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She interested me in her lonely dissatisfied life; she was childless and had no hope of children, and her husband was the only son of a rich meat salesman, very mean, a mighty smoker—“he reeks of it,” she said, “always”—and interested in nothing but golf, billiards (which he played very badly), pigeon shooting, convivial Free Masonry and Stock Exchange punting. Mostly they drifted about the Riviera. Her mother had contrived her marriage when she was eighteen. They were the first samples I ever encountered of the great multitude of functionless property owners which encumbers modern civilisation—but at the time I didn't think much of that aspect of them....
I tell all this business as it happened without comment, because I have no comment to make. It was all strange to me, strange rather than wonderful, and, it may be, some dream of beauty died for ever in those furtive meetings; it happened to me, and I could scarcely have been more irresponsible in the matter or controlled events less if I had been suddenly pushed over a cliff into water. I swam, of course—finding myself in it. Things tested me, and I reacted, as I have told. The bloom of my innocence, if ever there had been such a thing, was gone. And here is the remarkable thing about it; at the time and for some days I was over-weeningly proud; I have never been so proud before or since; I felt I had been promoted to virility; I was unable to conceal my exultation from Willersley. It was a mood of shining shameless ungracious self-approval. As he and I went along in the cool morning sunshine by the rice fields in the throat of the Val Maggia a silence fell between us.
“You know?” I said abruptly,—“about that woman?”
Willersley did not answer for a moment. He looked at me over the corner of his spectacles.
“Things went pretty far?” he asked.
“Oh! all the way!” and I had a twinge of fatuous pride in my unpremeditated achievement.
“She came to your room?”
“I heard her. I heard her whispering.... The whispering and rustling and so on. I was in my room yesterday.... Any one might have heard you.”
I went on with my head in the air.
“You might have been caught, and that would have meant endless trouble. You might have incurred all sorts of consequences. What did you know about her?... We have wasted four days in that hot close place. When we found that League of Social Service we were talking about,” he said with a determined eye upon me, “chastity will be first among the virtues prescribed.”
“I shall form a rival league,” I said a little damped. “I'm hanged if I give up a single desire in me until I know why.”
He lifted his chin and stared before him through his glasses at nothing. “There are some things,” he said, “that a man who means to work—to do great public services—MUST turn his back upon. I'm not discussing the rights or wrongs of this sort of thing. It happens to be the conditions we work under. It will probably always be so. If you want to experiment in that way, if you want even to discuss it,—out you go from political life. You must know that's so.... You're a strange man, Remington, with a kind of kink in you. You've a sort of force. You might happen to do immense things.... Only—”
He stopped. He had said all that he had forced himself to say.
“I mean to take myself as I am,” I said. “I'm going to get experience for humanity out of all my talents—and bury nothing.”
Willersley twisted his face to its humorous expression. “I doubt if sexual proclivities,” he said drily, “come within the scope of the parable.”
I let that go for a little while. Then I broke out. “Sex!” said I, “is a fundamental thing in life. We went through all this at Trinity. I'm going to look at it, experience it, think about it—and get it square with the rest of life. Career and Politics must take their chances of that. It's part of the general English slackness that they won't look this in the face. Gods! what a muffled time we're coming out of! Sex means breeding, and breeding is a necessary function in a nation. The Romans broke up upon that. The Americans fade out amidst their successes. Eugenics—”
“THAT wasn't Eugenics,” said Willersley.
“It was a woman,” I said after a little interval, feeling oddly that I had failed altogether to answer him, and yet had a strong dumb case against him.
I must go back a little way with my story. In the previous book I have described the kind of education that happens to a man of my class nowadays, and it has been convenient to leap a phase in my experience that I must now set out at length. I want to tell in this second hook how I came to marry, and to do that I must give something of the atmosphere in which I first met my wife and some intimations of the forces that went to her making. I met her in Staffordshire while I was staying with that uncle of whom I have already spoken, the uncle who sold my father's houses and settled my mother in Penge. Margaret was twenty then and I was twenty-two.
It was just before the walking tour in Switzerland that opened up so much of the world to me. I saw her once, for an afternoon, and circumstances so threw her up in relief that I formed a very vivid memory of her. She was in the sharpest contrast with the industrial world about her; she impressed me as a dainty blue flower might do, come upon suddenly on a clinker heap. She remained in my mind at once a perplexing interrogation and a symbol....
But first I must tell of my Staffordshire cousins and the world that served as a foil for her.
I first went to stay with my cousins when I was an awkward youth of sixteen, wearing deep mourning for my mother. My uncle wanted to talk things over with me, he said, and if he could, to persuade me to go into business instead of going up to Cambridge.
I remember that visit on account of all sorts of novel things, but chiefly, I think, because it was the first time I encountered anything that deserves to be spoken of as wealth. For the first time in my life I had to do with people who seemed to have endless supplies of money, unlimited good clothes, numerous servants; whose daily life was made up of things that I had hitherto considered to be treats or exceptional extravagances. My cousins of eighteen and nineteen took cabs, for instance, with the utmost freedom, and travelled first-class in the local trains that run up and down the district of the Five Towns with an entire unconsciousness of the magnificence, as it seemed to me, of such a proceeding.