The Sea Lady/Chapter 6

The Sea Lady  (1902)  by H. G. Wells
Chapter VI

CHAPTER THE SIXTH

SYMPTOMATIC

I

My cousin Melville is never very clear about his dates. Now this is greatly to be regretted, because it would be very illuminating indeed if one could tell just how many days elapsed before he came upon Chatteris in intimate conversation with the Sea Lady. He was going along the front of the Leas with some books from the Public Library that Miss Glendower had suddenly wished to consult, and which she, with that entire ignorance of his lack of admiration for her which was part of her want of charm for him, had bidden him bring her. It was in one of those sheltered paths just under the brow which give such a pleasant and characteristic charm to Folkestone, that he came upon a little group about the Sea Lady's bath chair. Chatteris was seated in one of the wooden seats that are embedded in the bank, and was leaning forward and looking into the Sea Lady's face; and she was speaking with a smile that struck Melville even at the time as being a little special in its quality—and she seems to have been capable of many charming smiles. Parker was a little distance away, where a sort of bastion projects and gives a wide view of the pier and harbour and the coast of France, regarding it all with a qualified disfavour, and the bath chairman was crumpled up against the bank lost in that wistful melancholy that the constant perambulation of broken humanity necessarily engenders.

My cousin slackened his pace a little
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A little group about the Sea Lady's bath chair.

and came up and joined them. The conversation hung at his approach. Chatteris sat back a little, but there seemed no resentment and he sought a topic for the three to discuss in the books Melville carried.

"Books?" he said.

"For Miss Glendower," said Melville.

"Oh!" said Chatteris.

"What are they about?" asked the Sea Lady.

"Land tenure," said Melville.

"That's hardly my subject," said the Sea Lady, and Chatteris joined in her smile as if he saw a jest.

There was a little pause.

"You are contesting Hythe?" said Melville.

"Fate points that way," said Chatteris.

"They threaten a dissolution for September."

"It will come in a month," said Chatteris, with the inimitable tone of one who knows.

"In that case we shall soon be busy."

"And I may canvass," said the Sea Lady. "I never have——"

"Miss Waters," explained Chatteris, "has been telling me she means to help us." He met Melville's eye frankly.

"It's rough work, Miss Waters," said Melville.

"I don't mind that. It's fun. And I want to help. I really do want to help—Mr. Chatteris."

"You know, that's encouraging."

"I could go around with you in my bath chair?"

"It would be a picnic," said Chatteris.

"I mean to help anyhow," said the Sea Lady.

"You know the case for the plaintiff?" asked Melville.

She looked at him.

"You've got your arguments?"

"I shall ask them to vote for Mr. Chatteris, and afterwards when I see them I shall remember them and smile and wave my hand. What else is there?"

"Nothing," said Chatteris, and shut the lid on Melville. "I wish I had an argument as good."

"What sort of people are they here?" asked Melville. "Isn't there a smuggling interest to conciliate?"

"I haven't asked that," said Chatteris. "Smuggling is over and past, you know. Forty years ago. It always has been forty years ago. They trotted out the last of the smugglers,—interesting old man, full of reminiscences,—when there was a count of the Saxon Shore. He remembered smuggling—forty years ago. Really, I doubt if there ever was any smuggling. The existing coast guard is a sacrifice to a vain superstition."

"Why!" cried the Sea Lady. "Only about five weeks ago I saw quite near here——"

She stopped abruptly and caught Melville's eye. He grasped her difficulty.

"In a paper?" he suggested.

"Yes, in a paper," she said, seizing the rope he threw her.

"Well?" asked Chatteris.

"There is smuggling still," said the Sea Lady, with an air of some one who decides not to tell an anecdote that is suddenly found to be half forgotten.

"There's no doubt it happens," said Chatteris, missing it all. "But it doesn't appear in the electioneering. I certainly sha'n't agitate for a faster revenue cutter. However things may be in that respect, I take the line that they are very well as they are. That's my line, of course." And he looked out to sea. The eyes of Melville and the Sea Lady had an intimate moment.

"There, you know, is just a specimen of the sort of thing we do," said Chatteris. "Are you prepared to be as intricate as that?"

"Quite," said the Sea Lady.

My cousin was reminded of an anecdote.

The talk degenerated into anecdotes of canvassing, and ran shallow. My cousin was just gathering that Mrs. Bunting and Miss Bunting had been with the Sea Lady and had gone into the town to a shop, when they returned. Chatteris rose to greet them and explained—what had been by no means apparent before—that he was on his way to Adeline, and after a few further trivialities he and Melville went on together.

A brief silence fell between them.

"Who is that Miss Waters?" asked Chatteris.

"Friend of Mrs. Bunting," prevaricated Melville.

"So I gather. . . . She seems a very charming person."

"She is."

"She's interesting. Her illness seems to throw her up. It makes a passive thing of her, like a picture or something that's—imaginary. Imagined—anyhow. She sits there and smiles and responds. Her eyes—have something intimate. And yet——"

My cousin offered no assistance.

"Where did Mrs. Bunting find her."

My cousin had to gather himself together for a second or so.

"There's something," he said deliberately, "that Mrs. Bunting doesn't seem disposed——"

"What can it be?"

"It's bound to be all right," said Melville rather weakly.

"It's strange, too. Mrs. Bunting is usually so disposed——"

Melville left that to itself.

"That's what one feels," said Chatteris.

"What?"

"Mystery."

My cousin shares with me a profound detestation of that high mystic method of treating women. He likes women to be finite—and nice. In fact, he likes everything to be finite—and nice. So he merely grunted.

But Chatteris was not to be stopped by that. He passed to a critical note. "No doubt it's all illusion. All women are impressionists, a patch, a light. You get an effect. And that is all you are meant to get, I suppose. She gets an effect. But how—that's the mystery. It's not merely beauty. There's plenty of beauty in the world. But not of these effects. The eyes, I fancy."

He dwelt on that for a moment.

"There's really nothing in eyes, you know, Chatteris," said my cousin Melville, borrowing an alien argument and a tone of analytical cynicism from me. "Have you ever looked at eyes through a hole in a sheet?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Chatteris. "I don't mean the mere physical eye. . . . Perhaps it's the look of health—and the bath chair. A bold discord. You don't know what's the matter, Melville?"

"How?"

"I gather from Bunting it's a disablement—not a deformity."

"He ought to know."

"I'm not so sure of that. You don't happen to know the nature of her disablement?"

"I can't tell at all," said Melville in a speculative tone. It struck him he was getting to prevaricate better.

The subject seemed exhausted. They spoke of a common friend whom the sight of the Métropole suggested. Then they did not talk at all for a time, until the stir and interest of the band stand was passed. Then Chatteris threw out a thought.

"Complex business—feminine motives," he remarked.

"How?"

"This canvassing. She can't be interested in philanthropic Liberalism."

"There's a difference in the type. And besides, it's a personal matter."

"Not necessarily, is it? Surely there's not such an intellectual gap between the sexes! If you can get interested——"

"Oh, I know."

"Besides, it's not a question of principles. It's the fun of electioneering."

"Fun!"

"There's no knowing what won't interest the feminine mind," said Melville, and added, "or what will."

Chatteris did not answer.

"It's the district visiting instinct, I suppose," said Melville. "They all have it. It's the canvassing. All women like to go into houses that don't belong to them."

"Very likely," said Chatteris shortly, and failing a reply from Melville, he gave way to secret meditations, it would seem still of a fairly agreeable sort.

The twelve o'clock gun thudded from Shornecliffe Camp.

"By Jove!" said Chatteris, and quickened his steps.

They found Adeline busy amidst her papers. As they entered she pointed reproachfully, yet with the protrusion of a certain Marcella-like undertone of sweetness, at the clock. The apologies of Chatteris were effusive and winning, and involved no mention of the Sea Lady on the Leas.

Melville delivered his books and left them already wading deeply into the details of the district organisation that the local Liberal organiser had submitted.

II

A little while after the return of Chatteris, my cousin Melville and the Sea Lady were under the ilex at the end of the sea garden and—disregarding Parker (as every one was accustomed to do), who was in a garden chair doing some afternoon work at a proper distance—there was nobody with them at all. Fred and the girls were out cycling—Fred had gone with them at the Sea Lady's request—and Miss Glendower and Mrs. Bunting were at Hythe calling diplomatically on some rather horrid local people who might be serviceable to Harry in his electioneering.

Mr. Bunting was out fishing. He was not fond of fishing, but he was in many respects an exceptionally resolute little man, and he had taken to fishing every day in the afternoon after luncheon in order to break himself of what Mrs. Bunting called his "ridiculous habit" of getting sea-sick whenever he went out in a boat. He said that if fishing from a boat with pieces of mussels for bait after luncheon would not break the habit nothing would, and certainly it seemed at times as if it were going to break everything that was in him. But the habit escaped. This, however, is a digression.

These two, I say, were sitting in the ample shade under the evergreen oak, and Melville, I imagine, was in those fine faintly patterned flannels that in the year 1899 combined correctness with ease. He was no doubt looking at the shaded face of the Sea Lady, framed in a frame of sunlit yellow-green lawn and black-green ilex leaves—at least so my impulse for verisimilitude conceives it—and she at first was pensive and downcast that afternoon and afterwards she was interested and looked into his eyes. Either she must have suggested then he might smoke or else he asked. Anyhow, his cigarettes were produced. She looked at them with an arrested gesture, and he hung for a moment, doubtful, on her gesture.

"I suppose you—" he said.

"I never learned."

He glanced at Parker and then met the Sea Lady's regard.

"It's one of the things I came for," she said.

He took the only course.

She accepted a cigarette and examined it thoughtfully. "Down there," she said, "it's just one of the things— You will understand we get nothing but saturated tobacco. Some of the mermen— There's something they have picked up from the sailors. Quids, I think they call it. But that's too horrid for words!"

She dismissed the unpleasant topic by a movement, and lapsed into thought.

My cousin clicked his match-box.

She had a momentary doubt and glanced towards the house. "Mrs. Bunting?" she asked. Several times, I understand, she asked the same thing.

"She wouldn't mind—" said Melville, and stopped.

"She won't think it improper," he amplified, "if nobody else thinks it improper."

"There's nobody else," said the Sea Lady, glancing at Parker, and my cousin lit the match.

My cousin has an indirect habit of mind. With all general and all personal things his desperation to get at them obliquely amounts almost to a passion; he could no more go straight to a crisis than a cat could to a stranger. He came off at a tangent now as he was sitting forward and scrutinising her first very creditable efforts to draw. "I just wonder," he said, "exactly what it was you did come for."

She smiled at him over a little jet of smoke. "Why, this," she said.

"And hairdressing?"

"And dressing."

She smiled again after a momentary hesitation. "And all this sort of thing," she said, as if she felt she had answered him perhaps a little below his deserts. Her gesture indicated the house and the lawn and—my cousin Melville wondered just exactly how much else.

"Am I doing it right?" asked the Sea Lady.

"Beautifully," said my cousin with a faint sigh in his voice. "What do you think of it?"

"It was worth coming for," said the Sea Lady, smiling into his eyes.

"But did you really just come——?"

She filled in his gap. "To see what life was like on land here? . . . Isn't that enough?"

Melville's cigarette had failed to light. He regarded its blighted career pensively.

"Life," he said, "isn't all—this sort of thing."

"This sort of thing?"

"Sunlight. Cigarette smoking. Talk. Looking nice."

"But it's made up——"

"Not altogether."

"For example?"

"Oh, you know."

"What?"

"You know," said Melville, and would not look at her.

"I decline to know," she said after a little pause.

"Besides—" he said.

"Yes?"

"You told Mrs. Bunting—" It occurred to him that he was telling tales, but that scruple came too late.

"Well?"

"Something about a soul."

She made no immediate answer. He looked up and her eyes were smiling. "Mr. Melville," she said, innocently, "what is a soul?"

"Well," said my cousin readily, and then paused for a space. "A soul," said he, and knocked an imaginary ash from his extinct cigarette.

"A soul," he repeated, and glanced at Parker.

"A soul, you know," he said again, and looked at the Sea Lady with the air of a man who is handling a difficult matter with skilful care.

"Come to think of it," he said, "it's a rather complicated matter to explain——"

"To a being without one?"

"To any one," said my cousin Melville, suddenly admitting his difficulty.

He meditated upon her eyes for a moment.

"Besides," he said, "you know what a soul is perfectly well."

"No," she answered, "I don't."

"You know as well as I do."

"Ah! that may be different."

"You came to get a soul."

"Perhaps I don't want one. Why—if one hasn't one——?"

"Ah, there!" And my cousin shrugged his shoulders. "But really you know—It's just the generality of it that makes it hard to define."

"Everybody has a soul?"

"Every one."

"Except me?"

"I'm not certain of that."

"Mrs. Bunting?"

"Certainly."

"And Mr. Bunting?"

"Every one."

"Has Miss Glendower?"

"Lots."

The Sea Lady mused. She went off at a tangent abruptly.

"Mr. Melville," she said, "what is a union of souls?"

Melville flicked his extinct cigarette suddenly into an elbow shape and then threw it away. The phrase may have awakened some reminiscence. "It's an extra," he said. "It's a sort of flourish. . . . And sometimes it's like leaving cards by footmen—a substitute for the real presence."

There came a gap. He remained downcast, trying to find a way towards whatever it was that was in his mind to say. Conceivably, he did not clearly know what that might be until he came to it. The Sea Lady abandoned an attempt to understand him in favour of a more urgent topic.

"Do you think Miss Glendower and Mr. Chatteris——?"

Melville looked up at her. He noticed she had hung on the latter name. "Decidedly," he said. "It's just what they would do."

Then he spoke again. "Chatteris?" he said.

"Yes," said she.

"I thought so," said Melville.

The Sea Lady regarded him gravely. They scrutinised each other with an unprecedented intimacy. Melville was suddenly direct. It was a discovery that it seemed he ought to have made all along. He felt quite unaccountably bitter; he spoke with a twitch of the mouth and his voice had a note of accusation. "You want to talk about him."

She nodded—still grave.

"Well, I don't." He changed his note. "But I will if you wish it."

"I thought you would."

"Oh, you know," said Melville, discovering his extinct cigarette was within reach of a vindictive heel.

She said nothing.

"Well?" said Melville.

"I saw him first," she apologised, "some years ago."

"Where?"

"In the South Seas—near Tonga."

"And that is really what you came for?"

This time her manner was convincing. She admitted, "Yes."

Melville was carefully impartial. "He's sightly," he admitted, "and well-built and a decent chap—a decent chap. But I don't see why you——"

He went off at a tangent. "He didn't see you——?"

"Oh, no."

Melville's pose and tone suggested a mind of extreme liberality. "I don't see why you came," he said. "Nor what you mean to do. You see"—with an air of noting a trifling but valid obstacle—"there's Miss Glendower."

"Is there?" she said.

"Well, isn't there?"

"That's just it," she said.

"And besides after all, you know, why should you——?"

"I admit it's unreasonable," she said. "But why reason about it? It's a matter of the imagination——"

"For him?"

"How should I know how it takes him? That is what I want to know."

Melville looked her in the eyes again. "You know, you're not playing fair," he said.

"To her?"

"To any one."

"Why?"

"Because you are immortal—and unincumbered. Because you can do everything you want to do—and we cannot. I don't know why we cannot, but we cannot. Here we are, with our short lives and our little souls to save, or lose, fussing for our little concerns. And you, out of the elements, come and beckon——"

"The elements have their rights," she said. And then: "The elements are the elements, you know. That is what you forget."

"Imagination?"

"Certainly. That's the element. Those elements of your chemists——"

"Yes?"

"Are all imagination. There isn't any other." She went on: "And all the elements of your life, the life you imagine you are living, the little things you must do, the little cares, the extraordinary little duties, the day by day, the hypnotic limitations—all these things are a fancy that has taken hold of you too strongly for you to shake off. You daren't, you mustn't, you can't. To us who watch you——"

"You watch us?"

"Oh, yes. We watch you, and sometimes we envy you. Not only for the dry air and the sunlight, and the shadows of trees, and the feeling of morning, and the pleasantness of many such things, but because your lives begin and end—because you look towards an end."

She reverted to her former topic. "But you are so limited, so tied! The little time you have, you use so poorly. You begin and you end, and all the time between it is as if you were enchanted; you are afraid to do this that would be delightful to do, you must do that, though you know all the time it is stupid and disagreeable. Just think of the things—even the little things—you mustn't do. Up there on the Leas in this hot weather all the people are sitting in stuffy ugly clothes—ever so much too much clothes, hot tight boots, you know, when they have the most lovely pink feet, some of them—we see,—and they are all with little to talk about and nothing to look at, and bound not to do all sorts of natural things and bound to do all sorts of preposterous things. Why are they bound? Why are they letting life slip by them? Just as if they wouldn't all of them presently be dead! Suppose you were to go up there in a bathing dress and a white cotton hat——"

"It wouldn't be proper!" cried Melville.

"Why not?"

"It would be outrageous!"

"But any one may see you like that on the beach!"

"That's different"

"It isn't different. You dream it's different. And in just the same way you dream all the other things are proper or improper or good or bad to do. Because you are in a dream, a fantastic, unwholesome little dream. So small, so infinitely small! I saw you the other day dreadfully worried by a spot of ink on your sleeve—almost the whole afternoon."

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"Why not?"

My cousin looked distressed. She abandoned the ink-spot.

"Your life, I tell you, is a dream—a dream, and you can't wake out of it——"

"And if so, why do you tell me?"

She made no answer for a space.

"Why do you tell me?" he insisted.

He heard the rustle of her movement as she bent towards him.

She came warmly close to him. She spoke in gently confidential undertone, as one who imparts a secret that is not to be too lightly given. "Because," she said, "there are better dreams."

III

For a moment it seemed to Melville that he had been addressed by something quite other than the pleasant lady in the bath chair before him. "But how—?" he began and stopped. He remained silent with a perplexed face. She leaned back and glanced away from him, and when at last she turned and spoke again, specific realities closed in on him once more.

"Why shouldn't I," she asked, "if I want to?"

"Shouldn't what?"

"If I fancy Chatteris."

"One might think of obstacles," he reflected.

"He's not hers," she said.

"In a way, he's trying to be," said Melville.

"Trying to be! He has to be what he is. Nothing can make him hers. If you weren't dreaming you would see that." My cousin was silent. "She's not real," she went on. "She's a mass of fancies and vanities. She gets everything out of books. She gets herself out of a book. You can see her doing it here. . . . What is she seeking? What is she trying to do? All this work, all this political stuff of hers? She talks of the condition of the poor! What is the condition of the poor? A dreary tossing on the bed of existence, a perpetual fear of consequences that perpetually distresses them. Lives of anxiety they lead, because they do not know what a dream the whole thing is. Suppose they were not anxious and afraid. . . . And what does she care for the condition of the poor, after all? It is only a point of departure in her dream. In her heart she does not want their dreams to be happier, in her heart she has no passion for them, only her dream is that she should be prominently doing good, asserting herself, controlling their affairs amidst thanks and praise and blessings. Her dream! Of serious things!—a rout of phantoms pursuing a phantom ignis fatuus—the afterglow of a mirage. Vanity of vanities——"

"It's real enough to her."

"As real as she can make it, you know. But she isn't real herself. She begins badly."

"And he, you know——"

"He doesn't believe in it."

"I'm not so sure."

"I am—now."

"He's a complicated being."

"He will ravel out," said the Sea Lady.

"I think you misjudge him about that work of his, anyhow," said Melville. "He's a man rather divided against himself." He added abruptly, "We all are." He recovered himself from the generality. "It's vague, I admit, a sort of vague wish to do something decent, you know, that he has——"

"A sort of vague wish," she conceded; "but——"

"He means well," said Melville, clinging to his proposition.

"He means nothing. Only very dimly he suspects——"

"Yes?"

"What you too are beginning to suspect. . . . That other things may be conceivable even if they are not possible. That this life of yours is not everything. That it is not to be taken too seriously. Because . . . there are better dreams!"

The song of the sirens was in her voice; my cousin would not look at her face. "I know nothing of any other dreams," he said. "One has oneself and this life, and that is enough to manage. What other dreams can there be? Anyhow, we are in the dream—we have to accept it. Besides, you know, that's going off the question. We were talking of Chatteris, and why you have come for him. Why should you come, why should any one outside come—into this world?"

"Because we are permitted to come—we immortals. And why, if we choose to do so, and taste this life that passes and continues, as rain that falls to the ground, why should we not do it? Why should we abstain?"

"And Chatteris?"

"If he pleases me."

He roused himself to a Titanic effort against an oppression that was coming over him. He tried to get the thing down to a definite small case, an incident, an affair of considerations. "But look here, you know," he said. "What precisely do you mean to do if you get him? You don't seriously intend to keep up the game to that extent. You don't mean—positively, in our terrestrial fashion, you know—to marry him?"

The Sea Lady laughed at his recovery of the practical tone. "Well, why not?" she asked.

"And go about in a bath chair, and—No, that's not it. What is it?"

He looked up into her eyes, and it was like looking into deep water. Down in that deep there stirred impalpable things. She smiled at him.

"No!" she said, "I sha'n't marry him and go about in a bath chair. And grow old as all earthly women must. (It's the dust, I think, and the dryness of the air, and the way you begin and end.) You burn too fast, you flare and sink and die. This life of yours!—the illnesses and the growing old! When the skin wears shabby, and the light is out of the hair, and the teeth— Not even for love would I face it. No. . . . But then you know—" Her voice sank to a low whisper. "There are better dreams."

"What dreams?" rebelled Melville. "What do you mean? What are you? What do you mean by coming into this life—you who pretend to be a woman—and whispering, whispering . . . to us who are in it, to us who have no escape."

"But there is an escape," said the Sea Lady.

"How?"

"For some there is an escape. When the whole life rushes to a moment—" And then she stopped. Now there is clearly no sense in this sentence to my mind, even from a lady of an essentially imaginary sort, who comes out of the sea. How can a whole life rush to a moment? But whatever it was she really did say, there is no doubt she left it half unsaid.

He glanced up at her abrupt pause, and she was looking at the house.

"Do . . . ris! Do . . . ris! Are you there?" It was Mrs. Bunting's voice floating athwart the lawn, the voice of the ascendant present, of invincibly sensible things. The world grew real again to Melville. He seemed to wake up, to start back from some delusive trance that crept upon him.

He looked at the Sea Lady as if he were already incredulous of the things they had said, as if he had been asleep and dreamed the talk. Some light seemed to go out, some fancy faded. His eye rested upon the inscription, "Flamps, Bath Chair Proprietor," just visible under her arm.

"We've got perhaps a little more serious than—" he said doubtfully, and then, "What you have been saying—did you exactly mean——?"

The rustle of Mrs. Bunting's advance became audible, and Parker moved and coughed.

He was quite sure they had been "more serious than——"

"Another time perhaps——"

Had all these things really been said, or was he under some fantastic hallucination?

He had a sudden thought. "Where's your cigarette?" he asked.

But her cigarette had ended long ago.

"And what have you been talking about so long?" sang Mrs. Bunting, with an almost motherly hand on the back of Melville's chair.

"Oh!" said Melville, at a loss for once, and suddenly rising from his chair to face her, and then to the Sea Lady with an artificially easy smile, "What have we been talking about?"

"All sorts of things, I dare say," said Mrs. Bunting, in what might almost be called an arch manner. And she honoured Melville with a special smile—one of those smiles that are morally almost winks.

My cousin caught all the archness full in the face, and for four seconds he stared
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The waiter retires amazed.

at Mrs. Bunting in amazement. He wanted breath. Then they all laughed together, and Mrs. Bunting sat down pleasantly and remarked, quite audibly to herself, "As if I couldn't guess."

IV

I gather that after this talk Melville fell into an extraordinary net of doubting. In the first place, and what was most distressing, he doubted whether this conversation could possibly have happened at all, and if it had whether his memory had not played him some trick in modifying and intensifying the import of it all. My cousin occasionally dreams conversations of so sober and probable a sort as to mingle quite perplexingly with his real experiences. Was this one of these occasions? He found himself taking up and scrutinising, as it were, first this remembered sentence and then that. Had she really said this thing and quite in this way? His memory of their conversation was never quite the same for two days together. Had she really and deliberately foreshadowed for Chatteris some obscure and mystical submergence?

What intensified and complicated his doubts most, was the Sea Lady's subsequent serene freedom from allusion to anything that might or might not have passed. She behaved just as she had always behaved; neither an added intimacy nor that distance that follows indiscreet confidences appeared in her manner.

And amidst this crop of questions arose presently quite a new set of doubts, as if he were not already sufficiently equipped. The Sea Lady alleged she had come to the world that lives on land, for Chatteris.

And then——?

He had not hitherto looked ahead to see precisely what would happen to Chatteris, to Miss Glendower, to the Buntings or any one when, as seemed highly probable, Chatteris was "got." There were other dreams, there was another existence, an elsewhere—and Chatteris was to go there! So she said! But it came into Melville's mind with a quite disproportionate force and vividness that once, long ago, he had seen a picture of a man and a mermaid, rushing downward through deep water. . . . Could it possibly be that sort of thing in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-nine? Conceivably, if she had said these things, did she mean them, and if she meant them, and this definite campaign of capture was in hand, what was an orderly, sane-living, well-dressed bachelor of the world to do?

Look on—until things ended in a catastrophe?

One figures his face almost aged. He appears to have hovered about the house on the Sandgate Riviera to a scandalous extent, failing always to get a sufficiently long and intimate tête-à-tête with the Sea Lady to settle once for all his doubts as to what really had been said and what he had dreamed or fancied in their talk. Never had he been so exceedingly disturbed as he was by the twist this talk had taken. Never had his habitual pose of humorous acquiescence in life been quite so difficult to keep up. He became positively absent-minded. "You know if it's like that, it's serious," was the burden of his private mutterings. His condition was palpable even to Mrs. Bunting. But she misunderstood his nature. She said something. Finally, and quite abruptly, he set off to London in a state of frantic determination to get out of it all. The Sea Lady wished him good-bye in Mrs. Bunting's presence as if there had never been anything unusual between them.

I suppose one may contrive to understand something of his disturbance. He had made quite considerable sacrifices to the world. He had, at great pains, found his place and his way in it, he had imagined he had really "got the hang of it," as people say, and was having an interesting time. And then, you know, to encounter a voice, that subsequently insists upon haunting you with "There are better dreams"; to hear a tale that threatens complications, disasters, broken hearts, and not to have the faintest idea of the proper thing to do.

But I do not think he would have bolted from Sandgate until he had really got some more definite answer to the question, "What better dreams?" until he had surprised or forced some clearer illumination from the passive invalid, if Mrs. Bunting one morning had not very tactfully dropped a hint.

You know Mrs. Bunting, and you can imagine what she tactfully hinted. Just at that time, what with her own girls and the Glendower girls, her imagination was positively inflamed for matrimony; she was a matrimonial fanatic; she would have married anybody to anything just for the fun of doing it, and the idea of pairing off poor Melville to this mysterious immortal with a scaly tail seems to have appeared to her the most natural thing in the world.

Apropos of nothing whatever I fancy she remarked, "Your opportunity is now, Mr. Melville."

"My opportunity!" cried Melville, trying madly not to understand in the face of her pink resolution.

"You've a monopoly now," she cried. "But when we go back to London with her there will be ever so many people running after her."

I fancy Melville said something about carrying the thing too far. He doesn't remember what he did say. I don't think he even knew at the time.

However, he fled back to London in August, and was there so miserably at loose ends that he had not the will to get out of the place. On this passage in the story he does not dwell, and such verisimilitude as may be, must be supplied by my imagination. I imagine him in his charmingly appointed flat,—a flat that is light without being trivial, and artistic with no want of dignity or sincerity,—finding a loss of interest in his books, a loss of beauty in the silver he (not too vehemently) collects. I imagine him wandering into that dainty little bed-room of his and around into the dressing-room, and there, rapt in a blank contemplation of the seven-and-twenty pairs of trousers (all creasing neatly in their proper stretchers) that are necessary to his conception of a wise and happy man. For every occasion he has learnt, in a natural easy progress to knowledge, the exquisitely appropriate pair of trousers, the permissible upper garment, the becoming gesture and word. He was a man who had mastered his world. And then, you know, the whisper:—

"There are better dreams."

"What dreams?" I imagine him asking, with a defensive note. Whatever transparence the world might have had, whatever suggestion of something beyond there, in the sea garden at Sandgate, I fancy that in Melville's apartments in London it was indisputably opaque.

And "Damn it!" he cried, "if these dreams are for Chatteris, why should she tell me? Suppose I had the chance of them— Whatever they are——"

He reflected, with a terrible sincerity in the nature of his will.

"No!" And then again, "No!

"And if one mustn't have 'em, why should one know about 'em and be worried by them? If she comes to do mischief, why shouldn't she do mischief without making me an accomplice?"

He walks up and down and stops at last and stares out of his window on the jaded summer traffic going Haymarket way.

He sees nothing of that traffic. He sees the little sea garden at Sandgate and that little group of people very small and bright and something—something hanging over them. "It isn't fair on them—or me—or anybody!"

Then you know, quite suddenly, I imagine him swearing.

I imagine him at his luncheon, a meal he usually treats with a becoming gravity. I imagine the waiter marking the kindly self-indulgence of his clean-shaven face, and advancing with that air of intimate participation the good waiter shows to such as he esteems. I figure the respectful pause, the respectful enquiry.

"Oh, anything!" cries Melville, and the waiter retires amazed.

V

To add to Melville's distress, as petty discomforts do add to all genuine trouble, his club-house was undergoing an operation, and was full of builders and decorators; they had gouged out its windows and gagged its hall with scaffolding, and he and his like were guests of a stranger club that had several members who blew. They seemed never to do anything but blow and sigh and rustle papers and go to sleep about the place; they were like
The sea lady p207

They seemed never to do anything but blow and sigh and rustle papers.

blight-spots on the handsome plant of this host-club, and it counted for little with Melville, in the state he was in, that all the fidgety breathers were persons of eminent position. But it was this temporary dislocation of his world that brought him unexpectedly into a quasi confidential talk with Chatteris one afternoon, for Chatteris was one of the less eminent and amorphous members of this club that was sheltering Melville's club.

Melville had taken up Punch—he was in that mood when a man takes up anything—and was reading, he did not know exactly what. Presently he sighed, looked up, and discovered Chatteris entering the room.

He was surprised to see Chatteris, startled and just faintly alarmed, and Chatteris it was evident was surprised and disconcerted to see him. Chatteris stood in as awkward an attitude as he was capable of, staring unfavourably, and for a moment or so he gave no sign of recognition. Then he nodded and came forward reluctantly. His every movement suggested the will without the wit to escape. "You here?" he said.

"What are you doing away from Hythe at this time?" asked Melville.

"I came here to write a letter," said Chatteris.

He looked about him rather helplessly. Then he sat down beside Melville and demanded a cigarette. Suddenly he plunged into intimacy.

"It is doubtful whether I shall contest Hythe," he remarked.

"Yes?"

"Yes."

He lit his cigarette.

"Would you?" he asked.

"Not a bit of it," said Melville. "But then it's not my line."

"Is it mine?"

"Isn't it a little late in the day to drop it?" said Melville. "You've been put up for it now. Every one's at work. Miss Glendower——"

"I know," said Chatteris.

"Well?"

"I don't seem to want to go on."

"My dear man!"

"It's a bit of overwork perhaps. I'm off colour. Things have gone flat. That's why I'm up here."

He did a very absurd thing. He threw away a quarter-smoked cigarette and almost immediately demanded another.

"You've been a little immoderate with your statistics," said Melville.

Chatteris said something that struck Melville as having somehow been said before. "Election, progress, good of humanity, public spirit. None of these things interest me really," he said. "At least, not just now."

Melville waited.

"One gets brought up in an atmosphere in which it's always being whispered that one should go for a career. You learn it at your mother's knee. They never give you time to find out what you really want, they keep on shoving you at that. They form your character. They rule your mind. They rush you into it."

"They didn't rush me," said Melville.

"They rushed me, anyhow. And here I am!"

"You don't want a career?"

"Well— Look what it is."

"Oh! if you look at what things are!"

"First of all, the messing about to get into the House. These confounded parties mean nothing—absolutely nothing. They aren't even decent factions. You blither to damned committees of damned tradesmen whose sole idea for this world is to get overpaid for their self-respect; you whisper and hobnob with local solicitors and get yourself seen about with them; you ass about the charities and institutions, and lunch and chatter and chum with every conceivable form of human conceit and pushfulness and trickery——"

He broke off. "It isn't as if they were up to anything! They're working in their way, just as you are working in your way. It's the same game with all of them. They chase a phantom gratification, they toil and quarrel and envy, night and day, in the perpetual attempt to persuade themselves in spite of everything that they are real and a success——"

He stopped and smoked. Melville was spiteful. "Yes," he admitted, "but I thought your little movement was to be something more than party politics and self-advancement——?"

He left his sentence interrogatively incomplete.

"The condition of the poor," he said.

"Well?" said Chatteris, regarding him with a sort of stony admission in his blue eyes.

Melville dodged the look. "At Sandgate," he said, "there was, you know, a certain atmosphere of belief——"

"I know," said Chatteris for the second time.

"That's the devil of it!" said Chatteris after a pause.

"If I don't believe in the game I'm playing, if I'm left high and dry on this shoal, with the tide of belief gone past me, it isn't my planning, anyhow. I know the decent thing I ought to do. I mean to do it; in the end I mean to do it; I'm talking in this way to relieve my mind. I've started the game and I must see it out; I've put my hand to the plough and I mustn't go back. That's why I came to London—to get it over with myself. It was running up against you, set me off. You caught me at the crisis."

"Ah!" said Melville.

"But for all that, the thing is as I said—none of these things interest me really. It won't alter the fact that I am committed to fight a phantom election about nothing in particular, for a party that's been dead ten years. And if the ghosts win, go into the Parliament as a constituent spectre. . . . There it is—as a mental phenomenon!"

He reiterated his cardinal article. "The interest is dead," he said, "the will has no soul."

He became more critical. He bent a little closer to Melville's ear. "It isn't really that I don't believe. When I say I don't believe in these things I go too far. I do. I know, the electioneering, the intriguing is a means to an end. There is work to be done, sound work, and important work. Only——"

Melville turned an eye on him over his cigarette end.

Chatteris met it, seemed for a moment to cling to it. He became absurdly confidential. He was evidently in the direst need of a confidential ear.

"I don't want to do it. When I sit down to it, square myself down in the chair, you know, and say, now for the rest of my life this is IT—this is your life, Chatteris; there comes a sort of terror, Melville."

"H'm," said Melville, and turned away. Then he turned on Chatteris with the air of a family physician, and tapped his shoulder three times as he spoke. "You've had too much statistics, Chatteris," he said.

He let that soak in. Then he turned about towards his interlocutor, and toyed with a club ash tray. "It's every day has overtaken you," he said. "You can't see the wood for the trees. You forget the spacious design you are engaged upon, in the heavy details of the moment. You are like a painter who has been working hard upon something very small and exacting in a corner. You want to step back and look at the whole thing."

"No," said Chatteris, "that isn't quite it."

Melville indicated that he knew better.

"I keep on, stepping back and looking at it," said Chatteris. "Just lately I've scarcely done anything else. I'll admit it's a spacious and noble thing—political work done well—only— I admire it, but it doesn't grip my imagination. That's where the trouble comes in."

"What does grip your imagination?" asked Melville. He was absolutely certain the Sea Lady had been talking this paralysis into Chatteris, and he wanted to see just how far she had gone. "For example," he tested, "are there—by any chance—other dreams?"

Chatteris gave no sign at the phrase. Melville dismissed his suspicion. "What do you mean—other dreams?" asked Chatteris.

"Is there conceivably another way—another sort of life—some other aspect——?"

"It's out of the question," said Chatteris. He added, rather remarkably, "Adeline's awfully good."

My cousin Melville acquiesced silently in Adeline's goodness.

"All this, you know, is a mood. My life is made for me—and it's a very good life. It's better than I deserve."

"Heaps," said Melville.

"Much," said Chatteris defiantly.

"Ever so much," endorsed Melville.

"Let's talk of other things," said Chatteris. "It's what even the street boys call mawbid nowadays to doubt for a moment the absolute final all-this-and-nothing-else-in-the-worldishness of whatever you happen to be doing."

My cousin Melville, however, could think of no other sufficiently interesting topic. "You left them all right at Sandgate?" he asked, after a pause.

"Except little Bunting."

"Seedy?"

"Been fishing."

"Of course. Breezes and the spring tides. . . . And Miss Waters?"

Chatteris shot a suspicious glance at him. He affected the offhand style. "She's quite well," he said. "Looks just as charming as ever."

"She really means that canvassing?"

"She's spoken of it again."

"She'll do a lot for you," said Melville, and left a fine wide pause.

Chatteris assumed the tone of a man who gossips.

"Who is this Miss Waters?" he asked.

"A very charming person," said Melville and said no more.

Chatteris waited and his pretence of airy gossip vanished. He became very much in earnest.

"Look here," he said. "Who is this Miss Waters?"

"How should I know?" prevaricated Melville.

"Well, you do know. And the others know. Who is she?"

Melville met his eyes. "Won't they tell you?" he asked.

"That's just it," said Chatteris.

"Why do you want to know?"

"Why shouldn't I know?"

"There's a sort of promise to keep it dark."

"Keep what dark?"

My cousin gestured.

"It can't be anything wrong?" My cousin made no sign.

"She may have had experiences?"

My cousin reflected a moment on the possibilities of the deep-sea life. "She has had them," he said.

"I don't care, if she has."

There came a pause.

"Look here, Melville," said Chatteris, "I want to know this. Unless it's a thing to be specially kept from me. . . . I don't like being among a lot of people who treat me as an outsider. What is this something about Miss Waters?"

"What does Miss Glendower say?"

"Vague things. She doesn't like her and she won't say why. And Mrs. Bunting goes about with discretion written all over her. And she herself looks at you— And that maid of hers looks—The thing's worrying me."

"Why don't you ask the lady herself?"

"How can I, till I know what it is? Confound it! I'm asking you plainly enough."

"Well," said Melville, and at the moment he had really decided to tell Charteris. But he hung upon the manner of presentation. He thought in the moment to say, "The truth is, she is a mermaid." Then as instantly he perceived how incredible this would be. He always suspected Chatteris of a capacity for being continental and romantic. The man might fly out at him for saying such a thing of a lady.

A dreadful doubt fell upon Melville. As you know, he had never seen that tail with his own eyes. In these surroundings there came to him such an incredulity of the Sea Lady as he had not felt even when first Mrs. Bunting told him of her. All about him was an atmosphere of solid reality, such as one can breathe only in a first-class London club. Everywhere ponderous arm-chairs met the eye. There were massive tables in abundance and match-boxes of solid rock. The matches were of some specially large, heavy sort. On a ponderous elephant-legged green baize table near at hand were several copies of the Times, the current Punch, an inkpot of solid brass, and a paper weight of lead. There are other dreams! It seemed impossible. The breathing of an eminent person in a chair in the far corner became very distinct in that interval. It was heavy and resolute like the sound of a stone-mason's saw. It insisted upon itself as the touchstone of reality. It seemed to say that at the first whisper of a thing so utterly improbable as a mermaid it would snort and choke.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," said Melville.

"Well, tell me—anyhow."

My cousin looked at an empty chair beside him. It was evidently stuffed with the very best horse-hair that money could procure, stuffed with infinite skill and an almost religious care. It preached in the open invitation of its expanded arms that man does not live by bread alone—inasmuch as afterwards he needs a nap. An utterly dreamless chair!

Mermaids?

He felt that he was after all quite possibly the victim of a foolish delusion, hypnotised by Mrs. Bunting's beliefs. Was there not some more plausible interpretation, some phrase that would lie out bridge-ways from the plausible to the truth?

"It's no good," he groaned at last.

Chatteris had been watching him furtively.

"Oh, I don't care a hang," he said, and shied his second cigarette into the massively decorated fireplace. "It's no affair of mine."

Then quite abruptly he sprang to his feet and gesticulated with an ineffectual hand.

"You needn't," he said, and seemed to intend to say many regrettable things. Meanwhile until his intention ripened he sawed the air with his ineffectual hand. I fancy he ended by failing to find a thing sufficiently regrettable to express the pungency of the moment. He flung about and went towards the door.

"Don't!" he said to the back of the newspaper of the breathing member.

"If you don't want to," he said to the respectful waiter at the door.

The hall-porter heard that he didn't care—he was damned if he did!

"He might be one of these here guests," said the hall-porter, greatly shocked. "That's what comes of lettin' 'em in so young."

VI

Melville overcame an impulse to follow him.

"Confound the fellow!" said he.

And then as the whole outburst came into focus, he said with still more emphasis, "Confound the fellow!"

He stood up and became aware that the member who had been asleep was now regarding him with malevolent eyes. He perceived it was a hard and invincible malevolence, and that no petty apologetics of demeanour could avail against it. He turned about and went towards the door.

The interview had done my cousin good. His misery and distress had lifted. He was presently bathed in a profound moral indignation, and that is the very antithesis of doubt and unhappiness. The more he thought it over, the more his indignation with Chatteris grew. That sudden unreasonable outbreak altered all the perspectives of the case. He wished very much that he could meet Chatteris again and discuss the whole matter from a new footing.

"Think of it!" He thought so vividly and so verbally that he was nearly talking to himself as he went along. It shaped itself into an outspoken discourse in his mind.

"Was there ever a more ungracious, ungrateful, unreasonable creature than this same Chatteris? He was the spoiled child of Fortune; things came to him, things were given to him, his very blunders brought more to him than other men's successes. Out of every thousand men, nine hundred and ninety-nine might well find food for envy in this way luck had served him. Many a one has toiled all his life and taken at last gratefully the merest fraction of all that had thrust itself upon this insatiable thankless young man. Even I," thought my cousin, "might envy him—in several ways. And then, at the mere first onset of duty, nay!—at the mere first whisper of restraint, this insubordination, this protest and flight!

"Think!" urged my cousin, "of the common lot of men. Think of the many who suffer from hunger——"

(It was a painful Socialistic sort of line to take, but in his mood of moral indignation my cousin pursued it relentlessly.)

"Think of many who suffer from hunger, who lead lives of unremitting toil, who go fearful, who go squalid, and withal strive, in a sort of dumb, resolute way, their utmost to do their duty, or at any rate what they think to be their duty. Think of the chaste poor women in the world! Think again of the many honest souls who aspire to the service of their kind, and are so hemmed about and preoccupied that they may not give it! And then this pitiful creature comes, with his mental gifts, his gifts of position and opportunity, the stimulus of great ideas, and a fiancée, who is not only rich and beautiful—she is beautiful!—but also the best of all possible helpers for him. And he turns away. It isn't good enough. It takes no hold upon his imagination, if you please. It isn't beautiful enough for him, and that's the plain truth of the matter. What does the man want? What does he expect? . . ."

My cousin's moral indignation took him the whole length of Piccadilly, and along by Rotten Row, and along the flowery garden walks almost into Kensington High Street, and so around by the Serpentine to his home, and it gave him such an appetite for dinner as he had not had for many days. Life was bright for him all that evening, and he sat down at last, at two o'clock in the morning, before a needlessly lit, delightfully fusillading fire in his flat to smoke one sound cigar before he went to bed.

"No," he said suddenly, "I am not mawbid either. I take the gifts the gods will give me. I try to make myself happy, and a few other people happy, too, to do a few little duties decently, and that is enough for me. I don't look too deeply into things, and I don't look too widely about things. A few old simple ideals——

"H'm.

"Chatteris is a dreamer, with an impossible, extravagant discontent. What does he dream of? . . . Three parts he is a dreamer and the fourth part—spoiled child."

"Dreamer . . ."

"Other dreams . . ."

"What other dreams could she mean?"

My cousin fell into profound musings. Then he started, looked about him, saw the time by his Rathbone clock, got up suddenly and went to bed.