Chapter VIII. A Clasp of Hands
 

Grail approached the desk with pleasure. Egremont observed it, and met his trusty auditor with the eye-smile which made his face so agreeable.

'I am sorry to see that Mr. Ackroyd no longer sits by you,' he began. 'Has he deserted us?'

Gilbert hesitated, but spoke at length with his natural directness.

'I'm afraid so, sir.'

'He has lost his interest in the subject?'

'It's not exactly the bent of his mind. He only came at my persuasion to begin with. He takes more to science than literature.'

'Ah, I should have thought that. But I wish he could have still spared me the two hours a week. I felt much interest in him; it's a disappointment to lose him so unexpectedly. I'm sure he has a head for our matters as well as for science.'

Grail was about to speak, but checked himself. An inquiring glance persuaded him to say:

'He's much taken up with politics just now. They don't leave the mind very quiet.'

'Politics? I regret more than ever that he's gone.'

Egremont moved away from the desk at which he had been standing, and seated himself on the end of a bench which came out opposite the fire-place.

'Come and sit down for a minute, will you, Mr. Grail?' he said.

Gilbert silently took possession of the end of the next bench.

'Is there no persuading him back? Do you think he would come and have a talk with me? I do wish he would; I believe we could understand each other. You see him occasionally?'

'Every day. We work together.'

'Would you ask him to come and have a chat with me here some evening?'

'I shall be glad to, sir.'

'Pray persuade him to. Any evening he likes. Perhaps next Sunday after the lecture would do? Tell him to bring his pipe and have a smoke with me here before the fire.'

Grail smiled, and undertook to deliver the invitation.

'But there are other things I wished to speak of to you,' Egremont continued. 'Do you think it would be any advantage if I brought books for the members of the class to take away and use at their leisure? Shakespeare, of course, you can all lay hands on, but the other Elizabethan authors are not so readily found. For instance, there's a Marlowe on the desk; would you care to take him away with you?'

'Thank you very much, sir,' was the reply, 'but I've got Marlowe. I picked up a second-hand copy a year or two ago.'

'You have him! Ah, that's good!'

Egremont was surprised, but remembered that it would not be very courteous to express such feeling. After surprise came new warmth of interest in the man. He began to speak of Marlowe with delight, and in a moment he and Grail were on a footing of intimacy.

'But there are other books perhaps you haven't come across yet. I shall be overjoyed if you'll let me he of use to you in that way. Have you access to any library?'

'No, I haven't. I've often felt the want of it.'

Egremont fell into musing for a moment. He looked up with an idea in his eyes.

'Wouldn't it be an excellent thing if one could establish a lending library in Lambeth?'

Grail might have excusably replied that it would be a yet more excellent thing if those disposed to use such an institution had time granted them to do so; but with the young man's keen look fixed upon him, he had other thoughts.

'It would be a great thing!' he replied, with subdued feeling. He seldom allowed his stronger emotions to find high utterance; that moderated voice was symbol of the suppression to which his life had trained itself.

'A free library,' Egremont went on, 'with a good reading-room.'

It was an extension of his scheme, and delighted him with its prospect of possibilities. It would be preparing the ground upon which he and his adherents might subsequently work. Could be undertake to found a library at his own expense? It was not beyond his means, at all events a beginning on a moderate scale. His eyes sparkled, as they always did when a thought burst blossom-like within him.

'Mr. Grail, I have a mind to try if I can't work on that idea.'

Gilbert was stirred. This interchange of words had strengthened his personal liking for Egremont, and his own idealism took fire from that of the other. He regarded the young man with admiration and with noble envy. To be able to devise such things and straightway say 'It shall be done!' How blest beyond all utterance was the man to whom fortune had given such power! He reverenced Egremont profoundly. It was the man's nature to worship, to bend with singleness of heart before whatsoever seemed to him high and beautiful.

'Yes,' the latter continued, 'I will think it out. We might begin with a moderate supply of books; we might find some building that would do at first; a real library could be built when the people had begun to appreciate what was offered them. Better, no doubt, if they would tax themselves for the purpose, but they have burdens enough.'

'They won't give a farthing towards a library,' said Grail, 'until they know its value; and that they can't do until they have learnt it from books.'

'True. We'll break the circle.'

He pondered again, then added cheerfully:

'I say we. I mean you and the others who come to my lecture. I want, if possible, to make this class permanent, to make it the beginning of a society for purposes I have in my mind. I must tell you something of this, for I know you will feel with me, Mr. Grail.'

The reply was a look of quiet trust. Egremont had not thought to get so far as this to-night, but Grail's personality wrought upon him, even as his on Grail. He felt a desire to open his mind, as he had done that evening in the garden by Ullswater. This man was of those whom he would benefit, but, if he mistook not, far unlike the crowd; Grail could understand as few of his class could be expected to.

'To form a society, a club, let us say. Not at all like the ordinary clubs. There are plenty of places where men can meet to talk about what ought to be done for the working class; my idea is to bring the working class to talk of what it can do for itself. And not how it can claim its material rights, how to get better wages, shorter hours, more decent homes. With all those demands I sympathise as thoroughly as any man; but those things are coming, and it seems to me that it's time to ask what working men are going to do with such advantages when they've got them. Now, my hope is to get a few men to see--what you, I know, see clearly enough--that life, to be worthy of the name, must be first and foremost concerned with the things of the heart and mind. Yet everything in our time favours the opposite. The struggle for existence is so hard that we grow more and more material: the tendency is to regard it as the end of life to make money. If there's time to think of higher things, well and good; if not, it doesn't matter much. Well, we have to earn money; it is a necessary evil; but let us think as little about it as we may. Our social state, in short, has converted the means of life into its end.'

He paused, and Gilbert looked hearty agreement.

'That puts into a sentence,' he said, 'what I have thought through many an hour of work.'

'Well, now, we know there's no lack of schemes for reforming society. Most of them seek to change its spirit by change of institutions. But surely it is plain enough that reform of institutions can only come as the natural result of a change in men's minds. Those who preach revolution to the disinherited masses give no thought to this. It's a hard and a bad thing to live under an oppressive system; don't think that I speak lightly of the miseries which must drive many a man to frenzy, till he heeds nothing so long as the present curse is attacked. I know perfectly well that for thousands of the poorest there is no possibility of a life guided by thought and feeling of a higher kind until they are lifted out of the mire. But if one faces the question with a grave purpose of doing good that will endure, practical considerations must outweigh one's anger. There is no way of lifting those poor people out of the mire; if their children's children tread on firm ground it will be the most we can hope for. But there is a class of working people that can and should aim at a state of mind far above that which now contents them. It is my view that our only hope of social progress lies in the possibility of this class being stirred to effort. The tendency of their present education--a misapplication of the word--must be counteracted. They must be taught to value supremely quite other attainments than those which help them to earn higher wages. Well, there is my thought. I wish to communicate it to men who have a care for more than food and clothing, and who will exert themselves to influence those about them.'

Grail gazed at the fire; the earnest words wrought in him.

'If that were possible!' he murmured.

'Tell me,' the other resumed, quickly, 'how many of the serious people whom you know in Lambeth ever go to a place of worship?'

Gilbert turned his eyes inquiringly, suspiciously. Was Egremont about to preach a pietistic revival?

'I have very few acquaintances,' he answered, 'but I know that religion has no hold upon intelligent working men in London.'

'That is the admission I wanted. For good or for evil, it has passed; no one will ever restore it. And yet it is a religious spirit that we must seek to revive. Dogma will no longer help us. Pure love of moral and intellectual beauty must take its place.'

Gilbert smiled at a thought which came to him.

'The working man's Bible,' he said, 'is his Sunday newspaper.'

'And what does he get out of it? The newspaper is the very voice of all that is worst in our civilisation. If ever there is in one column a pretence of higher teaching, it is made laughable by the base tendency of all the rest. The newspaper has supplanted the book; every gross-minded scribbler who gets a square inch of space in the morning journal has a more respectful hearing than Shakespeare. These writers are tradesmen, and with all their power they cry up the spirit of trade. Till the influence of the newspaper declines--the newspaper as we now know it--our state will grow worse.

Grail was silent. Egremont had worked himself to a fervour which showed itself in his unsteady hands and tremulous lips.

'I had not meant to speak of this yet,' he continued. 'I hoped to surround myself with a few friends who would gradually get to know my views, and perhaps think they were worth something. I have obeyed an impulse in opening my mind to you; I feel that you think with me. Will you join me as a friend, and work on with me for the founding of such a society as I have described?'

'I will, Mr. Egremont,' was the clear-voiced answer.

Walter put forth his hand, and it was grasped firmly. In this moment he was equal to his ambition, unwavering, exalted, the pure idealist. Grail, too, forgot his private troubles, and tasted the strong air of the heights which it is granted us so seldom and for so brief a season to tread. There was almost colour in his cheeks, and his deep-set eyes had a light as of dawn.

'We have much yet to talk of,' said Egremont, as he rose, 'but it gets late and I mustn't keep you longer. Will you come here some evening when there is no lecture and let us turn over our ideas together? I shall begin at once to think of the library. It will make a centre for us, won't it? And remember Ackroyd. You are intimate with him?'

'We think very differently of many things,' said Grail, 'but I like him. We work together.'

'We mustn't lose him. He has the bright look of a man who could do much if he were really moved. Persuade him to come and see me on Sunday night.'

They shook hands again, and Grail took his departure. Egremont still stood for a few minutes before the fire; then he extinguished the gas, locked the door behind him, and went forth into the street singing to himself.

Gilbert turned into Paradise Street, which was close at hand. He had decided to call and ask for Ackroyd on his way home. The latter had not been at work that day, and was perhaps ailing; for some time he had seemed out of sorts. Intercourse between them was not as constant as formerly. Grail explained this as due to Ackroyd's disturbed mood, another result of which was seen in his ceasing to attend the lecture; yet in Gilbert also there was something which tended to weaken the intimacy. He knew well enough what this was, and strove against it, but not with great success.

Ackroyd lived with his married sister, who let half her house to lodgers. When Gilbert knocked at the door, it was she who opened. Mrs. Poole was a buxom young woman with a complexion which suggested continual activity within range of the kitchen fire; her sleeves were always rolled up to her elbow, and at whatever moment surprised she wore an apron which seemed just washed and ironed. She knew not weariness, nor discomfort, nor discontent, and her flow of words suggested a safety valve letting off superfluous energy.

'That Mr. Grail?' she said, peering out into the darkness. 'You've come to look after that great good-for-nothing of a brother of mine, I'll be bound! Come downstairs, and I'll tell him you're here. You may well wonder what's become of him. Ill! Not he, indeed! No more ill than I am. It's only his laziness. He wants a good shaking, that's about the truth of it, Mr. Grail.'

She led him down into the kitchen. A low clothes-horse, covered with fresh-smelling, gently-steaming linen, stood before a great glowing fire. A baby lay awake in a swinging cot just under the protruding leaf of the table, and a little girl of three was sitting in night-dress and shawl on a stool in a warm corner.

'Yes, you may well stare,' resumed Mrs. Poole, noticing Grail's glance at the children. 'A quarter past ten and neither one of 'em shut an eye yet, nor won't do till their father comes home, not if it's twelve o'clock. You dare to laugh, Miss!' she cried to the little one on the stool, with mock wrath. 'The idea of having to fetch you out o' bed just for peace and quietness. And that young man there'--she pointed to the cradle; 'there's about as much sleep ill him as there is in that eight-day clock! You rascal, you!'

Like her brother, she had the northern accent still lingering in her speech; it suited with her brisk, hearty ways. Whilst speaking, she had partly moved the horse from the fire and placed a round-backed chair for the visitor in a position which would have answered tolerably had she meant to roast him.

'He's in the sulks, that's what he is,' she continued, returning to the subject of Luke. 'I suppose you know all about it, Mr. Grail?'

Gilbert seated himself, and Mrs. Poole, pretending to arrange the linen, stood just before him, with a sly smile.

'I'm not sure that I do,' he replied, avoiding her look.

She lowered her voice.

'The idea of a great lad going on like he does! Why, it's the young lady that lives in your house--Miss Trent, you know, I don't know her myself; no doubt she's wonderful pretty and all the rest of it, but I'm that sick and tired of hearing about her! My husband's out a great deal at night, of course, and Luke comes and sits here hours by the clock, just where you are, right in my way. I don't mean you're in my way; I'm talking of times when I'm busy. Well, there he sits; and sometimes he'll be that low it's enough to make a body strangle herself with her apron-string. Other times he'll talk, talk, talk and it's all Thyrza Trent, Thyrza Trent, till the name makes my ears jingle. This afternoon I couldn't put up with it, so I told him he was a great big baby to go on as he does. Then we had some snappy words, and he went off to his bedroom and wouldn't have any tea. But really and truly, I don't know what'll come to him. He says he'll take to drinking, and he does a deal too much o' that as it is. And to think of him losing days from his work! Now do just tell him not to be a fool, Mr. Grail.'

With difficulty Gilbert found an opportunity to put in a word.

'But is there something wrong between them?' he asked with a forced smile.

'Wrong? Why, doesn't he talk about it to you?'

'No. I used to hear just a word or two, but there's been no mention of her for a long time.'

'You may think yourself lucky then, that's all I can say. Why, she wouldn't have anything to say to him. And I don't see what he's got to complain of; he admits she told him from the first she didn't care a bit for him. As if there wasn't plenty of other lasses! Luke was always such a softy about 'em; but I never knew him have such a turn as this. I'll just go and tell him you're here.'

'Perhaps he's gone to bed.'

'Not he. He sits in the cold half the night, just to make people sorry for him. He doesn't get much pity from me, the silly fellow.'

She ran up the stairs. Grail, as soon as she was gone, fell into a reverie. It did not seem a pleasant one.

In a few minutes Mrs. Poole was heard returning; behind her came a heavier foot. Ackroyd certainly looked far from well, but had assumed a gay air, which he exaggerated.

'Come to see if I've hanged myself, old man? Not quite so bad as that yet. I've had the toothache and the headache and Lord knows what. Now I feel hungry; we'll have some supper together. Give me a jug, Maggie, and I'll get some beer.'

'You sit down,' she replied. 'I'll run out and fetch it.'

'Why, what's the good of a jug like that!' he roared, watching her. 'A gallon or so won't be a drop too much for me.'

He flung himself into a chair and stretched his legs.

'Been to the lecture?' he asked, as his sister left the room.

'Yes,' Gilbert replied, his wonted quietness contrasting with the other's noise. 'Mr. Egremont's been asking me about you. He's disappointed that you've left him.'

'Can't help it. I held out as long as I could. It isn't my line. Besides, nothing's my line just now. So you had a talk with him, eh?'

'Yes, a talk I shan't forget. There are not many men like Mr. Egremont.'

Gilbert had it on his lips to speak of the library project, but a doubt as to whether he might not be betraying confidence checked him.

'He wants you to go and see him at the lecture-room,' he continued, 'either on Sunday after the lecture, or any evening that suits you. Will you go?'

Luke shook his head.

'No. What's the good?'

'I wish you would, Ackroyd,' said Gilbert, bending forward and speaking with earnestness. 'You'd be glad of it afterwards. He said I was to ask you to go and have a smoke with him by the fire; you needn't be afraid of a sermon, you see. Besides, you know he isn't that kind of man.'

'No, I shan't go, old man,' returned the other, with resolution. 'I liked his lectures well enough, as far as they went, but they're not the kind of thing to suit me nowadays. If I go and talk to him, I'm bound to go to the lectures. What's the good? What's the good of anything?'

Gilbert became silent. The little girl on the stool, who had been moving restlessly, suddenly said:

'Uncle, take me on your lap.'

'Why, of course I will, little un!' Luke replied with a sudden affectionateness one would not have expected of him. 'Give me a kiss. Who's that sitting there, eh?'

'Dono.'

'Nonsense! Say: Mr. Grail.'

In the midst of this, Mrs. Poole reappeared with the jug foaming.

'Oh, indeed! So that's where you are!' she exclaimed with her vivacious emphasis, looking at the child. 'A nice thing for you to be nursed at this hour o' night!--Now just one glass, Mr. Grail. It's a bitter night; just a glass to walk on.'

Gilbert pleased her by drinking what she offered. Ackroyd had recommenced his uproarious mirthfulness.

'I wish you could persuade your brother to go to the lectures again, Mrs. Poole,' said Gilbert. 'He misses a great deal.'

'And he'll miss a good deal more,' she replied, 'if he doesn't soon come to his senses. Nay, it's no good o' me talking! He used to be a sensible lad--that is, he could be if he liked.'

Gilbert gave his hand for leave-taking.

'I still hope you'll go on Sunday night,' he said seriously.

Ackroyd shook his head again, then tossed the child into the air and began singing. He did not offer to accompany Grail up to the door.