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The Fantastic Friends
THE inn called the Rising Sun had an exterior rather suggesting the title of the Setting Sun. It stood in a narrow triangle of garden, more grey than green, with broken-down hedges mingling with the melancholy reeds of a river; with a few dark, and dank arbours, of which the roofs and the seats had alike collapsed; and a dingy dried-up fountain, with a weather-stained water-nymph and no water. The house itself seemed rather devoured by ivy than decorated with it; as if its old bones of brown brick were slowly broken by the dragon coils of that gigantic parasite. On the other side it looked on a lonely road leading across the hills down to a ford across the river; now largely disused since the building of a bridge lower down. Outside the door was a wooden bench and table, and above it a wooden sign, much darkened, with the gold of the sun's disc faded to a brown; and under the sign stood the inn-keeper, gazing gloomily up the road. His hair was black and flat, and his face, of a congested purple, had all the sombreness, if not all the beauty, of sunset.
The only person in the place who exhibited any liveliness was the person who was leaving it. He was the first and last customer for many months; a solitary swallow who had conspicuously failed to make a summer; and the swallow was now flitting. He was a medical man on a holiday; young, and of an agreeable ugliness, with a humorous hatchet face and red hair; and the cat-like activity of his movements contrasted with the stagnant inertia of the inn by the ford. He was strapping up his own bag on the table under the sign; and neither his host, who stood a yard off, nor the single servant, who moved heavily and obscurely within, offered to help him; possibly through sulkiness, possibly merely through dreaminess and disuse.
The long silence, idle or busy, was broken for the first time by two sharp and explosive sounds. The first was the abrupt bursting of the strap which the doctor was tightening round the bag on the table; and the second was the loud and cheerful "Damn!" which was his comment upon it.
"Here's a pretty go," observed the medical gentleman, who went by the name of Garth; "I shall have to tie it up with something. Have you got a cord or a rope or anything?"
The melancholy innkeeper turned very slowly and went indoors, coming out presently with a length of dusty rope in a loop like a halter, probably for tethering a donkey or a calf.
"That's all I've got," he said; "I'm pretty well at the end of my own tether anyhow."
"You seem a bit depressed," observed Dr. Garth; "you probably want a tonic. Perhaps this medicine chest burst open to give you one."
"Prussic acid is the kind of tonic I feel inclined for," answered the landlord of the Rising Sun.
"I never recommend it," observed the doctor cheerfully. "It's very pleasant at the moment, no doubt; but I never feel I can guarantee a complete recovery afterwards. But you certainly seem down in the mouth; you didn't even brighten up when I indulged in such an eccentricity as paying my bill."
"Much obliged to you, sir," observed the other gruffly, "but it would want a lot more bills to keep this rotten old show from going to pot. It was a good business once, when the right-of-way was open beyond the river, and everybody used this ford. But the last squire shut up the path somehow; and now everything goes by the new bridge a mile away. Nobody comes this way; and, saving your presence, I don't know why anybody should."
"Well, they say the new squire is nearly bankrupt himself," observed Dr. Garth. "So history brings its revenges. Westermaine's his name, isn't it? I'm told there's a brother and sister living in the big house over there, with precious little to live on. I suppose the whole countryside's rather gone downhill. But you're wrong about nobody coming here," he added suddenly, "for there are two men coming over the hill now."
The road ran across the valley at right angles to the river; beyond the ford the forgotten right-of-way could be traced more faintly up the slope to where the ruined gate that marked Westermaine Abbey stood dark against clouds of a pallor that was faintly lurid, as with a hint of storm. But on the other side of the valley the sky was clear; and the early afternoon seemed as bright and brisk as morning. And on this side, where the white road curved over the hill, two figures were advancing, which seemed, even when they were hardly more than dots in the distance, to be markedly dissimilar.
As they came nearer to the inn, the contrast increased, and was accentuated by the very fact of their air of mutual familiarity; as if they were almost walking arm in arm. One was comparatively short and very sturdy; the other unusually tall and slender. They were both fair; but the blond hair of the shorter man was neatly parted and smoothly plastered down; while that of the other stood up in erratic wisps and tufts that looked fantastic. The shorter man had a full square face sharpened by a very pointed nose, and a pair of bright, bird-like eyes, that made it look like a small beak. There was something of the cock sparrow about him; and, indeed, he seemed more of a town bird than a country bird. His clothes were as neat and commonplace as a clerk's; and he carried a business-like little bag as if he was going up to the City; while his tall companion had bundled on his back a loose knapsack, and what was evidently the paraphernalia of a painter. He had a long, slightly cadaverous face, with absentminded eyes; but the chin beneath jutted forward, almost as if it had formed an unconscious resolution of its own, of which the blank blue eyes were still unaware. They were both young; and they both walked without hats, probably through the heat of walking; for the one held a hard straw hat in his hand, and the other had a loose grey felt stuffed anyhow into his knapsack.
They came to a halt before the inn; and the shorter man said jovially to his companion, "Here's a field for your efforts, anyhow."
Then he called out with breezy civility to the innkeeper, asking him to bring out two pots of ale; and when that gloomy character had disappeared into his gloomy place of entertainment, he turned to the doctor with the same radiant loquacity:
"My friend's a painter," he explained, "but rather a special sort of painter. You might call him a house-painter; but he's not quite what most people mean by one. It may surprise you, sir, but he's an R.A., and not the stuffy sort that sometimes suggests, either. One of the first among the young geniuses, and exhibits at all their cranky galleries. But his whole aim and glory in life is to go about repainting inn-signs. There; you don't meet a genius with that little fancy every day. What's the name of this pub?"
And he stood on tip-toe, craning and peering at the blackened sign with an extraordinary contained vivacity in his curiosity.
"The Rising Sun," he commented, turning eagerly again to his silent friend. "That's what you would call an omen, after what you were saying this morning about reviving the real inns. My friend is very poetical; and he said it would make a sunrise all over England."
"Well, they say the sun never sets on the British Empire," observed the doctor, with a laugh.
"I don't feel it about the Empire so much," said the painter simply, breaking his silence like one spontaneously thinking aloud. "After all, one doesn't fancy an English inn on the top of Mount Everest, or somewhere on the Suez Canal. But one's life would be well spent in waking up the dead inns of England and making them English and Christian again. If I could do it, I would do nothing else till I die."
"Of course you can do it," replied his travelling companion. "A picture by an artist like you, and hung outside a public-house, makes it fashionable for miles round."
"Is it really true, then," inquired Dr. Garth, "that you employ all your serious powers on subjects like public-house signs?"
"What finer subjects are there, even as subjects?" asked the painter; he was now evidently full of his favourite subject, and he was one of those who are either abstractedly silent or ardently argumentative. "Is it more dignified to paint an Academy portrait of some snobbish mayor in a gold chain, or some swindling millionaire's wife in a diamond tiara, than to paint the heads of great English admirals, to be toasted in good ale? Is it better to paint some nepotistical old noodle wearing his George and Garter than to paint St. George himself in the very act of killing the Dragon? I've repainted six old signs of St. George and the Dragon, or even the Dragon without St. George; a sign called the Green Dragon is usually very suggestive to anybody with a little imagination; you can make him a sort of spirit and terror of tropical forests. Even a Blue Boar is suggestive; something nocturnal with stars like the Great Bear; like that dim monstrous boar that stood for chaos and old night in the Celtic mythology."
And he reached for his pewter pot, and applied himself to it with absorption.
"He's a poet as well as a painter, you know," explained the smaller man, still regarding his companion with an absurd air of proprietorship, as if he himself were the keeper and showman of some singular wild animal; "you've probably heard of the poems of Gabriel Gale, illustrated by himself? I can get you a copy if you are interested in these things. I'm his agent and business man; my name's Is Hurrel—James Hurrel. People laugh at us and call us the Heavenly Twins, because we're inseparable, and I never let him out of my sight. Have to look after him-eccentricities of genius, you know."
The painter took his face off the pewter pot, a face fiery with controversy.
"Genius oughtn't to be eccentric!" he cried in some excitement. "Genius ought to be centric. It ought to be in the core of the cosmos, not on the revolving edges. People seem to think it a compliment to accuse one of being an outsider, and to talk about the eccentricities of genius. What would they think, if I said I only wish to God I had the centricities of genius?"
"I fear they would think it was the beer," replied Dr. Garth, "that had slightly confused your polysyllables. Well, it may be a romantic idea to revive the old signs, as you say. Romance is not much in my line."
Mr. Hurrel, the agent, cut in sharply, and even eagerly. "But it isn't only a romantic idea," he explained; "it's a real, practical idea, too. I'm a business man, and you may believe me it's really a business proposition. Not only for us, but for the other people too—for the innkeepers and the villagers and the squires, and everybody. Why, look at this broken-down ale-house they call the Rising Sun. If everyone would work together, they could have this empty hole humming like a hive in a year. If the squire would open the old road and let people visit the ruins, if he'd build a bridge here by the inn and hang out a sign painted by Gabriel Gale, you'd have all the cultivated sightseers in Europe stopping here for lunch."
"Hullo!" cried the doctor. "It looks as if they were coming to lunch already. Really, our pessimistic friend inside talked as if this were a ruin in the desert; but I begin to believe it does a trade like the Savoy."
They had all been standing with their backs to the road, looking at the dark tavern under discussion; but even before the doctor began to speak, Gabriel Gale, the painter and poet, had become in some odd fashion conscious of an addition to the company. Perhaps it was because the elongated shadows of a horse and two human figures had for some little time rested on the sunny road beside him. He turned his head over his shoulder, and remained staring at what he saw.
A high dog-cart had drawn up on the other side of the road. The reins were in the gloved hands of a tall, dark young lady, clad in dark blue of the tailor-made type, neat but not particularly new. By her side was a man, perhaps ten years older than herself, but seeming in many ways much more, for his high-featured face was wasted as with sickness, and there was a great anxiety in his large grey eyes.
In the momentary silence the clear voice of the girl came like an echo of the doctor's phrase, saying: "I am sure we can get some lunch here." She slipped lightly to the ground and stood by the horse's head, while her companion descended with a little more hesitation. He was dressed in light tweeds, which seemed somehow slightly incongruous with his invalid air, and he addressed Hurrel with a rather nervous smile.
"I hope you won't regard me as an eavesdropper, sir; but you were not exactly speaking as if you were talking secrets."
Hurrel, indeed, had been talking as if he were a cheap-jack dominating the noise of the fair; and he smiled and answered quite pleasantly:
"I was only saying what anybody might about what a squire might do with a property like this. I don't in the least mind anybody listening who happens to be interested."
"I happen to be a little interested," answered the man in tweeds, "because, as it happens, I am the squire if there are any squires nowadays."
"I sincerely apologise," answered the agent, still smiling; "but, if you will play Haroun Alraschid——"
"Oh, I'm not at all offended," answered the other. "To tell the truth, I'm rather wondering whether you aren't quite right."
Gabriel Gale had been looking at the girl in dark-blue rather longer than was quite polite; but painters and absent-minded persons may sometimes be excused in such cases. His friend would probably have infuriated him by calling it one of the eccentricities of genius, but it might have been disputed whether his admiration was entirely eccentric. Lady Diana Westermaine would have made a most satisfactory sign for an inn—a bush worthy of the best wine-or might even have uplifted the lowly estate of an Academy picture, though it was long since her unfortunate family could have easily afforded one. She had hair of a curious dark brown, which in ordinary shades looked black, while the lights in it looked almost red; her dark eyebrows had a touch of temper both in the good and the bad sense; her eyes were even larger and greyer than her brother's, but less filled with mere worry and more with a more spiritual weariness. Gale had the sense that her soul was more hungry than her body. But he had also the thought that people are only hungry because they are healthy. He thought all this in the brief moments before he remembered his manners, and turned to consider the other group.
When he had left off looking at her, she began looking at him, but with a somewhat cooler curiosity.
Meanwhile, Mr. James Hurrel had been working wonders, not to say miracles. With something more than the tenacity of a tout, with something of the eloquence of the born diplomatist, he had already wound round the squire a web of suggestions and proposals and possibilities. There was really something about him of that imaginative business man of whom we hear so much and see so little. Affairs which a man like Westermaine could never normally have conceived as being settled except by long lawyers' letters extending over several months, seemed to be arranging themselves before him in several minutes. A new bridge of the most artistic woodwork seemed already to point across the river to the open road; a new and higher class of rents seemed already to be dotting the valley with artistic villages; and a new golden sign of the Rising Sun, with the signature of Gabriel Gale, already blazed above them, a symbol that the sun had risen indeed.
Before they knew where they were the whole company had been bustled in the most friendly fashion through the inn, and set down to a luncheon that was really a committee round the table in the dreary garden beside the river. Hurrel was drawing plans on the wooden table and making calculations on pieces of paper, and reeling off figures and answering objections and growing every moment more restless and radiant. He had one piece of magic for making others believe—the fact that he evidently believed himself; and the squire, who had never met such a person before, had no weapons with which to fight him, even if it had been his interest to do so. Amid all this whirl Lady Diana looked across at Gale, who sat at the opposite corner of the table, somewhat detached and dreamy.
"What do you think of it, Mr. Gale?" she said; but Mr. Gale's business adviser answered for him, as he answered for everybody and answered for everything.
"Oh, it's no good asking him about business," he cried boisterously. "He's only one of the assets; he brings in all the artistic people. He's a great painter; but we only want a painter to paint. Lord bless you, he won't mind my saying that; he never minds what I say, or what anybody says, for that matter. He doesn't answer a question for about half an hour, as a rule."
Excerpted from The Poet and the Lunatics by G.K. Chesterton. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publication Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publication Inc..
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Posted September 30, 2013
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