White Roses

‘THE expedition failed,’ said the Historian, ‘ because the commander was not allowed to select his own crews. The government of the day was corrupt and insisted on manning the ships with men of its own choosing. Some were diseased; others were criminals; many had never handled a rope in their lives. Before the fleet had doubled Cape Horn one third of the crews had perished and the rest were mutinous. The enterprise was doomed to failure from the start.’

‘The whole planet is manned in the same manner,’ said the Pessimist, as he helped himself to one of our Host’s superlative cigars. ‘I’m sorry for the Commander, whoever he is.’

‘What precisely do you mean?' said the Professor of Philosophy, holding a lighted match to the end of the Pessimist’s cigar.

‘I mean,’ said the Pessimist, ‘that the prospects of the Human Expedition can’t be very bright so long as Society has to put up with anybody and everybody who happens to be born. I suppose there is a Human Expedition,’ he went on. ‘At least you fellows always talk as though there were. But who selects the crew? Nobody. They come aboard as they happen to be born, and the unfortunate Commander has to put up with them as they come — broken men, jail-deliveries, invalids, sea-sick land-lubbers, and Heaven knows what. Who in his senses would put to sea with such a crowd ? Humanity is always in the condition of your expedition when it doubled Cape Horn — dead, dying or mutinous. And what else can you expect?’

The Host now glanced uneasily at the Professor of Philosophy, whose treatise on The World Purpose was famous throughout three continents. The Professor was visibly arming himself for the fray: he had just filled his claret glass with port. ‘Remembe,'/ said the Host, ‘that we must join the ladies in twenty minutes at the outside.’

‘I’m not going to argue,’ replied the Philosopher, after a resolute sip of his port, ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’

‘Tell it in the drawing-room,’said the Son of the House, who had taken his pretty cousin down to dinner; ‘that is to say,’— and he spoke eagerly, as if a bright idea had struck him, — ’that is to say, of course, — if it will bear telling in the presence of ladies.’

There was a roar of laughter, and the Son of the House blushed to the roots of his hair.

‘I am inclined to think,’ said the Professor, ‘that my story, so far from being unsuitable for the ladies, will be intelligible to no one else.’

‘We’ll join the ladies at once,’ said the Host, ‘and hear the Professor’s story.’

The Pessimist, who was fond of talking, now broke in. ‘That,’he said, ‘is most attractive; but not quite fair to me. I should like to finish what I had begun. And I doubt if my views will be quite in place in the drawing-room. Besides, the Professor must finish his port. I was only going to say,’ he went on, ‘that the having to put up with all that comes in human shape is a very serious affair. It seems to me that we all arrive in the world like dumped goods. Nobody has “ordered” us and perhaps nobody wants us. Our parents wanted us, did you say? Well, I suppose our parents wanted children; but it does n’t follow that they wanted you or me. Somebody else might have filled the book as well, or better. It’s a matter of absolute chance. For example, my father has often told me how he met my mother. There was a picnic on a Swiss lake. My father’s watch was slow, and when he arrived at the quay the boat that carried the party was out of sight. It so happened that there was another party — people my father didn’t know — going to another island, and seeing him disconsolate on the quay, they took pity on him and made him go with them. It was in their boat that he met my mother. The moral ’s obvious. If my father’s watch had kept better time I should never have been in existence. [‘A jolly good thing too,’ whispered the Son of the House.] Neither would my six brothers, nor any of our descendants to the n’th generation. Well, that’s how the whole planet gets itself manned. That’s how the crew is chosen. And that’s why the expedition gets into trouble on rounding Cape Horn.’

‘It’s a capital introduction to my story,’ said the Professor, in whom, after his second claret-glass of port, one would hardly have recognised the Author of The World Purpose. ‘I wish the ladies could have heard it.’

‘I venture to think,’ said our Host, ‘that the ladies will understand the story all the better for not having heard the introduction. You see I am assuming that the story is a good one.’

‘Thank you,’ said the Professor.

‘ I say,’ broke in the Son of the House, ‘ I say, Professor, it’s a pity you did n’t take that question up in The World Purpose. That’s an awfully good point of the Pessimist’s, and a jolly difficult one to answer, too. I should like to see you tackle it. Why, I once heard the Pater here say to the Mater — ’

‘We’ll go upstairs,’ said our Host.

‘About ten years ago,’ the Professor began, ‘I was traveling one night in a third-class carriage to a town on the East Coast. My two companions in the compartment were evidently mother and daughter. The mother had a singularly beautiful and intelligent face; and the daughter, who was about twelve years old, resembled her. They were dressed in good taste, without rings or finery, and, so far as I am able to judge such things, without expense.

‘Prior to the departure of the train from the London terminus, I had noticed the two walking up and down the platform and looking into the carriages, apparently endeavoring to find a compartment to themselves. They did not succeed, and finally entered the compartment where I was. Whether I ought to have been flattered by this, or the reverse, I knew not.

‘ I could see they wanted to be alone, and I felt a brief impulse to leave them to themselves and go elsewhere. It would have been a chivalrous act; but whether from indolence, or curiosity, or some other feeling, I let the impulse die, and remained where I was.

‘The girl began immediately to arrange cushions for her mother in the corner of the carriage, and from the solicitude she showed I gathered that the mother, though to all appearance in health, was either ill or convalescent. By the time I had come to this conclusion the train was already in motion, or I verily believe I should have obeyed my first impulse and left the carriage. I am glad, however, that I did not.

‘When all had been arranged I noticed that the two had settled themselves in the attitude of lovers, their hands clasped, the girl resting her head on the mother’s shoulder and gazing into her face from time to time with a look of infinite tenderness. And it was some relief to me to observe that, loverlike, they seemed indifferent to my presence.

‘ I was reading a book, though I confess that eyes and mind would constantly wander to the other side of the carriage. I am not a sentimental person, and scenes of sentiment are particularly objectionable to my temper of mind; but for once in my life I was overawed by the consciousness that I was in the presence of deep and genuine emotion. Finally, I gave up the effort to read; a strange mental atmosphere seemed to surround me; I fell into a reverie, and I remember waking suddenly from a kind of dream, or incoherent meditation on the pathos and tragedy of human life.

‘I looked at my companions and I saw that both were weeping. The girl was in the same position as before. The mother had turned her face away, and was looking out into the blackness of the night. Tear after tear rolled down her cheek.

‘They must have become conscious that I was observing them, though God knows I had little will to do so. I took up my book and pretended to read; and I knew that an effort was being made, that tears were being checked, that some climbing sorrow was being held down. Presently the lady said, speaking in a steady voice, —

‘“Do you know the name of the station we have just passed?”

‘I told her the name of the station; asked if I should raise the window; spoke to the girl; offered an illustrated paper, and so on through the usual preliminaries of a traveler’s talk. The answers I received were such as one expects from people of charming manners. But nothing followed, for a time, and I again took up my book.

‘The book I was reading, or pretending to read, was a volume of the Ingersoll Lectures, bearing on the back the title Human Immortality. Once or twice I noticed the eyes of the woman resting on this; but I was greatly surprised when, in one of the pauses when I laid down t he book, she said, —

‘“Would you mind my asking you a question?”

‘“Certainly not.”

‘ “ Do you believe in the Immortality of the Soul?”

‘As a teacher of philosophy I am accustomed to leading questions at all sorts of inopportune moments, but never in my life was I so completely taken aback. However, I collected my thoughts as best I could and, though the subject is one on which I never like to speak without prolonged preparation, I briefly told her my opinions on that great problem, as you may find them expressed in my published works. Possibly I spoke with some fervor; the more likely, because I spoke without preparation. She listened with great attention; and as for the young girl, her face was lit up with a look of intelligent eagerness which, had I seen it for one moment in my own class-room, would have rewarded me for the labor of a long course of lectures.

‘I had still much to say when the train drew up at the platform of C——.

‘“I’m sorry not to hear more,” said the lady, “but this is our destination.”

‘“And there’s Dad!” cried the girl.

‘A man in working clothes stood at the carriage-door.

“Good-by,” said the woman, warmly shaking me by the hand, “you have been most kind to me.”

‘“Good-by,” said the daughter, “You’re a dear old dear!”

‘And with that she threw her arms round my neck and kissed me fervently three or four times. I was greatly surprised, but not altogether displeased.

‘They were evidently a most affectionate family. As the train moved off the three stood arm in arm before the carriage-door.

'"Got two sweethearts to-night, sir,” said the man.

‘“And without jealousy,” said I. “I congratulate you on each of them.”

'"I hope you’ll forgive my daughter,” he said, “she’s an impulsive little baggage.”

‘“She may repeat the offense the next time we meet,” I replied; and we all laughed.

‘It was a joyful ending to what had been, in some respects, a painful experience.’

‘I don’t see the point of your story, Professor; and I am at a loss to imagine what it has to do with my introduction.’ This from the Pessimist.

‘The story has only begun,’ said the Professor, who was sipping his tea.

‘Those kisses at the end were jolly hard lines on a man who dislikes sentiment,’ said the Son of the House.

‘I did n’t find them so,’ answered the Professor. ‘But remember they were only the kisses of a child.’

‘The best sort!’ growled the Pessimist.

‘True,’ said our Hostess. ‘The judgments of children are the judgments of God. But let the Professor go on.’

‘It was seven or eight months later,’ the Professor resumed, ‘when on opening the Times one morning my attention was caught by an item of news relating to the town at which my two companions had alighted from the train. The news itself was of no importance, but the name of the town printed at the head of the paragraph strangely arrested me, and served to recall with singular vividness the incident of my previous journey. I found myself repeating, in order and minute detail, everything that had happened in the carriage, some of the particulars of which I had forgotten till that moment. The end of it was that I became possessed with a strong desire to visit C——, though I had no connections whatever with the place, and had never stayed there in my life. I knew, of course, that it was an interesting old town, with a famous cathedral, and I remember persuading myself at the time, and indeed telling my wife, that I ought to visit that cathedral without further delay. As the day wore on the impulse grew stronger, and eventually overpowered me. I traveled down to C——that night, and put up at one of the principal hotels.

‘The next morning was spent in the usual manner of sight-seers in an ancient town. Reserving the Cathedral for the afternoon, I visited the old wall and the dismantled quays, and wandered among the narrow streets, reading history, as my habit is, from the monuments with which the place abounded. About noon I found my way to the spacious market-place, and began inspecting the beautiful front of the old Town Hall.

‘I suddenly became aware of a man on the opposite pavement, who was watching me with some interest. What drew my attention to him was a large mass of white roses which he was carrying in a basket; for, as you know, I have been for many years an enthusiastic rose-grower, and there is nothing which attracts the mind so rapidly as any circumstance connected with one’s hobby. The man was dressed in good clothes; and it was this that prevented me at first from recognizing him as the person who had met my two companions at the station seven months before.

‘ Seeing that I had observed him, he crossed the street.

‘“You remember me?” he said. “Well, I have been looking for you all over the town. Had I known your name I should have asked at the hotels.”

‘“But how did you know I had arrived?” I asked.

'"My wife told me you were here.”

'"She must have seen me, then,” I said.

‘“Yes, she saw you. She saw you arrive last night at the station. And she saw you later, standing under an electric lamp, in front of the Cathedral.”

‘This struck me as odd, for I had purposely waited till near midnight before going to the Cathedral, that I might see the exterior in the light of the moon; and I had been confident that not a soul was about.

'"How is she?” I asked, for I remembered my previous impression that she was an invalid.

'"Oh, much better,” he answered “in fact, quite restored. It’s a great comfort.”

‘ “It was very kind of her to send you to look for me,” I said. “Perhaps I shall have the pleasure of seeing her later on in the day — and your daughter as well. You remember I congratulated you on your two sweethearts.”

‘“Yes,” he answered,“and you were not far wrong in that. But would n’t you like to take a turn round the old town first? It’s a wonderful place and full of interest. And I know it through and through.”

‘I was greatly puzzled by his manner. His speech and address were certainly remarkable for a working man; and I confess that for a moment the thought crossed my mind that he was some sort of impostor, and that I should be well-advised in having nothing to do with him. I suppose it was his basket of roses that reassured me.

‘“Well,” I said, “I’ve seen a good deal already. But I’ve no objection to seeing it all again. I’ll put myself in your hands.”

‘“Splendid!” he cried. “It’s an ideal day and we’ll have a high old time! And it’ll please the missus to know that I’ve taken you round. What do you say to going up the river first? There’s a glorious reach beyond the bridge. And the sun’s in the right position to give you the best view of the Cathedral.”

“Nothing would please me better,” said I; and we set off at once toward the river.

'"That’s a splendid lot of roses in your basket,” I said, as we took our places in the boat, he sculling and I steering. “Frau Carl Druschki, unless I’m much mistaken.”

'"Yes. I grew them on my allotment. I’m taking them home to my wife.”

‘ For some time we talked roses. He had a theory of pruning, which differed from mine, and led to a good deal of argument. Finally, he dropped his sculls, and taking a piece of paper from his pocket, drew on it the diagram of a rose-bush pruned according to his method. We had forgotten the Cathedral.

‘I took his drawing and began to criticize. “Oh!" he said, “let’s drop it. We’re missing one of the noblest sights in England. Look at that!” And he pointed to the heights.

‘As we dropped down the river half an hour later my companion, who had been silent for some time, again broke out on the subject of roses. “It takes time and patience and thought,” he said. “More perhaps than it’s worth. If it were not for my wife, I should give it up. She’s desperately fond of them.”

'"That’s the best of reasons for not giving it up,” I answered. “I happen to be a great admirer of your wife.”

‘“That’s another link between us,” said he. “ She’s the best wife man ever had. She’s worthy of all the admiration you can give her.”

‘“She’s worthy of all the roses you can grow for her,” I said.

'"By God, she is!” he answered.

‘We grew confidential, and a story followed. He told me that he was the illegitimate son of a baronet; that his father had made him an allowance to study art in London; that he had married his model, in opposition to the wishes of his father; that the Baronet had thereupon thrown him over for good and all; that he had failed to make a living by art; that he had got an engagement with a great furnishing-house as a skilled painter; that he was earning four pounds a week in doing artistic work in rich men’s houses and elsewhere; that he was now engaged in restoring some fifteenth-century frescoes in a parish church. His wife earned money too, though he did not tell me how, and his daughter was being trained as a singer. “ We’re all more or less in art,” he said, “ and we’re a very happy family.”

‘By this time we were back at the landing-place, and as the man stepped ashore, he said, “It’s about time I took these roses to my wife. We’ll just walk along to where I live, and I ’ll show you the rest of the sights afterwards. I’ll take you to the Cathedral when the afternoon service is over.”

‘As we walked through the streets the man kept up an incessant stream of talk, pointing to this and that, and discoursing with great eagerness on the history and antiquities of the town. It struck me as strange that he never waited for any answer but passed from one thing to another without a pause. Presently we stopped in front of a small house, one of a row of villas.

‘“This is where I live,” he said, and stopped on the doorstep.

‘“Good!” I cried, “and now you will take me in and reintroduce me to your charming wife.”

‘“I’m sorry,” he answered, “but the thing’s quite impossible.”

‘I was so startled by this unexpected answer that, without thinking, I blurted out the question, “Why?”

‘“Because,” he said, “she’s in her coffin. She died at four o’clock this morning.”

‘At the words he sank down on his doorstep, put the basket of roses on his knees and bowed himself over them in a passion of tears.

‘The door opened, and the young girl, who had been with me in the train, ran down the steps. Sitting down beside her father she put her arms round his neck and said, “Daddy, Daddy, don’t cry!” ’

The Professor ceased and there was a long pause.

‘Did you discover,’ said the Pessimist, at length, ‘why the two were weeping in the train?’

‘No need to ask that,’ said our Hostess. ‘The woman had received sentence of death.’

‘Did you ever follow it up,’ said the Historian. ‘What, for example, became of the young girl?’

‘She was married to my eldest son last week,’ said the Professor.

‘I knew the Pessimist’s introduction would not be needed,’ said our Host.

‘It was the introduction that reminded me of the story,’ said the Professor.

VOL. 109-NO. 3