E. F. Benson
The Angel of Pain
THE garden lay dozing in the summer sun, a sun, too, that was really hot and luminous, worthy of mid-June, and Philip Home had paid his acknowledgments to its power by twice moving his chair into the shifting shade of the house, which stood with blinds drawn down, as if blinking in the brightness. Somewhere on the lawn below him, but hidden by the flower-beds of the terraced walk, a mowing-machine was making its clicking journeys to and fro, and the sound of it seemed to him to be extraordinarily consonant to the still heat of the afternoon. Entirely in character also with the day was the light hot wind that stirred fitfully among the garden beds as if it had gone to sleep there, and now and then turned over and made the flowers rustle and sigh. Huge Oriental poppies drooped their scarlet heads, late wall-flowers still sent forth their hot, homely odour, peonies blazed and flaunted, purple irises rivalled in their fading glories the budding stars of clematis that swarmed up the stone vases on the terrace, golden rain showered from the laburnums, lilacs stood thick in fragrant clumps and clusters. Canterbury bells raised spires of dry, crinkly blue, and forget-me-nots – nearly over – made a dim blue border to the glorious carpet of the beds. For the warm weather this year had come late but determinedly, spring flowers still lingered, and the later blossoms of early summer had been forced into premature appearance. This fact occupied Philip at this moment quite enormously. What would the garden be like in July? There must come a break somewhere, when the precious summer flowers were over, and before the autumn ones began.
It was not unreasonable of him to be proud of his garden, for any garden-lover would here have recognised a master-hand. Below, in the thick clay that bordered the Thames, were the roses kept apart, with no weed, no other flower to pilfer their rightful monopoly of “richness.” A flight of twelve stone steps led up from this garden to the tennis lawn, a sheet of velvet turf, unbordered by any flowers to be trampled by ball-seekers, or to be respected by ball-losers. Above again where he sat now a deep herbaceous border ran round three sides of the gravelled space, in the middle of which a bronze fountain cast water over Nereids and aquatic plants, and behind him rose the dozing house, sun-blinds and rambler rose, jasmine and red bricks.
Certainly at this moment Philip was more than content with life, a very rare but a very enviable condition of affairs. The lines seemed to him to be laid not in pleasant but in ecstatic places, and youth, hard work, a well-earned holiday, keen sensibilities, and being in love combined to form a state of mind which might be envied by the happiest man God ever made. An hour’s meditation with a shut book which he had selected at random from the volumes on the drawing-room table had convinced him of this, and the interruption that now came to his solitary thoughts was as delightful in its own way as the thoughts themselves.
Mrs. Home did everything in the way most characteristic of her, and if a Dresden shepherdess could be conceived as sixty years old she might possibly rival the clean, precise delicacy of Philip’s mother. She dressed in grey and Quakerish colours, but of an exquisite neatness, and her clothes smelled faintly but fragrantly of lavender and old-fashioned herbs. Even at sixty the china-prettiness of her face gave her pre-eminent charm; and her cheeks, wrinkled with no sharp lines of sudden shock, but with the long pleasant passage of time, were as pink and soft as a girl’s. Her hair was perfectly white, but still abundant, and, taken up in rather old-fashioned lines above her temples gave a roundness and youth to her face which was entirely in keeping with her. As she stepped out of the drawing-room window she put up her parasol, and walked quietly over the gravel to where her dark, long-limbed son was sitting.
“Darling, would it not be wise of you to go for a row on the river?” she said. “Your holiday is so short. I want you to make the best of it.”
Philip turned in his chair.
“Darling, it would be most unwise,” he said. “The best holiday is to do nothing at all. People are so stupid! They think that if your brain, or what does duty for it, is tired, the remedy is to tire your body also.”
“But a little walk, perhaps, Philip,” said she. “I can explain to your guests when they come. Do you know, I am rather frightened of them. That extraordinary Mr. Merivale, for instance. Will he want to take off all his clothes, and eat cabbages?”
Philip’s grave face slowly relaxed into a smile. He hardly ever laughed, but his smile was very complete.
“I shall tell him you said that,” he remarked.
Mrs. Home sat down with quite a thump at the horror of the thought.
“Dear Philip,” she said, “you mustn’t – you really mustn’t.”
He stretched out his hand to her.
“Oh, mother,” he said, “what will cure you of being so indiscreet except threats, and putting those threats into execution if necessary? He will want to take off all his clothes, as we all shall, if it goes on being so hot. Only he won’t any more than we shall. He will probably be extremely well-dressed. No, the Hermit is only the Hermit at the Hermitage. Even there he doesn’t take off all his clothes, though he lives an outdoor life. You never quite have recognised what a remarkable person he is.”
“I should remark him anywhere,” said Mrs. Home in self-defence. “And what age is he, Philip? Is he twenty, or thirty, or what?”
“He must be a year or two older than me,” he said. “Yes, I should say he was thirty-one. But it’s quite true – he doesn’t look any age; he looks ageless. Entirely the result of no clothes and cabbages.”
“They always seem to me so tasteless,” remarked Mrs. Home. “But they seem to suit him.”
“Dear old Hermit!” said Philip. “I haven’t seen him for a whole year. It becomes harder and harder to get him away from his beloved forest.”
“I can never understand what he does with himself, year in, year out, down there,” said Mrs. Home.
“He thinks,” said Philip.
“I should call that doing nothing,” remarked his mother.
“I know; there is that view of it. At the same time, it must be extremely difficult to think all day. I have been thinking for an hour, and I have quite finished. I should have had to begin to read if you hadn’t come out. And whom else are you frightened of out of all these terrible people?”
Mrs. Home smoothed her grey gown a little nervously.
“I am frightened of Lady Ellington,” she said. “She has so very much – so very much self-possession. She is so practical, too: she always tells me all sorts of ways of managing the house, and suggests all kinds of improvements. It is very kind of her, and she is always quite right. And I think I am a little afraid of Madge.”
“Ah, I can’t permit that,” said Philip, smiling again.
This brought their talk at once into more intimate lands.
“Ah, dear Philip,” she said. “I pray God that it may go well with you!”
Philip sat upright in his chair, and the book fell unheeded to the ground.
“How did you guess?” he said. “I suspect you of being a witch, mother; and if we had lived a few hundred years ago, instead of now, it would have been my painful duty to have had you burned. It would have hurt you far more than me, because the sense of duty would have sustained me. I never said a word to you about Madge, yet you knew I was in love with her, I think, almost before I knew it myself.”
“Yes, dear. I am sure I did,” said Mrs. Home with gentle complacence.
“Well, you dear witch, tell me how you knew.”
“Oh, Philip, it was easy to see. You never looked at any girl before like that. I used to be afraid you would never marry. You used to say dreadful things, you know, that really frightened me. Even since you were quite a little boy, you thought women were a bother. You used to say they couldn’t play games, and were always in the way, and had headaches, and were without any sense of honour.”
“All quite true in the main,” said the misogynous Philip.
Mrs. Home held up her hands in protest.
“Dear, when have you known me have a headache, or do anything dishonourable?” she asked pertinently.
“I always excepted you. And I except Madge. She beat me at croquet the other day, and in the middle of the game volunteered the information that she had not moved the ball she croquetted.”
“She always would,” said his mother gently. “Oh, Philip, good luck to your wooing, my dear!”
There was a long pause; a sparrow in a prodigious bustle alighted on the edge of the fountain, and drank as if it had been a traveller straight from Sahara; the wind woke again in the flower-beds and gave a long, fragrant sigh; the sun-blinds of the drawing-room stirred as it wandered by them, and the pale purple petals of a grape-bunch cluster of wisteria fell on the crimson-striped canvas. The exquisiteness of this midsummer moment struck Philip with a sudden pang of delight, none the less keen because the love with which his soul was full was not yet certain or complete: the pause before completion was his.
“Thank you, mother,” he said at last. “I shall know very soon, I shall ask her while she is here.”
He got up as he spoke.
“I can’t sit still any more,” he said. “Speaking of it has made me restless. I must go and do something violent. Perhaps I will take your advice and go for a row. They will not be here till nearly seven. Oh, by-the-way, Evelyn Dundas is coming, too. You will have someone to flirt with, mother.”
“Dear, you say such dreadful things!” said Mrs. Home. “And if you say them while Lady Ellington is here, I shall feel so awkward.”
“Well, Evelyn proposed to elope with you last time he was here,” said Philip. “I think I shall commission him to paint your portrait.”
“Who wants the picture of an old woman like me?” said Mrs. Home. “But get him to do Madge’s.”
Philip considered this.
“That’s an idea,” he said. “He could paint her divinely. Really, mother – if ah! a big ‘if.’ Do you know, I’m rather uneasy about Evelyn.”
“Why? I thought he was getting on so well.”
“He is as far as painting goes. They think very highly of him. But the moment he gets a couple of hundred pounds he buys a motor-car or something, and next week his watch is in pawn. Now, when you are twenty-five, it is time to stop doing that.”
“I know,” said Mrs. Home. “He is dreadful! Last time he was here he gave me a pearl-brooch that must have cost him fifty pounds.”
“That was to induce you to run away with him,” remarked Philip. “That was quite understood, and I think you behaved rather badly in not doing so.”
“Philip, you mustn’t!”
“No, nor must you! And now I’m going on the river. If I get drowned it will be your fault for having suggested it.”
“Ah, do be careful in those locks,” said Mrs. Home. “I get so nervous always when the water goes down and down.”
“There’s more chance of getting drowned when it goes up and up,” said her son, kissing her on the forehead as he passed her chair.
Philip Home at the age of thirty-one was, perhaps, as successful a man of his age as any in the financial world. His father, the head of one of the big South African houses, had died some five years before, and since then the burden of a very large and prosperous house had rested almost entirely on his shoulders, which physically as well as morally were broad. But he combined in an extraordinary degree the dash and initiative of youth with a cool-headedness and sobriety of judgment which, in general is not achieved until something of the fire of the other is lost, and his management was both brilliant and safe. Yet, as must always happen, the habit of mind necessary to the successful conduct of large financial interests, which among other ingredients is made up of incessant watchfulness and a certain hardness in judging and acting, had, it must be confessed, somewhat tinged his whole character, and the world in general was right in its estimate of him as a man who was rather brusque and unsympathetic, a man with an iron hand who did not always even remember to put on the velvet glove. This was a perfectly just conclusion as far as the world in general, that is to say, the world of mere acquaintances, was concerned, and Philip’s fine collection of prints was considered to be regarded by him as an investment rather than a joy. They made the same judgment about his garden, thinking that the rarity of plants was a quality more highly-prized by him than their beauty. But where the world in general did him an injustice was that they did not allow for a circle which, though small, was far more intimate and vastly more competent to form the true estimate of the man than they, the circle of friends. These were four in number – his mother, Madge Ellington, namely – and the two men to whom allusion has already been made, namely – the Hermit and Evelyn Dundas. They saw, all four of them, a perfectly different Philip to him who somewhat elbowed his way through the uninteresting ranks of acquaintances, or sat, detached from the real essential man, in his orderly office, harsh-faced, unsmiling and absorbed. And this essential Philip in his own sanctum, where only these four ever came, was, indeed, a very lovable and eager personage; and though the world did not know it, his prints really hung there, and in the windows his flowers blossomed. But few were admitted there, and those only not on business.
So this very efficient person, if we rate efficiency, as seems to be the fashion, by the amount of income-tax annually harvested by the State, left the shade of the house and his mother sitting there, whistled for the two fox-terriers that lay dozing in the shade and went off towards the river. The smile which he wore when in his sanctum of intimates still lingered on his face as he passed down the stone steps to the croquet lawn below, but then it faded. Nor did the gardener who was mowing the lawn smile.
“I gave orders it was to be mown yesterday morning,” said Philip; “and it is only half done yet. Did you receive those orders or not?”
The man, a huge young Hercules, touched his cap.
“Yes, sir; at least – ”
“There is no ‘at least,’” said Philip. “If you can’t do as you are told you will have to go.”
And he whistled – that Philip who was a parody of himself – to the dogs, and went on.