‘It just shows how damned weak I am,’ he said to himself. The adventure was like a blunder that one had committed at a party so horrible that one felt nothing could be done to excuse it: the only remedy was to forget. His horror at the degradation he had suffered helped him. He was like a snake casting its skin and he looked upon the old covering with nausea. He exulted in the possession of himself once more; he realised how much of the delight of the world he had lost when he was absorbed in that madness which they called love; he had had enough of it; he did not want to be in love any more if love was that. Philip told Hayward something of what he had gone through.
‘Wasn’t it Sophocles,’ he asked, ‘who prayed for the time when he would be delivered from the wild beast of passion that devoured his heart-strings?’
Philip seemed really to be born again. He breathed the circumambient air as though he had never breathed it before, and he took a child’s pleasure in all the facts of the world. He called his period of insanity six months’ hard labour.
Hayward had only been settled in London a few days when Philip received from Blackstable, where it had been sent, a card for a private view at some picture gallery. He took Hayward, and, on looking at the catalogue, saw that Lawson had a picture in it.
‘I suppose he sent the card,’ said Philip. ‘Let’s go and find him, he’s sure to be in front of his picture.’
This, a profile of Ruth Chalice, was tucked away in a corner, and Lawson was not far from it. He looked a little lost, in his large soft hat and loose, pale clothes, amongst the fashionable throng that had gathered for the private view. He greeted Philip with enthusiasm, and with his usual volubility told him that he had come to live in London, Ruth Chalice was a hussy, he had taken a studio, Paris was played out, he had a commission for a portrait, and they’d better dine together and have a good old talk. Philip reminded him of his acquaintance with Hayward, and was entertained to see that Lawson was slightly awed by Hayward’s elegant clothes and grand manner. They sat upon him better than they had done in the shabby little studio which Lawson and Philip had shared.
At dinner Lawson went on with his news. Flanagan had gone back to America. Clutton had disappeared. He had come to the conclusion that a man had no chance of doing anything so long as he was in contact with art and artists: the only thing was to get right away. To make the step easier he had quarrelled with all his friends in Paris. He developed a talent for telling them home truths, which made them bear with fortitude his declaration that he had done with that city and was settling in Gerona, a little town in the north of Spain which had attracted him when he saw it from the train on his way to Barcelona. He was living there now alone.
‘I wonder if he’ll ever do any good,’ said Philip.
He was interested in the human side of that struggle to express something which was so obscure in the man’s mind that he was become morbid and querulous. Philip felt vaguely that he was himself in the same case, but with him it was the conduct of his life as a whole that perplexed him. That was his means of self-expression, and what he must do with it was not clear. But he had no time to continue with this train of thought, for Lawson poured out a frank recital of his affair with Ruth Chalice. She had left him for a young student who had just come from England, and was behaving in a scandalous fashion. Lawson really thought someone ought to step in and save the young man. She would ruin him. Philip gathered that Lawson’s chief grievance was that the rupture had come in the middle of a portrait he was painting.
‘Women have no real feeling for art,’ he said. ‘They only pretend they have.’ But he finished philosophically enough: ‘However, I got four portraits out of her, and I’m not sure if the last I was working on would ever have been a success.’
Philip envied the easy way in which the painter managed his love affairs. He had passed eighteen months pleasantly enough, had got an excellent model for nothing, and had parted from her at the end with no great pang.
‘And what about Cronshaw?’ asked Philip.
‘Oh, he’s done for,’ answered Lawson, with the cheerful callousness of his youth. ‘He’ll be dead in six months. He got pneumonia last winter. He was in the English hospital for seven weeks, and when he came out they told him his only chance was to give up liquor.’
‘Poor devil,’ smiled the abstemious Philip.
‘He kept off for a bit. He used to go to the Lilas all the same, he couldn’t keep away from that, but he used to drink hot milk, avec de la fleur d’oranger, and he was damned dull.’
‘I take it you did not conceal the fact from him.’
‘Oh, he knew it himself. A little while ago he started on whiskey again. He said he was too old to turn over any new leaves. He would rather be happy for six months and die at the end of it than linger on for five years. And then I think he’s been awfully hard up lately. You see, he didn’t earn anything while he was ill, and the slut he lives with has been giving him a rotten time.’
‘I remember, the first time I saw him I admired him awfully,’ said Philip. ‘I thought he was wonderful. It is sickening that vulgar, middle-class virtue should pay.’
‘Of course he was a rotter. He was bound to end in the gutter sooner or later,’ said Lawson.
Philip was hurt because Lawson would not see the pity of it. Of course it was cause and effect, but in the necessity with which one follows the other lay all tragedy of life.
‘Oh, I’ d forgotten,’ said Lawson. ‘Just after you left he sent round a present for you. I thought you’d be coming back and I didn’t bother about it, and then I didn’t think it worth sending on; but it’ll come over to London with the rest of my things, and you can come to my studio one day and fetch it away if you want it.’
‘You haven’t told me what it is yet.’
‘Oh, it’s only a ragged little bit of carpet. I shouldn’t think it’s worth anything. I asked him one day what the devil he’d sent the filthy thing for. He told me he’d seen it in a shop in the Rue de Rennes and bought it for fifteen francs. It appears to be a Persian rug. He said you’d asked him the meaning of life and that was the answer. But he was very drunk.’
‘Oh yes, I know. I’ll take it. It was a favourite wheeze of his. He said I must find out for myself, or else the answer meant nothing.’