Were this a story, I should tell at length how much we were helped by the good fortune of picking up a Utopian coin of gold, how at last we adventured into the Utopian inn and found it all marvellously easy. You see us the shyest and most watchful of guests; but of the food they put before us and the furnishings of the house, and all our entertainment, it will be better to speak later. We are in a migratory world, we know, one greatly accustomed to foreigners; our mountain clothes are not strange enough to attract acute attention, though ill-made and shabby, no doubt, by Utopian standards; we are dealt with as we might best wish to be dealt with, that is to say as rather untidy, inconspicuous men. We look about us and watch for hints and examples, and, indeed, get through with the thing. And after our queer, yet not unpleasant, dinner, in which we remark no meat figures, we go out of the house for a breath of air and for quiet counsel one with another, and there it is we discover those strange constellations overhead. It comes to us then, clear and full, that our imagination has realised itself; we dismiss quite finally a Rip-Van-Winkle fancy we have entertained, all the unfamiliarities of our descent from the mountain pass gather together into one fullness of conviction, and we know, we know, we are in Utopia.
We wander under the trees by the main road, watching the dim passers-by as though they were the phantoms of a dream. We say little to one another. We turn aside into a little pathway and come to a bridge over the turbulent Reuss, hurrying down towards the Devil's Bridge in the gorge below. Far away over the Furka ridge a pallid glow preludes the rising of the moon.
Two lovers pass us whispering, and we follow them with our eyes. This Utopia has certainly preserved the fundamental freedom, to love. And then a sweet-voiced bell from somewhere high up towards Oberalp chimes two-and-twenty times.
I break the silence. “That might mean ten o'clock,” I say.
My companion leans upon the bridge and looks down into the dim river below. I become aware of the keen edge of the moon like a needle of incandescent silver creeping over the crest, and suddenly the river is alive with flashes.
He speaks, and astonishes me with the hidden course his thoughts have taken.
“We two were boy and girl lovers like that,” he says, and jerks a head at the receding Utopians. “I loved her first, and I do not think I have ever thought of loving anyone but her.”
It is a curiously human thing, and, upon my honour, not one I had designed, that when at last I stand in the twilight in the midst of a Utopian township, when my whole being should be taken up with speculative wonder, this man should be standing by my side, and lugging my attention persistently towards himself, towards his limited futile self. This thing perpetually happens to me, this intrusion of something small and irrelevant and alive, upon my great impressions. The time I first saw the Matterhorn, that Queen among the Alpine summits, I was distracted beyond appreciation by the tale of a man who could not eat sardines—always sardines did this with him and that; and my first wanderings along the brown streets of Pompeii, an experience I had anticipated with a strange intensity, was shot with the most stupidly intelligent discourse on vehicular tariffs in the chief capitals of Europe that it is possible to imagine. And now this man, on my first night in Utopia, talks and talks and talks of his poor little love affair.
It shapes itself as the most trite and feeble of tragedies, one of those stories of effortless submission to chance and custom in which Mr. Hardy or George Gissing might have found a theme. I do but half listen at first—watching the black figures in the moonlit roadway pacing to and fro. Yet—I cannot trace how he conveys the subtle conviction to my mind—the woman he loves is beautiful.
They were boy and girl together, and afterwards they met again as fellow students in a world of comfortable discretions. He seems to have taken the decorums of life with a confiding good faith, to have been shy and innocent in a suppressed sort of way, and of a mental type not made for worldly successes; but he must have dreamt about her and loved her well enough. How she felt for him I could never gather; it seemed to be all of that fleshless friendliness into which we train our girls. Then abruptly happened stresses. The man who became her husband appeared, with a very evident passion. He was a year or so older than either of them, and he had the habit and quality of achieving his ends; he was already successful, and with the promise of wealth, and I, at least, perceived, from my botanist's phrasing, that his desire was for her beauty.
As my botanist talked I seemed to see the whole little drama, rather clearer than his words gave it me, the actors all absurdly in Hampstead middle-class raiment, meetings of a Sunday after church (the men in silk hats, frock coats, and tightly-rolled umbrellas), rare excursions into evening dress, the decorously vulgar fiction read in their homes, its ambling sentimentalities of thought, the amiably worldly mothers, the respectable fathers, the aunts, the “people”—his “people” and her “people”—the piano music and the song, and in this setting our friend, “quite clever” at botany and “going in” for it “as a profession,” and the girl, gratuitously beautiful; so I figured the arranged and orderly environment into which this claw of an elemental force had thrust itself to grip.
The stranger who had come in got what he wanted; the girl considered that she thought she had never loved the botanist, had had only friendship for him—though little she knew of the meaning of those fine words—they parted a little incoherently and in tears, and it had not occurred to the young man to imagine she was not going off to conventional life in some other of the endless Frognals he imagined as the cellular tissue of the world.
But she wasn't.
He had kept her photograph and her memory sweet, and if ever he had strayed from the severest constancy, it seemed only in the end to strengthen with the stuff of experience, to enhance by comparative disappointment his imagination of what she might have meant to him… . Then eight years afterwards they met again.
By the time he gets to this part of his story we have, at my initiative, left the bridge and are walking towards the Utopian guest house. The Utopian guest house! His voice rises and falls, and sometimes he holds my arm. My attention comes and goes. “Good-night,” two sweet-voiced Utopians cry to us in their universal tongue, and I answer them “Good-night.”
“You see,” he persists, “I saw her only a week ago. It was in Lucerne, while I was waiting for you to come on from England. I talked to her three or four times altogether. And her face—the change in her! I can't get it out of my head—night or day. The miserable waste of her… .”
Before us, through the tall pine stems, shine the lights of our Utopian inn.
He talks vaguely of ill-usage. “The husband is vain, boastful, dishonest to the very confines of the law, and a drunkard. There are scenes and insults―”
“She told you?”
“Not much, but someone else did. He brings other women almost into her presence to spite her.”
“And it's going on?” I interrupt.
“Need it go on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Lady in trouble,” I say. “Knight at hand. Why not stop this dismal grizzling and carry her off?” (You figure the heroic sweep of the arm that belongs to the Voice.) I positively forget for the moment that we are in Utopia at all.
“Take her away from him! What's all this emotion of yours worth if it isn't equal to that!”
Positively he seems aghast at me.
“Do you mean elope with her?”
“It seems a most suitable case.”
For a space he is silent, and we go on through the trees. A Utopian tram-car passes and I see his face, poor bitted wretch! looking pinched and scared in its trailing glow of light.
“That's all very well in a novel,” he says. “But how could I go back to my laboratory, mixed classes with young ladies, you know, after a thing like that? How could we live and where could we live? We might have a house in London, but who would call upon us?… Besides, you don't know her. She is not the sort of woman… . Don't think I'm timid or conventional. Don't think I don't feel… . Feel! You don't know what it is to feel in a case of this sort… .”
He halts and then flies out viciously: “Ugh! There are times when I could strangle him with my hands.”
Which is nonsense.
He flings out his lean botanising hands in an impotent gesture.
“My dear Man!” I say, and say no more.
For a moment I forget we are in Utopia altogether.