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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Inside Of The Cup - Volume 2 - Chapter 6. "Watchman, What Of The Night?"
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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 2 - Chapter 6. 'Watchman, What Of The Night?' Post by :solidarity Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :May 2012 Read :1157

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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 2 - Chapter 6. "Watchman, What Of The Night?"

VOLUME II CHAPTER VI. "WATCHMAN, WHAT OF THE NIGHT?"

It was one of those moist nights of spring when the air is pungent with the odour of the softened earth, and the gentle breaths that stirred the curtains in Mr. Parr's big dining-room wafted, from the garden, the perfumes of a revived creation,--delicious, hothouse smells. At intervals, showers might be heard pattering on the walk outside. The rector of St. John's was dining with his great parishioner.

Here indeed were a subject for some modern master, a chance to picture for generations to come an aspect of a mighty age, an age that may some day be deemed but a grotesque and anomalistic survival of a more ancient logic; a gargoyle carved out of chaos, that bears on its features a resemblance to the past and the future.

Our scene might almost be mediaeval with its encircling gloom, through which the heavy tapestries and shadowy corners of the huge apartment may be dimly made out. In the center, the soft red glow of the candles, the gleaming silver, the shining cloth, the Church on one side--and what on the other? No name given it now, no royal name, but still Power. The two are still in apposition, not yet in opposition, but the discerning may perchance read a prophecy in the salient features of the priest.

The Man of Power of the beginning of the twentieth century demands a subtler analysis, presents an enigma to which the immortal portraits of forgotten Medicis and Capets give no clew. Imagine, if you can, a Lorenzo or a Grand Louis in a tightly-buttoned frock coat! There must be some logical connection between the habit and the age, since crimson velvet and gold brocade would have made Eldon Parr merely ridiculous.

He is by no means ridiculous, yet take him out of the setting and put him in the street, and you might pass him a dozen times without noticing him. Nature, and perhaps unconscious art, have provided him with a protective exterior; he is the colour of his jungle. After he has crippled you--if you survive--you will never forget him. You will remember his eye, which can be unsheathed like a rapier; you will recall his lips as the expression of a relentless negative. The significance of the slight bridge on the narrow nose is less easy to define. He is neither tall nor short; his face is clean-shaven, save for scanty, unobtrusive reddish tufts high on the cheeks; his hair is thin.

It must be borne in mind, however, that our rector did not see him in his jungle, and perhaps in the traditional nobility of the lion there is a certain truth. An interesting biography of some of the powerful of this earth might be written from the point of view of the confessor or the physician, who find something to love, something to pity, and nothing to fear--thus reversing the sentiments of the public.

Yet the friendship between John Hodder and Eldon Parr defied any definite analysis on the rector's part, and was perhaps the strangest--and most disquieting element that had as yet come into Hodder's life. The nature of his intimacy with the banker, if intimacy it might be called, might have surprised his other parishioners if they could have been hidden spectators of one of these dinners. There were long silences when the medium of communication, tenuous at best, seemed to snap, and the two sat gazing at each other as from mountain peaks across impassable valleys. With all the will in the world, their souls lost touch, though the sense in the clergyman of the other's vague yearning for human companionship was never absent. It was this yearning that attracted Hodder, who found in it a deep pathos.

After one of these intervals of silence, Eldon Parr looked up from his claret.

"I congratulate you, Hodder, on the stand you took in regard to Constable's daughter," he said.

"I didn't suppose it was known," answered the rector, in surprise.

"Constable told me. I have reason to believe that he doesn't sympathize with his wife in her attitude on this matter. It's pulled him down,--you've noticed that he looks badly?"

"Yes," said the rector. He did not care to discuss the affair; he had hoped it would not become known; and he shunned the congratulations of Gordon Atterbury, which in such case would be inevitable. And in spite of the conviction that he had done his duty, the memory of his talk with Mrs. Constable never failed to make him, uncomfortable.

Exasperation crept into Mr. Pares voice.

"I can't think what's got into women in these times--at Mrs. Constable's age they ought to know better. Nothing restrains them. They have reached a point where they don't even respect the Church. And when that happens, it is serious indeed. The Church is the governor on our social engine, and it is supposed to impose a restraint upon the lawless."

Hodder could not refrain from smiling a little at the banker's conception.

"Doesn't that reduce the Church somewhere to the level of the police force?" he asked.

"Not at all," said Eldon Parr, whose feelings seemed to be rising. "I am sorry for Constable. He feels the shame of this thing keenly, and he ought to go away for a while to one of these quiet resorts. I offered him my car. Sometimes I think that women have no morals. At any rate, this modern notion of giving them their liberty is sheer folly. Look what they have done with it! Instead of remaining at home, where they belong, they are going out into the world and turning it topsy-turvy. And if a man doesn't let them have a free hand, they get a divorce and marry some idiot who will."

Mr. Parr pushed back his chair and rose abruptly, starting for the door. The rector followed him, forcibly struck by the unusual bitterness in his tone.

"If I have spoken strongly, it is because I feel strongly," he said in a strange, thickened voice. "Hodder, how would you like to live in this house--alone?"

The rector looked down upon him with keen, comprehending eyes, and saw Eldon Parr as he only, of all men, had seen him. For he himself did not understand his own strange power of drawing forth the spirit from its shell, of compelling the inner, suffering thing to reveal itself.

"This poison," Eldon Parr went on unevenly, "has eaten into my own family. My daughter, who might have been a comfort and a companion, since she chose not to marry, was carried away by it, and thought it incumbent upon her to have a career of her own. And now I have a choice of thirty rooms, and not a soul to share them with. Sometimes, at night, I make up my mind to sell this house. But I can't do it--something holds me back, hope, superstition, or whatever you've a mind to call it. You've never seen all of the house, have you?" he asked.

The rector slowly shook his head, and the movement might have been one that he would have used in acquiescence to the odd whim of a child. Mr. Parr led the way up the wide staircase to the corridor above, traversing chamber after chamber, turning on the lights.

"These were my wife's rooms," he said, "they are just as she left them. And these my daughter Alison's, when she chooses to pay me a visit. I didn't realize that I should have to spend the last years of my life alone. And I meant, when I gave my wife a house, to have it the best in the city. I spared nothing on it, as you see, neither care nor money. I had the best architect I could find, and used the best material. And what good is it to me? Only a reminder--of what might have been. But I've got a boy, Hodder,--I don't know whether I've ever spoken of him to you--Preston. He's gone away, too. But I've always had the hope that he might come back and get decently married, and live, here. That's why I stay. I'll show you his picture."

They climbed to the third floor, and while Mr. Parr way searching for the electric switch, a lightning flash broke over the forests of the park, prematurely revealing the room. It was a boy's room, hung with photographs of school and college crews and teams and groups of intimates, with deep window seats, and draped pennons of Harvard University over the fireplace. Eldon Parr turned to one of the groups on the will, the earliest taken at school.

"There he is," he said, pointing out a sunny little face at the bottom, a boy of twelve, bareheaded, with short, crisping yellow hair, smiling lips and laughing eyes. "And here he is again," indicating another group. Thus he traced him through succeeding years until they came to those of college.

"There he is," said the rector. "I think I can pick him out now."

"Yes; that's Preston," said his father, staring hard at the picture. The face had developed, the body had grown almost to man's estate, but the hint of crispness was still in the hair, the mischievous laughter in the eyes. The rector gazed earnestly at the face, remembering his own boyhood, his own youth, his mind dwelling, too, on what he had heard of the original of the portrait. What had happened to the boy, to bring to naught the fair promise of this earlier presentment?

He was aroused by the voice of Eldon Parr, who had sunk into one of the leather chairs.

"I can see him now," he was saying, "as he used to come running down that long flight of stone steps in Ransome Street to meet me when I came home. Such laughter! And once, in his eagerness, he fell and cut his forehead. I shall never forget how I felt. And when I picked him up he tried to laugh still, with the tears rolling down his face. You know the way a child's breath catches, Hodder? He was always laughing. And how he used to cling to me, and beg me to take him out, and show such an interest in everything! He was a bright boy, a remarkable child, I thought, but I suppose it was my foolishness. He analyzed all he saw, and when he used to go off in my car, Brennan, the engineer, would always beg to have him in the cab. And such sympathy! He knew in an instant when I was worried. I had dreams of what that boy would become, but I was too sure of it. I went on doing other things--there were so many things, and I was a slave to them. And before I knew it, he'd gone off to school. That was the year I moved up here, and my wife died. And after that, all seemed to go wrong. Perhaps I was too severe; perhaps they didn't understand him at boarding-school; perhaps I didn't pay enough attention to him. At any rate, the first thing I knew his whole nature seemed to have changed. He got into scrape after scrape at Harvard, and later he came within an ace of marrying a woman.

"He's my weakness to-day. I can say no to everybody in the world but to him, and when I try to remember him as he used to come down those steps on Ransome Street....

"He never knew how much I cared--that what I was doing was all for him, building for him, that he might carry on my work. I had dreams of developing this city, the great Southwest, and after I had gone Preston was to bring them to fruition.

"For some reason I never was able to tell him all this--as I am telling you. The words would not come. We had grown apart. And he seemed to think--God knows why!--he seemed to think I disliked him. I had Langmaid talk to him, and other men I trusted--tell him what an unparalleled opportunity he had to be of use in the world. Once I thought I had him started straight and then a woman came along--off the streets, or little better. He insisted on marrying her and wrecking his life, and when I got her out of the way, as any father would have done, he left me. He has never forgiven me. Most of the time I haven't even the satisfaction of knowing were he is--London, Paris, or New York. I try not to think of what he does. I ought to cut him off,--I can't do it--I can't do it, Hodder--he's my one weakness still. I'm afraid--he'd sink out of sight entirely, and it's the one hold I have left on him."

Eldon Parr paused, with a groan that betokened not only a poignant sorrow, but also something of relief--for the tortures of not being able to unburden himself had plainly become intolerable. He glanced up and met the compassionate eyes of the rector, who stood leaning against the mantel.

"With Alison it was different," he said. "I never understood her--even when she was a child--and I used to look at her and wonder that she could be my daughter. She was moody, intense, with a yearning for affection I've since sometimes thought--she could not express. I did not feel the need of affection in those days, so absorbed was I in building up,--so absorbed and driven, you might say. I suppose I must accept my punishment as just. But the child was always distant with me, and I always remember her in rebellion; a dark little thing with a quivering lip, hair awry, and eyes that flashed through her tears. She would take any amount of punishment rather than admit she had been in the wrong. I recall she had once a fox terrier that never left her, that fought all the dogs in the neighbourhood and destroyed the rugs and cushions in the house. I got rid of it one summer when she was at the sea, and I think she never forgave me. The first question she asked when she came home was for that dog--Mischief, his name was--for Mischief. I told her what I had done. It took more courage than I had thought. She went to her room, locked herself in, and stayed there, and we couldn't get her to come out for two days; she wouldn't even eat.

"Perhaps she was jealous of Preston, but she never acknowledged it. When she was little she used once in a while to come shyly and sit on my lap, and look at me without saying anything. I hadn't the slightest notion what was in the child's mind, and her reserve increased as she grew older. She seemed to have developed a sort of philosophy of her own even before she went away to school, and to have certain strongly defined tastes. She liked, for instance, to listen to music, and for that very reason would never learn to play. We couldn't make her, as a child.

"Bad music, she said, offended her. She painted, she was passionately fond of flowers, and her room was always filled with them. When she came back from school to live with me, she built a studio upstairs. After the first winter, she didn't care to go out much. By so pronounced a character, young men in general were not attracted, but there were a few who fell under a sort of spell. I can think of no other words strong enough, and I used to watch them when they came here with a curious interest. I didn't approve of all of them. Alison would dismiss them or ignore them or be kind to them as she happened to feel, yet it didn't seem to make any difference. One I suspect she was in love with--a fellow without a cent.

"Then there was Bedloe Hubbell. I have reason enough to be thankful now that she didn't care for him. They've made him president, you know, of this idiotic Municipal League, as they call it. But in those days he hadn't developed any nonsense, he was making a good start at the bar, and was well off. His father was Elias Hubbell, who gave the Botanical Garden to the city. I wanted her to marry Gordon Atterbury. He hung on longer than any of them--five or six years; but she wouldn't hear of it. That was how the real difference developed between us, although the trouble was deep rooted, for we never really understood each other. I had set my heart on it, and perhaps I was too dictatorial and insistent. I don't know. I meant the best for her, God knows.... Gordon never got over it. It dried him up.".... Irritation was creeping back into the banker's voice.

"Then it came into Alison's head that she wanted to 'make something of her life,'--as she expressed it. She said she was wasting herself, and began going to lectures with a lot of faddish women, became saturated with these nonsensical ideas about her sex that are doing so much harm nowadays. I suppose I was wrong in my treatment from the first. I never knew how to handle her, but we grew like flint and steel. I'll say this for her, she kept quiet enough, but she used to sit opposite me at the table, and I knew all the time what she was thinking of, and then I'd break out. Of course she'd defend herself, but she had her temper under better control than I. She wanted to go away for a year or two and study landscape gardening, and then come back and establish herself in an office here. I wouldn't listen to it. And one morning, when she was late to breakfast, I delivered an ultimatum. I gave her a lecture on a woman's place and a woman's duty, and told her that if she didn't marry she'd have to stay here and live quietly with me, or I'd disinherit her."

Hodder had become absorbed in this portrait of Alison Parr, drawn by her father with such unconscious vividness.

"And then?" he asked.

In spite of the tone of bitterness in which he had spoken, Eldon Parr smiled. It was a reluctant tribute to his daughter.

"I got an ultimatum in return," he said. "Alison should have been a man." His anger mounted quickly as he recalled the scene. "She said she had thought it all out: that our relationship had become impossible; that she had no doubt it was largely her fault, but that was the way she was made, and she couldn't change. She had, naturally, an affection for me as her father, but it was very plain we couldn't get along together: she was convinced that she had a right to individual freedom,--as she spoke of it,--to develop herself. She knew, if she continued to live with me on the terms I demanded, that her character would deteriorate. Certain kinds of sacrifice she was capable of, she thought, but what I asked would be a useless one. Perhaps I didn't realize it, but it was slavery. Slavery!" he repeated, "the kind of slavery her mother had lived...."

He took a turn around the room.

"So far as money was concerned, she was indifferent to it. She had enough from her mother to last until she began to make more. She wouldn't take any from me in any case. I laughed, yet I have never been so angry in my life. Nor was it wholly anger, Hodder, but a queer tangle of feelings I can't describe. There was affection mixed up in it--I realized afterward--but I longed to take her and shake her and lock her up until she should come to her senses: I couldn't. I didn't dare. I was helpless. I told her to go. She didn't say anything more, but there was a determined look in her eyes when she kissed me as I left for the office. I spent a miserable day. More than once I made up my mind to go home, but pride stopped me. I really didn't think she meant what she said. When I got back to the house in the afternoon she had left for New York.

"Then I began to look forward to the time when her money would give out. She went to Paris with another young woman, and studied there, and then to England. She came back to New York, hired an apartment and a studio, and has made a success."

The rector seemed to detect an unwilling note of pride at the magic word.

"It isn't the kind of success I think much of, but it's what she started out to do. She comes out to see me, once in a while, and she designed that garden."

He halted in front of the clergyman.

"I suppose you think it's strange, my telling you this," he said. "It has come to the point," he declared vehemently, "where it relieves me to tell somebody, and you seem to be a man of discretion and common-sense."

Hodder looked down into Mr. Parr's face, and was silent. Perhaps he recognized, as never before, the futility of the traditional words of comfort, of rebuke. He beheld a soul in torture, and realized with sudden sharpness how limited was his knowledge of the conditions of existence of his own time. Everywhere individualism reared its ugly head, everywhere it seemed plausible to plead justification; and once more he encountered that incompatibility of which Mrs. Constable had spoken! He might blame the son, blame the daughter, yet he could not condemn them utterly.... One thing he saw clearly, that Eldon Parr had slipped into what was still, for him, a meaningless hell.

The banker's manner suddenly changed, reverted to what it had been. He arose.

"I've tried to do my duty as I saw it, and it comes to this--that we who have spent the best years of our lives in striving to develop this country have no thanks from our children or from any one else."

With his hand on the electric switch, he faced Hodder almost defiantly as he spoke these words, and suddenly snapped off the light, as though the matter admitted of no discussion. In semi-darkness they groped down the upper flight of stairs....

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