct in Vladimir.
Finding himself more at ease with children, Vladimir began soliciting them as patients. He went to friend’s houses and endeared himself to their children, and soon found them knocking at his door when flu season came.
He kept a sharp eye out for any developments. Did any children begin to develop the strange malady he was pursuing? Did any slowly fall into the pit of hysteria or listlessness? For a long time it seemed he was making no progress at all. Many of the children brought to him were quite normal; he could detect no subtle ailments in them; many others were already suffering from the unknown malaise, but he could pinpoint no time of onset, or change of symptoms.
About a year after he started seeing the children, however, he witnessed something quite extraordinary. It startled him because he had almost forgotten to look; a hidden sense, however picked up on it, and he felt a chill run up and down his spine at the sight.
Elizabeth Dent was a girl of seven. Vladimir had seen her two or three times before, for normal illnesses, and had been struck by her cheery flirtatiousness. Her father was an enormously pleasant man, a classical scholar with a wide shock of white hair. On earlier visits, Elizabeth’s hands had been constantly roaming, tapping Vladimir’s stethoscope, tugging at his hair and poking his chest. She had been quite unafraid, had laughed at all of Vladimir’s jokes (which was quite beyond the call of duty), and had taken her medicine without complaint. However, when her mother brought her in one cold autumn afternoon, Vladimir felt a sudden chill at her change.
“Oh doctor!” cried Mrs. Dent, “I am almost at my wits end! She won’t eat, won’t sleep, won’t talk!”
“When did this happen?” asked Vladimir, smiling at the Elizabeth, who stared at the floor.
“About two weeks ago.”
“Was she out of the city? Visiting relatives? Did she meet any strangers? Make new friends?”
“No, no. Life was going on as normal.”
“Did the change come on suddenly?”
“It’s… hard to say. One week, laughing; the next: silent.”
Vladimir frowned. “Elizabeth?” he said. The girl raised her eyes, and Vladimir was astounded at the depths of change within them. They seemed to peer at him from a great distance, as if from a deep well.
“How do you feel, Elizabeth?” he asked.
“Do you hurt anywhere?”
She shrugged again.
“Can I put you on my table?” asked Vladimir gently. “I want to test some things.”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth, and he was surprised to hear a strange, muffled defiance in her voice. He tested her reflexes, checked her eyes and ears. He said he wanted to look down her throat, but she refused.
“Good lord, child!” cried Mrs. Dent, snapping her fingers. “Do as the doctor says!”
Elizabeth sat listlessly on the table, unmoving.
“You see?” cried her mother, exasperated. “Won’t listen!”
“Mrs. Dent – would you mind waiting outside?”
“No – not at all,” she said, picking up her purse.
When they were alone, Vladimir turned and gazed at Elizabeth. Her posture spoke volumes; the change was almost audible, but what did it say? He tried to see the world from her eyes. Lack of compliance would be very frustrating; she would know this, but didn’t care about being provocative. She didn’t mind being scolded or hit; that much was clear. Yet to his knowledge the Dent’s never laid a finger on their children in anger. The silent defiance in her eyes – what did it mean? That she saw an enemy somewhere – he remembered that much from Francis’s chaotic speeches, and felt a shiver of recognition. Perhaps this is the first stage, he thought. She is silent, but not listless. She seems full of a certain grim energy…
“Elizabeth?” Vladimir said gently.
She did not look up.
“Elizabeth? Something has happened to you,” he continued. “Something bad.” He wracked his mind; spiders, bullies, almost falling from a great height, a bad dream, but none of them seemed enough; they did not account for the lack of tears.
“Did anything bad happen to you two weeks ago?”
“No doctor,” she said softly.
“When you came in here last, about six months ago – do you remember that?”
She shook her head violently. “That wasn’t me.”
“Yes – yes it was,” he said, perplexed. “You came in here and laughed and joked with me. I gave you caster oil and you made a face at me, sticking out your tongue. Now you barely talk to me. Why?”
Too quick, thought Vladimir. She doesn’t want to speak.
“When did it happen?” he asked, sitting down and smiling encouragingly. “Your mother said that one week you were laughing, and the next you were sad. Why?”
“What does she know?” muttered Elizabeth.
“Well, she is your mother…” said Vladimir, feeling a little foolish.
“I…” said Elizabeth, then stopped, her eyes narrowing. Vladimir could almost see the energy she was applying to some problem; she was concentrating so hard that she seemed to impact on some hidden sense in him.
“I…” she said again.
“You can tell me; I am your friend.”
“I had a bad dream,” said Elizabeth, looking up, and there was a sudden spark of animation in her eyes. “I dreamed I was being eaten by a monster. A hairy monster. It scared me.”
Vladimir nodded, thinking: something is coming back, but it is different…
“I have been very beastly,” continued Elizabeth with a sudden smile. “I have vexed mummy. I have been a very bad girl.”
“Not if you were scared,” smiled Vladimir. “That’s all right.”
“No,” she said, quickly jumping off the table. “I have been ignoring my friends, and have been rude to my teachers. Especially Miss Fenal. But I won’t any more. I won’t, doctor. I won’t be rude. I feel much better. Much better! I shouldn’t act so when I get scared. Why, I was just teasing Missy the other day for screaming when she saw a spider – I said, baby, baby, I was very mean. She’s my best friend; we pick raspberries together. I hope she hasn’t gone out yet; it would kill me if she’d gone without me, it would mean she hated me. But she mustn’t hate me! She mustn’t! Do you think she hates me? I wasn’t very mean – not very! – I’ve seen much worse! Why, Catherine, now she’s mean – she won’t even look at you if she doesn’t like you! I was never that way, never that mean! I never tell tales behind someone’s back, even if I’m mad – I’m just that way, I think it’s wrong. Do you think it’s wrong?”
Vladimir stared at her, astounded, as if seeing a phoenix rise from the ashes right there in his office. She was happy, he thought, then she was sad, and now she’s frenetic! He knew that this was the genesis, the transformation he had sought for so long – and now it had happened right in front of his eyes, and he was no wiser! He watched Elizabeth as she chattered on; there was a tight energy about her; as if she was speaking not to communicate, but for some other, unfathomable purpose. If she had stayed as she was, she would have stayed listless; now she has become hasty; it happened when she said she had a dream…
After a few minutes, Vladimir rose. Elizabeth went silent immediately, as if she had been unaware of speaking, and began fidgeting. He put his head out of the door and called Mrs. Dent. When the woman came in, Elizabeth almost assaulted her with words.
“Oh mummy, mummy, I have been such a bad girl!” she cried. “I have been so rude – please forgive me! I am sorry – sorry I was rude, sorry I vexed you, sorry I had thoughts. Everything will be better now. I will be a good girl, your… special girl. I love you mummy. I’m sorry mummy. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“That’s my good girl,” said Mrs. Dent, reaching down and hugging her daughter, who, Vladimir noticed, stiffened visibly.
“Doctor, you’re a miracle! What did you do?”
Vladimir shrugged helplessly. “Nothing.”
“Ah, how modesty becomes a man! Send us your bill – whatever you want, we’ll pay! She is worth it!”
Now that’s an odd idea, thought Vladimir. Why doesn’t that feel as generous as it sounds?
“Thank you – the usual will do.”
“Humble and magnanimous!” enthused Mrs. Dent. “Well, we shall just have to erect a statue, that’s what we’ll have to do!”
“Thank you, that’s quite unnecessary.”
“Forgive my enthusiasm – perhaps if you had children… But of course you will, and you will be a wonderful father, like my James, a wonderful father.”
“He is, isn’t he mother?” said Elizabeth breathlessly.
“Salt of the earth,” said Mrs. Dent, kissing her.
“Yes he is,” replied her daughter.
After they had left, Vladimir checked his appointments and was profoundly relieved to find that there were no more patients that afternoon. He closed his office quickly and walked home slowly. He sat in his study for over two hours, thinking. Finally he sighed, pulled open his drawer, took out a blank sheet of paper and, began charting.
London was doing Laurence good. He walked for miles, took in theatre, dined out well and often, went to galleries and museums, and generally found himself sinking into a benevolent quicksand of occupied laziness.
He spent a good deal of time alone. He read a little, but mostly sat in a comfortable chair in his room, thinking.
A wall seems to have descended between my life and my youth, he reflected. When I was young and headstrong, I thought I held the world in my hands. I had plans for everything; even the soul could be organized. Something happened between now and then; a certain weight has settled upon me. Something to do with Mary, Kay and my mother. Something soft, insistent, feminine. Laurence smiled. No, not feminine – there’s Lydia… She is somehow different. It is almost as if she is willing to take my soul as is, without the need to tamper with its contents. What is enough? Is it enough to try, to be good, kind and thoughtful? No – for everyone there is something more, something they demand of other souls which may be particular only to their own. Kindness – we are all kind in our own ways, but others always want something different. How strange that we should all be so intolerant; for I also want something different. I want to satisfy Mary and Kay; I cannot find fault with their approach; there is a misery in the world my crops do not touch… But somehow, somewhere, there is something impure about it; this dream of the poor factory, how it is descending into something quite unforeseen, an endless war of wills. And my mother, with her dreams of culture and correctness, is there not something to her perspective? Did I lose myself in productive dirt? I had almost forgotten the power of paintings, their ability to soothe, to clarify, to release one from harsh burdens. Burdens… What burden am I carrying now? Was my mother right? Did I take on the sins of the world? Is my desire to save, an excuse to control? And Mary – how I sympathize with her trapped brilliance! I understand her, strange though it sounds… In a better world, she would be queen; lost in a canyon of class, she is a voice in the wilderness. I want to bring her happiness; Kay was right, I was insensitive when I was younger. Yet it all seems such a burden; I feel I am losing myself in other people… What would my father say? Why, boy, dust off your walking shoes and take to the road! That was always his solution; a moving target is harder to hit… Such contentment! I fear I will never see the like again…
He wandered through the National Gallery for hours, gazing at the powerful images of peace and strength. He was especially fascinated by the portraits; the wealthy subjects, sitting among their fowl, seemed to gaze at him with the calm of accepted transience. We are long gone, they seemed to whisper, and all our passions are scattered. What we loved and hated, like our loves and hates, has vanished from the earth… Laurence felt a certain peace in the company of these stiff depictions of disappearance; my loves and hates shall also fade…
One morning, Lord Cerbes accompanied Laurence to the gallery, and they wandered from room to room, lost in the subtle threads of artistic vision.
“When I was in Italy,” murmured Laurence, “I went to see Michaelangelo’s David. I think it sad sometimes that certain works are so famous; one almost wants to take a contrary position on principle. I sat looking at the statue for over an hour, thinking: I cannot imagine an ill person when I look at this. I had been at the Vatican the day before, and I was struck by the difference between the sculptures of the middle ages and the Renaissance. The artists of the middle ages seemed fascinated by gargoyles – especially during the Black Death. I thought: they must know that there are strong, healthy people, but they cast that aside and say, beauty is accidental; look, here is the essence of a human being: twisted, broken, sinful… Just as Michaelangelo knew there were deformed, ugly people, but said, ugliness is accidental; look, here is the essence of man: strong, healthy, beautiful! When I looked at David, I felt that the world was a good place; when I looked at the gargoyles, I felt afraid.”
Lord Cerbes nodded as they walked. “Our actions are the sum of our expectations,” he murmured. “Morality attempts to alter our actions; art to elevate our expectations. If the image of David were always in our minds, could we ever do base, petty, or peevish things? They would be beneath us; we would expect better.”
“There was a group of rough youths running through the gallery when I was there,” continued Laurence, “and they were making rude comments about fig leaves and laughing at the fact that the eyes of the statues had no pupils. I don’t think I have ever been as conscious of class as I was then. Nothing of the power and beauty of art seemed to penetrate them. So unlike myself at that age. Yet I wonder how much of sensitivity is innate, and how much is the result of privilege.”
“The essential question posed by young Miss O’Donnel,” commented Lord Cerbes.
“But it’s such a fundamental question,” said Laurence. “It seems to strike at the very heart of identity. Am I the sum of my circumstances, or something unique?”
“You do not think that the truth lies somewhere in between?” asked Lord Cerbes gently. “One cannot measure a field by length or breadth alone.”
“It seems almost unanswerable,” replied Laurence. “One cannot measure others for lack of information; one cannot measure oneself for lack of perspective. But what if my entire identity is the result of my circumstances?”
“Yes – what then?”
“Shouldn’t that change the way I see the world?”
“Is that possible? Could you honestly make jokes about fig leaves?”
“No, of course not. Yet… yet it should provoke some sort of change.”
Lord Cerbes smiled. “Could Miss O’Donnel make jokes about fig leaves?”
“No – no, of course not.”
“Yet she was raised in a state of extreme deprivation. Thus circumstances are not everything. And yet, suppose that your character was nothing more than the sum of your privilege. You had no say in the matter. You did not make the world. The human race is so constituted that money, talent, ambition, intelligence, sensitivity are all widely spread among the race. If one believes that any of these characteristics are fundamental values, one has automatically created a state of innate privilege. Laurence, I know the ideas that create your perspective. You think that because certain values are the result of certain privileges, they should be shared among those without those privileges. That is the perspective of the wealthy inheritor; I did not earn this, thus it must be shared. King Lear says the same thing: that distribution should undo excess/And each man have enough.”
“You don’t believe that?”
Lord Cerbes tapped his chin. “To answer that,” he said, “we must ask: what is equality among human beings? It cannot be a uniformity of personal characteristics, for nothing will ever make me as good a writer as Shakespeare. The natural inequality of talent can only be repressed, never destroyed. The essential question is, however, whether that natural inequality is the cause of the other inequalities of rank, station, wealth and power.”
“Surely there are those born to privilege who could never have earned it without their inheritance,” said Laurence.
“Yes, but that is begging the question. I was born an aristocrat because some blessed ancestor of mine was a great warrior. My privilege is the result of his skill. If a man makes a fortune in business, and wills it to his son, his son has a certain advantage, but the important question is not whether that is fair, but whether the son’s advantage results from the money, or the talent of his father. If the inequality is caused by the money, it may be unfair. If the inequality is caused by the talent of the father, it is neither fair nor unfair, but simply an inevitable result of a natural inequality of talent. If the poor complain that they lack money, are they complaining about a lack of money or a lack of talent? Is privilege, in other words, a cause of stature or an effect of stature?”
Laurence frowned. “So, I suppose your next argument will be to point out the number of aristocrats who fall from wealth through foolishness, and the number of poor who rise to power through talent.”
“There are many examples of each. Yet the argument of aristocratic privilege will, if you are successful in your agricultural improvements, become rather academic.”
“What?” cried Laurence, astounded.
“If this is to become heated,” smiled Lord Cerbes, “we should retire to a coffee house.”
“Excuse me. That was not anger, but shock.”
“Why shock? Have you thought so little about the results of your endeavours?”
“Yes – I have thought that the world will be a happier place if well-fed.”
“I see. I think, then, that we should sit down,” said Lord Cerbes, guiding them to a bench. “And you will excuse what I fear may be a rather tedious lecture.”
“No – by all means.”
“One of the greatest failings of the modern world,” said Lord Cerbes, settling into his seat, “is its appalling lack of historical perspective. Looking at the inequality of modern life, it cries: injustice!, without sparing a sparrow’s thought to the circumstances which gave rise to modern conditions. The aristocracy is in particular reviled as a parasitic institution…”
“I have heard that.”
“Quite – the recent revolts in France and America are ample evidence of the modern contempt for the aristocracy. The common view is that the world lived in a sunlit forest of joyful equality until the ambitious aristocrats-to-be began subjugating others. In this view, certain men gained power over others by violence, and the result was a hereditary aristocracy. The original relationship was entirely one-sided; the poor peasant, formerly free, was forced to become a helpless pawn of the powerful.”
“That view is certainly the current coinage,” commented Laurence.
“So naturally the peasant felt that he had lost his freedom, and the history of the world has been the struggle of the peasants to regain their freedom from the oppression of the upper classes. Furthermore, since the upper classes imposed their power through violence, the lower classes are perfectly justified in using violence to regain their freedom. Now the essential question, the question that is all too rarely asked of this perspective is: freedom from what?”
“Why, freedom from inequality, surely.”
“Doubtless,” said Lord Cerbes. “Yet that answer requires some qualification. Let us suppose that there are two men striving for a value; a piece of land, say. They are in a state of nature; there are no police, no courts, no third party whose judgment they both agree to abide by. How are they supposed to resolve their dispute?”
“Why – by force, I suppose.”
“Certainly. Now let us further suppose that one of these men is exceedingly small, while the other is disproportionately large. Furthermore, the large one possesses a wide variety of weapons; a sword, a bow and arrow, some sort of armour, while the other has only his hands. Can we see that there is bound to be an inequality in the resolution of their dispute?”
“Now imagine that the weaker man is demanding freedom from inequality. Can you tell me what the result of his demand will be?”
“Well – absolutely nothing. He will lose the land.”
“And quite possibly his life. Thus, in a state of nature, there is no equality; the strong dominate the weak, because strength is unevenly distributed among men.”
“So any demand for equality must require some agency capable of enforcing that equality,” said Laurence.
Lord Cerbes nodded. “Equality is a human invention which requires a human agency to maintain.”
“And that human agency is, I suppose, the aristocracy.”
“It is an interesting paradox, isn’t it?” commented Lord Cerbes. “In order for there to be any sort of equality in society, society must appoint an agency with unequal power to mediate disputes. Equality thus requires inequality.”
“So – if I follow your argument correctly – the peasant’s cry for an end to aristocratic inequality would result in a far greater inequality: the inequality of a state of nature. The inequality of brute force.”
Laurence pursed his lips. “Yet you say that the reforms I am bringing about will change all that.”
“I hypothesize that,” corrected Lord Cerbes. “I believe they will.”
“Well, enforcing equality requires resources, for it is a military act. The aristocracy developed as a land-owning class because land is the greatest value in a agricultural society. Now, the essential value of land is not that it produces food, but that it produces military resources. Land is of no value unless one can hold on to it, and one cannot hold on to it without military power. Military power is the result of excess productivity. Soldiers require food that they cannot produce, thus a certain amount of food must be taken from the peasants in order to maintain the military which defends them.”
“Then certainly making the land more productive, as I have done, will make the aristocracy more powerful,” commented Laurence.
“I quite disagree. Land is only a fundamental value when it produces only marginally more than its upkeep requires.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Let us suppose that a certain aristocrat finds a way to produce ten times more crops with the same amount of land and labour. Now, he only needs a certain amount of military resources; once he has fed his soldiers, his land becomes rather useless as a purely military resource. By increasing the productivity of his land tenfold, the aristocrat has reduced the military value of his land tenfold. Land is no longer the fundamental value.”
“But – what happens to the excess?”
“Ahh – that is an interesting question, one I believe you are having great difficulty answering.”
“If you have an answer, I would give blood to hear it,” said Laurence fervently.
“All right – we have an agricultural community which suddenly has ten times as much food as it used to have. It cannot eat it all. What is it supposed to do with it the excess?”
“Well, trade it. That’s the theory anyway.”
“Yes – but trade it for what? The neighbouring communities are still operating at a subsistence level. One can offer them more food, but what will they offer in return?”
“Labour – perhaps. Thus the lord with more can cultivate more land and produce more food. But the equation remains unsolved; the variables have simply increased in size.”
“Well – perhaps one can offer them goods in exchange for labour.”
“That is more along the lines of my thinking. You and I are both interested in sheep. The greatest value that excess food production provides is a vast pool of labour potential. The peasants only have to work a tenth as hard to produce enough food to live; what can the lord do with all their excess labour?”
“Exactly. He has an excess of food; he can use this to feed workers who do not have to work the land. These workers can produce goods which can be traded – not for food, for the lord has more than enough – but for additional labour.”
“Which, in turn, can produce more goods,” agreed Laurence. “But the question remains: who do you sell to?”
“You are forgetting that the excess food which is sold for labour creates an additional pool of labour in the neighboring communities. If I produce wool with my excess labour, and sell it to others in return for their labour, I remove the need for them to expend labour creating wool.” Lord Cerbes smiled. “Sorry – that wasn’t very clearly expressed. Let me try again. By selling cheap food, I remove the need for others to grow their own, which frees up some of their labour time. They can then spend this time extracting coal, say, which they can then trade for my food. Thus I do not have to extract my own coal, which frees up more of my labour time, which I can use to produce more food. Do you see?”
“Yes – by making the land vastly more productive, I shift the greatest value from land to labour.”
“By heavens, you are a gem to talk to!” cried Lord Cerbes. “I have turned blue trying to explain this to others. Now – what is the primary difference between land and labour?”
Laurence thought for a few moments. “I cannot imagine.”
“Think of it – what threatens the productivity of my land?”
“More fundamental than that.”
“I don’t know.”
“It is an enormous shift in perspective,” said Lord Cerbes. “Do not be ashamed. The question was rather poorly phrased. Let me try again: as a military leader, what threatens my control over my land?”
“Ah – invasion, revolt.”
“Which is why I need military resources; to retain control over my land, I must be capable of defending it. Now, what threatens my control over my workers?”
Laurence’s face lit up. “By God!” he cried, snapping his fingers. “Competition!”
“So the primary difference between land and labour is..?”
“Land is immobile, and so must be defended,” said Laurence excitedly. “Labour is mobile, and so must be wooed.”
“Well – the phrasing is a little more romantic than economic, but essentially correct,” smiled Lord Cerbes. “As a landowner, the primary value I gives my workers is military protection; as a capitalist, the primary value is wages. Competition for land requires war; competition for labour requires higher wages or better conditions. Are you beginning to see the changes you are bringing about?”
“Power to the lower classes?”
“Yes, in time, once they realize how things have changed and learn to organize. But – before all that?”
“Let me see,” said Laurence, his mind racing. “Land less important than labour, the management of labour the greatest value…”
“The management of labour – how is it different from the management of land?”
“Well, it requires – it requires less military power.”
“In some ways. Military power will no longer be centered around the protection of land; armies will certainly change.”
“Navies will become more important as trade becomes more important.”
“True, but we are drifting a little. Goods and labour are mobile, land is not. To protect your right to your land, you must defend it with an army. To defend your right to your goods, what will have to be defended?”
“Why – the right itself – the right to property.”
Lord Cerbes nodded. “On the nose.”
“So – let me see – what determines one’s ability to control one’s economic value is no longer military force, but abstract rights.”
“This is the argument of the new economists; Adam Smith, Ricardo and others. Property rights are a hot topic these days; this was the essential dispute with the colonists.”
“Oh! Wait – wait!” cried Laurence. “Excuse me, but will this not result is a greater diffusion of political power?”
“Well, by the very nature of military power, only a few can participate in it. But if the important criterion is property, why almost everyone has some sort of property, and because property rights are a principle, the property rights of the poor must be defended as well. Because labour is now the most fundamental value, and property results from labour, everyone with property will demand more say in government.”
“No taxation without representation,” quoted Lord Cerbes. “Yes – in such circumstances, universal suffrage is inevitable. Also – remember that the mobility of land and labour will require a different military approach. The need for lords to retain control over their land is no longer as important as the market’s need to protect the property rights of everyone. Thus the King will need a different sort of power: more legal, less military.”
“And, since labour and property are more productive than land alone, the King’s taxes will come more from merchants than aristocrats.”
“And so his decisions will inevitably reflect the demands of merchants more than aristocrats, for merchants are of more use to the King.”
Laurence sat back, exhaling a long sigh. “My head is spinning.”
“And so, to bring this back to the present, can you now understand why your wool factory is doing so badly?”
“Because there is no mobility,” whispered Laurence, his cheeks turning red. “No competition. No wooing.”
“You have attempted to create a feudal relationship in a labour environment. It is not unusual; in fact, it is to be expected. You are, after all, an aristocrat. We will have a hard time justifying our existence in the years to come. We shall have to provoke wars, increase our philanthropy, triumph our involvement in culture and so on. Yet I fear we shall be fighting a losing battle. The world is moving past us.”
“Yet the poor need us.”
“Is that so? Or is it we who need the poor?”
“Oh come now!” said Laurence, oddly irritated. “I go as far as economic speculations, yet no matter how wealthy society becomes, the poor will always need our help.”
“That has been the central moral idea of mankind as far back as history travels,” said Lord Cerbes, unpeturbed. “Yet when the world changes, everything must come into question – even that.”
“I shall fight you,” said Laurence.
“I expect nothing less. I mentioned earlier that privilege may be the result of talent, not its cause. We may assume for the moment that this question can never be adequately resolved, for there are too many variables; we can never say exactly what privilege results from in every case. Yet let us suppose that in the years to come labour becomes the highest economic value, displacing land. Now the possession of land is currently a privilege; yet every man possesses the ability to work.”
“Unless he is an invalid.”
“With your permission, we shall come to that shortly. Let us first deal with the majority, the able-bodied. In a world where all men may sell their labour, economic value is no longer exclusive; it is common to all with the ability to work. Society may claim a certain portion of their labour to pay for common defense, but beyond that, his earnings are his own. Can we see that the question of the responsibility for poverty fundamentally alters when the primary economic value is no longer land, but labour?”
“Certainly,” replied Laurence. “If you are not born with possession of land, either as a lord or a serf, your are excluded from productivity through no fault of your own, yet most men are born with the ability to work. I agree that the responsibility for poverty, as you term it, falls more heavily on the man who will not work than the man who has no land, but that is not the essential question. I already know that my reforms create more wealth – I have had direct experience of that – yet there is still an awful gulf between those who have and those who lack – and I do not believe that is the sole result of laziness.”
“Certainly – naturally, we have too little information to determine that all who are poor are lazy; there are certainly some, but we have no way of knowing how many. Yet there are, of course, many different kinds of poor people. There are the lazy, of course, those rendered unable to work for some reason, those who prefer poverty – do not look surprised; many artists hold creativity a higher value than wealth, and ascetics reject the value of money completely. Will we say to a brilliant painter living in an attic: you are poor? I think he would be insulted by our appellation.”
“This does not mean he prefers poverty,” said Laurence.
“No, but we are, I think, quite safe in assuming that he prefers painting to any other occupation. Given that he is able to work, but prefers to paint, his poverty is his own responsibility. I for one would not be comfortable criticizing his choice, for I love paintings. Yet he cannot claim to be a victim of poverty. Let us also remember that, as an artist, he is taking a sort of gamble. He is sacrificing immediate material prosperity for the sake of his art; his art may become very popular, in which case he stands to earn a great deal of money, far more than he would have if he had taken some other occupation. He is an entrepreneur, and like any entrepreneur, he cannot be called merely poor.”
“All right – but what of those who are really poor. Those who, through no fault of their own, cannot work.”
“That is the heart of our problem. We began our discussion on the question of whether the poor need us. Now, by ‘us,’ do you mean those with wealth or those with legal privilege?”
“Those with legal privilege. Aristocrats.”
“Well – I believe that charity is a value, and it requires a certain – sensitivity, a sensitivity that seems quite rare in the world of business. When a man sets out to make money, he must harden his heart. It is quite a combative world, the market; the competition, the haggling, the entreaties of workers. I am sure that most businessmen would like to pay their workers more, for instance, but they cannot, because they would go out of business. Thus they must harden their hearts to their worker’s pleas. They must learn to see the world in terms of profit, not sympathy. I do not say this in order to criticize; it appears to me a natural state. Yet learning how to say no to people, how to reject their appeals, causes one to lose empathy. When one loses empathy, one can no longer hear the cries of the poor. They die in ditches while the rich get fat.”
Lord Cerbes thought for a moment. “I see. Your argument is that having to say no to people requires the shedding of empathy, which results in a lack of sympathy for the poor. Then I am certainly inhumane.”
“Well, my wife died quite young, and I was left with the responsibility of raising Lydia. For various reasons, I did not relegate this duty to servants, and thus I was forced to say no to her on countless occasions, such as when she wanted to stay up late, eat nothing but pie, or procrastinate in her studies. I would say that the characteristic you ascribe to capitalists – the ability to defer immediate gratification for the sake of a greater good – is in fact common to all decent people.”
Laurence shook his head. “No – it is not so much about that, but that thinking of the world in terms of money lends one far less able to think about it in terms of human beings.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think there is a certain inhumanity in the market. One does not ask: what is your value as a human being?, but rather how much are you worth as a worker? One is not seen as a soul, but a pair of arms. Those in the possession of legal privilege are, I think, above all that.”
“So you would say that the aristocracy has a fairly good record of being able to recognize peasants as individual human beings?”
Laurence smiled. “No – I suppose that would be a fairly indefensible thesis.”
“Do you think there is any characteristic which can be universally ascribed to the aristocracy?”
Laurence thought for a moment. “I was going to say ‘arrogance’, but we are sitting here talking about the poor.”
“Is there any group of people to whom a lack of concern for the poor can be universally ascribed?”
“Thus when you say: the poor need us, you cannot mean the aristocracy, or any other group, but rather those who care for the poor.”
“No – the poor need those who care about them and those who have the means to help them.”
“Help them – how?”
“That is the difficult question, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is. There are two approaches to helping the poor. One is to give them comfort, the other is to give them money. The first is, generally, the province of the Church; the second is the province of the State, as we saw in the Speenhamland debacle. The question why are there poor? is as old as time, and has never been solved.”
“How can it be solved?”
Lord Cerbes looked at him intently. “I don’t know. But I do know that the solution cannot be the abandonment of the better things in life; love, art, beauty, wealth. That would be like showing sympathy for the crippled by cutting off one’s own legs – something which would benefit no-one.”
Laurence searched the older man’s eyes for a few moments.
“I have been listening,” he said softly, turning away.
“Good,” said Lord Cerbes abruptly, checking his watch. “Now, time pressing as it does, you had better take a carriage to get to the recital.”
Laurence blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Lydia’s recital. The dress rehearsal is this afternoon. She asked for you to be there.”
Lord Cerbes smiled. “No grey hairs should stand in the way of a young man’s vision. I have written the address down,” he said, handing over a card with an engaging smile. “Off you go.”
In the carriage, Laurence thought long and hard about what Lord Cerbes had said. Such philosophy..! The man was even more intelligent than Laurence had imagined, and felt a sudden stab of shame at the disastrous factory visit. He wants to help me achieve something, thought Laurence, but felt no qualms. If that something was Lydia, he appreciated it.
He found his way to the concert hall, out in the west end. He gave his name to a stagehand, and was seated in the middle of the front row. Someone he assumed was the director sat behind him, coughing and taking snuff.
“Fan of Lady Cerbes?” the man wheezed, leaning forward.
Laurence turned his head. “A friend,” he said.
“Lucky man! She’s a gem!” exclaimed the director. “Will you give me your comments after the show?”
“Of course. I shall be, perhaps, a little too kind regarding Lydia.”
The man croaked out a laugh. “That will be unnecessary.”
The candles were doused, and Laurence sat through about ten minutes of rather strained singing before Lydia made her entrance.
He was awed by the way she dominated the stage. It was not as if she owned the stage, but almost as if she was the stage. She moved as if she had applied for, and received, diplomatic immunity from gravity. She entered silently from the rear of the stage, dressed in a Valkyrie’s gown, and stood watching a pair of lovers intently, her eyes hooded and pained. When the other woman left, the man sat by a fountain and swished his feet in a shimmer of artificial water.
Lydia drifted towards him, her body alive with yearning. The man glanced towards her, but she stepped behind a pillar, leaned against it and turned an anguished face to heaven. She opened her mouth, and Laurence dropped his jaw.
The delicious shock of unemembered talent rippled through him. Lydia’s voice seemed to start from nowhere and everywhere, from her body, from her eyes, from the walls around her. It had a clear, pure tone, a gorgeous controlled soprano, yet her technique seemed immaterial; her song was laden with a blind despairing passion for things lost, and Laurence was startled to feel tears in his eyes. He was sitting in a direct line from the man to Lydia. She turned from the pillar and gazed straight at Laurence and, at that moment, he would have traded ten years of his life to know Italian. As she sang, Lydia’s arms lifted, reaching for him; he thought this was supposed to be directed at the man on stage, but he knew she was singing to him, in a voice of such longing that Laurence felt his soul hammering at his skin to rise and meet it. Happy is the man embraced by a woman’s clear passion! Strangely enough, Laurence had been so immersed in family tectonics that he had almost lost sight of his attraction to Lydia. He recalled it now; it arose again, as if it had never been left, and tears ran down his cheeks.
Beauty had been drained from me… he thought blindly, and suddenly the reality of Mary and Kay’s world became clear. It was a worthwhile world, a caring world perhaps, but a world with little beauty; a world of oppression and injustice, power and prestige, victims and resentment. All the massed bitterness of the excluded, which had been preying on his soul, seemed to lift and fly away from him, leaving behind mute wonder at a state of grace he had almost forgotten.
Here – here are the fruits of privilege, he thought, and the word ‘privilege’ had none of Mary’s meanings; it was a state she could now fill if she so desired. Lydia’s song rose around him, echoing through the almost empty hall, lifting his soul, burning clear all wasting fogs, and Laurence felt as if he were rising to meet her, to meet himself, to meet all that is best and most pure in the world.
“Will you still be kind?” wheezed the director behind him, laughing.
Laurence nodded, unable to speak. I will be kind, he thought. I will be kind without guilt.
He sat silently through the rest of the performance. For him, Lydia was the only singer; the others merely shouted on key. After the performance was over, he sat silently in his chair until the director plucked his sleeve and took him to Lydia’s dressing room.
Laurence knocked and opened the door, and saw Lydia in the light of many candles. She was removing her makeup, peering at her own reflection in the dim light. Hearing the door open, she turned.
“Samuel!” she cried. “Could you not wait until I was a little less in both worlds?”
“The lad was eager,” wheezed the director. “Can’t say as I blame him. Well done, lass!” he said, nodding significantly and retiring.
“It’s good to see you, Larry,” said Lydia. “Do you mind watching, or do you want to wait outside?”
Laurence shook his head, taking a seat. Lydia watched him from the mirror.
“Did you meet my father?”
“Yes… We went to the gallery this morning.”
“He is very fond of you.”
Laurence smiled. “I feel like a bit of an invalid with him sometimes. I had no idea how intelligent he really is.”
“He envies you, you know,” said Lydia, smoothing cold cream on her cheeks.
“It’s all theory to him. You are making it real. You also listen well, and he needs that. Philosophers love giving advice to practical men; it makes all their work worthwhile.”
“You were wonderful,” said Laurence softly.
“You liked it?”
“More than that. More than that. I hope I am not gushing when I say I was enraptured.”
Lydia smiled. “Oh, we artists hate gushing!”
“I don’t know why, but I assumed your singing was a sort of hobby. I’m sorry.”
“That’s how it started,” confessed Lydia, wiping her face with a soft cloth. “I spent a lot of time squawking the most abysmal nonsense. I don’t know why, but I was somehow sure that I had more to offer. Samuel was enormously helpful; he is a raspy ball of pure passion. He challenged me to go further. Don’t be afraid of passion! he kept telling me. It took me a long time to believe him. Why do you think we are so afraid of passion?” she asked, turning in her chair to face him.
Laurence blushed. “I don’t know. I suppose it seems easier to ignore – sometimes. We always think that no-one else feels as we feel. We are alone in our passions. We hide what is precious far from others. And ourselves.”
“That’s a kind of poverty, though, isn’t it?” asked Lydia. “Like a miser who prefers to starve than spend.”
“I have loved you from the moment I saw you,” said Laurence suddenly, feeling dizzy. Lydia sat motionless, looking at him.
“When I first saw you, about a year ago now,” he said in a rush, “you seemed like all the good things in the world. The way you laughed, the way you moved, it was more than… But I thought – and I don’t know why – she is not for me. You seemed like a statue. I’m sorry. I have never felt this before.”
“You have never felt love?” asked Lydia.
“No – every time I see you, I think: I know love. Then, the next time I see you, I feel even more. It’s – it’s quite confusing. Even – even if you don’t love me – sorry, that sounded presumptious – if you don’t love me, I am still grateful. You have brought so much to me just by being who you are.”
Lydia laughed, and Laurence’s heart froze. “But Laurence!” she cried, “I do love you.”
Laurence felt his soul break free of all fearful moorings. He moved forward, his mind whirling. He fell to his knees before her chair, turning his face up to her. She reached down and touched his earlobe, caressing it between thumb and forefinger. Laurence reached up and stroked her earlobe. They both burst into laughter, stood and embraced. He fondled the back of Lydia’s neck and leaned into heaven to receive her kiss.
Mary flung the vase at the full-length mirror, her soul drunk with destruction. As the crashing echoed around her, she whirled and swept the pretty ornaments from the mantelpiece over the fire. She took her thin dress between her hands and tore a long strip up her front. Leaping on the bed, she grabbed the canopy over her head and pulled at it with all her might. Her arms were taut, her veins protruding. She wrenched, but it held firm. Finally, when she was straining so hard that her feet had almost left the bed, she cried out, let go and fell onto the sheets. Parting the fabric with her hands, she burrowed under the blankets, pushing her face into the sheets, and loosed a long, harrowing cry, sobbing uncontrollably.
It was turning into a difficult day.
First thing that morning, she had accompanied Kay to the bank. Kay had drawn out a hundred crisp new ten pound notes, handed them over to Mary, kissed her cheek, and left to meet Jonathon. Mary had leaned against a marble pillar, sweat running down her forehead, her eyes unfocused, the bank counter swimming before her. Her trembling hands kept rising to pat the packet in her breast pocket. People passed by, on business of their own, their faces set in professional casts.
The pillar was cool against Mary’s shoulders. She had a sudden image, a memory of being lost in a wood, some time after being thrown out by Farmer Jigger. Mary leaned her head back, her palms almost tingling with forgotten scratches, shivering in a solitary echo. The memory was strong, sudden. Mary tasted the berries and roots she had lived on during her years of wandering. One afternoon, half-starved, she had stumbled into a clearing in an endless wood. A cottage stood there; a young man and woman sat on a tree trunk beside it. The woman was holding a book, talking and gesticulating as the man peered at the pages. Mary crept closer, through the undergrowth, and huddled beneath a bush, watching them. The woman had stood, laughing, explaining something to the man, who smiled at her, his eyes glowing with love. They had talked for over an hour, then took an axe each and walked off hand in hand into the depths of the forest. Mary waited for a time, then crawled forward on her hands and knees. Behind the house was a little shed; inside a cow stood alone, slowly chewing cud. Mary had crept under the cow’s belly, placed a teat in her mouth, and sucked at it ravenously. The cow had shifted and lowed. Mary’s hands had wandered up the beast’s flanks as she sucked, stroking, caressing, pleading. The cow had settled, and when Mary was full, she lay down beside the cow and fell fast asleep.
She awoke to the feeling of the cow’s rough tongue licking her cheek. It was quite dark. Mary reached up and tickled the cow’s ears as it licked her face. Sitting up, she had heard the sound of passionate lovemaking coming from within the hut. The man and woman called each other’s name, laughing and moaning. The cries of ecstasy rang in Mary’s ears as the cow licked her face; she sat caressing the beast’s cheeks, weeping bitterly, aching with loneliness…
The memory was strong; Mary had never thought about it before; it was lost in the void of her neglected yesterdays. She wandered out of the bank; the day was bright and sunny; the street teemed with busy people. Mary gazed up and down the road; it seemed that the stores, formerly such a foreign country, were now wide open; she held a key she had never held before.
She drifted up the street, looking at the shops in wonder. If I want a sticky bun, I can buy one; if I want a painting, it is mine… she thought, her mind striving to grapple with a great unknown. She walked up to a fruit stall, picked up an orange and stared at it in wonder.
“From the country, miss?” asked the vendor, an old man with an enormous nose.
“Yes,” said Mary.
“Can’t get these in the country,” grinned the man. “They’re called ‘oranges’ a-cause of their colour. Juiciest goodness you ever tasted. Try one; if you want more, I can get you as many as you want.”
Mary leaned her head forward, opening her mouth.
“Heavens, miss!” cried the man, taking the fruit from her. “That’s a bitter start! You’ve got to peel ‘em, like this,” he said, taking a paring knife and expertly shaving the skin. “Try it now,” he said, handing the juicy innards over to her. Mary took a bite, and almost cried in agony at the tart sweetness; the juice ran down her chin, and she shook her head, leaning forward.
“Not pretty, but pretty good, hey miss?” laughed the man.
“How much?” asked Mary.
“A shilling a dozen. More’n apples, I dare say, but these are magic for the sniffles. Eat one every morning, and the only use for your handkerchief you’ll find, I wager, is dropping it for pretty gentlemen to return. Can I bag you two dozen? No charge for the one running down your chin.”
“Yes,” said Mary. “Please.”
The old man grabbed them two by two and dropped them into a brown paper bag. “I can tie it for you if you want,” he offered. Mary shook her head. “That’ll be two shillings then.”
Mary reached into her pocket, felt around and pulled out a ten-pound note. The man’s eyes widened as she handed it to him.
“My word, miss,” he exclaimed, taking the note with two fingers. “I’ve never spied one of these before; ain’t they pretty? Can’t change it, miss.”
The man laughed. “This could buy all my fruit, my cart, my clothes, and probably a few of my limbs. I need something smaller, m’lady.”
“That’s the smallest I have. Sorry,” apologized Mary.
The man shook his head with a wry smile. “Well, we all are different, ain’t we? I’ll tell you what, miss,” he said, handing over the bag, “these are complimentary. It takes a good memory to manage a lot of money, I say, and I’m sure you’ll remember good old Jeremiah when you’ve a mind to wander with more practical money.”
“Thank you. I will,” said Mary, taking the bag. She curtsied, making Jeremiah laugh, then wandered off into the crowd. When I was starving, she thought, he would have snarled at me. What a world! Those that want, lack; those that have, get…
Soon, Mary stood before a dressmakers: Algernon and Sons. She stared at it for a moment, then went in without thinking. The interior of the shop was dark, shrouded with endless rolls of fabric. A young man sat doing a crossword puzzle, his pencil in his mouth, his hair sticking out in all directions. He looked up as she came in.
“Sorry, miss,” he said, returning to his puzzle, “no walk-ins; by appointment only. We’re wholesalers.”
“I want to buy some dresses,” said Mary resolutely.
“Leave a card,” said the young man carelessly, taking his pencil from his mouth. “We’ll be in touch.”
“Do you make dresses from gold?” asked Mary.
The man’s pencil paused. He looked up, curious. “Excuse me?”
“I want the best,” said Mary slowly. “You understand.”
The young man paused, then sighed and rose. “Not really. Just a moment,” he said, disappearing into the dark folds of hanging fabric. Mary walked forward and touched a bolt, astounded at the smoothness of the cloth. So much softer than a cow’s tongue, she thought, and felt a sudden, nauseous shiver.
An older man suddenly appeared at her elbow.
“Rupert Algernon, at your service,” he said with a deep bow. “Whom do I have the honour of addressing?”
“Mary – Mary O’Donnel.”
“Well, good miss, my son informs me that you are in a hurry for the finest clothes. May I ask who referred you?”
“I was just passing; only passing by,” said Mary. “I saw the sign, and came in.”
Rupert looked at her for a moment, then smiled. “Please excuse the forwardness, good miss, but have you recently come into money?”
“Why?” asked Mary sharply.
“Oh – a thousand apologies! Your language and manners are, of course, impeccable, but here at Algernon and Son’s we pride ourselves in making the clothes fit the woman – in every way. For instance, I had a woman in tears here just yesterday; she had recently inherited some money, and had gone to one of our more careless competitors, who had sold her the most extravagant costumes. She went to a ball and was, I am sad to say, a laughingstock; she appeared too eager to appear at one with her station, if I may put it in such a manner. I ask only for the sake of service, not insult.”
“I see,” said Mary carefully. “Yes; I have but recently come into money.”
Rupert nodded delicately. “And – your circumstances before? Again; I ask only for the sake of finding a perfect fit.”
“What do you mean?”
The man tapped his teeth with the tip of his finger, then stroked his chin. “For instance, were you known in London before your sudden fortune? That is quite important.”
“No – I was quite unknown.”
“Very good; that simplifies things. And your former attire? What are you used to wearing?”
Whatever I could steal from the clothesline, thought Mary, and almost giggled, her dizziness increasing. “I would say: not especially formal,” she said with effort.
“And the venue for you new apparel? Where do you expect to wear your purchases? Balls? Dinners? Promenading?”
Mary frowned. “I imagine that most of your remaining questions will be quite irrelevant,” she said. “I assure you I will be a most unusual customer. I am looking for clothes to give speeches in.”
“In radical circles?” asked Rupert.
“I certainly hope not!” replied Mary.
“Then I would suggest something with the simple style of uncluttered elegance. Some of the new light cotton, well-fitted, grey and white, perhaps with a darker sash. An outfit which says, I am serious, but not masculine.”
“That sounds about right,” said Mary, taking a deep breath. Calm down! she ordered herself.
“Very well,” said Rupert. “Now, I have several sketches I would like you to look over – just for reference; we will of course create something entirely new for you. But first, if you will tell me your measurements…”
“I – I have no idea,” said Mary hesitantly.
Rupert looked at her suddenly, his composure breaking for a brief moment, as if he had a sudden insight as to the depths of her prior poverty.
“No matter,” he said calmly. “Nothing to be ashamed of. We will measure you now. If you will come this way…”
Mary took a step back. “I – do not like to be touched,” she said tensely, her stomach churning.
“It is painless,” said Rupert uncertainly.
“No doubt,” replied Mary. “Yet there it is.”
“You would prefer a woman? I can ask my wife…”
“That doesn’t matter. If you would prefer, I can go elsewhere…”
“No – I want to help. But you understand; if you go to a doctor, he must examine you…”
“There will be no examinations!” said Mary sharply. “Tell me what to do, and I will measure myself.”
“Certainly; that would be most satisfactory.”
“And can I be assured of your discretion in all matters?”
“Why – of course. We are quite trustworthy.”
“How much do you need to start?”
Rupert smiled. “We take no retainer, good miss. We measure, design and sketch without any obligation on your part. You review the sketches, pay for the materials, and only if you are happy with the results do you pay us for our labour. Our charges vary per dress; you will not pay if you are unhappy.”
“That is – remarkable,” said Mary.
“It is our philosophy,” said Rupert. “Do you not think true talent always finds its just reward?”
“Yes,” said Mary, pressing her palms to her eyes. “Yes – I do.”
“Then we are of like minds,” beamed Rupert. “I am so pleased. Will you come with me now?”
“Certainly,” said Mary. Rupert lifted a fold of fabric for her to pass, and followed her into the fitting room.
The fitting room was a dark chamber, lit only by a single skylight. Mary felt a sudden chill. Three female forms were mounted on poles, draped carelessly with fabric. One of the forms, breasts exposed, had a number of large needles stuck into the side of its waist.
“No,” whispered Mary, closing her eyes. Feeling a sudden wave of dizziness, she backed up, running into Rupert. She turned round quickly, her eyes wild, her hands raised before her. “No – this is not right! I can’t – give me a few days!”
“Are you all right, Miss O’Donnel?” asked Rupert, leaning forward in the dark, concerned.
“No!” cried Mary. “Everyone asks… It’s nothing; I must – leave. I shall return – when I am ready. Thank you – for your time. Excuse me – I must go!”
Mary blundered forward, lost in the draping folds. She resisted the urge to cry out as she thrust the heavy fabrics aside with her hands. Bursting out into the storefront, she ran forward, wrenched the door open and escaped into the street.
“Miss – miss!” cried Rupert from the doorway. “Miss – leave your card!”
Mary nodded vaguely, waving a hand. Hailing a carriage, she crawled into it, her heart pounding.
“Where to, miss?” asked the driver.
“Hotel – the Waverly,” gasped Mary, her vision swimming.
She made it to the hotel; staggered up the stairs, holding the banister, then ran into her room, where she proceeded to destroy everything in sight.
Kay was shocked at the state of the room; she was no less shocked at the state of her friend. When she opened the door, she saw Mary sitting in the floor, a shroud of blankets pulled up to her nose.
“Mary?” she whispered.
Mary’s wide eyes turned to her.
“Kay!” she cried, tightening her hands on the blankets. “Thank you! You should have been with me this morning! I walked, I had an orange – have you ever tasted one? They’re wonderful!” she cried giddily. “I couldn’t spend a penny – I tried, but no-one could change the money… Then I went to a dressmakers and had the most wonderful talk with… with… oh, what was his name, something and sons… Oh well. I’m going for a fitting as soon – as soon as I feel up to it. How are you? How is Jonathon? He’s a wonderful man; you are both very lucky; come in, don’t stand by the door!”
Kay stepped into the room. Mary got up suddenly, dropping the covers from her.
“Mary!” cried Kay. “What happened to your dress?”
Mary glanced down at the savage tear on her midriff, then looked up, her eyes mortified.
“Oh my!” she said, touching her cheek. “I don’t know… It was torn.”
“Mary – Mary, sit down. Please. You’re – you’re frightening me.”
Mary sat down immediately. “Please don’t be frightened, Kay,” she begged. “You are – my best friend. I don’t want to scare you. I’ll be all right. I’ve come this far. Oh, but Kay; Kay, don’t be frightened. I am. I am very frightened. I seem to have lost some sort of control. I have never acted like such a – child. Not even when I was a child!” she said with a brittle laugh.
“You seem very nervous,” said Kay.
“It’s very stupid!” cried Mary with a flash of anger. “Here I am; I have struggled for so long to make something of myself, to find a place where my gifts could express themselves. I was so strong, you know,” she said, suddenly tearful. “I was so strong – do you know that? I had no pity for myself. I survived everything. I almost became someone else; that’s what it felt like. And now I am in London – London! – and I have the best, most generous friend in the world – though I have done a lot for you as well! – and I am ready to start my lectures, and I seem to have sort of – lost myself. It makes no sense; now of all times, it makes no sense!”
“Hush!” said Kay, her senses almost supernaturally alert. “You mustn’t carry on so. I don’t know if this helps, but when I was six or so…”
“Six!” cried Mary, shuddering. “I am a grown woman!”
“You’re right; I’m sorry,” said Kay instantly. She looked at Mary for a moment, then shook her head. “It was just that… I was lost for a whole day, in the woods, and I didn’t cry once. But when Larry found me, I burst into tears.”
“Oh? And did Larry ever burst into tears?” cried Mary bitterly. “Of course not. He was crown prince of everything!”
“But Mary,” said Kay, confused, “I could give you money because Larry gave me money.”
“Oh? And who gave him money? Who sent him to Italy? Of course; I forget! He earned it by being such a good boy! And I was burned at the stake because I was a bad girl!” Mary looked around the room, dazed, then shook her head violently. “No – Kay – I’m sorry; he is a good man; you are a good woman. Everything you are giving me, I will repay with interest. Interest! You know that, don’t you? I loathe charity; I love the poor; they need charity, but I loathe it for myself.”
“But – why?” asked Kay.
“Because I have earned more than charity!” cried Mary. “Because the world should kneel at my feet, and I must scrabble and beg for scraps like a stray dog! Oh Kay – do you ever wonder what your life would have been like without… without…”
“Should I come back another time..?” asked Kay, standing hesitantly.
“No!” cried Mary, her eyes widening. “No – don’t go! I’m sorry; tell me how to be! I want you to stay, but I want to speak my mind. But I can’t; I can’t!”
“Why not? I am your friend. I want to help,” said Kay, sitting again.
Mary shook her head. “I am not good to my friends. No, that’s not true. I am just to my friends. I will make good use of your money. Good use. That is my plan. My plan. But what is my plan? It seemed so clear; I can’t remember… Lady is dead, and I… I…”
Kay leaned forward, raising her hand. Mary flinched.
“Hush – I just want to feel your forehead,” said Kay gently. Touching Mary’s hairline with her palm, she found the skin burning. “Good heavens!” cried Kay. “You have a fever!”
“No – I’m just agitated. Your limbs would twitch too if you had run so hard, so long…” Mary shivered, stood suddenly, went over to the washbasin, poured a tall glass of water, and drank it in a single gulp. She stood with her back to Kay for a few moments, then turned to look at her friend, her face quite composed.
“Please excuse me, Kay,” she said evenly. “That was unusual for me. I think it was a terrible strain.” She smiled. “Now tell me – why did you come?”
“I – I wanted to thank you for something.”
Mary nodded. “I’m glad. What is that?”
“When I was having lunch with Jonathon,” said Kay, “he told me that it was you who sent him up when I was… talking with mother. I – wanted to thank you for that.”
“You’re welcome,” said Mary. “I wanted to come in myself, but I thought that would only have sent Lady Barbara into further agitation.”
“You are very wise. I don’t know what would have happened if…”
Mary waved her hand. “No matter. We all need help; I help you, you help me. That’s what friendship means.”
“Are you feeling better now?” asked Kay cautiously.
“Much!” exhaled Mary. “It wasn’t the right time to be alone… So tell me, woman to woman,” she said, sitting down. “What do you think is going to happen with Jonathon?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well – how do you feel about him?”
Kay pursed her lips and smiled. “Oh, you know, he’s wonderful. He’s got such a merry spirit. He had me in stitches at lunch with stories of his schooldays. I think he’s very handsome – very! Don’t you?”
“I’m glad; I don’t have much experience with – that.”
“Have you kissed?”
Kay blushed. “Oh, well, no, not really. He kissed me on the cheek after lunch, and held my hand under the table before we ate.”
“What do you think of all that?”
“You know – the carnal side.”
Kay took a deep breath. “Oh – that. Well, I suppose it’s fine. I don’t really think about it.”
“It’s – I’m just not… I’ve never really thought of myself that way.”
“Why on earth not? You are so attractive.”
“How so?” asked Kay softly.
“You have lovely eyes. And your hands are graceful, though a little flighty. And your hair is very fine.”
Kay touched her pale hair self-consciously. “I just think – you know, he could have any woman in London…”
“But he wants you.”
“But – why? Doesn’t that strike you as strange?”
“You mustn’t think that!” exclaimed Mary. “Love is rare for the rejected. Why? Because we were rejected in the past? No – because we expect to be rejected in the present. Don’t lose the natural trust of love, Kay. The man loves you. He walked through fire for you. Don’t worry about why. Don’t analyze his heart; it has its own reasons. Accept his love. Tell me: you are satisfied with him?”
“Then love him, and leave his love to himself. And for God’s sake don’t try second-guessing what he wants. He wants you, pure and simple. He is a good man. You are a good woman. Be happy. Be happy.”
“You’re right, of course,” said Kay, “but I just sometimes wonder – not because of what mother said – whether he loved me because I was unable to free myself. Because I was trapped. Because he had the power to save me.”
Mary smiled. “Then save him.”
“Look – he’s a good man, but we both know he’s a little unfocused. He seems to have no answer to the essential question: what am I going to do with my life? You are helping me; you are taking control of your finances; you are going to be a great philanthropist. But Jonathon? What is he going to do between the here and the hereafter? Just bounce around? You can save him by getting him on track.”
“Get him started on a career.”
“Laurence has a career: agricultural reformer; Lydia has a career: singer; Lord Cerbes has one: philosopher. You have one. I have one.”
“What’s yours? In a nutshell.”
“Justice,” grinned Mary. “In a nutshell. We all have a purpose except Jonathon. Get him started. Save him from his drifting. You see, Kay, if one person thinks they’re doing all the saving, the relationship can never be equal. And you deserve nothing less than complete equality.”
“What career do you envision for him?”
“Well – he invests, doesn’t he? Why doesn’t he talk to a financial institution? It’s just a thought.”
“It’s an interesting thought though,” mused Kay.
“You’ll both be happier. Even happier. Talk to him now, tonight.”
“Don’t be critical, whatever you do. Men hate that. Ask him what he plans to do with the rest of his life. Let him talk. Listen, and help him clarify his desires.”
“That is an astoundingly good idea.”
Mary smiled. “Do you still think I am fevered?”
Kay laughed. “No, I suppose not. Thank you, Mary. You are a true friend.”
After Kay had left, Mary lay on her bed. If I am wrong, she thought, if there is a God who will call me to atonement when I am dead, He may rail against me for everything but today. Today, He will admit, I did a good deed. That will have to be enough.
It had taken on all the furtive characteristics of a coming war. Adam strode up and down the rows of the looms, his eyes sharp, his heart sick. Resentful heads were lowered over the swishing shuttles; the air was thick with intrigue.
Good Lord, thought Adam, how dismal! Not in the plan, not in the plan…
At the distant sound of the church-bell striking noon, all the workers folded their hands and sat back in their chairs.
“Lunch,” muttered Adam, taking a deep breath. A few moments to myself…
“Aye, lunch,” called Jake from the back of the factory. “And so much more than lunch.”
“Well,” he said, standing and rubbing his beard. “We’ve been a-thinking, and a-talking, merchant, and we’ve tricked on a pretty thought.”
“I’m not interested,” said Adam shortly. “You have gotten all you asked for and more.”
“Oh, we’re not innerested in more,” cried Jake with a sudden grin. “We’s innerested in less – one less, to be smart. We’s innerested in setting ye free, merchant.” He snapped his fingers. “Ahh – that got his attention, friends! Ye see, it has tumbled on us that ye don’t like us very much, merchant, and despite the fact that ye give good back rubs, we can only say the feeling flows both ways. So we have a sit-yoo-ation here; two parties stuck together, neither liking the other. Well, we’ve tricked on a way out of our thorny dance!”
“Let me guess: leaving and letting me hire good workers?” asked Adam. “Or is it working hard and keeping your mouths shut?”
Jake shook his head with a smile. “Nay, nay; we can’t leave. The good Lord Larry would rain hard on ye if ye broke up his little party. Yet one of us will be showing his heels, merchant.”
Adam stared at the man, his mind searching for the whip.
“Y’see, we stretches and groans each morning, an’ then we sit down pretty as ye please and shove the shuttles while you storm up and down with the whip. So we be scratchin’ our noggins and saying: what do we need him for?” Jake spread his hands. “Now, yer value may have ‘scaped us, but it seems to us that we do all the working, while you do all the whacking.”
“You think I want to be here?” demanded Adam.
Jake smiled. “Why, nay, merchant. I think ye’d rather be jus’ about anywhere but here. So take our blessings and be off.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Getting fond of lashing?”
Adam’s cheeks flushed a deep red. “Let me tell you something, since you want the cards laid on the table. I have no sympathy for you. I do not think you are good people. I think you are outcasts because you are petty, cowardly, vicious and greedy.”
“Aye,” scowled Jake. “Life has made us so.”
“Has it?” demanded Adam. “You know, I had no education. I was born in the streets. And I have spent my whole life getting away from people like you. People who blame the world for their own failures. People who expect something for nothing. You are all fools! The world owes you nothing. My philosophy: life is hard. Be harder.”
“Pretty, pretty speech!” cried Jake, clapping sardonically. “Ye cain’t expect something for nothing? Then why are ye paid for walking around? Lord – I’ve walked more in this life than ye could in twenty, and I was never tossed a penny for my footings!”
“I am paid because the looms are mine.”
“Why are they yours? Causen you made ‘em? Why, we make the wool, and we don’t get none.”
“You get paid.”
“Which we cain’t spend. None take our coin.”
“That’s you’re own doing. You steal, you fight, you curse.”
“We was provoked!” cried one of the men. “We be branded, cursed; we have to fight back!”
“Look,” said Adam, striving for calm, “you have to rise above that. People think you are bad. Fight back, and you prove them right.”
“Pah!” spat Jake. “Milky words from a milky man! Ye couldn’t stand straight if ye was propped! Here’s the what, merchant: we ain’t working until ye leave. We’re taking no more beatings, no more sneers, no more slavings to make ye rich. We work for oursells, or not at all.”
“You are all resolved in this?”
“It seems Christian fair,” said a man.
“I cain’t sleep for scars,” said another.
“Ye said we were esposed to help ourselves; this is how we want it,” said another.
Adam looked at their set faces for a long moment. “All right,” he said finally. “All right – I have no more patience. I got into this because I thought Lord Carvey was an investor. I was wrong. He prefers tinkering with souls to making money. No matter; I have only lost a month or so. All right. I will leave as I came, with a knapsack and a set of blueprints. The looms are yours. You can find your own buyers. You can pay yourselves. You can arrange transportation, as you please.” Adam nodded. “It is all yours.”
“Ye hear that, lads?” cried Jake triumphantly. “It’s all ours!”
A cheer rang out in the factory.
“Ye’re a noble soul!” shouted Jake. “Best wishes for ye!”
Adam stared at him bitterly. “You are fools to think it is so easy. But life will teach you.” He cast his eyes over the looms, over the flushed jubilant faces, over the ramshackle factory, then walked over to his little desk, picked up his knapsack, and walked out of the door.
He walked for a few minutes without thinking, driven by a blind need to put some distance between himself and the factory. Finally he looked around, and found himself on the road to the Carvey house. Struck by a sudden thought, he felt in his pocket and pulled out Laurence’s promissory note. He stared at it: This entitles the bearer full access to all my accounts… The signature and seal would be accepted by any bank in the realm. Adam broke into a sudden sweat. This could be my ticket! he thought rapidly. Virtually unlimited funds; I could take it; it would be borrowing; I would pay it back double…
In moments of moral crisis, habits often rule. Adam had struggled up from nothing; he had never stolen, never cheated; never lied. The resolution that had brought him this far suddenly reasserted itself.
“No,” he whispered, shocked at the sudden depth of his temptation. “No – not that way!”
Adam thrust the note back into his pocket, his hands shaking. He looked around him, at the solid swaying trees and clear blue sky. Shaking his head, he laughed suddenly, adjusted his hat, and strolled up the road towards the Carvey mansion.
The door was answered by the maid.
“I have a delivery for Lady Barbara,” he said.
“One moment,” said Edith, glancing disdainfully at his clothing.
Adam whistled as he waited. When Lady Barbara came to the door, he smiled.
“I have a package for you, m’lady,” he said.
“What is that then?” she asked sharply.
Adam handed over the note. The old woman glanced at it, then stared at Adam in shock.
“Can you read?” she demanded. “Do you know what this is?”
“Yes, m’lady,” said Adam. “It is a promissory note. It entitles the bearer to draw whatever he wants from Lord Carvey’s accounts.”
“Why are you returning it?”
“Because I no longer work for Lord Carvey.”
“And why is that?”
“It is a private matter, m’lady,” said Adam.
Lady Barbara glared at him, her senses acute, confused.
“Well, I suppose that is very honest…” she muttered. “Do you wish to leave any message for him?”
“No, m’lady,” said Adam gently. “If experience cannot teach him, neither can I.”
“But – what happened?” she asked, her voice taut with curiosity.
“I simply found out that, because of his restrictions, I cannot do what I was hired to do. That is all. Happens all the time.”
“But – who will run the factory?”
“I leave that in your hands, m’lady.”
Lady Barbara frowned, then smiled suddenly. “Yes. Well, thank you for returning the note. Good day,” she said, closing the door.
Holding the note between thumb and forefinger, Lady Barbara slowly walked into the living room and sat on the couch. This entitles the bearer full access to my accounts… Lady Barbara stared at it. Father Jones had informed her that the tithe had been paid. Yet it was only a loan, she thought. My daughter is not for sale… It is for her own good… And Larry – Larry will destroy our fortune if I leave it in his hands…
For ten minutes she stared at the note, her cheeks flushing. Moral habits being what they are, she finally rose, went to her writing desk, pulled out a sheet of paper, and began writing a letter to her banker.
As he walked, Adam’s mind whirled. What am I going to do now? he thought. There is no point roaming the countryside looking for a sensible aristocrat; that trait seems to have been bred out of them generations ago. Who do I know who has brains, vision and money? Lord Cerbes? No – he expressed little interest; he’s too abstract for such practical work… Jonathon? Too flighty; couldn’t be relied upon. Mary? Adam almost shuddered. God no! She was the force behind this disaster.
His mind whirled as he walked through the blinding brightness. I must get to London; Laurence is giving a series of speeches on agriculture; perhaps I find someone there who listens to what he says… It was a desperate hope, but it was the best he could come up with. Taking out his wallet, Adam quickly counted his money. Not much, he noted dismally. I will have to make my way on foot.
Somewhat daunted by the discovery, Adam sat down beside the road, propping his chin in his hands and staring at the scenery. The numbness was wearing off; anger and despair were beginning to make themselves known. The dreary futility of starting over seemed to drain his habitual energy from his limbs.
He was so dejected that he didn’t even hear the sound of the carriage.
“Is this the road to London, my man?” cried an irritable voice.
Adam looked up. A sumptuous carriage stood before him, two fine horses pawing before it, a driver mopping his brow. A man’s face glared at him, framed in the carriage window. Their eyes met, and a ripple of recognition passed between them. Merchant, thought Adam. Merchant, thought the man in the carriage.
“Is this the road to London?” repeated the man, a little less harshly.
“Yes, sir,” said Adam, standing and brushing his clothes. “And if I may be so bold as to request a favour, I am sorely in need of a ride. I am on a business trip.”
“A business trip!” cried the man, his eyes lighting up guiltily. “What sort of business trip?”
“I would be most happy to discuss it with you,” grinned Adam, strength flowing back into his bones. “Good companions shorten the road, they say.”
The man grinned back. “Hop in then.”
Adam picked up his knapsack and climbed into the carriage.
“Walk on!” cried the man, tapping the roof with his cane. “What is your name, sir?” he asked, settling back in his seat and regarding Adam closely.
“Adam Footer,” replied Adam. “And yours?”
“Squire Pounder,” replied the man. “Now tell me – what left you abandoned in such a lonely spot?”
“Ah, business gone sour,” replied Adam. “Saddest story you ever heard. I have in this knapsack the means to near-infinite riches.”
Squire Pounder laughed. “So you say!”
“It is true,” said Adam earnestly. “You have heard of the new woolens?”
“Of course!” replied Squire Pounder, holding a sleeve forward. “Feel this.”
Adam touched the fabric. “Hm,” he frowned.
“Well, I’m sure that is the best to be had; yet it is not the best to be made.”
Squire Pounder smiled. “Go on.”
“Have you ever heard of a power loom?”
“No – who is it?”
“A most bounteous device,” smiled Adam, pulling out his blueprints and spreading them on his lap.
“What on earth is that?”
“On earth, courtesy of heaven! This little beauty allows a worker to produce ten times more fabric than doing it by hand. Ten times more – and ten times better!”
Squire Pounder frowned. “You are sure you are not overselling a wee bit?” he asked skeptically. “Such a treasure would transform the realm.”
“Aye – it would, if a man had the vision and resources to bring it about. That was what I was here for. A local lord agreed to set up a workshop, but suddenly got the idea of using it for charity rather than business. He hired only the poorest of the poor, who proved to be exceedingly poor workers. I just left this morning, exhausted by their endless demands.”
“A bad mix,” said Squire Pounder judiciously.
“As I said from the start. But there’s no reasoning with a philanthropist.”
“This Lord – Lord Laurence Carvey?”
“The same, sir! You know him?”
“I was just at his house, looking for a – friend of mine,” said Squire Pounder, with more than a trace of irritation. “Now tell me – what would one of these looms cost? And no glossing, mind: I have some experience in these matters!”
“Well, depending on the number ordered, anywhere from five to eight pounds apiece. We had fifty looms here, at six pounds apiece.”
“What was their output?”
“Twenty yards a day. Each.”
“Twenty yards!” exclaimed Squire Pounder. “Liar!”
Adam smiled. “No sir. And that was with substandard labour. I calculate thirty yards with good hands.”
“They would pay for themselves in a matter months!”
“And the rest would be pure, pure profit. Sir,” said Adam. “Aside from the wages.”
Squire Pounder leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed tight, his hands rubbing his legs vigorously. “Oh, this is sorely tempting!” he cried.
“Tempting, sir?” asked Adam uncertainly. “Making money is not a vice.”
“Well, sir,” said Squire Pounder, letting out a deep breath. “You may have noticed a certain – aristocratic air to my demeanor.”
“Why yes,” pacified Adam. “I first took you for a good lord. Then, I thought – and don’t ask me why – this is a man of business.”
“You have the sensitivity of a good salesman,” admitted Squire Pounder. “You are right. I was once as you are now. Yet I performed a service for a lord, and was subsequently elevated into the ranks of the useless.”
Adam laughed. “Now that’s an odd sentiment!”
“Aye – so it strikes me sometimes. It was a promise made to my dear late mother, who desperately wanted something better for her only son.”
“So – and forgive my presumption – she wanted you to be useless?”
Squire Pounder guffawed. “Well – she saw more of the finery than the daily nature of the station. She saw lord as better, and that was what I promised her.”
“Ah. So this opportunity is tempting because you fear being seduced by business again.”
“It no longer fits my station,” said Squire Pounder regretfully.
“That much is certain,” replied Adam with equal remorse. “Yet if you know of anyone in your old circle capable of understanding the power of such an opportunity, I would appreciate…”
“No!” cried Squire Pounder, thumping the floor with his cane, almost making Adam start. “No! I offered the ride; I will not let you go!”
“I appreciate the confidence, sir. It is not misplaced. Yet we are in an interesting dilemma.”
Squire Pounder nodded. “You understand – some aristocrats invest without incurring any social penalties. Yet for me, so recently risen, it would be viewed as an appalling lapse. There would be no mercy.”
Adam pursed his lips. “May I speak plainly?”
“Please do,” sighed Squire Pounder. “It would be a welcome change from my current circle.”
“Your esteemed mother; would she have preferred you to be a poor aristocrat or a rich merchant?”
“Good lord, my man! I am scarcely poor!”
“I do not doubt it. Do you own any land?”
“Well, I suppose I could set up a cart in some corner of Kensington, but no, not really.”
“Then, if I understand your situation correctly, you are currently living off fixed capital.”
“That is true.”
“Are you touching the principal?”
“Well – to live as required requires more than interest.”
“Then it seems to me that your rise is, for want of a better word, unsustainable. Thus it seems possible that you will have the opposite conversation with your son as your mother had with you, yet for the same reason: poverty.”
Squire Pounder nodded vigorously. “Yes – yes. Incontrovertible.”
“Then you must do something to maintain your fortune. This opportunity, then, fits you like a glove! Let us suppose that I set up an intermediate account. You deposit, I withdraw; then, I deposit the profits. All you have to do is sit back and watch it grow.”
Squire Pounder frowned, then shook his head. “You are, of course, a worthy soul, but I am suspicious by nature. I cannot give you free access to my accounts. Tell me – have you any experience in distributing and marketing?”
“Actually, I have hitherto largely focused on getting the goods produced first.”
“The clear answer being no,” said Squire Pounder. “I, however, have wide experience in international marketing; I supplied the Provisional government with grain during the recent revolution. I have a wide variety of contacts. I speak French. I have experience in shipping. I could not rely on you in these matters; it would be unproductive.”
“Quite right,” agreed Adam. “You must be directly involved. Your experience would mean the difference between profit and windfall. I would welcome the input.”
“No doubt,” said Squire Pounder, rubbing his chin frantically. “Yet direct participation would elicit a precipitous social fall.”
“Yet you seem somewhat unsatisfied with your station at present.”
“Acute; quite acute.” Squire Pounder scowled, drumming his fingers together rapidly. “Damn it! I should have left you on the road!”
“That would have been quite wise,” smiled Adam.
“Don’t be impertinent. You need me more than I need you.”
“Quite right. I do apologize.”
Squire Pounder scowled. “You have spoken to no-one else about this?”
“Only Lord Carvey.”
“Does he know how to build these looms?”
“These are the only blueprints. He has, fortunately, gone to London. He is in love. He has no experience in business. I do not think we have to worry about him.”
Squire Pounder paused for a moment. Love..? He shook his head suddenly, as if discarding an over-ornate hat, then rubbed his hands gleefully. “Good, good. All right. This is the plan. When we get to London, I will give you my address. Come to me Thursday – no, damn it, Thursday is bad – as is Friday. Oh God – and Monday. No – come to me next Tuesday, as if you are delivering a package. I will don a disguise, and we will go to a bank. Not mine – I may be recognized. We will go as two ambitious merchants in search of capital.”
“Will we get any?”
“Just watch. I know how to talk to these people.”
Squire Pounder and Adam regarded each other, gripped in the passion of the deal, then reached across the space separating them and shook hands eagerly. Adam did not shudder at the sweat.
Johnathon Eddsworth was somewhat surprised at the change in his friends since leaving Dorset. He had an inkling that Lydia would fall for Laurence the moment she saw him, of course, yet he was a little surprised at the amount of energy she put into getting him into what she called the right position (a phrase which caused Jonathon to make some rather ill-received jokes). When you find someone attractive, he insisted, the first thing to do is borrow a mandolin, hang about under their window, and bellow love songs at their curtains. “Everyone loves to be loved,” he said. Lydia contented herself with making several remarks as to the preference of many women to quality, not quantity. Jonathon retorted that she was a hopeless prig.
This was one of Jonathan’s odd characteristics. He called himself a romantic, yet like many romantics he had little sympathy for those on the receiving end of his cannon-like passions. Considering himself the sole repository of true feeling, he viewed women as fortresses of repression best besieged by continual assaults of emotional bombast.
It would be quite possible to point out to Jonathon that, despite his claim to the title of lover of women, there was more than a little patronage in his approach. To some degree, he held the views of his forefathers: women were still helpless maidens in need of rescue. While his ancestors viewed the salvation of women as a matter of military skill and economic strength, Jonathon aimed to redeem them with emotional artillery. Jonathon prided himself on his passion. Yet when one’s emotions have a definite aim, when they are part of a manifesto, so to speak, can they really be said to be genuine? Here, cried Jonathon, here: see the liberating display of my passion! Yet his passions were still a form of display; like the cry-on-cue emotions of the competent actor, they could easily be termed more of a personal talent than a universal value.
Jonathon, of course, left himself little time to ponder these questions. On his return to London, he plunged back into his habitual search for new experiences (a paradox, of course, which entirely escaped him). He got into violent arguments at his club, ran from theatre to opera, tried learning yet another musical instrument, pored over maps in search of a new continent, played with the idea of going to France with a notebook and a keenly-perceptive eye – and spent a good deal of time trying to draw Kay into his peculiar gallery of overstimulation.
Kay found Jonathan’s company both stimulating and unsettling. She was undergoing a phase in recovery commonly called perceptive paranoia. Having had her secret trauma so recently and dramatically exposed, she began to wonder about the number of people in the world with similar secrets. I appeared normal for so many years, she thought. I was criticized as flighty, nervous and confused, yet I was really desperately afraid, and with good reason. How many people are like me? How much of society is really constructed around the need to keep these secrets? Walking through London, she saw furtive, flushed children keeping close to their mothers, and her heart ached. A twitchy man approached her one morning, begging for money, his eyes wide and fearful, and she suddenly thought: veteran, and it dawned on her that there is a secret war in society, a war against the helpless; it is waged in homes and businesses, governments and clubs; the helpless are children, workers, soldiers, peasants, husbands, wives; all who find themselves dependent on cruel power. The tense polarity of unequal relationships creates a dense whirlpool of compliance, resentment, control, defiance, violence, rage, fear and horror. A child is delivered into the hands of her mother, realized Kay, and often a separate world is created, a world far from the norms of society, a little prison of sick secrecy, a dank hole of endless, stealthy destruction.
When she read the newspaper, walked the streets, talked with people; wherever she looked, this secret seemed to be spilling from secret holes. She began to see veterans everywhere. The harsh noise of society, the racing evasion and silent desperation all seemed like the distant rumblings of hidden trenches, trenches where the helpless lay trembling before the trundling monoliths of cold, hard hearts.
Kay had spent twenty-six years of her life in combat. She had learned all the habits of predators; her senses had been strained almost to the breaking-point trying to map the cause and effect of trapped violence. A lamb caged with a lion learns a lot about lions. That knowledge lies buried until a safer time; when it comes out, it comes with such a sudden rush that the whole world seems to squeeze and distort itself into a wholly different shape. The accepted antonyms of truth: I caused my horror; I was wrong; I provoked; I am a coward; my mother is good; I cannot influence others; I am insignificant; I cannot give pleasure; I cannot be loved… These beaten cries of a broken soul become the elemental religion of the victims of violence; if overturned, the resulting crisis of identity is far greater than the loss of religious faith, for our parents are always closer to us than our gods. The soul becomes shattered in two; the one which knows the horror of violence, and the one which cannot allow itself to know the reality of its world. This division sets the self at war with itself; the uncertainties, confused passions, the savage combination of wild noise and dismal silence are all symptoms of the veteran, the survivor of war who knows no end to war, no armistice but blind hope.
Kay had an odd, powerful dream one night. She seemed to be floating in a distant, insubstantial realm, a blur of possible life, jostling in a crowded room of potential souls. A tall, dark-cloaked figure called the souls one by one and offered them a life, presenting each of them with a book. Kay drifted through the emptiness, trying to peek at the book, but all the pages were blank. Finally, her name was called, and the dark figure asked her if she wanted her coming life. She asked what it would be like. The figure presented her with a book. This only goes to age eighteen, it said. You must make your decision based on that. Kay opened the book eagerly, and visions seemed to spring into her mind from the blank pages.
She felt herself, pink and kicking on a change table, saw a woman leaning over her and shouting be still, be still! The woman cried out, exasperated at Kay’s struggles, and struck her violently on the face several times. The scene faded, and another came; Kay on the change table, some time later. She no longer moved; she lay frozen, silent, watching her mother’s hands intently. Another view: Kay as a toddler; her mother trying to dress her. Kay went limp, watching her mother’s hands; her mother cried out at her passivity and struck her again…
Older now; some change had occurred; she no longer was herself, but watched herself, as if floating some distance from her helpless flesh. She saw herself in an enormous bedroom, packing some biscuits in a little bag, sniffling, desperate. She followed herself as she crept down the stairs towards the front door; her view leapt suddenly to the top of the stairs as her mother came thundering down! Ungrateful child! screamed her mother, descending on the little girl like a whirlwind, her hands striking, blurring like the wings of a hummingbird; Kay felt the sick desperation as she saw herself fall back against the front door, the door to freedom, not even raising her hands to protect herself, falling behind the towering fury of her mother’s back.
Then, a period of strange calm; Kay saw herself at a party of her mother’s, laughing with an oddly tense face, desperate to please, following her mother, clutching at her skirts, being snapped at, her hands constantly torn from her mother’s flowing dress; she watched herself drift silently into a corner, standing, her hands folded over her stomach, staring at the wild hilarity of the party, at her turbulent father driving jokes into his guests like spikes…
Older again; in her dream, the visions had begun to take on a tired, dusty quality, a squeezing sense of slow demise. She saw herself as a young girl, trailing her brother without hope, swallowing his abrupt rejections without complaint, a fixed smile on her face…
More and more; she heard the sandpaper scraping of turning pages; the dark figure loomed above her, watching silently. Kay wandered through the wilderness of puberty and adolescence, a quiet lost habit of solitude; friendless, humiliated, a begging wraith of fearful need. She saw herself in a library, staring at textbooks, the words flowing and fading over the page, a sense of eternal falling gripping her, a trembling on the brink of the eternal demise of the unloved. Teachers railed against her, scathing her lack of concentration, her lack of effort, her lack of results; she felt a strange, drained exhaustion, the fidgety evasion of those who feel too much, whose burden is too heavy…
As she aged, she seemed to drift further and further away from the view of herself. At her first ball, in late adolescence, Kay saw herself at such a great distance that she almost couldn’t make out her own features. Boys ignored her; friends met each other, passing her by as if she were some sort of cracked ornament. Kay saw herself watching the giddy pleasures of others, a distant smile on her face…
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the book slammed shut. You can know no more, intoned the dark figure, waving a finger. This is to be your life: will you take it?
In her dream, Kay shuddered and wept. No! No! No! she cried in a formless voice; I will accept no such awful hospitality!
You will get no other chance, said the figure. Do you still refuse life?
Without hesitation, Kay nodded. The figure lifted its hand, and Kay felt her soul trembling on the edge of annihilation, staring at a bottomless pit of nothingness, and then her soul pitched itself forward with a sigh of blessed relief…
Kay had woken suddenly, her cheeks wet with tears… I am not sentenced to live, she thought, the heels of her hands pressed to her eyes. No matter what my pains, I always have recourse to the blessed nurse of nothingness… With that thought, something she had always thought of as solid in her, a dark bedrock of pain, seemed to give way, and she saw at once the panic of annihilation that had always been her core. I did not want to live, she realized with the sudden clarity of pure insight. I did not want to live, yet I never allowed myself to think of death…
It was a hard, harsh night. When true despair first surfaces, it is a combat that knows no bounds. We always face two enemies; the dangers of external life, and the threat of internal despair. Of the two, the latter is by far the most dangerous; we can avoid lightning and rockslides, but knives are always within easy reach. Kay did not actively think of suicide; her will to live was extraordinarily strong, but with a true knowledge of lions comes the true knowledge of lambs, and she wept and wailed for the loss of innocence, of love, of the certain pleasures of a serene life.
By the time morning began sending whispers of light into the depths of her dark dialog, the danger had begun to recede. Kay rose from her bed and washed her face, feeling a sense of peace for the first time in her life. My soul has hope, she thought over and over. Raising her head, she stared at her red eyes in the mirror.
“I salute your courage,” she said softly, raising an imaginary glass to her younger self.
Jonathon called on her at eleven.
“Come, pretty missy!” he cried, bounding in like a spring puppy. “We can’t waste such a lovely day in our little rooms!”
“Hello, Jonathon,” she said softly, rising to kiss his cheek.
“Aren’t we cheery this morning!” he exclaimed, touching his cheek. “What happened?”
“You know, I had the strangest dream.”
“Ahh!” he grinned. “Don’t dream – live!”
Kay smiled. “I intend to. Where are we lunching?”
“I thought at Harrod’s. New paté, you see.”
They went for lunch. Jonathon recognized a change in Kay; he talked a great deal past it, as it were, and it wasn’t until dessert that she broached the subject.
“Tell me, darling, what do you plan to do with your life?” she asked.
“I like the way you say that,” smiled Jonathon, digging into his trifle.
“I like saying it,” she replied. “Does my question make you uncomfortable?”
“Your purpose in life.”
“It seems an odd topic for lunch…” admitted Jonathon.
“Well, it’s not on the menu, but it’s on my mind,” she said. “You know, I respect you a great deal. Your humour, courage and intelligence are wonderful attributes.”
“Ah – this in preparation for the great but!” said Jonathon with a mournful grin.
“Not but – more yet,” said Kay. “Coffee?”
Jonathon pushed his cup forward. “Always,” he said. Kay poured him some from the pot the waiter had left at her request.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” she asked.
“With you, of course. Darling,” he said, taking a sip. “Ooh! Hot! Heard anything from the great maternal beast?”
“No,” she said calmly. “You know, you are going to great lengths to avoid answering my question.”
Jonathon groaned. “Well,” he said, “it’s just that I had hoped you would be the one person I could rely on to leave my future in peace.”
“You know,” she said suddenly. “I don’t even know how old you are.”
“Twenty eight,” he said. “Just.”
“When was your birthday?”
“Two months ago.”
“Thanks. When’s yours?”
“Not till summer.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
“Thank you. Five years?”
“No – twenty eight!” grinned Jonathon.
Kay sighed. “I should have brought my dental kit.”
“Oh, don’t be annoyed,” he said carelessly. “All right – what am I going to do with my life? The question, as it stands, seems silly because it implies that life is a kind of thing that must be manipulated, like a tool. What am I going to do with myself? Why, live! That’s my plan, if you can call it that. Living for the future always means losing the present, that’s the truth.”
“But your talents are so singular; you should do something with them.”
“My talents, as you call them, are not pets to be taught tricks. You want me to put them on display, I assume, so that others can applaud them. But I think that true success is enjoying yourself, not pleasing others. Except pleasing you, of course.”
“Hedonism, in other words.”
Jonathon frowned. “That word has such a negative sound. It’s all these pathetic ascetics who couldn’t feel pleasure if it would save their souls; they set up this idea that goodness is whatever makes you miserable. It’s ridiculous. They have a talent for misery, so they try to make it a universal good. It’s a philosophy of wet blankets. Oh, son, they warn; beware of the road of pleasure; it is the easy road, the slack road, the road to misery. They think having fun is easy. I’d like to see them try it. They’d know better. Pleasure is hard.”
“I’m having a hard time following your thoughts.”
Jonathon smiled smugly. “Well, they are quite radical.”
“What would you do without your inheritance?”
“I’d be an actor. No – a traveling musician. Or a sailor, though the senseless discipline would be hateful. But at least I’d get a chance to explore.”
“What about your investments?”
“What about them? They pay the bills.”
“You manage them yourself?”
“Sure. It’s fun; like gambling, but more respectable.”
“Have you ever thought of doing it full time?”
“Doing it full time; ever notice how close that is to doing time?” he commented.
“If it’s enjoyable, it could be something you would enjoy doing more.”
Jonathon paused, then shook his head. “I enjoy it precisely because I don’t have to do it full time. Tell me, Kay – what’s bothering you? Are you afraid that if we get married, I’ll just sit around the house tripping up the children? Afraid of getting into the habit of setting drinks on me? That won’t happen. I’m always busy.”
“No, you’re not,” said Kay gently.
“What?” cried Jonathon. “You’re mad! I should show you my calendar!”
“You’re always doing something, that’s true. You’re always active. But it’s always on your terms. No-one ever has the right to demand anything from you.”
“Not true,” he grinned. “Demand a kiss. Go on – I dare you! My, but that trifle was good!”
“And now it’s gone.”
“Children will be demanding,” said Kay, ignoring his comment. “They will not fit your schedule.”
“Why not?” he asked innocently. “I do things children love to do. They’ll trail me like ducklings!”
“What about when they are ill?” demanded Kay. “What about when they need help with their homework? What about when they have problems? Will you solve all their problems by force-feeding them excitement?”
“That’s a bit much,” he said shortly. “I am not that irresponsible.”
“What about me?” she asked with a sudden flash of fear. “I will not always be merry.”
“I will cheer you up.”
“Don’t you see?” she cried, frustrated. “You just want to placate everyone! Everything you do is just for yourself. Everything which doesn’t fit what you want has to be fixed, controlled, gotten rid of. Kay is sad? – why, just cheer her up!”
“Why are you getting so angry?” he cried. “We’re just having lunch!”
“I am concerned about you!”
“That’s not true. I helped you, out of goodwill and love, and now you turn around and say: everything about you must change. You came with me for who I was; I was not false. Now you want something different. By heavens, I thought shrews waited until after marriage to reveal their true colours!”
Kay’s face went white. “Is that how you see me?”
“That’s how you are showing yourself. More than a bit of your mother in you, isn’t there?”
Kay threw down her napkin and got up. “You helped me – that’s true, and I will be eternally grateful to you for that. But if it’s all one-sided, we can never be together.”
“Kay – Kay, I’m sorry. Please – sit down. I’m not mad at you. Everyone just seems to want me to be something different, and I’m a little tired of it. I’m happy. I enjoy my life. If that’s not enough for you, I never will be.”
“Go for a job interview,” said Kay, still standing.
Jonathan’s eyes widened. “A – a what?”
“You heard me.”
“But – I have enough money. Fortunately for you.”
Kay stared at him for a moment in shock. “Then it was all about saving me, wasn’t it?” she whispered.
“No – no! I loved you for accepting me! Don’t turn into everyone else – please!”
“Anyone who finds fault with you is the enemy, aren’t they? Well, Jonathon Eddsworth, that just isn’t true. If you want to live your life entirely for yourself, don’t get involved with anyone who cares about you. Don’t listen to anyone. End up alone. Right, always right, but alone.”
“Perhaps that’s just what I’ll have to do,” he said angrily.
“If you change your mind, you know where to find me,” said Kay, turning and walking out.
Damn it! thought Jonathon dismally. Why does everyone turn against me?
“Jonathon?” said a voice behind him. He turned and saw Lydia.
“Hello!” he said glumly. “What are you doing here?”
“Meeting Laurence for lunch. I’m a little early.”
“How is the great man?” he asked.
She smiled. “Wonderful.”
“Will you sit for a few minutes?” he said, offering her a chair.
“Of course,” she said, sitting. “Is this coffee still warm?”
“Help yourself.” Jonathon paused for a moment. “Tell me something, Lydia. As a friend.”
“Have I ever told you anything as an enemy?” she asked, pouring herself a cup.
“Don’t be glib. This is hard.”
“Really? Then I must be at the wrong table.”
“Oh be quiet and listen! Tell me – is there anything about Laurence that you would change if you could?”
Lydia smiled. “Fight with Kay?”
Jonathon sighed. “Just answer the question. Please.”
“Of course. I would change some things. I already have.”
“You know – that business with Mary. I never could understand his attachment to her. So much guilt and pressure. It seemed quite unhealthy. But by plying him with love and goodness, I think I have freed him. You understand – this is completely confidential. Oh – why do I say that? You tell everything to everyone.”
Jonathon blinked. “Have I offended existence in some way?”
“What did Kay want to change about you?”
“She said I have no purpose in life. No – that’s not quite fair. She asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I got quite irritable. Don’t give me that look. Two opinions do not make an absolute.”
Lydia pursed her lips. “All right – would you have taken Kay as she was when you met her?”
“What – with that mother?” Jonathon shuddered. “You must be mad!”
“So you wanted to change something in her.”
“I helped her. I didn’t want to change her.”
“By heavens – I had almost forgotten how maddening you are to talk to!”
“Why do you say that?”
“I love you dearly, Jonathon, but you have an irritating habit common to all who think they are always in the right. You love giving advice, but hate taking it.”
“That’s not true!”
“You see? But what advice did Kay give you?”
“She told me to get a job interview! At a bank! Managing investments!”
“What? You don’t find that shocking?”
“Jonathon – everyone has a purpose except you. Doesn’t that ever give you pause?”
He wracked his brain, striving to think of a contrary example.
“Listen,” said Lydia reasonably. “I no longer have the same passion to change you. Do what you want with your life. But spare a thought to some of the responsibilities that none of us can ever escape if we want to live fully. Family, career, love, purpose. These things always require some planning. Some sacrifice.”
“I know, I know,” said Jonathon miserably. “I don’t know why I hate the idea so much.”
“I don’t either. But something in you drew you to Kay. I think it’s a good match. She has a depth of experience you lack; a knowledge of suffering and sacrifice. If you want her, you have to want all of her, not just the parts that fit your preferences.”
“So you think I should go for a – job interview,” he said with horror.
“My father’s banking at a new institution, one focusing heavily on investment. There is a very unusual banker there, according to father. Here’s the address,” she said, passing a card to him. “I’m going there tomorrow, to talk about moving my accounts. Meet me there at eleven. I’ll wait and help you recover.”
“Well, I suppose she only asked that I go for an interview,” said Jonathon, suddenly brightening, “not that I actually get the job.”
“Spoken like a true reformer!” smiled Lydia.
The villagers met with all the passion of participatory politics. Ever since the death of Farmer Jigger, the village had been without a mayor. Flushed with new wealth, the position had languished vacant for over a month. Finally, Father Jones had called a meeting to elect a new mayor, offering himself as a candidate.
To everyone’s surprise, Knotted Bob also came forward as a nominee. Since his retirement to his little cottage, he had almost completely dropped out of village life. A few comments were made about the failure of age to recognize its limitations, for Knotted Bob was still perceived as a figure of odd ridicule, yet some of the older men, who still recalled the wisdom of his nature, quietly applauded his choice. There was one other candidate, included more for entertainment value than serious politics; the village fool, Garth, also put his name on the ballot.
An issue had arisen which was expected to be the center of the coming debate. The farmers all paid a fixed percentage of their income to the village council; the council used this money for general use; the repairing of roads, education, poor relief and so on. Due to the astounding increase in crop production caused by Laurence’s reforms, the council found itself sitting on an unprecedented mass of money and crops. The question remained unresolved as to what to do with this wealth.
The debate took place on a patron saint’s day; no-one had to work, and chairs were brought to the village square so everyone could come, watch and have their say. The village election was considered a great treat, a time when the clash of hoary opinions and old dislikes usually made for a great show.
The morning of the debate rose clear and slightly chilly. In the early hours, the breath of those setting up the chairs and refreshments was clearly visible; by mid-morning, however, when the villagers began taking their places, the day had become comfortably warm.
Bailiff Andrews dragged out the podium he had used for the trial of Farmer Jigger and set it up in the center of the square. Several villagers glanced at it with a shiver of unease. The debate being considered vaguely in the realm of legality, Bailiff Andrews was the officiator.
The debate began at noon; Father Jones was the first speaker. The square was quite full, though many older men had obviously decided that more wisdom was to be had from another glass of beer than the words of the village priest.
“Friends,” he cried, after Bailiff Andrews had settled the crowd with several bangs of his gavel. “Friends, we come together on this beautiful day for the sake of good Christian charity! The good Lord has seen it fit this year to provide us with a wondrous bounty…”
“Which Lord is that?” cried Garth, to general merriment.
“Silence!” cried Bailiff Andrews.
“Thank you, good bailiff,” said Father Jones gratefully, turning to the laughing crowd. “We have a wondrous bounty in our hands, good citizens, and we must decide what to do with it. Many suggestions have been bandied around; some serious, some the mere ramblings of fools,” he said, glancing significantly at Garth, who stuck out his tongue and blew a loud raspberry. “My humble suggestion, as you know,” continued the priest, “is the setting up of a Poor House. This idea, more common to city than country, is to have a place of refuge for the poor, a place where they can rest their weary bones, be put to good use, and be instructed in the ways of the Lord. This is, of course, the purpose of our lives; the saving of souls, not the stuffing of bellies. I know that my esteemed opponent, Knotted Bob, has made the suggestion of applying this bounty to further crop improvements, but I respectfully call his perspective utterly blasphemous! Yes – harsh words, my friends, but true to the will of God. Remember, friends, that God has loosed us on this world only temporarily. He does not weigh our bodies, but our actions. To be sure, we can run after more wealth; God grants us the freedom to make evil decisions; such is His love for us. We have the freedom to become fat and complacent – or we may use that freedom to help those of our fellow creatures who have turned from the road to heaven. What is all the wealth in the world next to the salvation of a single soul? We have the chance to aid in the salvation of the worst poverty: the poverty of the godless, whose only reward for their wicked ways is an eternity in the agonies of hell. Do we need more food? No! Do we need more factories, more angry workers disrupting our town? No! Let us reform the workers we have before bringing more upon us! No more factories! Why do we need more wool? Why do we need more crops? What matters, friends, is the saving of souls from the claws of Satan?” cried Father Jones, crossing himself piously. “Help me in our common task! Help me save the godless! Give me the power, and I will use it for God’s purpose!”
“Thank you, Father Jones,” said Bailiff Andrews. “We will now hear from Knotted Bob.”
Silence greeted the rise of Knotted Bob; not only from respect, but also because everyone was fascinated by the creaking sound he made when he moved.
“Aye, we have a bounty,” said Knotted Bob, taking the podium and squinting over the crowd. “We have a bounty, and we have a choice. In this the head of the priest is on the nail.” He scratched his head; the crowd listened breathlessly.
“I think him too heavy for the podium, it creaks so!” cried Garth.
“Wait your turn, fool!” scowled Bailiff Andrews.
“Don’t we always?” grinned Garth. “Yet it never comes.”
Knotted Bob shook his head slowly. “This faith in poor-houses is wide of the mark; wide of the mark, I say! A man can be mean for many reasons, not least for want of bread. I spy faces here old enough to remember how this village was forty years ago; a deep hole of hunger and sickness; neighbour against neighbour, father against son. Not for more food, but any food! D’ye recall? Aye – I see by yer faces that the evils of those times are not quite dry in yer minds. Now we have a different life; strength and goodness is back in our bones. Is that a-cause of God? Perhaps, but I have no faith in that goodness; I have faith in food. Food gave us goodness; now the priest says: turn yer backs on yer crops and look to the poor. Aye – and he’s right, the poor are still with us, and always will be, I spy, as long as the world sits under sun and moon. So now we ask ourselves: what are we to do with ‘em? We can give ‘em food, and have less for ourselves, or we can give ‘em work, and have more for everyone. I say: let’s use this money to buy more land, more manure, more seedlings. Then, when poor come to us, we can give them a hoe, not just a leaky roof and pious lectures. Is there any man here who prefers kind charity to hard work? Nay – we be forged of sterner stuff. The only right kindness in this world is opportunity, not charity. The priest wants a poor house; let us lift the rocks of his kind words and peer a-neath ‘em. His work house; a house of God, perhaps; a house of work, for certain. The poor will labour in his little house – and where do ye spy the fruits of their labour going? Room and board, a little: back to the Church: a lot. He can speak of souls until we all give ours up, but the truth is that he stands to fatten his purse from his charity – and none the richer but him. Put me in the seat of mayor, and I will use this money to enrich us all, to make good men from the poorest of the poor. Put him there, and none will escape the better but him.”
The villagers scratched their heads and conferred. The problem of the poor had been on everyone’s mind, and not just because of the factory workers. Homeless people, hearing of the sudden wealth of the village, had begun making their way into the county, begging for work. Since the harvest was in, they found none. Fearful of drawing more poor through generosity, the villagers had provided little charity. Finding that this resulted in brazen theft, the question of the poor had become quite pressing.
“Garth,” said Bailiff Andrews disdainfully.
“Aye – good humour will have its say!” grinned Garth, rising and bowing deeply. “Harken, ye scurvy rabble – the fool speaks! Having nothing to gain but a short stretch of hearing, he speaks only nonsense. We have heard from two worthy gentlemen about how best to manage the fruits of your hard labour. Now, never having partaken of hard labour myself, I can only imagine what you feel on hearing how they plan to carve it up. But I think that if there were an excess of jokes in the world, and I was listening to two such kind souls talk about how to tell them for me, I could only think that this was just another kind of joke. Blessed with the glorious weight of self-importance, they cry: what are we to do with the poor? Well, we have enough food, so there’s no point eating them; they’re quite stringy anyway, I hear. One says: save their souls by putting them to work, which sounds like a curse on our noble lords, who work not at all, and thus must be going straight to hell. The other says: save their souls by preaching at them, as if he could not ramble the roads of our good lands and find poor enough to preach at, and so obviously prefers having them come to him than taking the effort to hunt down such rare creatures! Now the fool has a minute more, and he says that if he were mayor, he would at least know that he is such a fool that he has no business meddling in what isn’t his. He would say: the fools of the world demand good roads and teachers for their children – very well, let them have them, so they can stay home and put hoes into their children’s well-schooled hands. But that takes so little; even a fool can see that the mayor should lower your taxes rather than worry his head about what to do with his sudden windfall. What should we do with the money? Why, give it back to you, and let you do what you please with it! Fools cannot decide for fools. This fool has spoken the only sense he will ever dare, and will retire once more to his proper station.”
Garth sat down. The crowd stared at him in shock. The option of lowering the taxes had not even occurred to them. Dazed, they shook their heads, thinking what a strange notion! The strangeness was the only argument they needed; they laughed and shook their heads, amused by the cunning jest, and many vowed to stand him a drink.
The ballots were handed out, marked and returned. Everyone retired to the tavern to drink and await the results. Bailiff Andrews sat in the square with Father Jones and Knotted Bob (Garth had gone to the inn), counting silently. He checked the results three times, then glanced up impassively.
“Come on,” he said, leading the two men towards the tavern.
When they opened the door, the room fell silent. Glasses lowered, beards were wiped and all eyes were on the Bailiff.
“Knotted Bob is our new mayor!” he cried.
The room erupted into a chaos of cheers. Knotted Bob grinned at the stricken priest.
“Welcome to the new world, priest!” he cried triumphantly. Father Jones glared at him in helpless rage, then turned and forced his way through the crowd and out of the tavern. Knotted Bob saluted his departure contemptuously, then turned and surrendered to the handshakes and offered drinks.
Vladimir found Sylvia Edwards’ speech oddly moving. The power of the reforms she spoke of were deeply exciting; he grasped their immense implications almost as soon as she described them. But what he found most interesting was the peculiar sense she seemed to impact on.
Watching her on the podium, he began to see that there was a strange power to her; an air of focused tension that seemed to loom over the crowd, as if she were speaking to something hidden in each listener. Vladimir watched her, fascinated, certain that she had somehow conquered the strange malady he had pursued for most of his adult life. His notebook lay untouched on his lap; his eyes were bound in the woman’s strange strength, the strength of the survivor.
After the question and answer period was over, the hall began to empty. Vladimir sat waiting for the few stragglers to leave, then walked up to Sylvia.
Mary did not look up. He repeated himself. She started and turned to him.
“Yes?” she said.
“I wanted to compliment you on your speech,” said Vladimir with a low bow. “And to ask you to dinner.”
Mary stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“Pardon my presumption,” he smiled, “but I think I have a good deal to add on a personal level that you would find most illuminating.”
“Based on your personal experience with crops?” she asked dryly, glancing at his formal attire.
“Tell me – I know this is neither the time nor the place – but tell me if you think a certain quest I have taken on has any meaning to you. For almost ten years, I have been trying to find the cause of a strange illness that seems to strip the souls of my patients.”
Mary plumped her notes together, tapping them on the podium. “Strip the souls?” she echoed, raising her head. “Is this a secular ailment?”
“Yes – I am certain of it.”
“Then I wish you the best,” she said, straightening. “But I have no time for other matters than my own. Good evening.”
Vladimir watched her walking away. “One more thing,” he called.
Mary turned. “Yes?”
“I think you have survived this illness.”
Something seemed to flash into her eyes. Vladimir almost took a step back.
“Don’t be too sure,” she said softly, then turned and left the auditorium.
She knows! She knows! cried Vladimir silently. Pulling on his coat, he followed her. Mary stood outside, looking for a carriage.
“You are new to London?” he asked.
Mary nodded angrily, her eyes searching the street.
Vladimir frowned, trying to think of something to say. Anything…
“One of my patients was a little girl,” he said blindly. “Something happened to her one night; she woke up dismal and uncooperative. There was nothing wrong with her physically. Then she claimed she had had a bad dream, and went sort of mad right before my eyes.”
Mary turned to him, her jaw set.
“You have a cause; that is to be admired,” she said. “I also have a cause. It is incompatible with yours. I wish you luck. That is all.”
“So – no dinner?”
Mary shook her head. “I think not.”
“If you are married, I apologize.”
“It’s not that. You are a decent man; I am sure of that. But I have no time for – other matters.”
“All right. You’re wrong, though. It’s not all about crops. There is a poverty in the world that wealth cannot touch.”
“I know,” said Mary tightly.
“Yet you mentioned nothing of it in your speech. Why not? Why is there such secrecy around it all – whatever it is! I have circled these walls for ten years, and I know no more than when I started!”
“Would you be offended if I gave you a piece of advice?” asked Mary.
Vladimir frowned. “What?”
“If such a malady exists, and you find it, you will wish you hadn’t. The longer a secret is kept, the better the reasons for keeping it. This has lain undisturbed for thousands of years. Learn from Pandora; leave it closed. If it exists.”
“But – you know what I’m talking about – please – I won’t take up much more of your time – you know, and you won’t speak. None of you will speak. Why?”
“Because life must be lived,” she said simply.
“None who have that illness really live. Except you.”
“Except me,” mused Mary with an odd smile. “You know – and I really must be going – yours is a hopeless quest. Even if someone were to talk to you, they would make you swear to secrecy, so it would do you no good. Unless you are the type of man who breaks his word, which I doubt.”
“I don’t care about telling others any more. I just want to know.”
“You want to know over dinner. In public. You do not understand. Leave it alone…”
“Vladimir. Vladimir Soldi,” he said, handing her his card.
“Quite a name,” commented Mary, glancing at his address. “Well, Mr. Soldi, my carriage is coming. Good night.”
Mary climbed into the carriage. Just before it left, she glanced out the window at his dejected form. “Be unashamed, Mr. Soldi,” she said gently. “It is not your failure.”
He looked at her and nodded slowly as the carriage pulled away.
Johnathon hoped he would not be seen. His eyes darted from left to right as he scuttled from doorway to doorway. Naturally, his demeanor drew all eyes to him; people shied away from him, as if he held a bomb or radical opinions under his neatly-pressed velvet suit. An amateur spy always hides conspicuously.
Even if he had run into a pack of his closest acquaintances, however, they would have been hard-pressed to identify him. His hair, normally waging a losing battle against gravity and static, was oiled, scented, and tied back in a smooth ponytail. His fashionable scrubbiness was completely gone; he had risen early, gone to a barber far in the East End, paid excessively for a close shave and neat trim, and returned to the Financial District by back alleys, stopping only in a dank tavern to apply a good base to his face.
Jonathon carried his résumé in a leather folder. This little document had a small amount of rather large letters spread across its lonely face; he had struggled with it for hours, attempting to stretch his meager experience into something resembling a respectable course of action. By the time he was done, the words seemed strangely exhausted, like travelers returning from a long, arduous and rather pointless pilgrimage.
He glanced at his watch and sped his pace a little, finding new respect for the time management skills required by paranoiacs. He arrived at the Second National Chartered Bank ten minutes late and asked for Mr. Randon. The receptionist asked him three times if he had a cold before he sighed and spoke in his normal voice. She smiled at this endearing idiocy, and asked him to wait.
Pulling out his résumé, Jonathon pretended to study it carefully, not noticing that this gave him the rather shady air of a man frantically trying to commit an alibi to memory before being called into a courtroom. Finding the conversations around him quite intriguing, however, he began to notice his surroundings a little more.
Banks made Jonathon very nervous. His father had been of the opinion that finances were not a fit topic for family discussion (and it was not only finances; it often seemed that, for Jonathan’s father, any topic but the weather and political opinions of the previous century was somehow unfit). As a result, whenever Jonathon overspent his allowance, his father referred him to the family banker, who had as gloomy a view of man’s ability to handle capital as a Calvinist has of his ability to be saved. He would chew his nails and drone on in deep, deep shock and disappointment at Jonathan’s transgressions; a term which made the young man feel as if he had sinned against a flat green god.
Glancing around him, he saw similar types of men stalking the halls of the Second National Chartered Bank; men who, despite their naturally morbid inclinations, had decided against the job of undertaker because they would have found it distasteful that their clients had once been alive. These men could not farm because things grew; they could not trade because people bought and sold; they could not live a life of ease because that required pleasure. So they became bankers, for there was an occupation where the sum total of dreams, goals, loves and hates could be neatly tabulated in a double-entry ledger. They did not see capital as a lively echo of ambition, or a trembling potential of rank luxury, or a tidy means of easing daily burdens, but as a dry, abstract monolith of dark responsibility. Some of these men had children; Jonathon was sure of that, but he also knew that they managed their children much like they managed their capital; the children had been put in their trust, and must grow through the judicious investment of cautious wisdom. Thus their children were invested with a deep fear of the original sin of financial irresponsibility; capital was not to be used, but nurtured like a grudge. Goods not required for the binding of body and soul or the maintenance of a certain professional decorum are blasphemously wasteful, they said; naturally, their children grew grave and guilty in the face of such savage retention.
If I am not careful, he thought, suppressing a shudder, I could end up working here.
“You’re next,” smiled the receptionist.
Jonathon smiled with the tense pleasantness of a boy unable to show his homework. Remember: you don’t want this job!
Deep as he was in a quiet tomb of capital, he was quite surprised to hear a raised voice from behind Mr. Randon’s closed door.
“I will stand for no such opinions, you young rascal!” cried the voice. “I am not interested in your references! I will, in fact, provide you with a wonderful letter of introduction to any competitor you require, for I can imagine no better service I could do for this worthy institution than having you work for one of our rivals! Now take your pretty degrees and get out of my office!”
The receptionist grinned. “Best place to work,” she said to Jonathon. “You’ll do fine. Just be yourself.”
“That is my plan.”
“Yes, but it might not work,” she winked.
A pale-faced young man came out of the office, clutching a résumé. He stared at Laurence, shook his head dazedly, and wandered out.
“Come on then!” cried the voice irritably.
Jonathon picked up his résumé and walked jauntily into the office. This shouldn’t take too long.
Mr. Randon sat behind his desk, writing on the back of his hand. “I am making my grocery list, young man,” he said without looking up. “If you can make me forget what I want to write next, the job is yours.” He glanced up suddenly. “You do know what the job is, don’t you?”
“Well – loans officer,” said Jonathon, deeply shocked at the sight of a banker with a visible personality.
“Quite,” said Mr. Randon absently, writing again. “You will be responsible for the management of other people’s hard-earned money. So we can assume you are not a total fool. What else can you bring to me? Come come; I don’t eat much.”
“Um – a willingness to work hard,” said Jonathon, repressing a smile. “A resolute, decisive nature. Financial competence. I don’t drink a lot. I’ve never been convicted for fraud. I often rise before noon. Money bores me, so I probably won’t steal…”
Mr. Randon stopped writing, stared at Jonathon, then guffawed. “All – right, I lost my thread on grapefruit. What on earth are you talking about?”
“I am listing my abilities.”
“Give me your résumé.” He grabbed it and stared at it blankly. “You’ve never worked a day in your life!” he cried. “Perfect! All right, Mr. Eddsworth, sell me this pen. No – forget that; I already like the pen. Give me some ideas. Tell me something unusual. What have you got?”
Struck by a sudden inspiration, Jonathon said: “Power-looms.”
“What is that?” demanded Mr. Randon. “A prophesy? A disease?”
“A weaving machine,” replied Jonathon. “It produces wool cloth. Lots of it. Very efficiently. You know, I met a merchant in Dorset who had come from nothing with just this one idea. He’s a new kind of beast; he’s not stodgy. He loves risk. When he comes to find a banker, who will he go to? These corpses?”
“These ‘corpses’ have made this bank one of the wealthiest in the country.”
Jonathon shrugged. “What – off investing in the colonies? Recent experience has shown how long that will last. No – the world is about to undergo the most fundamental change since we first noticed that something grows when you plant a seed.”
“Indeed? How so?”
“Men like the merchant I mentioned are poised to take the helm. The first bank which recognizes that will have a license to print money.”
“Only at the risk of alienating its older clients, who will take exception to their bank becoming a seething house of merchant activity,” replied Mr. Randon. “Clients who have banked here for generations.”
“How long have you worked here?”
“You are an exception to the rule. Is that why you were hired?”
Mr. Randon grinned. “They hate me, but they need me. It’s mutually beneficial.”
“So you don’t want to hire someone like them, do you,” asked Jonathon, leaning forward.
“Oh no? Who do I want to hire then?”
“Someone like me,” replied Jonathon, amazed at his words.
“I don’t want a desk toady,” said the banker, regarding him closely. “There will be a lot of travel. I want you to get out there and sniff out what’s happening. Because you’re right. Things are changing. But it has to be managed carefully; very, very carefully. Too fast, and we go down. Too slow, and we miss the boat. That’s my job. Yours will be to find men like this merchant and reel them in. By the boatload.”
“My job?” asked Jonathon.
Mr. Randon smiled. “If you want it.”
Jonathon leaned forward, rubbing his face. Oops, he thought.
“I understand,” said Mr. Randon. “You are a dandy, and this was a joke. But if you want to grow up, you’re more than welcome. You strike me as having uncommon gifts. Put them to good use, Mr. Eddsworth – either with me or with someone else. You are talented. Don’t waste it.”
Jonathon felt the strange, fearful excitement of unexpected appreciation. You got me, Kay, he thought suddenly.
“I’m your man,” he said decisively.
“Oh? Will you still be my man on Monday?” asked Mr. Randon, narrowing his eyes.
“What time?” grinned Jonathon.
Kay was waiting outside Jonathan’s house when he returned. She saw by his gait that something unusual had happened; he was walking quite slowly, and glancing around as if surprised by everything he saw.
“Kay!” he cried, running up the steps to her.
“Hello, Jonathon,” she smiled. “Where have you been? I wasn’t expecting to find you out.”
“Where have I been…” he said slowly, shaking his head. “I have been at the bank.”
“Oh – nothing serious, I hope!”
“Terribly serious,” he said gravely. “I was summoned by the loans manager. Kay – Kay, I don’t know how to break this to you, but – I am going to…” He sighed. “Oh, this is enormously difficult. I am so ashamed!”
Kay’s hands flew to her mouth. “What?!”
“I have to report to his office at eight o’clock sharp Monday morning. He said he’ll decide what to do with me then.”
“But – how did this happen? You’re wealth… what happened?” Kay shook her head violently. “Never mind that now. What can I do to help, my love? Is there anything… No – sorry – tell me what happened! What happened?”
“Well,” said Jonathon, burying his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking. “Well – what happened was – I suppose he liked me at the – interview.”
Kay’s eyes bulged. “What – he – what – what interview?” Her eyes suddenly narrowed. “Are you crying or laughing? Jonathon – Jonathon – don’t be a brute!”
A slight giggle escaped his heaving shoulders. Kay’s jaw dropped, and she whacked him on the arm with her umbrella. “Jonathon! That’s evil!”
He dropped his hands, his eyes streaming with tears as he laughed. Leaping up, he caught Kay in his arms and danced her around.
“Uncommon gifts – that’s what he said, love of my life, and he said: put your talents to good use! Such uncommon perception! Who would have thought a man of capital could be so capital?”
Kay laughed, hugging his neck. “And of course you had to hear it from someone else to make it true!”
Jonathon stopped suddenly, his face serious. “No, love. You were right,” he murmured, then leaned down and kissed her full on the mouth. She felt her soul soaring as they kissed, meeting his, and it was the first glimpse of simple beauty she had ever known.
Mary was fast becoming the talk of the town. She had been born with very few gifts; the state of society had now given her another. An uneasiness was in the air; an uneven conflict between old and new. The dinosaurs of privilege rumbled and glowered, masters of all they surveyed; excited mammals darted between their legs as the temperature fell. The recent revolutions had echoed throughout Europe, throughout all the glorious restlessness of Western civilization. The mighty lived in the kind of frenzy common to all last days of power; the powerless broke hopeful sweats and negotiated in dark alleys. Faced with unguessed questions, the world groped for new answers. The chaotic energy of ambitious self-interest, usually leashed by the tight rein of tradition, had begun to question its restrictions. The underdogs of the world, glimpsing new possibilities, new hopes, new lives, began to chafe at the restrictions of tradition. Morals themselves seemed to be breaking apart under the relentless striving of those unserved by the old definitions of goodness. Obedience, humility, patriotism, faith, self-sacrifice, respect for elders; all the crusty commands of altruism began to shudder, to crack and reveal a core of primeval self-interest, the self-interest of the powerful. A new, insistent voice began to be heard; why is this called goodness? it asked. Obedience? – to you! Humility? – in the face of your power! Patriotism? – a love of your power! Faith? – in you! Self-sacrifice? – for your sake! Absolute ethics, the only common ground of society, dissolved into a sudden recognition of the purpose of morals. “Good” is only good for you!cried the emerging hordes of unshaven rebels; the thought was new, terrifying, inescapable.
By the time Mary had given her first series of lectures, she began to understand the change. She had expected scant attendance, the infusion of some agricultural reforms, some debate over the relative merits of different markets, and a little contemplation of the possible effects these new changes would have on the structure of society.
Some weeks after she had given the lecture attended by Vladimir Soldi, however, she found her halls beginning to fill up. The audiences no longer seemed as interested in agriculture; their questions were all about ethics, power, society and the problem of the aristocracy. Mary began to see similar faces in the crowds; the excluded brilliance of thinkers lost in poverty, spinning in a void, desperate for effect. The question periods turned into savage debates; voices were raised, and Mary had a hard time keeping order. She sat for a few days after her series of lectures ended, trying to understand the nature of this unexpected development.
One afternoon, while sitting at her desk, the answer came to her in a sudden burst of clarity. Mary hated introspection, and so did not know the sources of her thoughts; she did understand herself enough, however, to know that she was inhabited by a fanatical, sleepless worker who sifted information far from conscious thought and provided her with answers fully-formed.
“By God,” she whispered, placing her hands on her desk, her face pale. “I can destroy not just him, but the whole lot!”
She slept little for the next few days, struggling to put her knowledge into communicable form. She borrowed more money from Kay, and placed a full-page advertisement in the Times, announcing her next lecture. She called it The End of Ethics: A Retrospective.
I can fulfill my vow with one blow! she thought, gripped with feverish excitement. She wrote letters to Laurence, to Lydia, to Lord Cerbes, to Vladimir, to Kay and Jonathon, asking them to come to her lecture. Setting up a full-length mirror in her living room, she practiced her speech over and over, striving for the right blend of rhetoric and reason.
Interest built; Mary had contracted an agent, who reported that tickets to her speech had sold out in a matter of days. She had kept fifty tickets for herself; she went to salons, listens to lectures on philosophy and political theory, and handed the tickets out to the most aggressive participants.
Mary felt a certain compulsion growing within her. She had worked so hard for so long, in such secrecy, that her rage, her hatred, her sense of injustice, had been a hidden, driving force within her, to be used like a tool; it had no real life of its own. Now, quite suddenly, it seemed to be spilling over; she found herself in tears as she worked on her speech; her teeth ground; she held her pen in a tense claw. Memories rose, almost assaulting her; she was frightened on several occasions when she was unable to account for several hours; she would be sitting and writing, then suddenly found herself standing in front of the fire, her hands blistered. Bathing was an extraordinary effort; a dull forceful panic gripped her, she seemed to be drifting towards a dark place of endless horror, and she had to beat herself with a scrub-brush, or pluck painful hairs, in order to escape it.
She knew she was spending too much time alone, but found the presence of others unbearable; they spoke too loudly, pressed too close; their faces were distorted masks; they seemed like dark holes of disgusting impulses; their neat clothes and kind manners were like thin white sheets draped over diseased remains. Secrecy, secrecy, secrecy! her mind cried, and Mary knew she had crossed over to another place, to a strange world of perception, paranoia. She seemed far removed from the normal flow of life; she wandered through a distant, alien land where all was in shadow but the blinding sun of secrecy. Lying awake at night, a phrase kept pounding through her head with the droning insistence of a distant temple drum: no tribal goods, no tribal gods… She knew what it meant; only those who gain nothing from society can see it for what it truly is; they have not been bought; they have nothing to lose by speaking the truth. Yet Mary realized that the converse was also true: no tribal gods, no tribal goods; if you do not believe the strange myths of social life, society will give you nothing; no love, no acceptance, no ease, no benevolence. She was outside, beyond the communal world; she knew she was a fearful mirror, but she also knew that the world needed that mirror for the first time in centuries, and she wept at the depths of her fortune. An angry soul in a state of peace mutters alone; an angry soul in an angry time is the first voice in a coming chorus.
Mary woke from a solid, dreamless sleep on the day of her talk. Staring at the canopy over her bed, she felt a strange calm. One of the greatest dangers of creativity gripped her; the idea that when the creation is consummated, the creator will die. Try as she might, she could no longer imagine the rest of her life. I shall speak, she thought over and over, then be silent.
A few hours before she was due to leave, she answered a knock at her door and found Laurence and Kay standing in the hall.
“May we come in?” asked Kay. “We have to talk.”
“Of course,” said Mary, stepping back. “It’s good to see you.”
Brother and sister went into the living room and sat down. Mary remained standing.
“We have come to a decision,” said Laurence slowly. “You seem to be well on your way now, and our finances have sort of reached the breaking point. We respect you immensely, but we have to look for our own futures. We can no longer fund you.”
Mary stared at them for a moment, then looked away quickly, so they would not see what was in her eyes.
“I see,” she said after a moment. “So the idea that helping others requires sacrifice no longer has any meaning to you?”
“Please Mary,” said Kay beseechingly. “It’s not that! We got you started – your talks are going very well…”
“The talks are nothing,” said Mary shortly. “Words in a void. They will have little effect in our lifetimes. The poor will still be here when we are gone. If we stop now, we will have done nothing but talk. I know that words have great value for the educated, but they have little meaning to the starving. What about our plans? We were going to start a school for the poor, import some of the excess food and hand it out, fund apprenticeships for the homeless… This means nothing to you?”
“We cannot sacrifice our happiness for the sake of the miserable,” said Laurence shortly. “We have our own lives to live.”
“Is that so?” asked Mary angrily. “When I was thrown out of the Jiggers under your nose, I am sure you had the same opinion. I have my own life, you thought; there is a limit to what I can do! I thought you had learned better by now. Look,” she said, suddenly reasonable. “Up to now we have been playing at helping. We can achieve something great with our lives; we can work for real change – or we can fade into the woodwork of ordinary lives. You made a pledge to help others; you were not forced. Suddenly you find it difficult. You can continue to honour your pledge, or you can break it and disappear into selfish banality.”
“But – you are far better at this than we are,” insisted Kay. “You understand the nature of poverty far better than we do. All we would be doing is giving you money. The money you can get elsewhere; from your lectures, from others. We don’t want to disappear – we will donate money to you within reason, but we must keep some of it for ourselves. For our own lives, our own dreams. We can’t just turn our lives over to your purposes.”
“You think this is my purpose?” demanded Mary angrily. “You think that helping the poor is my little dream? It’s not. It’s not my preference. It’s the right thing to do.”
“Certainly,” said Laurence decisively. “And we will help you in that. But, as Kay says, within reason. I will help, but I will not devote my life to the poor. I will do my share to alleviate the world’s unhappiness by being happy myself.”
“How selfish!” cried Mary. “How selfish, and how childish!”
“Possibly,” said Laurence, rising. “Yet that is our choice. There is no point discussing it further. Come, Kay.”
“Kay!” cried Mary. “Kay – don’t leave!”
Laurence smiled. “I’m not leaving her alone with you, Mary.”
Kay rose, her face pained. “Really, Mary – we are still friends.”
“No,” said Mary, shaking her head bitterly. “No – you are leaving me.”
“That’s not true,” said Kay, moving towards her.
Mary shrank back. “Don’t touch me!”
“Mary – I’m sorry.”
“Yes. Yes. You’re sorry. Go back. Go back to Jonathon.”
“Come on, Kay,” said Laurence.
Kay hesitated, staring at Mary, then turned and left with her brother.
Mary leaned her cheek against the cold wall, her mind whirling. Damn them! Damn Jonathon! Damn Lydia! I will not lose! I will fulfill my vow!
She spent the day wandering her room, shimmering with certainty. A solid something within her seemed to be clamouring for release. Arriving at the hall an hour before her speech was due to start, Mary was not surprised to see a crowd of people milling about. They know they will hear something special…
Mounting the steps to the podium, Mary felt a strong echo of energy in the waiting crowd. The flushed faces of the gathered men and women waited for her to speak.
“Good evening,” she said calmly. “Tonight I will speak of the end of ethics. Tonight’s speech is an elegy for ethics. It is an elegy not for the best in man, but the worst. It is an elegy not for what is commonly called morality, but for a system of control and destruction that has separated man from man, man from woman, parent from child.
“Since the beginning of human society, certain characteristics have been necessary for the survival of the tribe; those who possessed those characteristics were elevated to positions of power. When they got to those positions of power, they found they lacked only one thing: security. So they asked themselves the first question of power: how do we keep it? They had achieved power by luck, because their abilities matched the times. They knew that if those times were to change, they would lose their power.
“We do not know the name of the man who came up with the answer to the problem of maintaining power. His name may well have been Ethics, for that is the name we have given to his solution. We may illustrate his solution with the following example. Two tribes are competing for land. Each tribe needs warriors to conquer the other. Warriors are thus each tribe’s greatest value, for without them no resources can be won or kept. Each tribe thus elevates its warriors to positions of power. One tribe conquers the other. The warriors have performed their service. A certain peace has been assured. What need, then, does the tribe have for its warriors? How are the warriors to ensure their power? Why, they must convince the tribe that their characteristics were not just needed, but moral.
“The skills of the warriors are thus transformed into universal moral values. If you are brave in the face of combat, if you show no mercy, if you can kill without remorse, you are not just a good warrior, you are a good person.
“This approach, however, carries with it a great danger. We must not forget that these warriors age; if military skill is a moral value, they face a constant threat from younger warriors, who have the strength of youth.
“So, to keep their power, the aging warriors must do two things. First, they must create an ethic of obedience which only applies to those not in power; second, they must find a method of identifying their power with something greater than themselves. If they can convince the tribe that obedience is not just useful to the ruling warriors, but a universal ethic, they reduce the danger of revolt. If they can link their authority to a greater power, they transform themselves from the good to representatives of goodness, which disarms the young by giving the impression that a rebellion is not a revolt against the rulers, but against goodness itself. The first goal is achieved by the ethics of duty to the warriors; the second by the cosmology of religion. The strong warrior is the good man, they say, and tell tales of a vengeful, masculine god who punishes disobedience, and the men who think, not kill – and all women – must bow to them.
“The warriors control the land; that is their reward for conquering other tribes. Their land is useless, however, unless worked by others. Thus they need peasants. However, a great warrior may be born to a peasant as easily as to a warrior; the rulers must defuse the danger of peasant warriors by convincing them that obedience to the rulers is the greatest virtue. How do they do this? They say: I did not rise to power by ability, but because I was chosen by a power greater than us all! By giving this power the right to punish eternally for the sin of disobedience, the rulers the stakes of revolt to the point where it seems futile.
“This, in brief, is the history of what we call ethics. We live in a world where the rulers pretend that what is good for them is good for all. We believe them because if we don’t, we will be punished forever by the god they invented. Our aristocrats were not appointed by a god; they appointed themselves, then told us a god did it so we wouldn’t try the same thing.”
Mary paused. The hall was absolutely silent.
“Why am I telling you this? Why am I taking this risk? Will it not cost me my life? Quite possibly. I am telling you this now because the days of the warriors are coming to an end. The world is changing. When you die, you will leave a world far different from the one you know now. I have spoken of the power of the new agricultural reforms, of the new economics. Until now, warriors were valuable. From this year forward, merchants will be more valuable than aristocrats, for merchants will create the most wealth. Merchants will strive for power, but they will do so in an ethical system designed to maintain the power of warriors. If they want power – if any of you want power – you must first destroy the moral illusions of duty and religion. They stand in your way; you cannot avoid them, and if you attempt to ignore them, they will destroy you.
“But, you ask – should we not hold the ethics of the merchants in the same contempt as the ethics of the warriors? I think not, and this is why. Merchants will certainly attempt the same trick; on reaching power, every group attempts to convince everyone else that they were not just lucky, but good. The merchants will try to tell us that giving them exclusive control over trade is a moral imperative. They will appeal to our patriotism, saying only they can make our country stronger. They will appeal to our faith, saying that God has appointed them as masters of trade. But they face one single truth that will make all their arguments meaningless: we, all of us, can take our money elsewhere! We can’t move land, but we can move goods. If we don’t like a certain merchant, we don’t have to buy his goods. This essential freedom is not part of the power of controlling land; it is an essential characteristic of the power of capital. Goods are a mobile power; they can shift, dodge, evade and elude the power of warriors. This freedom of trade will be your freedom; you will be able to rise as far as your abilities can take you. This freedom, liberated from the violence of land, can only be stopped by the ethics of the warriors. The warriors hate the merchants; they hate the freedom they represent; they hate the fact that merchants grow powerful without any of the skills of war. They will use every power at their command to destroy the merchants, to make trade evil. Merchants are greedy, they will say. Merchants do not work for the common good. Merchants are materialistic, base, shallow, godless, cruel, destructive, immoral, selfish… There will be no end to their insults. And a new breed of power-seekers will emerge. They will call themselves champions of the poor, the excluded; they will accuse the merchants of abusing the poor. They will seek to control the merchants by enforcing charity. These power-seekers will claim that only they can help the poor, and that everyone must be enslaved for the sake of their compassion. They are simply warriors in a different guise; they hate the freedom of trade, because they have nothing to offer liberated souls. They will join the warriors in condemning the merchants. Ethics will be defined as whatever trade is not. Self-interest will be condemned; rationality will be cursed; earned wealth will be damned; capitalism will be damned.
“Do not listen to the warriors. They are not moral. They are simply in power, and will do anything to keep that power. Do not listen to the power-seekers. Trade brings freedom; freedom threatens the entrenched power of the aristocracy. The rulers will only lie to you. Ignore them; they serve themselves at your expense. Ask only this simple question: was the world better before trade? If no, cast the rulers from their golden seats with all the strength at your command. Scrub these parasites from the face of the earth; we have suffered under them long enough; we no longer need them, for the means to freedom is in our hands. We shall have property rights, universal suffrage and equality before the law, because that serves trade. Those who stand in the way of our rights are evil; treat them as such. The sun is setting on the day of the warriors; the sun must also set on the ethics they invented. The next age will the final triumph of the banished: the men and women who think. For all must be free.”
Mary took a deep breath. “And now, if you have any questions…”
There was a shocked silence in the hall; Mary could feel the tangled threads of anger, uncertainty and hope. A man in the front began clapping; the single sound echoed through the hall. A woman two rows back joined him, then more and more began applauding. The sound swelled; whistles and cries joined it. Then the hall seemed to erupt; people leapt from their chairs and shouted; passionate cries of outrage and adulation rang out; Mary felt carried aloft on a wave of passion, almost dissolving in relief. They understand! she cried inwardly. By reason, they understand!
The meeting went on for hours. Mary answered a seemingly-endless series of questions; arguments erupted at her answers, drawing more questions. There was a strange sense of satisfaction in the hall, as if its occupants suddenly realized that, as soon as a feast was offered, they had been starving their whole lives. A sudden community was formed, as if the secret thoughts of all had been abruptly exposed, broached and joined. The boundaries of human solitude seemed to dissolve; thought and feeling became one, overflowed and merged. This is the truest tribe, thought Mary: the tribe of passionate thought!
It was long after midnight when the meeting broke up. People exchanged cards, vowing to meet again, and wandered off into the night, feeling drunk with sudden satiation. Mary mingled for a while, accepting blessings and curses with the same serene smile. Finally, she made her way backstage. Vladimir was waiting for her.
“I am stunned,” he said. “I thought I was wise; I had no idea that suffering could create such knowledge.”
“Greatness is not created; it is provoked,” said Mary, gratefully accepting a drink of water.
“This – did you expect this?”
“Yes,” she replied. “We all feel alone in our thoughts. When someone speaks what we secretly know, we feel such relief that we overflow ourselves in a single rush.”
“Have you ever spoken what you secretly know?” asked Vladimir.
Mary paused. “No,” she said.
“Not here,” she said. “You wanted a meal, Mr. Soldi. Let’s eat.”
They took a carriage to a restaurant. When they arrived, they took a seat in a corner and ordered a lavish spread.
“Have you had any luck in your search for the mysterious malady?” asked Mary, taking a sip of wine and closing her eyes.
Vladimir smiled. “You mean, has the search of a lifetime been concluded in the last fortnight?” He shook his head. “No.”
“That’s a shame. You see, everything I talked about tonight was mere cosmetics. Power. Politics. Money. Abstracts, for most.”
He glanced up from his food. “Really?”
“You know, I really don’t think I’m going to have a long life,” said Mary abruptly. “I can’t picture myself at fifty. I think I made a choice at some point – I can’t remember where – to expend myself. I feel I have been borrowing energy from my future for a long time. At some point, the bill will come due.”
“What brought all these ideas about?” asked Vladimir.
Mary shrugged. “Hatred.”
“Hatred of what?”
“Hatred of the two men who did me wrong. Two men who, fortunately, shared a single characteristic: power over the weak. Two men who abused that power. Two men who had to pay. One who has.”
“And the other?”
Mary smiled. “Ideas are the only weapon of the excluded. We cannot wage war; we cannot overturn the powerful. We can only erode them with ideas. That is what I have done. You wonder why I am telling you this? I don’t know. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.”
“What – revenge?”
“No. Secrecy. For many years, I was disarmed by guilt. At some point, I decided that guilt would be my weapon. The powerful are only powerful because they are certain. They believe their myths of justice and reward. Undermine that, and you weaken them. I was not talking to the poor tonight, though I was glad they were there. I was talking to the aristocracy. To the powerful. They may rail against me, they may kill me, but I have planted the seeds of guilt. They will begin to doubt themselves. That is the only opening we need. We have suffered in the wilderness long enough. Let them taste guilt for a change.”
“You were born poor?”
Mary shook her head. “I was born myself. I was made poor.”
“Through cruelty.” She smiled gently. “Look at you; you are an open book. You are pleasant, but essentially friendless. You come from a happy home. You were loved. You are attracted to me. You do not fear confusion or uncertainty because you were never punished for it. You have no secrets, yet you are after the greatest secret, the secret of misery; the final secret of poverty. But because you do not understand the need for secrecy, you will never find it.”
“The secret is shame,” said Vladimir, his heart pounding. It will be now…
Mary frowned. “Shame is only the symptom.”
“The symptom of a certain suffering…”
“No – honestly, you will never understand it from that side of the fence. If you contracted a serious illness, and suffered terribly, you would never be as I am.”
“So it is not suffering… Pain?”
“Again – a symptom.”
“Then what?” cried Vladimir. “What?”
“Violation,” said Mary simply.
Vladimir put his fork down slowly. He stared at Mary, who returned his gaze.
“Violation,” he echoed, his mind seeming to expand beyond everything he knew, far from his pleasant home and quiet life, to a dark world lit by flickers of evil. He saw Elizabeth cowering in that world, hiding from the heavy treads of an approaching beast. “It happened at night…” he whispered, his hand rising to his mouth, his eyes widening.
“You are there,” said Mary gently.
“It cannot be…” he said almost inaudibly, his voice thick with nausea. “A child!”
“I warned you that you would not be happy with what you found.”
Vladimir shook his head, shuddering violently.
“You see the depths of this secret?” said Mary softly. “Those who know it cannot talk about it. Those who do not cannot believe it.”
“But,” said Vladimir with effort. “But – but – men too? I have seen men in the grip of this.”
“In the grip,” repeated Mary with a sad smile. “You still do not see. It is not something outside of me. I was formed in brutality; I am not innocence defiled. I was never innocent. I do not have violation attached to me like an extra limb; I am violation.”
“They are so different… the world is not the same for us both…”
“The world is the same for us both,” replied Mary shortly. “There is cruelty in the world and, so I am told, there is kindness. When I was born, I was shapeless, waiting. I had to know: what is the world? How should I live? What are people like? I learned a true lesson. I was carved by brutal hands; not inhuman hands, for they were both men. I have no original shape; I am what I experienced. The world I know is as real as the world you know. My world of brutality has the same sky as your world of kindness. Men and women can destroy the helpless as surely as they can love them. Good and evil live in the same world.”
“What – what is the solution?” asked Vladimir, his mind teetering over a fearful void. “What am I to do with that poor girl?”
“I don’t know,” replied Mary. “I am telling you this because the secrecy must end. I don’t know what comes afterwards. When the helpless are treated as prey, their world becomes nothing but predators. They can trust nothing; not themselves, not their parents, not society, not the world. They dissolve. They lose all capacity for joy, hope, love. They wander through life like soldiers unable to remember their war. Most of them do not know what was done to them. They know fear, hatred, rage and suspicion, but they do not know the source. They do not know because there is no part of them left with perspective; they are no longer violated; they have become violation.”
“Then the question of ethics..?”
“That is the cruelest blow!” she said with infinite bitterness. “We are called cowards because we fear life. We are called unstable because we rage. We are called paranoid because we do not trust. We are measured beside those raised in love and judged as less. It is vile, evil, disgusting! I want to grab the world by the throat and scream: were you born in my world, you would be as I am!”
“What – what are you going to do now?”
Mary took a deep breath. “My work is almost at an end,” she said simply. “I have one more thing to do, then I will rest. A dear friend of mine showed me how. This life gives me no more pleasure.”
“What?” cried Vladimir, deeply shocked.
Mary brushed her hair from her eyes and smiled at him. “Your life is worthwhile. I am truly happy for you. But for me, everything is a struggle. One can only struggle for so long. I have achieved more than I ever expected. I am satisfied with that.”
“You think yourself incapable of love?”
She shrugged. “I suppose I was once. Not anymore. I chose my road. I knew its consequences. I regret little.”
“I can’t believe that you find life worthless!” exclaimed Vladimir. “You are sitting here; you have evidence that there are good men in the world.”
“You find me fascinating,” said Mary, “but in your eyes, I will never be much more than a specimen.”
“That’s not true!”
“I have given you the answer you wanted,” she said, suddenly tired. “Be happy with that.”
“I think someone should be kind to you,” said Vladimir vehemently. “I think you have earned that. I think you should accept that possibility.”
“Tell me – do you think evil should pay?”
Vladimir blinked. “Well, my knowledge of evil is as old as this conversation. But I think that if someone is vicious to the helpless, yes – they should pay.”
“With their life?” she asked, her eyes boring into him. “With their life?”
Vladimir paused for a moment, then nodded decisively. “Yes. With their life.”
“You see, I could not defend myself, and no-one ever defended me,” said Mary. “That is the world, and it is not a world I care for. I am tired of defending myself. As long as I can remember, I have lived for justice. I am too exhausted to continue, but I cannot give it up. It is the end.”
“The courts would laugh. Children are not people. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here. There is no justice but revenge.”
“Who violated you, Mary?” asked Vladimir suddenly.
“Is that important?”
Mary leaned back in her chair. “I have told no-one that. Not even Lady.”
“You have told me: no secrets.”
“Yes,” she said, looking away with an absent shiver. “Yes. No secrets.”
“Who was it?”
Mary turned her head to him. “Two men. Farmer Jigger, in whose house I lived as a child, and Lord Laurence Carvey, who ruled the county,” she said softly.
“They both violated you?”
“Yes,” said Mary, lowering her eyes. “Farmer Jigger is now dead; only Laurence remains. I returned to his house. I made friends with his sister. I knew that he could not allow himself to remember the extent of his crime, but also I knew that I would have a special power over him; the power of guilt. Sure enough, I found him strangely compliant to my wishes. He accepted me into his house. I knew that it was his fortune that had given him the power to escape his crimes. I convinced him to fund a workhouse for the poor, knowing that it would be a constant drain on his finances. I infected him with guilt for his privilege. I provoked Kay into getting control of half the family fortune, which I siphoned off for the sake of philanthropy. We came to London, and I have continued to spend their money – that was how I paid for my advertisements and speeches. But Laurence, unfortunately, fell in love, and his lover convinced him to break with me. He did, today. I now no longer have access to his funds. He has escaped me, and will live free. I have lost.”
Vladimir stared at her for a long time. “Wait,” he said slowly, clenching his fists. “Wait. Wait and see.”
Laurence found Lord Cerbes entirely receptive.
“I have asked her,” he said, “and she has accepted me.”
Lord Cerbes smiled. “And when do you plan to marry?”
“In three months.”
The older man stood. “And has she talked with you about Mary?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Laurence. “We had a long conversation about her last night. I broke with her today. She will no longer have access to my fortune.”
“That is good,” smiled Lord Cerbes. “Your odd guilt regarding her was entirely misplaced. Then I see no further obstacles to your happiness. You certainly have my blessing. I will be proud to accept you into this family.”
“Thank you,” said Laurence gratefully.
He walked home humming. Arriving, his valet handed him four letters. The first one was from his mother. He opened it with a sigh, and read:
Do not try to fight me. It is for your own good. I will inform Kay.
“Enigmatic,” he murmured, then opened the next letter, from Adam Footer.
Dear Lord Carvey:
I am writing to inform you that I have found myself unable to perform the duties we agreed upon. I have left the workers in charge of the looms; I consider it a matter of honour that you not reveal the design to anyone else.
PS I left your promissory note at your house.
Laurence felt a sudden twinge of unease. The third letter was from his banker, Mr. Stelson. He tore it open, his hands trembling.
Dear Lord Carvey:
As per your authorization, all of your funds have been transferred to Lady Barbara. Please inform me whether you will have signing authority on her accounts.
Laurence’s heart seemed to plummet down a deep pit. He felt hot, clammy, and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. Damn her! he thought savagely, sitting heavily in a chair. That money is mine! He knew that it would be impossible to challenge her possession legally; his promissory note was not intended for her, but… Laurence racked his mind desperately, trying to recall if he had put Adam’s name anywhere on it. No, he thought, no, because I didn’t expect it to change hands! Stupid, stupid, stupid! He took a sudden, deep breath. What am I going to tell Kay? She’s going to want to get married… An odd sensation of poverty descended on him: I have no access to money..!
Then he realized: Kay has half the fortune! The idea struck him visibly, and his mind seemed to topple from a certain throne; well, I was generous to her; she must be generous to me..! Generous! The word had an ugly ring to it, a craven begging that rankled his proud soul. That I should be supposed to go to her on bended knee and ask for an allowance! Pah! It is vile! But I want to be married; that will be costly, and my reforms; they cannot end here… Laurence rubbed his face with his hands, frantically tugging at his beard. There must be a way to avoid the asking! I – I will ask for a loan, just as I would from a banker, and use it for improvements – yes! This will just put the spurs to my ambition; I will find buyers for these excess crops; I can pay her back in… in… But I am to be married in three months; I can’t raise anything that quickly. It will be a long-term loan… if a loan at all, he thought dismally.
He thought for some time, his mind whirling like a prisoner testing a cage. Eventually, he was forced to admit it. There was no way around it. He would simply have to ask Kay for money.
Kay arrived home to find Laurence still sitting in the hall chair.
“What are you doing, Larry?” she asked merrily, pulling off her coat.
He raised his eyes to her, and she stopped suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” she asked fearfully.
Laurence handed her Lady Barbara’s letter. Kay read it quickly, then gasped.
“How did she manage that?” she cried.
“Adam left the factory without warning, and gave a promissory note I left him to mother. She used that note to empty my accounts. Kay – Kay, I am broke!”
“What? How ridiculous!” exclaimed Kay.
“Good heavens, Larry, you are never broke if I have a penny to my name! And I have more than a penny. I gave some money to Mary – more than I should have, perhaps, but a good deal remains in my accounts – which mother cannot touch!”
Laurence stared at his sister for a long moment.
“Oh Kay!” he cried, his eyes stinging. “I have been sitting here all afternoon trying to find a way not to ask you for money!”
Kay smiled and shook her head. “Really, Larry, that is most childish. You are my brother – what’s mine is yours!”
Laurence took a deep breath and shook his head. “Oh Kay – Kay, I have done you such wrong!”
She knelt before him, taking his hands in hers. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Oh Kay – I never told you – I was in that room with mother, before – before you were, and I felt the full force of her corruption. It was shocking; Kay – I never took you seriously, my whole life I thought you were – flighty. While I was away at school and traveling the world, while you were at home dealing – dealing with her! And I thought I was the strong one. Father left; I left, and we never spared a thought for you! Oh Kay – Kay, I’m so sorry! You are the bravest of us all! You stayed kind, even though we were stupid and selfish!”
Kay closed her eyes and shook her head, tears running down her cheek. Laurence leaned forward, embraced her thin form and pressed her to his chest.
“I’m so sorry!” he whispered, holding her tightly as they wept.
Adam met with Squire Pounder as requested. The good Squire had adopted a mustache, a cane and a rather exaggerated limp to avoid recognition. Slowed by his hobble, they took some time to reach the bank.
“Now remember,” said Squire Pounder before they entered. “I am George Dawson…”
“Who has recently inherited some capital on the death of an uncle in the West Indies,” smiled Adam. “Yes – I recall.”
“It is important. For both of us.”
“I accept it with all due seriousness. Yet do you think the stagger quite necessary?”
“A man is known by his walk,” replied Squire Pounder. “Remember – I have more experience in business than you.”
“Very well. Good luck to you, Mr. Dawson.”
Squire Pounder grinned and pumped his hand. “And to you, Mr. Footer!”
After waiting for some time, they were finally shown into the office of the loans officer.
Adam blinked at the sight of the man behind the desk.
“Jonathon?” he asked, dumbfounded.
“You know this man?” demanded Squire Pounder. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well,” stammered Adam. “It is the last thing I could have imagined. Though I am sure you perform the duties of your office with great efficiency,” he added to Jonathon.
“Thank you, I’m sure,” said Jonathon. “What can I do for you, Mr. Footer?”
“We have come as two unassuming merchants; Mr. Footer because of the value of a certain idea, and myself, Mr. Dawson, because of a recent inheritance received due to the blessed generosity of a deceased uncle, late of the West Indies…”
“This degree of detail is quite unnecessary,” interrupted Jonathon. “You want a loan. Why?”
“Well…” said Adam.
“On the grounds of a new machine, a machine of enormous, almost unheard of productivity, called a…”
“Power loom,” grinned Jonathon. “I know.”
“Why – yes – you said this was a secret!” said Squire Pounder, turning on Adam suddenly.
Adam was pale. “Well – it is – it was. How do you know?” he asked Jonathon. “Because of your time at the Carvey’s?”
“Well no, not really. I had no interest in business then,” replied Jonathon. “But I had a most enterprising group of workers in here just yesterday asking for a loan. A group of workers who run a factory on Laurence’s lands. A group of workers who, if their figures are any indication, will present you with stiff competition.”
“Thieves!” cried Adam.
“Perhaps,” smiled Jonathon. “But very productive thieves.”
“Did you grant them a loan?” asked Squire Pounder, wiping his brow.
“That is privileged information, of course,” replied Jonathon, “yet I can say that if your figures match theirs, you stand a good chance. It will do the bank good to have two companies in this industry. Makes everyone more efficient.”
“We can do better than them,” said Squire Pounder confidently. “We have contacts overseas!”
“That is certainly of value,” admitted Jonathon, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands behind his head. “Now, the floor is yours,” he smiled. “Convince me.”
They talked for hours, sharing thoughts and memories. Lady Barbara seemed to show up in all their choices; Laurence realized that his desire to travel was not inherited from their father, but imposed by their mother; his drive for agricultural reforms was largely based on his hatred of Lady Barbara; she disapproved, and that was all the ambition he needed. Kay began to see that her philanthropy was not a moral choice, but a desperate need born of a crippling inadequacy. Their alienation from their class, their endless feelings of difference, of solitude and hostility; this came from the need to keep the secret of their despair; from others, from themselves. And Mary – how her power over them suddenly rankled, bright in the light of new understanding. Lady Barbara had resisted her because she feared a competitor for her power; Mary had acted like their mother; controlling, infecting with guilt; damning with accusations of immorality, and they had been helpless before her; it was all they were used to.
“But there it remains,” said Laurence. “What was Mary’s purpose?”
“I don’t know,” replied Kay. “I have often wondered about that. She was brutally harmed her whole life; she seemed to have found a way out; you know, in her desire to help the poor.”
“But you know, she hasn’t really,” said Laurence. “Helped the poor. She has harmed us, but she hasn’t helped the poor. The factory was a disaster.”
“You don’t think – her speeches?”
“I don’t know. That talk she gave last night; that wasn’t about the poor. It was against us. She has always condemned us for our privilege; in a careful, concerned way, but I cannot escape the notion that there is something… destructive about her. That’s Lydia’s opinion too.”
“What does she say?”
“That Mary is after our hides.”
“I’m trying to remember how she put it. That Mary wants to make us guilty for things we cannot change. Like a priest. The original sin of privilege, as if we can do nothing right because we are privileged. Nothing, of course, except give her money. Does that make any sense?”
Kay exhaled. “I don’t know. There is something about her I want to save. We have done her some good.”
“Yes – we have elevated her to a position where she can damn the aristocracy. Her speech was ferocious; we have suffered under these parasites long enough. Yet without us, she would still be wandering around the countryside, drowning in venom.”
“What are we supposed to do with such souls?”
“I don’t know,” said Laurence. “My first instinct is to get as far away from her as possible.”
“But – you know, Larry – she was wronged by you.”
“I wonder,” replied Laurence. “I mean yes, of course I was there. I caused it to some degree. But Farmer Jigger went quite insane. He frightened me. I wonder what went on in that house. I wonder if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else. She provoked the situation with the most savage condemnations; the same condemnations she spoke of last night. Something infected her with hatred long before I arrived on the scene. I was just a handy target.”
“And Farmer Jigger is dead,” whispered Kay.
“Yes,” admitted Laurence. “I have thought of that too.”
“Larry – this might sound quite insane, but please – watch your back. I don’t think she’s through with you.”
Laurence frowned. “I think she will find her own way now. I mean really – what can she do to me? If she wanted to shoot me, she would have done it months ago, when I was sleeping peacefully.”
“You’re right, but she is very devious. Your money is gone.”
“She couldn’t have planned that.”
“No, but still…”
“Let’s close this chapter,” said Laurence abruptly. “I can’t let myself be afraid of a peasant girl. She got to us, and we retire from the fight poorer but wiser. Let’s look the future.”
Kay paused. “All right, Laurence.”
“You know, I’m going to be married…”
They talked for some time more, then Kay left to meet Jonathon for dinner. Laurence stood and stretched, his limbs stiff from his long sitting. Glancing at the hall table, he saw the fourth letter. He picked it up and opened it.
Dear Lord Carvey:
You do not know me. My name is Vladimir Soldi. I have discovered that, many years ago, you gravely wronged a young woman. You have managed to escape your crime for many years. Until now. I would greatly appreciate it if you would meet me on the field noted on the enclosed map tomorrow at dawn. You may bring your choice of weapons. If you do not arrive, I shall have no choice but to publicly brand you a coward, and publish your crimes for all to read.
Laurence sat again suddenly, sickened, staring at the little map. I did not throw her out! he thought savagely. Is there to be no end to this? By God – it wasn’t a crime! Something, however, seemed to hover at the edge of his mind. He remembered his words: I think I needed more sensitivity when I was younger… A vague thought nagged at him … Was I guilty of some crime? He searched his memory, but it seemed to make no sense; he could think of nothing.
He knew that the publishing of a crime, no matter how imaginary, would be the death of his reputation, his hopes for a happy life, his marriage, his future. There is always a doubt… But who in hell was Vladimir Soldi? Someone who knew Mary – but she had never mentioned him. What has she been telling?
His groping mind tripped over a series of images. He saw himself six months before, full of hope and energy, afire with reforms and promise. Something happened… He remembered the morning in the sun-room, the sound of Kay’s voice reading the report of some awful crime; he remembered his feeling of weariness at the sound of her voice, the soft, insistent dragging that came with an interest in such abominations… He remembered her words: Do you know, I met the oddest girl on the road yesterday…
And it was with her that all my troubles began, he thought. Mary’s tortured, grasping, vindictive soul seemed to hover over him; it merged with that of another woman, shockingly similar; his mother. They turned me from my natural self; they are all anger and sympathy and guilt; they claim to love; they do not love; they only hate. Why did I pour my energies, my time, my fortune into their mad schemes? What did they entice me with? With sensitivity to failure, with horror of success, with guilt for privilege, with all the endless weapons of the weak. I was born for greatness, and they dragged me into the muck of their disease, the disease of living for others; I swallowed this disease whole; I learned how to curse myself; curse my strength, my abilities, my dreams. I never wronged them deliberately, but they made me feel deliberately wrong – wrong for being competent, wrong for enjoying life, wrong for – wrong for being happy!
Laurence shuddered at his last thought. It seemed inconceivable. Is it possible? Can there be people on the earth who loathe happiness? Can there be people who will stop at nothing to destroy the successful?
Thus it was laid bare to him. In his confidence, in his benevolence, in his trusting love of life, he had assumed the best in those around him. He had listened to them respectfully, taken their advice with an open heart, because he assumed he was loved. I judged them by my own standards, he thought. I was blind to the reality of hatred. And now I am undone.
Yet there was more to it than that… In the war for wisdom, the last casualty is always the illusions of youth. Perhaps there was no other road from there to now… His certainty of power, the arrogance of his assumptions of benevolence, his blindness to the reality of human corruption; these illusions had kept him in the comfortable couch of childish trust. To overthrow the false gods of one’s parents is the greatest, the most necessary atheism of adulthood; much false worship must be cast aside to mount the altar of mature reason. To leave behind the childish desire to control others, thought Laurence suddenly, perhaps I had to succumb to control myself. So now I have succumbed, paid a heavy price, and the desire is cleansed from my soul. My brothers are their own keepers; my responsibility is to build my own life anew.
“There is no choice,” he murmured. “I shall have to fight.” And with that thought, something seemed to settle in his mind.
Lydia was unable to sleep; her life seemed to be opening up before her; Laurence was free; they were in love; everything was glorious!
She got out of bed before dawn and sat at her dressing-table, twirling her hair, her mind full of linens and roses and bright breakfast tea. Hearing her stirring, the maid knocked and handed her a note.
“Came first thing, madam,” she smiled. “From young Lord Carvey.”
“Thank you,” said Lydia. She opened it eagerly.
I have been called away unexpectedly; I shall be unable to meet with you for brunch. If you do not hear from me by this evening, there is another letter for you at my house explaining everything. I say it there, but I’ll say it here too: I love you.
An alarm went off in Lydia’s heart. What is he doing? She rose, dressed quickly and rode to Laurence’s house on her fastest horse.
His maid answered her frantic knocking.
“Is Lord Carvey here?”
“No, madam,” replied the maid. “He left at the crack of dawn with Kent.”
“Why? Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, madam.”
“He left a letter here for me?”
“Yes, madam, but he asked…”
“I know,” said Lydia hastily. “But he is in danger. I have to see that letter!”
The maid looked at her for a moment uncertainly, then nodded. “Come in,” she said, walking over to the hall table and picking up a letter.
“What is that?” asked Lydia, pointing at a little map lying on the table.
“I don’t know, madam.”
Lydia opened the letter.
My dearest, dearest darling:
I love you. Last night, I was challenged to a duel…
Lydia cried out sharply and dropped the pages; they fluttered against her dress as she grabbed the map.
“Dear God!” she screamed. “He’s going to be killed!”
“What?” cried the maid.
“I must go – my father is not home – I must go!” cried Lydia, her voice trembling. She whirled, tore open the front door, and ran headlong into Mary, who was just about to knock.
“What – what’s the matter?” cried Mary, her eyes wide.
“Laurence has been challenged to a duel!” shouted Lydia, and there seemed to be a sudden bond between them; their recent lives, after all, had been lived for the sake of the same man.
“No!” whispered Mary, the blood draining from her cheeks.
“What do you know about this?” demanded Lydia, then shook her head violently. “Never mind – there’s no time!” she said, leaping on her horse.
“I need a horse!” cried Mary, turning on the maid. “Give me a horse!”
The maid pointed, her face pale. “The stables are…”
Mary ran to the stables and dragged a black horse out of its stall.
“Excuse me, miss…” said a groom hesitantly.
“Get in my way, and I’ll kill you,” growled Mary ferociously. The groom leapt back, and Mary drove the spurs into her horse’s flank, flying out into the courtyard after Lydia.
Vladimir was waiting for him when he arrived, standing in the slow steam of early morning.
“Good morning,” said Vladimir gravely.
“I was most surprised to get your note,” said Laurence, stepping down from his carriage. “I think you have been misinformed.”
“I do not think so,” said Vladimir.
“I have committed no crime against Mary.”
“Yet you know who I referred to.”
“Of course; she railed against me and was ejected from her home. I did nothing to stop it. I was wrong, but not a criminal.”
“I am not interested in your arguments,” replied Vladimir, his face set. “I am here to defend her; nothing more.”
“What is your relationship to her?”
“A friend. Your choice of weapons?”
As they stood facing each other, the silence of the morning was broken by the sound of flying hooves. Laurence turned and saw Lydia, on horseback, galloping towards them, her face flushed.
“Dear God, Laurence!” cried Lydia, bringing her steed to a halt and dismounting. “What is happening?”
“I am challenging this gentlemen to a duel for his crimes against Mary O’Donnel,” said Vladimir evenly.
“Crimes?” said Lydia desperately. “Larry – what crimes?”
“The gentleman has been misinformed,” said Laurence grimly. “No doubt by Miss O’Donnel.”
Another horse burst through the trees, Mary on its back. Mary rode up to them and dismounted, her face white.
“Well – you can ask her, if you dare,” said Vladimir.
“Vladimir – Vladimir I did not intend this!” cried Mary, her hands fluttering.
“You deserve protection,” said Vladimir slowly. “You have suffered alone long enough.”
“But – this was to be mine!” replied Mary angrily.
“I have chosen to make it mine. That is my prerogative.”
“What crime?” cried Lydia hysterically.
“Why, the crime of violation,” said Vladimir, turning to her. “The violation of Mary when she was a girl.”
“A – a what?” screamed Lydia. “A what? Laurence!”
“It is a lie,” he replied evenly.
“Is it?” demanded Vladimir. “Then why are you so guilty about her? Why did her friend kill herself? Do you remember flirting with someone called ‘Lady’ when you returned from your travels? Do you remember Mary condemning you then? Do you understand that that was because she feared that you would violate them again?”
“That – that is insane!” cried Laurence. “Mary!”
Mary was stepping back. “Do not tear this from me..!” she whispered, her eyes wide, wandering. “I know of this, but I don’t know it…”
“What – what is her hold over you? Why are you so guilty about her, Larry?” asked Lydia shakily.
“Because – because I did do her wrong!” he cried. “Because I was a party in the destruction of her life! Not because I violated her – but because – because I did nothing to help her! And I have been paying for that for the last six months! I have given her shelter and money; I have listened to the story of her wanderings, though it cost me to hear it. I have elevated her from poverty to fame! And this – this is my reward for my remorse?”
“You know nothing of remorse!” said Mary, her face twisted with hatred. “You cannot admit the truth. I will not be bought. I will speak the truth. You are a violator.”
“Larry!” whispered Lydia. “Larry – it cannot be true!”
“It is true,” said Vladimir, loading his pistol. “This duel will commence.”
“Don’t, Larry,” said Lydia frantically. “Don’t!”
“Mary!” cried Laurence fearfully. “Mary! Tell the truth!”
Mary shuddered, her hands covering her face. “I am violation!” she cried in an agonized voice. “Help me!”
Laurence stared at her for a moment, then shook his head resolutely. “This lie will not end here if I back down,” he said grimly, checking his pistol.
The two men took their places, back to back. Mary lowered her hands and watched them, her mind stretched almost to the bursting point. Violator! Violator! Violator! – the word thundered in her ear. Her body twisted as if groped by unseen hands. Vladimir and Laurence began pacing away from each other. Laurence’s valet counted out the numbers: one, two, three… Mary felt a dark chasm opening in her soul; her head whipped from side to side; violator; violator..! She saw herself, a helpless girl, saw the shadowy form leaning over her, reeking with drink and soft, sick words. Everything turned dark; from a great distance, she heard the counting; four, five, six… The form lowered over her; she felt her legs pried apart, heard the whisper of her blind prayers, felt the dank breath on her face… Seven, eight, nine… The darkness suddenly parted, and Mary stared into Jigger’s distant, labouring face; she felt the his drool on her flat chest, knew again the agony of his invasion… A distant voice cried: Ten!
“No!” screamed Mary, leaping forward. There was a dull explosion; she felt herself twisting in the air; felt the deadening shock in her belly, felt herself slamming into the ground, felt the faint tickle of grass on her cheek, felt the iron taste of blood in her mouth.
Vladimir ran up to her huddled form. “Mary!” he cried, turning her over and taking her limp form in his arms. Her first and final relaxation.
She stared into his face from a great distance. Laurence’s face joined it; they seemed to be shouting through a thick pane of glass.
“Mary!” cried Laurence’s voice urgently. “Mary! For the love of God, tell the truth!”
“The truth,” she whispered, and a sudden shock jolted her fading. Violator! a soft voice murmured in her mind.
“The truth,” gasped Mary, as the darkness flowed over her. “The truth is I was… violated. The truth is that I also… violated. But it was not you. Dear Laurence – it was not you. I was wrong. You are – forgiven. You are free.”
Laurence closed his eyes. Vladimir stared at her in wonder.
“No more…” said Mary, her voice faltering. “Leave me. No more… Men… do not… live this way…” She stared at them and gasped, struggling madly, and then her vision seemed to clear into a wide expanse of white peace, and she saw a little girl clothed in cream floating above her, a pure, innocent dream of love and hope, and all darkness seemed to fade before her shining face, her trusting eyes, and Mary wept, the tears spilling down her cheeks, dissolving the blood. The little girl smiled, beckoning, and Mary rose to embrace her, her soul overflowing with love.
The children were restless by the time dessert was served, but neither Lydia nor Kay could find it in their hearts to scold them; the dinner had been a long one. Lord Cerbes had talked for a long time about rather abstract topics; the threats and promises of the new anti-aristocratic movements, and the efforts of Dr. Vladimir Soldi to expose crimes against the young. The children had been quite well-behaved throughout; they deserved a reward.
“Mummy!” begged Kay’s youngest, tugging at her dress. “Mummy – we want to play!”
“Let them, Kay,” smiled Lord Cerbes. “Remember, I can be fun as well,” he said, winking at the young faces.
“We know, granddad!” they cried.
“Go on then,” said Jonathon, and they scrambled from the table and ran off shouting.
“It’s wonderful that they’re such friends,” said Laurence, sitting back in his chair and wiping his lips.
“What should we toast?” asked Lydia, raising her glass.
“Let us toast to happiness,” said Lord Cerbes. They all raised their glasses.
“One more,” said Kay, her eyes suddenly filling with tears. “To the excluded.”
They were silent for a moment, remembering. A clock chimed softly on the mantelpiece.
“Yes,” murmured Laurence, raising his glass. “To the excluded.”
“May we grant them entrance,” said Lord Cerbes as they all leaned forward.
The clinking was almost musical.