Perhaps it was not to be wondered
at if Mr. Rickman had not yet found himself.
There were, as he sorrowfully reflected, so many Mr.
There was Mr. Rickman of the front
shop and second-hand department, known as “our
Mr. Rickman.” The shop was proud of him;
his appearance was supposed to give it a certain cachet.
He neither strutted nor grovelled; he moved about
from shelf to shelf in an absent-minded scholarly
manner. He served you, not with obsequiousness,
nor yet with condescension, but with a certain remoteness
and abstraction, a noble apathy. Though a bookseller,
his literary conscience remained incorruptible.
He would introduce you to his favourite authors with
a magnificent take-it-or-leave-it air, while an almost
imperceptible lifting of his eyebrows as he handed
you your favourite was a subtle criticism of
your taste. This method of conducting business
was called keeping up the tone of the establishment.
The appearance and disappearance of this person was
timed and regulated by circumstances beyond his own
control, so that of necessity all the other Mr. Rickmans
were subject to him.
For there was Mr. Rickman the student
and recluse, who inhabited the insides of other men’s
books. Owing to his habitual converse with intellects
greater really greater than his
own, he was an exceedingly humble and reverent person.
A high and stainless soul. You would never have
suspected his connection with Mr. Rickman, the Junior
Journalist, the obscure writer of brilliant paragraphs,
a fellow destitute of reverence and decency and everything
except consummate impudence, a disconcerting humour
and a startling style. But he was still more
distantly related to Mr. Rickman the young man about
town. And that made four. Besides these
four there was a fifth, the serene and perfect intelligence,
who from some height immeasurably far above them sat
in judgement on them all. But for his abnormal
sense of humour he would have been a Mr. Rickman of
the pure reason, no good at all. As it was, he
occasionally offered some reflection which was enjoyed
but seldom acted upon.
And underneath these Mr. Rickmans,
though inextricably, damnably one with them, was a
certain apparently commonplace but amiable young man,
who lived in a Bloomsbury boarding-house and dropped
his aitches. This young man was tender and chivalrous,
full of little innocent civilities to the ladies of
his boarding-house; he admired, above all things,
modesty in a woman, and somewhere, in the dark and
unexplored corners of his nature, he concealed a prejudice
in favour of marriage and the sanctities of home.
That made six, and no doubt they would
have pulled together well enough; but the bother was
that any one of them was liable at any moment to the
visitation of the seventh Mr. Rickman the
genius. There was no telling whether he would
come in the form of a high god or a demon, a consolation
or a torment. Sometimes he would descend upon
Mr. Rickman in the second-hand department, and attempt
to seduce him from his allegiance to the Quarterly
Catalogue. Or he would take up the poor journalist’s
copy as it lay on a table, and change it so that its
own editor wouldn’t know it again. And sometimes
he would swoop down on the little bookseller as he
sat at breakfast on a Sunday morning, in his nice
frock coat and clean collar, and wrap his big flapping
wings round him, and carry him off to the place where
the divine ideas come from leaving a silent and to
all appearances idiotic young gentleman in his place.
Or he would sit down by that young gentleman’s
side and shake him out of his little innocences
and complacencies, and turn all his little jokes into
his own incomprehensible humour. And then the
boarding-house would look uncomfortable and say to
itself that Mr. Rickman had been drinking.
In short, it was a very confusing
state of affairs, and one that made it almost impossible
for Mr. Rickman to establish his identity. Seven
Rickmans only think of it! And some
reckon an eighth, Mr. Rickman drunk. But this
is not altogether fair; for intoxication acted rather
on all seven at once, producing in them a gentle fusion
with each other and the universe. They had ceased
to struggle. But Mr. Rickman was not often drunk,
or at least not nearly so often as his friends supposed.
So it was all very well for Jewdwine,
who was not so bewilderingly constructed, to talk
about finding your formula and pulling yourself together.
How, Mr. Rickman argued, could you hope to find the
formula of a fellow who could only be expressed in
fractions, and vulgar fractions, too? How on
earth could you pull yourself together when Nature
had deliberately cut you into little pieces? Never
since poor Orpheus was torn to tatters by the Maenads
was there a poet so horribly subdivided. Talk
of being dissolute, dissipated! Those adjectives
were a poor description of S.K.R. It was more
than sowing a mere handful of wild oats, it was a
disintegration, a scattering of Rickmans to all the
winds of the world.
Find himself, indeed!
Still, he was perfectly willing to
try; and to that end (after dining with people who
were anything but cultivated, or intellectual, or
refined) he turned himself loose into the streets.
The streets he was never
tired of them. After nine or ten hours of sitting
in a dusty second-hand bookshop, his soul was dry with
thirst for the living world, and the young joy of
the world, “the fugitive actuality.”
And her ways were in the streets.
Being a young poet about town, he
turned to the streets as naturally as a young poet
in the country turns to the woods and fields.
For in the streets, if you know how to listen, you
can hear the lyric soul of things as plainly, more
plainly perhaps, than in the woods or fields.
Only it sings another sort of song. And going
into the streets was Rickman’s way (the only
way open to him as yet) of going into society.
The doors were thrown hospitably wide to him; one day
was as good as another; the world was always at home.
It was a world where he could pick
and choose his acquaintance; where, indeed, out of
that multitudinous, never-ending procession of persons,
his power of selection was unlimited. He never
had any difficulty with them; their methods were so
charmingly simple and direct. In the streets
the soul is surprised through the lifting of an eyelid,
and the secret of the heart sits lightly on the curl
of the lip. These passers by never wearied him;
they flung him the flower of the mystery and passed
by. The perfection of social intercourse he conceived
as a similar succession of radiant intimacies.
To-night he went southwards down Gower
Street, drawn by the never-ending fugitive perspective
of the lamps. He went westwards down Shaftesbury
Avenue to Piccadilly. The Circus was a gleaming
basin filled with grey night clear as water, the floor
of it alive with lights. Lights that stood still;
lights that wandered from darkness into darkness;
that met and parted, darting, wheeling, and crossing
in their flight. Long avenues opened out of it,
precipitous deep cuttings leading into the night.
The steep, shadowy masses of building seemed piled
sky-high, like a city of the air; here the gleam of
some golden white façade, there some aerial battlement
crowned with stars, with clusters, and points, and
rings of flame that made a lucid twilight of the dark
above them. Over all was an illusion of immensity.
Nine o’clock of an April night the
time when a great city has most power over those that
love her; the time when she lowers her voice and subdues
her brilliance, intimating that she is not what she
seems; when she makes herself unearthly and insubstantial,
veiling her grossness in the half-transparent night.
Like some consummate temptress, she plays the mystic,
clothing herself with light and darkness, skirting
the intangible, hinting at the infinities, flinging
out the eternal spiritual lure, so that she may better
seduce the senses through the soul. And Rickman
was too young a poet to distinguish clearly between
his senses and his imagination, or his imagination
and his soul.
He stood in Piccadilly Circus and
regarded the spectacle of the night. He watched
the groups gathering at the street corners, the boys
that went laughing arm in arm, the young girls smiling
into their lovers’ eyes; here and there the
faces of other women, dubious divinities of the gas-light
and the pavement, passing and passing. A very
ordinary spectacle. But to Rickman it had an
immense significance, a rhythmic, processional resonance
and grandeur. It was an unrhymed song out of
Saturnalia, it was the luminous, passionate
nocturne of the streets.
Half-past nine; a young girl met him
and stopped. She laughed into his face.
“Pretty well pleased with yourself,
aren’t you?” said the young girl.
He laughed back again. He was
pleased with the world, so of course he was pleased
with himself. They were one. The same spirit
was in Mr. Rickman that was in the young girl and
in the young April night.
They walked together as far as the
Strand, conversing innocently.