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Letty was at home, just about to share her lunch with Harding Watton, who had dropped in. Hearing her husband's voice, she came out to the stair-head to speak to him. But after a minute or two George dashed down again to his study, that he might write a hurried note to a middle-aged cousin of his mother's, asking her to go round to Warwick Square early in the afternoon, and making excuses for Letty, who was «very much engaged.» For Letty had met his request with a smiling disdain. Why, she was simply « crowded up » with engagements of all sorts and kinds!
«Mother is really unwell,» said George, standing with his hands on his sides, looking down upon her. He was fuming with irritation and hurry, and had to put a force on himself to speak persuasively.
"My dear old boy!»-she rose on tiptoe and twisted his mustache for him-«don't we know all about your mother's ailments by this time? I suppose she wants to give me a scolding, or to hear about the Ardaghs, or to tell me all about the smart parties she has been to, or something of the sort. No, really; it's quite impossible-this afternoon. I know I must go and see her some time; of course I will.»
She said this with the air of some one making a great concession. It was, indeed, her first formal condonement of the offense offered her just before the Castle Luton visit. George attempted a little more argument and entreaty, but in vain. Letty was rather puzzled by his urgency, but quite obdurate. And as he ran down the stairs he heard her laugh in the drawing-room, mingled with Harding Watton's. No doubt they were making merry over the «discipline » which Letty found it necessary to apply to her mother-inlaw.
In the House of Commons the afternoon was once more given up to the adjourned debate on the second reading of the Maxwell bill. The House was full, and showing itself to advantage. On the whole, the animation and competence of the speeches reflected the general rise in combative energy and the wide kindling of social passions which the bill had so far brought about both in and out of Parliament. Those who figured as the defenders of industries, harassed beyond bearing by the Socialist meddlers, spoke with more fire, with more semblance, at any rate, of putting their hearts into it, than any men of their kind had been able to attain since the "giant days of the first factory debates.
Those, on the other hand, who were urging the House to a yet sterner vigilance in protecting the worker-even the grown manfrom his own helplessness and need, who believed that law spells freedom, and that the experience of half a century was wholly on their side-these friends of a strong cause were also at their best, on their mettle. Owing to the wide-spread flow of a great reaction, the fight had become a representative contest between two liberties-a true battle of ideas.
Yet George, sitting below the gangway beside his leader, his eyes staring at the ceiling and his hands in his pockets, listened to it all in much languor and revolt. He himself had made his speech on the third day of the debate. It had cost him endless labor, only to seem to him in the end-by contrast with the vast majority of speeches made in the course of the debate, even those by men clearly inferior to himself in mind and training-to be a hollow and hypocritical performance. What did he really think and believe? What did he really desire? He vowed to himself once more, as he had vowed at Ferth, that his mind was a chaos, without convictions, either intellectual or moral; that he had begun what he was not able to finish; and that he was doomed to make a failure of his parliamentary career, as he was already making a failure of coal-owning, and a failure
He curbed something bitter and springing that haunted his inmost mind. But his effort could not prevent his dwelling angrily for a minute on the thought of Letty laughing with Harding Watton-laughing because he had asked her a small kindness and she had most unkindly refused it.
Yet she must help him with his poor mother. How softened were all his thoughts about that difficult and troublesome lady! As it happened, he had a good deal of desultory medical knowledge, for the problems and perils of the body had always attracted his pessimist sense; yet it did not help him much at this juncture. At one moment he said to himself, «Eighteen months-she will live eighteen months »; and at another, «Battye was probably right: Barham took an unnecessarily gloomy view; she may quite well last as long as the rest of us.»>
SUDDENLY he was startled by a movement beside him.
«The honorable member has totally misunderstood me,» cried Fontenoy, springing to his feet and looking eagerly toward the Speaker.
The member who was speaking on the government side smiled, put on his hat, and sat down. Fontenoy flung out a few stinging sentences, was hotly cheered both by his own supporters and from a certain area of the Liberal benches, and sat down again triumphant, having scored an excellent point.
George turned round to his companion. "Good!» he said, with emphasis. «That rubbed it in!»
But when the man opposite was once more on his legs, doing his best to undo the impression which had been made, George found himself wondering whether, after all, the point had been so good, and why he had been so quick to praise. She would have said, of course, that it was a point scored against common sense, against humanity. He began to fancy the play of her scornful eyes, the eloquence of her white hand moving and quivering as she spoke.
How long was it-one hurried month only -since he had walked with her along the river at Castle Luton? While the crowded House about him was again listening with attention to the speech on behalf of the government from one of the senior London members which had just brought the protesting Fontenoy to his legs; while his leader was fidgeting and muttering beside him; while to his left the crowd of members about the door was constantly melting, constantly reassembling, Tressady's mind withdrew itself from its surroundings, saw nothing, heard nothing but the scenes of a far-off London and a figure that moved among them.
How often had he been with her since Castle Luton? Once or twice a week, certainly, either at St. James's Square or in the East End, in spite of Parliament and Fontenoy and his many engagements as Letty's husband. Strange phenomenon-that little salon of hers in the far East! For it was practically a salon, though it existed for purposes the Hôtel Rambouillet knew nothing of. He found himself one of many there; and like all salons, it had an inner circle. Charles Naseby, Edward Watton, Lady Madeleine Penley, the Levens-some or all of these were generally to be found in Lady Maxwell's neighborhood, rendering homage or help in one way or another. It was touching to see that girl, Lady Madeleine, looking at the docker or the shirt-maker with her restless greenish eyes, as though she realized for the first time what hideous bond it is the one true commonalty-that crushes the human family together.
Well, and what had he seen? Nothing, cer
tainly, of which he had not had ample information before. Under the fresh spur of the talk that occupied the Maxwell circle he had made one or two rounds through some dismal regions in Whitechapel, Mile End, and Hackney, where some of the worst of the home industries to which, at last, after long hesitation on the part of successive governments, Maxwell's bill was intended to put an end, crowded every house and yard. He saw some of it in the company of a lady rent-collector, an old friend of the Maxwells, who had charge of several tenement blocks where the trousers and vest trade was largely carried on; and he welcomed the chance of one or two walks in quest of law-breaking workshops with a young inspector who could not say enough in praise of the bill. But if it had been only a question of fact, George would have felt, when the rounds were done, merely an added respect for Fontenoy, perhaps even for his own party as a whole. Not a point raised by his guides but had been abundantly discussed and realized-on paper, at any rate-by Fontenoy and his friends. The young inspector, himself a hot partizan, and knowing with whom he had to deal, would have liked to convict his companion of sheer and simple ignorance; but, on the contrary, Tressady was not to be caught napping. As far as the trade details and statistics of this gruesome slop-work of East London went, he knew all that could be shown him.
Nevertheless, cool and impassive as his manner was throughout, the experience in the main did mean the exchange of a personal for a paper and hearsay knowledge. When, indeed, had he or Fontenoy or any one else ever denied that the life of the poor was an odious and miserable struggle, a scandal to gods and men? What then? Did they make the world and its iron conditions? And yet this long succession of hot and smelling dens; this series of pale, stooping figures, toiling hour after hour, at fever pace, in these stifling back-yards, while the June sun shone outside, reminding one of English meadows and the ripple of English grass; these panting, disheveled women slaving beside their husbands and brothers amid the rattle of the machines and the steam of the pressers' irons, with the sick or the dying, perhaps, in the bed beside them, and their starved children at their feet-sights of this sort, thus translated from the commonplace of reports and newspapers into a poignant, unsavory truth, had at least this effect: they vastly quickened the personal melancholy of the spectator; they raised and drove home a num
ber of piercing questions which, probably, his own misfortune. Had he not rushed upon George Tressady would never have raised, and would have lived happily without raising, if it had not been for a woman and a woman's charm.
For that woman's solutions remained as doubtful to him as ever. He would go back to that strange little house where she kept her strange court, meet her eager eyes, and be roused at once to battle. How they had argued! He knew that she had less hope than ever of persuading him even to modify his view of the points at issue between the government and his own group. She could not hope for a moment that any act of his would be likely to stand between Maxwell and defeat. He had not talked of his adventures to Fontenoy-would rather, indeed, that Fontenoy knew nothing of them. But he and she knew that Fontenoy, so far, had little to fear from them.
And yet she had not turned from him. To her personal mood, to her wifely affection even, he must appear more plainly than ever as the callous and selfish citizen, ready and glad to take his own ease while his brethren perished. He had been skeptical and sarcastic; he had declined to accept her evidence; he had shown a persistent preference for the drier and more brutal estimate of things. Yet she had never parted from him without gentleness, without a look in her beautiful eyes that had often tormented his curiosity. What did it mean? Pity? Or some unspoken comment of a personal kind she could not persuade her womanly reticence to put into words? Or, rather, had she some distant inkling of the real truth-that he was beginning to hate his own convictions-to feel that to be right with Fontenoy was nothing, but to be wrong with her would be delight? What absurdity! With a strong effort he pulled himself together, steadied his rushing pulse. It was like some one waking at night in a nervous terror, and feeling the pressure of some iron dilemma from which he cannot free himself-cold vacancy and want on the one side, calamity on the other.
For that cool power of judgment in his own case which he had always possessed did not fail him now. He saw everything nakedly and coldly. His marriage was not three months old, but no spectator could have discussed its results more frankly than he was now prepared to discuss them with himself. It was monstrous, no doubt. He felt his whole position to be as ugly as it was abnormal. Who could feel any sympathy with it or him? He himself had been throughout the architect of
his marriage with less care-relatively to the weight of the human interest in such a matter--than an animal shows when it mates?
Letty's personal idiosyncrasies even-her way of entering a room, her mean little devices for attracting social notice, the stubborn extravagance of her dress and personal habits, her manner to her servants, her sharp voice as she retailed some scrap of slanderous gossip-her husband had by now ceased to be blind or deaf to any of them. Indeed, his senses in relation to many things she said and did were far more irritable at this moment-possibly far less just-than a stranger's would have been. Often and often he would try to recall to himself the old sense of charm, of piquancy. In vain. It was all gone; he could only miserably wonder at the past. Was it that he knew now what charm might mean, and what divinity may breathe. around a woman?
«I SAY, where are you off to?»
Tressady looked up with a start as Fontenoy rose beside him.
«Good opportunity for dinner, I think,»> said Fontenoy, with a motion of the head toward the man who had just caught the Speaker's eye. «Are you coming? I should like a word with you.»>
George followed him into the lobby. As the swing-door closed behind him, they plunged into a whirlpool of talk and movement. All the approaches to the House were full of folk. Everybody was either giving news or getting it; for the excitement of a coming crisis was in the air. This was Friday, and the division on the second reading was expected on the following Monday.
<< What a crowd, and what a temperature! >> said Fontenoy. «Come out upon the terrace a moment.>>
They made their way into the air, and as they walked up and down Fontenoy talked in his hoarse, hurried voice of the latest aspect of affairs. The government would get their second reading, of course; that had never been really doubtful, though Fontenoy was certain that the normal majority would be a good deal reduced. But all the hopes of the heterogeneous coalition which had been slowly forming throughout the spring hung upon the committee stage, and Fontenoy's mind was now full of the closest calculations as to the voting on particular amendments. For him the bill fell into three parts. The first part, which was mainly confined to small amendments and extensions of former acts, would
be sharply criticized, but would probably pass without much change. The second part contained the famous clause by which it became penal to practise certain trades, such as tailoring, boot-finishing, and shirt-making, in a man's or woman's own home-in the same place, that is to say, as the worker uses for eating and sleeping. This clause, which represented the climax of a long series of restrictions upon the right of a man to stitch even his own life away, still more upon his right to force his children or bribe his neighbor to a like waste of the nation's force, was by now stirring the industrial mind of England far and wide.
And not the mind of England only. Ireland and Scotland, town and country, talked of it, seethed with it. The new law, if it passed, was to be tried, indeed, at first in London only. But every provincial town and every country district knew that, if it succeeded, there was not a corner of the land that would not ultimately feel the yoke or the deliverance of it. Every workman's club, every trade-union meeting, every mechanics' institute was ringing with it. Organized labor, dragged down at every point-in London, at any rate-by the competition of the starving and struggling crew of home-workers, clamored for the bill. The starving and struggling crew themselves were partly voiceless, partly bewildered; now drawn by the eloquence of their trade-union fellows to shout for the revolution that threatened them, now surging tumultuously against it.
On this vital clause, in Fontenoy's belief, the government would go down. But if, by amazing good fortune and good generalship, they should get through with it, then the fight would but rage the more fiercely round the last two sections of the bill.
The third section dealt with the hours of labor in the new workshops that were to be. For the first time it became directly penal for a man, as well as a woman, to work more than the accepted factory day of ten and a half hours, with a few exceptions and exemptions in the matter of overtime. On this clause, if it ever were reached, the Socialist vote, were it given solidly for the government, might, no doubt, pull them through. «But if we have any luck-damn it! they won't get the chance,» Fontenoy would say, with that grim, sudden reddening which revealed from moment to moment the feverish tension of the man.
In the last section of the bill the government, having made its revolution, looked round for a class on which to lay the burden
of carrying it into action, and found it in the landlords. The landlords were to be the policemen of the new act. To every owner of every tenement or other house in London the bill said: You are responsible. If, after a certain date, you allow certain trades to be carried on within your walls at all, even by the single man or the single woman working in their own rooms, penalty and punishment shall follow.
Of this clause in the bill Fontenoy could never speak with calmness. One might see his heart thumping in his breast as he denounced it. At bottom it was to him the last and vilest step in a long and slanderous campaign against the class to which he belonged against property-against the existing social order.
He fell upon the subject to-night apropos of a Socialist letter in the morning papers; and George, who was mostly conscious at the moment of a sick fatigue with Fontenoy and Fontenoy's arguments, had to bear it as best he might. Presently he interrupted:
"One assumption you make I should like to contest. You imagine, I think, that if they carry the (prohibition) and the (hours) clauses we shall be able to whip up a still fiercer attack on the landlords clause. Now, that is n't my view.»
Fontenoy turned upon him, startled.
<«<Why is n't it your view?» he said abruptly.
«Because there are always waverers who will accept a fait accompli, and you know how opposition always has a trick of cooling toward the end of a bill. Maxwell has carried his main point, they will say; this is a question of machinery. Besides, many of those Liberals who will be with us on the main point don't love the landlords. No; don't flatter yourself that, if we lose the main engagement, there will be any Prussians to bring up. The thing will be done.»
« Well, thank God!» grumbled Fontenoy, "we don't mean to lose the main engagement. But if one of our men were to argue in that way I should know what to say to him.»>
George made no reply.
They walked on in silence, the summer twilight falling softly over the river and the hospital, over the terrace, with its groups, and the towering pile of buildings beside them.
Presently Fontenoy said in another voice:
«I have really never had the courage to talk to you of the matter, Tressady; but did n't you see something of that lad Ancoats before he went off abroad?»
<< Yes, I saw him several times: first at the club, then he came and dined with me here one night.»
«And did he confide in you?»
« More or less," said George, smiling rather queerly at the recollection.
Fontenoy made a sound between a growl and a sigh.
«Really, it's rather too much to have to think out that young man's affairs as well as one's own. And the situation is so extraordinary. Maxwell and I have to be in constant consultation. I went to see him in his room in the House of Lords the other night, and met a man coming out, who stopped, and stared as though he were shot. Luckily I knew him, and could say a word to him, or there would have been all sorts of cock-andbull stories abroad.»>
<<Well, and what are you and Maxwell doing? »
«Trying to get at the young woman. One can't buy her off, of course. Ancoats is his own master, and could outbid us. But Maxwell has found a brother-a decent sort of fellow-a country solicitor. And there is a Ritualist curate, a Father somebody,»-Fontenoy raised his shoulders, «who seems to have an intermittent hold on the girl. When she has fits of virtue she goes to confess to him. Maxwell has got hold of him.»
« And meanwhile Ancoats is at Bad Wildheim? »
«Ancoats is at Bad Wildheim, and behaving himself, as I hear from his poor mother.» Fontenoy sighed. «But the boy was frightened, of course, when they went abroad. Now she is getting better, and one can't tell-⟫
«No, one can't tell,» said George.
«I wish I knew what the thing really meant,» said Fontenoy, presently, in a tone of perplexed reverie. «What do you think? Is it a passion-?»
« Ör a pose?» George pondered.
«H'm," he said at last; «more of a pose, I think, than a passion. Ancoats always seems to me the jeune premier in his own play. He sees his life in scenes, and plays them according to all the rules.>>
"Intolerable!» said Fontenoy, in exasperation. And at least he might refrain from dragging a girl into it! We were n't saints in my day, but we were n't in the habit of choosing well-brought-up maidens of twenty in our own set for our confidantes. You know, I suppose, what broke up the party at Castle Luton? »
<< Ancoats told me nothing. I have heard some gossip from Harding Watton,» said George, unwillingly. It was one of his strongest characteristics, this fastidious and even haughty dislike of chatter about other people's private affairs-a dislike which, in the present case, had been strengthened by his growing antipathy to Harding.
«How should he know?» said Fontenoy, angrily. He was glad enough to use Watton as a political tool, but had never yet admitted him to the smallest social intimacy.
Yet with Tressady he felt no difficulty in talking over these private affairs, and he did, in fact, report the whole story-that same story with which Marcella had startled Betty Leven on the night in question: how Ancoats on that Sunday evening had decoyed the handsome, impressionable girl, to whom throughout the winter he had been paying decided and even ostentatious court, into a tête-à-tête; had poured out to her frantic confessions of his attachment to the theatrical lady--a woman he could never marry, whom his mother could never meet, but with whom, nevertheless, come what might, he was determined to live and die. She (Madeleine) was his friend, his good angel. Would she go to his mother and break it to her? Would she understand and forgive him? There must be no opposition, or he would shoot himself. And so on, till the poor girl, worn out with excitement and grief, tottered into Mrs. Allison's room more dead than alive.
But at that point Fontenoy stopped abruptly.
George agreed that the story was almost incredible, and added the inward and natural comment of the public-school man-that if people will keep their boys at home, and defraud them of the kickings that are their due, they may look out for something unwholesome in the finished product. Then, aloud, he said:
«I should imagine that Ancoats was acting through the greater part of that. He had said to himself that such a scene would be effective, and would be new.»
«Good heavens! Why, that makes it ten thousand times more abominable than before! >>
«I dare say,» said George, coolly. «But it also makes the future, perhaps, a little more hopeful-throws some light on the passion or pose alternative. My impression is that if we can only find an effective exit for Ancoats,a last act that he would consider worthy of him, he will bow himself out of the business willingly enough.»