A TACTICAL move in the anti-conscription campaign was the foundation of a club, a place where people with pacific or generally advanced ideas could congregate.
“A club like this would soon be the intellectual centre of London,” said Hyman, ever sanguine.
Dick shrugged his shoulders. He had a wide experience of pacifists.
“If you bring people together,” Hyman went on, “they encourage one another to be bold—strengthen one another’s faith.”
“Yes,” said Dick dyspeptically. “When they’re in a herd, they can believe that they’re much more numerous and important than they really are.”
“But, man, they are numerous, they are important!” Hyman shouted and gesticulated.
Dick allowed himself to be persuaded into an optimism which he knew to be ill-founded. The consolations of religion do not console the less efficaciously for being illusory.
It was a longtime before they could think of a suitable name for their club. Dick suggested that it should be called the Sclopis Club. “Such a lovely name,” he explained. “Sclopis—Sclopis; it tastes precious in the mouth.” But the rest of the committee would not hear of it; they wanted a name that meant something. One lady suggested that it should be called the Everyman Club; Dick objected with passion. “It makes one shudder,” he said. The lady thought it was a beautiful and uplifting name, but as Mr. Greenow was so strongly opposed, she wouldn’t press the claims of Everyman. Hyman wanted to call it the Pacifist Club, but that was judged too provocative. Finally, they agreed to call it the Novembrist Club, because it was November and they could think of no better title.
The inaugural dinner of the Novembrist Club was held at Piccolomini’s Restaurant. Piccolomini is in, but not exactly of, Soho, for it is a cross between a Soho restaurant and a Corner House, a hybrid which combines the worst qualities of both parents—the dirt and inefficiency of Soho, the size and vulgarity of Lyons. There is a large upper chamber reserved for agapes. Here, one wet and dismal winter’s evening, the Novembrists assembled.
Dick arrived early, and from his place near the door he watched his fellow-members come in. He didn’t much like the look of them. “Middle class” was what he found himself thinking; and he had to admit, when his conscience reproached him for it, that he did not like the middle classes, the lower middle classes, the lower classes. He was, there was no denying it, a bloodsucker at heart—cultured and intelligent, perhaps, but a bloodsucker none the less.
The meal began. Everything about it was profoundly suspect. The spoons were made of some pale pinchbeck metal, very light and flimsy; one expected them to melt in the soup, or one would have done, if the soup had been even tepid. The food was thick and greasy. Dick wondered what it really looked like under the concealing sauces. The wine left an indescribable taste that lingered on the palate, like the savour of brass or of charcoal fumes.
From childhood upwards Dick had suffered from the intensity of his visceral reactions to emotion. Fear and shyness were apt to make him feel very sick, and disgust produced in him a sensation of intolerable queasiness. Disgust had seized upon his mind to-night. He grew paler with the arrival of every dish, and the wine, instead of cheering him, made him feel much worse. His neighbours to right and left ate with revolting heartiness. On one side sat Miss Gibbs, garishly dressed in ill-assorted colours that might be called futuristic; on the other was Mr. Something in pince-nez, rather ambrosial about the hair. Mr. Something was a poet, or so the man who introduced them had said. Miss Gibbs was just an ordinary member of the Intelligentsia, like the rest of us.
The Lower Classes, the Lower Classes . . .
“Are you interested in the Modern Theatre?” asked Mr. Something in his mellow voice. Too mellow—oh, much too mellow!
“Passably,” said Dick.
“So am I,” said Mr. Thingummy. “I am a vice-president of the Craftsmen’s League of Joy, which perhaps you may have heard of.”
Dick shook his head; this was going to be terrible.
“The objects of the Craftsmen’s League of Joy,” Mr. Thingummy continued, “or rather, one of the objects—for it has many—is to establish Little Theatres in every town and village in England, where simple, uplifting, beautiful plays might be acted. The people have no joy.”
“They have the cinema and the music hall,” said Dick. He was filled with a sudden senseless irritation. “They get all the joy they want out of the jokes of the comics and the legs of the women.”
“Ah, but that is an impure joy,” Mr. What’s-his-name protested.
“Impure purple, Herbert Spenser’s favourite colour,” flashed irrelevantly through Dick’s brain.
“Well, speaking for myself,” he said aloud, “I know I get more joy out of a good pair of legs than out of any number of uplifting plays of the kind they’d be sure to act in your little theatres. The people ask for sex and you give them a stone.”
How was it, he wondered, that the right opinions in the mouths of these people sounded so horribly cheap and wrong? They degraded what was noble; beauty became fly-blown at their touch. Their intellectual tradition was all wrong. Lower classes, it always came back to that. When they talked about war and the International, Dick felt a hot geyser of chauvinism bubbling up in his breast. In order to say nothing stupid, he refrained from speaking at all. Miss Gibbs switched the conversation on to art. She admired all the right people. Dick told her that he thought Sir Luke Fildes to be the best modern artist. But his irritation knew no bounds when he found out a little later that Mr. Something had read the poems of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. He felt inclined to say, “You may have read them, but of course you can’t understand or appreciate them.”
Lower Classes . . .
How clear and splendid were the ideas of right and justice! If only one could filter away the contaminating human element. . . . Reason compelled him to believe in democracy, in internationalism, in revolution; morality demanded justice for the oppressed. But neither morality nor reason would ever bring him to take pleasure in the company of democrats or revolutionaries, or make him find the oppressed, individually, any less antipathetic.
At the end of this nauseating meal, Dick was called on to make a speech. Rising to his feet, he began stammering and hesitating; he felt like an imbecile. Then suddenly inspiration came. The great religious ideas of Justice and Democracy swept like a rushing wind through his mind, purging it of all insignificant human and personal preferences or dislikes. He was filled with pentecostal fire. He spoke in a white heat of intellectual passion, dominating his hearers, infecting them with his own high enthusiasm. He sat down amid cheers. Miss Gibbs and Mr. Thingummy leaned towards him with flushed, shining faces.
“That was wonderful, Mr. Greenow. I’ve never heard anything like it,” exclaimed Miss Gibbs, with genuine, unflattering enthusiasm.
Mr. Thing said something poetical about a trumpet-call. Dick looked from one to the other with blank and fishy eyes. So it was for these creatures he had been speaking!
Good God! . . .