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Authors: John Cowper Powys

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BOOK: After My Fashion
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Nelly made an unconscious little movement of her hand towards the young man as if to protect him from this frontal attack; but Roger Lamb seemed quite unruffled.

‘I apologize,' he said. ‘I ought not to have dragged Russia into it at all. It was a lapse. It was only that Mrs Storm seemed so awfully pessimistic. I just reminded her of the nicer side of things – of human nature, you know? I was trying to explain my own feeling
about it. Russia was a by-issue and a silly one. I apologize to Russia, Ivan.'

‘Oh Roger,' cried Catharine Gordon, ‘while I think of it Elise wants you to write her up in
The Manhattan
. She's getting sick of the rotten notices they give her.'

The colour rose in Nelly's cheeks at this name. Karmakoff deliberately pinched Catharine in the arm. Richard put an enormous piece of cake into his mouth. Canyot, kicking the wall with his heels, remarked surlily, ‘She gets better ones than she deserves as it is. I'd leave her alone, Roger.'

Nelly, who had bent her head over her lap, raised it at this. ‘
The
Manhattan
ought to have something about her,' she said calmly, looking straight at her husband.

Roger Lamb smiled. ‘I don't think any of you know much about the difficulties of journalism. I've been trying for three months to get her a satisfactory write-up. The old man won't have it. He says we're too modern as it is.'

Karmakoff, who had been regarding Roger Lamb with a fixed scrutiny for some minutes, moved a little away from his companion in the armchair and, leaning forward, startled them all by suddenly saying – ‘Something's wrong with you, Roger. You're not well. What is it?'

Richard rose from his seat at the table. ‘Shall I get you a glass of water or anything, Lamb? Ivan's right. You look pale and worried.'

Nelly turned towards the young man at her side with a look full of solicitude. Catharine Gordon leapt to her feet and rushing up to him took his head in both her hands and gazed into his face. ‘You're not ill are you? No you can't be ill. I won't have you getting ill!' She slipped down beside him at the very end of the sofa and hugged him with her strong young arms.

The general disturbance produced by all this concern on his behalf did not seem to ruffle Roger Lamb. He drew himself gently out of the young girl's embrace and rising from his place moved over to the chair vacated by Richard. With an amused and friendly smile he rejected the glass of water which this latter offered him. ‘You can give me a match if you like,' he said and proceeded to light a cigarette.

Catharine Gordon possessed herself of Nelly's hand. Canyot returned
to his place on the windowsill. Richard sat down by his wife's side.

‘You haven't answered my question yet,' resumed Karmakoff who had not ceased to regard the journalist with a searching scrutiny.

‘Don't tease him, Ivan!' cried Catharine. ‘You're looking at him as if you were a magician or one of these horrid psychoanalysts. Don't – don't look at him like that!' And she waved her arm backwards and forwards in the air as if to break the spell.

‘He doesn't tease me,' remarked Roger Lamb. ‘I love Karmakoff's way of looking at people. And he is quite right too. He's found me out. He's called my bluff, as they say. I hadn't meant to tell any of you anything about it. But it was silly of me to hide it up – a sort of pride I suppose. I don't know! One does these things sometimes. Perhaps it didn't seem so real to me as long as I kept it to myself. But Ivan has found me out with his confounded Slavic intuition; so I'll confess …'

There was a perceptible hush in the small apartment as he said these words; his youthful figure, in its trim dark-coloured suit, seemed to isolate itself from the rest. His queer-shaped skull under its closely cropped hair assumed the appearance of an archaic statue as it emerged from the clouds of his cigarette smoke. His grey unhappy eyes looked quizzically round him as he paused in his speech; and his sensuous mouth with its impassioned red lips seemed more than ever as if it had been carved out of his white face by the hands of some insane god, forgetful of all proportion.

‘Don't tell us! Don't tell us!' cried Catharine Gordon suddenly, putting her fingers in her ears. ‘I hate you for this, Ivan. It's a cruel thing. And you're a devil to do it.'

Karmakoff smiled at her with a smile of infinite indulgence. A strange contest of looks passed between them full of complicated vibrations;

‘If it's anything to do with your nerves, Roger,' said Canyot earnestly, ‘I'd much rather you didn't tell us—' and he looked anxiously at Nelly.

Roger Lamb interpreted his glance. ‘You needn't be afraid, Robert. It's nothing that could scare anyone. It's simple enough. It's only that I am—'

‘Don't tell him! Don't tell him!' cried Catharine again, pressing her fingers wildly into her ears.

But the young man proceeded without regarding her. ‘It's only that I learnt from the doctor this morning that if I don't have an operation at once I've no chance of living; and that the operation I've got to have is a ticklish matter, a matter of even chances.'

There was a moment of embarrassed silence in the room. Catharine, who seemed to have understood his words, took her hands from her ears and covered her face.

‘How long does he give you without the operation?' asked Karmakoff.

‘About a week,' replied the other smiling. ‘Just about a week.'

‘And you've arranged to have it?'

‘I go into the hospital tomorrow.'

‘Which one?'

‘The Postgraduate.'

‘I am very glad you told us this,' said Nelly quietly. ‘I should have hated not to know.'

‘How does this affect your old pessimistic apathy?' inquired Canyot from the windowsill, speaking roughly and almost harshly.

‘I shouldn't have thought that he was either pessimistic or apathetic,' protested Richard.

‘He isn't! How can you say such things, Robert?' reiterated Nelly.

‘Speak up, Roger, and tell them I'm right,' cried Canyot. ‘You know you've always said that down at the bottom, except for the theatre, you cared nothing for anything in life; that you'd just as soon be dead as be alive.'

The brusqueness of this question flung so crudely at the young man produced a curious jar and jolt among them all. Nelly looked reproachfully at the painter. Richard scowled and sank into gloomy silence. Karmakoff lay back in his chair and shrugged his shoulders, smiling a little.

‘I can't understand what you mean,' remarked Catharine. ‘Roger's always so amusing. He's naughty of course and funny; but I can't think how you can call him pessimistic. He always puts me into a lovely mood when I come across him.'

‘Thank you, Catharine,' said the journalist, looking affectionately at her.

‘You're wrong all the same,' persisted Canyot; ‘and Roger knows it, only he won't admit it. You haven't answered my question
yet,' he went on, almost brutally, his eyes flashing from beneath their heavy brows.

‘Robert dear!' protested Nelly softly.

But the atmosphere of tension in the room after the journalist's revelation seemed to have gone to the painter's head.

‘Why don't you answer?' he growled. ‘You know perfectly well I'm right.'

Roger Lamb buttoned his jacket with quiet fingers and crossed his legs.

‘Are you really going to the hospital tomorrow?' cried Catharine. ‘It's dreadful. It's like a dream.'

‘Yes, you're quite right, Robert,' replied the condemned young man, frowning a little and opening his eyes very wide with a sort of humorous grimace. ‘I
have
never cared very much what happened to me. A sort of inertness – a silly kind of disillusionment about everything – I don't know! but it's always been
here
, somewhere or another, like a marble slab.' He tapped his forehead with his long second finger.

‘But, Roger, you have helped me so much at different times,' protested Nelly softly.

‘And me too – you poor darling – you've been an angel to me always,' murmured Catharine Gordon.

‘But how has this operation news affected your indifference?' Canyot persisted.

‘How can you go on teasing him like that?' cried Catharine, stepping up to Canyot's side and seizing his arm with her hands. ‘Stop it, I say! Stop it!' And the young girl positively shook the painter in her indignation.

‘It has had absolutely no effect at all,' answered Roger Lamb. ‘It's all right, Catharine. Robert and I understand each other perfectly.'

‘He ought to be beaten!' cried the young girl retreating to Nelly's side and clutching her hand.

‘Absolutely no effect,' the journalist repeated, bending down to straighten out one of his purple-coloured socks. ‘But I confess I'm a bit scared of that hospital. I always have been terrified of institutions. The most agitating moment of my life was when I first went into camp.'

‘But Roger dear,' cried Catharine, ‘the army isn't an institution.'

‘Is marriage an institution, Catharine?' asked Karmakoff.

‘Not for you or me,' the girl replied, giving him a strange quick look.

At that point Roger Lamb arose to his feet. ‘Well! I think I'll be making my way home,' he said.

They all made an involuntary movement towards him; and while Richard was searching for his hat and stick they surrounded him awkwardly, in a silence full of unsaid things.

His slim figure and closely cropped skull seemed to grow almost terrifyingly alien from them; seemed to repel them, for all his gentleness, as if with a stern and menacing gesture.

He shook their hands quietly enough when that moment's embarrassed pause was over; the passionate sympathy of the embrace which Catharine Gordon gave him broke the spell of the general discomfort.

‘You'll take him home, Richard, won't you?' said Nelly, and added a hurried ‘of course he will! No, Roger, he
must
go with you. You
must
let him. He'll see you to bed and then come back to us.'

As Richard walked by the side of the doomed boy, up Varick Street and across Sheridan Square, in front of the Greenwich Village Theater, he became conscious of the extraordinary power of Lamb's self-possession.

This might well be the last time the youth was destined to walk through those well-known haunts, the last time through an inconceivable eternity; and yet he seemed to look round him with his usual whimsical gravity, noting the passers-by and the various familiar scenes without a sign of dramatic self-consciousness.

They went into one of the innumerable Village cafés for a cup of coffee, and Richard was amazed at the urbanity and aplomb with which his companion greeted some casual acquaintances of his, Dulcie Foster and her strange friend Siegfried Stein, the mad musician. When finally, an hour afterwards, he left the room in Waverley Place where he had seen the young man safely to bed, he felt himself impelled to walk round Washington Square in order to collect his thoughts before returning home.

The night was a little damp and chilly, although the day had been hot. The trees in the square had already changed their tints and many of their leaves had fallen. As he strode beside the familiar arch, whose classic facade is so curiously adorned with two statues of the same Father of the Country, and let his eyes wander up the
long perspective of Fifth Avenue, he realized how tremendous was the mere weight of sheer material substantiality in this astounding city. The death of a fragile man-of-letters, the death of many men-of-letters, what were they amid the palpable projections of this tremendous scene?

As he moved up close to the masonry of the arch, to shelter himself from the tornado of whirling automobiles that rolled past him, he visualized this harsh raw emphatic city as a sort of deliberately flung-out challenge to the march of the feet of the destinies. It was like a great flaring advertisement sign, this city, hung up here between the deep sky and the deep ocean, with a sort of defiance to all the old submissions and resignations. These immense marble-and-iron structures, blazing with a million lights, seemed to flaunt in the face of the gods a certain bravura of splendid levity.

The Old World with its time-bleached pieties had accepted those gods' austere decisions and had bowed low before them in patient fatalistic ritual. But this reckless New World seemed to claim, in daring impious flippancy, the right to deny the whole traditional order, its solemn sorrows as well as its solemn assuagements, and to fling forth a sort of profane adventurous challenge to the whole system of things.

The death of a man, contemplated in the light of the illuminated perspective of Fifth Avenue, dwindled into a kind of negligible accident. So many men must have died in order that this huge shout of defiance should reach the planetary spaces.

Love and friendship and religion and loyalty, these things were proper subjects for the old forms of art; but here in New York these things seemed to fall into the background and other manifestations of the life force seemed to assume prominence.

In a different mood Richard might have been tempted to condemn these other manifestations, as part of the primordial brutality in things, but in some queer way the influence of Roger Lamb had altered his feeling about them. The journalist had thrown out to him so many capricious fancies as he prepared for his last night in his own bed, that Richard began to wonder whether it was possible that this huge chaotic welter of a world might after all be destined to evoke some completely new attitude to life; some attitude in which camaraderie took the place of love, honesty to one's self the place of loyalty to others, cynical courage replaced
submissive piety, as a reckless indifference to death did the old sad resignation.

As he walked slowly back to Charlton Street through the familiar quarter with its voluble crowds and its lighted fruit shops great splashes of crude warm colour against the darkness, there came upon him a dim feeling that there was something here, some mood, some attitude of the spirit, some breaking up of ancient barriers that it would be perhaps unwise wholly to harden one's heart against.

BOOK: After My Fashion
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