"The Pessimist of Plato Road"
How it comes about, I know not; but the fact is demonstrable, that two little streets branching from Acre Lane - the suburban thoroughfare which connects Brixton with Clapham - have been named, respectively, after the great lawgiver and the great philosopher of Athens. But for this startling originality of nomenclature, Solon Road and Plato Road would have little or nothing to mark them out among the countless similar byways of South London. They are short and narrow; the houses are very small, yet in their feeble way pretentious, for the bay-windows of the ground-floor display miniature stucco columns, scraped with spiral moulding; they have a plaintive little air of resolute respectability, of domestic virtue established on the very narrowest basis of cash. Great, however, is the force of a name. That of Plato Road sufficed to attract Mr. Philip Dolamore, who sought a lodging within the philosophic precincts, and here abode for the space of two years. He occupied a tiny back room, which at first served him for all purposes. Hither, on week-days, his breakfast and supper were brought to him; on Sunday his dinner and tea also. But when the landlady had sufficiently observed him, and felt assured of the perfect propriety of his ways, a new arrangement was proposed, whereby Mr. Dolamore henceforth took meals with the family. Such a proposal could not lightly be made, for Mrs. Byles, a widow of the severest principles, had two daughters in their later teens. The young ladies conformed to no type of loveliness, but were amiable and sensitive. The elder, Jessie by name, went daily to the City, where she had employment at a wholesale stationer's; her sister, Evelyn, suffered from poor health and confined herself to domestic duties. With the utmost solicitude Mrs. Byles kept watch over the growth of intimacy between Mr. Dolamore and her daughters; on both sides there was a diffidence not easily overcome, and it took some weeks before the conversation at table went beyond mere civil trivialities. Mr. Dolamore, though his years fell considerably short of thirty, had the look and the tones of age that had fallen into disillusion and melancholy; he sat with bowed shoulders and bent head; he smiled seldom, and then as though in pity for a world that amuses itself. From shadowed hints that escaped him, it seemed that -his fortunes were much below his birth, but on all personal matters he spoke very guardedly. A reference to his business (Mrs. Byles had elicited from him when first he came that he held a "mercantile post "in the Borough) manifestly displeased him. "Poor and proud" was Mrs. Byles's remark when she spoke of him with the girls. For his pride, the consciousness of superior origin might perhaps account. Then there could be no doubt that he was very intellectual. He read a great deal; books - not novels - lay about his room, and every Saturday he brought home a number of weekly papers with which (the only point in his behaviour which fell under Mrs. Byles's condemnation) he occupied himself for the greater part of Sunday, instead of visiting a place of worship. As time went on, his conversation began to suggest a scope of study and thought much beyond the understanding of his hearers; he let fall the names of authors utterly unknown to Plato Road; with his mysterious melancholic smile, he dropped phrases and broken sentences which Mrs. Byles and her daughters either failed to comprehend, or heard with a vague anxiety, the cause of puzzled whispering between them when he had left the room. It could not be mistaken that Mr. Dolamore deemed himself, from every point of view, greatly the superior of the Byles family; but his pallid pensiveness, his invariable courtesy, the sad gravity of his condescension made it impossible for them to feel offended by his attitude. Jessie, whose journeys Cityward kept her in tolerable spirits, ventured now and then a timid joke at the lodger's expense; she declared that he was suffering from dyspepsia, the result of sitting at table in a bent position, and of never taking wholesome exercise; moreover, he stayed up too late at nights, and smoked much more than was good for him. Evelyn, on the other hand, regarded Mr. Dolamore with a respect, if not with a personal admiration, which made her shrink at such flippant remarks; in his presence she rarely ventured to utter the simplest word, and if by chance he addressed her the blood rushed to her hollow cheeks - a face not unobserved by Mrs. Byles, who pondered upon it with fluttering apprehension. One Saturday afternoon, when Evelyn chanced to be alone in the parlour, Dolamore looked in to ask some trivial question. The girl had been reading; Dolamore, disposed for conversation, asked what the book was that lay on her lap, and in a shamefaced way she answered that it was "only one of Mrs. Henry Wood's novels." "Ah - yes. I remember reading some of her books long ago - long ago." He seemed to ponder on the idle tastes of his youth. "I never read novels now." "I know it's a sad waste of time," Evelyn admitted, timidly. "Well, you are young, Miss Evelyn. You lead a peaceful life. Experience of the world's bitterness" - this phrase was frequently on Dolamore's lips - "destroys one's taste for romance. You know what Shelley says: 'The clouds of sunset do take a lurid colouring from the eye that hath wept over man's mortality.'" Evelyn was much impressed. The quotation, and the assigned authorship, were fair specimens of Dolamore's habitual accuracy. His knowledge of the poets came to him at second-hand; his ideas of rhythm and metre he owed only to himself. "What are you reading now, Mr. Dolamore?" the girl ventured to ask. He smiled, looked towards the ceiling, and answered dreamily: "'Shoppenhaw.'" "That's in a foreign language, I suppose," Evelyn murmured, when awe suffered her to speak. "'Shoppenhaw' is a German philosopher," he explained with an indulgent smile. "I read him in an English translation, but only because the original is too expensive." Of course he knew no language; what it is to be intellectual and at the same time poor! A smile of ironic humiliation curled his lip. "You know that I am poor?" She blushed, and could make no answer. "Oh, I'm not ashamed of ~ He looked about him with gloomy defiance of destiny. "Happily, even in our wretched time, the vulgar aptitude for commerce is. not universal. There's no reason why I shouldn't tell you that I live on thirty shillings a week. That is the world's estimate of my value." His voice sank; his lips quivered; his nose and chin seemed to become more prominent. Evelyn, when she dared to glance at him, had the lustre of worship in her pale eyes. "Yes," Dolamore continued moodily, "I sit all day at a desk. I do the work that might be done by any washerwoman's boy fresh from a board-school. This is what Matthew Arnold calls 'the fitness of things.'" He glared his sarcasm. Evelyn scarcely refrained from tears. She felt very low to-day, and had been asking herself, "what she had to live for." "Does it not seem to you a hard lot?" he asked, smiling with infinite self-pity. "Oh, indeed it does! It's very wrong." "Well, I don't know." He changed to the philosophic tone. "Perhaps there is no such thing as right and wrong. Or rather, everything is wrong. Life is wrong, from the root upwards. That is 'Shoppenhaw's' teaching. I have really no right to grumble. It's illogical. You know, Miss Evelyn, I am by conviction a pessimist." "I am so ignorant, Mr. Dolamore. Will you tell me what that is?" "A pessimist is one who sees through all the illusions of life. He hopes nothing, because he knows that hope is a device of nature to lead one into despair. Pessimism teaches one to renounce the desire of life. As long as one desires, one is condemned to frustration." Evelyn, aided by the teachings of her formal religion, found something half intelligible in these words. She begged for further elucidation, and they talked on the subject until Mrs. Byles's return from shopping interrupted them. And it was the first of many such talks. In Evelyn Byles the pessimist had found a listener who exactly suited him. Her genuine ignorance permitted the largest display of his simulated knowledge. To her he could quote from the paragraphs of penny weeklies to his heart's content, and revile the world which did not appreciate its greatest men at the same moment that he professed himself indifferent to all the lures of life. But it came to pass, when Dolamore had resided in Plato Road for about a twelvemonth, that Mrs. Byles one evening requested a few words with him in private. After much beating about the bush - she was a well meaning and . not indelicate woman - there. at length fell from her lips an enquiry of unmistakable significance. "Mr. Dolamore, as a mother I am obliged to ask you whether you think of my daughter Evelyn as anything more than a friend?" He was prepared for it, but he fell into agitation. "I am afraid I have acted very imprudently. I have been led on by the pleasure of - of finding a sympathetic companion. Miss. Evelyn, though she has not had my advantages as to-as to culture, seems to understand me; better, perhaps, than any one else ever did. We talk of philosophy - of 'Shoppenhaw'; only of intellectual things. I assure you, Mrs. Byles, there has never been a word between us ----" His voice failed. "But you know, Mr. Dolamore, that - that a girl's feelings ----" "I know - I know! I judge from my own." He collapsed into utter despondency. Mrs. Byles looked very anxious, and seemed to repress a tear. "You have never thought of marrying, Mr. Dolamore?" "Dear Mrs. Byles, my income is thirty shillings a week." His head jerked up and down. "I shrink from the vulgar competition of commercial life. I don't see how I am to make more money. Intellect has no value in the market - none - none." "Ah, but don't you think you could do better if you tried? If you could get an advance of only ten shillings. I'm sure you might do that. Read the advertisements." Dolamore shuddered. "At your age and with your abilities!" It ended in a promise from Dolamore that he would try. The mother's persistency, a certain moral force that was in her, guided his feeble will. That very night he plighted his troth to Evelyn, and made the girl tearfully joyous. Yes, he would bestir himself; after all, he would live. There were places to be got; certain acquaintances might help him. And on the following Sunday, when he walked. with Evelyn about Clapham Common, their talk was of the expenses of housekeeping. For a whole week neither of them mentioned "Shoppenhaw." Little by little, some of the facts of Dolamore's earlier life became known to his betrothed. He was a native of Camden Town, and his father dealt in secondhand furniture. But not as a mere tradesman: oh, no! for he looked upon furniture with the eyes of an artist - "like William Morris, the poet, you know." Young Philip received his primary education at "an academy for the sons of gentlemen." He had an uncle - now dead - who "kept up a large establishment in the country." (Dolamore did not explain that this establishment was a wayside inn.) One of his aunts - now dead - had married a "retired officer" (in fact, a drill-sergeant). All these advantages notwithstanding, cruel fortune thrust him out into the world at sixteen, to fight his battle alone. "And what a battle it has been, Evelyn!" - he glared biliously at her - "more than once I have gone into my bedroom at night with a bottle of poison in my hand. It was not courage that failed me at the last moment. But a voice whispered: "It is not your fate to die like this. Struggle on! You have intellect. The world cannot spare you!' Ah! in those days I could hope." "Oh! and you can still," exclaimed his companion. "Philip, you have promised me to hope!" "Yes, I will hope; for your sake." The note of condescension was still there. "But what a world to live in! Ah, if we were both dead, Evelyn, how much better!" "No-no! Oh, don't, Philip!" He allowed himself to be soothed. Week after week went by, month after month, and still Dolamore was as far as ever from bettering his prospects. He sank again into profoundest gloom. When a Sunday glowed with almost the last sunshine of autumn, Evelyn persuaded him to go with her on an omnibus as far as Tooting. He was ill; he needed the fresh air. And in a lonely part of Tooting Common, Dolamore gave vent to all the bitterness of his soul. "Other people go to the seaside, to the Lakes, to the Highlands; I - I - have to be content with Tooting Common! Think what it means to a man of my culture. Only think that I have never been abroad; yet what man living is better fitted to appreciate the sights of the Continent - 'the splendour that was Greece, and the beauty that was Rome?' I revolt against it! I revolt!" He shook his fist skyward. His eyes were bloodshot; for a moment he showed his yellow teeth. "Your day will come, darling," said the girl, in a choked voice. "My day! Yes; the day of my death. I am longing for it. Death is rest and peace. It's only the paltry creatures that can find satisfaction in such a world as this. Death is my only friend!" "Oh, Philip! Don't you love me?" "Poor little girl!" He sighed, and looked steadfastly at her. Then, with a sudden reminiscence of some stage Hamlet - "Leave me! Forget me! What have I to do with love? Go back to your quiet, simple life, and forget that you have ever known such a man as I am! I don't love you! I only love Death." Then followed the scene that he had anticipated. No one being within sight, Evelyn clung about him with tears and entreaties and protestations. He was too good, too noble, to break her heart with such unkindness. What did it matter to her if he never earned more money I She would always love him. If they could not marry they might still love each other, be all the world to each other. And once more the man was softened; he averted his face. "Evelyn," he said to her presently, "did you ever expect to marry a man like me - a man of my culture?" "Oh, that I never did!" "Isn't it strange that you and I should have met? You, a simple little girl, and I, a man who might associate with the leading minds of the day." It was a sincere estimate of himself. Sham education, and the poisonous atmosphere of sham culture everywhere diffused by newspapers, books, and lectures, had brought him to this pass. He quivered in a paroxysm of frantic conceit. Mrs. Byles was growing very unhappy. Her elder daughter had begun to talk disparagingly of Dolamore, and to scoff at the gloomy grandeurs of his rhetoric. It was an unhappy day for them, declared Jessie, when he came into the house. Anyone could see that poor Evelyn would soon develop consumption or heart disease. Something ought to be done. And when the engagement had lasted all but a twelvemonth, with no sign as yet of manly activity in Dolamore, Mrs. Byles took a resolve that something must be done. She lacked courage to do it alone; Jessie must be with her. They succeeded in getting Evelyn away from home for an hour or two, then summoned her lover to a conference. Mrs. Byles began in such a weak strain that Jessie lost patience. "You see, Philip, things can't go on like this. They can't indeed. Mother and I have talked it over, and we really feel obliged to ask you to - to go away - to find some other lodgings. We don't mean that we want you to break off your engagement with Evelyn - of course we haven't a right. But it would be better for you and her and all of us if you didn't live in this house. You are so very, very - depressing. A change would do you a great deal of good - now, don't you think so?" The pessimist gave ear with patient dignity, and when Jessie, breathless after her bold assault, tried to read its effect upon him, she saw that he was resuming the distant air which characterised him long ago. For a minute at least he sat silent; then, looking from the girl to her mother, he smiled as though they had been entreating a boon of him which he was graciously disposed to grant. "I will certainly adopt your suggestion. Say nothing to Evelyn; I take that upon myself. In a week's time the new arrangement shall be made." After this, Mrs. Byles found it easier to talk in plain, motherly language, and she bestowed upon her would-be son-in-law a great deal of excellent advice. It amused him - so obviously was it applicable only to men of the common stamp and he listened and replied with a sort of weary tolerance. An hour later he had. his interview with Evelyn. It surprised him not a little to find that she could listen with calm whilst he proposed to shelter his much- enduring head under an alien roof. Evelyn, in truth, was sacrificing. her own desires out of regard for her mother and sister, who, she knew, would be much happier if they saw less of Philip Dolamore. Hope of a speedy marriage she had altogether abandoned. The constitution of her mind permitted her to look forward indefinitely, with confidence in her lover's faith and a vague trust in the order of things, which seemed to favour matrimony. So Dolamore packed his slender belongings and went forth, as he expressed it, into the wilderness; that is to say, he found a lodging in North Brixton. By stipulation, he would visit Plato Road twice a week. Evelyn might write to him as often as she chose, and he would respond when a lighter spirit prompted him. Three days only had elapsed when Evelyn received from him a note of ambiguous tenor. All it contained was this: "Meet me to-morrow evening, at seven, by our tree on Clapham Common. I have something to tell you. P.D." Mrs. Byles and Jessie were of opinion that this augured good news. He had taken some step at last, urged doubtless by the fear that Evelyn might altogether break with him. Evelyn herself could not feel so hopeful. For more than a week she had been tortured with nervous headache, which kept her awake at night and made her days a blank wretchedness. Persistence of ill-fortune seemed to her the only probable thing that her lover could have to speak of. She met him, and at the first glance saw with leaping heart that he looked comparatively cheerful. "You have good news?" "As you take it," he answered, with a peculiar solemnity. "I call it good - the best. Let us walk on, and just listen to me. Don't interrupt." The summer evening shone warm and bright about them. Numbers of people were within sight, and shouting voices sounded from a part of the common where boys were at cricket; but the privacy of this particular spot, as they had long since discovered, could generally be depended upon. Dolamore moved slowly forward, and spoke with his eyes on the ground. "Evelyn, in a month's time I shall be homeless and penniless. They have told me to-day at the office that they must dispense with my services. It didn't surprise me. I wonder it hasn't come long before this. You know I am quite unfit for the hateful routine of office work. I suppose my troubles of late have made me careless; the fact is, several mistakes of mine were pointed out. I could have laughed in their faces when they spoke of them - the contemptible money- grubbers! Well, never mind. It's come to an end; and now ----" He stood still, became silent, looked into the girl's face. In the matter of unhealthiness, there was little to choose between his countenance and hers, but Evelyn showed a profound misery, whereas he could smile. "But you will find another place," she said in low, uneven tones. "I shall not try." "Then what ----" He took from his pocket a folded sheet of notepaper. "Read that, Evelyn!" Through her tears she endeavoured to do so. The first line astonished her. "TO THE . EDITOR OF 'THE DAILY TELEGRAPH." Then followed this: - "SIR, - I am about to take a step which to me is of some importance, and also, I cannot help thinking, to the world at large. Permit me to address you in a few lines, and, through you, the great public of your readers. Is it, Sir, or is it not, a matter of any account to a civilised nation, that the most intellectual of its sons should be enabled to lead a life distinguished in outward respects from that of the meanest and the most ignorant? I should have thought so; yet here am I, a highly educated and thoughtful man, unable to find any means of supporting myself save by that office-slavery which even the vulgar shrink from. Nay, even thus I cannot, it seems, earn my bread, for I am about to be cast into the streets by the ignoble employers who have hitherto made use of me. Under these circumstances, I cannot hesitate how to act; in a world so basely ordered, I refuse to live longer. As a student of philosophy, I claim the right to put an end to my life; and when you receive this letter, my being will be dispersed into its elements." Thus far Evelyn read; then a strange dreadful moan escaped her. Her hands fell, and she stared at Dolamore with wide eyes. "Have you read it all?" he asked calmly. "Philip! - Never! - You shall not!" "My dear little girl, it is decided. You can't put back the hand upon the clock of destiny." He had thought of this phrase on the way hither. "To-morrow is my last day. But" - the tremor of outrageous conceit ran through him - "when I am gone, people will talk of me. This letter will be printed; if not before the inquest, then after it. At last I shall stand out in the view of people who can sympathise with me; my obscurity will be at an end; my name will be remembered. The papers - daily and weekly - will write about me. Yes! It is idle. to talk about it. To-morrow night I die!" He said it with exultation; his poor, common, unwholesome visage was transfigured with the glow of gratified vanity. Evelyn burst into incoherent entreaties and bewailings, clung to him, kissed his hand and his arm; but Dolamore merely picked the letter from the grass and put it away. "Oh, Philip! Then I will die with you, darling! I will die too!" He examined her gravely. "No, no, my poor girl. Live and be happy!" "Happy? I? Oh, I feel so wretchedly ill! My head! I shall be glad to die, and have done with everything. Tell me how? What will you do it with?" "Evelyn, are you in earnest?" "I am, if you are. If you die, Philip, I shall die too." He lowered his voice, and spoke, it seemed in a tone of satisfaction. Very well, they would both die; they would drink poison at the same moment, he in his lodgings, she in her own home. This point agreed upon, they discussed the details with scarcely a show of agitation. Dolamore mentioned the fatal drug, a mere narcotic. "You go to sleep for ever - that's all. No pain; no consciousness of death." Evelyn, thanks to her headache, could easily go to bed at a very early hour, long before her sister came home; when Jessie entered the room (they shared one in the little house) Evelyn would seem asleep, but would really be dead. She should write a letter to her mother, and leave it under the pillow. "We shall both be talked of." Dolamore recurred to this several times. "Write to your mother that we both die at the same time. Dear Evelyn! Good little girl!" He seemed more fond of her than ever before, holding her hand and caressing it. And whilst they talked thus the sun went down. Still they lingered together, insensible to the flight of time. They sang paeans to Death - the friend, the deliverer. They grew exalted, and as genuinely poetical as two little Cockney souls could be. To-morrow morning they were to meet again. Dolamore would bring with him a phial, which Evelyn would take home. in the meantime she could satisfy the curiosity of her mother and sister with some harmless tale. Grief was preparing for these two, of course; but how soon it would pass! Having one less in the home, life would be easier for them on their narrow income. And everything thus arranged was carried out - up to a certain point. At four o'clock on the following afternoon Evelyn, who had just drunk a cup of tea, told her mother that she could bear the headache no longer, that she must go upstairs and lie in the darkened room. She spoke so very quietly and patiently that Mrs. Byles gave a mere assent to the proposal. Evelyn had announced that Philip was maturing a very good project which must not be revealed just yet. The mother and sister tried to be sanguine; they saw that Evelyn had passed into a singularly placid mood, despite her headache. She went up to the little bedroom, drew the blind, placed under her pillow a letter and a phial, then quickly undressed. At half-past four she was to swallow the draught; a clock that chimed hard by would let her know the moment. Her eyes were fixed upon the window where the pattern of the chintz blind showed against broad daylight. Now and then a cold current of dread ran along her veins, but she thought of Philip, who lay even as she was lying, and this spiritual companionship upheld her wonderfully. The companionship would continue after death; their names would stand together in the newspapers; it would be known that she, even she, had been chosen for the love of such a man as Philip Dolamore. When they read his proud, beautiful letter, how many women would envy her! The church clock chimed; she turned a little, and took the phial, and drank. Had Dolamore aimed at exact knowledge, he might have discovered that this drug of his choice, if taken in an excessive dose, saved the would-be suicide by merely acting as a violent emetic. Bent on making death a certainty, he had altogether overshot the fatal limit; and so it happened that Mrs. Byles, walking softly by the room in which Evelyn lay, heard sounds that alarmed her. She rushed in - and the events of the next hour or two could be best explained by the medical man who was immediately summoned. Evelyn did not die. The letter beneath her pillow was discovered and read, with the result that a messenger presently called at the house where Philip Dolamore had his abode. Only to learn that, an hour or two previously, Mr. Dolamore had taken a very sudden departure, with bag and baggage, saying that he was called on business into the country. Of him Mrs. Byles and her daughters heard no more. The pessimist, aware of penalties directed against those who incite to suicide, for a long time kept in hiding, and came very near to death by starvation. When he crept forth again and mingled with mankind in a strange town, to earn a wretched living in ways unspecified, he no longer . felt the thrills of vanity. For all he knew, Evelyn Byles was dead; and he could not easily forget that the prolongation of his own days in this miserable world was due merely to a craven disloyalty at the moment when he went to post his letter to The Daily Telegraph. THE END. Provided by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan, on 18 July 2002.