The New Machiavelli

Page 111 of 114

Britten frowned and thought.

“Some things one's GOT to do,” he threw out.

“Some things one can't do.”

“These infernal institutions—”

“Some one must begin,” I said.

He shook his head. “Not YOU,” he said. “No!”

He stretched out his hands on the desk before him, and spoke again.

“Remington,” he said, “I've thought of this business day and night too. It matters to me. It matters immensely to me. In a way—it's a thing one doesn't often say to a man—I've loved you. I'm the sort of man who leads a narrow life.... But you've been something fine and good for me, since that time, do you remember? when we talked about Mecca together.”

I nodded.

“Yes. And you'll always be something fine and good for me anyhow. I know things about you,—qualities—no mere act can destroy them.. .. Well, I can tell you, you're doing wrong. You're going on now like a man who is hypnotised and can't turn round. You're piling wrong on wrong. It was wrong for you two people ever to be lovers.”

He paused.

“It gripped us hard,” I said.

“Yes!—but in your position! And hers! It was vile!”

“You've not been tempted.”

“How do you know? Anyhow—having done that, you ought to have stood the consequences and thought of other people. You could have ended it at the first pause for reflection. You didn't. You blundered again. You kept on. You owed a certain secrecy to all of us! You didn't keep it. You were careless. You made things worse. This engagement and this publicity!—Damn it, Remington!”

“I know,” I said, with smarting eyes. “Damn it! with all my heart! It came of trying to patch.... You CAN'T patch.”

“And now, as I care for anything under heaven, Remington, you two ought to stand these last consequences—and part. You ought to part. Other people have to stand things! Other people have to part. You ought to. You say—what do you say? It's loss of so much life to lose each other. So is losing a hand or a leg. But it's what you've incurred. Amputate. Take your punishment—After all, you chose it.”

“Oh, damn!” I said, standing up and going to the window.

“Damn by all means. I never knew a topic so full of justifiable damns. But you two did choose it. You ought to stick to your undertaking.”

I turned upon him with a snarl in my voice. “My dear Britten!” I cried. “Don't I KNOW I'm doing wrong? Aren't I in a net? Suppose I don't go! Is there any right in that? Do you think we're going to be much to ourselves or any one after this parting? I've been thinking all last night of this business, trying it over and over again from the beginning. How was it we went wrong? Since I came back from America—I grant you THAT—but SINCE, there's never been a step that wasn't forced, that hadn't as much right in it or more, as wrong. You talk as though I was a thing of steel that could bend this way or that and never change. You talk as though Isabel was a cat one could give to any kind of owner.... We two are things that change and grow and alter all the time. We're—so interwoven that being parted now will leave us just misshapen cripples.... You don't know the motives, you don't know the rush and feel of things, you don't know how it was with us, and how it is with us. You don't know the hunger for the mere sight of one another; you don't know anything.”

Britten looked at his finger-nails closely. His red face puckered to a wry frown. “Haven't we all at times wanted the world put back?” he grunted, and looked hard and close at one particular nail.

There was a long pause.

“I want her,” I said, “and I'm going to have her. I'm too tired for balancing the right or wrong of it any more. You can't separate them. I saw her yesterday.... She's—ill.... I'd take her now, if death were just outside the door waiting for us.”


I thought. “Yes.”

“For her?”

“There isn't,” I said.

“If there was?”

I made no answer.

“It's blind Want. And there's nothing ever been put into you to stand against it. What are you going to do with the rest of your lives?”

“No end of things.”


“I don't believe you are right,” I said. “I believe we can save something—”

Britten shook his head. “Some scraps of salvage won't excuse you,” he said.

His indignation rose. “In the middle of life!” he said. “No man has a right to take his hand from the plough!”

He leant forward on his desk and opened an argumentative palm. “You know, Remington,” he said, “and I know, that if this could be fended off for six months—if you could be clapped in prison, or got out of the way somehow,—until this marriage was all over and settled down for a year, say—you know then you two could meet, curious, happy, as friends. Saved! You KNOW it.”

I turned and stared at him. “You're wrong, Britten,” I said. “And does it matter if we could?”

I found that in talking to him I could frame the apologetics I had not been able to find for myself alone.

“I am certain of one thing, Britten. It is our duty not to hush up this scandal.”

He raised his eyebrows. I perceived now the element of absurdity in me, but at the time I was as serious as a man who is burning.

“It's our duty,” I went on, “to smash now openly in the sight of every one. Yes! I've got that as clean and plain—as prison whitewash. I am convinced that we have got to be public to the uttermost now—I mean it—until every corner of our world knows this story, knows it fully, adds it to the Parnell story and the Ashton Dean story and the Carmel story and the Witterslea story, and all the other stories that have picked man after man out of English public life, the men with active imaginations, the men of strong initiative. To think this tottering old-woman ridden Empire should dare to waste a man on such a score! You say I ought to be penitent—”

Britten shook his head and smiled very faintly.

“I'm boiling with indignation,” I said. “I lay in bed last night and went through it all. What in God's name was to be expected of us but what has happened? I went through my life bit by bit last night, I recalled all I've had to do with virtue and women, and all I was told and how I was prepared. I was born into cowardice and debasement. We all are. Our generation's grimy with hypocrisy. I came to the most beautiful things in life—like peeping Tom of Coventry. I was never given a light, never given a touch of natural manhood by all this dingy, furtive, canting, humbugging English world. Thank God! I'll soon be out of it! The shame of it! The very savages in Australia initiate their children better than the English do to-day. Neither of us was ever given a view of what they call morality that didn't make it show as shabby subservience, as the meanest discretion, an abject submission to unreasonable prohibitions! meek surrender of mind and body to the dictation of pedants and old women and fools. We weren't taught—we were mumbled at! And when we found that the thing they called unclean, unclean, was Pagan beauty—God! it was a glory to sin, Britten, it was a pride and splendour like bathing in the sunlight after dust and grime!”

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