The New Machiavelli

Page 41 of 114

I can still see Margaret as I saw her that afternoon, see her fresh fair face, with the little obliquity of the upper lip, and her brow always slightly knitted, and her manner as of one breathlessly shy but determined. She had rather open blue eyes, and she spoke in an even musical voice with the gentlest of stresses and the ghost of a lisp. And it was true, she gathered, that Cambridge still existed. “I went to Grantchester,” she said, “last year, and had tea under the apple-blossom. I didn't think then I should have to come down.” (It was that started the curate upon his anecdote.)

“I've seen a lot of pictures, and learnt a lot about them—at the Pitti and the Brera,—the Brera is wonderful—wonderful places,—but it isn't like real study,” she was saying presently.... “We bought bales of photographs,” she said.

I thought the bales a little out of keeping.

But fair-haired and quite simply and yet graciously and fancifully dressed, talking of art and beautiful things and a beautiful land, and with so much manifest regret for learning denied, she seemed a different kind of being altogether from my smart, hard, high-coloured, black-haired and resolutely hatted cousin; she seemed translucent beside Gertrude. Even the little twist and droop of her slender body was a grace to me.

I liked her from the moment I saw her, and set myself to interest and please her as well as I knew how.

We recalled a case of ragging that had rustled the shrubs of Newnham, and then Chris Robinson's visit—he had given a talk to Bennett Hall also—and our impression of him.

“He disappointed me, too,” said Margaret.

I was moved to tell Margaret something of my own views in the matter of social progress, and she listened—oh! with a kind of urged attention, and her brow a little more knitted, very earnestly. The little curate desisted from the appendices and refuse heaps and general debris of his story, and made himself look very alert and intelligent.

“We did a lot of that when I was up in the eighties,” he said. “I'm glad Imperialism hasn't swamped you fellows altogether.”

Gertrude, looking bright and confident, came to join our talk from the shrubbery; the initial, a little flushed and evidently in a state of refreshed relationship, came with her, and a cheerful lady in pink and more particularly distinguished by a pink bonnet joined our little group. Gertrude had been sipping admiration and was not disposed to play a passive part in the talk.

“Socialism!” she cried, catching the word. “It's well Pa isn't here. He has Fits when people talk of socialism. Fits!”

The initial laughed in a general kind of way.

The curate said there was socialism AND socialism, and looked at Margaret to gauge whether he had been too bold in this utterance. But she was all, he perceived, for broad-mindness, and he stirred himself (and incidentally his tea) to still more liberality of expression. He said the state of the poor was appalling, simply appalling; that there were times when he wanted to shatter the whole system, “only,” he said, turning to me appealingly, “What have we got to put in its place?”

“The thing that exists is always the more evident alternative,” I said.

The little curate looked at it for a moment. “Precisely,” he said explosively, and turned stirring and with his head a little on one side, to hear what Margaret was saying.

Margaret was saying, with a swift blush and an effect of daring, that she had no doubt she was a socialist.

“And wearing a gold chain!” said Gertrude, “And drinking out of eggshell! I like that!”

I came to Margaret's rescue. “It doesn't follow that because one's a socialist one ought to dress in sackcloth and ashes.”

The initial coloured deeply, and having secured my attention by prodding me slightly with the wrist of the hand that held his teacup, cleared his throat and suggested that “one ought to be consistent.”

I perceived we were embarked upon a discussion of the elements. We began an interesting little wrangle one of those crude discussions of general ideas that are dear to the heart of youth. I and Margaret supported one another as socialists, Gertrude and Sybil and the initial maintained an anti-socialist position, the curate attempted a cross-bench position with an air of intending to come down upon us presently with a casting vote. He reminded us of a number of useful principles too often overlooked in argument, that in a big question like this there was much to be said on both sides, that if every one did his or her duty to every one about them there would be no difficulty with social problems at all, that over and above all enactments we needed moral changes in people themselves. My cousin Gertrude was a difficult controversialist to manage, being unconscious of inconsistency in statement and absolutely impervious to reply. Her standpoint was essentially materialistic; she didn't see why she shouldn't have a good time because other people didn't; they would have a good time, she was sure, if she didn't. She said that if we did give up everything we had to other people, they wouldn't very likely know what to do with it. She asked if we were so fond of work-people, why we didn't go and live among them, and expressed the inflexible persuasion that if we HAD socialism, everything would be just the same again in ten years' time. She also threw upon us the imputation of ingratitude for a beautiful world by saying that so far as she was concerned she didn't want to upset everything. She was contented with things as they were, thank you.

The discussion led in some way that I don't in the least recall now, and possibly by abrupt transitions, to a croquet foursome in which Margaret involved the curate without involving herself, and then stood beside me on the edge of the lawn while the others played. We watched silently for a moment.

“I HATE that sort of view,” she said suddenly in a confidential undertone, with her delicate pink flush returning.

“It's want of imagination,” I said.

“To think we are just to enjoy ourselves,” she went on; “just to go on dressing and playing and having meals and spending money!” She seemed to be referring not simply to my cousins, but to the whole world of industry and property about us. “But what is one to do?” she asked. “I do wish I had not had to come down. It's all so pointless here. There seems to be nothing going forward, no ideas, no dreams. No one here seems to feel quite what I feel, the sort of need there is for MEANING in things. I hate things without meaning.”

“Don't you do—local work?”

“I suppose I shall. I suppose I must find something. Do you think—if one were to attempt some sort of propaganda?”

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