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- Celibates - 40/57 -
'But are you going to become a monk?' 'I am not sure that I should not prefer the world to be my monastery.'
'Now you are talking nonsense.'
'Now you are beginning to be rude, mother. ... We were discussing the question of beauty in women.'
'Well, what fault, I should like to know, do you find with Lucy?'
John laughed, and after a moment's hesitation, he said--
'Her face is a pretty oval, but it conveys nothing to my mind; her eyes are large and soft, but there is no, no---' John gesticulated with his fingers.
'No suggestiveness in her face, no strangeness; she seems to me too much like a woman.'
'I think a woman ought to be like a woman. You would not like a man to be like a woman, would you?'
'That's different. Women are often beautiful, but their beauty is not of the highest type. You admit that Kitty is a pretty girl. Well, she's not nearly so womanly in face or figure as Lucy. Her figure is slight even to boyishness. She's like a little antique statue done in a period of decadence. She has the far-away look in the eyes which we find in antique sculpture, and which is so attractive to me. But you don't understand.'
'I understand very well. I understand you far better than you think,' Mrs. Norton answered angrily. She was angered by what she deemed her son's affectations, and by the arrival of the architect before whom John was to lay his scheme for the reconstruction of the house.
Mr. Egerton seemed to think John's architecture somewhat wild, but he promised to see what could be done to overcome the difficulties he foresaw, and in a week he forwarded John several drawings for his consideration. Judged by comparison with John's dreams, the practical architecture of the experienced man seemed altogether lacking in expression and in poetry of proportion; and comparing them with his own cherished project, John hung over the billiard-table, where the drawings were laid out.
He could think of nothing but his monastery; his Latin authors were forgotten; he drew facades and turrets on the cloth during dinner, and he went up to his room, not to bed, but to reconsider the difficulties that rendered the construction of a central tower an impossibility.
Once again he takes up the architect's notes.
_'The interior would be so constructed as to make it impossible to carry up the central tower. The outer walls would not be strong enough to take the large gables and roof. Although the chapel could be done easily, the ambulatory would be of no use, as it would lead probably from the kitchen offices.
'Would have to reduce work on front facade to putting in new arched entrance. Buttresses would take the place of pilasters.
'The bow-window could remain.
'The roof to be heightened somewhat. The front projection would throw the front rooms into almost total darkness.'_
'But why not a light timber lantern tower?' thought John. 'Yes, that would get over the difficulty. Now, if we could only manage to keep my front.... If my design for the front cannot be preserved, I might as well abandon the whole thing! And then?'
His face contracted in an expression of anger. He rose from the table, and looked round the room. The room seemed to him a symbol--the voluptuous bed, the corpulent arm-chair, the toilet-table shapeless with muslin--of the hideous laws of the world and the flesh, ever at variance and at war, and ever defeating the indomitable aspirations of the soul. John ordered his room to be changed; and in the face of much opposition from his mother, who declared that he would never be able to sleep there, and would lose his health, he selected a narrow room at the end of the passage. He would have no carpet. He placed a small iron bed against the wall; two plain chairs, a screen to keep off the draught from the door, a small basin-stand, such as you might find in a ship's cabin, and a _prie-dieu_ were all the furniture he permitted himself.
'Oh, what a relief!' he murmured. 'Now there is line, there is definite shape. That formless upholstery frets my eye as false notes grate on my ear;' and, becoming suddenly conscious of the presence of God, he fell on his knees and prayed. He prayed that he might be guided aright in his undertaking, and that, if it were conducive to the greater honour and glory of God, he might be permitted to found a monastery, and that he might be given strength to surmount all difficulties.
'Either of two things: I must alter the architecture of this house, or I must return to Stanton College.'
'Don't talk nonsense, do you think I don't know you; you are boring yourself because Kitty is upstairs in bed and cannot walk about with you.'
'I do not know how you contrive, mother, always to say the most disagreeable things; the marvellous way in which you pitch on what will, at the moment, wound me most, is truly wonderful. I compliment you on your skill, but I confess I am at a loss to understand why you should, as if by right, expect me to remain here to serve as a target for the arrows of your scorn.'
John walked out of the room. During dinner mother and son spoke very little, and he retired early, about ten o'clock, to his room. He was in high dudgeon, but the white walls, the _prie-dieu,_ the straight, narrow bed, were pleasant to see. His room was the first agreeable impression of the day. He picked up a drawing from the table, it seemed to him awkward and slovenly. He sharpened his pencil, cleared his crow-quill pens, got out his tracing-paper, and sat down to execute a better. But he had not finished his outline sketch before he leaned back in his chair, and as if overcome by the insidious warmth of the fire, lapsed into firelight attitudes and meditations.
Nibbling his pencil's point, he looked into the glare. Wavering light and wavering shade flickered fast over the Roman profile, flowed fitfully--fitfully as his thoughts. Now his thoughts pursued architectural dreams, and now he thought of himself, of his unhappy youth, of how he had been misunderstood, of his solitary life; a bitter, unsatisfactory life, and yet a life not wanting in an ideal--a glorious ideal. He thought how his projects had always met with failure, with disapproval, above all, failure... and yet, and yet he felt, he almost knew, there was something great and noble in him. His eyes brightened, he slipped into thinking of schemes for a monastic life; and then he thought of his mother's hard disposition and how she misunderstood him. What would the end be? Would he succeed in creating the monastery he dreamed of so fondly? To reconstruct the ascetic life of the Middle Ages, that would be something worth doing, that would be a great ideal--that would make meaning in his life. If he failed... what should he do then? His life as it was, was unbearable... he must come to terms with life....
That central tower! how could he manage it and that built-out front? Was it true, as the architect said, that it would throw all the front rooms into darkness? Without this front his design would be worthless. What a difference it made! Kitty had approved of it.
For a woman she was strangely beautiful. She appealed to him as no other woman ever had. Other women, with their gross display of sex, disgusted him; but Kitty, with her strange, enigmatic eyes, appealed to him like--well, like an antique statuette.
That was how she appealed to him--as an exquisite work of art. His mother had said that he found Thornby Place dull when she was ill, that he missed her, that--that it was because she was not there that he had found the day so wearisome. But this was because his mother could only understand men and women in one relation; she had no feeling for art, for that remoteness from life which is art, and which was everything to him. His thoughts paused, and returned slowly to his architectural projects. But Kitty was in them all; he saw her in decorations for the light timber lantern roof, and she flitted through the ambulatory which was to be constructed at the back of the house. Soon he was absorbed in remembrance of her looks and laughter, of their long talks of the monastery, the neighbours, the pet rooks, Sammy the great yellow cat, and the greenhouses. He remembered the pleasure he had taken in these conversations.
Was it then true that he thought of her as men think of women, was there some alloy of animal passion in his admiration for her beauty? He asked himself this question, and remembered with shame some involuntary thoughts which had sprung upon him, and which, when he listened, he still could hear in the background of his mind; and, listening, he grew frightened and fled, like a lonely traveller from the sound of wolves.
Pausing in his mental flight he asked himself what this must lead to? To a coarse affection, to marriage, to children, to general domesticity.
And contrasted with this...
The dignified and grave life of the cloister, the constant sensation of lofty and elevating thought, a high ideal, the communion of learned men, the charm of headship.
Could he abandon this? No, a thousand times no. This was what was real in him, this was what was true to his nature. The thoughts he deplored were accidental. He could not be held accountable for them. He had repulsed them; and trembling and pale with passion, John fell on his knees and prayed for grace. But prayer was thin upon his lips, and he could only beg that the temptation might pass from him....
'In the morning' he said, 'I shall be strong.'
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