"Well, you see, things are rather in solution just now."
Most people have a formula or two by which they try to introduce some order into the lumber-room of the mind. Such a lot of things are dumped down there, and without a formula or two they get so mixed. The above was Stephen Aikenhead's favourite. Many of his friends preferred to say "in transition." That phrase, he maintained, begged the question. Perhaps, after all the talk and all the agitation, nothing would be changed; the innovators might be beaten; they often had been; the mass of mankind was very conservative. Look at the ebb and flow of human thought, as history recorded it-the freedom of Athens and the licence of Rome followed by the Dark Ages-the Renaissance tamed, if not mutilated, by the Counter-Reformation on the one hand and the rigours of Puritanism on the other. Certainly the foundations of all things were being, or were going to be, examined. But it is one thing to examine foundations, a different one to declare and prove them unsound. And even when the latter process has come about, there is the question-will you shore the building up or will you pull it down? The friends who favoured "transition" often grew impatient with this incurable doubter; they were as convinced that the future was going to be all right and going to come very soon as they were certain that the present was all wrong and could not possibly resist the assault of reason for many years more. They were sanguine people, apt to forget that, right as they undoubtedly were (in their own opinion), yet the Englishman at least accords his support to progress only on the definite understanding that it shall be slow. "Put the brake on!" he urges, envisaging innovation as a galloping downhill. Stephen's friends pathetically pictured it as a toilsome assent-toilsome, yet speedily to be achieved by gallantly straining horses. No need of brakes, though! Argument by metaphor is perilous either way.
In this case the formula was administered to Winnie Maxon, within the space of two hours after her arrival at Shaylor's Patch. Stephen's pretty house in Buckinghamshire-it lay Beaconsfield way-took its unassuming title presumably from a defunct Shaylor and certainly from a small plot of grass which lay between two diverging roads about a hundred yards on the way down to the station. The house was old, rambling, and low-a thoroughly comfortable dwelling. The garden was fair to see with its roses, its yews, and its one great copper-beech, with its spread of smooth lawn and its outlook over a wide-stretching valley.
"A home of peace!" thought Winnie, relaxing weary body (she had packed that morning for more than a fortnight's absence) and storm-tossed mind, as she lay on a long chair under the shade of the copper-beech.
Stephen sat opposite to her, a tall man of three and thirty, fair, inclining to stoutness, with a crop of coarse, disorderly, mouse-coloured hair; always and everywhere he wore large horn-rimmed spectacles. He had inherited a competence more than merely sufficient; he had no profession, but wrote articles when the spirit moved him and had them published more rarely. At twenty-two he had married. It was before the days when he began to doubt whether people ought to-or anyhow need-marry, and his union had been so happy that the doubt could not be attributed to personal experience. His wife was not pretty, but pleasant-faced and delightfully serene. She had very strong opinions of her own, and held them so strongly that she rarely argued and was never ruffled in argument. If anybody grew hot over a discussion, she would smile at him, and hand him a flower, or at appropriate moments something nice to eat. They had one child, a girl now ten years old, whom they had just sent to a boarding-school.
It was in connexion with little Alice's being sent to the boarding-school that the formula made its appearance. Winnie had expressed the proper wonder that her parents "could bear to part with her." Stephen explained that they had been actuated by a desire to act fairly towards the child.
"If I was sure I was right, and sure the ancients were wrong, I would teach her myself-teach her to believe what I believe and to disbelieve what they believe. But am I sure? What do I believe? And suppose I'm right, or at all events that they're wrong, most people mayn't think so for many years to come. I should be putting her against the world, and the world against her. Is that fair, unless I'm bang sure? Not everybody can be happy when the world's against them. I can't teach her what I can't believe, but why shouldn't she learn it from people who can? She must settle it in the end for herself, but it seems fair to give her her chance of orthodoxy. While things are, as I said, in solution-in a sort of flux, don't you know?"
"What do you mean by things being in solution-or in a flux?"
The daughter of a clergyman, wife of Cyril Maxon since she was nineteen, a devout member of Attlebury's flock, she came quite fresh to the idea. In her life and her world things had seemed tremendously solid, proof against an earthquake!
"I suppose it's really been the same in every age with thinking people, but it's more widespread now, isn't it? It gets into the newspapers even! 'Do we Believe?' 'Is Marriage a Failure?' It's not the answers that are most significant, you know, but the questions."
"Yes, I think I see what you mean-partly." The words came in slow ruminating tones. "Do you go very far?" she went on, in accents drolly apprehensive.
He laughed jovially. "There are no bombs. I'm married to Tora. Is it terrible that I don't go to church very often? Never, I'm bound to add in candour, if I can help it."
"I shall go while I'm here. Do you think it funny that I should suddenly propose myself for a visit?"
"To tell the truth, I didn't think Maxon would come."
"Or that I should come without him?"
"We pictured you pretty extensively married, I confess."
"So I was-so I am, I mean." She remembered her promise; she was not to mention her great resolve. But it struck her that the pledge would be hard to keep. Already the atmosphere of Shaylor's Patch suggested that her position was eminently one to talk over, to discuss with an open-minded sympathetic friend, to speculate about in all its bearings.
"But you mustn't think I'm absolutely hidebound," she went on. "I can think-and act-for myself." She was skirting the forbidden ground.
"I'm glad of it. Is Maxon?" There was a humorous twinkle behind his spectacles.
"Why are we to talk of Cyril when I've just begun my holiday?" Yet there was nothing else that she really wanted to talk about. Oh, that stupid promise! Of course she ought to have reserved the right to lay the case before her friends. But a promise is a promise, however stupid. That certainly would be Cyril's view; and it was hers. Was it, she wondered, the Shaylor's Patch view? Or might a question of ethics like that be to some extent "in solution"?
"He thinks me an awful reprobate?" Stephen asked.
She nodded, smiling.
"So they do down here, but my friends in London call me a very mild specimen. I expect some of them will turn up while you're here, and you'll be able to see for yourself."
"You don't mind being thought a reprobate down here?"
"Why should I? I don't want their society, any more than they want mine. I'm quite well off, and I've no ambitions." He laughed. "I'm ideally placed for defying the world, if I want to. It really needs no courage at all, and would bring me no martyr's crown."
"You mean it would be different if you had to work for your living?"
"Might be-or if I wanted to go in for public life, or anything of that kind."
"Or if you were a woman?"
"Well, if I were a woman who was sensitive about what society at large thought of her. That's one of the reasons why I don't preach my views much. It's all very well for me, but my converts, if any, might end by thinking they were paying too dear, while the prophet got off for nothing."
He had a book, she a newspaper. With an easy absence of ceremony he began to read; but she left her paper lying on the ground beside her, and let her thoughts play as they would on the great change which had come over her life and on what it would mean to her if it persisted, as she was resolute that it should.
"I can think-and act-for myself," she had said. Perhaps, but both would be new and strange exercises. She had walked on lines very straightly ruled; she had moved to orders peremptorily conveyed. A fear mingled with the relief of emancipation. They say that men who have been long in prison are bewildered by the great free bustling world. It may be as true of prisons of the mind as of the Bastille itself.
Stephen interrupted his reading to give another statement of his attitude. "It's like the two horses-the one in the stable-yard and the wild one. The one gets oats and no freedom, the other freedom and no oats. Now different people put very various values on freedom and on oats. And at any rate the wild horse must have fodder of some kind."
His face vanished behind the book again, and she heard him chuckling merrily over something in it. If he did not get oats, he certainly seemed to thrive excellently on such other fodder as he found. But then it was undeniable that Cyril Maxon throve equally well-successful, rising, with no doubts as to his own opinions or his own conduct. Or had her resolve shaken him into any questionings? He had shown no signs of any when she parted from him that morning. "I shall be glad to see you back at the end of your fortnight," he had said. The words were an order.
Tora Aikenhead, on her way to the rose-beds, with a basket and scissors in her hand, came up to them.
"Resting?" she asked Winnie, in her low pleasant voice.
In the telegram in which she had proposed her visit, Winnie had said that she was a little "knocked up" with the gaieties of town, but she fancied that her hostess's question referred, though distantly, to more than these, that she had discerned traces of distress, the havoc wrought by the passing of a storm.
"Beautifully!" Winnie answered, with a grateful smile.
"Dick Dennehy is week-ending with Godfrey Ledstone, and they're coming to lunch and tennis to-morrow; and Mrs. Lenoir is motoring down to lunch too," Tora went on to her husband.
"Mrs. Lenoir?" He looked up from his book with that droll twinkle behind his big spectacles again.
"Yes. Quite soon again, isn't it? She must like us, Stephen."
Stephen laughed. His wife had not in the least understood the cause of the twinkle. She would not, he reflected. It never occurred to her that any human being could object to meeting any other, unless, indeed, actual assault and battery were to be feared. But Stephen was awake to the fact that it might be startling to Winnie Maxon to meet Mrs. Lenoir-if she knew all about her. Naturally he attributed rigid standards to Mrs. Cyril Maxon, in spite of her proud avowal of open-mindedness, which indeed had seemed to him rather amusing than convincing.
"Ledstone's our neighbour," he told Winnie, "the only neighbour who really approves of us. He's taken a cottage here for the summer. You'll like him; he's a jolly fellow. Dennehy's an Irish London correspondent to some paper or other in the States, and a Fenian, and all that sort of thing, you know. Very good chap."
"Well, I asked no questions about your guests, but since you've started posting me up-who's Mrs. Lenoir?"
"Tora, who is Mrs. Lenoir?"
"Who is she? Who should she be? She's just Mrs. Lenoir."
Tora was obviously rather surprised at the question, and unprovided with an illuminating answer. But then there are many people in whose case it is difficult to say who they are, unless a repetition of their names be accepted as sufficient.
"I must out with it. Mrs. Lenoir was once mixed up in a very famous case-she intervened, as they call it-and the case went against her. Some people thought she was unjustly blamed in that case, but-well, it couldn't be denied that she was a plausible person to choose for blame. It's all years ago-she must be well over fifty by now. I hope you-er-won't feel it necessary to have too long a memory, Winnie?"
"I don't exactly see why it's necessary to tell at all," remarked Tora. "Why is it our business?"
"But Winnie does?" The question was to Winnie herself.
"I know why you told me, of course," she answered. She hesitated, blushed, smiled, and came out with "But it doesn't matter."
"Of course not, dear," remarked Tora, as she went off to her roses.
All very well to say "Of course not," but to Mrs. Cyril Maxon it was not a case of "Of course" at all. Quite the contrary. The concession she had made was to her a notable one. She had resolved to fall in with the ways of Shaylor's Patch in all possible and lawful matters-and it was not for her, a guest, to make difficulties about other guests, if such a thing could possibly be avoided. None the less, she was much surprised that Mrs. Lenoir should be coming to lunch-she had, in fact, betrayed that. In making no difficulties she seemed to herself to take a long step on the road to emancipation. It was her first act of liberty; for certainly Cyril Maxon would never have permitted it. She felt that she had behaved graciously; she felt also that she had been rather audacious.
Stephen understood her feelings better than his wife did. He had introduced himself to the atmosphere he now breathed, Tora had been bred in it by a free-thinking father, who had not Stephen's own scruples about his child. In early days he had breathed the air which up to yesterday had filled Winnie's lungs-the Maxon air.
"I suppose these things are all wrong on almost any conceivable theory that could apply to a civilized community," he remarked, "but so many people do them and go scot-free that I'm never inclined to be hard on the unfortunates who get found out. Not-I'm bound to say-that Mrs. Lenoir ever took much trouble not to be found out. Well, if people are going to do them, it's possible to admit a sneaking admiration for people who do them openly, and say 'You be hanged!' to society. You'll find her a very intelligent woman. She's still very handsome, and has really-yes, really-grand manners."
"I begin to understand why you let her down so easy," said Winnie, smiling.
He laughed. "Oh, well, perhaps you're right there. I'm human, and I dare say I did do a bit of special pleading. I like her. She's interesting."
"And nothing much matters, does it?" she put in acutely enough.
"Oh, you accuse me of that attitude? I suppose you plausibly might. But I don't admit it. I only say that it's very difficult to tell what matters. Not the same thing-surely?"
"It might work out much the same in-well, in conduct, mightn't it? If you wanted to do a thing very much, couldn't you always contrive to think that it was one of the things that didn't matter?"
"Why not go the whole hog, and think it the only proper thing to do?" he laughed.
She echoed his laugh. "You must let me down easy, as well as Mrs. Lenoir!"
"I will, fair cousin-and, on my honour, for just as good reasons."
Stephen had enjoyed his talk. It amused and interested him to see her coming, little by little, timidly, out of her-should he call it sanctuary or prison-house?-to see her delicately and fearfully toying with ideas that to him were familiar and commonplace. He marked an alertness of mind in her, especially admiring the one or two little thrusts which she had given him with a pretty shrewdness. As he had said, he had no itch to make converts; it was not his concern to unsettle her mind. But it was contrary to all his way of thinking to conceal his own views or to refuse to exchange intelligent opinions because his interlocutor stood at a different point of view. Everybody stood at different points of view at Shaylor's Patch. Was conversation to be banned and censored?
Winnie herself would have cried "No" with all her heart. Revelling in the peace about her, in the strange freedom from the ever-present horror of friction and wrangles, in the feeling that at last she could look out on the world with her own eyes, no man saying her nay, she reached out eagerly to the new things, not indeed conceiving that they could become her gospel, her faith, but with a half-guilty appreciation, a sense of courage and of defiance, and a genuine pleasure in the exercise of such wits as she modestly claimed to possess. She had been so terribly cramped for so long. Surely she might play about a little? What harm in that? It committed her to nothing.
As she got into her bed, she said, as a child might, "Oh, I am going to enjoy myself here-I'm sure I am!"
So it is good to fall asleep, with thanks for to-day, and a smile of welcome ready for to-morrow.