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There came that kind of pause that happens when a subject is broached too big and difficult for the gathering. Margaret's blue eyes regarded the speaker with quiet disapproval for a moment, and then came to me in the not too confident hope that I would snub him out of existence with some prompt rhetorical stroke. A voice spoke out of the big armchair.
“We'll do things,” said Isabel.
The doctor's eye lit with the joy of the fisherman who strikes his fish at last. “What will you do?” he asked her.
“Every one knows we're a mixed lot,” said Isabel.
“Poor old chaps like me!” interjected the general.
“But that's not a programme,” said the doctor.
“But Mr. Remington has published a programme,” said Isabel.
The doctor cocked half an eye at me.
“In some review,” the girl went on. “After all, we're not going to elect the whole Liberal party in the Kinghamstead Division. I'm a Remington-ite!”
“But the programme,” said the doctor, “the programme—”
“In front of Mr. Remington!”
“Scandal always comes home at last,” said the doctor. “Let him hear the worst.”
“I'd like to hear,” I said. “Electioneering shatters convictions and enfeebles the mind.”
“Not mine,” said Isabel stoutly. “I mean—Well, anyhow I take it Mr. Remington stands for constructing a civilised state out of this muddle.”
“THIS muddle,” protested the doctor with an appeal of the eye to the beautiful long room and the ordered garden outside the bright clean windows.
“Well, THAT muddle, if you like! There's a slum within a mile of us already. The dust and blacks get worse and worse, Sissie?”
“They do,” agreed Miss Gamer.
“Mr. Remington stands for construction, order, education, discipline.”
“And you?” said the doctor.
“I'm a good Remington-ite.”
“Discipline!” said the doctor.
“Oh!” said Isabel. “At times one has to be—Napoleonic. They want to libel me, Mr. Remington. A political worker can't always be in time for meals, can she? At times one has to make—splendid cuts.”
Miss Gamer said something indistinctly.
“Order, education, discipline,” said Sir Graham. “Excellent things! But I've a sort of memory—in my young days—we talked about something called liberty.”
“Liberty under the law,” I said, with an unexpected approving murmur from Margaret, and took up the defence. “The old Liberal definition of liberty was a trifle uncritical. Privilege and legal restrictions are not the only enemies of liberty. An uneducated, underbred, and underfed propertyless man is a man who has lost the possibility of liberty. There's no liberty worth a rap for him. A man who is swimming hopelessly for life wants nothing but the liberty to get out of the water; he'll give every other liberty for it—until he gets out.”
Sir Graham took me up and we fell into a discussion of the changing qualities of Liberalism. It was a good give-and-take talk, extraordinarily refreshing after the nonsense and crowding secondary issues of the electioneering outside. We all contributed more or less except Miss Gamer; Margaret followed with knitted brows and occasional interjections. “People won't SEE that,” for example, and “It all seems so plain to me.” The doctor showed himself clever but unsubstantial and inconsistent. Isabel sat back with her black mop of hair buried deep in the chair looking quickly from face to face. Her colour came and went with her vivid intellectual excitement; occasionally she would dart a word, usually a very apt word, like a lizard's tongue into the discussion. I remember chiefly that a chance illustration betrayed that she had read Bishop Burnet....
After that it was not surprising that Isabel should ask for a lift in our car as far as the Lurky Committee Room, and that she should offer me quite sound advice EN ROUTE upon the intellectual temperament of the Lurky gasworkers.
On the third occasion that I saw Isabel she was, as I have said, climbing a tree—and a very creditable tree—for her own private satisfaction. It was a lapse from the high seriousness of politics, and I perceived she felt that I might regard it as such and attach too much importance to it. I had some difficulty in reassuring her. And it's odd to note now—it has never occurred to me before—that from that day to this I do not think I have ever reminded Isabel of that encounter.
And after that memory she seems to be flickering about always in the election, an inextinguishable flame; now she flew by on her bicycle, now she dashed into committee rooms, now she appeared on doorsteps in animated conversation with dubious voters; I took every chance I could to talk to her—I had never met anything like her before in the world, and she interested me immensely—and before the polling day she and I had become, in the frankest simplicity, fast friends....
That, I think, sets out very fairly the facts of our early relationship. But it is hard to get it true, either in form or texture, because of the bright, translucent, coloured, and refracting memories that come between. One forgets not only the tint and quality of thoughts and impressions through that intervening haze, one forgets them altogether. I don't remember now that I ever thought in those days of passionate love or the possibility of such love between us. I may have done so again and again. But I doubt it very strongly. I don't think I ever thought of such aspects. I had no more sense of any danger between us, seeing the years and things that separated us, than I could have had if she had been an intelligent bright-eyed bird. Isabel came into my life as a new sort of thing; she didn't join on at all to my previous experiences of womanhood. They were not, as I have laboured to explain, either very wide or very penetrating experiences, on the whole, “strangled dinginess” expresses them, but I do not believe they were narrower or shallower than those of many other men of my class. I thought of women as pretty things and beautiful things, pretty rather than beautiful, attractive and at times disconcertingly attractive, often bright and witty, but, because of the vast reservations that hid them from me, wanting, subtly and inevitably wanting, in understanding. My idealisation of Margaret had evaporated insensibly after our marriage. The shrine I had made for her in my private thoughts stood at last undisguisedly empty. But Isabel did not for a moment admit of either idealisation or interested contempt. She opened a new sphere of womanhood to me. With her steady amber-brown eyes, her unaffected interest in impersonal things, her upstanding waistless blue body, her energy, decision and courage, she seemed rather some new and infinitely finer form of boyhood than a feminine creature, as I had come to measure femininity. She was my perfect friend. Could I have foreseen, had my world been more wisely planned, to this day we might have been such friends.