By Algernon Blackwood
It was the warmth of his friend’s invitation as much as his own state of inward excitement that decided him suddenly to anticipate his visit by twenty-four hours. It would clear his judgment and help his mind if he spent the evening at Hampstead rather than alone with his own thoughts. “A dose of China,” he thought, with a smile, “will do me good. Edward won’t mind. I’ll telephone.”
He left the Park soon after six o’clock and acted upon his impulse. The connexion was bad, the wire buzzed and popped and crackled; talk was difficult; he did not hear properly. The Professor had not yet come in, apparently. Francis said he would come up anyhow on the chance.
Going into his study, he drafted the note that should result in the introduction that was now the chief object of his life. The way this woman with the black, twinkling eyes obsessed him was—he admitted it with joy—extraordinary. The draft he put in his pocket, intending to re-write it next morning, and all the way up to Hampstead Heath the gracious figure glided silently beside him, the eyes were ever present, his cheek still glowed where the feather boa had touched his skin. Edward Farque remained in the background. In fact, it was on the very door-step, having rung the bell, that Francis realized he must pull himself together. “I’ve come to see old Farque,” he reminded himself, with a smile. “I’ve got to be interested in him and his, and, probably, for an hour or two, to talk Chinese——” when the door opened noiselessly, and he saw facing him, with a grin of celestial welcome on his face, a China-man.
“Oh!” he said, with a start. He had not expected a Chinese servant.
The man bowed him in.
Dr. Francis stared round him with astonishment he could not conceal. A great golden idol faced him in the hall, its gleaming visage blazing out of a sort of miniature golden palanquin, with a grin, half dignified, half cruel. Fully double human size, it blocked the way, looking so life-like that it might have moved to meet him without too great a shock to what seemed possible. It rested on a throne with four massive legs, carved, the doctor saw, with serpents, dragons, and mythical monsters generally. Round it on every side were other things in keeping. Name them he could not, describe them he did not try. He summed them up in one word—China: pictures, weapons, cloths and tapestries, bells, gongs, and figures of every sort and kind imaginable.
Being ignorant of Chinese matters, Dr. Francis stood and looked about him in a mental state of some confusion. He had the feeling that he had entered a Chinese temple, for there was a faint smell of incense hanging about the house that was, to say the least, un-English. Nothing English, in fact, was visible at all. The matting on the floor, the swinging curtains of bamboo beads that replaced the customary doors, the silk draperies and pictured cushions, the bronze and ivory, the screens hung with fantastic embroideries, everything was Chinese. Hampstead vanished from his thoughts. The very lamps were in keeping, the ancient lacquered furniture as well. The value of what he saw, an expert could have told him, was considerable.
“You like?” queried the voice at his side.
He had forgotten the servant. He turned sharply.
“Very much; it’s wonderfully done,” he said. “Makes you feel at home, eh?” he added tactfully, and was going to ask how long all this preparation had taken, when a voice sounded on the stairs beyond. It was a voice he knew, a note of hearty welcome in its deep notes.
“The coming of a friend from a far-off land, even from Harley Street—is not this true joy?” he heard, and the next minute was shaking the hand of his old and valued friend. The intimacy between them had always been of the truest.
“I almost expected a pigtail,” observed Francis, looking him affectionately up and down, “but, really—why, you’ve hardly changed at all!”
“Outwardly, not as much, perhaps, as Time expects,” was the happy reply, “but inwardly——!” He scanned appreciatively the burly figure of the doctor in his turn. “And I can say the same of you,” he declared, still holding his hand tight. “This is a real pleasure, Owen,” he went on in his deep voice, “to see you again is a joy to me. Old friends meeting again—there’s nothing like it in life, I believe, nothing.” He gave the hand another squeeze before he let it go. “And we,” he added, leading the way into a room across the hall, “neither of us is a fugitive from life. We take what we can, I mean.”
The doctor smiled as he noted the un-English turn of language, and together they entered a sitting-room that was, again, more like some inner chamber of a Chinese temple than a back room in a rented Hampstead house.
“I only knew ten minutes ago that you were coming, my dear fellow,” the scholar was saying, as his friend gazed round him with increased astonishment, “or I would have prepared more suitably for your reception. I was out till late. All this”—he waved his hand—“surprises you, of course, but the fact is I have been home some days already, and most of what you see was arranged for me in advance of my arrival. Hence its apparent completion. I say ‘apparent,’ because, actually, it is far from faithfully carried out. Yet to exceed,” he added, “is as bad as to fall short.”
The doctor watched him while he listened to a somewhat lengthy explanation of the various articles surrounding them. The speaker—he confirmed his first impression—had changed little during the long interval; the same enthusiasm was in him as before, the same fire and dreaminess alternately in the fine grey eyes, the same humour and passion about the mouth, the same free gestures, and the same big voice. Only the lines had deepened on the forehead, and on the fine face the air of thoughtfulness was also deeper. It was Edward Farque as of old, scholar, poet, dreamer and enthusiast, despiser of western civilization, contemptuous of money, generous and upright, a type of value, an individual.
“You’ve done well, done splendidly, Edward, old man,” said his friend presently, after hearing of Chinese wonders that took him somewhat beyond his depth. “No one is more pleased than I. I’ve watched your books. You haven’t regretted England, I’ll be bound?” he asked.
“The philosopher has no country, in any case,” was the reply, steadily given. “But out there, I confess, I’ve found my home.” He leaned forward, a deeper earnestness in his tone and expression. And into his face, as he spoke, came a glow of happiness. “My heart,” he said, “is in China.”
“I see it is, I see it is,” put in the other, conscious that he could not honestly share his friend’s enthusiasm. “And you’re fortunate to be free to live where your treasure is,” he added after a moment’s pause. “You must be a happy man. Your passion amounts to nostalgia, I suspect. Already yearning to get back there, probably?”
Farque gazed at him for some seconds with shining eyes. “You remember the Persian saying, I’m sure,” he said. “‘You see a man drink, but you do not see his thirst.’ Well,” he added, laughing happily, “you may see me off in six months’ time, but you will not see my happiness.”
While he went on talking, the doctor glanced round the room, marvelling still at the exquisite taste of everything, the neat arrangement, the perfect matching of form and colour. A woman might have done this thing, occurred to him, as the haunting figure shifted deliciously into the foreground of his mind again. The thought of her had been momentarily replaced by all he heard and saw. She now returned, filling him with joy, anticipation and enthusiasm. Presently, when it was his turn to talk, he would tell his friend about this new, unimagined happiness that had burst upon him like a sunrise. Presently, but not just yet. He remembered, too, with a passing twinge of possible boredom to come, that there must be some delay before his own heart could unburden itself in its turn. Farque wanted to ask some professional questions, of course. He had for the moment forgotten that part of the letter in his general interest and astonishment.
“Happiness, yes…” he murmured, aware that his thoughts had wandered, and catching at the last word he remembered hearing. “As you said just now in your own queer way—you haven’t changed a bit, let me tell you, in your picturesqueness of quotation, Edward—one must not be fugitive from life; one must seize happiness when and where it offers.”
He said it lightly enough, hugging internally his own sweet secret; but he was a little surprised at the earnestness of his friend’s rejoinder: “Both of us, I see,” came the deep voice, backed by the flash of the far-seeing grey eyes, “have made some progress in the doctrine of life and death.” He paused, gazing at the other with sight that was obviously turned inwards upon his own thoughts. “Beauty,” he went on presently, his tone even more serious, “has been my lure; yours, Reality…”
“You don’t flatter either of us, Edward. That’s too exclusive a statement,” put in the doctor. He was becoming every minute more and more interested in the workings of his friend’s mind. Something about the signs offered eluded his understanding. “Explain yourself, old scholar-poet. I’m a dull, practical mind, remember, and can’t keep pace with Chinese subtleties.”
“You’ve left out Beauty,” was the quiet rejoinder, “while I left out Reality. That’s neither Chinese nor subtle. It is simply true.”
“A bit wholesale, isn’t it?” laughed Francis. “A big generalization, rather.”
A bright light seemed to illuminate the scholar’s face. It was as though an inner lamp was suddenly lit. At the same moment the sound of a soft gong floated in from the hall outside, so soft that the actual strokes were not distinguishable in the wave of musical vibration that reached the ear.
Farque rose to lead the way in to dinner.
“What if I—” he whispered, “have combined the two?” And upon his face was a look of joy that reached down into the other’s own full heart with its unexpectedness and wonder. It was the last remark in the world he had looked for. He wondered for a moment whether he interpreted it correctly.
“By Jove..!” he exclaimed. “Edward, what d’you mean?”
“You shall hear—after dinner,” said Farque, his voice mysterious, his eyes still shining with his inner joy. “I told you I have some questions to ask you—professionally.” And they took their seats round an ancient, marvellous table, lit by two swinging lamps of soft green jade, while the Chinese servant waited on them with the silent movements and deft neatness of his imperturbable celestial race.