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It Is Good To Be Alive







From: The Crack Of Doom

Amongst the letters lying on my breakfast-table a few days after the
meeting was one addressed in an unfamiliar hand. The writing was bold,
and formed like a man's. There was a faint trace of a perfume about the
envelope which I remembered. I opened it first.

It was, as I expected, from Miss Brande. Her brother had gone to their
country place on the southern coast. She and her friend, Edith Metford,
were going that day. Their luggage was already at the station. Would I
send on what I required for a short visit, and meet them at eleven
o'clock on the bridge over the Serpentine? It was enough for me. I
packed a large portmanteau hastily, sent it to Charing Cross, and spent
the time at my disposal in the park, which was close to my hotel.

Although the invitation I had received gave me pleasure, I could not
altogether remove from my mind a vague sense of disquietude concerning
Herbert Brande and his Society. The advanced opinions I had heard, if
extreme, were not altogether alarming. But the mysterious way in which
Brande himself had spoken about the Society, and the still more
mysterious air which some of the members assumed when directly
questioned as to its object, suggested much. Might it not be a
revolutionary party engaged in a grave intrigue--a branch of some
foreign body whose purpose was so dangerous that ordinary disguises were
not considered sufficiently secure? Might they not have adopted the
jargon and pretended to the opinions of scientific faddists as a cloak
for designs more sinister and sincere? The experiment I witnessed might
be almost a miracle or merely a trick. Thinking it over thus, I could
come to no final opinion, and when I asked myself aloud, "What are you
afraid of?" I could not answer my own question. But I thought I would
defer joining the Society pending further information.

A few minutes before eleven, I walked towards the bridge over the
Serpentine. No ladies appeared to be on it. There were only a couple of
smartly dressed youths there, one smoking a cigarette. I sauntered about
until one of the lads, the one who was not smoking, looked up and
beckoned to me. I approached leisurely, for it struck me that the boy
would have shown better breeding if he had come toward me, considering
my seniority.

"I am sorry I did not notice you sooner. Why did you not come on when
you saw us?" the smallest and slimmest youth called to me.

"In the name of--Miss--Miss--" I stammered.

"Brande; you haven't forgotten my name, I hope," Natalie Brande said
coolly. "This is my friend, Edith Metford. Metford, this is Arthur
Marcel."

"How do you do, Marcel? I am glad to meet you; I have heard 'favourable
mention' of you from the Brandes," the second figure in knickerbockers
said pleasantly.

"How do you do, sir--madam--I mean--Miss--" I blundered, and then in
despair I asked Miss Brande, "Is this a tableau vivant? What is the
meaning of these disguises?" My embarrassment was so great that my
discourteous question may be pardoned.

"Our dress! Surely you have seen women rationally dressed before!" Miss
Brande answered complacently, while the other girl watched my
astonishment with evident amusement.

This second girl, Edith Metford, was a frank, handsome young woman, but
unlike the spirituelle beauty of Natalie Brande. She was perceptibly
taller than her friend, and of fuller figure. In consequence, she
looked, in my opinion, to even less advantage in her eccentric costume,
or rational dress, than did Miss Brande.

"Rationally dressed! Oh, yes. I know the divided skirt, but--"

Miss Metford interrupted me. "Do you call the divided skirt atrocity
rational dress?" she asked pointedly.

"Upon my honour I do not," I answered.

These girls were too advanced in their ideas of dress for me. Nor did I
feel at all at my ease during this conversation, which did not, however,
appear to embarrass them. I proposed hastily to get a cab, but they
demurred. It was such a lovely day, they preferred to walk, part of the
way at least. I pointed out that there might be drawbacks to this
amendment of my proposal.

"What drawbacks?" Miss Metford asked.

"For instance, isn't it probable we shall all be arrested by the
police?" I replied.

"Rubbish! We are not in Russia," both exclaimed.

"Which is lucky for you," I reflected, as we commenced what was to me a
most disagreeable walk. I got them into a cab sooner than they wished.
At the railway station I did not offer to procure their tickets. To do
so, I felt, would only give offence. Critical glances followed us as we
went to our carriage. Londoners are becoming accustomed to varieties, if
not vagaries, in ladies' costumes, but the dress of my friends was
evidently a little out of the common even for them. Miss Metford was
just turning the handle of a carriage door, when I interposed, saying,
"This is a smoking compartment."

"So I see. I am going to smoke--if you don't object?"

"I don't suppose it would make any difference if I did," I said, with
unconscious asperity, for indeed this excess of free manners was jarring
upon me. The line dividing it from vulgarity was becoming so thin I was
losing sight of the divisor. Yet no one, even the most fastidious,
could associate vulgarity with Natalie Brande. There remained an air of
unassumed sincerity about herself and all her actions, including even
her dress, which absolutely excluded her from hostile criticism. I could
not, however, extend that lenient judgment to Miss Metford. The girls
spoke and acted--as they had dressed themselves--very much alike. Only,
what seemed to me in the one a natural eccentricity, seemed in the other
an unnatural affectation.

I saw the guard passing, and, calling him over, gave him half-a-crown to
have the compartment labelled, "Engaged."

Miss Brande, who had been looking out of the window, absently asked my
reason for this precaution. I replied that I wanted the compartment
reserved for ourselves. I certainly did not want any staring and
otherwise offensive fellow-passengers.

"We don't want all the seats," she persisted.

"No," I admitted. "We don't want the extra seats. But I thought you
might like the privacy."

"The desire for privacy is an archaic emotion," Miss Metford remarked
sententiously, as she struck a match.

"Besides, it is so selfish. We may be crowding others," Miss Brande said
quietly.

I was glad she did not smoke.

"I don't want that now," I said to a porter who was hurrying up with a
label. To the girls I remarked a little snappishly, "Of course you are
quite right. You must excuse my ignorance."

"No, it is not ignorance," Miss Brande demurred. "You have been away so
much. You have hardly been in England, you told me, for years, and--"

"And progress has been marching in my absence," I interrupted.

"So it seems," Miss Metford remarked so significantly that I really
could not help retorting with as much emphasis, compatible with
politeness, as I could command:

"You see I am therefore unable to appreciate the New Woman, of whom I
have heard so much since I came home."

"The conventional New Woman is a grandmotherly old fossil," Miss Metford
said quietly.

This disposed of me. I leant back in my seat, and was rigidly silent.

Miles of green fields stippled with daisies and bordered with long
lines of white and red hawthorn hedges flew past. The smell of new-mown
hay filled the carriage with its sweet perfume, redolent of old
associations. My long absence dwindled to a short holiday. The world's
wide highways were far off. I was back in the English fields. My slight
annoyance passed away. I fell into a pleasant day-dream, which was
broken by a soft voice, every undulation of which I already knew by
heart.

"I am afraid you think us very advanced," it murmured.

"Very," I agreed, "but I look to you to bring even me up to date."

"Oh, yes, we mean to do that, but we must proceed very gradually."

"You have made an excellent start," I put in.

"Otherwise you would only be shocked."

"It is quite possible." I said this with so much conviction that the two
burst out laughing at me. I could not think of anything more to add, and
I felt relieved when, with a warning shriek, the train dashed into a
tunnel. By the time we had emerged again into the sunlight and the
solitude of the open landscape I had ready an impromptu which I had
been working at in the darkness. I looked straight at Miss Metford and
said:

"After all, it is very pleasant to travel with girls like you."

"Thank you!"

"You did not show any hysterical fear of my kissing you in the tunnel."

"Why the deuce would you do that?" Miss Metford replied with great
composure, as she blew a smoke ring.

When we reached our destination I braced myself for another disagreeable
minute or two. For if the great Londoners thought us quaint, surely the
little country station idlers would swear we were demented. We crossed
the platform so quickly that the wonderment we created soon passed. Our
luggage was looked after by a servant, to whose care I confided it with
a very brief description. The loss of an item of it did not seem to me
of as much importance as our own immediate departure.

Brande met us at his hall door. His house was a pleasant one, covered
with flowering creeping plants, and surrounded by miniature forests. In
front there was a lake four hundred yards in width. Close-shaven lawns
bordered it. They were artificial products, no doubt, but they were
artificial successes--undulating, earth-scented, fresh rolled every
morning. Here there was an isolated shrub, there a thick bank of
rhododendrons. And the buds, bursting into floral carnival, promised
fine contrasts when their full splendour was come. The lake wavelets
tinkled musically on a pebbly beach.

Our host could not entertain us in person. He was busy. The plea was
evidently sincere, notwithstanding that the business of a country
gentleman--which he now seemed to be--is something less exacting than
busy people's leisure. After a short rest, and an admirably-served
lunch, we were dismissed to the woods for our better amusement.

Thereafter followed for me a strangely peaceful, idyllic day--all save
its ending. Looking back on it, I know that the sun which set that
evening went down on the last of my happiness. But it all seems trivial
now.

My companions were accomplished botanists, and here, for the first time,
I found myself on common ground with both. We discussed every familiar
wild flower as eagerly as if we had been professed field naturalists. In
walking or climbing my assistance was neither requisitioned nor
required. I did not offer, therefore, what must have been unwelcome when
it was superfluous.

We rested at last under the shade of a big beech, for the afternoon sun
was rather oppressive. It was a pleasant spot to while away an hour. A
purling brook went babbling by, singing to itself as it journeyed to the
sea. Insects droned about in busy flight. There was a perfume of
honeysuckle wafted to us on the summer wind, which stirred the
beech-tree and rustled its young leaves lazily, so that the sunlight
peeped through the green lattice-work and shone on the faces of these
two handsome girls, stretched in graceful postures on the cool sward
below--their white teeth sparkling in its brilliance, while their soft
laughter made music for me. In the fulness of my heart, I said aloud:

"It is a good thing to be alive."





Next: George Delany Deceased

Previous: A Strange Experiment



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