THE CLEON

‘Well, I hope you will enjoy the evening, my dear; at anyrate, it will
be a new experience for you, and will show you that some of us can be
earnest even in the midst of our life of frivolity and heartlessness.
You know, I have been a Socialist almost from my birth.’

The speaker sighed gently, and adjusted the folds of her rich black
satin dress.

‘Oh, I am sure I shall enjoy it immensely, dear Mrs Quaid,’ answered
Clare Stanley, she being the person addressed; ‘you know, since papa
was rescued from those dreadful horses, I have taken such an interest
in all these questions. It is too good of you to have asked such an
outsider as I am to a gathering like this. I don’t feel frightened of
you, because I know how kind you are, but I’m afraid I shall be at a
loss with all the rest of the clever people.’

Mrs Quaid smiled benignantly. ‘Oh, my _dear_, intellect is _not_ what
we care for. The great thing is _character_.’

Mrs Quaid emphasised every third or fourth word in such a way as to
give to her smallest remarks an apparently profound significance. She
was a distinguished member of the Cleon, a small society which met at
the houses of members for the purpose of discussing social questions.
To-night the meeting was to take place in her own drawing-room, and
she had invited her daughter’s school friend, Clare Stanley, to spend
the evening, which that young woman was glad enough to do, as her
father was going to dine at the ‘Travellers” with a friend, and she
did not care to face the long lonely evening in the hotel sitting-room.
Besides, Mrs Quaid in herself was always amusing to the girl, whose
sharp eyes noticed all the little inconsistencies overlooked by more
constant associates. Mrs Quaid had, as she said, been a Socialist
almost from her birth, and repudiated with scorn what she termed the
‘sad distinctions of class,’ but she had such tender consideration
for those who did not share her views that she never invited those
whom she naïvely styled ‘one’s _own_ friends’ to meet any of those
members of the working class whom she warmly but fitfully patronised.
She was one of those who, while professing the strongest sympathy with
the fashionable Socialism, are able to avail themselves of all the
advantages which the present system offers to a limited number; and
while ardently looking forward to a time when all men would be equal,
appear to view with sweet resignation the probable continuance of the
present system during their lifetime and that of their children.

On this particular occasion both she and her daughter, a charming
specimen of frank English girlhood, were more interested than usual in
the business before them.

This evening was to be a field night. The secretary of the Cleon had
captured a genuine Russian Socialist, and the society was disposed to
make the most of him.

Nearly every member was to bring a friend, so the gathering would be a
large one. It was very amusing to Miss Stanley to watch the arrivals,
and to ticket them in her own mind each with his appropriate epithet,
and the more uncomplimentary these epithets were, the more demure and
unconscious she looked. Mrs Quaid introduced to her several personal
adherents, for the Cleon, like larger assemblies, was not without its
party differences. Miss Stanley did not feel particularly drawn towards
any of them. _They_ had not had to fly across Russian frontiers, nor
had they ever, to her knowledge, imperilled their lives at the heads of
runaway horses.

There was a Civil Service clerk whose strong point was statistics,
and another one whose strong point was so obvious an adherence to
the principles of the hostess, that he was secretly styled by the
irreverent Irreconcilables ‘the member for Quaid.’ He was an advocate
for short hours of labour, particularly in Government offices. Then
there was an enthusiastic young stockjobber, with a passion for
morality in public life, who believed in levelling down–to the
level of stockjobbers, and who systematically avoided revolutionary
literature, on the grounds that it would prevent his keeping good
tempered, and he wished to keep good tempered, which Clare thought very
nice of him.

Then there was the man whose friends thought he was like Camille
Desmoulins, and the man who himself thought he was like Danton.

Then there was a George Atkins, whose care for humanity in the abstract
was so great as to soar far above the level of his own wife, who was
popularly supposed to have rather a bad time of it.

The ‘great proletariat,’ on whose behalf the Cleon met and discussed,
was represented by one stone-mason. Clare was surprised when she heard
what his calling was, as there was nothing in his dress or bearing to
distinguish him from the other men present. Perhaps that was why Mrs
Quaid had specially invited him.

There were about a score of other members who were less noticeable
on account of any peculiarity. They formed the real strength of the
society, and did all the work, owing to which it held a position in the
Socialist movement altogether out of proportion to its numbers.

The majority of the ladies gave a business-like aspect to the evening
by severely retaining their outdoor garments. Some of these were of
peculiar shape and make, a fact which Mrs Quaid explained in a whisper
to be the result of their employment of inexperienced dressmakers, on
the highest moral grounds.

By the time Clare had noticed all this the room was pretty full, and as
everyone talked at once, and very loud, one might, by shutting one’s
eyes, have fancied oneself at an ordinary ‘at home,’ instead of at a
serious gathering, whose note was earnestness, and whose _motif_ was
social regeneration.

She was just thinking something like this when Mrs Quaid touched her on
the shoulder.

‘Clare, my love,’ she said, ‘you _must_ let me introduce _dear_ Mr
Petrovitch to you. You know he has been so exceedingly good as to
consent to read us a paper to-night.’

Clare knew by experience that all her hostess’s male friends were
‘dear,’ and her female ones ‘sweet,’ for at least three weeks after
their first introduction, but when she turned to receive Petrovitch’s
bow, it did strike her that the epithet was more than usually
incongruous. He was about the last person, she thought, to whom terms
of indiscriminate endearment could be applied.

After the Continental manner, he had put on evening dress. The wide
shirt-front showed off the splendid breadth of a chest that would not
have disgraced a Life Guardsman in uniform. Miss Stanley, as she looked
at him, admitted to herself that on some people the claw-hammer coat
was not without its æsthetic attraction.

As the people settled down into chairs he took a seat beside her, but
in such a position that she could see his face without turning her own.

Then, after a few business preliminaries, Petrovitch began to speak.
He did not read, as had been announced, but spoke from notes, with
a little hesitation, caused, perhaps, by his speaking in a foreign
language. To most of his hearers what he had to say was well-known, no
doubt; but to Clare all he said came as a revelation. She had come to
be amused, to criticise, to ‘make fun,’ perhaps; but what she heard
from this man beside her was not in the least amusing or funny. It
seemed to her more like the gospel of a new religion. She listened
intently, and after a while, unconsciously influenced by the interest
and light in her face, he began to feel less and less as though he
were talking to the room, and more and more as though he were speaking
solely to the girl beside him. If he saw comprehension in her eyes, he
did not trouble to explain a point further; if he saw a question there,
he answered it; a doubt, he solved it. Some eyes are easy to read, and
Petrovitch was a master of that art.

The girl was no fool, and though the whole theory of Socialism was
new to her, she was able to follow the rigorous train of logic with
which he led up to his conclusions. He attacked all the stock ideas
which she had been brought up to respect. It somehow did not seem like
blasphemy. He flung scorn and derision on the social ideals which she
had heard lauded from her cradle. Some things which she had been taught
to consider admirable and desirable, grew, as he spoke of them, to seem
mean and paltry. Life, as she listened, took new meanings, and became
of deeper significance. Even the affairs of every day, the chance
stories of misery, and the ‘painful’ paragraphs of the newspapers,
which she felt, and shuddered as she felt, had hitherto seemed only
occasions for the sprinkling of a little Radical rose-water–little
stings of passing horror, which heightened rather than detracted from
the pleasures of existence–seemed now to be worth considering in some
other light.

This was not the first time that Clare’s heart had been stirred and
her sympathies quickened by a spoken discourse. More than once she
remembered having left the doors of parish church or cathedral in a
tumult of emotion when some specially earnest and eloquent preacher
had succeeded in casting a new and fierce light into the inmost depths
of her soul; but, she remembered, those feelings had been transient,
and strong though the new convictions and resolutions had been when
she left the sacred portals, the small things of life–the duties of
school, the light worries of home, the social _bagatelles_, things
trivial and tenuous enough in themselves–had soon settled down upon
her like a thick atmosphere, and by their aggregate weight had crushed,
not out of existence, but back to her soul’s remoter recesses, the
new-born life.

As Petrovitch finished speaking, and, folding up his notes, thanked
his hearers for their patience and attention, she wondered to herself,
so quick is thought, whether what had happened before would not happen
again, and whether by this time to-morrow her mind would not be running
with its accustomed smoothness in its accustomed channels. She hoped
no; she feared yes. But somehow something seemed to tell her that in
these past experiences her emotions only had been affected, but that
this time her reason also had been forced into life and action, and it
would be harder to chloroform that, she thought.

For some minutes after he had ceased she was so preoccupied with these
thoughts that she hardly noticed the sharp fire of questions which was
levelled at him from visitors in different parts of the room. When she
did begin to listen to them, it was only to wonder how people could so
have misunderstood what seemed to her so clear. There was one lady in
particular who asked inconsequent questions in such a feebly deliberate
manner, dropping her words out as though they were some precious elixir
of which it was not well to give out much at a time, that Clare felt
an insane desire to shake her words out of her, and at the same time a
little sense into her.

The genial young stockbroker wanted to know whether the best part of
Petrovitch’s scheme was not included in the present Radical programme,
but his suggestion was received with disapprobation by the large
majority, and he hastily withdrew into obscurity. It struck Miss
Stanley that all the questions and remarks were on side issues, and
left untouched the main contentions.

When the chairman of the evening announced that the discussion was
at an end, everybody rose and began to talk at once–in most cases
_not_ about the paper. Perhaps they were all glad to get away from the
larger questions of life’s possibilities, and to return to the trivial
personalities which form the chief interest of most of our lives.

‘You are interested in these questions, Miss Stanley?’ Petrovitch said,
as he turned to bid her good-night.

‘I–I–shall be.’

‘Yes, I think you will. Good-bye.’

He left alone, and at once, telling his hostess he had an appointment
to keep.

Just outside the door he met Count Litvinoff’s visitor of the morning.
Hirsch had evidently been waiting for him with some impatience. He
turned, and they walked away together.

‘I’ve been here some time,’ he said. ‘I thought you must have gone.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Petrovitch; ‘I could not leave earlier.’

‘Little good you’ll do in a house like that,’ grumbled Hirsch, knitting
his brows. ‘Casting pearls before swine.’

‘Not quite that, my good Hirsch. Casting seed upon stony ground, maybe,
but I am much mistaken if some has not fallen upon virgin soil, and
then my evening has not been wasted. How did it fare with you this
morning?’

Hirsch silently produced Litvinoff’s cheque, not quite so fresh-looking
as when he had received it.

‘Ah, as I expected!’ said the other, glancing at it under a lamp.
‘Ten pounds is not illiberal. You see, he does not keep so tight a
purse-string as you thought.’

‘Lightly won lightly spent. Donner wetter! he gained it easily enough.’

‘This is not spent–it is given. Don’t be unjust.’

‘Gott in Himmel! You’re a good man, Petrovitch. You seem to have no
faults.’

‘Ah! so it may seem to you who have known me only three months, but
I have known myself more than a score of years, and I know that I am
full of them. Come home with me and have a smoke, and we’ll talk about
something else.’

* * * * *

‘And how have you liked it, my dearest Clare? Have you been terribly
bored–or puzzled perhaps–since you are not used to these discussions?’

‘I have never been more interested than I was by Mr Petrovitch,’ said
Clare, with perfect truth.

‘Ah, yes,’ said Mrs Quaid enthusiastically; ‘so sweet, isn’t he?’

Clare did not answer, but as she drove home it occurred to her that the
principal ingredient in Petrovitch’s character was not exactly sugar.