At fleeting moments his [Simon’s] face had a sort of tortured beauty, not a beauty of feature but the beauty of a restless, striving spirit. A disturbing thing about him was that there was no gaiety in his smile, it was a sardonic grimace, and when he laughed his face was contorted as though he were suffering from an agony of pain.
Simon’s eyes had a dark opaqueness which reminded you of an old mirror, in a deserted house, from which the quick-silver was worn away, so that when you looked in it you saw, not yourself, but a sombre depth in which seemed to lurk the reflections of long past events and passions long since dead and yet in some terrifying way tremulous still with a borrowed and mysterious life.
Simon relit his pipe.
“One thing that peculiarly struck me in Robert Berger was his combination of nerve, self-possession and charm. Of course charm is an invaluable quality, but it doesn’t often go with nerve and self-possession. Charming people are generally weak and irresolute, charm is the weapon nature gives them to cope with their disadvantages; I would never set much trust in anyone who had it.”
Charley gave his friend a slightly amused glance; he knew that Simon was belittling a quality he did not think he possessed in order to assure himself that it was of no great consequence beside those he was convinced he had. But he did not interrupt.
“Is there anything there?” he said, as though speaking to himself. “Or is it merely an accident of expression that gives the illusion of some quality of the soul?” And then to Charley: “I’ve often asked myself what it was that I saw in you. It wasn’t your good looks, though I daresay they had something to do with it; it wasn’t your intelligence, which is adequate without being remarkable; it wasn’t your guileless nature or your good temper. What is it in you that makes people take to you at first sight? You’ve won half your battle before ever you take the field. Charm? What is charm? It’s one of the words we all know the meaning, but we can none of us define. But I know if I had that gift of yours, with my brain and my determination there’s no obstacle in the world I couldn’t surmount. You’ve got vitality and that’s part of charm. But I have just as much vitality as you; I can do with four hours’ sleep for days on end and I can work for sixteen hours a day without getting tired. When people first meet me they’re antagonistic, I have to conquer them by sheer brainpower, I have to play on their weaknesses, I have to make myself useful to them, I have to flatter them. When I came to Paris my chief thought me the most disagreeable young man and the most conceited he’d ever met. Of course he’s a fool. How can a man be conceited when he knows his defects as well as I know mine? Now he eats out of my But I’ve had to work like a dog to achieve what you can do with a flicker of your long eyelashes. Charm is essential. In the last two years I’ve got to know a good many prominent politicians and they’ve all got it. Some more and some less. But they can’t all have it by nature. That shows it can be acquired. It means nothing, but it arouses the devotion of their followers so that they’ll do blindly all they’re bidden and be satisfied with a reward of a kind word. I’ve examined them at work. They can turn it on like water from a tap. The quick, friendly smile; the hand that’s so ready to clasp yours. The warmth in the voice that seems to promise favours, the show of interest that leads to think your concerns are your leader’s chief preoccupation, the intimate manner which tells you nothing, but deludes you into thinking you are in your master’s confidence. The clichés, the hundred varieties of dear old boy that are so flattering on influential lips. The ease and naturalness, the perfect acting that imitates nature, and the sensitiveness that discerns a fool’s vanity and takes care never to affront it. I can learn all that, it only means a little more effort and a little more self-control. Sometimes of course they overdo it, the pros, their charm becomes so mechanical that it ceases to work; people see through it, and feeling they’ve been duped are resentful. He gave Charley another of his piercing glances. Your charm is natural, that’s why it’s so devastating.”
“Are you still taken in by the artistic pretensions of your excellent parents? You must grow up, Charley. Art! It’s an amusing diversion for the idle rich. Our world, the world we live in, has no time for such nonsense.”
“Who can achieve mastery over others unless he first achieves mastery over himself?”
“I’m sure one can do anything with oneself if one tries. It’s only matter of will.”
“I must tell you an incident that happened a few months ago here. They were having a meeting of the British Legion or something like that, I forget what for, war graves or something; my chief was going to speak, but he had a cold in the head and he sent me instead. You know what our paper is, bloody patriotic as long as it helps our circulation, all the dirt we can get, and a high moral tone. My chief’s the right man in the right place. He hasn’t had an idea in his head for twenty years. He never opens his mouth without saying the obvious and when he tells a dirty story it’s so stale that it doesn’t even stink any more. But he’s as shrewd as they make ‘em. He knows what the proprietor wants and he gives it to him. Well, I made the speech he would have made. Platitudes dripped from my mouth. I made the welkin ring with claptrap. I gave them jokes so hoary that even a judge would have been ashamed to make them. They roared with laughter. I gave them pathos so shaming that you would have thought they would vomit. The tears rolled down their cheeks. I beat the big drum of patriotism like a Salvation Lass sublimating her repressed sex. They cheered me to the echo. It was the speech of the evening. When it was all over the big-wigs wrung my hand still overwhelmed with emotion. I got them all right. And d’you know, I didn’t say a single word that I didn’t know was contemptible balderdash. Words, words, words! Poor old Hamlet.”
“You don’t suppose I intend to be a foreign correspondent for a London paper or a teacher of English all my life. These are my Wanderjahre. I’m going to spend them in acquiring the education I never got at the stupid school we both went to or in that suburban cemetery they call the University of Cambridge. But it’s not only knowledge of men and books that I want to acquire; that’s only an instrument; I want to acquire something much harder to come by and more important: an unconquerable will. I want to mould myself as the Jesuit novice is moulded by the iron discipline of the Order. I think I’ve always known myself; there’s nothing that teaches you what you are, like being alone in the world, a stranger everywhere, and living all your life with people to whom you mean nothing. But my knowledge was instinctive. In these two years I’ve been abroad I’ve learnt to know myself as I know the fifth proposition of Euclid. I know my strength and my weakness and I’m ready to spend the next five or six years cultivating my strength and ridding myself of my weakness. I’m going to take myself as a trainer takes an athlete to make a champion of him. I’ve got a good brain. There’s no one in the world who can see to the end of his nose with such perspicacity as I can, and believe me, in the world we live in that’s a great force. I can talk. You have to persuade men to action not by reasoning, but by rhetoric. The general idiocy of mankind is such that they can be swayed by words, and however mortifying, for the present you have to accept the fact as you accept it in the cinema that a film to be a success must have a happy ending. Already I can do pretty well all I like with words; before I’m through I shall be able to do anything.”
“An awful lot of hokum is talked about love, you know. An importance is ascribed to it that is entirely at variance with fact. People talk as though it were self-evidently the greatest of human values. Nothing is less self-evident. Until Plato dressed his sentimental sensuality in a captivating literary form the ancient world laid no more stress on it than was sensible; the healthy realism of the Muslim has never looked upon it as anything but a physical need; it was Christianity, buttressing its emotional claims with neo-Platonism, that made it into the end an aim, the reason, the justification of life. But Christianity was the religion of slaves. It offered the weary and the heavy-laden heaven to compensate them in the future for their misery in this world and the opiate of love to enable them to bear it in the present. And like every drug it enervated and destroyed those who became subject to it. For two thousand years it’s suffocated us. It’s weakened our wills and lessened our courage. In this modern world we live in we know that almost everything is more important than love, we know that only the soft and the stupid allow it to affect their actions, and yet we pay it a foolish lip-service. In books, on the stage, in the pulpit, on the platform the same old sentimental rubbish is talked that was used to hoodwink the slaves of Alexandria.”
“But, Simon, the slave population of the ancient world was just the proletariat of to-day.”
Simon’s lips trembled with a smile and the look he fixed on Charley made him feel that he had said a silly thing.
“I know,” said Simon quietly.
For a while his restless eyes were still, but though he looked at Charley his gaze seemed fixed on something in the far distance. Charley did not know of what he thought, but he was conscious of a faint malaise.
“It may be that the habit of two thousand years has made love a human necessity and in that case it must be taken into account. But if dope must be administered the best person to do so is surely not a dope friend. If love can be put into some useful purpose it can only be by someone who is himself immune to it.”
“Nothing in the world is so insidious as a woman’s flattery; our need for it is so enormous that we become her slave. I must be as impervious to flattery as I am indifferent to abuse. There’s nothing that binds one to a woman like the benefits one confers to her.”
“But, Simon, you have human passions like the rest of us. You’re twenty-three.”
“And my sexual desires are urgent? Less urgent than you imagine. When you work from twelve to sixteen hours a day and sleep on an average six, when you content yourself with one meal a day, much as it may surprise you, your desires are much attenuated. Paris is singularly well arranged for the satisfaction of the sexual instinct at moderate expense and with the least possible waste of time, and when I find that my appetite is interfering with my work I have a woman just as when I’m constipated I take a purge.”
Charley’s clear blue eyes twinkled with amusement and a charming smile parting his lips displayed his strong white teeth.
“Aren’t you missing a lot of fun? You know, one’s young for such a little while.”
“I may be. I know one can do nothing in the world unless one’s single-minded. Chesterfield said the last word about sexual congress: the pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous, and the expense is damnable. It may be an instinct that one can’t suppress, but the man’s a pitiful fool who allows it to divert him from his chosen path. I’m not afraid of it any more. In a few more years I shall be entirely free from its temptation.”
“Are you sure you can prevent yourself from falling in love one of these days? Such things do happen, you know, even to the most prudent men.”
Simon gave him a strange, one might even have thought a hostile, look.
“I should tear it out of my heart as I’d wrench out of my mouth a rotten tooth.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
“I know. Nothing that’s worth doing is done easily, but that’s one of the odd things about man, if his self-preservation is concerned, if he has to do something on which his being depends, he can find in himself the strength to do it.”
“One idealizes people when they’re away, it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and one sees them again one’s often surprised that one saw anything in them at all.”
[Simon on Charley’s father:]
“...the worst sort of humbug, the one who humbugs himself...”
“Democracy is moonshine. It’s an unrealizable ideal which the propagandist dangles before the masses as you dangle a carrot before a donkey. Those great watchwords of the nineteenth century, liberty, equality, fraternity, are pure hokum. Liberty? The mass of men don’t need liberty and don’t know what to do with it when they’ve got it. Their duty and their pleasure is to serve; thus they attain the security which is their deepest want. It’s been decided long ago that the only liberty worth anything is the liberty to do right, and right is decided by might. Right is an idea occasioned by public opinion and prescribed by law, but public opinion is created by those who have the power to enforce their point of view, and the only sanction of law is the might behind it.
“Tosh, my dear boy, tosh. You’re a sentimental fool. In the first place it’s not true that people improve as you know them better: they don’t. That’s why one should only have acquaintances and never make friends. An acquaintance shows you only the best of himself, he’s considerate and polite, he conceals his defects behind a mask of social convention; but grow so intimate with him that he throws the mask aside, get to know him so well that he doesn’t trouble any longer to pretend; then you’ll discover a being of such meanness, of such a trivial nature, of such weakness, of such corruption, that you’d be aghast if you didn’t realize that that was his nature and it was just as stupid to condemn him as to condemn the wolf because he ravens or the cobra because he strikes. For the essence of man is egoism. Egoism is at once his strength and his weakness. Oh, I’ve got to know men pretty well during the two years I’ve spent in the newspaper world. Vain, petty, unscrupulous, avaricious, double-faced and abject, they’ll betray one another, not even for their own advantage, but from sheer malice. There’s no trick they won’t descend to in order to queer a rival’s pitch; there’s no humiliation they won’t accept to obtain a title or an order; and not only politicians; lawyers, doctors, merchants, artists, men of letters. And their craving for publicity; they’ll cringe and flatter a twopenny-halfpenny journalist to get a good press. Rich men will hesitate at no shabby dodge to make a few pounds that they have no use for. Honesty, political honesty, commercial honesty – the only thing that counts with them is what they can get away with; the only thing that restrains them is fear. For they’re craven. And the protestations they make, the high-flown humbug that falls from their lips, the shameless lies they tell themselves. Oh, believe me, you can’t do the work I’ve been doing since I left Cambridge and preserve many illusions about human nature. Men are vile. Cowards and hypocrites. I loathe them.”
“Pity? Pity is womanish. Pity is what the beggar entreats of you because he hasn’t the guts, the industry and the brains to make a decent living. Pity is the flattery the failure craves so that he may preserve his self-esteem. Pity is the cheap blackmail that the prosperous pay to the down-and-out so that they may enjoy their own prosperity with a better conscience.”
“Equality? Equality is the greatest nonsense that’s ever muddled the intelligence of the human race. As if men were equal or could be equal! They talk of equality of opportunity. Why should men have that when they can’t take advantage of it? Men are born unequal; different in character, in vitality, in brain; and no equality of opportunity can offset that. The vast majority are densely stupid. Credulous, shallow, feckless, why should they be given equality of opportunity with those who have character, intelligence, industry and force? And it’s that natural inequality of man that knocks the bottom out of democracy. What a stupid farce it is to govern a country by the counting of millions of empty heads! In the first place they don’t know what’s good for them and in the second, they haven’t the capacity to get the good they want. What does democracy come down to? The persuasive power of slogans invented by wily, self-seeking politicians. A democracy is ruled by words, and the orator seldom has brains, and if he has, he hasn’t time to use them, since all his energy has to be given to cajoling the fools on whose votes he depends. Democracy has had a hundre years’ trial: theoretically it was always absurd, and now we know that practically it’s a wash-out.”
“Communism? Who talked of communism? Everyone knows now that communism is a wash-out. It was the dream of impractical idealists who knew nothing of the realities of life. Communism is the lure you offer to the working classes to rouse them to revolt just as the cry of liberty and equality is the slogan with which you fire them to dare. Throughout the history of the world there have always been exploiters and exploited. There always will be. And it’s right that it should be so because the great mass of men are made by nature to be slaves; they are unfit to control themselves, and for their own good need masters.”
“That’s rather a startling assertion.”
“It’s not mine, old boy,” Simon answered ironically. “It’s Plato’s, but the history of the world since he made it has amply demonstrated its truth. What has been the result of the revolutions we’ve seen in our own lifetime? The people haven’t lost their masters, they’ve only changed them, and nowhere has authority been wielded with a more iron hand than under communism.”
“Then the people are duped?”
“Of course. Why not? They’re fools, and they deserve to be. What does it matter? Their gain is substantial. They’re not asked to think for themselves any more; they’re told what to do, and so long as they’re obedient they have the security they’ve always hankered after. The dictators of our own day have made mistakes and we can learn by their errors. They’ve forgotten Machiavelli’s dictum that you can enslave the people politically if you leave their private lives free. I should give the people the illusion of liberty by allowing them as much personal freedom as is compatible with the safety of the state. I would socialize industry as widely as the idiosyncrasy of the human animal permits and so give men the illusion of equality. And since they would all be brothers under one yoke they would even have the illusion of fraternity. Remember that a dictator can do all sorts of things for the benefit of the people that democracy is prevented from doing because it has to consider vested interests, jealousies and personal ambitions, and so he has an unparalleled opportunity to alleviate the lot of the masses. I went to a great communist meeting the other day and on banner after banner I read the words Peace, Work and Well-Being. Could any claims be more natural? And yet here man is after a hundred years of democracy still making them. A dictator can satisfy them by a stroke of the pen.”
“As if one could stop loving because it’s disgraceful to love!”
[Lydia’s idea of Russia:]
“It was chiefly Russian music she liked. Listening to that she felt that somehow she was getting to the heart of the country she had never seen, but which drew her with a yearning that must ever remain unsatisfied. She knew nothing of Russia but what she had heard from the lips of her father and mother, from the conversation between Evgenia and Alexey when they talked of old times, and from the novels she had read. It was when she was listening to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazounov, to the racy and mordant compositions of Stravinsky, that the impressions she had thus gained gathered form and substance. Those wild melodies, those halting rhythms, in which there was something so alien from Europe, took her out of herself and her sordid existence and overwhelmed her with such a passion of love that happy, releasing tears flowed down her cheeks. But because nothing of what she saw with the mind’s eye had she seen with a bodily eye, because it was a product of hearsay and a fevered imagination, she saw it in a strangely distorted fashion; she saw the Kremlin, with its gilt and star-sprinkled domes, the Red Square and the Kitai Gorod, as though they were the setting of a fairy tale; for her Prince Andrey and the charming Natasha still went their errands in the busy streets of Moscow, Dmitri Karamazov, after a wild night with the gipsies, still met the sweet Alyosha on the Mostbaretsk Bridge, the merchant Rogozhin dashed past in his sled with Nastasya Filippovna by his side, and the wan characters of Chekov’s stories drifted hither and yon at the breath of circumstance like dead leaves before the wind; the Summer Garden and the Nevsky Prospekt were magic names, and Anna Karenina still drove in her carriage, Vronsky elegant in his new uniform climbed the stairs of the great houses on the Fontanka Canal, and the misbegotten Raskolnikov walked the Liteiny. In the passion and nostalgia of that music, with Turgeniev at the back of her mind, she saw the spacious, dilapidated country houses where they talked through the scented night, and the marshes, pale in the windless dawn, where they shot the wild duck; with Gorki, the wretched villages where they drank furiously, loved brutally and killed; the turbid flow of the Volga, the interminable steppes of the Caucasus, and the enchanting garish Crimea. Filled with longing, filled with regret for a life that had passed for ever, homesick for a home she had never known, a stranger in a hostile world, she felt at that moment one with the great, mysterious country. Even though she spoke its language haltingly, she was Russian, and she loved her native land; at such moments she felt that there was where after all she belonged and she understood how it was that her father, despite the warnings, was obliged, even at the risk of death, to return to it.”
[Lydia on the Chardin still-life (see cover above)]
“Yes, you’re right; it’s very well painted; it’s painted with pity and love. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the bread of life and the blood of Christ, but not held back from those who starve and thirst for them and doled out by priests on stated occasions; it’s the daily fare of suffering men and women. It’s so humble, so natural, so friendly; it is the bread and wine of the poor who ask no more than that they should be left in peace, allowed to work and eat their simple food in freedom. It’s the cry of the despised and rejected. It tells you that whatever their sins men at heart are good. That loaf of bread and that flagon of wine are symbols of the joys and sorrows of the meek and lowly. They ask for your mercy and your affection; they tell you that they’re of the same flesh and blood as you. They tell you that life is short and hard and the grave is cold and lonely. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the mystery of man’s lot on earth, his craving for a little friendship and a little love, the humility of his resignation when he sees that even they must be denied him.”
“That’s the worst of art; there’s no room for second-rate.”
[Charley’s Christmas transformation:]
He got up from his chair, for he had sat in it so long that his limbs ached, and went to the window, on tiptoe so as not to wake her, and sitting down on a stool looked out into the courtyard. Now and again he saw someone pass behind the lighted windows; he saw an elderly woman watering a flower-pot; he saw a man in his shirtsleeves lying on his bed reading; he wondered who and what these people were. They looked like ordinary middle-class persons in modest circumstances, for after all the hotel was cheap and the quarter dowdy; but seen like that, through the windows, as though in a peepshow, they looked strangely unreal. Who could tell what people were really and what grim passions, what crimes, their commonplace aspect concealed? In some of the rooms the curtains were drawn and only a chink of light between them showed that there was anyone there. Some of the windows were black; they were not empty, for the hotel was full, but their occupants were out. On what mysterious errands? Charley’s nerves were shaken and he had a sudden feeling of horror for all those unknown persons whose lives were so strange to him; below the smooth surface he seemed to sense something confused, dark, monstrous and terrible.
He pondered, his brow knit in concentration, the long, unhappy story to which he had listened all the afternoon. Lydia had gone back and forth, now telling him of her struggle to live when she was working for a pittance at a dressmaker’s and after that some incident of her poverty-stricken childhood in London; then more of those agonizing days that followed the murder, the terror of the arrest and the anguish of the trial. He had read detective stories, he had read the papers, he knew that crimes were committed, he knew that people lived in penury, but he had known it all, as it were from the outside; it gave him a strange, a frightening sensation to find himself thrown into personal contact with someone to whom horrible things had actually happened. He remembered suddenly, he did not know why, a picture of Manet’s of somebody’s execution – was it Maximilian’s? – by a shooting squad. He had always thought it a striking picture. Now it came to him as a shock to realize that it portrayed an incident that had occurred. The Emperor had in fact stood in that place, and as the soldiers levelled their rifles, it must have seemed incredible to him that he should stand there and in a moment cease to live.
“My mother-in-law used to complain of my appetite. She used to say that I ate as though I had never had enough in my life. Which was true, of course.”
It gave Charley a turn. It was a queer sensation to sit down to dinner with someone who year in and year out had never had quite enough to eat. And another thing: it disturbed his preconceived ideas to discover that one could undergo all the misery she had undergone and yet eat voraciously. It made her tragedy a little grotesque; she was not a romantic figure, but just a quite ordinary young woman, and that somehow made all that had happened to her more horrible.
Silence fell between Lydia and Charley. They had long since finished their dinner and the other diners had gone. Charley, listening without a word, absorbed as he had never been in his life, to Lydia’s story, had, all the same, been conscious that the restaurant was empty and that the waitresses were anxious for them to go, and once or twice he had been on the point of suggesting to Lydia that they should move. But it was difficult, for she spoke as if in a trance, and though often her eyes met his he had an uncanny sensation that she did not see him. But then a party of Americans came in, six of them, three men and three girls, and asked if it was too late to have dinner. The patronne, foreseeing a lucrative order, since they were all very lively, assured them that her husband was the cook and if they didn’t mind waiting, would cook them whatever they wished. They ordered champagne cocktails. They were out to enjoy themselves and their gaiety filled the little restaurant with laughter. But Lydia’s tragic story seemed to encompass the table at which she and Charley sat with a mysterious and sinister atmosphere which the high spirits of that happy crowd could not penetrate; and they sat in their corner, alone, as though they were surrounded by an invisible wall.
“And do you love him still?” asked Charley at last.
“With all my heart.”
She spoke with such a passionate sincerity that it was impossible not to believe her. It was strange, and Charley could not prevent the slight shiver of dismay that passed through him. She did not seem to belong to quite the same human species as he did. That violence of feeling was rather terrifying, and it made him a little uncomfortable to be with her. He might have felt like that if he had been talking quite casually to someone for an hour or two and then suddenly discovered it was a ghost.
“I wanted to atone.”
Charley stared at her uncomprehendingly. Her words, spoken hardly above a whisper, gave him a shock. He had a sensation that he had never had before; it seemed to him that a veil that painted the world in pleasant, familiar colours had been suddenly rent and he looked into a convulsed and writhing darkness.
Charley put the newspaper cuttings back in his pocket, and, his brow slightly frowning with the effort, tried to piece together what he now knew of Robert Berger in order to get some definite impression of the sort of man he really was. It was all very well to say he was a worthless scamp of whom society was well rid; that was true of course, but it was too simple and too sweeping a judgement to be satisfactory; the idea dawned in Charley’s mind that perhaps men were more complicated than he had imagined, and if you just said that a man was this or that you couldn’t get very far. There was Robert’s passion for music, especially Russian music, which, so unfortunately for her, had brought Lydia and him together. Charley was very fond of music. He knew the delight it gave him, the pleasure, partly sensual, partly intellectual, when intoxicated by the loveliness that assailed his ears, he remained yet keenly appreciative of the subtlety with which the composer had worked out his idea. Looking into himself, as perhaps he had never looked before, to find out what exactly it was he felt when he listened to one of the greater symphonies, it seemed to him that it was a complex of emotions, excitement and at the same time peace, love for others and a desire to do something for them, a wish to be good and a delight in goodness, a pleasant languor and a funny detachment as though he were floating above the world and whatever happened there didn’t very much matter; and perhaps if you had to combine all those feelings into one and give it a name, the name you’d give it was happiness. But what was it that Robert Berger got when he listened to music? Nothing like that, that was obvious. Or was it unjust to dismiss such emotions as music gave him as vile and worthless? Might it not be rather that in music he found release from the devil that possessed him, that devil which was stronger than himself so that he neither could be delivered, nor even wanted to be delivered, from the urge that drove him to crime because it was the expression of his warped nature, because by throwing himself into antagonism with the forces of law and order he realized his personality – might it not be that in music he found peace from that impelling force and for a while, resting in heavenly acquiescence, saw as though through a rift in the clouds a vision of love and goodness?
Charley knew what it was to be in love. He knew that it made you feel friendly to all men, he knew that you wanted to do everything in the world for the girl you loved, he knew that you couldn’t bear the thought of hurting her and he knew that you couldn’t help wondering what she saw in you, because of course she was wonderful, definitely, and if you were honest with yourself you were bound to confess that you couldn’t hold a candle to her. And Charley supposed that if he felt like that everyone else must feel like that and therefore Robert Berger had too. There was no doubt that he loved Lydia with passion, but if love filled him with a sense of – Charley jibbed at the word that came to his mind, it made him almost blush with embarrassment to think of it – well, with a sense of holiness, it was strange that he could commit sordid and horrible crimes. There must be two men in him. Charley was perplexed, which can hardly be considered strange, for he was but twenty-three, and older, wiser men have failed to understand how a scoundrel can love as purely and disinterestedly as a saint. And was it possible for Lydia to love her husband even now with an all-forgiving devotion if he were entirely worthless?
“Human nature wants a bit of understanding,” he muttered to himself.
Without knowing it, he had said a mouthful.
But when he came to consider the love that consumed Lydia, a love that was the cause of her every action, the inspiration of her every thought, so that it was like a symphonic accompaniment that gave depth and significance to the melodic line which was her life from day to day, he could only draw back in an almost horrified awe as he might have drawn back, terrified but fascinated, at the sight of a forest on fire or a river in flood. This was something with which his experience could not cope. By the side of this he knew that his own little love affairs had been but trivial flirtations and the emotion which had from time to time brought charm and gaiety into his somewhat humdrum life no more than a boy’s sentimentality. It was incomprehensible that in the body of that commonplace, drab little woman there should be room for a passion of such intensity. It was not only what she said that made you realize it, you felt it, intuitively as it were, in the aloofness which, for all the intimacy with which she treated you, kept you at a distance; you saw it in the depths of her transparent eyes, in the scorn of her lips when she didn’t know you were looking at her, and you heard it in the undertones of her sing-song voice. It was not like any of the civilized feelings that Charley was familiar with, there was something wild and brutal in it, and notwithstanding her high-heeled shoes, her silk stockings, and her coat and skirt, Lydia did not seem a woman of to-day, but a savage with elemental instincts who still harboured in the darkest recesses of her soul the ape-like creature from which the human being is descended.
“By God! what have I let myself in for?” said Charley.