They were true idealists, from New England. But that is some time ago: before the War. Several years before the War they met and married; he a tall, keen-eyed young man from Connecticut, she a smallish, demure, Puritan-looking young woman from Massachusetts. They both had a little money. Not much, however. Even added together it didn’t make three thousand dollars a year. Still–they were free. Free!
Ah!–freedom! To be free to live one’s own life! To be twenty-five and twenty-seven, a pair of true idealists with a mutual love of beauty and an inclination towards “Indian thought”–meaning, alas! Mrs Besant–and an income a little under three thousand dollars a year! But what is money? All one wishes to do is to live a full and beautiful life. In Europe, of course, right at the fountain-head of tradition. It might possibly be done in America: in New England, for example. But at forfeiture of a certain amount of “beauty.” True beauty takes a long time to mature. The baroque is only half-beautiful, half-matured. No, the real silver bloom, the real golden-sweet bouquet of beauty, had its roots in the Renaissance, not in any later or shallower period.
Therefore, the two idealists, who were married in New Haven, sailed at once to Paris: Paris of the old days. They had a studio apartment on the Boulevard Montparnasse, and they became real Parisians, in the old, delightful sense, not in the modern, vulgar. It was the shimmer of the pure impressionists, Monet and his followers, the world seen in terms of pure light, light broken and unbroken. How lovely! How lovely! how lovely the nights, the river, the mornings in the old streets and by the flower-stalls and the book-stalls, the afternoons up on Montmartre or in the Tuileries, the evenings on the boulevards!
They both painted, but not desperately. Art had not taken them by the throat, and they did not take Art by the throat. They painted: that’s all. They knew people–nice people, if possible, though one had to take them mixed. And they were happy.
Yet it seems as if human beings must set their claws in something. To be “free,” to be “living a full and beautiful life,” you must, alas! be attached to something. A “full and beautiful life” means a tight attachment to something–at least, it is so for all idealists–or else a certain boredom supervenes; there is a certain waving of loose ends upon the air, like the waving, yearning tendrils of the vine that spread and rotate, seeking something to clutch, something up which to climb towards the necessary sun. Finding nothing, the vine can only trail, half-fulfilled, upon the ground. Such is freedom–a clutching of the right pole. And human beings are all vines. But especially the idealist. He is a vine, and he needs to clutch and climb. And he despises the man who is a mere potato, or turnip, or lump of wood.
Our idealists were frightfully happy, but they were all the time reaching out for something to cotton on to. At first, Paris was enough. They explored Paris thoroughly. And they learned French till they almost felt like French people, they could speak it so glibly.
Still, you know, you never talk French with your soul. It can’t be done. And though it’s very thrilling, at first, talking in French to clever Frenchmen–they seem so much cleverer than oneself–still, in the long run, it is not satisfying. The endlessly clevermaterialism of the French leaves you cold, in the end, gives a sense of barrenness and incompatibility with true New England depth. So our two idealists felt.
They turned away from France–but ever so gently. France had disappointed them. “We’ve loved it, and we’ve got a great deal out of it. But after a while, a considerable while–several years, in fact–Paris leaves one feeling disappointed. It hasn’t quite got what one wants.”
“But Paris isn’t France.”
“No, perhaps not. France is quite different from Paris. And France is lovely–quite lovely. But to us, though we love it, it doesn’t say a great deal.”
So, when the War came, the idealists moved to Italy. And they loved Italy. They found it beautiful, and more poignant than France. It seemed much nearer to the New England conception of beauty: something pure, and full of sympathy, without thematerialism and the cynicism of the French. The two idealists seemed to breathe their own true air in Italy.
And in Italy, much more than in Paris, they felt they could thrill to the teachings of the Buddha. They entered the swelling stream of modern Buddhistic emotion, and they read the books, and they practised meditation, and they deliberately set themselves to eliminate from their own souls greed, pain, and sorrow. They did not realise–yet–that Buddha’s very eagerness to free himself from pain and sorrow is in itself a sort of greed. No, they dreamed of a perfect world, from which all greed, and nearly all pain, and a great deal of sorrow, were eliminated.
But America entered the War, so the two idealists had to help. They did hospital work. And though their experience made them realise more than ever that greed, pain, and sorrow should be eliminated from the world, nevertheless, the Buddhism, or the theosophy, didn’t emerge very triumphant from the long crisis. Somehow, somewhere, in some part of themselves, they felt that greed, pain and sorrow would never be eliminated, because most people don’t care about eliminating them, and never will care. Our idealists were far too Western to think of abandoning all the world to damnation while they saved their two selves. They were far too unselfish to sit tight under a bho-tree and reach Nirvana in a mere couple.
It was more than that, though. They simply hadn’t enough Sitzfleisch to squat under a bho-tree and get to Nirvana by contemplating anything, least of all their own navel. If the whole wide world was not going to be saved, they, personally, were not so very keen on being saved just by themselves. No, it would be so lonesome. They were New Englanders, so it must be all or nothing. Greed, pain and sorrow must either be eliminated from all the world,or else what was the use of eliminating them from oneself? No use at all! One was just a victim.
And so–although they still loved “Indian thought,” and felt very tender about it: well, to go back to our metaphor, the pole up which the green and anxious vines had clambered so far now proved dry-rotten. It snapped, and the vines came slowly subsiding to earth again. There was no crack and crash. The vines held themselves up by their own foliage, for a while. But they subsided. The beanstalk of “Indian thought” had given way before Jack had climbed off the tip of it to a further world.
They subsided with a slow rustle back to earth again. But they made no outcry. They were again “disappointed.” But they never admitted it. “Indian thought” had let them down. But they never complained. Even to one another they never said a word. But they were disappointed, faintly but deeply disillusioned, and they both knew it. But the knowledge was tacit.
And they still had so much in their lives. They still had Italy–dear Italy. And they still had freedom, the priceless treasure. And they still had so much “beauty.” About the fullness of their lives they were not quite so sure. They had one little boy, whom they loved as parents should love their children, but whom they wisely refrained from fastening upon, to build their lives on him. No, no, they must live their own lives! They still had strength of mind to know that.
But they were now no longer so very young. Twenty-five and twenty-seven had become thirty-five and thirty-seven. And though they had had a very wonderful time in Europe, and though they still loved Italy–dear Italy!–yet: they were disappointed. They had got a lot out of it: oh, a very great deal indeed! Still, it hadn’t given them quite, not quite, what they had expected; Europe was lovely, but it was dead. Living in Europe, you were living on the past. And Europeans, with all their superficial charm, were not really charming. They were materialistic, they had no real soul. They just did not understand the inner urge of the spirit, because the inner urge was dead in them; they were all survivals. There, that was the truth about Europeans: they were survivals, with no more getting ahead in them.
It was another bean-pole, another vine-support crumbled under the green life of the vine. And very bitter it was, this time. For up the old tree-trunk of Europe the green vine had been clambering silently for more than ten years, ten hugely important years, the years of real living. The two idealists had lived in Europe, lived on Europe and on European life and European things as vines in an everlasting vineyard.
They had made their home here: a home such as you could never make in America. Their watchword had been “beauty.” They had rented, the last four years, the second floor of an old Palazzo on the Arno, and here they had all their “things.” And they derived a profound satisfaction from their apartment: the lofty, silent, ancient rooms with windows on the river, with glistening, dark-red floors, and the beautiful furniture that the idealists had “picked up.”
Yes, unknown to themselves, the lives of the idealists had been running with a fierce swiftness horizontally, all the time. They had become tense, fierce hunters of “things” for their home. While their soul was climbing up to the sun of old European culture or old Indian thought, their passions were running horizontally, clutching at “things.” Of course, they did not buy the things for the things’ sakes, but for the sake of “beauty.” They looked upon their home as a place entirely furnished by loveliness, not by “things” at all. Valerie had some very lovely curtains at the windows of the long salotto, looking on the river: curtains of queer ancient material that looked like finely knitted silk, most beautifully faded down from vermilion and orange and gold and black, to a sheer soft glow. Valerie hardly ever came into the salotto without mentally falling on her knees before the curtains. “Chartres!” she said. “To me they are Chartres!” And Melville never turned and looked at his sixteenth-century Venetian book-case, with its two or three dozen of choice books, without feeling his marrow stir in his bones. The holy of holies!
The child silently, almost sinisterly, avoided any rude contact with these ancient monuments of furniture, as if they had been nests of sleeping cobras, or that “thing” most perilous to the touch–the Ark of the Covenant. His childish awe was silent, and cold, but final.
Still, a couple of New England idealists cannot live merely on the bygone glory of their furniture. At least, one couple could not. They got used to the marvellous Bologna cupboard, they got used to the wonderful Venetian book-case, and the books, and the Siena curtains and bronzes, and the lovely sofas and side-tables and chairs they had “picked up” in Paris. Oh, they had been picking things up since the first day they landed in Europe. And they were still at it. It is the last interest Europe can offer to an outsider: or to an insider either.
When people came, and were thrilled by the Melville interior, then Valerie and Erasmus felt they had not lived in vain: that they still were living. But in the long mornings, when Erasmus was desultorily working at Renaissance Florentine literature, and Valerie was attending to the apartment; and in the long hours after lunch; and in the long, usually very cold and oppressive evenings in the ancient palazzo: then the halo died from around the furniture, and the things became things, lumps of matter that just stood there or hung there, ad infinitum, and said nothing; and Valerie and Erasmus almost hated them. The glow of beauty, like every other glow, dies down unless it is fed. The idealists still dearly loved their things. But they had got them. And the sad fact is, things that glow vividly while you’re getting them go almost quite cold after a year or two. Unless, of course, people envy you them very much, and the museums are pining for them. And the Melvilles’ “things,” though very good, were not quite as good as that.
So the glow gradually went out of everything, out of Europe, out of Italy–“the Italians are dears“–even out of that marvellous apartment on the Arno. “Why, if I had this apartment I’d never, never even want to go out of doors! It’s too lovely and perfect.” That was something, of course, to hear that.
And yet Valerie and Erasmus went out of doors; they even went out to get away from its ancient, cold-floored, stone-heavy silence and dead dignity. “We’re living on the past, you know, Dick,” said Valerie to her husband. She called him Dick.
They were grimly hanging on. They did not like to give in. They did not like to own up that they were through. For twelve years, now, they had been “free” people, living a “full and beautiful life.” And America for twelve years had been their anathema, the Sodom and Gomorrah of industrial materialism.
It wasn’t easy to own that you were “through.” They hated to admit that they wanted to go back. But at last, reluctantly, they decided to go, “for the boy’s sake.” “We can’t bear to leave Europe. But Peter is an American, so he had better look at America while he’s young.” The Melvilles had an entirely English accent and manner–almost–a little Italian and French here and there.
They left Europe behind, but they took as much of it along with them as possible. Several van-loads, as a matter of fact. All those adorable and irreplaceable “things.” And all arrived in New York, idealists, child, and the huge bulk of Europe they had lugged along.
Valerie had dreamed of a pleasant apartment, perhaps on Riverside Drive, where it was not so expensive as east of Fifth Avenue, and where all their wonderful things would look marvellous. She and Erasmus house-hunted. But, alas! their income was quite under three thousand dollars a year. They found–well, everybody knows what they found. Two small rooms and a kitchenette, and don’t let us unpack a thing!
The chunk of Europe which they had bitten off went into a warehouse, at fifty dollars a month. And they sat in two small rooms and a kitchenette, and wondered why they’d done it.
Erasmus, of course, ought to get a job. This was what was written on the wall, and what they both pretended not to see. But it had been the strange, vague threat that the Statue of Liberty had always held over them: “Thou shalt get a job!” Erasmus had the tickets, as they say. A scholastic career was still possible for him. He had taken his exams, brilliantly at Yale, and had kept up his “researches” all the time he had been in Europe.
But both he and Valerie shuddered. A scholastic career! The scholastic world! The American scholastic world! Shudder upon shudder! Give up their freedom, their full and beautiful life? Never! Never! Erasmus would be forty next birthday.
The “things” remained in warehouse. Valerie went to look at them. It cost her a dollar an hour, and horrid pangs. The “things,” poor things, looked a bit shabby and wretched in that warehouse.
However, New York was not all America. There was the great clean West. So the Melvilles went West, with Peter, but without the things. They tried living the simple life in the mountains. But doing their own chores became almost a nightmare. “Things” are all very well to look at, but it’s awful handling them, even when they’re beautiful. To be the slave of hideous things, to keep a stove going, cook meals, wash dishes, carry water, and clean floors: pure horror of sordid anti-life!
In the cabin on the mountains Valerie dreamed of Florence, the lost apartment; and her Bologna cupboard and Louis Quinze chairs, above all, her “Chartres” curtains, stored in New York–and costing fifty dollars a month.
A millionaire friend came to the rescue, offering them a cottage on the Californian coast–California! Where the new soul is to be born in man. With joy the idealists moved a little farther west, catching at new vine-props of hope.
And finding them straws! The millionaire cottage was perfectly equipped. It was perhaps as labour-savingly perfect as is possible: electric heating and cooking, a white-and-pearl-enamelled kitchen, nothing to make dirt except the human being himself. In an hour or so the idealists had got through their chores. They were “free”–free to hear the great Pacific pounding the coast, and to feel a new soul filling their bodies.
Alas! the Pacific pounded the coast with hideous brutality, brute force itself! And the new soul, instead of sweetly stealing into their bodies, seemed only meanly to gnaw the old soul out of their bodies. To feel you are under the fist of the most blind and crunching brute force: to feel that your cherished idealist’s soul is being gnawed out of you, and only irritation left in place of it: well, it isn’t good enough.
After about nine months the idealists departed from the Californian west. It had been a great experience; they were glad to have had it. But, in the long run, the West was not the place for them, and they knew it. No, the people who wanted new souls had better get them. They, Valerie and Erasmus Melville, would like to develop the old soul a little further. Anyway, they had not felt any influx of new soul on the Californian coast. On the contrary.
So, with a slight hole in their material capital, they returned to Massachusetts and paid a visit to Valerie’s parents, taking the boy along. The grandparents welcomed the child–poor expatriated boy–and were rather cold to Valerie, but really cold to Erasmus. Valerie’s mother definitely said to Valerie one day that Erasmus ought to take a job, so that Valerie could live decently. Valerie haughtily reminded her mother of the beautiful apartment on the Arno, and the “wonderful” things in store in New York, and of the “marvellous and satisfying life” she and Erasmus had led. Valerie’s mother said that she didn’t think her daughter’s life looked so very marvellous at present: homeless, with a husband idle at the age of forty, a child to educate, and a dwindling capital, looked the reverse of marvellous to her. Let Erasmus take some post in one of the universities.
“What post? What university?” interrupted Valerie.
“That could be found, considering your father’s connections and Erasmus’s qualifications,” replied Valerie’s mother. “And you could get all your valuable things out of store, and have a really lovely home, which everybody in America would be proud to visit. As it is, your furniture is eating up your income, and you are living like rats in a hole, with nowhere to go to.”
This was very true. Valerie was beginning to pine for a home, with her “things.” Of course, she could have sold her furniture for a substantial sum. But nothing would have induced her to. Whatever else passed away–religions, cultures, continents, and hopes–Valerie would never part from the “things” which she and Erasmus had collected with such passion. To these she was nailed.
But she and Erasmus still would not give up that freedom, that full and beautiful life they had so believed in. Erasmus cursed America. He did not want to earn a living. He panted for Europe.
Leaving the boy in charge of Valerie’s parents, the two idealists once more set off for Europe. In New York they paid two dollars and looked for a brief, bitter hour at their “things.” They sailed “student class”–that is, third. Their income now was less than two thousand dollars, instead of three. And they made straight for Paris–cheap Paris.
They found Europe, this time, a complete failure. “We have returned like dogs to our vomit,” said Erasmus; “but the vomit has staled in the meantime.” He found he couldn’t stand Europe. It irritated every nerve in his body. He hated America, too. But America at least was a darn sight better than this miserable, dirt-eating continent; which was by no means cheap any more, either.
Valerie, with her heart on her things–she had really burned to get them out of that warehouse, where they had stood now for three years, eating up two thousand dollars–wrote to her mother she thought Erasmus would come back if he could get some suitable work in America. Erasmus, in a state of frustration bordering on rage and insanity, just went round Italy in a poverty-stricken fashion, his coat-cuffs frayed, hating everything with intensity. And when a post was found for him in Cleveland University, to teach French, Italian, and Spanish literature, his eyes grew more beady, and his long, queer face grew sharper and more rat-like with utter baffled fury. He was forty, and the job was upon him.
“I think you’d better accept, dear. You don’t care for Europe any longer. As you say, it’s dead and finished. They offer us a house on the College lot, and mother says there’s room in it for all our things. I think we’d better cable ‘Accept’.”
He glowered at her like a cornered rat. One almost expected to see rat’s whiskers twitching at the sides of the sharp nose.
“Shall I send the cablegram?” she asked.
“Send it!” he blurted.
And she went out and sent it.
He was a changed man, quieter, much less irritable. A load was off him. He was inside the cage.
But when he looked at the furnaces of Cleveland, vast and like the greatest of black forests, with red- and white-hot cascades of gushing metal, and tiny gnomes of men, and terrific noises, gigantic, he said to Valerie:
“Say what you like, Valerie, this is the biggest thing the modern world has to show.”
And when they were in their up-to-date little house on the college lot of Cleveland University, and that woe-begone débris of Europe–Bologna cupboard, Venice book-shelves, Ravenna bishop’s chair, Louis Quinze side-tables, “Chartres” curtains, Siena bronze lamps–all were arrayed, and all looked perfectly out of keeping, and therefore very impressive; and when the idealists had had a bunch of gaping people in, and Erasmus had showed off in his best European manner, but still quite cordial and American, and Valerie had been most ladylike, but for all that “we prefer America”; then Erasmus said, looking at her with the queer sharp eyes of a rat:–
“Europe’s the mayonnaise all right, but America supplies the good old lobster–what?”
“Every time!” she said, with satisfaction.
And he peered at her. He was in the cage: but it was safe inside. And she, evidently, was her real self at last. She had got the goods. Yet round his nose was a queer, evil, scholastic look, of pure scepticism. But he liked lobster.