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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAll Roads Lead To Calvary - Chapter 7
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All Roads Lead To Calvary - Chapter 7 Post by :Johnson Category :Long Stories Author :Jerome K Jerome Date :May 2012 Read :1223

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All Roads Lead To Calvary - Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

Joan was making herself a cup of tea when there came a tap at the door. It was Mrs. Phillips.

"I heard you come in," she said. "You're not busy, are you?"

"No," answered Joan. "I hope you're not. I'm generally in about this time; and it's always nice to gossip over a dish of tea."

"Why do you say 'dish' of tea!" asked Mrs. Phillips, as she lowered herself with evident satisfaction into the easy chair Joan placed for her.

"Oh, I don't know," laughed Joan. "Dr. Johnson always talked of a 'dish' of tea. Gives it a literary flavour."

"I've heard of him," said Mrs. Phillips. "He's worth reading, isn't he?"

"Well, he talked more amusingly than he wrote," explained Joan. "Get Boswell's Life of him. Or I'll lend you mine," she added, "if you'll be careful of it. You'll find all the passages marked that are best worth remembering. At least, I think so."

"Thanks," said Mrs. Phillips. "You see, as the wife of a public man, I get so little time for study."

"Is it settled yet?" asked Joan. "Are they going to make room for him in the Cabinet?

"I'm afraid so," answered Mrs. Phillips. "Oh, of course, I want him to," she corrected herself. "And he must, of course, if the King insists upon it. But I wish it hadn't all come with such a whirl. What shall I have to do, do you think?"

Joan was pouring out the tea. "Oh, nothing," she answered, "but just be agreeable to the right people. He'll tell you who they are. And take care of him."

"I wish I'd taken more interest in politics when I was young," said Mrs. Phillips. "Of course, when I was a girl, women weren't supposed to."

"Do you know, I shouldn't worry about them, if I were you," Joan advised her. "Let him forget them when he's with you. A man can have too much of a good thing," she laughed.

"I wonder if you're right," mused Mrs. Phillips. "He does often say that he'd just as soon I didn't talk about them."

Joan shot a glance from over her cup. The poor puzzled face was staring into the fire. Joan could almost hear him saying it.

"I'm sure I am," she said. "Make home-coming a change to him. As you said yourself the other evening. It's good for him to get away from it all, now and then."

"I must try," agreed Mrs. Phillips, looking up. "What sort of things ought I to talk to him about, do you think?"

Joan gave an inward sigh. Hadn't the poor lady any friends of her own. "Oh, almost anything," she answered vaguely: "so long as it's cheerful and non-political. What used you to talk about before he became a great man?"

There came a wistful look into the worried eyes. "Oh, it was all so different then," she said. "'E just liked to--you know. We didn't seem to 'ave to talk. 'E was a rare one to tease. I didn't know 'ow clever 'e was, then."

It seemed a difficult case to advise upon. "How long have you been married?" Joan asked.

"Fifteen years," she answered. "I was a bit older than 'im. But I've never looked my age, they tell me. Lord, what a boy 'e was! Swept you off your feet, like. 'E wasn't the only one. I'd got a way with me, I suppose. Anyhow, the men seemed to think so. There was always a few 'anging about. Like flies round a 'oney-pot, Mother used to say." She giggled. "But 'e wouldn't take No for an answer. And I didn't want to give it 'im, neither. I was gone on 'im, right enough. No use saying I wasn't."

"You must be glad you didn't say No," suggested Joan.

"Yes," she answered, "'E's got on. I always think of that little poem, 'Lord Burleigh,'" she continued; "whenever I get worrying about myself. Ever read it?"

"Yes," answered Joan. "He was a landscape painter, wasn't he?"

"That's the one," said Mrs. Phillips. "I little thought I was letting myself in for being the wife of a big pot when Bob Phillips came along in 'is miner's jacket."

"You'll soon get used to it," Joan told her. "The great thing is not to be afraid of one's fate, whatever it is; but just to do one's best." It was rather like talking to a child.

"You're the right sort to put 'eart into a body. I'm glad I came up," said Mrs. Phillips. "I get a bit down in the mouth sometimes when 'e goes off into one of 'is brown studies, and I don't seem to know what 'e's thinking about. But it don't last long. I was always one of the light-'earted ones."

They discussed life on two thousand a year; the problems it would present; and Mrs. Phillips became more cheerful. Joan laid herself out to be friendly. She hoped to establish an influence over Mrs. Phillips that should be for the poor lady's good; and, as she felt instinctively, for poor Phillips's also. It was not an unpleasing face. Underneath the paint, it was kind and womanly. Joan was sure he would like it better clean. A few months' attention to diet would make a decent figure of her and improve her wind. Joan watched her spreading the butter a quarter of an inch thick upon her toast and restrained with difficulty the impulse to take it away from her. And her clothes! Joan had seen guys carried through the streets on the fifth of November that were less obtrusive.

She remembered, as she was taking her leave, what she had come for: which was to invite Joan to dinner on the following Friday.

"It's just a homely affair," she explained. She had recovered her form and was now quite the lady again. "Two other guests beside yourself: a Mr. Airlie--I am sure you will like him. He's so dilletanty--and Mr. McKean. He's the young man upstairs. Have you met him?"

Joan hadn't: except once on the stairs when, to avoid having to pass her, he had gone down again and out into the street. From the doorstep she had caught sight of his disappearing coat-tails round the corner. Yielding to impishness, she had run after him, and his expression of blank horror when, glancing over his shoulder, he found her walking abstractedly three yards behind him, had gladdened all her evening.

Joan recounted the episode--so far as the doorstep.

"He tried to be shy with me," said Mrs. Phillips, "but I wouldn't let him. I chipped him out of it. If he's going to write plays, as I told him, he will have to get over his fear of a petticoat."

She offered her cheek, and Joan kissed it, somewhat gingerly.

"You won't mind Robert not wearing evening dress," she said. "He never will if he can help it. I shall just slip on a semi-toilette myself."

Joan had difficulty in deciding on her own frock. Her four evening dresses, as she walked round them, spread out upon the bed, all looked too imposing, for what Mrs. Phillips had warned her would be a "homely affair." She had one other, a greyish-fawn, with sleeves to the elbow, that she had had made expressly for public dinners and political At Homes. But that would be going to the opposite extreme, and might seem discourteous--to her hostess. Besides, "mousey" colours didn't really suit her. They gave her a curious sense of being affected. In the end she decided to risk a black crepe-de-chine, square cut, with a girdle of gold embroidery. There couldn't be anything quieter than black, and the gold embroidery was of the simplest. She would wear it without any jewellery whatever: except just a star in her hair. The result, as she viewed the effect in the long glass, quite satisfied her. Perhaps the jewelled star did scintillate rather. It had belonged to her mother. But her hair was so full of shadows: it wanted something to relieve it. Also she approved the curved line of her bare arms. It was certainly very beautiful, a woman's arm. She took her gloves in her hand and went down.

Mr. Phillips was not yet in the room. Mrs. Phillips, in apple-green with an ostrich feather in her hair, greeted her effusively, and introduced her to her fellow guests. Mr. Airlie was a slight, elegant gentleman of uncertain age, with sandy hair and beard cut Vandyke fashion. He asked Joan's permission to continue his cigarette.

"You have chosen the better part," he informed her, on her granting it. "When I'm not smoking, I'm talking."

Mr. McKean shook her hand vigorously without looking at her.

"And this is Hilda," concluded Mrs. Phillips. "She ought to be in bed if she hadn't a naughty Daddy who spoils her."

A lank, black-haired girl, with a pair of burning eyes looking out of a face that, but for the thin line of the lips, would have been absolutely colourless, rose suddenly from behind a bowl of artificial flowers. Joan could not suppress a slight start; she had not noticed her on entering. The girl came slowly forward, and Joan felt as if the uncanny eyes were eating her up. She made an effort and held out her hand with a smile, and the girl's long thin fingers closed on it in a pressure that hurt. She did not speak.

"She only came back yesterday for the half-term," explained Mrs. Phillips. "There's no keeping her away from her books. 'Twas her own wish to be sent to boarding-school. How would you like to go to Girton and be a B.A. like Miss Allway?" she asked, turning to the child.

Phillips's entrance saved the need of a reply. To the evident surprise of his wife he was in evening clothes.

"Hulloa. You've got 'em on," she said.

He laughed. "I shall have to get used to them sooner or later," he said.

Joan felt relieved--she hardly knew why--that he bore the test. It was a well-built, athletic frame, and he had gone to a good tailor. He looked taller in them; and the strong, clean-shaven face less rugged.

Joan sat next to him at the round dinner-table with the child the other side of him. She noticed that he ate as far as possible with his right hand--his hands were large, but smooth and well shaped--his left remaining under the cloth, beneath which the child's right hand, when free, would likewise disappear. For a while the conversation consisted chiefly of anecdotes by Mr. Airlie. There were few public men and women about whom he did not know something to their disadvantage. Joan, listening, found herself repeating the experience of a night or two previous, when, during a performance of _Hamlet_, Niel Singleton, who was playing the grave-digger, had taken her behind the scenes. Hamlet, the King of Denmark and the Ghost were sharing a bottle of champagne in the Ghost's dressing-room: it happened to be the Ghost's birthday. On her return to the front of the house, her interest in the play was gone. It was absurd that it should be so; but the fact remained.

Mr. Airlie had lunched the day before with a leonine old gentleman who every Sunday morning thundered forth Social Democracy to enthusiastic multitudes on Tower Hill. Joan had once listened to him and had almost been converted: he was so tremendously in earnest. She now learnt that he lived in Curzon Street, Mayfair, and filled, in private life, the perfectly legitimate calling of a company promoter in partnership with a Dutch Jew. His latest prospectus dwelt upon the profits to be derived from an amalgamation of the leading tanning industries: by means of which the price of leather could be enormously increased.

It was utterly illogical; but her interest in the principles of Social Democracy was gone.

A very little while ago, Mr. Airlie, in his capacity of second cousin to one of the ladies concerned, a charming girl but impulsive, had been called upon to attend a family council of a painful nature. The gentleman's name took Joan's breath away: it was the name of one of her heroes, an eminent writer: one might almost say prophet. She had hitherto read his books with grateful reverence. They pictured for her the world made perfect; and explained to her just precisely how it was to be accomplished. But, as far as his own particular corner of it was concerned, he seemed to have made a sad mess of it. Human nature of quite an old-fashioned pattern had crept in and spoilt all his own theories.

Of course it was unreasonable. The sign-post may remain embedded in weeds: it notwithstanding points the way to the fair city. She told herself this, but it left her still short-tempered. She didn't care which way it pointed. She didn't believe there was any fair city.

There was a famous preacher. He lived the simple life in a small house in Battersea, and consecrated all his energies to the service of the poor. Almost, by his unselfish zeal, he had persuaded Joan of the usefulness of the church. Mr. Airlie frequently visited him. They interested one another. What struck Mr. Airlie most was the self-sacrificing devotion with which the reverend gentleman's wife and family surrounded him. It was beautiful to see. The calls upon his moderate purse, necessitated by his wide-spread and much paragraphed activities, left but a narrow margin for domestic expenses: with the result that often the only fire in the house blazed brightly in the study where Mr. Airlie and the reverend gentleman sat talking: while mother and children warmed themselves with sense of duty in the cheerless kitchen. And often, as Mr. Airlie, who was of an inquiring turn of mind, had convinced himself, the only evening meal that resources would permit was the satisfying supper for one brought by the youngest daughter to her father where he sat alone in the small dining-room.

Mr. Airlie, picking daintily at his food, continued his stories: of philanthropists who paid starvation wages: of feminists who were a holy terror to their women folk: of socialists who travelled first-class and spent their winters in Egypt or Monaco: of stern critics of public morals who preferred the society of youthful affinities to the continued company of elderly wives: of poets who wrote divinely about babies' feet and whose children hated them.

"Do you think it's all true?" Joan whispered to her host.

He shrugged his shoulders. "No reason why it shouldn't be," he said. "I've generally found him right."

"I've never been able myself," he continued, "to understand the Lord's enthusiasm for David. I suppose it was the Psalms that did it."

Joan was about to offer comment, but was struck dumb with astonishment on hearing McKean's voice: it seemed he could talk. He was telling of an old Scotch peasant farmer. A mean, cantankerous old cuss whose curious pride it was that he had never given anything away. Not a crust, nor a sixpence, nor a rag; and never would. Many had been the attempts to make him break his boast: some for the joke of the thing and some for the need; but none had ever succeeded. It was his one claim to distinction and he guarded it.

One evening it struck him that the milk-pail, standing just inside the window, had been tampered with. Next day he marked with a scratch the inside of the pan and, returning later, found the level of the milk had sunk half an inch. So he hid himself and waited; and at twilight the next day the window was stealthily pushed open, and two small, terror- haunted eyes peered round the room. They satisfied themselves that no one was about and a tiny hand clutching a cracked jug was thrust swiftly in and dipped into the pan; and the window softly closed.

He knew the thief, the grandchild of an old bedridden dame who lived some miles away on the edge of the moor. The old man stood long, watching the small cloaked figure till it was lost in the darkness. It was not till he lay upon his dying bed that he confessed it. But each evening, from that day, he would steal into the room and see to it himself that the window was left ajar.

After the coffee, Mrs. Phillips proposed their adjourning to the "drawing- room" the other side of the folding doors, which had been left open. Phillips asked her to leave Joan and himself where they were. He wanted to talk to her. He promised not to bore her for more than ten minutes.

The others rose and moved away. Hilda came and stood before Joan with her hands behind her.

"I am going to bed now," she said. "I wanted to see you from what Papa told me. May I kiss you?"

It was spoken so gravely that Joan did not ask her, as in lighter mood she might have done, what it was that Phillips had said. She raised her face quietly, and the child bent forward and kissed her, and went out without looking back at either of them, leaving Joan more serious than there seemed any reason for. Phillips filled his pipe and lighted it.

"I wish I had your pen," he said, suddenly breaking the silence. "I'm all right at talking; but I want to get at the others: the men and women who never come, thinking it has nothing to do with them. I'm shy and awkward when I try to write. There seems a barrier in front of me. You break through it. One hears your voice. Tell me," he said, "are you getting your way? Do they answer you?"

"Yes," said Joan. "Not any great number of them, not yet. But enough to show that I really am interesting them. It grows every week."

"Tell them that," he said. "Let them hear each other. It's the same at a meeting. You wait ten minutes sometimes before one man will summon up courage to put a question; but once one or two have ventured they spring up all round you. I was wondering," he added, "if you would help me; let me use you, now and again."

"It is what I should love," she answered. "Tell me what to do." She was not conscious of the low, vibrating tone in which she spoke.

"I want to talk to them," he said, "about their stomachs. I want them to see the need of concentrating upon the food problem: insisting that it shall be solved. The other things can follow."

"There was an old Egyptian chap," he said, "a governor of one of their provinces, thousands of years before the Pharaohs were ever heard of. They dug up his tomb a little while ago. It bore this inscription: 'In my time no man went hungry.' I'd rather have that carved upon my gravestone than the boastings of all the robbers and the butchers of history. Think what it must have meant in that land of drought and famine: only a narrow strip of river bank where a grain of corn would grow; and that only when old Nile was kind. If not, your nearest supplies five hundred miles away across the desert, your only means of transport the slow-moving camel. Your convoy must be guarded against attack, provided with provisions and water for a two months' journey. Yet he never failed his people. Fat year and lean year: 'In my time no man went hungry.' And here, to-day, with our steamships and our railways, with the granaries of the world filled to overflowing, one third of our population lives on the border line of want. In India they die by the roadside. What's the good of it all: your science and your art and your religion! How can you help men's souls if their bodies are starving? A hungry man's a hungry beast.

"I spent a week at Grimsby, some years ago, organizing a fisherman's union. They used to throw the fish back into the sea, tons upon tons of it, that men had risked their lives to catch, that would have fed half London's poor. There was a 'glut' of it, they said. The 'market' didn't want it. Funny, isn't it, a 'glut' of food: and the kiddies can't learn their lessons for want of it. I was talking with a farmer down in Kent. The plums were rotting on his trees. There were too many of them: that was the trouble. The railway carriage alone would cost him more than he could get for them. They were too cheap. So nobody could have them. It's the muddle of the thing that makes me mad--the ghastly muddle-headed way the chief business of the world is managed. There's enough food could be grown in this country to feed all the people and then of the fragments each man might gather his ten basketsful. There's no miracle needed. I went into the matter once with Dalroy of the Board of Agriculture. He's the best man they've got, if they'd only listen to him. It's never been organized: that's all. It isn't the fault of the individual. It ought not to be left to the individual. The man who makes a corner in wheat in Chicago and condemns millions to privation--likely enough, he's a decent sort of fellow in himself: a kind husband and father--would be upset for the day if he saw a child crying for bread. My dog's a decent enough little chap, as dogs go, but I don't let him run my larder.

"It could be done with a little good will all round," he continued, "and nine men out of every ten would be the better off. But they won't even let you explain. Their newspapers shout you down. It's such a damned fine world for the few: never mind the many. My father was a farm labourer: and all his life he never earned more than thirteen and sixpence a week. I left when I was twelve and went into the mines. There were six of us children; and my mother brought us up healthy and decent. She fed us and clothed us and sent us to school; and when she died we buried her with the money she had put by for the purpose; and never a penny of charity had ever soiled her hands. I can see them now. Talk of your Chancellors of the Exchequer and their problems! She worked herself to death, of course. Well, that's all right. One doesn't mind that where one loves. If they would only let you. She had no opposition to contend with--no thwarting and hampering at every turn--the very people you are working for hounded on against you. The difficulty of a man like myself, who wants to do something, who could do something, is that for the best part of his life he is fighting to be allowed to do it. By the time I've lived down their lies and got my chance, my energy will be gone."

He knocked the ashes from his pipe and relit it.

"I've no quarrel with the rich," he said. "I don't care how many rich men there are, so long as there are no poor. Who does? I was riding on a bus the other day, and there was a man beside me with a bandaged head. He'd been hurt in that railway smash at Morpeth. He hadn't claimed damages from the railway company and wasn't going to. 'Oh, it's only a few scratches,' he said. 'They'll be hit hard enough as it is.' If he'd been a poor devil on eighteen shillings a week it would have been different. He was an engineer earning good wages; so he wasn't feeling sore and bitter against half the world. Suppose you tried to run an army with your men half starved while your officers had more than they could eat. It's been tried and what's been the result? See that your soldiers have their proper rations, and the General can sit down to his six-course dinner, if he will. They are not begrudging it to him.

"A nation works on its stomach. Underfeed your rank and file, and what sort of a fight are you going to put up against your rivals. I want to see England going ahead. I want to see her workers properly fed. I want to see the corn upon her unused acres, the cattle grazing on her wasted pastures. I object to the food being thrown into the sea--left to rot upon the ground while men are hungry--side-tracked in Chicago, while the children grow up stunted. I want the commissariat properly organized."

He had been staring through her rather than at her, so it had seemed to Joan. Suddenly their eyes met, and he broke into a smile.

"I'm so awfully sorry," he said. "I've been talking to you as if you were a public meeting. I'm afraid I'm more used to them than I am to women. Please forgive me."

The whole man had changed. The eyes had a timid pleading in them.

Joan laughed. "I've been feeling as if I were the King of Bavaria," she said.

"How did he feel?" he asked her, leaning forward.

"He had his own private theatre," Joan explained, "where Wagner gave his operas. And the King was the sole audience."

"I should have hated that," he said, "if I had been Wagner."

He looked at her, and a flush passed over his boyish face.

"All right," he said, "if it had been a queen."

Joan found herself tracing patterns with her spoon upon the tablecloth. "But you have won now," she said, still absorbed apparently with her drawing, "you are going to get your chance."

He gave a short laugh. "A trick," he said, "to weaken me. They think to shave my locks; show me to the people bound by their red tape. To put it another way, a rat among the terriers."

Joan laughed. "You don't somehow suggest the rat," she said: "rather another sort of beast."

"What do you advise me?" he asked. "I haven't decided yet."

They were speaking in whispered tones. Through the open doors they could see into the other room. Mrs. Phillips, under Airlie's instructions, was venturing upon a cigarette.

"To accept," she answered. "They won't influence you--the terriers, as you call them. You are too strong. It is you who will sway them. It isn't as if you were a mere agitator. Take this opportunity of showing them that you can build, plan, organize; that you were meant to be a ruler. You can't succeed without them, as things are. You've got to win them over. Prove to them that they can trust you."

He sat for a minute tattooing with his fingers on the table, before speaking.

"It's the frills and flummery part of it that frightens me," he said. "You wouldn't think that sensitiveness was my weak point. But it is. I've stood up to a Birmingham mob that was waiting to lynch me and enjoyed the experience; but I'd run ten miles rather than face a drawing- room of well-dressed people with their masked faces and ironic courtesies. It leaves me for days feeling like a lobster that has lost its shell."

"I wouldn't say it, if I didn't mean it," answered Joan; "but you haven't got to trouble yourself about that . . . You're quite passable." She smiled. It seemed to her that most women would find him more than passable.

He shook his head. "With you," he said. "There's something about you that makes one ashamed of worrying about the little things. But the others: the sneering women and the men who wink over their shoulder while they talk to you, I shall never be able to get away from them, and, of course, wherever I go--"

He stopped abruptly with a sudden tightening of the lips. Joan followed his eyes. Mrs. Phillips had swallowed the smoke and was giggling and spluttering by turns. The yellow ostrich feather had worked itself loose and was rocking to and fro as if in a fit of laughter of its own.

He pushed back his chair and rose. "Shall we join the others?" he said.

He moved so that he was between her and the other room, his back to the open doors. "You think I ought to?" he said.

"Yes," she answered firmly, as if she were giving a command. But he read pity also in her eyes.

"Well, have you two settled the affairs of the kingdom? Is it all decided?" asked Airlie.

"Yes," he answered, laughing. "We are going to say to the people, 'Eat, drink and be wise.'"

He rearranged his wife's feather and smoothed her tumbled hair. She looked up at him and smiled.

Joan set herself to make McKean talk, and after a time succeeded. They had a mutual friend, a raw-boned youth she had met at Cambridge. He was engaged to McKean's sister. His eyes lighted up when he spoke of his sister Jenny. The Little Mother, he called her.

"She's the most beautiful body in all the world," he said. "Though merely seeing her you mightn't know it."

He saw her "home"; and went on up the stairs to his own floor.

Joan stood for a while in front of the glass before undressing; but felt less satisfied with herself. She replaced the star in its case, and took off the regal-looking dress with the golden girdle and laid it carelessly aside. She seemed to be growing smaller.

In her white night dress, with her hair in two long plaits, she looked at herself once more. She seemed to be no one of any importance at all: just a long little girl going to bed. With no one to kiss her good night.

She blew out the candle and climbed into the big bed, feeling very lonesome as she used to when a child. It had not troubled her until to- night. Suddenly she sat up again. She needn't be back in London before Tuesday evening, and to-day was only Friday. She would run down home and burst in upon her father. He would be so pleased to see her.

She would make him put his arms around her.

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