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Chapter XVIII

Physical reaction following my interview with Mrs Chrysostom. Reception of a wreath from the Maidstones. Moving excerpt from Simeon's diary. I decide to marry one of Ezekiel's sisters. Interview with Ezekiel and his deplorable language. Tact is selected to become my bride. Tragic return to Mon Repos. I fall unconscious, parallel to my father.

Glad as I was, however, and indeed, as a Xtian gentleman, glad as I was compelled to be that Mrs Chrysostom had repented, it was nevertheless a penitence that in respect of myself was little short of disastrous. And even now it is with the utmost difficulty that I can look back upon the weeks that followed. Deprived of my living; already nearing thirty; and the subject, as I soon found, of the grossest misjudgement — such was my prostration that for nearly three weeks, I was confined to my bedroom, if not to my bed. For two or three days, in fact, I doubted if I could recover, a doubt that was shared by my dear father; while a small wreath, sent by the Maidstones, was actually delivered at the house. Whether this was despatched under a misapprehension; whether it was the symbol of a genuine contrition; or whether it was merely a sop to an uneasy conscience, will probably never be determined. And I refrained from acknowledging it until I had come to a decision as to the possibilities of legal action. After a prolonged interview, however, with Mr Balfour Whey, and in view of my poor father's unhappy experiences, it was regretfully decided that the British judiciary was too uncertain to be relied upon; and in a brief sentence, therefore, at the beginning of a letter, I informed Miss Maidstone of its safe arrival. The remainder of the letter, of which I still have a copy, was perhaps the severest exposure of a female character that has ever been penned, with the possible exception of certain passages in the Book of Revelation.

Another document, of which I have a copy, and which was also indited by me, while in bed, was rendered necessary by the widespread local confusion between acute port-poisoning and ordinary inebriation — a confusion accentuated, and indeed never wholly dispersed, owing to the despicable attitude of Mr Chrysostom. Thanks to the generosity, however, of my kind friend Simeon Whey, who had not been present at the meeting, I was enabled to print several hundreds of these for personal and vicarious distribution, agents being posted, upon the following Sunday, at the doors of St Nicholas, Newington Butts, and, during the ensuing week, at the exits and entrances of all my habitual haunts of prayer. In so far as I knew their addresses, too, the pamphlet was sent by post to the members of the A.D.S.U. and S.P.S.D.T., and to such other persons as might reasonably have been presumed to have been present at the Porter Street Drill Hall.

For the most part, however, I lay for long hours either comatose or actually asleep, all my meals being brought to my bedside and consumed in a semi-recumbent posture. Nor, had they come, should I have been able to receive visitors, although I made an exception in favour of Simeon Whey, who bicycled from Balham every Wednesday and Saturday, not only as a friend, but also as a clergyman. Indeed in many ways I found his ministrations more soothing than those of my father, who had transferred both his Bible and the harmonium from the parlour downstairs to my bedroom. His voice, however, though still very powerful, was much more uncertain than it used to be, and I was usually obliged, after about three-quarters of an hour, to ask him to desist from further vocalization.

The Rev. Simeon Whey (from a photograph in my possession)

So the days passed, one after another, and each a little longer than the one before; and although I endeavoured to summon, and I trust not unsuccessfully, the whole of my accumulated spiritual reserves, it was only by an effort that many would have judged superhuman that I began almost imperceptibly to regain my strength. Indeed, to at least one observer the spectacle I was now presenting was so fractionally short of a miracle that, as he wrote in his diary (for it was none other than Simeon), it ‘will never cease to be an inspiration to me’. But let me quote the whole passage, written after I had been in bed for about a fortnight.

‘Today,’ he wrote, ‘I have again visited my poor friend, Augustus Carp, who is still laid aside on the bed of complete exhaustion as the result of the deception that I have already described; and more than ever, as I perceived him lying there, did I regret my absence from the meeting in question. Visibly flushed, although this may perhaps have been due to the imperfect absorption of a recent meal, his eyes were focused upon a point in the ceiling with an almost tragic intensity, and the mute endurance with which he awaits the future will never cease to be an inspiration to me. Nor will he fail, as it seems to me, to need it. For with his chief means of sustenance rent away from him, it will probably become obligatory for him, as he has faintly whispered to me, to marry one of the sisters of Ezekiel Stool.’

That is the whole passage, and I have thought well to include it not only as an encouragement to the afflicted but also as an indication of the poignant decision to which I was now slowly being forced, for, as I had instantly feared on leaving Mrs Chrysostom, and as I had since perceived, alas, only too distinctly, I was face to face with just such a catastrophe as marriage with a Stool had been kept in reserve for. Nor had I been able to discern, bitterly though I had sought for it, any practicable alternative — or none that would preserve me from the personal indignity of applying for fresh employment without adequate references.

Any such employment, too, even if I were to obtain it, would inevitably be associated with a loss of income that would seriously cripple me in those fuller religious duties for which I was so evidently being prepared. For this at any rate had become abundantly clear to me — and indeed it was the sheet anchor by which I clung to life — that I could not but emerge from such an abyss of suffering enormously the richer in strength of character. More than ever, therefore, would it be desirable in future not only that I should be immune from financial anxiety but that I should have at my disposal a larger amount of leisure for my more sacred avocations. Indeed, if this were possible, I felt that hence-forward I should be entirely freed from the necessity for money-making, and thereby liberated for the completer uplifting of all with whom I might be brought into contact.

Such, then, were the conclusions to which I had been driven, and which I would already have communicated to Ezekiel, had the latter visited me on what Simeon has so well described as the bed of complete exhaustion. Since I had been carried from the meeting, however, to Miss Maidstone's vehicle — it was her two brothers who had borne me home — I had neither looked upon Ezekiel's face nor received a message from his lips; and this in spite of the fact that I had sent him six of my pamphlets for his own use and that of his sisters. I therefore decided, when I had accumulated sufficient strength — and this was not for another fortnight — to visit him in my own person, though naturally I did so with considerable reluctance.

Nor can I say that I was agreeably impressed either by his reception of me or his subsequent attitude, in which I could not but detect a good deal of that arrogance lately so manifest in his character. It was quite clear, however, that the subject of my errand did not take him by surprise, and indeed he assured me, almost at once, that he had been expecting it for some days. He then remained silent with his back to the fire and continued to stare at me rather offensively.

‘Do you mind,’ I said, ‘if I sit down?’

‘Not at all,’ he replied. ‘You can do as you please.’

I therefore did so, but so distant was his manner that it was difficult to reconcile it, as I immediately pointed out to him, either with his duty as a Xtian or his privileges as an host.

‘In fact, you appear to have forgotten,’ I said, ‘though I pray I may be wrong, that I was once the means of saving your life.’

He breathed unpleasantly through his right nostril.

‘Very possibly,’ he said. ‘But to what end? To the deliberate ruination of the A.D.S.U. and all my prospects of marrying Miss Moonbeam.’

‘But, my dear Ezekiel,’ I began.

He interrupted me coldly.

‘I must beg you in future,’ he said, ‘to call me Mr Stool.’

I stared at him.

‘Call you Mr Stool,’ I gasped, ‘after all these years of impassioned friendship?’

He waved his hand.

‘I repudiate them,’ he said. ‘I repudiate them in their entirety.’

I drew myself up to a right angle with my lap.

‘But, Mr Stool,’ I said, ‘surely you must realize the enormous magnitude of your escape?’

‘Escape?’ he said. ‘Escape from what?’

‘Why, from the wickedness,’ I replied, ‘that I have been the means of revealing to you in the bottomless depths of Miss Moonbeam's heart.’

He blew away the hair from before his lips.

‘But I shouldn’t have been marrying her wickedness,’ he said. ‘I should have been marrying herself.’

‘Herself?’ I cried. ‘But you don’t mean to tell me that you were attached to her as a female?’

‘Yes, I do,’ he said. ‘Intensely. I was intensely attached to her as a female.’

‘But then, if you had married her,’ I said, ‘it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice.’

‘How do you know?’ he said. ‘How do you know it wouldn’t?’

‘Why, because you’d have liked it,’ I said. ‘You’d have liked marrying her.’

‘Well, of course,’ he replied. ‘And some people like sacrificing.’

‘But, my dear Mr Stool,’ I began, ‘now that her wickedness has been revealed to you —’

‘I don’t care a damn,’ he said, ‘about her wickedness.’

Had I been stronger, I should have leapt to my feet.

‘You don’t care a what?’ I asked.

‘A damn,’ he said.

‘A damn?’ I cried.

‘Yes, a damn,’ he repeated.

I leaned back, closing my eyes.

‘Yes, and I’ve said worse things.’

I opened them again.

‘I’ve said bally and hell and blow.’

He paused for a moment.

‘And I’ve said blast. That's the sort of man, Mr Carp, that you've turned me into.’

‘But, my dear Mr Stool,’ I said, ‘as your future brother-in-law —’

‘Yes. But I’m not at all sure,’ he said, ‘that you will be.’

Had I been erect, I should certainly have fallen. And indeed, as it was, I barely retained consciousness.

‘But, Ezekiel,’ I cried, ‘Mr Stool, surely you haven’t forgotten your word of honour.’

‘No, I haven’t,’ he said. ‘I haven’t. But then you were a man without moral stain.’

‘And am I not now?’ I asked. ‘Am I not now, Mr Stool? Is the victim soiled by the criminal's guilt? Is the pioneer, drawn from the morass, responsible for his temporary discoloration?’

He was silent for a moment, but in so far as it was visible, his expression was far from reassuring. Then he rang the bell, and Tact entered the room. She was the less attractive of the two twins.

The twin sisters of Ezekiel Stool (the right-hand one has become my wife)

‘That's the one,’ he said. ‘I made them draw lots. But you can only marry her on one condition — that you sign an agreement to live north of the Thames and make a home for her four sisters.’

He tilted his chin a little and put his hands in his pockets. A distant dog barked three times. With a supreme effort I clung to my senses.

‘Do you mean all,’ I whispered, ‘including Faith?’

Faith was the least attractive of the three triplets.

‘All or none,’ he said.

He pulled out his watch.

I could hear it ticking.

‘Why did you do that?’ I asked.

‘I’m giving you a minute,’ he said, ‘in which to decide.’

Faint though I was, I staggered to my feet.

‘Then as a Xtian,’ I said, ‘no less than a gentleman —’

‘Thirty seconds,’ he said.

‘I’ll take her.’

He replaced his watch, and I took Tact's hand. All the female Stools have poor circulations.

‘So we’ll be getting married,’ I said, ‘in due course.’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’ll be very nice.’

Then her four sisters, who had evidently been waiting outside, came and shook hands with me with expressions of delight, and Ezekiel informed me that his solicitor would be in attendance the next morning.

I bowed a little stiffly.

‘I shall be here,’ I said, and Ezekiel replied that he had no doubt of it.

Then I shook hands again with Tact and her sisters, bidding them goodbye for the present; and they bade me goodbye, also for the present, adding that they would be seeing me tomorrow.

‘Yes, tomorrow,’ I said. ‘I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.’

‘Then we’ll say goodbye,’ they said, ‘till tomorrow.’

‘Yes, till tomorrow,’ I said, ‘tomorrow morning.’

‘Then we’ll say goodbye,’ they said. ‘till tomorrow morning.’

Nor did I fail to keep the appointment, though little did I dream, as I groped for the door, that not even yet had I been called upon to face the ultimate temperature of my refining fire. For hardly had I arrived, somewhat fresher than I expected, at the garden gate of Mon Repos when there staggered up to it a railway omnibus, congested to the limit of its legal capacity. Deformed with luggage and distended with females, a single glance was sufficient to paralyse me, though less on my own account than on that of my father, who now stood transfixed on the doorstep. Then he gave a small cry of the extremest pathos, and as my mother's eight sisters descended to the pavement, he fell forward upon the garden path, never to rise again.

But it was too much even for me, shaken as I had been to my very foundations, and turning my back and covering my eyes from that hurrying, Welsh-speaking female flood, I fell forward parallel to my father, though with my head in the opposite direction.

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