Chapter Five
 

The summer evenings sounded a very different music from that thin wheedling of April. It was now a soft steady vibration, the incessant drone and throb of locust and cricket, and sometimes the sudden rasp, dry and hard, of katydids. Gissing, in spite of his weariness, was all fidgets. He would walk round and round the house in the dark, unable to settle down to anything; tired, but incapable of rest. What is this uneasiness in the mind, he asked himself? The great sonorous drumming of the summer night was like the bruit of Time passing steadily by. Even in the soft eddy of the leaves, lifted on a drowsy creeping air, was a sound of discontent, of troublesome questioning. Through the trees he could see the lighted oblongs of neighbours' windows, or hear stridulent jazz records. Why were all others so cheerfully absorbed in the minutiae of their lives, and he so painfully ill at ease? Sometimes, under the warm clear darkness, the noises of field and earth swelled to a kind of soft thunder: his quickened ears heard a thousand small outcries contributing to the awful energy of the world--faint chimings and whistlings in the grass, and endless flutter, rustle, and whirr. His own body, on which hair and nails grew daily like vegetation, startled and appalled him. Consciousness of self, that miserable ecstasy, was heavy upon him.

He envied the children, who lay upstairs sprawled under their mosquito nettings. Immersed in living, how happily unaware of being alive! He saw, with tenderness, how naively they looked to him as the answer and solution of their mimic problems. But where could he find someone to be to him what he was to them? The truth apparently was that in his inward mind he was desperately lonely. Reading the poets by fits and starts, he suddenly realized that in their divine pages moved something of this loneliness, this exquisite unhappiness. But these great hearts had had the consolation of setting down their moods in beautiful words, words that lived and spoke. His own strange fever burned inexpressibly inside him. Was he the only one who felt the challenge offered by the maddening fertility and foison of the hot sun-dazzled earth? Life, he realized, was too amazing to be frittered out in this aimless sickness of heart. There were truths and wonders to be grasped, if he could only throw off this wistful vague desire. He felt like a clumsy strummer seated at a dark shining grand piano, which he knows is capable of every glory of rolling music, yet he can only elicit a few haphazard chords.

He had his moments of arrogance, too. Ah, he was very young! This miracle of blue unblemished sky that had baffled all others since life began--he, he would unriddle it! He was inclined to sneer at his friends who took these things for granted, and did not perceive the infamous insolubility of the whole scheme. Remembering the promises made at the christening, he took the children to church; but alas, carefully analyzing his mind, he admitted that his attention had been chiefly occupied with keeping them orderly, and he had gone through the service almost automatically. Only in singing hymns did he experience a tingle of exalted feeling. But Mr. Poodle was proud of his well-trained choir, and Gissing had a feeling that the congregation was not supposed to do more than murmur the verses, for fear of spoiling the effect. In his favourite hymns he had a tendency to forget himself and let go: his vigorous tenor rang lustily. Then he realized that the backs of people's heads looked surprised. The children could not be kept quiet unless they stood up on the pews. Mr. Poodle preached rather a long sermon, and Yelpers, toward twelve-thirty, remarked in a clear tone of interested inquiry, "What time does God have dinner?"

Gissing had a painful feeling that he and Mr. Poodle did not thoroughly understand each other. The curate, who was kindness itself, called one evening, and they had a friendly chat. Gissing was pleased to find that Mr. Poodle enjoyed a cigar, and after some hesitation ventured to suggest that he still had something in the cellar. Mr. Poodle said that he didn't care for anything, but his host could not help hearing the curate's tail quite unconsciously thumping on the chair cushions. So he excused himself and brought up one of his few remaining bottles of White Horse. Mr. Poodle crossed his legs and they chatted about golf, politics, the income tax, and some of the recent books; but when Gissing turned the talk on religion, Mr. Poodle became diffident.. Gissing, warmed and cheered by the vital Scotch, was perhaps too direct.

"What ought I to do to 'crucify the old man'?" he said.

Mr. Poodle was rather embarrassed.

"You must mortify the desires of the flesh," he replied. "You must dig up the old bone of sin that is buried in all our hearts."

There were many more questions Gissing wanted to ask about this, but Mr. Poodle said he really must be going, as he had a call to pay on Mr. and Mrs. Chow.

Gissing walked down the path with him, and the curate did indeed set ok toward the Chows'. But Gissing wondered, for a little later he heard a cheerful canticle upraised in the open fields.

He himself was far from gay. He longed to tear out this malady from his breast. Poor dreamer, he did not know that to do so is to tear out God Himself. "Mrs. Spaniel," he said when the laundress next came up from the village, "you are a widow, aren't you?"

"Yes, sir," she said. "Poor Spaniel was killed by a truck, two years ago April." Her face was puzzled, but beneath her apron Gissing could see her tail wagging.

"Don't misunderstand me," he said quickly. "I've got to go away on business. I want you to bring your children and move into this house while I'm gone. I'll make arrangements at the bank about paying all the bills. You can give up your outside washing and devote yourself entirely to looking after this place."

Mrs. Spaniel was so much surprised that she could not speak. In her amazement a bright bubble dripped from the end of her curly tongue. Hastily she caught it in her apron, and apologized.

"How long will you be away, sir?" she asked.

"I don't know. It may be quite a long time."

"But all your beautiful things, furniture and everything," said Mrs. Spaniel. "I'm afraid my children are a bit rough. They're not used to living in a house like this--"

"Well," said Gissing, "you must do the best you can. There are some things more important than furniture. It will be good for your children to get accustomed to refined surroundings, and it'll be good for my nephews to have someone to play with. Besides, I don't want them to grow up spoiled mollycoddles. I think I've been fussing over them too much. If they have good stuff in them, a little roughening won't do any permanent harm."

"Dear me," cried Mrs. Spaniel, "what will the neighbours think?"

"They won't," said Gissing. "I don't doubt they'll talk, but they won't think. Thinking is very rare. I've got to do some myself, that's one reason why I'm going. You know, Mrs. Spaniel, God is a horizon, not someone sitting on a throne." Mrs. Spaniel didn't understand this--in fact, she didn't seem to hear it. Her mind was full of the idea that she would simply have to have a new dress, preferably black silk, for Sundays. Gissing, very sagacious, had already foreseen this point. "Let's not have any argument," he continued. "I have planned everything. Here is some money for immediate needs. I'll speak to them at the bank, and they will give you a weekly allowance. I leave you here as caretaker. Later on I'll send you an address and you can write me how things are going."

Poor Mrs. Spaniel was bewildered. She came of very decent people, but since Spaniel took to drink, and then left her with a family to support, she had sunk in the world. She was wondering now how she could face it out with Mrs. Chow and Mrs. Fox-Terrier and the other neighbours.

"Oh, dear," she cried, "I don't know what to say, sir. Why, my boys are so disreputable-looking, they haven't even a collar between them."

"Get them collars and anything else they need," said Gissing kindly. "Don't worry, Mrs. Spaniel, it will be a fine thing for you. There will be a little gossip, I dare say, but we'll have to chance that. Now you had better go down to the village and make your arrangements. I'm leaving tonight."

Late that evening, after seeing Mrs. Spaniel and her brood safely installed, Gissing walked to the station with his suitcase. He felt a pang as he lifted the mosquito nettings and kissed the cool moist noses of the sleeping trio. But he comforted himself by thinking that this was no merely vulgar desertion. If he was to raise the family, he must earn some money. His modest income would not suffice for this sudden increase in expenses. Besides, he had never known what freedom meant until it was curtailed. For the past three months he had lived in ceaseless attendance; had even slept with one ear open for the children's cries. Now he owed it to himself to make one great strike for peace. Wealth, he could see, was the answer. With money, everything was attainable: books, leisure for study, travel, prestige--in short, command over the physical details of life. He would go in for Big Business. Already he thrilled with a sense of power and prosperity.

The little house stood silent in the darkness as he went down the path. The night was netted with the weaving sparkle of fireflies. He stood for a moment, looking. Suddenly there came a frightened cry from the nursery.

"Daddy, a keeto, a keeto!"

He nearly turned to run back, but checked himself. No, Mrs. Spaniel was now in charge. It was up to her. Besides, he had only just enough time to catch the last train to the city.

But he sat on the cinder-speckled plush of the smoker in a mood that was hardly revelry. "By Jove," he said to himself, "I got away just in time. Another month and I couldn't have done it."

It was midnight when he saw the lights of town, panelled in gold against a peacock sky. Acres and acres of blue darkness lay close-pressing upon the gaudy grids of light. Here one might really look at this great miracle of shadow and see its texture. The dulcet air drifted lazily in deep, silent crosstown streets. "Ah," he said, "here is where the blue begins."