"Of the people--their lives--their work--their misery!"
"I assure you many are very happy," I replied. "You take a morbid view. Misery is not the rule. I am sure the majority are happy."
"What difference does that make?" the girl said with a sigh. "What is the end of it all--the meaning of it all? Their happiness! Cui Bono?"
We walked on in silence, while I turned over in my mind what she had said. I could come to no conclusion upon it save that my dislike for her enigmatic aberrations was becoming more intense as my liking for the girl herself increased. To change the current of her thoughts and my own, I asked her abruptly: "Are you a member of the Cui Bono Society?"
"I! Oh, no. Women are not allowed to join--for the present."
"I am delighted to hear it," I said heartily, "and I hope the rule will continue in force."
She looked at me in surprise. "Why should you mind? You are joining yourself."
"That is different. I don't approve of ladies mixing themselves up in these curious and perhaps questionable societies."
My remark amused her. Her eyes sparkled with simple fun. The change in her manner was very agreeable to me.
"I might have expected that." To my extreme satisfaction she now looked almost mischievous. "Herbert told me you were a little--"
"A little what?"
"Well, a little--you won't be vexed? That is right. He said a little--mediaeval."
This abated my appreciation of her sense of humour, and I maintained a dignified reticence, which unhappily she regarded as mere sullenness, until we reached the Society's room.
The place was well filled, and the company, in spite of the extravagantly modern costumes of the younger women, which I cannot describe better than by saying that there was little difference in it from that of ordinary male attire, was quite conventional in so far as the interchange of ordinary courtesies went. When, however, any member of the Society mingled with a group of visitors, the conversation was soon turned into a new channel. Secrets of science, which I had been accustomed to look upon as undiscoverable, were bandied about like the merest commonplaces of education. The absurdity of individuality and the subjectivity of the emotions were alike insisted on without notice of the paradox, which to me appeared extreme. The Associates were altruistic for the sake of altruism, not for the sake of its beneficiaries. They were not pantheists, for they saw neither universal good nor God, but rather evil in all things--themselves included. Their talk, however, was brilliant, and, with allowance for its jarring sentiments, it possessed something of the indefinable charm which followed Brande. My reflections on this identity of interest were interrupted by the man himself. After a word of welcome he said: "Let me show you our great experiment; that which touches the high-water mark of scientific achievement in the history of humanity. It is not much in itself, but it is the pioneer of many marvels."
He brought me to a metal stand, on which a small instrument constructed of some white metal was placed. A large number of wires were connected with various portions of it, and these wires passed into the side-wall of the building.
In appearance, this marvel of micrology, so far as the eye-piece and upper portions went, was like an ordinary microscope, but its magnifying power was to me unbelievable. It magnified the object under examination many thousand times more than the most powerful microscope in the world.
I looked through the upper lens, and saw a small globe suspended in the middle of a tiny chamber filled with soft blue light, or transparent material. Circling round this globe four other spheres revolved in orbits, some almost circular, some elliptical, some parabolic. As I looked, Brande touched a key, and the little globules began to fly more rapidly round their primary, and make wider sweeps in their revolutions. Another key was pressed, and the revolving spheres slowed down and drew closer until I could scarcely distinguish any movement. The globules seemed to form a solid ball.
"Attend now!" Brande exclaimed.
He tapped the first key sharply. A little grey cloud obscured the blue light. When it cleared away, the revolving globes had disappeared.
"What do you think of it?" he asked carelessly.
"What is it? What does it mean? Is it the solar system or some other system illustrated in miniature? I am sorry for the misadventure."
"You are partly correct," Brande replied. "It is an illustration of a planetary system, though a small one. But there was no misadventure. I caused the somewhat dangerous result you witnessed, the wreckage not merely of the molecule of marsh gas you were examining--which any educated chemist might do as easily as I--but the wreckage of its constituent atoms. This is a scientific victory which dwarfs the work of Helmholtz, Avogadro, or Mendelejeff. The immortal Dalton himself" (the word "immortal" was spoken with a sneer) "might rise from his grave to witness it."
"Atoms--molecules! What are you talking about?" I asked, bewildered.
"You were looking on at the death of a molecule--a molecule of marsh gas, as I have already said. It was caused by a process which I would describe to you if I could reduce my own life work--and that of every scientific amateur who has preceded me since the world began--into half a dozen sentences. As that would be difficult, I must ask you to accept my personal assurance that you witnessed a fact, not a fiction of my imagination."
"And your instrument is so perfect that it not only renders molecules and atoms but their diffusion visible? It is a microscopic impossibility. At least it is amazing."
"Pshaw!" Brande exclaimed impatiently. "My instrument does certainly magnify to a marvellous extent, but not by the old device of the simple microscope, which merely focussed a large area of light rays into a small one. So crude a process could never show an atom to the human eye. I add much to that. I restore to the rays themselves the luminosity which they lost in their passage through our atmosphere. I give them back all their visual properties, and turn them with their full etheric blaze on the object under examination. Great as that achievement is, I deny that it is amazing. It may amaze a Papuan to see his eyelash magnified to the size of a wire, or an uneducated Englishman to see a cheese-mite magnified to the size of a midge. It should not amaze you to see a simple process a little further developed."
"Where does the danger you spoke of come in?" I asked with a pretence of interest. Candidly, I did not believe a single word that Brande had said.
"If you will consult a common text-book on the physics of the ether," he replied, "you will find that one grain of matter contains sufficient energy, if etherised, to raise a hundred thousand tons nearly two miles. In face of such potentiality it is not wise to wreck incautiously even the atoms of a molecule."
"And the limits to this description of scientific experiment? Where are they?"
"There are no limits," Brande said decisively. "No man can say to science 'thus far and no farther.' No man ever has been able to do so. No man ever shall!"
"IT IS GOOD TO BE ALIVE.".
Amongst the letters lying on my breakfast-table a few days after the meeting was one addressed in an unfamiliar hand. The writing was bold, and formed like a man's. There was a faint trace of a perfume about the envelope which I remembered. I opened it first.
It was, as I expected, from Miss Brande. Her brother had gone to their country place on the southern coast. She and her friend, Edith Metford, were going that day. Their luggage was already at the station. Would I send on what I required for a short visit, and meet them at eleven o'clock on the bridge over the Serpentine? It was enough for me. I packed a large portmanteau hastily, sent it to Charing Cross, and spent the time at my disposal in the park, which was close to my hotel.
Although the invitation I had received gave me pleasure, I could not altogether remove from my mind a vague sense of disquietude concerning Herbert Brande and his Society. The advanced opinions I had heard, if extreme, were not altogether alarming. But the mysterious way in which Brande himself had spoken about the Society, and the still more mysterious air which some of the members assumed when directly questioned as to its object, suggested much. Might it not be a revolutionary party engaged in a grave intrigue--a branch of some foreign body whose purpose was so dangerous that ordinary disguises were not considered sufficiently secure? Might they not have adopted the jargon and pretended to the opinions of scientific faddists as a cloak for designs more sinister and sincere? The experiment I witnessed might be almost a miracle or merely a trick. Thinking it over thus, I could come to no final opinion, and when I asked myself aloud, "What are you afraid of?" I could not answer my own question. But I thought I would defer joining the Society pending further information.
A few minutes before eleven, I walked towards the bridge over the Serpentine. No ladies appeared to be on it. There were only a couple of smartly dressed youths there, one smoking a cigarette. I sauntered about until one of the lads, the one who was not smoking, looked up and beckoned to me. I approached leisurely, for it struck me that the boy would have shown better breeding if he had come toward me, considering my seniority.
"I am sorry I did not notice you sooner. Why did you not come on when you saw us?" the smallest and slimmest youth called to me.
"In the name of--Miss--Miss--" I stammered.
"Brande; you haven't forgotten my name, I hope," Natalie Brande said coolly. "This is my friend, Edith Metford. Metford, this is Arthur Marcel."
"How do you do, Marcel? I am glad to meet you; I have heard 'favourable mention' of you from the Brandes," the second figure in knickerbockers said pleasantly.
"How do you do, sir--madam--I mean--Miss--" I blundered, and then in despair I asked Miss Brande, "Is this a tableau vivant? What is the meaning of these disguises?" My embarrassment was so great that my discourteous question may be pardoned.
"Our dress! Surely you have seen women rationally dressed before!" Miss Brande answered complacently, while the other girl watched my astonishment with evident amusement.
This second girl, Edith Metford, was a frank, handsome young woman, but unlike the spirituelle beauty of Natalie Brande. She was perceptibly taller than her friend, and of fuller figure. In consequence, she looked, in my opinion, to even less advantage in her eccentric costume, or rational dress, than did Miss Brande.
"Rationally dressed! Oh, yes. I know the divided skirt, but--"
Miss Metford interrupted me. "Do you call the divided skirt atrocity rational dress?" she asked pointedly.
"Upon my honour I do not," I answered.
These girls were too advanced in their ideas of dress for me. Nor did I feel at all at my ease during this conversation, which did not, however, appear to embarrass them. I proposed hastily to get a cab, but they demurred. It was such a lovely day, they preferred to walk, part of the way at least. I pointed out that there might be drawbacks to this amendment of my proposal.
"What drawbacks?" Miss Metford asked.
"For instance, isn't it probable we shall all be arrested by the police?" I replied.
"Rubbish! We are not in Russia," both exclaimed.
"Which is lucky for you," I reflected, as we commenced what was to me a most disagreeable walk. I got them into a cab sooner than they wished. At the railway station I did not offer to procure their tickets. To do so, I felt, would only give offence. Critical glances followed us as we went to our carriage. Londoners are becoming accustomed to varieties, if not vagaries, in ladies' costumes, but the dress of my friends was evidently a little out of the common even for them. Miss Metford was just turning the handle of a carriage door, when I interposed, saying, "This is a smoking compartment."
"So I see. I am going to smoke--if you don't object?"
"I don't suppose it would make any difference if I did," I said, with unconscious asperity, for indeed this excess of free manners was jarring upon me. The line dividing it from vulgarity was becoming so thin I was losing sight of the divisor. Yet no one, even the most fastidious, could associate vulgarity with Natalie Brande. There remained an air of unassumed sincerity about herself and all her actions, including even her dress, which absolutely excluded her from hostile criticism. I could not, however, extend that lenient judgment to Miss Metford. The girls spoke and acted--as they had dressed themselves--very much alike. Only, what seemed to me in the one a natural eccentricity, seemed in the other an unnatural affectation.
I saw the guard passing, and, calling him over, gave him half-a-crown to have the compartment labelled, "Engaged."
Miss Brande, who had been looking out of the window, absently asked my reason for this precaution. I replied that I wanted the compartment reserved for ourselves. I certainly did not want any staring and otherwise offensive fellow-passengers.
"We don't want all the seats," she persisted.
"No," I admitted. "We don't want the extra seats. But I thought you might like the privacy."
"The desire for privacy is an archaic emotion," Miss Metford remarked sententiously, as she struck a match.
"Besides, it is so selfish. We may be crowding others," Miss Brande said quietly.
I was glad she did not smoke.
"I don't want that now," I said to a porter who was hurrying up with a label. To the girls I remarked a little snappishly, "Of course you are quite right. You must excuse my ignorance."
"No, it is not ignorance," Miss Brande demurred. "You have been away so much. You have hardly been in England, you told me, for years, and--"
"And progress has been marching in my absence," I interrupted.
"So it seems," Miss Metford remarked so significantly that I really could not help retorting with as much emphasis, compatible with politeness, as I could command: "You see I am therefore unable to appreciate the New Woman, of whom I have heard so much since I came home."
"The conventional New Woman is a grandmotherly old fossil," Miss Metford said quietly.
This disposed of me. I leant back in my seat, and was rigidly silent.
Miles of green fields stippled with daisies and bordered with long lines of white and red hawthorn hedges flew past. The smell of new-mown hay filled the carriage with its sweet perfume, redolent of old associations. My long absence dwindled to a short holiday. The world's wide highways were far off. I was back in the English fields. My slight annoyance passed away. I fell into a pleasant day-dream, which was broken by a soft voice, every undulation of which I already knew by heart.
"I am afraid you think us very advanced," it murmured.
"Very," I agreed, "but I look to you to bring even me up to date."
"Oh, yes, we mean to do that, but we must proceed very gradually."
"You have made an excellent start," I put in.
"Otherwise you would only be shocked."
"It is quite possible." I said this with so much conviction that the two burst out laughing at me. I could not think of anything more to add, and I felt relieved when, with a warning shriek, the train dashed into a tunnel. By the time we had emerged again into the sunlight and the solitude of the open landscape I had ready an impromptu which I had been working at in the darkness. I looked straight at Miss Metford and said: "After all, it is very pleasant to travel with girls like you."
"You did not show any hysterical fear of my kissing you in the tunnel."
"Why the deuce would you do that?" Miss Metford replied with great composure, as she blew a smoke ring.
When we reached our destination I braced myself for another disagreeable minute or two. For if the great Londoners thought us quaint, surely the little country station idlers would swear we were demented. We crossed the platform so quickly that the wonderment we created soon passed. Our luggage was looked after by a servant, to whose care I confided it with a very brief description. The loss of an item of it did not seem to me of as much importance as our own immediate departure.
Brande met us at his hall door. His house was a pleasant one, covered with flowering creeping plants, and surrounded by miniature forests. In front there was a lake four hundred yards in width. Close-shaven lawns bordered it. They were artificial products, no doubt, but they were artificial successes--undulating, earth-scented, fresh rolled every morning. Here there was an isolated shrub, there a thick bank of rhododendrons. And the buds, bursting into floral carnival, promised fine contrasts when their full splendour was come. The lake wavelets tinkled musically on a pebbly beach.
Our host could not entertain us in person. He was busy. The plea was evidently sincere, notwithstanding that the business of a country gentleman--which he now seemed to be--is something less exacting than busy people's leisure. After a short rest, and an admirably-served lunch, we were dismissed to the woods for our better amusement.
Thereafter followed for me a strangely peaceful, idyllic day--all save its ending. Looking back on it, I know that the sun which set that evening went down on the last of my happiness. But it all seems trivial now.
My companions were accomplished botanists, and here, for the first time, I found myself on common ground with both. We discussed every familiar wild flower as eagerly as if we had been professed field naturalists. In walking or climbing my assistance was neither requisitioned nor required. I did not offer, therefore, what must have been unwelcome when it was superfluous.
We rested at last under the shade of a big beech, for the afternoon sun was rather oppressive. It was a pleasant spot to while away an hour. A purling brook went babbling by, singing to itself as it journeyed to the sea. Insects droned about in busy flight. There was a perfume of honeysuckle wafted to us on the summer wind, which stirred the beech-tree and rustled its young leaves lazily, so that the sunlight peeped through the green lattice-work and shone on the faces of these two handsome girls, stretched in graceful postures on the cool sward below--their white teeth sparkling in its brilliance, while their soft laughter made music for me. In the fulness of my heart, I said aloud: "It is a good thing to be alive."
"It is a good thing to be alive," Natalie Brande repeated slowly, gazing, as it were, far off through her half-closed eyelids. Then turning to me and looking at me full, wide-eyed, she asked: "A good thing for how many?"
"For all; for everything that is alive."
"Faugh! For few things that are alive. For hardly anything. You say it is a good thing to be alive. How often have you said that in your life?"
"All my life through," I answered stoutly. My constitution was a good one, and I had lived healthily, if hardily. I voiced the superfluous vitality of a well nourished body.
"Then you do not know what it is to feel for others."
There was a scream in the underwood near us. It ended in a short, choking squeak. The girl paled, but she went on with outward calm.
"That hawk or cat feels as you do. I wonder what that young rabbit thinks of life's problem?"
"But we are neither hawks nor cats, nor even young rabbits," I answered warmly. "We can not bear the burthens of the whole animal world. Our own are sufficient for us."
"You are right. They are more than sufficient."
I had made a false move, and so tried to recover my lost ground. She would not permit me. The conversation which had run in pleasant channels for two happy hours was ended. Thenceforth, in spite of my obstructive efforts, subjects were introduced which could not be conversed on but must be discussed. On every one Miss Brande took the part of the weak against the strong, oblivious of every consideration of policy and even ethics, careful only that she championed the weak because of their weakness. Miss Metford abetted her in this, and went further in their joint revolt against common sense. Miss Brande was argumentative, pleading. Miss Metford was defiant. Between the two I fared ill.