Cheevers and the Love of Beauty
CHEEVERS AND THE LOVE OF BEAUTY.
By BARRY PAIN.
THE report in the very local and very suburban newspaper ran as follows—
The Chairman: It seems to me that Mr. Cheevers has no love of beauty.
Mr. Cheevers: You 're a liar. (Cries of "Order! Order!" and "Withdraw!")
Mr. Cheevers, rising again, amid considerable sensation, said that he was accustomed to give as good as he got. Give him civility and he would give civility in return. Give him sarcasm and he supposed he could be as sarcastic as anybody else if he cared to.
The Chairman: Unless Mr. Cheevers is rising for the purpose of making an apology I must refuse to hear him.
Mr. Cheevers: Steady on. I 'm coming to that. What I said was said in the heat of the moment in answer to an insult which I had received. I 'm quite willing to withdraw if the chairman will reconsider what he said. All I wished to imply was that the chairman was saying what he knew to be untrue. (Cries of "Order!") Or, if you like to put it differently, was unintentionally inaccurate. I do not want to bring coals to Newcastle by dwelling on the subject, so I 'll merely say I apologise.
The Chairman: That will be sufficient. For my part. I am sorry if anything I said wounded the feelings of Mr. Cheevers. I merely gave my own opinion, and I have no doubt that when the discussion with reference to the pattern of gas-lamp to be adopted is resumed, Mr. Cheevers will give me reason to modify it.
The incident then terminated, and the ordinary business of the meeting was resumed.
Yes, from the point of view of the local reporter the incident had terminated, but with Mr. Cheevers it still lingered. It rankled in his mind; during the rest of the sitting he said nothing. At the close of the meeting, when the chairman offered to help him on with his coat, he refused, said " Good-night" somewhat snappily and walked out.
"Rather touchy," said the chairman to the Reverend Albert Warrington, the vicar of the parish.
"I am afraid so," said the vicar, "and yet a well-meaning man, I believe."
Mr. Cheevers was the proprietor of a little shop in the neighbourhood of Waterloo Station. Every morning he went from his suburb to his shop, and every evening from his shop to his suburb. He dealt in second-hand clothing, was doing fairly well, and contemplated extending his business. In the conduct of it he employed a Mr. and Mrs. Egson. Egson was the name which appeared over the door and in the advertisements. It was Mr. Egson who led the somewhat ashamed male applicant with his bundle into a decent privacy behind a partition, where the price of one black diagonal coat, somewhat frayed about the cuffs, could be settled between them. It was Mrs. Egson who conducted the lady clients to a similar desirable privacy behind another partition. There was, in fact, a general impression that the shop was Egson's, and Mr. Cheevers did nothing to disturb it. In the suburb he spoke of himself vaguely as being engaged in quite a small way in the export trade in the City. None the less, that shop was Cheevers', and the working capital belonged to Cheevers, and the profits accrued to Cheevers. Mr. and Mrs. Egson were merely paid servants, very well paid because they were singularly smart and remarkably hard-working, and perfectly honest. Once, it was long ago, the shop had belonged to the Egsons, but speculation had swamped them. Then Cheevers. as he occasionally reminded them, rescued them. As the business spread, Mr. Cheevers took himself more and more seriously. He joined every available committee. He spoke in public whenever he had the chance, and sometimes when he had not. The affairs of his suburb were deep in his heart. One day, possibly, he might rise to higher things; but only to his wife, who was a good woman, did he darkly hint of his ambition.
As he walked home from the meeting that sentence haunted him. "It seems to me that Mr. Cheevers has no love of beauty." It was too bad. Upon his soul, it was too bad. The chairman might almost as well have said that he was not a gentleman. Love of beauty? He doubted if there was any man with a house in the terrace where Cheevers lived who spent more on beauty. Pictures, for instance. Take the dining-room. An enlarged and coloured photograph of Mr. Cheevers on the left of the fire-place, an enlarged and coloured photograph of Mrs. Cheevers on the right of the fireplace, and coloured by hand, mark you! Ornaments, again. The mantelpiece was full of them. The tables were full of them too. In the drawing-room he had complained frequently; there was no room to put anything down for the ornaments. He did not know how it might be in the chairman's house, but in his own there were antimacassars on every chair. None of your vulgar crotchet work, either! Crewel-work, representing children and pigs and rustic gates, outlined in red silk; also in blue silk. One in the drawing-room he particularly remembered. It was one and fourpence halfpenny, and looked like brocade. The shopman had described it as Oriental. He would not mind comparing his house with the chairman's house any day, and then who'd talk about the love of beauty? The accusation was too absurd; he must dismiss it from his mind. And in order to do this he had to think of something else.
The thought which occurred to him was that on a piece of waste land just outside his beloved suburb gipsies had encamped. Were they well conducted? Was their occupation of the land legitimate? Were they engaged in fortune-telling or other nefarious trades? In fact, was anybody looking after them at all? The thought that in that suburb, unless Cheevers looked after a thing, it was frequently neglected, was a considerable consolation to him. With head more erect and with renewed energy he walked briskly off towards the encampment.
As he approached the caravan an old woman, whom he recognised as one of the gipsies, stepped down towards him. She must have been nearly seventy, but she was erect and had a fine presence.
"Good evening, kind gentleman," she said; "will you let the poor gipsy read your hand and tell you of the great happiness that lies in store for you?"
His first thought had been that he had caught this woman in the act; his second was that he would much like to know what that great happiness was. Just as a constable in plain clothes might rightly drink a pint of bitter in order to prove that beer was being sold without a license, so he, in the search for evidence, might justly have his fortune told.
"Look here," he said, "what do you know about it? If you know anything at all, tell me what I have been thinking of as I came along the road."
"I could do that," she said, "but first you must cross my palm with silver."
He gave her a reluctant shilling.
Her dark, steady, and piercing eyes looked firmly into his, which were small and grey and wavering.
"You were first of all," she said, "thinking of the love of beauty, and that you possessed it; but you were not quite certain that you possessed it. Is that not so?"
"Well," he said, "something of the sort; but I was quite certain." Still, he was surprised.
"No," she replied, "you are a man of great sense, and you know in your heart that you have no love of beauty whatever. At the present moment you would very much like to have it, though you would be better without it."
"Prove it, woman," he said irritably: "prove it!"
"I will!" she said. "Cross my palm again with silver, and for seven days you shall have the love of beauty."
Acting on a mad impulse, he drew out yet another shilling and placed it in her palm. As he did so she caught his hand. She then took his other hand and again looked hard at him. And for a while Mr. Cheevers had no more idea of what was happening than if he had been asleep.
When Mr. Cheevers regained his consciousness of what was happening, he found that he had left the gipsy encampment far behind him, and was walking in of his own house. The hour was late for that particular suburb; it was nearly half-past nine, but there were still a few people about. The Rev. Albert Warrington passed him, and nodded pleasantly. Cheevers returned the nod in a perfunctory way. His attention was chiefly attracted by the sky. There was no moon, but the delicate pearly grey was powdered with a multitude of silver stars. They made Cheevers feel hungry, sad, and mysteriously happy besides. As he turned his eyes to earth again, he espied a row of houses well built on an ugly design, each house exactly like its fellow. "The marvel to me is," he said to himself, "how people can live in such places." Then he suddenly recognised that he was looking at Acacia Terrace; that he lived at 32, Acacia Terrace himself; and that he was standing just by the gate of it. Almost mechanically he let himself in with his latch-key. His wife greeted him in the passage. She was, as I have said, a good woman. She had also, at the time of her marriage, been somewhat good-looking in a florid and slightly overblown fashion. The charm of her première jeunesse had gone; her hair was scanty, and she scorned to supplement it. She wore a silver brooch at her fat throat; she was unwieldy, she was voluble, and her hands were red, and she wore felt slippers.
"Well, I am glad to see you, George," she said. "I thought you were never coming home. 'Ad a good meeting?" Mrs. Cheevers, it was generally acknowledged, had married slightly above herself.
Cheevers passed her in the passage without the usual kiss and without a word. She followed him into the dining-room and wished to know if anything had put him about, and also if he would take anything.
"I daresay," she added, "your throat is dry after all these speeches. Let the girl bring you up a small Bass."
Cheevers ran his hands through his hair. Even as he spoke he recognised that though he was speaking the solid truth, he was not speaking at all like Cheevers. He said—
"I am going to resign. At these meetings there is so much fuss about quite unworthy objects. So little is said on the things that really do matter. The strained, ugly, distorted face of a man speaking under great excitement over the merest trifle is positively nauseous to me."
"Well!" said Mrs. Cheevers brightly, "you need not lecture me, you know, George. And won't you have your small Bass as usual?"
"Thanks, no!" he answered. (He had always said "No, thanks!" before, but the love of beauty had come upon him with its less pleasing concomitants.) "I had no wish to rebuke you, dear. One must live one's life, I suppose, such as it is. No Bass, thanks. I have been looking at the night sky, and that amber colour would jar upon me. Give me something in a lower tone. A cup of tea."
The tea came and he drank it. He then threw the cup into the fender, where it broke. He followed it with the saucer, which also broke. He turned apologetically to his wife—
"I am sorry," he said; "but we must get rid of these things. They are too terrible. Their ugliness is a sin and an offence. It would be immoral to give them away or sell them. We must destroy them."
It was Mrs. Cheevers's opinion that George had excited himself, and she said so. She also said that she hoped he had not been taking anything elsewhere. She further hoped that that day would be far distant.
"When a man 's put out like that," she added, "bed 's the place for him."
And Mr. Cheevers went to bed. His last words that night dealt with the extreme picturesqueness of the gipsy encampment and the fact that the suburb should be glad to have its monotony broken by these beautiful and simple people.
"And only last night," said Mrs. Cheevers, "you were all for having them turned out by the police. You 'll be over this by to-morrow."
When Mrs. Cheevers awoke in the morning she could find no trace of her husband. He had breakfasted early, the servant said, giggling slightly. That he should have gone off to town early did not surprise Mrs. Cheevers. He frequently did this on days when he was likely to be busy; but she could not quite understand that giggle. Somebody had, apparently, made a bonfire in the back garden, and she complained to the girl. The girl said,
"Master did it, and he 's burned every antimacassar in the 'ouse."
In the dining-room Mrs. Cheevers found that the two enlarged photographs, coloured by hand, had been taken down, and stood with their faces to the wall. The whole of the ornaments—thirty-two in number—had been removed from the mantelpiece and placed in the coal-box. Those which were not broken she dusted and replaced. She also hung up the photographs again in their appointed positions. Then she sighed deeply and went about her household duties. By the evening he would undoubtedly be better. He came back by the customary train with an air of kindly melancholy. She reminded him that he had promised to take her to the entertainment which the vicar was organising on behalf of the funds of the church school. He went not with that dignity and importance with which he usually entered the suburban town-hall, but rather with the air of a lamb led to the slaughter and knowing its struggles are of no avail. The first item in the programme was described vaguely as "Song: Miss Rosetta Warrington." The Rev. Albert Warrington played the accompaniment. The song was entitled "Heart of My Soul," by the author and composer of "Soul of My Heart," and Miss Rosetta was little more than a quarter of a tone flat, and under ordinary circumstances Cheevers would have been pleased to the point of ejaculating "Ongkor!" The song—we all know it—has a waltz-time refrain, and Cheevers, who had been growing uneasy during the verse, rose slowly from his place during the last three lines—
Bask with me, breathe with me,
Be with me, burn with me,
Then he walked straight out of the hall. Mrs. Cheevers followed him in an agony and inquired if he was ill. He said that he was not ill; he was called up to London. He just caught his train and told her to go back to the entertainment. He returned about twelve o'clock that night, he had been to the St. James's Hall and heard Stavenhagen play Beethoven. He said that this had reconciled him to life. She said, "Stuff and nonsense," and made up her mind that she would have the doctor in on the morrow.
But on the morrow he rose early, breakfasted with patient resignation at the usual hour, and went off to business at his habitual time. Mrs. Cheevers concluded that whatever had been the matter with George had now blown over, and in this happy belief she remained until the afternoon, when Mr. Egson arrived and requested particularly to see her.
"The fact is," said Mr. Egson, looking nervously round the room as he spoke, "I 've been getting a little anxious about Mr. Cheevers; and thinking I had better step over and inquire, I left Mrs. Egson to manage things for an hour or two. You see, he 's not been near the place now for two days, and he 's not sent us any word, and we don't know what to do about it."
With a presence of mind, a tact, a sangfroid that were amazing to her at the very moment she employed them, she said that Mr. Cheevers had not been himself. He would be at business on the following morning. Egson said that he supposed it had been an illness, and he was sorry, and he hoped he had inconvenienced nobody. Then he withdrew, and Mrs. Cheevers—the need for diplomacy having passed, and there being no witness to her indulgence in her emotions—sat down and wept. Cheevers arrived home at the ordinary hour with several parcels, which he had brought with him in a cab from the station. He unpacked these, and explained them volubly. One was an old Persian rug, a piece of perfect, pure colour, he said, not dirty colour, like all the other colours in the house. There was also china which, he explained, was at least unpretentious. It was not very good, but it would be possible to eat and drink from it without being absolutely poisoned by ugliness. There was also a picture, an oil-painting. It had been, Cheevers owned, an extravagance, but it was a picture one could live with. One could go when one was tired and look at it and be rested. It contained, he said, nothing that was superfluous; it was a note of what the artist had seen, faithfully and intelligently recorded.
Mrs. Cheevers looked at the picture and said it was very nice. She was not quite certain whether it represented a haystack or a cathedral, and she did not like to ask. One should always humour them, an old nurse had told her. For the same reason she did not ask him where he had spent his day, or why he never kissed her, or why those photographs had been removed again, or why he took a pear which he was not intending to eat and cut it carefully in half, placed it and two other pears with a willow-pattern plate and a glass of claret beside them, arranged the light carefully, stood a little way back, and then exclaimed: "What a charming piece of still life that would make!"
She had no need to inquire, for his madness was obvious. She waited to take any further step until she had found out where he went when he was supposed to go to business.
The next morning, when Cheevers left for the City, Mrs. Cheevers followed. She was not a horn detective, but he did not happen to look round. She remained hidden in the booking-office and entered his train without having been observed by him. At Waterloo he got out, and she again followed him. He went over the bridge to Charing Cross, up Villiers Street, and then up by Trafalgar Square. Here his pace quickened; he dashed up the steps of the National Gallery at a terrific rate. She found him in the Turner Room. He acknowledged that he had spent the previous days there. He said that it had been his wish and intention to go to business as usual, but there was something, an awful and mysterious fascination in the beauty of the pictures, which allured him. She showed some spirit. With a very few words she took him by the arm and led him out again. She led him to his place of business and handed him over to Mr. Egson. There he remained, groaning occasionally, as if in pain, but going through the ordinary routine of his work for the rest of that day. Next morning she followed him again. Outside Waterloo Station he stood absolutely still for three minutes, and then started off hurriedly, as if some unseen power were drawing him in the direction of the National Gallery. Half-way up the steps he clenched his teeth, and by a supreme effort turned and descended. He found himself face to face with his wife, and was exceedingly angry. On the following days of the seven she did not dare to accompany him, but by communicating with Mr. Egson, she found out that Mr. Cheevers was once more neglecting his business. Once he came down as usual in the morning, remained for ten minutes, and then dashed out of the shop and into a hansom. Egson had actually heard the words "National Gallery" addressed to the driver. As the fascination of the gin-shop for the drunkard, so was the fascination of the National Gallery for Cheevers in his new and absorbing love for beauty. He brought home fresh purchases every night. He broke some really good furniture. He told his wife that he was anxious to do his duty by her, but romantic love was more than she must expect.
On the evening of the seventh day she could no longer wait. She sent for the doctor. A letter from Cheevers to the local paper strongly protesting against any interference with the gipsies, had excited considerable attention, as being utterly inconsistent with the views he had previously expressed. People were beginning to talk. Something had to be done. It was shortly before half-past nine that she heard the doctor's rap at the door. The girl was out, and she rose to answer it. Cheevers also rose and stretched himself, as one who wakes out of sleep. He kissed his wife, and said—
"Don't you go into that draughty passage. I 'll answer that door."
He brought the doctor in and explained to him that Mrs. Cheevers had a cold. He discussed suburban politics with his old interest, noticed a new oil-painting hanging on the wall, and asked his wife where she got that daub from. She said that she had picked it up. When the doctor had gone, Cheevers said—
"Thought we should never get rid of him! It 's a long time since we had a bit of a crack, old lady. You don't look a day older, for that matter, than you did when that photograph was taken. And, by the way, where is that photograph?"
Next day Mr. Cheevers went to business as usual. He has explained that there was nothing inconsistent whatever in his attitude regarding the gipsies whose immediate expulsion he now demanded. It took the eloquence and the argument of Cheevers to make this clear; but it has been done. The business is prospering; his wife sees his secret ambition growing daily nearer to its fulfilment. She is perfectly happy, and has resumed her singing. He has bought her a copy of "Soul of My Heart," and if she likes it, will undoubtedly buy "Heart of My Soul" as well; and the only thing that can really wound Mr. Cheevers is to tell him that he has no love of beauty.