The New Machiavelli

Page 103 of 114

We talked and thought that afternoon on every aspect of our relations. It seems to me now we talked so wide and far that scarcely an issue in the life between man and woman can arise that we did not at least touch upon. Lying there at Isabel's feet, I have become for myself a symbol of all this world-wide problem between duty and conscious, passionate love the world has still to solve. Because it isn't solved; there's a wrong in it either way.. .. The sky, the wide horizon, seemed to lift us out of ourselves until we were something representative and general. She was womanhood become articulate, talking to her lover.

“I ought,” I said, “never to have loved you.”

“It wasn't a thing planned,” she said.

“I ought never to have let our talk slip to that, never to have turned back from America.”

“I'm glad we did it,” she said. “Don't think I repent.”

I looked at her.

“I will never repent,” she said. “Never!” as though she clung to her life in saying it.

I remember we talked for a long time of divorce. It seemed to us then, and it seems to us still, that it ought to have been possible for Margaret to divorce me, and for me to marry without the scandalous and ugly publicity, the taint and ostracism that follow such a readjustment. We went on to the whole perplexing riddle of marriage. We criticised the current code, how muddled and conventionalised it had become, how modified by subterfuges and concealments and new necessities, and the increasing freedom of women. “It's all like Bromstead when the building came,” I said; for I had often talked to her of that early impression of purpose dissolving again into chaotic forces. “There is no clear right in the world any more. The world is Byzantine. The justest man to-day must practise a tainted goodness.”

These questions need discussion—a magnificent frankness of discussion—if any standards are again to establish an effective hold upon educated people. Discretions, as I have said already, will never hold any one worth holding—longer than they held us. Against every “shalt not” there must be a “why not” plainly put,—the “why not” largest and plainest, the law deduced from its purpose. “You and I, Isabel,” I said, “have always been a little disregardful of duty, partly at least because the idea of duty comes to us so ill-clad. Oh! I know there's an extravagant insubordinate strain in us, but that wasn't all. I wish humbugs would leave duty alone. I wish all duty wasn't covered with slime. That's where the real mischief comes in. Passion can always contrive to clothe itself in beauty, strips itself splendid. That carried us. But for all its mean associations there is this duty....

“Don't we come rather late to it?”

“Not so late that it won't be atrociously hard to do.”

“It's queer to think of now,” said Isabel. “Who could believe we did all we have done honestly? Well, in a manner honestly. Who could believe we thought this might be hidden? Who could trace it all step by step from the time when we found that a certain boldness in our talk was pleasing? We talked of love.... Master, there's not much for us to do in the way of Apologia that any one will credit. And yet if it were possible to tell the very heart of our story....

“Does Margaret really want to go on with you?” she asked—“shield you—knowing of... THIS?”

“I'm certain. I don't understand—just as I don't understand Shoesmith, but she does. These people walk on solid ground which is just thin air to us. They've got something we haven't got. Assurances? I wonder.”...

Then it was, or later, we talked of Shoesmith, and what her life might be with him.

“He's good,” she said; “he's kindly. He's everything but magic. He's the very image of the decent, sober, honourable life. You can't say a thing against him or I—except that something—something in his imagination, something in the tone of his voice—fails for me. Why don't I love him?—he's a better man than you! Why don't you? IS he a better man than you? He's usage, he's honour, he's the right thing, he's the breed and the tradition,—a gentleman. You're your erring, incalculable self. I suppose we women will trust this sort and love your sort to the very end of time....”

We lay side by side and nibbled at grass stalks as we talked. It seemed enormously unreasonable to us that two people who had come to the pitch of easy and confident affection and happiness that held between us should be obliged to part and shun one another, or murder half the substance of their lives. We felt ourselves crushed and beaten by an indiscriminating machine which destroys happiness in the service of jealousy. “The mass of people don't feel these things in quite the same manner as we feel them,” she said. “Is it because they're different in grain, or educated out of some primitive instinct?”

“It's because we've explored love a little, and they know no more than the gateway,” I said. “Lust and then jealousy; their simple conception—and we have gone past all that and wandered hand in hand....”

I remember that for a time we watched two of that larger sort of gull, whose wings are brownish-white, circle and hover against the blue. And then we lay and looked at a band of water mirror clear far out to sea, and wondered why the breeze that rippled all the rest should leave it so serene.

“And in this State of ours,” I resumed.

“Eh!” said Isabel, rolling over into a sitting posture and looking out at the horizon. “Let's talk no more of things we can never see. Talk to me of the work you are doing and all we shall do—after we have parted. We've said too little of that. We've had our red life, and it's over. Thank Heaven!—though we stole it! Talk about your work, dear, and the things we'll go on doing—just as though we were still together. We'll still be together in a sense—through all these things we have in common.”

And so we talked of politics and our outlook. We were interested to the pitch of self-forgetfulness. We weighed persons and forces, discussed the probabilities of the next general election, the steady drift of public opinion in the north and west away from Liberalism towards us. It was very manifest that in spite of Wardenham and the EXPURGATOR, we should come into the new Government strongly. The party had no one else, all the young men were formally or informally with us; Esmeer would have office, Lord Tarvrille, I... and very probably there would be something for Shoesmith. “And for my own part,” I said, “I count on backing on the Liberal side. For the last two years we've been forcing competition in constructive legislation between the parties. The Liberals have not been long in following up our Endowment of Motherhood lead. They'll have to give votes and lip service anyhow. Half the readers of the BLUE WEEKLY, they say, are Liberals....

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