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Chapter 17

Chapter 17


It was nearly three o'clock, and in the Biological Laboratory the
lamps were all alight. The class was busy with razors cutting sections
of the root of a fern to examine it microscopically. A certain silent
frog-like boy, a private student who plays no further part in this
story, was working intently, looking more like a frog than usual--his
expression modest with a touch of effort. Behind Miss Heydinger, jaded
and untidy in her early manner again, was a vacant seat, an abandoned
microscope and scattered pencils and note-books.

On the door of the class-room was a list of those who had passed the
Christmas examination. At the head of it was the name of the aforesaid
frog-like boy; next to him came Smithers and one of the girls
bracketed together. Lewisham ingloriously headed the second class, and
Miss Heydinger's name did not appear--there was, the list asserted,
"one failure." So the student pays for the finer emotions.

And in the spacious solitude of the museum gallery devoted to the
Raphael cartoons sat Lewisham, plunged in gloomy meditation. A
negligent hand pulled thoughtfully at the indisputable moustache, with
particular attention to such portions as were long enough to gnaw.

He was trying to see the situation clearly. As he was just smarting
acutely under his defeat, this speaks little for the clearness of his
mind. The shadow of that defeat lay across everything, blotted out the
light of his pride, shaded his honour, threw everything into a new
perspective. The rich prettiness of his love-making had fled to some
remote quarter of his being. Against the frog-like youngster he felt a
savage animosity. And Smithers had betrayed him. He was angry,
bitterly angry, with "swats" and "muggers" who spent their whole time
grinding for these foolish chancy examinations. Nor had the practical
examination been altogether fair, and one of the questions in the
written portion was quite outside the lectures. Biver, Professor
Biver, was an indiscriminating ass, he felt assured, and so too was
Weeks, the demonstrator. But these obstacles could not blind his
intelligence to the manifest cause of his overthrow, the waste of more
than half his available evening, the best time for study in the
twenty-four hours, day after day. And that was going on steadily, a
perpetual leakage of time. To-night he would go to meet her again, and
begin to accumulate to himself ignominy in the second part of the
course, the botanical section, also. And so, reluctantly rejecting one
cloudy excuse after another, he clearly focussed the antagonism
between his relations to Ethel and his immediate ambitions.

Things had come so easily to him for the last two years that he had
taken his steady upward progress in life as assured. It had never
occurred to him, when he went to intercept Ethel after that _s�ance_,
that he went into any peril of that sort. Now he had had a sharp
reminder. He began to shape a picture of the frog-like boy at home--he
was a private student of the upper middle class--sitting in a
convenient study with a writing-table, book-shelves, and a shaded
lamp--Lewisham worked at his chest of drawers, with his greatcoat on,
and his feet in the lowest drawer wrapped in all his available
linen--and in the midst of incredible conveniences the frog-like boy
was working, working, working. Meanwhile Lewisham toiled through the
foggy streets, Chelsea-ward, or, after he had left her, tramped
homeward--full of foolish imaginings.

He began to think with bloodless lucidity of his entire relationship
to Ethel. His softer emotions were in abeyance, but he told himself no
lies. He cared for her, he loved to be with her and to talk to her and
please her, but that was not all his desire. He thought of the bitter
words of an orator at Hammersmith, who had complained that in our
present civilisation even the elemental need of marriage was
denied. Virtue had become a vice. "We marry in fear and trembling, sex
for a home is the woman's traffic, and the man comes to his heart's
desire when his heart's desire is dead." The thing which had seemed a
mere flourish, came back now with a terrible air of truth. Lewisham
saw that it was a case of divergent ways. On the one hand that shining
staircase to fame and power, that had been his dream from the very
dawn of his adolescence, and on the other hand--Ethel.

And if he chose Ethel, even then, would he have his choice? What would
come of it? A few walks more or less! She was hopelessly poor, he was
hopelessly poor, and this cheat of a Medium was her stepfather! After
all she was not well-educated, she did not understand his work and his

He suddenly perceived with absolute conviction that after the _s�ance_
he should have gone home and forgotten her. Why had he felt that
irresistible impulse to seek her out? Why had his imagination spun
such a strange web of possibilities about her? He was involved now,
foolishly involved.... All his future was a sacrifice to this
transitory ghost of love-making in the streets. He pulled spitefully
at his moustache.

His picture began to shape itself into Ethel, and her mysterious
mother, and the vague dexterous Chaffery holding him back, entangled
in an impalpable net from that bright and glorious ascent to
performance and distinction. Leaky boots and the splash of cabs for
all his life as his portion! Already the Forbes Medal, the immediate
step, was as good as lost....

What on earth had he been thinking about? He fell foul of his
upbringing. Men of the upper or middle classes were put up to these
things by their parents; they were properly warned against involving
themselves in this love nonsense before they were independent. It was
much better....

Everything was going. Not only his work--his scientific career, but
the Debating Society, the political movement, all his work for
Humanity.... Why not be resolute--even now?... Why not put the thing
clearly and plainly to her? Or write? If he wrote now he could get the
advantage of the evening at the Library. He must ask her to forgo
these walks home--at least until the next examination. _She_ would
understand. He had a qualm of doubt whether she would understand....
He grew angry at this possibility. But it was no good mincing
matters. If once he began to consider her--Why should he consider her
in that way? Simply because she was unreasonable!

Lewisham had a transitory gust of anger.

Yet that abandonment of the walks insisted on looking mean to him. And
she would think it mean. Which was very much worse, somehow. _Why_
mean? Why should she think it mean? He grew angry again.

The portly museum policeman who had been watching him furtively,
wondering why a student should sit in front of the "Sacrifice of
Lystra" and gnaw lips and nails and moustache, and scowl and glare at
that masterpiece, saw him rise suddenly to his feet with an air of
resolution, spin on his heel, and set off with a quick step out of the
gallery. He looked neither to the right nor the left. He passed out of
sight down the staircase.

"Gone to get some more moustache to eat, I suppose," said the
policeman reflectively....

"One 'ud think something had bit him."

After some pensive moments the policeman strolled along down the
gallery and came to a stop opposite the cartoon.

"Figgers is a bit big for the houses," said the policeman, anxious to
do impartial justice. "But that's Art. I lay '_e_ couldn't do
anything ... not arf so good."