The Choice of Cyril Harjohn
THE CHOICE OF CYRIL HARJOHN
By Jerome K Jerome
BETWEEN a junior resident master of twenty-one, and a backward lad of fifteen, there yawns an impassable gulf. Between a struggling journalist of one-and-thirty, and an M.D. of twenty-five, with a brilliant record behind him, and a career of exceptional promise before him, a close friendship is permissible.
My introduction to Cyril Harjohn was through the Rev. Charles Fauerberg.
"Our young friend," said the Rev. Mr. Fauerberg, standing in the most approved tutorial attitude, with his hand upon his pupil's shoulders; "—our young friend has been somewhat neglected, but I see in him possibilities warranting hope—warranting, I may say, very great hope. For the present, he will be under my especial care; and you will not therefore concern yourself with his studies. He will sleep with Milling and the others in dormitory number two."
The lad formed a liking for me, and I think, and hope, I rendered his sojourn at "Alpha House" less irksome than otherwise it might have been. The Reverend Charles' method with the backward was on all fours with that adopted for the bringing on of geese; he cooped them up and crammed them. The process is profitable to the trainer, but painful to the goose.
Young Harjohn and myself left "Alpha House" at the end of the same term; he bound for Brasenose, I for Bloomsbury. He made a point of never coming up to London without calling on me, when we would dine together in one of Soho's many dingy, garlic-scented restaurants; and afterwards, over our bottle of cheap Beaune, discuss the coming of our lives; and when he entered Guy's I left John Street, and took chambers close to his in Staple Inn. Those were pleasant days; childhood is an overrated period, fuller of sorrow than of joy. I would not take my childhood back, were it a gift; but I would give the rest of my life to live the twenties over again.
To Cyril I was the man of the world, and he looked to me for wisdom, not seeing always, I fear, that he got it; while from him, I gathered enthusiasm, and learnt the profit that comes to a man from the keeping of ideals.
Often as we have talked, I have felt as though a visible light came from him, framing his face as with the halo of some pictured saint Nature had wasted him, putting him into this nineteenth century of ours. Her victories are accomplished. Her army of heroes, the few sung, the many forgotten, is disbanded. The long peace won by their blood and pain is settled on the land. She had fashioned Cyril Harjohn for one of her soldiers. He would have been a martyr, in the days when thought led to the stake, a fighter for the truth, when to speak one's mind meant death. To lead some forlorn hope for Civilisation would have been his true work; Fate had condemned him to scientific sentry duty in a well ordered barrack.
But there is work to be done in the world, though the labour lies now in the vineyard, not on the battlefield. A small but sufficient fortune purchased for him freedom. To most men, an assured income is the grave of ambition; to Cyril, it was the foundation of his hopes. Relieved from the necessity of working to live, he could afford the luxury of living to work. His profession was to him a passion; he regarded it, not with the cold curiosity of the scientist, but with the imaginative devotion of the enthusiast. To help to push its frontiers forward, to carry its flag farther into the untravelled desert that ever lies beyond the moving boundary of human knowledge, was his dream.
One summer evening, I remember, we were sitting in his rooms; and during a silence there came to us through the open window the moaning of the city, as of a tired child. He rose and stretched his arms out towards the darkening streets, as if he would gather to him all the toiling men and women and comfort them.
"Oh, that I could help you!" he cried, "my brothers and my sisters. Take my life, oh God, and spend it for me among your people."
The speech sounds theatrical, as I read it, written down, but to the young, such words are not ridiculous, as to us older men.
In the natural order of events, he felt in love, and with just the woman one would expect to attract him and to be attracted by him. Elspeth Grant was of the type from which the world, by instinct rather than by convention, has drawn its Madonnas and its saints. To describe a woman in words is impossible. Her beauty was not a possession to be catalogued, but herself. One felt it as one feels the beauty of a summer's dawn, breaking the shadows of a sleeping city; but one cannot set it down. I often met her, and, when talking to her, I knew myself,—I, hack journalist, frequenter of Fleet Street bars, retailer of smoke-room stories—a great gentleman, incapable of meanness, fit for all noble deeds.
In her presence life became a thing beautiful and gracious; a school for courtesy, and tenderness, and simplicity.
I have wondered since, coming to see a little more clearly into the ways of men, whether it would not have been better had she been less spiritual, had her nature possessed a greater alloy of earth, making it more fit for the uses of this work-a-day world. But at the time, these two friends of mine seemed to me to have been created for one another.
She appealed to all that was highest in Cyril's character, and he worshipped her with an unconcealed adoration that, from shy man less high-minded, would have appeared affectation, and which she accepted with the sweet content that Artemis might have accorded to the homage of Endymion.
There was no formal engagement between them. Cyril seemed to shrink from the materialising of his love by any thought of marriage. To him she was an ideal of womanhood rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. His love for her was a religion; it had no taint of earthly passion in its composition.
Had I known the world better I might have anticipated the result; for the red blood ran in my friend's veins: and, alas, we dream our poems, not live them. But at the time, the idea of any other woman coming between them would have appeared to me folly. The suggestion that that other woman might be Geraldine Fawley I should have resented as an insult to my intelligence: that is the point of the story I do not understand to this day.
That he should be attracted by her, that he should love to linger near her, watching the dark flush come and go across her face, seeking to call the fire into her dark eyes was another matter, and quite comprehensible; for the girl was wonderfully handsome, with a bold, voluptuous beauty which invited while it dared. But considered in any other light than that of an animal, she repelled. At times when, for her ends, it seemed worth the exertion, she would assume a certain wayward sweetness; but her acting was always clumsy and exaggerated, capable of deceiving no one except a fool.
Cyril, at all events, was not taken in by it. One evening, at a Bohemian gathering, the entrée to which was notoriety rather than character, they had been talking together for some considerable time when, wishing to speak to Cyril, I strolled up to join them. As I came towards them she moved away, her dislike for me being equal to mine for her; a thing which was, perhaps, well for me.
"Miss Fawley prefers two as company to three," I observed, looking after her retreating figure.
"I am afraid she finds you what we should call an anti-sympathetic element," he replied, laughing.
"Do you like her?" I asked him, somewhat bluntly.
His eyes rested upon her as she stood in the doorway, talking to a small, black-bearded man who had just been introduced to her. After a few moments she went out upon his arm, and then Cyril turned to me.
"I think her," he replied, speaking, as was necessary, very low, "the embodiment of all that is evil in womanhood. In old days she would have been a Cleopatra, a Theodora, a Delilah. To-day, lacking opportunity, she is the 'smart woman' grubbing for an opening into society—and old Fawley's daughter. I'm tired; let's go home."
His allusion to her parentage was significant. Few people thought of connecting clever, handsome Geraldine Fawley with "Rogue Fawley," Jew, renegade, ex-gaol-bird, and outside broker; who, having expectations from his daughter, took care not to hamper her by ever being seen in her company. But no one who had once met the father could ever forget the relationship while talking to the daughter. The older face, with its cruelty, its cunning, and its greed stood reproduced, feature for feature, line for line. It was as though Nature, for an artistic freak, had set herself the task of fashioning hideousness and beauty from precisely the same materials. Between the leer of the man and the smile of the girl, where lay the difference? It would have puzzled any student of anatomy to point it out. Yet the one sickened, while to gain the other most men would have given much.
Cyril's answer to my question satisfied me for the time. He met the girl often, as was natural. She was a singer of some repute, and our social circle was what is commonly called "literary and artistic." To do her justice, however, she made no attempt to fascinate him, nor even to be particularly agreeable to him. Indeed, she seemed to be at pains to show him her natural—in other words, her most objectionable side.
Coming out of the theatre one first night, we met her in the lobby. I was following Cyril at some little distance, but as he stopped to speak to her the movement of the crowd placed me just behind them.
"Will you be at the Leightons' to-morrow?" I heard him ask her in a low tone.
"Yes," she answered, "and I wish you wouldn't come."
"Because you're a fool, and you bore me."
Under ordinary circumstances I should have taken the speech for badinage—it was the kind of wit the woman would have indulged in. But Cyril's face clouded with anger and vexation. I said nothing. I did not wish him to know that I had overheard. I tried to believe that he was amusing himself, but my own explanation did not satisfy me.
Next evening I went to the Leightons' by myself. The Grants were in town, and Cyril was dining with them. I found I did not know many people, and cared little for those I did. I was about to escape when Miss Fawley's name was announced. I was close to the door, and she had to stop and speak to me. We exchanged a few commonplaces. She either made love to a man or was rude to him. She generally talked to me without looking at me, nodding and smiling meanwhile to people around. I have met many women equally ill-mannered, and without her excuse. For a moment, however, she turned her eyes to mine.
"Where's your friend, Mr. Harjohn?" she asked. "I thought you were inseparables."
I looked at her in astonishment. "He's dining out to-night," I replied. "I do not think he will come."
She laughed; I think it was the worst part about the woman, her laugh; it suggested so much cruelty.
"I think he will," she said.
It angered me into an indiscretion. She was moving away, I stepped in front of her and stopped her.
"What makes you think so?" I asked, and my voice, I know, betrayed the anxiety I felt as to her reply. She looked me straight in the face; there was one virtue she possessed—the virtue that animals hold above mankind—truthfulness. She knew I disliked her—hate would be, perhaps, a more exact expression, did not the word sound out of date, and she made no pretence of not knowing it and returning the compliment.
"Because I am here," she answered. "Why don't you save him? Have you no influence over him? Tell the Saint to keep him; I don't want him. You heard what I said to him last night. I shall only marry him for the sake of his position, and the money he can earn if he likes to work and not play the fool. Tell him what I have said, I shan't deny it."
She passed on to greet a decrepit old lord with a languishing smile, and I stood staring after her with, I fear, a somewhat stupid expression, until some young fool came up grinning, to ask me whether I had seen a ghost or backed a "wrong-un." There was no need to wait; I felt no curiosity. Something told me the woman had spoken the truth. It was mere want of motive that made me linger. I saw him come in, and watched him hanging round her, like a dog, waiting for a kind word, or, failing that, a kick. I knew she saw me, and I knew it added to her zest that I was there. Not till we were in the street did I speak to him. He started as I touched him. We were neither of us good actors; he must have read much in my face, and I saw that he had read it; and we walked side by side in silence, I thinking what to say, wondering whether I should do good or harm, wishing that we were anywhere but in these silent, life-packed streets, so filled with the unseen. The Leightons' house was in Chelsea, but it was not till we had nearly reached the Albert Hall that we broke the silence. Then it was he who spoke:
"Do you think I haven't told myself all that?" he said. "Do you think I don't know I'm a damned fool, a cad, a liar! What the devil's the good of talking about it?"
"But I can't understand it," I said.
"No," he replied, "because you're a fool, because you have only seen one side of me. You think me a grand gentleman, because I talk big, and am full of noble sentiment. Why, you idiot, the Devil himself could take you in. He has his fine moods, I suppose, talks like a saint, and says his prayers like the rest of us. Do you remember the first night at Old Fauerberg's? You poked your silly head into the dormitory, and saw me kneeling by the bedside, while the other fellows stood by grinning. You closed the door softly—you thought I never saw you. I was not praying, I was trying to pray."
"It showed that you had pluck, if it showed nothing else," I answered "Most boys would not have tried, and you kept it up."
"Ah, yes," he answered, "I promised the Mater I would, and I did. Poor old soul, she was as big a fool as you are. She believed in me. But don't you remember finding me one Saturday afternoon all alone, stuffing myself with cake and jam?"
I laughed at the recollection, though Heaven knows I was feeling in no laughing mood. I had found him with an array of pastry spread out before him, sufficient to make him ill for a week, and I had boxed his ears, and had thrown the whole collection into the road.
"The Mater gave me half-a-crown a week for pocket-money," he continued, "and I told the fellows I had only a shilling, so that I could gorge myself with the other eighteen-pence undisturbed. Pah! I was a little beast even in those days!"
"It was only a schoolboy trick," I argued, "it was natural enough."
"Yes," he answered, "and this is only a man's trick, and is natural enough; but it is going to ruin my life, to turn me into a beast instead of a man. Good God! do you think I don't know what that woman will do for me? She will drag me down, down, down, to her own level. All my ideals, all my ambition, all my life's work will be bartered for a smug practice, among paying patients. I shall scheme and plot to make a big income that we may live like a couple of plump animals, that we may dress ourselves gaudily and parade our wealth. Nothing will satisfy her; such women are leeches; their only cry is 'give, give, give.' So long as I can supply her with money she will tolerate me, and to get it for her, I shall sell my heart, and my brain, and my soul. She will load herself with jewels, and go about from house to house, half-naked, to leer at every man she comes across: that is life to such women. And I shall trot behind her, the laughing-stock of every fool, the contempt of every man."
His vehemence made any words I could say sound weak before they were uttered. What ailment could I show stronger than that he had already put before himself. I knew his answers to everything I could urge.
My mistake had been in imagining him different from other men. I began to see that he was like the rest of us: part angel, part devil. But the new point he revealed to me, was that the higher the one, the lower the other. It seems as if nature must balance her work; the nearer the leaves to heaven, the deeper the roots striking down into the darkness. I knew that his passion for this woman made no change in his truer love. The one was a spiritual, the other a mere animal passion. The memory of incidents that had puzzled me came back to enlighten me. I remembered how often on nights when I had sat up late, working, I had heard his steps pass my door, heavy and uncertain; how once in a dingy quarter of London, I had met one who had strangely resembled him. I had followed him to speak, but the man's bleared eyes had stared angrily at me, and I had turned away, calling myself a fool for my mistake. But as I looked at the face beside me now, I understood.
And then there rose up before my eyes, the face I knew better, the eager noble face that to merely look upon had been good. We had reached a small, evil-smelling street, leading from Leicester Square towards Holborn. I caught him by the shoulders and turned him round with his back against some church railings. I forget what I said. We are strange mixtures; I thought of the shy, backward boy I had coached and bullied at old Fauerberg's; of the laughing handsome lad I had watched grow into manhood. The very restaurant we had most frequented in his old Oxford days—where we had poured out our souls to one another, was in this street where we were standing. For the moment, I felt towards him as perhaps his mother might have felt; I wanted to scold him and to try with him; to shake him and put my arms about him. I pleaded with him, and urged him, and called him every name I could put my tongue to. It must have seemed an odd conversation. A passing policeman, making a not unnatural mistake, turned his bull's-eye upon us, and advised us sternly to go home. We laughed; and with that laugh, Cyril came back to his own self, and we walked on to Staple Inn more soberly. He promised me to go away by the very first train the next morning, and to travel for some four or five months, and I undertook to make all the necessary explanations for him.
We both felt better for our talk, and when I wished him good-night at his door, it was the real Cyril Harjohn whose hand I gripped,—the real Cyril because the best that is in a man is his real self. If there be any future for man beyond this world, it is the good that is in him that will live. The other side of him is of the earth; it is that he will leave behind him.
He kept his word. In the morning he was gone, and I never saw him again. I had many letters from him, hopeful at first, full of strong resolves. He told me he had written Elspeth, not telling her everything, for that she would not understand, but so much as would explain; and from her, he had had sweet womanly letters in reply. I feared she might have been cold and unsympathetic, for often good women, untouched by temptation themselves, have small tenderness for those who struggle. But her goodness was something more than a mere passive quantity; she loved him the better because he had need of her. I believe she would have saved him from himself, had not fate interfered and taken the matter out of her hands. Women are capable of big sacrifices; I think this woman would have been content to lower herself, if by so doing she could have raised him.
But it was not to be. From India he wrote me that he was coming home. I had not met the Fawley woman for some time, and she had gone out of my mind until one day, chancing upon a theatrical paper, some weeks old, I read that "Miss Fawley had sailed for Calcutta to fulfil an engagement of long standing."
I had his last letter in my pocket; I sat down and worked out the question of date. She would arrive in Calcutta the day before he left. Whether it was chance or intention on her part I never knew; as likely as not the former, for there is a fatalism in this world, shaping our ends.
I heard no more from him, I hardly expected to do so, but three months later a mutual acquaintance stopped me on the Club steps.
"Have you heard the news," he said, "about young Harjohn?"
"No," I replied. "Is he married?"
"Married," he answered. "No, poor devil, he's dead!"
"Thank God," was on my lips, but fortunately I checked myself. "How did it happen?" I asked.
"At a shooting party, up at some Rajah's place. Must have caught his gun in some brambles, I suppose. The bullet went clean through his head."
"Dear me," I said, "how very sad!" I could think of nothing else to say at the moment.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1927, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 95 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.