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He was working on the edge of the common, beyond the small brook that ran in the dip at the bottom of the garden, carrying the garden path in continuation from the plank bridge on to the common. He had cut the rough turf and bracken, leaving the grey, dryish soil bare. But he was worried because he could not get the path straight, there was a pleat between his brows. He had set up his sticks, and taken the sights between the big pine trees, but for some reason everything seemed wrong. He looked again, straining his keen blue eyes, that had a touch of the Viking in them, through the shadowy pine trees as through a doorway, at the green-grassed garden-path rising from the shadow of alders by the log bridge up to the sunlit flowers. Tall white and purple columbines, and the butt-end of the old Hampshire cottage that crouched near the earth amid flowers, blossoming in the bit of shaggy wildness round about.
There was a sound of children’s voices calling and talking: high, childish, girlish voices, slightly didactic and tinged with domineering: ‘If you don’t come quick, nurse, I shall run out there to where there are snakes.’ And nobody had the sangfroid to reply: ‘Run then, little fool.’ It was always, ‘No, darling. Very well, darling. In a moment, darling. Darling, you must be patient.’
His heart was hard with disillusion: a continual gnawing and resistance. But he worked on. What was there to do but submit!
The sunlight blazed down upon the earth, there was a vividness of flamy vegetation, of fierce seclusion amid the savage peace of the commons. Strange how the savage England lingers in patches: as here, amid these shaggy gorse commons, and marshy, snake infested places near the foot of the south downs. The spirit of place lingering on primeval, as when the Saxons came, so long ago.
Ah, how he had loved it! The green garden path, the tufts of flowers, purple and white columbines, and great oriental red poppies with their black chaps and mulleins tall and yellow, this flamy garden which had been a garden for a thousand years, scooped out in the little hollow among the snake-infested commons. He had made it flame with flowers, in a sun cup under its hedges and trees. So old, so old a place! And yet he had re-created it.
The timbered cottage with its sloping, cloak-like roof was old and forgotten. It belonged to the old England of hamlets and yeomen. Lost all alone on the edge of the common, at the end of a wide, grassy, briar-entangled lane shaded with oak, it had never known the world of today. Not till Egbert came with his bride. And he had come to fill it with flowers.
The house was ancient and very uncomfortable. But he did not want to alter it. Ah, marvellous to sit there in the wide, black, time-old chimney, at night when the wind roared overhead, and the wood which he had chopped himself sputtered on the hearth! Himself on one side the angle, and Winifred on the other.
Ah, how he had wanted her: Winifred! She was young and beautiful and strong with life, like a flame in sunshine. She moved with a slow grace of energy like a blossoming, red-flowered bush in motion. She, too, seemed to come out of the old England, ruddy, strong, with a certain crude, passionate quiescence and a hawthorn robustness. And he, he was tall and slim and agile, like an English archer with his long supple legs and fine movements. Her hair was nut-brown and all in energic curls and tendrils. Her eyes were nut-brown, too, like a robin’s for brightness. And he was white-skinned with fine, silky hair that had darkened from fair, and a slightly arched nose of an old country family. They were a beautiful couple.
The house was Winifred’s. Her father was a man of energy, too. He had come from the north poor. Now he was moderately rich. He had bought this fair stretch of inexpensive land, down in Hampshire. Not far from the tiny church of the almost extinct hamlet stood his own house, a commodious old farmhouse standing back from the road across a bare grassed yard. On one side of this quadrangle was the long, long barn or shed which he had made into a cottage for his youngest daughter Priscilla. One saw little blue-and-white check curtains at the long windows, and inside, overhead, the grand old timbers of the high-pitched shed. This was Prissy’s house. Fifty yards away was the pretty little new cottage which he had built for his daughter Magdalen, with the vegetable garden stretching away to the oak copse. And then away beyond the lawns and rose trees of the house-garden went the track across a shaggy, wild grass space, towards the ridge of tall black pines that grew on a dyke-bank, through the pines and above the sloping little bog, under the wide, desolate oak trees, till there was Winifred’s cottage crouching unexpectedly in front, so much alone, and so primitive.
It was Winifred’s own house, and the gardens and the bit of common and the boggy slope were hers: her tiny domain. She had married just at the time when her father had bought the estate, about ten years before the war, so she had been able to come to Egbert with this for a marriage portion. And who was more delighted, he or she, it would be hard to say. She was only twenty at the time, and he was only twenty-one. He had about a hundred and fifty pounds a year of his own — and nothing else but his very considerable personal attractions. He had no profession: he earned nothing. But he talked of literature and music, he had a passion for old folk-music, collecting folk-songs and folk-dances, studying the Morris-dance and the old customs. Of course in time he would make money in these ways.
Meanwhile youth and health and passion and promise. Winifred’s father was always generous: but still, he was a man from the north with a hard head and a hard skin too, having received a good many knocks. At home he kept the hard head out of sight, and played at poetry and romance with his literary wife and his sturdy, passionate girls. He was a man of courage, not given to complaining, bearing his burdens by himself. No, he did not let the world intrude far into his home. He had a delicate, sensitive wife whose poetry won some fame in the narrow world of letters. He himself, with his tough old barbarian fighting spirit, had an almost child-like delight in verse, in sweet poetry, and in the delightful game of a cultured home. His blood was strong even to coarseness. But that only made the home more vigorous, more robust and Christmassy. There was always a touch of Christmas about him, now he was well off. If there was poetry after dinner, there were also chocolates and nuts, and good little out-of-the-way things to be munching.
Well then, into this family came Egbert. He was made of quite a different paste. The girls and the father were strong-limbed, thick-blooded people, true English, as holly-trees and hawthorn are English. Their culture was grafted on to them, as one might perhaps graft a common pink rose on to a thornstem. It flowered oddly enough, but it did not alter their blood.
And Egbert was a born rose. The age-long breeding had left him with a delightful spontaneous passion. He was not clever, nor even ‘literary’. No, but the intonation of his voice, and the movement of his supple, handsome body, and the fine texture of his flesh and his hair, the slight arch of his nose, the quickness of his blue eyes would easily take the place of poetry. Winifred loved him, loved him, this southerner, as a higher being. A higher being, mind you. Not a deeper. And as for him, he loved her in passion with every fibre of him. She was the very warm stuff of life to him.
Wonderful then, those days at Crockham Cottage, the first days, all alone save for the woman who came to work in the mornings. Marvellous days, when she had all his tall, supple, fine-fleshed youth to herself, for herself, and he had her like a ruddy fire into which he could cast himself for rejuvenation. Ah, that it might never end, this passion, this marriage! The flame of their two bodies burnt again into that old cottage, that was haunted already by so much by-gone, physical desire. You could not be in the dark room for an hour without the influences coming over you. The hot blood-desire of by-gone yeomen, there in this old den where they had lusted and bred for so many generations. The silent house, dark, with thick, timbered walls and the big black chimney-place, and the sense of secrecy. Dark, with low, little windows, sunk into the earth. Dark, like a lair where strong beasts had lurked and mated, lonely at night and lonely by day, left to themselves and their own intensity for so many generations. It seemed to cast a spell on the two young people. They became different. There was a curious secret glow about them, a certain slumbering flame hard to understand, that enveloped them both. They too felt that they did not belong to the London world any more. Crockham had changed their blood: the sense of the snakes that lived and slept even in their own garden, in the sun, so that he, going forward with the spade, would see a curious coiled brownish pile on the black soil, which suddenly would start up, hiss, and dazzle rapidly away, hissing. One day Winifred heard the strangest scream from the flower-bed under the low window of the living room: ah, the strangest scream, like the very soul of the dark past crying aloud. She ran out, and saw a long brown snake on the flower-bed, and in its flat mouth the one hind leg of a frog was striving to escape, and screaming its strange, tiny, bellowing scream. She looked at the snake, and from its sullen flat head it looked at her, obstinately. She gave a cry, and it released the frog and slid angrily away.
That was Crockham. The spear of modern invention had not passed through it, and it lay there secret, primitive, savage as when the Saxons first came. And Egbert and she were caught there, caught out of the world.
He was not idle, nor was she. There were plenty of things to be done, the house to be put into final repair after the workmen had gone, cushions and curtains to sew, the paths to make, the water to fetch and attend to, and then the slope of the deep-soiled, neglected garden to level, to terrace with little terraces and paths, and to fill with flowers. He worked away, in his shirt-sleeves, worked all day intermittently doing this thing and the other. And she, quiet and rich in herself, seeing him stooping and labouring away by himself, would come to help him, to be near him. He of course was an amateur — a born amateur. He worked so hard, and did so little, and nothing he ever did would hold together for long. If he terraced the garden, he held up the earth with a couple of long narrow planks that soon began to bend with the pressure from behind, and would not need many years to rot through and break and let the soil slither all down again in a heap towards the stream-bed. But there you are. He had not been brought up to come to grips with anything, and he thought it would do. Nay, he did not think there was anything else except little temporary contrivances possible, he who had such a passion for his old enduring cottage, and for the old enduring things of the bygone England. Curious that the sense of permanency in the past had such a hold over him, whilst in the present he was all amateurish and sketchy.
Winifred could not criticize him. Town-bred, everything seemed to her splendid, and the very digging and shovelling itself seemed romantic. But neither Egbert nor she yet realized the difference between work and romance.
Godfrey Marshall, her father, was at first perfectly pleased with the ménage down at Crockham Cottage. He thought Egbert was wonderful, the many things he accomplished, and he was gratified by the glow of physical passion between the two young people. To the man who in London still worked hard to keep steady his modest fortune, the thought of this young couple digging away and loving one another down at Crockham Cottage, buried deep among the commons and marshes, near the pale-showing bulk of the downs, was like a chapter of living romance. And they drew the sustenance for their fire of passion from him, from the old man. It was he who fed their flame. He triumphed secretly in the thought. And it was to her father that Winifred still turned, as the one source of all surety and life and support. She loved Egbert with passion. But behind her was the power of her father. It was the power of her father she referred to, whenever she needed to refer. It never occurred to her to refer to Egbert, if she were in difficulty or doubt. No, in all the serious matters she depended on her father.
For Egbert had no intention of coming to grips with life. He had no ambition whatsoever. He came from a decent family, from a pleasant country home, from delightful surroundings. He should, of course, have had a profession. He should have studied law or entered business in some way. But no — that fatal three pounds a week would keep him from starving as long as he lived, and he did not want to give himself into bondage. It was not that he was idle. He was always doing something, in his amateurish way. But he had no desire to give himself to the world, and still less had he any desire to fight his way in the world. No, no, the world wasn’t worth it. He wanted to ignore it, to go his own way apart, like a casual pilgrim down the forsaken sidetracks. He loved his wife, his cottage and garden. He would make his life there, as a sort of epicurean hermit. He loved the past, the old music and dances and customs of old England. He would try and live in the spirit of these, not in the spirit of the world of business.
But often Winifred’s father called her to London: for he loved to have his children round him. So Egbert and she must have a tiny flat in town, and the young couple must transfer themselves from time to time from the country to the city. In town Egbert had plenty of friends, of the same ineffectual sort as himself, tampering with the arts, literature, painting, sculpture, music. He was not bored.
Three pounds a week, however, would not pay for all this. Winifred’s father paid. He liked paying. He made her only a very small allowance, but he often gave her ten pounds — or gave Egbert ten pounds. So they both looked on the old man as the mainstay. Egbert didn’t mind being patronized and paid for. Only when he felt the family was a little too condescending, on account of money, he began to get huffy.
Then of course children came: a lovely little blonde daughter with a head of thistle-down. Everybody adored the child. It was the first exquisite blonde thing that had come into the family, a little mite with the white, slim, beautiful limbs of its father, and as it grew up the dancing, dainty movement of a wild little daisy-spirit. No wonder the Marshalls all loved the child: they called her Joyce. They themselves had their own grace, but it was slow, rather heavy. They had everyone of them strong, heavy limbs and darkish skins, and they were short in stature. And now they had for one of their own this light little cowslip child. She was like a little poem in herself.
But nevertheless, she brought a new difficulty. Winifred must have a nurse for her. Yes, yes, there must be a nurse. It was the family decree. Who was to pay for the nurse? The grandfather — seeing the father himself earned no money. Yes, the grandfather would pay, as he had paid all the lying-in expenses. There came a slight sense of money-strain. Egbert was living on his father-inlaw.
After the child was born, it was never quite the same between him and Winifred. The difference was at first hardly perceptible. But it was there. In the first place Winifred had a new centre of interest. She was not going to adore her child. But she had what the modern mother so often has in the place of spontaneous love: a profound sense of duty towards her child. Winifred appreciated her darling little girl, and felt a deep sense of duty towards her. Strange, that this sense of duty should go deeper than the love for her husband. But so it was. And so it often is. The responsibility of motherhood was the prime responsibility in Winifred’s heart: the responsibility of wifehood came a long way second.
Her child seemed to link her up again in a circuit with her own family. Her father and mother, herself, and her child, that was the human trinity for her. Her husband —? Yes, she loved him still. But that was like play. She had an almost barbaric sense of duty and of family. Till she married, her first human duty had been towards her father: he was the pillar, the source of life, the everlasting support. Now another link was added to the chain of duty: her father, herself, and her child.
Egbert was out of it. Without anything happening, he was gradually, unconsciously excluded from the circle. His wife still loved him, physically. But, but — he was almost the unnecessary party in the affair. He could not complain of Winifred. She still did her duty towards him. She still had a physical passion for him, that physical passion on which he had put all his life and soul. But — but —
It was for a long while an ever-recurring but. And then, after the second child, another blonde, winsome touching little thing, not so proud and flame-like as Joyce — after Annabel came, then Egbert began truly to realize how it was. His wife still loved him. But — and now the but had grown enormous — her physical love for him was of secondary importance to her. It became ever less important. After all, she had had it, this physical passion, for two years now. It was not this that one lived from. No, no — something sterner, realer.
She began to resent her own passion for Egbert — just a little she began to despise it. For after all there he was, he was charming, he was lovable, he was terribly desirable. But — but — oh, the awful looming cloud of that but! — he did not stand firm in the landscape of her life like a tower of strength, like a great pillar of significance. No, he was like a cat one has about the house, which will one day disappear and leave no trace. He was like a flower in the garden, trembling in the wind of life, and then gone, leaving nothing to show. As an adjunct, as an accessory, he was perfect. Many a woman would have adored to have him about her all her life, the most beautiful and desirable of all her possessions. But Winifred belonged to another school.
The years went by, and instead of coming more to grips with life, he relaxed more. He was of a subtle, sensitive, passionate nature. But he simply would not give himself to what Winifred called life, Work. No, he would not go into the world and work for money. No, he just would not. If Winifred liked to live beyond their small income — well, it was her look-out.
And Winifred did not really want him to go out into the world to work for money. Money became, alas, a word like a firebrand between them, setting them both aflame with anger. But that is because we must talk in symbols. Winifred did not really care about money. She did not care whether he earned or did not earn anything. Only she knew she was dependent on her father for three-fourths of the money spent for herself and her children, that she let that be the casus belli, the drawn weapon between herself and Egbert.
What did she want — what did she want? Her mother once said to her, with that characteristic touch of irony: ‘Well, dear, if it is your fate to consider the lilies, that toil not, neither do they spin, that is one destiny among many others, and perhaps not so unpleasant as most. Why do you take it amiss, my child?’
The mother was subtler than her children, they very rarely knew how to answer her. So Winifred was only more confused. It was not a question of lilies. At least, if it were a question of lilies, then her children were the little blossoms. They at least grew. Doesn’t Jesus say: ‘Consider the lilies how they grow.’ Good then, she had her growing babies. But as for that other tall, handsome flower of a father of theirs, he was full grown already, so she did not want to spend her life considering him in the flower of his days.
No, it was not that he didn’t earn money. It was not that he was idle. He was not idle. He was always doing something, always working away, down at Crockham, doing little jobs. But, oh dear, the little jobs — the garden paths — the gorgeous flowers — the chairs to mend, old chairs to mend!
It was that he stood for nothing. If he had done something unsuccessfully, and lost what money they had! If he had but striven with something. Nay, even if he had been wicked, a waster, she would have been more free. She would have had something to resist, at least. A waster stands for something, really. He says: ‘No, I will not aid and abet society in this business of increase and hanging together, I will upset the apple-cart as much as I can, in my small way.’ Or else he says: ‘No, I will not bother about others. If I have lusts, they are my own, and I prefer them to other people’s virtues.’ So, a waster, a scamp, takes a sort of stand. He exposes himself to opposition and final castigation: at any rate in story-books.
But Egbert! What are you to do with a man like Egbert? He had no vices. He was really kind, nay generous. And he was not weak. If he had been weak Winifred could have been kind to him. But he did not even give her that consolation. He was not weak, and he did not want her consolation or her kindness. No, thank you. He was of a fine passionate temper, and of a rarer steel than she. He knew it, and she knew it. Hence she was only the more baffled and maddened, poor thing. He, the higher, the finer, in his way the stronger, played with his garden, and his old folk-songs and Morris-dances, just played, and let her support the pillars of the future on her own heart.
And he began to get bitter, and a wicked look began to come on his face. He did not give in to her; not he. There were seven devils inside his long, slim, white body. He was healthy, full of restrained life. Yes, even he himself had to lock up his own vivid life inside himself, now she would not take it from him. Or rather, now that she only took it occasionally. For she had to yield at times. She loved him so, she desired him so, he was so exquisite to her, the fine creature that he was, finer than herself. Yes, with a groan she had to give in to her own unquenched passion for him. And he came to her then — ah, terrible, ah, wonderful, sometimes she wondered how either of them could live after the terror of the passion that swept between them. It was to her as if pure lightning, flash after flash, went through every fibre of her, till extinction came.
But it is the fate of human beings to live on. And it is the fate of clouds that seem nothing but bits of vapour slowly to pile up, to pile up and fill the heavens and blacken the sun entirely.
So it was. The love came back, the lightning of passion flashed tremendously between them. And there was blue sky and gorgeousness for a little while. And then, as inevitably, as inevitably, slowly the clouds began to edge up again above the horizon, slowly, slowly to lurk about the heavens, throwing an occasional cold and hateful shadow: slowly, slowly to congregate, to fill the empyrean space.
And as the years passed, the lightning cleared the sky more and more rarely, less and less the blue showed. Gradually the grey lid sank down upon them, as if it would be permanent.
Why didn’t Egbert do something, then? Why didn’t he come to grips with life? Why wasn’t he like Winifred’s father, a pillar of society, even if a slender, exquisite column? Why didn’t he go into harness of some sort? Why didn’t he take some direction?
Well, you can bring an ass to the water, but you cannot make him drink. The world was the water and Egbert was the ass. And he wasn’t having any. He couldn’t: he just couldn’t. Since necessity did not force him to work for his bread and butter, he would not work for work’s sake. You can’t make the columbine flowers nod in January, nor make the cuckoo sing in England at Christmas. Why? It isn’t his season. He doesn’t want to. Nay, he can’t want to.
And there it was with Egbert. He couldn’t link up with the world’s work, because the basic desire was absent from him. Nay, at the bottom of him he had an even stronger desire: to hold aloof. To hold aloof. To do nobody any damage. But to hold aloof. It was not his season.
Perhaps he should not have married and had children. But you can’t stop the waters flowing.
Which held true for Winifred, too. She was not made to endure aloof. Her family tree was a robust vegetation that had to be stirring and believing. In one direction or another her life had to go. In her own home she had known nothing of this diffidence which she found in Egbert, and which she could not understand, and which threw her into such dismay. What was she to do, what was she to do, in face of this terrible diffidence?
It was all so different in her own home. Her father may have had his own misgivings, but he kept them to himself. Perhaps he had no very profound belief in this world of ours, this society which we have elaborated with so much effort, only to find ourselves elaborated to death at last. But Godfrey Marshall was of tough, rough fibre, not without a vein of healthy cunning through it all. It was for him a question of winning through, and leaving the rest to heaven. Without having many illusions to grace him, he still did believe in heaven. In a dark and unquestioning way, he had a sort of faith: an acrid faith like the sap of some not-to-beexterminated tree. Just a blind acrid faith as sap is blind and acrid, and yet pushes on in growth and in faith. Perhaps he was unscrupulous, but only as a striving tree is unscrupulous, pushing its single way in a jungle of others.
In the end, it is only this robust, sap-like faith which keeps man going. He may live on for many generations inside the shelter of the social establishment which he has erected for himself, as pear-trees and currant bushes would go on bearing fruit for many seasons, inside a walled garden, even if the race of man were suddenly exterminated. But bit by bit the wall-fruit-trees would gradually pull down the very walls that sustained them. Bit by bit every establishment collapses, unless it is renewed or restored by living hands, all the while.
Egbert could not bring himself to any more of this restoring or renewing business. He was not aware of the fact: but awareness doesn’t help much, anyhow. He just couldn’t. He had the stoic and epicurean quality of his old, fine breeding. His father-inlaw, however, though he was not one bit more of a fool than Egbert, realized that since we are here we may as well live. And so he applied himself to his own tiny section of the social work, and to doing the best for his family, and to leaving the rest to the ultimate will of heaven. A certain robustness of blood made him able to go on. But sometimes even from him spurted a sudden gall of bitterness against the world and its make-up. And yet — he had his own will-to-succeed, and this carried him through. He refused to ask himself what the success would amount to. It amounted to the estate down in Hampshire, and his children lacking for nothing, and himself of some importance in the world: and basta! — Basta! Basta!
Nevertheless do not let us imagine that he was a common pusher. He was not. He knew as well as Egbert what disillusion meant. Perhaps in his soul he had the same estimation of success. But he had a certain acrid courage, and a certain will-to-power. In his own small circle he would emanate power, the single power of his own blind self. With all his spoiling of his children, he was still the father of the old English type. He was too wise to make laws and to domineer in the abstract. But he had kept, and all honour to him, a certain primitive dominion over the souls of his children, the old, almost magic prestige of paternity. There it was, still burning in him, the old smoky torch or paternal godhead.
And in the sacred glare of this torch his children had been brought up. He had given the girls every liberty, at last. But he had never really let them go beyond his power. And they, venturing out into the hard white light of our fatherless world, learned to see with the eyes of the world. They learned to criticize their father, even, from some effulgence of worldly white light, to see him as inferior. But this was all very well in the head. The moment they forgot their tricks of criticism, the old red glow of his authority came over them again. He was not to be quenched.
Let the psycho-analyst talk about father complex. It is just a word invented. Here was a man who had kept alive the old red flame of fatherhood, fatherhood that had even the right to sacrifice the child to God, like Isaac. Fatherhood that had life-and-death authority over the children: a great natural power. And till his children could be brought under some other great authority as girls; or could arrive at manhood and become themselves centres of the same power, continuing the same male mystery as men; until such time, willy-nilly, Godfrey Marshall would keep his children.
It had seemed as if he might lose Winifred. Winifred had adored her husband, and looked up to him as to something wonderful. Perhaps she had expected in him another great authority, a male authority greater, finer than her father’s. For having once known the glow of male power, she would not easily turn to the cold white light of feminine independence. She would hunger, hunger all her life for the warmth and shelter of true male strength.
And hunger she might, for Egbert’s power lay in the abnegation of power. He was himself the living negative of power. Even of responsibility. For the negation of power at last means the negation of responsibility. As far as these things went, he would confine himself to himself. He would try to confine his own influence even to himself. He would try, as far as possible, to abstain from influencing his children by assuming any responsibility for them. ‘A little child shall lead them —’ His child should lead, then. He would try not to make it go in any direction whatever. He would abstain from influencing it. Liberty! —
Poor Winifred was like a fish out of water in this liberty, gasping for the denser element which should contain her. Till her child came. And then she knew that she must be responsible for it, that she must have authority over it.
But here Egbert silently and negatively stepped in. Silently, negatively, but fatally he neutralized her authority over her children.
There was a third little girl born. And after this Winifred wanted no more children. Her soul was turning to salt.
So she had charge of the children, they were her responsibility. The money for them had come from her father. She would do her very best for them, and have command over their life and death. But no! Egbert would not take the responsibility. He would not even provide the money. But he would not let her have her way. Her dark, silent, passionate authority he would not allow. It was a battle between them, the battle between liberty and the old blood-power. And of course he won. The little girls loved him and adored him. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ They could do as they liked with him. Their mother would have ruled them. She would have ruled them passionately, with indulgence, with the old dark magic of parental authority, something looming and unquestioned and, after all, divine: if we believe in divine authority. The Marshalls did, being Catholic.
And Egbert, he turned her old dark, Catholic blood-authority into a sort of tyranny. He would not leave her her children. He stole them from her, and yet without assuming responsibility for them. He stole them from her, in emotion and spirit, and left her only to command their behaviour. A thankless lot for a mother. And her children adored him, adored him, little knowing the empty bitterness they were preparing for themselves when they too grew up to have husbands: husbands such as Egbert, adorable and null.
Joyce, the eldest, was still his favourite. She was now a quicksilver little thing of six years old. Barbara, the youngest, was a toddler of two years. They spent most of their time down at Crockham, because he wanted to be there. And even Winifred loved the place really. But now, in her frustrated and blinded state, it was full of menace for her children. The adders, the poison-berries, the brook, the marsh, the water that might not be pure — one thing and another. From mother and nurse it was a guerilla gunfire of commands, and blithe, quicksilver disobedience from the three blonde, never-still little girls. Behind the girls was the father, against mother and nurse. And so it was.
‘If you don’t come quick, nurse, I shall run out there to where there are snakes.’
‘Joyce, you must be patient. I’m just changing Annabel.’
There you are. There it was: always the same. Working away on the common across the brook he heard it. And he worked on, just the same.
Suddenly he heard a shriek, and he flung the spade from him and started for the bridge, looking up like a startled deer. Ah, there was Winifred — Joyce had hurt herself. He went on up the garden.
‘What is it?’
The child was still screaming — now it was —‘Daddy! Daddy! Oh — oh, Daddy!’ And the mother was saying:
‘Don’t be frightened, darling. Let mother look.’
But the child only cried:
‘Oh, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!’
She was terrified by the sight of the blood running from her own knee. Winifred crouched down, with her child of six in her lap, to examine the knee. Egbert bent over also.
‘Don’t make such a noise, Joyce,’ he said irritably. ‘How did she do it?’
‘She fell on that sickle thing which you left lying about after cutting the grass,’ said Winifred, looking into his face with bitter accusation as he bent near.
He had taken his handkerchief and tied it round the knee. Then he lifted the still sobbing child in his arms, and carried her into the house and upstairs to her bed. In his arms she became quiet. But his heart was burning with pain and with guilt. He had left the sickle there lying on the edge of the grass, and so his first-born child whom he loved so dearly had come to hurt. But then it was an accident — it was an accident. Why should he feel guilty? It would probably be nothing, better in two or three days. Why take it to heart, why worry? He put it aside.
The child lay on the bed in her little summer frock, her face very white now after the shock, Nurse had come carrying the youngest child: and little Annabel stood holding her skirt. Winifred, terribly serious and wooden-seeming, was bending over the knee, from which she had taken his blood-soaked handkerchief. Egbert bent forward, too, keeping more sangfroid in his face than in his heart. Winifred went all of a lump of seriousness, so he had to keep some reserve. The child moaned and whimpered.
The knee was still bleeding profusely — it was a deep cut right in the joint.
‘You’d better go for the doctor, Egbert,’ said Winifred bitterly.
‘Oh, no! Oh, no!’ cried Joyce in a panic.
‘Joyce, my darling, don’t cry!’ said Winifred, suddenly catching the little girl to her breast in a strange tragic anguish, the Mater Dolorata. Even the child was frightened into silence. Egbert looked at the tragic figure of his wife with the child at her breast, and turned away. Only Annabel started suddenly to cry: ‘Joycey, Joycey, don’t have your leg bleeding!’
Egbert rode four miles to the village for the doctor. He could not help feeling that Winifred was laying it on rather. Surely the knee itself wasn’t hurt! Surely not. It was only a surface cut.
The doctor was out. Egbert left the message and came cycling swiftly home, his heart pinched with anxiety. He dropped sweating off his bicycle and went into the house, looking rather small, like a man who is at fault. Winifred was upstairs sitting by Joyce, who was looking pale and important in bed, and was eating some tapioca pudding. The pale, small, scared face of his child went to Egbert’s heart.
‘Doctor Wing was out. He’ll be here about half past two,’ said Egbert.
‘I don’t want him to come,’ whimpered Joyce.
‘Joyce, dear, you must be patient and quiet,’ said Winifred. ‘He won’t hurt you. But he will tell us what to do to make your knee better quickly. That is why he must come.’
Winifred always explained carefully to her little girls: and it always took the words off their lips for the moment.
‘Does it bleed yet?’ said Egbert.
Winifred moved the bedclothes carefully aside.
‘I think not,’ she said.
Egbert stooped also to look.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ she said. Then he stood up with a relieved look on his face. He turned to the child.
‘Eat your pudding, Joyce,’ he said. ‘It won’t be anything. You’ve only got to keep still for a few days.’
‘You haven’t had your dinner, have you, Daddy?’
‘Nurse will give it to you,’ said Winifred.
‘You’ll be all right, Joyce,’ he said, smiling to the child and pushing the blonde hair off her brow. She smiled back winsomely into his face.
He went downstairs and ate his meal alone. Nurse served him. She liked waiting on him. All women liked him and liked to do things for him.
The doctor came — a fat country practitioner, pleasant and kind.
‘What, little girl, been tumbling down, have you? There’s a thing to be doing, for a smart little lady like you! What! And cutting your knee! Tut-tut-tut! That wasn’t clever of you, now was it? Never mind, never mind, soon be better. Let us look at it. Won’t hurt you. Not the least in life. Bring a bowl with a little warm water, nurse. Soon have it all right again, soon have it all right.’
Joyce smiled at him with a pale smile of faint superiority. This was not the way in which she was used to being talked to.
He bent down, carefully looking at the little, thin, wounded knee of the child. Egbert bent over him.
‘Oh, dear, oh, dear! Quite a deep little cut. Nasty little cut. Nasty little cut. But, never mind. Never mind, little lady. We’ll soon have it better. Soon have it better, little lady. What’s your name?’
‘My name is Joyce,’ said the child distinctly.
‘Oh, really!’ he replied. ‘Oh, really! Well, that’s a fine name too, in my opinion. Joyce, eh? — And how old might Miss Joyce be? Can she tell me that?’
‘I’m six,’ said the child, slightly amused and very condescending.
‘Six! There now. Add up and count as far as six, can you? Well, that’s a clever little girl, a clever little girl. And if she has to drink a spoonful of medicine, she won’t make a murmur, I’ll be bound. Not like some little girls. What? Eh?’
‘I take it if mother wishes me to,’ said Joyce.
‘Ah, there now! That’s the style! That’s what I like to hear from a little lady in bed because she’s cut her knee. That’s the style —’
The comfortable and prolix doctor dressed and bandaged the knee and recommended bed and a light diet for the little lady. He thought a week or a fortnight would put it right. No bones or ligatures damaged — fortunately. Only a flesh cut. He would come again in a day or two.
So Joyce was reassured and stayed in bed and had all her toys up. Her father often played with her. The doctor came the third day. He was fairly pleased with the knee. It was healing. It was healing — yes — yes. Let the child continue in bed. He came again after a day or two. Winifred was a trifle uneasy. The wound seemed to be healing on the top, but it hurt the child too much. It didn’t look quite right. She said so to Egbert.
‘Egbert, I’m sure Joyce’s knee isn’t healing properly.’
‘I think it is,’ he said. ‘I think it’s all right.’
‘I’d rather Doctor Wing came again — I don’t feel satisfied.’
‘Aren’t you trying to imagine it worse than it really is?’
‘You would say so, of course. But I shall write a post-card to Doctor Wing now.’
The doctor came next day. He examined the knee. Yes, there was inflammation. Yes, there might be a little septic poisoning — there might. There might. Was the child feverish?
So a fortnight passed by, and the child was feverish, and the knee was more inflamed and grew worse and was painful, painful. She cried in the night, and her mother had to sit up with her. Egbert still insisted it was nothing, really — it would pass. But in his heart he was anxious.
Winifred wrote again to her father. On Saturday the elderly man appeared. And no sooner did Winifred see the thick, rather short figure in its grey suit than a great yearning came over her.
‘Father, I’m not satisfied with Joyce. I’m not satisfied with Doctor Wing.’
‘Well, Winnie, dear, if you’re not satisfied we must have further advice, that is all.’
The sturdy, powerful, elderly man went upstairs, his voice sounding rather grating through the house, as if it cut upon the tense atmosphere.
‘How are you, Joyce, darling?’ he said to the child. ‘Does your knee hurt you? Does it hurt you, dear?’
‘It does sometimes.’ The child was shy of him, cold towards him.
‘Well, dear, I’m sorry for that. I hope you try to bear it, and not trouble mother too much.’
There was no answer. He looked at the knee. It was red and stiff.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I think we must have another doctor’s opinion. And if we’re going to have it, we had better have it at once. Egbert, do you think you might cycle in to Bingham for Doctor Wayne? I found him very satisfactory for Winnie’s mother.’
‘I can go if you think it necessary,’ said Egbert.
‘Certainly I think it necessary. Even if there if nothing, we can have peace of mind. Certainly I think it necessary. I should like Doctor Wayne to come this evening if possible.’
So Egbert set off on his bicycle through the wind, like a boy sent on an errand, leaving his father-inlaw a pillar of assurance, with Winifred.
Doctor Wayne came, and looked grave. Yes, the knee was certainly taking the wrong way. The child might be lame for life.
Up went the fire and fear and anger in every heart. Doctor Wayne came again the next day for a proper examination. And, yes, the knee had really taken bad ways. It should be X-rayed. It was very important.
Godfrey Marshall walked up and down the lane with the doctor, beside the standing motor-car: up and down, up and down in one of those consultations of which he had had so many in his life.
As a result he came indoors to Winifred.
‘Well, Winnie, dear, the best thing to do is to take Joyce up to London, to a nursing home where she can have proper treatment. Of course this knee has been allowed to go wrong. And apparently there is a risk that the child may even lose her leg. What do you think, dear? You agree to our taking her up to town and putting her under the best care?’
‘Oh, father, you know I would do anything on earth for her.’
‘I know you would, Winnie darling. The pity is that there has been this unfortunate delay already. I can’t think what Doctor Wing was doing. Apparently the child is in danger of losing her leg. Well then, if you will have everything ready, we will take her up to town tomorrow. I will order the large car from Denley’s to be here at ten. Egbert, will you take a telegram at once to Doctor Jackson? It is a small nursing home for children and for surgical cases, not far from Baker Street. I’m sure Joyce will be all right there.’
‘Oh, father, can’t I nurse her myself!’
‘Well, darling, if she is to have proper treatment, she had best be in a home. The X-ray treatment, and the electric treatment, and whatever is necessary.’
‘It will cost a great deal —’ said Winifred.
‘We can’t think of cost, if the child’s leg is in danger — or even her life. No use speaking of cost,’ said the elder man impatiently.
And so it was. Poor Joyce, stretched out on a bed in the big closed motor-car — the mother sitting by her head, the grandfather in his short grey beard and a bowler hat, sitting by her feet, thick, and implacable in his responsibility — they rolled slowly away from Crockham, and from Egbert who stood there bareheaded and a little ignominious, left behind. He was to shut up the house and bring the rest of the family back to town, by train, the next day.
Followed a dark and bitter time. The poor child. The poor, poor child, how she suffered, an agony and a long crucifixion in that nursing home. It was a bitter six weeks which changed the soul of Winifred for ever. As she sat by the bed of her poor, tortured little child, tortured with the agony of the knee, and the still worse agony of these diabolic, but perhaps necessary modern treatments, she felt her heart killed and going cold in her breast. Her little Joyce, her frail, brave, wonderful, little Joyce, frail and small and pale as a white flower! Ah, how had she, Winifred, dared to be so wicked, so wicked, so careless, so sensual.
‘Let my heart die! Let my woman’s heart of flesh die! Saviour, let my heart die. And save my child. Let my heart die from the world and from the flesh. Oh, destroy my heart that is so wayward. Let my heart of pride die. Let my heart die.’
So she prayed beside the bed of her child. And like the Mother with the seven swords in her breast, slowly her heart of pride and passion died in her breast, bleeding away. Slowly it died, bleeding away, and she turned to the Church for comfort, to Jesus, to the Mother of God, but most of all, to that great and enduring institution, the Roman Catholic Church. She withdrew into the shadow of the Church. She was a mother with three children. But in her soul she died, her heart of pride and passion and desire bled to death, her soul belonged to her church, her body belonged to her duty as a mother.
Her duty as a wife did not enter. As a wife she had no sense of duty: only a certain bitterness towards the man with whom she had known such sensuality and distraction. She was purely the Mater Dolorata. To the man she was closed as a tomb.
Egbert came to see his child. But Winifred seemed to be always seated there, like the tomb of his manhood and his fatherhood. Poor Winifred: she was still young, still strong and ruddy and beautiful like a ruddy hard flower of the field. Strange — her ruddy, healthy face, so sombre, and her strong, heavy, full-blooded body, so still. She, a nun! Never. And yet the gates of her heart and soul had shut in his face with a slow, resonant clang, shutting him out for ever. There was no need for her to go into a convent. Her will had done it.
And between this young mother and this young father lay the crippled child, like a bit of pale silk floss on the pillow, and a little white pain-quenched face. He could not bear it. He just could not bear it. He turned aside. There was nothing to do but to turn aside. He turned aside, and went hither and thither, desultory. He was still attractive and desirable. But there was a little frown between his brow as if he had been cleft there with a hatchet: cleft right in, for ever, and that was the stigma.
The child’s leg was saved: but the knee was locked stiff. The fear now was lest the lower leg should wither, or cease to grow. There must be long-continued massage and treatment, daily treatment, even when the child left the nursing home. And the whole of the expense was borne by the grandfather.
Egbert now had no real home. Winifred with the children and nurse was tied to the little flat in London. He could not live there: he could not contain himself. The cottage was shut-up — or lent to friends. He went down sometimes to work in his garden and keep the place in order. Then with the empty house around him at night, all the empty rooms, he felt his heart go wicked. The sense of frustration and futility, like some slow, torpid snake, slowly bit right through his heart. Futility, futility: the horrible marsh-poison went through his veins and killed him.
As he worked in the garden in the silence of day he would listen for a sound. No sound. No sound of Winifred from the dark inside of the cottage: no sound of children’s voices from the air, from the common, from the near distance. No sound, nothing but the old dark marsh-venomous atmosphere of the place. So he worked spasmodically through the day, and at night made a fire and cooked some food alone.
He was alone. He himself cleaned the cottage and made his bed. But his mending he did not do. His shirts were slit on the shoulders, when he had been working, and the white flesh showed through. He would feel the air and the spots of rain on his exposed flesh. And he would look again across the common, where the dark, tufted gorse was dying to seed, and the bits of cat-heather were coming pink in tufts, like a sprinkling of sacrificial blood.
His heart went back to the savage old spirit of the place: the desire for old gods, old, lost passions, the passion of the cold-blooded, darting snakes that hissed and shot away from him, the mystery of blood-sacrifices, all the lost, intense sensations of the primeval people of the place, whose passions seethed in the air still, from those long days before the Romans came. The seethe of a lost, dark passion in the air. The presence of unseen snakes.
A queer, baffled, half-wicked look came on his face. He could not stay long at the cottage. Suddenly he must swing on to his bicycle and go — anywhere. Anywhere, away from the place. He would stay a few days with his mother in the old home. His mother adored him and grieved as a mother would. But the little, baffled, half-wicked smile curled on his face, and he swung away from his mother’s solicitude as from everything else.
Always moving on — from place to place, friend to friend: and always swinging away from sympathy. As soon as sympathy, like a soft hand, was reached out to touch him, away he swerved, instinctively, as a harmless snake swerves and swerves and swerves away from an outstretched hand. Away he must go. And periodically he went back to Winifred.
He was terrible to her now, like a temptation. She had devoted herself to her children and her church. Joyce was once more on her feet; but, alas! lame, with iron supports to her leg, and a little crutch. It was strange how she had grown into a long, pallid, wild little thing. Strange that the pain had not made her soft and docile, but had brought out a wild, almost maenad temper in the child. She was seven, and long and white and thin, but by no means subdued. Her blonde hair was darkening. She still had long sufferings to face, and, in her own childish consciousness, the stigma of her lameness to bear.
And she bore it. An almost maenad courage seemed to possess her, as if she were a long, thin, young weapon of life. She acknowledged all her mother’s care. She would stand by her mother for ever. But some of her father’s fine-tempered desperation flashed in her.
When Egbert saw his little girl limping horribly — not only limping but lurching horribly in crippled, childish way, his heart again hardened with chagrin, like steel that is tempered again. There was a tacit understanding between him and his little girl: not what we would call love, but a weapon-like kinship. There was a tiny touch of irony in his manner towards her, contrasting sharply with Winifred’s heavy, unleavened solicitude and care. The child flickered back to him with an answering little smile of irony and recklessness: an odd flippancy which made Winifred only the more sombre and earnest.
The Marshalls took endless thought and trouble for the child, searching out every means to save her limb and her active freedom. They spared no effort and no money, they spared no strength of will. With all their slow, heavy power of will they willed that Joyce should save her liberty of movement, should win back her wild, free grace. Even if it took a long time to recover, it should be recovered.
So the situation stood. And Joyce submitted, week after week, month after month to the tyranny and pain of the treatment. She acknowledged the honourable effort on her behalf. But her flamy reckless spirit was her father’s. It was he who had all the glamour for her. He and she were like members of some forbidden secret society who know one another but may not recognize one another. Knowledge they had in common, the same secret of life, the father and the child. But the child stayed in the camp of her mother, honourably, and the father wandered outside like Ishmael, only coming sometimes to sit in the home for an hour or two, an evening or two beside the camp fire, like Ishmael, in a curious silence and tension, with the mocking answer of the desert speaking out of his silence, and annulling the whole convention of the domestic home.
His presence was almost an anguish to Winifred. She prayed against it. That little cleft between his brow, that flickering, wicked, little smile that seemed to haunt his face, and above all, the triumphant loneliness, the Ishmael quality. And then the erectness of his supple body, like a symbol. The very way he stood, so quiet, so insidious, like an erect, supple symbol of life, the living body, confronting her downcast soul, was torture to her. He was like a supple living idol moving before her eyes, and she felt if she watched him she was damned.
And he came and made himself at home in her little home. When he was there, moving in his own quiet way, she felt as if the whole great law of sacrifice, by which she had elected to live, were annulled. He annulled by his very presence the laws of her life. And what did he substitute? Ah, against that question she hardened herself in recoil.
It was awful to her to have to have him about — moving about in his shirt-sleeves, speaking in his tenor, throaty voice to the children. Annabel simply adored him, and he teased the little girl. The baby, Barbara, was not sure of him. She had been born a stranger to him. But even the nurse, when she saw his white shoulder of flesh through the slits of his torn shirt, thought it a shame.
Winifred felt it was only another weapon of his against her.
‘You have other shirts — why do you wear that old one that is all torn, Egbert?’ she said.
‘I may as well wear it out,’ he said subtly.
He knew she would not offer to mend it for him. She could not. And no, she would not. Had she not her own gods to honour? And could she betray them, submitting to his Baal and Ashtaroth? And it was terrible to her, his unsheathed presence, that seemed to annul her and her faith, like another revelation. Like a gleaming idol evoked against her, a vivid life-idol that might triumph.
He came and he went — and she persisted. And then the great war broke out. He was a man who could not go to the dogs. He could not dissipate himself. He was pure-bred in his Englishness, and even when he would have killed to be vicious, he could not.
So when the war broke out his whole instinct was against it: against war. He had not the faintest desire to overcome any foreigners or to help in their death. He had no conception of Imperial England, and Rule Britannia was just a joke to him. He was a pure-blooded Englishman, perfect in his race, and when he was truly himself he could no more have been aggressive on the score of his Englishness than a rose can be aggressive on the score of its rosiness.
No, he had no desire to defy Germany and to exalt England. The distinction between German and English was not for him the distinction between good and bad. It was the distinction between blue water-flowers and red or white bush-blossoms: just difference. The difference between the wild boar and the wild bear. And a man was good or bad according to his nature, not according to his nationality.
Egbert was well-bred, and this was part of his natural understanding. It was merely unnatural to him to hate a nation en bloc. Certain individuals he disliked, and others he liked, and the mass he knew nothing about. Certain deeds he disliked, certain deeds seemed natural to him, and about most deeds he had no particular feeling.
He had, however, the one deepest pure-bred instinct. He recoiled inevitably from having his feelings dictated to him by the mass feeling. His feelings were his own, his understanding was his own, and he would never go back on either, willingly. Shall a man become inferior to his own true knowledge and self, just because the mob expects it of him?
What Egbert felt subtly and without question, his father-inlaw felt also in a rough, more combative way. Different as the two men were, they were two real Englishmen, and their instincts were almost the same.
And Godfrey Marshall had the world to reckon with. There was German military aggression, and the English non-military idea of liberty and the ‘conquests of peace’— meaning industrialism. Even if the choice between militarism and industrialism were a choice of evils, the elderly man asserted his choice of the latter, perforce. He whose soul was quick with the instinct of power.
Egbert just refused to reckon with the world. He just refused even to decide between German militarism and British industrialism. He chose neither. As for atrocities, he despised the people who committed them as inferior criminal types. There was nothing national about crime.
And yet, war! War! Just war! Not right or wrong, but just war itself. Should he join? Should he give himself over to war? The question was in his mind for some weeks. Not because he thought England was right and Germany wrong. Probably Germany was wrong, but he refused to make a choice. Not because he felt inspired. No. But just — war.
The deterrent was, the giving himself over into the power of other men, and into the power of the mob-spirit of a democratic army. Should he give himself over? Should he make over his own life and body to the control of something which he knew was inferior, in spirit, to his own self? Should he commit himself into the power of an inferior control? Should he? Should he betray himself?
He was going to put himself into the power of his inferiors, and he knew it. He was going to subjugate himself. He was going to be ordered about by petty canaille of non-commissioned officers — and even commissioned officers. He who was born and bred free. Should he do it?
He went to his wife, to speak to her.
‘Shall I join up, Winifred?’
She was silent. Her instinct also was dead against it. And yet a certain profound resentment made her answer:
‘You have three children dependent on you. I don’t know whether you have thought of that.’
It was still only the third month of the war, and the old prewar ideas were still alive.
‘Of course. But it won’t make much difference to them. I shall be earning a shilling a day, at least.’
‘You’d better speak to father, I think,’ she replied heavily.
Egbert went to his father-inlaw. The elderly man’s heart was full of resentment.
‘I should say,’ he said rather sourly, ‘it is the best thing you could do.’
Egbert went and joined up immediately, as a private soldier. He was drafted into the light artillery.
Winifred now had a new duty towards him: the duty of a wife towards a husband who is himself performing his duty towards the world. She loved him still. She would always love him, as far as earthly love went. But it was duty she now lived by. When he came back to her in khaki, a soldier, she submitted to him as a wife. It was her duty. But to his passion she could never again fully submit. Something prevented her, for ever: even her own deepest choice.
He went back again to camp. It did not suit him to be a modern soldier. In the thick, gritty, hideous khaki his subtle physique was extinguished as if he had been killed. In the ugly intimacy of the camp his thoroughbred sensibilities were just degraded. But he had chosen, so he accepted. An ugly little look came on to his face, of a man who has accepted his own degradation.
In the early spring Winifred went down to Crockham to be there when primroses were out, and the tassels hanging on the hazel-bushes. She felt something like a reconciliation towards Egbert, now he was a prisoner in camp most of his days. Joyce was wild with delight at seeing the garden and the common again, after the eight or nine months of London and misery. She was still lame. She still had the irons up her leg. But she lurched about with a wild, crippled agility.
Egbert came for a week-end, in his gritty, thick, sand-paper khaki and puttees and the hideous cap. Nay, he looked terrible. And on his face a slightly impure look, a little sore on his lip, as if he had eaten too much or drunk too much or let his blood become a little unclean. He was almost uglily healthy, with the camp life. It did not suit him.
Winifred waited for him in a little passion of duty and sacrifice, willing to serve the soldier, if not the man. It only made him feel a little more ugly inside. The week-end was torment to him: the memory of the camp, the knowledge of the life he led there; even the sight of his own legs in that abhorrent khaki. He felt as if the hideous cloth went into his blood and made it gritty and dirty. Then Winifred so ready to serve the soldier, when she repudiated the man. And this made the grit worse between his teeth. And the children running around playing and calling in the rather mincing fashion of children who have nurses and governesses and literature in the family. And Joyce so lame! It had all become unreal to him, after the camp. It only set his soul on edge. He left at dawn on the Monday morning, glad to get back to the realness and vulgarity of the camp.
Winifred would never meet him again at the cottage — only in London, where the world was with them. But sometimes he came alone to Crockham perhaps when friends were staying there. And then he would work awhile in his garden. This summer still it would flame with blue anchusas and big red poppies, the mulleins would sway their soft, downy erections in the air: he loved mulleins: and the honeysuckle would stream out scent like memory, when the owl was whooing. Then he sat by the fire with the friends and with Winifred’s sisters, and they sang the folk-songs. He put on thin civilian clothes and his charm and his beauty and the supple dominancy of his body glowed out again. But Winifred was not there.
At the end of the summer he went to Flanders, into action. He seemed already to have gone out of life, beyond the pale of life. He hardly remembered his life any more, being like a man who is going to take a jump from a height, and is only looking to where he must land.
He was twice slightly wounded, in two months. But not enough to put him off duty for more than a day or two. They were retiring again, holding the enemy back. He was in the rear — three machine-guns. The country was all pleasant, war had not yet trampled it. Only the air seemed shattered, and the land awaiting death. It was a small, unimportant action in which he was engaged.
The guns were stationed on a little bushy hillock just outside a village. But occasionally, it was difficult to say from which direction, came the sharp crackle of rifle-fire, and beyond, the far-off thud of cannon. The afternoon was wintry and cold.
A lieutenant stood on a little iron platform at the top of the ladders, taking the sights and giving the aim, calling in a high, tense, mechanical voice. Out of the sky came the sharp cry of the directions, then the warning numbers, then ‘Fire!’ The shot went, the piston of the gun sprang back, there was a sharp explosion, and a very faint film of smoke in the air. Then the other two guns fired, and there was a lull. The officer was uncertain of the enemy’s position. The thick clump of horse-chestnut trees below was without change. Only in the far distance the sound of heavy firing continued, so far off as to give a sense of peace.
The gorse bushes on either hand were dark, but a few sparks of flowers showed yellow. He noticed them almost unconsciously as he waited, in the lull. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and the air came chill on his arms. Again his shirt was slit on the shoulders, and the flesh showed through. He was dirty and unkempt. But his face was quiet. So many things go out of consciousness before we come to the end of consciousness.
Before him, below, was the highroad, running between high banks of grass and gorse. He saw the whitish muddy tracks and deep scores in the road, where the part of the regiment had retired. Now all was still. Sounds that came, came from the outside. The place where he stood was still silent, chill, serene: the white church among the trees beyond seemed like a thought only.
He moved into a lightning-like mechanical response at the sharp cry from the officer overhead. Mechanism, the pure mechanical action of obedience at the guns. Pure mechanical action at the guns. It left the soul unburdened, brooding in dark nakedness. In the end, the soul is alone, brooding on the face of the uncreated flux, as a bird on a dark sea.
Nothing could be seen but the road, and a crucifix knocked slanting and the dark, autumnal fields and woods. There appeared three horsemen on a little eminence, very small, on the crest of a ploughed field. They were our own men. Of the enemy, nothing.
The lull continued. Then suddenly came sharp orders, and a new direction of the guns, and an intense, exciting activity. Yet at the centre the soul remained dark and aloof, alone.
But even so, it was the soul that heard the new sound: the new, deep ‘papp!’ of a gun that seemed to touch right upon the soul. He kept up the rapid activity at the machine-gun, sweating. But in his soul was the echo of the new, deep sound, deeper than life.
And in confirmation came the awful faint whistling of a shell, advancing almost suddenly into a piercing, tearing shriek that would tear through the membrane of life. He heard it in his ears, but he heard it also in his soul, in tension. There was relief when the thing had swung by and struck, away beyond. He heard the hoarseness of its explosion, and the voice of the soldier calling to the horses. But he did not turn round to look. He only noticed a twig of holly with red berries fall like a gift on to the road below.
Not this time, not this time. Whither thou goest I will go. Did he say it to the shell, or to whom? Whither thou goest I will go. Then, the faint whistling of another shell dawned, and his blood became small and still to receive it. It drew nearer, like some horrible blast of wind; his blood lost consciousness. But in the second of suspension he saw the heavy shell swoop to earth, into the rocky bushes on the right, and earth and stones poured up into the sky. It was as if he heard no sound. The earth and stones and fragments of bush fell to earth again, and there was the same unchanging peace. The Germans had got the aim.
Would they move now? Would they retire? Yes. The officer was giving the last lightning-rapid orders to fire before withdrawing. A shell passed unnoticed in the rapidity of action. And then, into the silence, into the suspense where the soul brooded, finally crashed a noise and a darkness and a moment’s flaming agony and horror. Ah, he had seen the dark bird flying towards him, flying home this time. In one instant life and eternity went up in a conflagration of agony, then there was a weight of darkness.
When faintly something began to struggle in the darkness, a consciousness of himself, he was aware of a great load and a clanging sound. To have known the moment of death! And to be forced, before dying, to review it. So, fate, even in death.
There was a resounding of pain. It seemed to sound from the outside of his consciousness: like a loud bell clanging very near. Yet he knew it was himself. He must associate himself with it. After a lapse and a new effort, he identified a pain in his head, a large pain that clanged and resounded. So far he could identify himself with himself. Then there was a lapse.
After a time he seemed to wake up again, and waking, to know that he was at the front, and that he was killed. He did not open his eyes. Light was not yet his. The clanging pain in his head rang out the rest of his consciousness. So he lapsed away from consciousness, in unutterable sick abandon of life.
Bit by bit, like a doom came the necessity to know. He was hit in the head. It was only a vague surmise at first. But in the swinging of the pendulum of pain, swinging ever nearer and nearer, to touch him into an agony of consciousness and a consciousness of agony, gradually the knowledge emerged — he must be hit in the head — hit on the left brow; if so, there would be blood — was there blood? — could he feel blood in his left eye? Then the clanging seemed to burst the membrane of his brain, like death-madness.
Was there blood on his face? Was hot blood flowing? Or was it dry blood congealing down his cheek? It took him hours even to ask the question: time being no more than an agony in darkness, without measurement.
A long time after he had opened his eyes he realized he was seeing something — something, something, but the effort to recall what was too great. No, no; no recall!
Were they the stars in the dark sky? Was it possible it was stars in the dark sky? Stars? The world? Ah, no, he could not know it! Stars and the world were gone for him, he closed his eyes. No stars, no sky, no world. No, No! The thick darkness of blood alone. It should be one great lapse into the thick darkness of blood in agony.
Death, oh, death! The world all blood, and the blood all writhing with death. The soul like the tiniest little light out on a dark sea, the sea of blood. And the light guttering, beating, pulsing in a windless storm, wishing it could go out, yet unable.
There had been life. There had been Winifred and his children. But the frail death-agony effort to catch at straws of memory, straws of life from the past, brought on too great a nausea. No, No! No Winifred, no children. No world, no people. Better the agony of dissolution ahead than the nausea of the effort backwards. Better the terrible work should go forward, the dissolving into the black sea of death, in the extremity of dissolution, than that there should be any reaching back towards life. To forget! To forget! Utterly, utterly to forget, in the great forgetting of death. To break the core and the unit of life, and to lapse out on the great darkness. Only that. To break the clue, and mingle and commingle with the one darkness, without afterwards or forwards. Let the black sea of death itself solve the problem of futurity. Let the will of man break and give up.
What was that? A light! A terrible light! Was it figures? Was it legs of a horse colossal — colossal above him: huge, huge?
The Germans heard a slight noise, and started. Then, in the glare of a light-bomb, by the side of the heap of earth thrown up by the shell, they saw the dead face.
There is in the Midlands a single-line tramway system which boldly leaves the county town and plunges off into the black, industrial countryside, up hill and down dale, through the long ugly villages of workmen’s houses, over canals and railways, past churches perched high and nobly over the smoke and shadows, through stark, grimy cold little market-places, tilting away in a rush past cinemas and shops down to the hollow where the collieries are, then up again, past a little rural church, under the ash trees, on in a rush to the terminus, the last little ugly place of industry, the cold little town that shivers on the edge of the wild, gloomy country beyond. There the green and creamy coloured tram-car seems to pause and purr with curious satisfaction. But in a few minutes — the clock on the turret of the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s Shops gives the time — away it starts once more on the adventure. Again there are the reckless swoops downhill, bouncing the loops: again the chilly wait in the hill-top market-place: again the breathless slithering round the precipitous drop under the church: again the patient halts at the loops, waiting for the outcoming car: so on and on, for two long hours, till at last the city looms beyond the fat gas-works, the narrow factories draw near, we are in the sordid streets of the great town, once more we sidle to a standstill at our terminus, abashed by the great crimson and cream-coloured city cars, but still perky, jaunty, somewhat dare-devil, green as a jaunty sprig of parsley out of a black colliery garden.
To ride on these cars is always an adventure. Since we are in war-time, the drivers are men unfit for active service: cripples and hunchbacks. So they have the spirit of the devil in them. The ride becomes a steeple-chase. Hurray! we have leapt in a clear jump over the canal bridges — now for the four-lane corner. With a shriek and a trail of sparks we are clear again. To be sure, a tram often leaps the rails — but what matter! It sits in a ditch till other trams come to haul it out. It is quite common for a car, packed with one solid mass of living people, to come to a dead halt in the midst of unbroken blackness, the heart of nowhere on a dark night, and for the driver and the girl conductor to call, ‘All get off — car’s on fire!’ Instead, however, of rushing out in a panic, the passengers stolidly reply: ‘Get on — get on! We’re not coming out. We’re stopping where we are. Push on, George.’ So till flames actually appear.
The reason for this reluctance to dismount is that the nights are howlingly cold, black, and windswept, and a car is a haven of refuge. From village to village the miners travel, for a change of cinema, of girl, of pub. The trams are desperately packed. Who is going to risk himself in the black gulf outside, to wait perhaps an hour for another tram, then to see the forlorn notice ‘Depot Only’, because there is something wrong! Or to greet a unit of three bright cars all so tight with people that they sail past with a howl of derision. Trams that pass in the night.
This, the most dangerous tram-service in England, as the authorities themselves declare, with pride, is entirely conducted by girls, and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or by delicate young men, who creep forward in terror. The girls are fearless young hussies. In their ugly blue uniform, skirts up to their knees, shapeless old peaked caps on their heads, they have all the sang-froid of an old non-commissioned officer. With a tram packed with howling colliers, roaring hymns downstairs and a sort of antiphony of obscenities upstairs, the lasses are perfectly at their ease. They pounce on the youths who try to evade their ticket-machine. They push off the men at the end of their distance. They are not going to be done in the eye — not they. They fear nobody — and everybody fears them.
‘Oh, mind my corn, Miss Stone. It’s my belief you’ve got a heart of stone, for you’ve trod on it again.’
‘You should keep it in your pocket,’ replies Miss Stone, and she goes sturdily upstairs in her high boots.
She is peremptory, suspicious, and ready to hit first. She can hold her own against ten thousand. The step of that tram-car is her Thermopylae.
Therefore, there is a certain wild romance aboard these cars — and in the sturdy bosom of Annie herself. The time for soft romance is in the morning, between ten o’clock and one, when things are rather slack: that is, except market-day and Saturday. Thus Annie has time to look about her. Then she often hops off her car and into a shop where she has spied something, while the driver chats in the main road. There is very good feeling between the girls and the drivers. Are they not companions in peril, shipments aboard this careering vessel of a tram-car, for ever rocking on the waves of a stormy land?
Then, also, during the easy hours, the inspectors are most in evidence. For some reason, everybody employed in this tram-service is young: there are no grey heads. It would not do. Therefore the inspectors are of the right age, and one, the chief, is also good-looking. See him stand on a wet, gloomy morning, in his long oil-skin, his peaked cap well down over his eyes, waiting to board a car. His face is ruddy, his small brown moustache is weathered, he has a faint impudent smile. Fairly tall and agile, even in his waterproof, he springs aboard a car and greets Annie.
‘Hello, Annie! Keeping the wet out?’
There are only two people in the car. Inspecting is soon over. Then for a long and impudent chat on the foot-board, a good, easy, twelve-mile chat.
The inspector’s name is John Thomas Raynor — always called John Thomas, except sometimes, in malice, Coddy. His face sets in fury when he is addressed, from a distance, with this abbreviation. There is considerable scandal about John Thomas in half a dozen villages. He flirts with the girl conductors in the morning, and walks out with them in the dark night, when they leave their tram-car at the depot. Of course, the girls quit the service frequently. Then he flirts and walks out with the newcomer: always providing she is sufficiently attractive, and that she will consent to walk. It is remarkable, however, that most of the girls are quite comely, they are all young, and this roving life aboard the car gives them a sailor’s dash and recklessness. What matter how they behave when the ship is in port. Tomorrow they will be aboard again.
Annie, however, was something of a Tartar, and her sharp tongue had kept John Thomas at arm’s length for many months. Perhaps, therefore, she liked him all the more: for he always came up smiling, with impudence. She watched him vanquish one girl, then another. She could tell by the movement of his mouth and eyes, when he flirted with her in the morning, that he had been walking out with this lass, or the other, the night before. A fine cock-of-the-walk he was. She could sum him up pretty well.
In this subtle antagonism they knew each other like old friends, they were as shrewd with one another almost as man and wife. But Annie had always kept him sufficiently at arm’s length. Besides, she had a boy of her own.
The Statutes fair, however, came in November, at Bestwood. It happened that Annie had the Monday night off. It was a drizzling ugly night, yet she dressed herself up and went to the fair ground. She was alone, but she expected soon to find a pal of some sort.
The roundabouts were veering round and grinding out their music, the side shows were making as much commotion as possible. In the coco-nut shies there were no coco-nuts, but artificial war-time substitutes, which the lads declared were fastened into the irons. There was a sad decline in brilliance and luxury. None the less, the ground was muddy as ever, there was the same crush, the press of faces lighted up by the flares and the electric lights, the same smell of naphtha and a few fried potatoes, and of electricity.
Who should be the first to greet Miss Annie on the showground but John Thomas? He had a black overcoat buttoned up to his chin, and a tweed cap pulled down over his brows, his face between was ruddy and smiling and handy as ever. She knew so well the way his mouth moved.
She was very glad to have a ‘boy’. To be at the Statutes without a fellow was no fun. Instantly, like the gallant he was, he took her on the dragons, grim-toothed, round-about switchbacks. It was not nearly so exciting as a tram-car actually. But, then, to be seated in a shaking, green dragon, uplifted above the sea of bubble faces, careering in a rickety fashion in the lower heavens, whilst John Thomas leaned over her, his cigarette in his mouth, was after all the right style. She was a plump, quick, alive little creature. So she was quite excited and happy.
John Thomas made her stay on for the next round. And therefore she could hardly for shame repulse him when he put his arm round her and drew her a little nearer to him, in a very warm and cuddly manner. Besides, he was fairly discreet, he kept his movement as hidden as possible. She looked down, and saw that his red, clean hand was out of sight of the crowd. And they knew each other so well. So they warmed up to the fair.
After the dragons they went on the horses. John Thomas paid each time, so she could but be complaisant. He, of course, sat astride on the outer horse — named ‘Black Bess’— and she sat sideways, towards him, on the inner horse — named ‘Wildfire’. But of course John Thomas was not going to sit discreetly on ‘Black Bess’, holding the brass bar. Round they spun and heaved, in the light. And round he swung on his wooden steed, flinging one leg across her mount, and perilously tipping up and down, across the space, half lying back, laughing at her. He was perfectly happy; she was afraid her hat was on one side, but she was excited.
He threw quoits on a table, and won for her two large, pale-blue hat-pins. And then, hearing the noise of the cinemas, announcing another performance, they climbed the boards and went in.
Of course, during these performances pitch darkness falls from time to time, when the machine goes wrong. Then there is a wild whooping, and a loud smacking of simulated kisses. In these moments John Thomas drew Annie towards him. After all, he had a wonderfully warm, cosy way of holding a girl with his arm, he seemed to make such a nice fit. And, after all, it was pleasant to be so held: so very comforting and cosy and nice. He leaned over her and she felt his breath on her hair; she knew he wanted to kiss her on the lips. And, after all, he was so warm and she fitted in to him so softly. After all, she wanted him to touch her lips.
But the light sprang up; she also started electrically, and put her hat straight. He left his arm lying nonchalantly behind her. Well, it was fun, it was exciting to be at the Statutes with John Thomas.
When the cinema was over they went for a walk across the dark, damp fields. He had all the arts of love-making. He was especially good at holding a girl, when he sat with her on a stile in the black, drizzling darkness. He seemed to be holding her in space, against his own warmth and gratification. And his kisses were soft and slow and searching.
So Annie walked out with John Thomas, though she kept her own boy dangling in the distance. Some of the tram-girls chose to be huffy. But there, you must take things as you find them, in this life.
There was no mistake about it, Annie liked John Thomas a good deal. She felt so rich and warm in herself whenever he was near. And John Thomas really liked Annie, more than usual. The soft, melting way in which she could flow into a fellow, as if she melted into his very bones, was something rare and good. He fully appreciated this.
But with a developing acquaintance there began a developing intimacy. Annie wanted to consider him a person, a man; she wanted to take an intelligent interest in him, and to have an intelligent response. She did not want a mere nocturnal presence, which was what he was so far. And she prided herself that he could not leave her.
Here she made a mistake. John Thomas intended to remain a nocturnal presence; he had no idea of becoming an all-round individual to her. When she started to take an intelligent interest in him and his life and his character, he sheered off. He hated intelligent interest. And he knew that the only way to stop it was to avoid it. The possessive female was aroused in Annie. So he left her.
It is no use saying she was not surprised. She was at first startled, thrown out of her count. For she had been so very sure of holding him. For a while she was staggered, and everything became uncertain to her. Then she wept with fury, indignation, desolation, and misery. Then she had a spasm of despair. And then, when he came, still impudently, on to her car, still familiar, but letting her see by the movement of his head that he had gone away to somebody else for the time being, and was enjoying pastures new, then she determined to have her own back.
She had a very shrewd idea what girls John Thomas had taken out. She went to Nora Purdy. Nora was a tall, rather pale, but well-built girl, with beautiful yellow hair. She was rather secretive.
‘Hey!’ said Annie, accosting her; then softly, ‘Who’s John Thomas on with now?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nora.
‘Why tha does,’ said Annie, ironically lapsing into dialect. ‘Tha knows as well as I do.’
‘Well, I do, then,’ said Nora. ‘It isn’t me, so don’t bother.’
‘It’s Cissy Meakin, isn’t it?’
‘It is, for all I know.’
‘Hasn’t he got a face on him!’ said Annie. ‘I don’t half like his cheek. I could knock him off the foot-board when he comes round at me.’
‘He’ll get dropped-on one of these days,’ said Nora.
‘Ay, he will, when somebody makes up their mind to drop it on him. I should like to see him taken down a peg or two, shouldn’t you?’
‘I shouldn’t mind,’ said Nora.
‘You’ve got quite as much cause to as I have,’ said Annie. ‘But we’ll drop on him one of these days, my girl. What? Don’t you want to?’
‘I don’t mind,’ said Nora.
But as a matter of fact, Nora was much more vindictive than Annie.
One by one Annie went the round of the old flames. It so happened that Cissy Meakin left the tramway service in quite a short time. Her mother made her leave. Then John Thomas was on the qui-vive. He cast his eyes over his old flock. And his eyes lighted on Annie. He thought she would be safe now. Besides, he liked her.
She arranged to walk home with him on Sunday night. It so happened that her car would be in the depot at half past nine: the last car would come in at 10.15. So John Thomas was to wait for her there.
At the depot the girls had a little waiting-room of their own. It was quite rough, but cosy, with a fire and an oven and a mirror, and table and wooden chairs. The half dozen girls who knew John Thomas only too well had arranged to take service this Sunday afternoon. So, as the cars began to come in, early, the girls dropped into the waiting-room. And instead of hurrying off home, they sat around the fire and had a cup of tea. Outside was the darkness and lawlessness of wartime.
John Thomas came on the car after Annie, at about a quarter to ten. He poked his head easily into the girls’ waiting-room.
‘Prayer-meeting?’ he asked.
‘Ay,’ said Laura Sharp. ‘Ladies only.’
‘That’s me!’ said John Thomas. It was one of his favourite exclamations.
‘Shut the door, boy,’ said Muriel Baggaley.
‘On which side of me?’ said John Thomas.
‘Which tha likes,’ said Polly Birkin.
He had come in and closed the door behind him. The girls moved in their circle, to make a place for him near the fire. He took off his great-coat and pushed back his hat.
‘Who handles the teapot?’ he said.
Nora Purdy silently poured him out a cup of tea.
‘Want a bit o’ my bread and drippin’?’ said Muriel Baggaley to him.
‘Ay, give us a bit.’
And he began to eat his piece of bread.
‘There’s no place like home, girls,’ he said.
They all looked at him as he uttered this piece of impudence. He seemed to be sunning himself in the presence of so many damsels.
‘Especially if you’re not afraid to go home in the dark,’ said Laura Sharp.
‘Me! By myself I am.’
They sat till they heard the last tram come in. In a few minutes Emma Houselay entered.
‘Come on, my old duck!’ cried Polly Birkin.
‘It is perishing,’ said Emma, holding her fingers to the fire.
‘But — I’m afraid to, go home in, the dark,’ sang Laura Sharp, the tune having got into her mind.
‘Who’re you going with tonight, John Thomas?’ asked Muriel Baggaley, coolly.
‘Tonight?’ said John Thomas. ‘Oh, I’m going home by myself tonight — all on my lonely-O.’
‘That’s me!’ said Nora Purdy, using his own ejaculation.
The girls laughed shrilly.
‘Me as well, Nora,’ said John Thomas.
‘Don’t know what you mean,’ said Laura.
‘Yes, I’m toddling,’ said he, rising and reaching for his overcoat.
‘Nay,’ said Polly. ‘We’re all here waiting for you.’
‘We’ve got to be up in good time in the morning,’ he said, in the benevolent official manner.
They all laughed.
‘Nay,’ said Muriel. ‘Don’t leave us all lonely, John Thomas. Take one!’
‘I’ll take the lot, if you like,’ he responded gallantly.
‘That you won’t either,’ said Muriel, ‘Two’s company; seven’s too much of a good thing.’
‘Nay — take one,’ said Laura. ‘Fair and square, all above board, and say which.’
‘Ay,’ cried Annie, speaking for the first time. ‘Pick, John Thomas; let’s hear thee.’
‘Nay,’ he said. ‘I’m going home quiet tonight. Feeling good, for once.’
‘Whereabouts?’ said Annie. ‘Take a good ’un, then. But tha’s got to take one of us!’
‘Nay, how can I take one,’ he said, laughing uneasily. ‘I don’t want to make enemies.’
‘You’d only make one’ said Annie.
‘The chosen one,’ added Laura.
‘Oh, my! Who said girls!’ exclaimed John Thomas, again turning, as if to escape. ‘Well — good-night.’
‘Nay, you’ve got to make your pick,’ said Muriel. ‘Turn your face to the wall, and say which one touches you. Go on — we shall only just touch your back — one of us. Go on — turn your face to the wall, and don’t look, and say which one touches you.’
He was uneasy, mistrusting them. Yet he had not the courage to break away. They pushed him to a wall and stood him there with his face to it. Behind his back they all grimaced, tittering. He looked so comical. He looked around uneasily.
‘Go on!’ he cried.
‘You’re looking — you’re looking!’ they shouted.
He turned his head away. And suddenly, with a movement like a swift cat, Annie went forward and fetched him a box on the side of the head that sent his cap flying and himself staggering. He started round.
But at Annie’s signal they all flew at him, slapping him, pinching him, pulling his hair, though more in fun than in spite or anger. He, however, saw red. His blue eyes flamed with strange fear as well as fury, and he butted through the girls to the door. It was locked. He wrenched at it. Roused, alert, the girls stood round and looked at him. He faced them, at bay. At that moment they were rather horrifying to him, as they stood in their short uniforms. He was distinctly afraid.
‘Come on, John Thomas! Come on! Choose!’ said Annie.
‘What are you after? Open the door,’ he said.
‘We shan’t — not till you’ve chosen!’ said Muriel.
‘Chosen what?’ he said.
‘Chosen the one you’re going to marry,’ she replied.
He hesitated a moment.
‘Open the blasted door,’ he said, ‘and get back to your senses.’ He spoke with official authority.
‘You’ve got to choose!’ cried the girls.
‘Come on!’ cried Annie, looking him in the eye.’ Come on! Come on!’
He went forward, rather vaguely. She had taken off her belt, and swinging it, she fetched him a sharp blow over the head with the buckle end. He sprang and seized her. But immediately the other girls rushed upon him, pulling and tearing and beating him. Their blood was now thoroughly up. He was their sport now. They were going to have their own back, out of him. Strange, wild creatures, they hung on him and rushed at him to bear him down. His tunic was torn right up the back, Nora had hold at the back of his collar, and was actually strangling him. Luckily the button burst. He struggled in a wild frenzy of fury and terror, almost mad terror. His tunic was simply torn off his back, his shirt-sleeves were torn away, his arms were naked. The girls rushed at him, clenched their hands on him and pulled at him: or they rushed at him and pushed him, butted him with all their might: or they struck him wild blows. He ducked and cringed and struck sideways. They became more intense.
At last he was down. They rushed on him, kneeling on him. He had neither breath nor strength to move. His face was bleeding with a long scratch, his brow was bruised.
Annie knelt on him, the other girls knelt and hung on to him. Their faces were flushed, their hair wild, their eyes were all glittering strangely. He lay at last quite still, with face averted, as an animal lies when it is defeated and at the mercy of the captor. Sometimes his eye glanced back at the wild faces of the girls. His breast rose heavily, his wrists were torn.
‘Now, then, my fellow!’ gasped Annie at length. ‘Now then — now —’
At the sound of her terrifying, cold triumph, he suddenly started to struggle as an animal might, but the girls threw themselves upon him with unnatural strength and power, forcing him down.
‘Yes — now, then!’ gasped Annie at length.
And there was a dead silence, in which the thud of heart-beating was to be heard. It was a suspense of pure silence in every soul.
‘Now you know where you are,’ said Annie.
The sight of his white, bare arm maddened the girls. He lay in a kind of trance of fear and antagonism. They felt themselves filled with supernatural strength.
Suddenly Polly started to laugh — to giggle wildly — helplessly — and Emma and Muriel joined in. But Annie and Nora and Laura remained the same, tense, watchful, with gleaming eyes. He winced away from these eyes.
‘Yes,’ said Annie, in a curious low tone, secret and deadly. ‘Yes! You’ve got it now! You know what you’ve done, don’t you? You know what you’ve done.’
He made no sound nor sign, but lay with bright, averted eyes, and averted, bleeding face.
‘You ought to be killed, that’s what you ought,’ said Annie, tensely. ‘You ought to be killed.’ And there was a terrifying lust in her voice.
Polly was ceasing to laugh, and giving long-drawn Oh-h-hs and sighs as she came to herself.
‘He’s got to choose,’ she said vaguely.
‘Oh, yes, he has,’ said Laura, with vindictive decision.
‘Do you hear — do you hear?’ said Annie. And with a sharp movement, that made him wince, she turned his face to her.
‘Do you hear?’ she repeated, shaking him.
But he was quite dumb. She fetched him a sharp slap on the face. He started, and his eyes widened. Then his face darkened with defiance, after all.
‘Do you hear?’ she repeated.
He only looked at her with hostile eyes.
‘Speak!’ she said, putting her face devilishly near his.
‘What?’ he said, almost overcome.
‘You’ve got to choose!’ she cried, as if it were some terrible menace, and as if it hurt her that she could not exact more.
‘What?’ he said, in fear.
‘Choose your girl, Coddy. You’ve got to choose her now. And you’ll get your neck broken if you play any more of your tricks, my boy. You’re settled now.’
There was a pause. Again he averted his face. He was cunning in his overthrow. He did not give in to them really — no, not if they tore him to bits.
‘All right, then,’ he said, ‘I choose Annie.’ His voice was strange and full of malice. Annie let go of him as if he had been a hot coal.
‘He’s chosen Annie!’ said the girls in chorus.
‘Me!’ cried Annie. She was still kneeling, but away from him. He was still lying prostrate, with averted face. The girls grouped uneasily around.
‘Me!’ repeated Annie, with a terrible bitter accent.
Then she got up, drawing away from him with strange disgust and bitterness.
‘I wouldn’t touch him,’ she said.
But her face quivered with a kind of agony, she seemed as if she would fall. The other girls turned aside. He remained lying on the floor, with his torn clothes and bleeding, averted face.
‘Oh, if he’s chosen —’ said Polly.
‘I don’t want him — he can choose again,’ said Annie, with the same rather bitter hopelessness.
‘Get up,’ said Polly, lifting his shoulder. ‘Get up.’
He rose slowly, a strange, ragged, dazed creature. The girls eyed him from a distance, curiously, furtively, dangerously.
‘Who wants him?’ cried Laura, roughly.
‘Nobody,’ they answered, with contempt. Yet each one of them waited for him to look at her, hoped he would look at her. All except Annie, and something was broken in her.
He, however, kept his face closed and averted from them all. There was a silence of the end. He picked up the torn pieces of his tunic, without knowing what to do with them. The girls stood about uneasily, flushed, panting, tidying their hair and their dress unconsciously, and watching him. He looked at none of them. He espied his cap in a corner, and went and picked it up. He put it on his head, and one of the girls burst into a shrill, hysteric laugh at the sight he presented. He, however, took no heed, but went straight to where his overcoat hung on a peg. The girls moved away from contact with him as if he had been an electric wire. He put on his coat and buttoned it down. Then he rolled his tunic-rags into a bundle, and stood before the locked door, dumbly.
‘Open the door, somebody,’ said Laura.
‘Annie’s got the key,’ said one.
Annie silently offered the key to the girls. Nora unlocked the door.
‘Tit for tat, old man,’ she said. ‘Show yourself a man, and don’t bear a grudge.’
But without a word or sign he had opened the door and gone, his face closed, his head dropped.
‘That’ll learn him,’ said Laura.
‘Coddy!’ said Nora.
‘Shut up, for God’s sake!’ cried Annie fiercely, as if in torture.
‘Well, I’m about ready to go, Polly. Look sharp!’ said Muriel.
The girls were all anxious to be off. They were tidying themselves hurriedly, with mute, stupefied faces.
Isabel Pervin was listening for two sounds — for the sound of wheels on the drive outside and for the noise of her husband’s footsteps in the hall. Her dearest and oldest friend, a man who seemed almost indispensable to her living, would drive up in the rainy dusk of the closing November day. The trap had gone to fetch him from the station. And her husband, who had been blinded in Flanders, and who had a disfiguring mark on his brow, would be coming in from the outhouses.
He had been home for a year now. He was totally blind. Yet they had been very happy. The Grange was Maurice’s own place. The back was a farmstead, and the Wernhams, who occupied the rear premises, acted as farmers. Isabel lived with her husband in the handsome rooms in front. She and he had been almost entirely alone together since he was wounded. They talked and sang and read together in a wonderful and unspeakable intimacy. Then she reviewed books for a Scottish newspaper, carrying on her old interest, and he occupied himself a good deal with the farm. Sightless, he could still discuss everything with Wernham, and he could also do a good deal of work about the place — menial work, it is true, but it gave him satisfaction. He milked the cows, carried in the pails, turned the separator, attended to the pigs and horses. Life was still very full and strangely serene for the blind man, peaceful with the almost incomprehensible peace of immediate contact in darkness. With his wife he had a whole world, rich and real and invisible.
They were newly and remotely happy. He did not even regret the loss of his sight in these times of dark, palpable joy. A certain exultance swelled his soul.
But as time wore on, sometimes the rich glamour would leave them. Sometimes, after months of this intensity, a sense of burden overcame Isabel, a weariness, a terrible ennui, in that silent house approached between a colonnade of tall-shafted pines. Then she felt she would go mad, for she could not bear it. And sometimes he had devastating fits of depression, which seemed to lay waste his whole being. It was worse than depression — a black misery, when his own life was a torture to him, and when his presence was unbearable to his wife. The dread went down to the roots of her soul as these black days recurred. In a kind of panic she tried to wrap herself up still further in her husband. She forced the old spontaneous cheerfulness and joy to continue. But the effort it cost her was almost too much. She knew she could not keep it up. She felt she would scream with the strain, and would give anything, anything, to escape. She longed to possess her husband utterly; it gave her inordinate joy to have him entirely to herself. And yet, when again he was gone in a black and massive misery, she could not bear him, she could not bear herself; she wished she could be snatched away off the earth altogether, anything rather than live at this cost.
Dazed, she schemed for a way out. She invited friends, she tried to give him some further connexion with the outer world. But it was no good. After all their joy and suffering, after their dark, great year of blindness and solitude and unspeakable nearness, other people seemed to them both shallow, prattling, rather impertinent. Shallow prattle seemed presumptuous. He became impatient and irritated, she was wearied. And so they lapsed into their solitude again. For they preferred it.
But now, in a few weeks’ time, her second baby would be born. The first had died, an infant, when her husband first went out to France. She looked with joy and relief to the coming of the second. It would be her salvation. But also she felt some anxiety. She was thirty years old, her husband was a year younger. They both wanted the child very much. Yet she could not help feeling afraid. She had her husband on her hands, a terrible joy to her, and a terrifying burden. The child would occupy her love and attention. And then, what of Maurice? What would he do? If only she could feel that he, too, would be at peace and happy when the child came! She did so want to luxuriate in a rich, physical satisfaction of maternity. But the man, what would he do? How could she provide for him, how avert those shattering black moods of his, which destroyed them both?
She sighed with fear. But at this time Bertie Reid wrote to Isabel. He was her old friend, a second or third cousin, a Scotchman, as she was a Scotchwoman. They had been brought up near to one another, and all her life he had been her friend, like a brother, but better than her own brothers. She loved him — though not in the marrying sense. There was a sort of kinship between them, an affinity. They understood one another instinctively. But Isabel would never have thought of marrying Bertie. It would have seemed like marrying in her own family.
Bertie was a barrister and a man of letters, a Scotchman of the intellectual type, quick, ironical, sentimental, and on his knees before the woman he adored but did not want to marry. Maurice Pervin was different. He came of a good old country family — the Grange was not a very great distance from Oxford. He was passionate, sensitive, perhaps over-sensitive, wincing — a big fellow with heavy limbs and a forehead that flushed painfully. For his mind was slow, as if drugged by the strong provincial blood that beat in his veins. He was very sensitive to his own mental slowness, his feelings being quick and acute. So that he was just the opposite to Bertie, whose mind was much quicker than his emotions, which were not so very fine.
From the first the two men did not like each other. Isabel felt that they ought to get on together. But they did not. She felt that if only each could have the clue to the other there would be such a rare understanding between them. It did not come off, however. Bertie adopted a slightly ironical attitude, very offensive to Maurice, who returned the Scotch irony with English resentment, a resentment which deepened sometimes into stupid hatred.
This was a little puzzling to Isabel. However, she accepted it in the course of things. Men were made freakish and unreasonable. Therefore, when Maurice was going out to France for the second time, she felt that, for her husband’s sake, she must discontinue her friendship with Bertie. She wrote to the barrister to this effect. Bertram Reid simply replied that in this, as in all other matters, he must obey her wishes, if these were indeed her wishes.
For nearly two years nothing had passed between the two friends. Isabel rather gloried in the fact; she had no compunction. She had one great article of faith, which was, that husband and wife should be so important to one another, that the rest of the world simply did not count. She and Maurice were husband and wife. They loved one another. They would have children. Then let everybody and everything else fade into insignificance outside this connubial felicity. She professed herself quite happy and ready to receive Maurice’s friends. She was happy and ready: the happy wife, the ready woman in possession. Without knowing why, the friends retired abashed and came no more. Maurice, of course, took as much satisfaction in this connubial absorption as Isabel did.
He shared in Isabel’s literary activities, she cultivated a real interest in agriculture and cattle-raising. For she, being at heart perhaps an emotional enthusiast, always cultivated the practical side of life, and prided herself on her mastery of practical affairs. Thus the husband and wife had spent the five years of their married life. The last had been one of blindness and unspeakable intimacy. And now Isabel felt a great indifference coming over her, a sort of lethargy. She wanted to be allowed to bear her child in peace, to nod by the fire and drift vaguely, physically, from day to day. Maurice was like an ominous thunder-cloud. She had to keep waking up to remember him.
When a little note came from Bertie, asking if he were to put up a tombstone to their dead friendship, and speaking of the real pain he felt on account of her husband’s loss of sight, she felt a pang, a fluttering agitation of re-awakening. And she read the letter to Maurice.
‘Ask him to come down,’ he said.
‘Ask Bertie to come here!’ she re-echoed.
‘Yes — if he wants to.’
Isabel paused for a few moments.
‘I know he wants to — he’d only be too glad,’ she replied. ‘But what about you, Maurice? How would you like it?’
‘I should like it.’
‘Well — in that case — But I thought you didn’t care for him —’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I might think differently of him now,’ the blind man replied. It was rather abstruse to Isabel.
‘Well, dear,’ she said, ‘if you’re quite sure —’
‘I’m sure enough. Let him come,’ said Maurice.
So Bertie was coming, coming this evening, in the November rain and darkness. Isabel was agitated, racked with her old restlessness and indecision. She had always suffered from this pain of doubt, just an agonizing sense of uncertainty. It had begun to pass off, in the lethargy of maternity. Now it returned, and she resented it. She struggled as usual to maintain her calm, composed, friendly bearing, a sort of mask she wore over all her body.
A woman had lighted a tall lamp beside the table, and spread the cloth. The long dining-room was dim, with its elegant but rather severe pieces of old furniture. Only the round table glowed softly under the light. It had a rich, beautiful effect. The white cloth glistened and dropped its heavy, pointed lace corners almost to the carpet, the china was old and handsome, creamy-yellow, with a blotched pattern of harsh red and deep blue, the cups large and bell-shaped, the teapot gallant. Isabel looked at it with superficial appreciation.
Her nerves were hurting her. She looked automatically again at the high, uncurtained windows. In the last dusk she could just perceive outside a huge fir-tree swaying its boughs: it was as if she thought it rather than saw it. The rain came flying on the window panes. Ah, why had she no peace? These two men, why did they tear at her? Why did they not come — why was there this suspense?
She sat in a lassitude that was really suspense and irritation. Maurice, at least, might come in-there was nothing to keep him out. She rose to her feet. Catching sight of her reflection in a mirror, she glanced at herself with a slight smile of recognition, as if she were an old friend to herself. Her face was oval and calm, her nose a little arched. Her neck made a beautiful line down to her shoulder. With hair knotted loosely behind, she had something of a warm, maternal look. Thinking this of herself, she arched her eyebrows and her rather heavy eyelids, with a little flicker of a smile, and for a moment her grey eyes looked amused and wicked, a little sardonic, out of her transfigured Madonna face.
Then, resuming her air of womanly patience — she was really fatally self-determined — she went with a little jerk towards the door. Her eyes were slightly reddened.
She passed down the wide hall, and through a door at the end. Then she was in the farm premises. The scent of dairy, and of farm-kitchen, and of farm-yard and of leather almost overcame her: but particularly the scent of dairy. They had been scalding out the pans. The flagged passage in front of her was dark, puddled and wet. Light came out from the open kitchen door. She went forward and stood in the doorway. The farm-people were at tea, seated at a little distance from her, round a long, narrow table, in the centre of which stood a white lamp. Ruddy faces, ruddy hands holding food, red mouths working, heads bent over the tea-cups: men, land-girls, boys: it was tea-time, feeding-time. Some faces caught sight of her. Mrs. Wernham, going round behind the chairs with a large black teapot, halting slightly in her walk, was not aware of her for a moment. Then she turned suddenly.
‘Oh, is it Madam!’ she exclaimed. ‘Come in, then, come in! We’re at tea.’ And she dragged forward a chair.
‘No, I won’t come in,’ said Isabel, ‘I’m afraid I interrupt your meal.’
‘No — no — not likely, Madam, not likely.’
‘Hasn’t Mr. Pervin come in, do you know?’
‘I’m sure I couldn’t say! Missed him, have you, Madam?’
‘No, I only wanted him to come in,’ laughed Isabel, as if shyly.
‘Wanted him, did ye? Get you, boy — get up, now —’
Mrs. Wernham knocked one of the boys on the shoulder. He began to scrape to his feet, chewing largely.
‘I believe he’s in top stable,’ said another face from the table.
‘Ah! No, don’t get up. I’m going myself,’ said Isabel.
‘Don’t you go out of a dirty night like this. Let the lad go. Get along wi’ ye, boy,’ said Mrs. Wernham.
‘No, no,’ said Isabel, with a decision that was always obeyed. ‘Go on with your tea, Tom. I’d like to go across to the stable, Mrs. Wernham.’
‘Did ever you hear tell!’ exclaimed the woman.
‘Isn’t the trap late?’ asked Isabel.
‘Why, no,’ said Mrs. Wernham, peering into the distance at the tall, dim clock. ‘No, Madam — we can give it another quarter or twenty minutes yet, good — yes, every bit of a quarter.’
‘Ah! It seems late when darkness falls so early,’ said Isabel.
‘It do, that it do. Bother the days, that they draw in so,’ answered Mrs. Wernham.’ Proper miserable!’
‘They are,’ said Isabel, withdrawing.
She pulled on her overshoes, wrapped a large tartan shawl around her, put on a man’s felt hat, and ventured out along the causeways of the first yard. It was very dark. The wind was roaring in the great elms behind the outhouses. When she came to the second yard the darkness seemed deeper. She was unsure of her footing. She wished she had brought a lantern. Rain blew against her. Half she liked it, half she felt unwilling to battle.
She reached at last the just visible door of the stable. There was no sign of a light anywhere. Opening the upper half, she looked in: into a simple well of darkness. The smell of horses, and ammonia, and of warmth was startling to her, in that full night. She listened with all her ears, but could hear nothing save the night, and the stirring of a horse.
‘Maurice!’ she called, softly and musically, though she was afraid. ‘Maurice — are you there?’
Nothing came from the darkness. She knew the rain and wind blew in upon the horses, the hot animal life. Feeling it wrong, she entered the stable, and drew the lower half of the door shut, holding the upper part close. She did not stir, because she was aware of the presence of the dark hindquarters of the horses, though she could not see them, and she was afraid. Something wild stirred in her heart.
She listened intensely. Then she heard a small noise in the distance — far away, it seemed — the chink of a pan, and a man’s voice speaking a brief word. It would be Maurice, in the other part of the stable. She stood motionless, waiting for him to come through the partition door. The horses were so terrifyingly near to her, in the invisible.
The loud jarring of the inner door-latch made her start; the door was opened. She could hear and feel her husband entering and invisibly passing among the horses near to her, in darkness as they were, actively intermingled. The rather low sound of his voice as he spoke to the horses came velvety to her nerves. How near he was, and how invisible! The darkness seemed to be in a strange swirl of violent life, just upon her. She turned giddy.
Her presence of mind made her call, quietly and musically:
‘Maurice! Maurice — dea-ar!’
‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘Isabel?’
She saw nothing, and the sound of his voice seemed to touch her.
‘Hello!’ she answered cheerfully, straining her eyes to see him. He was still busy, attending to the horses near her, but she saw only darkness. It made her almost desperate.
‘Won’t you come in, dear?’ she said.
‘Yes, I’m coming. Just half a minute. Stand over — now! Trap’s not come, has it?’
‘Not yet,’ said Isabel.
His voice was pleasant and ordinary, but it had a slight suggestion of the stable to her. She wished he would come away. Whilst he was so utterly invisible she was afraid of him.
‘How’s the time?’ he asked.
‘Not yet six,’ she replied. She disliked to answer into the dark. Presently he came very near to her, and she retreated out of doors.
‘The weather blows in here,’ he said, coming steadily forward, feeling for the doors. She shrank away. At last she could dimly see him.
‘Bertie won’t have much of a drive,’ he said, as he closed the doors.
‘He won’t indeed!’ said Isabel calmly, watching the dark shape at the door.
‘Give me your arm, dear,’ she said.
She pressed his arm close to her, as she went. But she longed to see him, to look at him. She was nervous. He walked erect, with face rather lifted, but with a curious tentative movement of his powerful, muscular legs. She could feel the clever, careful, strong contact of his feet with the earth, as she balanced against him. For a moment he was a tower of darkness to her, as if he rose out of the earth.
In the house-passage he wavered, and went cautiously, with a curious look of silence about him as he felt for the bench. Then he sat down heavily. He was a man with rather sloping shoulders, but with heavy limbs, powerful legs that seemed to know the earth. His head was small, usually carried high and light. As he bent down to unfasten his gaiters and boots he did not look blind. His hair was brown and crisp, his hands were large, reddish, intelligent, the veins stood out in the wrists; and his thighs and knees seemed massive. When he stood up his face and neck were surcharged with blood, the veins stood out on his temples. She did not look at his blindness.
Isabel was always glad when they had passed through the dividing door into their own regions of repose and beauty. She was a little afraid of him, out there in the animal grossness of the back. His bearing also changed, as he smelt the familiar, indefinable odour that pervaded his wife’s surroundings, a delicate, refined scent, very faintly spicy. Perhaps it came from the pot-pourri bowls.
He stood at the foot of the stairs, arrested, listening. She watched him, and her heart sickened. He seemed to be listening to fate.
‘He’s not here yet,’ he said. ‘I’ll go up and change.’
‘Maurice,’ she said, ‘you’re not wishing he wouldn’t come, are you?’
‘I couldn’t quite say,’ he answered. ‘I feel myself rather on the qui vive.’
‘I can see you are,’ she answered. And she reached up and kissed his cheek. She saw his mouth relax into a slow smile.
‘What are you laughing at?’ she said roguishly.
‘You consoling me,’ he answered.
‘Nay,’ she answered. ‘Why should I console you? You know we love each other — you know how married we are! What does anything else matter?’
‘Nothing at all, my dear.’
He felt for her face, and touched it, smiling.
‘You’re all right, aren’t you?’ he asked, anxiously.
‘I’m wonderfully all right, love,’ she answered. ‘It’s you I am a little troubled about, at times.’
‘Why me?’ he said, touching her cheeks delicately with the tips of his fingers. The touch had an almost hypnotizing effect on her.
He went away upstairs. She saw him mount into the darkness, unseeing and unchanging. He did not know that the lamps on the upper corridor were unlighted. He went on into the darkness with unchanging step. She heard him in the bathroom.
Pervin moved about almost unconsciously in his familiar surroundings, dark though everything was. He seemed to know the presence of objects before he touched them. It was a pleasure to him to rock thus through a world of things, carried on the flood in a sort of blood-prescience. He did not think much or trouble much. So long as he kept this sheer immediacy of blood-contact with the substantial world he was happy, he wanted no intervention of visual consciousness. In this state there was a certain rich positivity, bordering sometimes on rapture. Life seemed to move in him like a tide lapping, and advancing, enveloping all things darkly. It was a pleasure to stretch forth the hand and meet the unseen object, clasp it, and possess it in pure contact. He did not try to remember, to visualize. He did not want to. The new way of consciousness substituted itself in him.
The rich suffusion of this state generally kept him happy, reaching its culmination in the consuming passion for his wife. But at times the flow would seem to be checked and thrown back. Then it would beat inside him like a tangled sea, and he was tortured in the shattered chaos of his own blood. He grew to dread this arrest, this throw-back, this chaos inside himself, when he seemed merely at the mercy of his own powerful and conflicting elements. How to get some measure of control or surety, this was the question. And when the question rose maddening in him, he would clench his fists as if he would compel the whole universe to submit to him. But it was in vain. He could not even compel himself.
Tonight, however, he was still serene, though little tremors of unreasonable exasperation ran through him. He had to handle the razor very carefully, as he shaved, for it was not at one with him, he was afraid of it. His hearing also was too much sharpened. He heard the woman lighting the lamps on the corridor, and attending to the fire in the visitor’s room. And then, as he went to his room he heard the trap arrive. Then came Isabel’s voice, lifted and calling, like a bell ringing:
‘Is it you, Bertie? Have you come?’
And a man’s voice answered out of the wind:
‘Hello, Isabell There you are.’
‘Have you had a miserable drive? I’m so sorry we couldn’t send a closed carriage. I can’t see you at all, you know.’
‘I’m coming. No, I liked the drive — it was like Perthshire. Well, how are you? You’re looking fit as ever, as far as I can see.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Isabel. ‘I’m wonderfully well. How are you? Rather thin, I think —’
‘Worked to death — everybody’s old cry. But I’m all right, Ciss. How’s Pervin? — isn’t he here?’
‘Oh, yes, he’s upstairs changing. Yes, he’s awfully well. Take off your wet things; I’ll send them to be dried.’
‘And how are you both, in spirits? He doesn’t fret?’
‘No — no, not at all. No, on the contrary, really. We’ve been wonderfully happy, incredibly. It’s more than I can understand — so wonderful: the nearness, and the peace —’
‘Ah! Well, that’s awfully good news —’
They moved away. Pervin heard no more. But a childish sense of desolation had come over him, as he heard their brisk voices. He seemed shut out — like a child that is left out. He was aimless and excluded, he did not know what to do with himself. The helpless desolation came over him. He fumbled nervously as he dressed himself, in a state almost of childishness. He disliked the Scotch accent in Bertie’s speech, and the slight response it found on Isabel’s tongue. He disliked the slight purr of complacency in the Scottish speech. He disliked intensely the glib way in which Isabel spoke of their happiness and nearness. It made him recoil. He was fretful and beside himself like a child, he had almost a childish nostalgia to be included in the life circle. And at the same time he was a man, dark and powerful and infuriated by his own weakness. By some fatal flaw, he could not be by himself, he had to depend on the support of another. And this very dependence enraged him. He hated Bertie Reid, and at the same time he knew the hatred was nonsense, he knew it was the outcome of his own weakness.
He went downstairs. Isabel was alone in the dining-room. She watched him enter, head erect, his feet tentative. He looked so strong-blooded and healthy, and, at the same time, cancelled. Cancelled — that was the word that flew across her mind. Perhaps it was his scars suggested it.
‘You heard Bertie come, Maurice?’ she said.
‘Yes — isn’t he here?’
‘He’s in his room. He looks very thin and worn.’
‘I suppose he works himself to death.’
A woman came in with a tray — and after a few minutes Bertie came down. He was a little dark man, with a very big forehead, thin, wispy hair, and sad, large eyes. His expression was inordinately sad — almost funny. He had odd, short legs.
Isabel watched him hesitate under the door, and glance nervously at her husband. Pervin heard him and turned.
‘Here you are, now,’ said Isabel. ‘Come, let us eat.’
Bertie went across to Maurice.
‘How are you, Pervin,’ he said, as he advanced.
The blind man stuck his hand out into space, and Bertie took it.
‘Very fit. Glad you’ve come,’ said Maurice.
Isabel glanced at them, and glanced away, as if she could not bear to see them.
‘Come,’ she said. ‘Come to table. Aren’t you both awfully hungry? I am, tremendously.’
‘I’m afraid you waited for me,’ said Bertie, as they sat down.
Maurice had a curious monolithic way of sitting in a chair, erect and distant. Isabel’s heart always beat when she caught sight of him thus.
‘No,’ she replied to Bertie. ‘We’re very little later than usual. We’re having a sort of high tea, not dinner. Do you mind? It gives us such a nice long evening, uninterrupted.’
‘I like it,’ said Bertie.
Maurice was feeling, with curious little movements, almost like a cat kneading her bed, for his place, his knife and fork, his napkin. He was getting the whole geography of his cover into his consciousness. He sat erect and inscrutable, remote-seeming Bertie watched the static figure of the blind man, the delicate tactile discernment of the large, ruddy hands, and the curious mindless silence of the brow, above the scar. With difficulty he looked away, and without knowing what he did, picked up a little crystal bowl of violets from the table, and held them to his nose.
‘They are sweet-scented,’ he said. ‘Where do they come from?’
‘From the garden — under the windows,’ said Isabel.
‘So late in the year — and so fragrant! Do you remember the violets under Aunt Bell’s south wall?’
The two friends looked at each other and exchanged a smile, Isabel’s eyes lighting up.
‘Don’t I?’ she replied. ‘Wasn’t she queer!’
‘A curious old girl,’ laughed Bertie. ‘There’s a streak of freakishness in the family, Isabel.’
‘Ah — but not in you and me, Bertie,’ said Isabel. ‘Give them to Maurice, will you?’ she added, as Bertie was putting down the flowers. ‘Have you smelled the violets, dear? Do! — they are so scented.’
Maurice held out his hand, and Bertie placed the tiny bowl against his large, warm-looking fingers. Maurice’s hand closed over the thin white fingers of the barrister. Bertie carefully extricated himself. Then the two watched the blind man smelling the violets. He bent his head and seemed to be thinking. Isabel waited.
‘Aren’t they sweet, Maurice?’ she said at last, anxiously.
‘Very,’ he said. And he held out the bowl. Bertie took it. Both he and Isabel were a little afraid, and deeply disturbed.
The meal continued. Isabel and Bertie chatted spasmodically. The blind man was silent. He touched his food repeatedly, with quick, delicate touches of his knife-point, then cut irregular bits. He could not bear to be helped. Both Isabel and Bertie suffered: Isabel wondered why. She did not suffer when she was alone with Maurice. Bertie made her conscious of a strangeness.
After the meal the three drew their chairs to the fire, and sat down to talk. The decanters were put on a table near at hand. Isabel knocked the logs on the fire, and clouds of brilliant sparks went up the chimney. Bertie noticed a slight weariness in her bearing.
‘You will be glad when your child comes now, Isabel?’ he said.
She looked up to him with a quick wan smile.
‘Yes, I shall be glad,’ she answered. ‘It begins to seem long. Yes, I shall be very glad. So will you, Maurice, won’t you?’ she added.
‘Yes, I shall,’ replied her husband.
‘We are both looking forward so much to having it,’ she said.
‘Yes, of course,’ said Bertie.
He was a bachelor, three or four years older than Isabel. He lived in beautiful rooms overlooking the river, guarded by a faithful Scottish man-servant. And he had his friends among the fair sex — not lovers, friends. So long as he could avoid any danger of courtship or marriage, he adored a few good women with constant and unfailing homage, and he was chivalrously fond of quite a number. But if they seemed to encroach on him, he withdrew and detested them.
Isabel knew him very well, knew his beautiful constancy, and kindness, also his incurable weakness, which made him unable ever to enter into close contact of any sort. He was ashamed of himself, because he could not marry, could not approach women physically. He wanted to do so. But he could not. At the centre of him he was afraid, helplessly and even brutally afraid. He had given up hope, had ceased to expect any more that he could escape his own weakness. Hence he was a brilliant and successful barrister, also littérateur of high repute, a rich man, and a great social success. At the centre he felt himself neuter, nothing.
Isabel knew him well. She despised him even while she admired him. She looked at his sad face, his little short legs, and felt contempt of him. She looked at his dark grey eyes, with their uncanny, almost childlike intuition, and she loved him. He understood amazingly — but she had no fear of his understanding. As a man she patronized him.
And she turned to the impassive, silent figure of her husband. He sat leaning back, with folded arms, and face a little uptilted. His knees were straight and massive. She sighed, picked up the poker, and again began to prod the fire, to rouse the clouds of soft, brilliant sparks.
‘Isabel tells me,’ Bertie began suddenly, ‘that you have not suffered unbearably from the loss of sight.’
Maurice straightened himself to attend, but kept his arms folded.
‘No,’ he said, ‘not unbearably. Now and again one struggles against it, you know. But there are compensations.’
‘They say it is much worse to be stone deaf,’ said Isabel.
‘I believe it is,’ said Bertie. ‘Are there compensations?’ he added, to Maurice.
‘Yes. You cease to bother about a great many things.’ Again Maurice stretched his figure, stretched the strong muscles of his back, and leaned backwards, with uplifted face.
‘And that is a relief,’ said Bertie. ‘But what is there in place of the bothering? What replaces the activity?’
There was a pause. At length the blind man replied, as out of a negligent, unattentive thinking:
‘Oh, I don’t know. There’s a good deal when you’re not active.’
‘Is there?’ said Bertie. ‘What, exactly? It always seems to me that when there is no thought and no action, there is nothing.’
Again Maurice was slow in replying.
‘There is something,’ he replied. ‘I couldn’t tell you what it is.’
And the talk lapsed once more, Isabel and Bertie chatting gossip and reminiscence, the blind man silent.
At length Maurice rose restlessly, a big, obtrusive figure. He felt tight and hampered. He wanted to go away.
‘Do you mind,’ he said, ‘if I go and speak to Wernham?’
‘No — go along, dear,’ said Isabel.
And he went out. A silence came over the two friends. At length Bertie said:
‘Nevertheless, it is a great deprivation, Cissie.’
‘It is, Bertie. I know it is.’
‘Something lacking all the time,’ said Bertie.
‘Yes, I know. And yet — and yet — Maurice is right. There is something else, something there, which you never knew was there, and which you can’t express.’
‘What is there?’ asked Bertie.
‘I don’t know — it’s awfully hard to define it — but something strong and immediate. There’s something strange in Maurice’s presence — indefinable — but I couldn’t do without it. I agree that it seems to put one’s mind to sleep. But when we’re alone I miss nothing; it seems awfully rich, almost splendid, you know.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t follow,’ said Bertie.
They talked desultorily. The wind blew loudly outside, rain chattered on the window-panes, making a sharp, drum-sound, because of the closed, mellow-golden shutters inside. The logs burned slowly, with hot, almost invisible small flames. Bertie seemed uneasy, there were dark circles round his eyes. Isabel, rich with her approaching maternity, leaned looking into the fire. Her hair curled in odd, loose strands, very pleasing to the man. But she had a curious feeling of old woe in her heart, old, timeless night-woe.
‘I suppose we’re all deficient somewhere,’ said Bertie.
‘I suppose so,’ said Isabel wearily.
‘Damned, sooner or later.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, rousing herself. ‘I feel quite all right, you know. The child coming seems to make me indifferent to everything, just placid. I can’t feel that there’s anything to trouble about, you know.’
‘A good thing, I should say,’ he replied slowly.
‘Well, there it is. I suppose it’s just Nature. If only I felt I needn’t trouble about Maurice, I should be perfectly content —’
‘But you feel you must trouble about him?’
‘Well — I don’t know —’ She even resented this much effort.
The evening passed slowly. Isabel looked at the clock. ‘I say,’ she said. ‘It’s nearly ten o’clock. Where can Maurice be? I’m sure they’re all in bed at the back. Excuse me a moment.’
She went out, returning almost immediately.
‘It’s all shut up and in darkness,’ she said. ‘I wonder where he is. He must have gone out to the farm —’
Bertie looked at her.
‘I suppose he’ll come in,’ he said.
‘I suppose so,’ she said. ‘But it’s unusual for him to be out now.’
‘Would you like me to go out and see?’
‘Well — if you wouldn’t mind. I’d go, but —’ She did not want to make the physical effort.
Bertie put on an old overcoat and took a lantern. He went out from the side door. He shrank from the wet and roaring night. Such weather had a nervous effect on him: too much moisture everywhere made him feel almost imbecile. Unwilling, he went through it all. A dog barked violently at him. He peered in all the buildings. At last, as he opened the upper door of a sort of intermediate barn, he heard a grinding noise, and looking in, holding up his lantern, saw Maurice, in his shirt-sleeves, standing listening, holding the handle of a turnip-pulper. He had been pulping sweet roots, a pile of which lay dimly heaped in a corner behind him.
‘That you, Wernham?’ said Maurice, listening.
‘No, it’s me,’ said Bertie.
A large, half-wild grey cat was rubbing at Maurice’s leg. The blind man stooped to rub its sides. Bertie watched the scene, then unconsciously entered and shut the door behind him, He was in a high sort of barn-place, from which, right and left, ran off the corridors in front of the stalled cattle. He watched the slow, stooping motion of the other man, as he caressed the great cat.
Maurice straightened himself.
‘You came to look for me?’ he said.
‘Isabel was a little uneasy,’ said Bertie.
‘I’ll come in. I like messing about doing these jobs.’
The cat had reared her sinister, feline length against his leg, clawing at his thigh affectionately. He lifted her claws out of his flesh.
‘I hope I’m not in your way at all at the Grange here,’ said Bertie, rather shy and stiff.
‘My way? No, not a bit. I’m glad Isabel has somebody to talk to. I’m afraid it’s I who am in the way. I know I’m not very lively company. Isabel’s all right, don’t you think? She’s not unhappy, is she?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘What does she say?’
‘She says she’s very content — only a little troubled about you.’
‘Perhaps afraid that you might brood,’ said Bertie, cautiously.
‘She needn’t be afraid of that.’ He continued to caress the flattened grey head of the cat with his fingers. ‘What I am a bit afraid of,’ he resumed, ‘is that she’ll find me a dead weight, always alone with me down here.’
‘I don’t think you need think that,’ said Bertie, though this was what he feared himself.
‘I don’t know,’ said Maurice. ‘Sometimes I feel it isn’t fair that she’s saddled with me.’ Then he dropped his voice curiously. ‘I say,’ he asked, secretly struggling, ‘is my face much disfigured? Do you mind telling me?’
‘There is the scar,’ said Bertie, wondering. ‘Yes, it is a disfigurement. But more pitiable than shocking.’
‘A pretty bad scar, though,’ said Maurice.
There was a pause.
‘Sometimes I feel I am horrible,’ said Maurice, in a low voice, talking as if to himself. And Bertie actually felt a quiver of horror.
‘That’s nonsense,’ he said.
Maurice again straightened himself, leaving the cat.
‘There’s no telling,’ he said. Then again, in an odd tone, he added: ‘I don’t really know you, do I?’
‘Probably not,’ said Bertie.
‘Do you mind if I touch you?’
The lawyer shrank away instinctively. And yet, out of very philanthropy, he said, in a small voice: ‘Not at all.’
But he suffered as the blind man stretched out a strong, naked hand to him. Maurice accidentally knocked off Bertie’s hat.
‘I thought you were taller,’ he said, starting. Then he laid his hand on Bertie Reid’s head, closing the dome of the skull in a soft, firm grasp, gathering it, as it were; then, shifting his grasp and softly closing again, with a fine, close pressure, till he had covered the skull and the face of the smaller man, tracing the brows, and touching the full, closed eyes, touching the small nose and the nostrils, the rough, short moustache, the mouth, the rather strong chin. The hand of the blind man grasped the shoulder, the arm, the hand of the other man. He seemed to take him, in the soft, travelling grasp.
‘You seem young,’ he said quietly, at last.
The lawyer stood almost annihilated, unable to answer.
‘Your head seems tender, as if you were young,’ Maurice repeated. ‘So do your hands. Touch my eyes, will you? — touch my scar.’
Now Bertie quivered with revulsion. Yet he was under the power of the blind man, as if hypnotized. He lifted his hand, and laid the fingers on the scar, on the scarred eyes. Maurice suddenly covered them with his own hand, pressed the fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets, trembling in every fibre, and rocking slightly, slowly, from side to side. He remained thus for a minute or more, whilst Bertie stood as if in a swoon, unconscious, imprisoned.
Then suddenly Maurice removed the hand of the other man from his brow, and stood holding it in his own.
‘Oh, my God’ he said, ‘we shall know each other now, shan’t we? We shall know each other now.’
Bertie could not answer. He gazed mute and terror-struck, overcome by his own weakness. He knew he could not answer. He had an unreasonable fear, lest the other man should suddenly destroy him. Whereas Maurice was actually filled with hot, poignant love, the passion of friendship. Perhaps it was this very passion of friendship which Bertie shrank from most.
‘We’re all right together now, aren’t we?’ said Maurice. ‘It’s all right now, as long as we live, so far as we’re concerned?’
‘Yes,’ said Bertie, trying by any means to escape.
Maurice stood with head lifted, as if listening. The new delicate fulfilment of mortal friendship had come as a revelation and surprise to him, something exquisite and unhoped-for. He seemed to be listening to hear if it were real.
Then he turned for his coat.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘we’ll go to Isabel.’
Bertie took the lantern and opened the door. The cat disappeared. The two men went in silence along the causeways. Isabel, as they came, thought their footsteps sounded strange. She looked up pathetically and anxiously for their entrance. There seemed a curious elation about Maurice. Bertie was haggard, with sunken eyes.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘We’ve become friends,’ said Maurice, standing with his feet apart, like a strange colossus.
‘Friends!’ re-echoed Isabel. And she looked again at Bertie. He met her eyes with a furtive, haggard look; his eyes were as if glazed with misery.
‘I’m so glad,’ she said, in sheer perplexity.
‘Yes,’ said Maurice.
He was indeed so glad. Isabel took his hand with both hers, and held it fast.
‘You’ll be happier now, dear,’ she said.
But she was watching Bertie. She knew that he had one desire — to escape from this intimacy, this friendship, which had been thrust upon him. He could not bear it that he had been touched by the blind man, his insane reserve broken in. He was like a mollusk whose shell is broken.
At first Joe thought the job O.K. He was loading hay on the trucks, along with Albert, the corporal. The two men were pleasantly billeted in a cottage not far from the station: they were their own masters, for Joe never thought of Albert as a master. And the little sidings of the tiny village station was as pleasant a place as you could wish for. On one side, beyond the line, stretched the woods: on the other, the near side, across a green smooth field red houses were dotted among flowering apple trees. The weather being sunny, work being easy, Albert, a real good pal, what life could be better! After Flanders, it was heaven itself.
Albert, the corporal, was a clean-shaven, shrewd-looking fellow of about forty. He seemed to think his one aim in life was to be full of fun and nonsense. In repose, his face looked a little withered, old. He was a very good pal to Joe, steady, decent and grave under all his ‘mischief’; for his mischief was only his laborious way of skirting his own ennui.
Joe was much younger than Albert — only twenty-three. He was a tallish, quiet youth, pleasant looking. He was of a slightly better class than his corporal, more personable. Careful about his appearance, he shaved every day. ‘I haven’t got much of a face,’ said Albert. ‘If I was to shave every day like you, Joe, I should have none.’
There was plenty of life in the little goods-yard: three porter youths, a continual come and go of farm wagons bringing hay, wagons with timber from the woods, coal carts loading at the trucks. The black coal seemed to make the place sleepier, hotter. Round the big white gate the station-master’s children played and his white chickens walked, whilst the stationmaster himself, a young man getting too fat, helped his wife to peg out the washing on the clothes line in the meadow.
The great boat-shaped wagons came up from Playcross with the hay. At first the farm-men waggoned it. On the third day one of the land-girls appeared with the first load, drawing to a standstill easily at the head of her two great horses. She was a buxom girl, young, in linen overalls and gaiters. Her face was ruddy, she had large blue eyes.
‘Now that’s the waggoner for us, boys,’ said the corporal loudly.
‘Whoa!’ she said to her horses; and then to the corporal: ‘Which boys do you mean?’
‘We are the pick of the bunch. That’s Joe, my pal. Don’t you let on that my name’s Albert,’ said the corporal to his private. ‘I’m the corporal.’
‘And I’m Miss Stokes,’ said the land-girl coolly, ‘if that’s all the boys you are.’
‘You know you couldn’t want more, Miss Stokes,’ said Albert politely. Joe, who was bare-headed, whose grey flannel sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and whose shirt was open at the breast, looked modestly aside as if he had no part in the affair.
‘Are you on this job regular, then?’ said the corporal to Miss Stokes.
‘I don’t know for sure,’ she said, pushing a piece of hair under her hat, and attending to her splendid horses.
‘Oh, make it a certainty,’ said Albert.
She did not reply. She turned and looked over the two men coolly. She was pretty, moderately blonde, with crisp hair, a good skin, and large blue eyes. She was strong, too, and the work went on leisurely and easily.
‘Now!’ said the corporal, stopping as usual to look round, ‘pleasant company makes work a pleasure — don’t hurry it, boys.’ He stood on the truck surveying the world. That was one of his great and absorbing occupations: to stand and look out on things in general. Joe, also standing on the truck, also turned round to look what was to be seen. But he could not become blankly absorbed, as Albert could.
Miss Stokes watched the two men from under her broad felt hat. She had seen hundreds of Alberts, khaki soldiers standing in loose attitudes, absorbed in watching nothing in particular. She had seen also a good many Joes, quiet, good-looking young soldiers with half-averted faces. But there was something in the turn of Joe’s head, and something in his quiet, tender-looking form, young and fresh — which attracted her eye. As she watched him closely from below, he turned as if he felt her, and his dark-blue eye met her straight, light-blue gaze. He faltered and turned aside again and looked as if he were going to fall off the truck. A slight flush mounted under the girl’s full, ruddy face. She liked him.
Always, after this, when she came into the sidings with her team, it was Joe she looked for. She acknowledged to herself that she was sweet on him. But Albert did all the talking. He was so full of fun and nonsense. Joe was a very shy bird, very brief and remote in his answers. Miss Stokes was driven to indulge in repartee with Albert, but she fixed her magnetic attention on the younger fellow. Joe would talk with Albert, and laugh at his jokes. But Miss Stokes could get little out of him. She had to depend on her silent forces. They were more effective than might be imagined.
Suddenly, on Saturday afternoon, at about two o’clock, Joe received a bolt from the blue — a telegram: ‘Meet me Belbury Station 6.00 p.m. today. M.S.’ He knew at once who M.S. was. His heart melted, he felt weak as if he had had a blow.
‘What’s the trouble, boy?’ asked Albert anxiously.
‘No — no trouble — it’s to meet somebody.’ Joe lifted his dark-blue eyes in confusion towards his corporal.
‘Meet somebody!’ repeated the corporal, watching his young pal with keen blue eyes. ‘It’s all right, then; nothing wrong?’
‘No — nothing wrong. I’m not going,’ said Joe.
Albert was old and shrewd enough to see that nothing more should be said before the housewife. He also saw that Joe did not want to take him into confidence. So he held his peace, though he was piqued.
The two soldiers went into town, smartened up. Albert knew a fair number of the boys round about; there would be plenty of gossip in the market-place, plenty of lounging in groups on the Bath Road, watching the Saturday evening shoppers. Then a modest drink or two, and the movies. They passed an agreeable, casual, nothing-inparticular evening, with which Joe was quite satisfied. He thought of Belbury Station, and of M.S. waiting there. He had not the faintest intention of meeting her. And he had not the faintest intention of telling Albert.
And yet, when the two men were in their bedroom, half undressed, Joe suddenly held out the telegram to his corporal, saying: ‘What d’you think of that?’
Albert was just unbuttoning his braces. He desisted, took the telegram form, and turned towards the candle to read it.
‘Meet me Belbury Station 6.00 p.m. today. M.S.,’ he read, sotto voce. His face took on its fun-and-nonsense look.
‘Who’s M.S.?’ he asked, looking shrewdly at Joe.
‘You know as well as I do,’ said Joe, non-committal.
‘M.S.,’ repeated Albert. ‘Blamed if I know, boy. Is it a woman?’
The conversation was carried on in tiny voices, for fear of disturbing the householders.
‘I don’t know,’ said Joe, turning. He looked full at Albert, the two men looked straight into each other’s eyes. There was a lurking grin in each of them.
‘Well, I’m — blamed!’ said Albert at last, throwing the telegram down emphatically on the bed.
‘Wha-at?’ said Joe, grinning rather sheepishly, his eyes clouded none the less.
Albert sat on the bed and proceeded to undress, nodding his head with mock gravity all the while. Joe watched him foolishly.
‘What?’ he repeated faintly.
Albert looked up at him with a knowing look.
‘If that isn’t coming it quick, boy!’ he said. ‘What the blazes! What ha’ you bin doing?’
‘Nothing!’ said Joe.
Albert slowly shook his head as he sat on the side of the bed.
‘Don’t happen to me when I’ve bin doin’ nothing,’ he said. And he proceeded to pull off his stockings.
Joe turned away, looking at himself in the mirror as he unbuttoned his tunic.
‘You didn’t want to keep the appointment?’ Albert asked, in a changed voice, from the bedside.
Joe did not answer for a moment. Then he said:
‘I made no appointment.’
‘I’m not saying you did, boy. Don’t be nasty about it. I mean you didn’t want to answer the — unknown person’s summons — shall I put it that way?’
‘No,’ said Joe.
‘What was the deterring motive?’ asked Albert, who was now lying on his back in bed.
‘Oh,’ said Joe, suddenly looking round rather haughtily. ‘I didn’t want to.’ He had a well-balanced head, and could take on a sudden distant bearing.
‘Didn’t want to — didn’t cotton on, like. Well — they be artful, the women —’ he mimicked his landlord. ‘Come on into bed, boy. Don’t loiter about as if you’d lost something.’
Albert turned over, to sleep.
On Monday Miss Stokes turned up as usual, striding beside her team. Her ‘whoa!’ was resonant and challenging, she looked up at the truck as her steeds came to a standstill. Joe had turned aside, and had his face averted from her. She glanced him over — save for his slender succulent tenderness she would have despised him. She sized him up in a steady look. Then she turned to Albert, who was looking down at her and smiling in his mischievous turn. She knew his aspects by now. She looked straight back at him, though her eyes were hot. He saluted her.
‘Beautiful morning, Miss Stokes.’
‘Very!’ she replied.
‘Handsome is as handsome looks,’ said Albert.
Which produced no response.
‘Now, Joe, come on here,’ said the corporal. ‘Don’t keep the ladies waiting — it’s the sign of a weak heart.’
Joe turned, and the work began. Nothing more was said for the time being. As the week went on all parties became more comfortable. Joe remained silent, averted, neutral, a little on his dignity. Miss Stokes was off-hand and masterful. Albert was full of mischief.
The great theme was a circus, which was coming to the market town on the following Saturday.
‘You’ll go to the circus, Miss Stokes?’ said Albert.
‘I may go. Are you going?’
‘Certainly. Give us the pleasure of escorting you.’
‘That’s what I call a flat refusal — what, Joe? You don’t mean that you have no liking for our company, Miss Stokes?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Miss Stokes. ‘How many are there of you?’
‘Only me and Joe.’
‘Oh, is that all?’ she said, satirically.
Albert was a little nonplussed.
‘Isn’t that enough for you?’ he asked.
‘Too many by half,’ blurted out Joe, jeeringly, in a sudden fit of uncouth rudeness that made both the others stare.
‘Oh, I’ll stand out of the way, boy, if that’s it,’ said Albert to Joe. Then he turned mischievously to Miss Stokes. ‘He wants to know what M. stands for,’ he said, confidentially.
‘Monkeys,’ she replied, turning to her horses.
‘What’s M.S.?’ said Albert.
‘Monkey nuts,’ she retorted, leading off her team.
Albert looked after her a little discomfited. Joe had flushed dark, and cursed Albert in his heart.
On the Saturday afternoon the two soldiers took the train into town. They would have to walk home. They had tea at six o’clock, and lounged about till half past seven. The circus was in a meadow near the river — a great red-and-white striped tent. Caravans stood at the side. A great crowd of people was gathered round the ticket-caravan.
Inside the tent the lamps were lighted, shining on a ring of faces, a great circular bank of faces round the green grassy centre. Along with some comrades, the two soldiers packed themselves on a thin plank seat, rather high. They were delighted with the flaring lights, the wild effect. But the circus performance did not affect them deeply. They admired the lady in black velvet with rose-purple legs who leapt so neatly on to the galloping horse; they watched the feats of strength and laughed at the clown. But they felt a little patronizing, they missed the sensational drama of the cinema.
Half-way through the performance Joe was electrified to see the face of Miss Stokes not very far from him. There she was, in her khaki and her felt hat, as usual; he pretended not to see her. She was laughing at the clown; she also pretended not to see him. It was a blow to him, and it made him angry. He would not even mention it to Albert. Least said, soonest mended. He liked to believe she had not seen him. But he knew, fatally, that she had.
When they came out it was nearly eleven o’clock; a lovely night, with a moon and tall, dark, noble trees: a magnificent May night. Joe and Albert laughed and chaffed with the boys. Joe looked round frequently to see if he were safe from Miss Stokes. It seemed so.
But there were six miles to walk home. At last the two soldiers set off, swinging their canes. The road was white between tall hedges, other stragglers were passing out of the town towards the villages; the air was full of pleased excitement.
They were drawing near to the village when they saw a dark figure ahead. Joe’s heart sank with pure fear. It was a figure wheeling a bicycle; a land girl; Miss Stokes. Albert was ready with his nonsense. Miss Stokes had a puncture.
‘Let me wheel the rattler,’ said Albert.
‘Thank you,’ said Miss Stokes. ‘You are kind.’
‘Oh, I’d be kinder than that, if you’d show me how,’ said Albert.
‘Are you sure?’ said Miss Stokes.
‘Doubt my words?’ said Albert. ‘That’s cruel of you, Miss Stokes.’
Miss Stokes walked between them, close to Joe.
‘Have you been to the circus?’ she asked him.
‘Yes,’ he replied, mildly.
‘Have you been?’ Albert asked her.
‘Yes. I didn’t see you,’ she replied.
‘What! — you say so! Didn’t see us! Didn’t think us worth looking at,’ began Albert. ‘Aren’t I as handsome as the clown, now? And you didn’t as much as glance in our direction? I call it a downright oversight.’
‘I never saw you,’ reiterated Miss Stokes. ‘I didn’t know you saw me.’
‘That makes it worse,’ said Albert.
The road passed through a belt of dark pine-wood. The village, and the branch road, was very near. Miss Stokes put out her fingers and felt for Joe’s hand as it swung at his side. To say he was staggered is to put it mildly. Yet he allowed her softly to clasp his fingers for a few moments. But he was a mortified youth.
At the cross-road they stopped — Miss Stokes should turn off. She had another mile to go.
‘You’ll let us see you home,’ said Albert.
‘Do me a kindness,’ she said. ‘Put my bike in your shed, and take it to Baker’s on Monday, will you?’
‘I’ll sit up all night and mend it for you, if you like.’
‘No thanks. And Joe and I’ll walk on.’
‘Oh — ho! Oh — ho!’ sang Albert. ‘Joe! Joe! What do you say to that, now, boy? Aren’t you in luck’s way. And I get the bloomin’ old bike for my pal. Consider it again, Miss Stokes.’
Joe turned aside his face, and did not speak.
‘Oh, well! I wheel the grid, do I? I leave you, boy —’
‘I’m not keen on going any further,’ barked out Joe, in an uncouth voice. ‘She hain’t my choice.’
The girl stood silent, and watched the two men.
‘There now!’ said Albert. ‘Think o’ that! If it was me now —’ But he was uncomfortable. ‘Well, Miss Stokes, have me,’ he added.
Miss Stokes stood quite still, neither moved nor spoke. And so the three remained for some time at the lane end. At last Joe began kicking the ground — then he suddenly lifted his face. At that moment Miss Stokes was at his side. She put her arm delicately round his waist.
‘Seems I’m the one extra, don’t you think?’ Albert inquired of the high bland moon.
Joe had dropped his head and did not answer. Miss Stokes stood with her arm lightly round his waist. Albert bowed, saluted, and bade good-night. He walked away, leaving the two standing.
Miss Stokes put a light pressure on Joe’s waist, and drew him down the road. They walked in silence. The night was full of scent — wild cherry, the first bluebells. Still they walked in silence. A nightingale was singing. They approached nearer and nearer, till they stood close by his dark bush. The powerful notes sounded from the cover, almost like flashes of light — then the interval of silence — then the moaning notes, almost like a dog faintly howling, followed by the long, rich trill, and flashing notes. Then a short silence again.
Miss Stokes turned at last to Joe. She looked up at him, and in the moonlight he saw her faintly smiling. He felt maddened, but helpless. Her arm was round his waist, she drew him closely to her with a soft pressure that made all his bones rotten.
Meanwhile Albert was waiting at home. He put on his overcoat, for the fire was out, and he had had malarial fever. He looked fitfully at the Daily Mirror and the Daily Sketch, but he saw nothing. It seemed a long time. He began to yawn widely, even to nod. At last Joe came in.
Albert looked at him keenly. The young man’s brow was black, his face sullen.
‘All right, boy?’ asked Albert.
Joe merely grunted for a reply. There was nothing more to be got out of him. So they went to bed.
Next day Joe was silent, sullen. Albert could make nothing of him. He proposed a walk after tea.
‘I’m going somewhere,’ said Joe.
‘Where — Monkey nuts?’ asked the corporal. But Joe’s brow only became darker.
So the days went by. Almost every evening Joe went off alone, returning late. He was sullen, taciturn and had a hang-dog look, a curious way of dropping his head and looking dangerously from under his brows. And he and Albert did not get on so well any more with one another. For all his fun and nonsense, Albert was really irritable, soon made angry. And Joe’s stand-offish sulkiness and complete lack of confidence riled him, got on his nerves. His fun and nonsense took a biting, sarcastic turn, at which Joe’s eyes glittered occasionally, though the young man turned unheeding aside. Then again Joe would be full of odd, whimsical fun, outshining Albert himself.
Miss Stokes still came to the station with the wain: Monkey-nuts, Albert called her, though not to her face. For she was very clear and good-looking, almost she seemed to gleam. And Albert was a tiny bit afraid of her. She very rarely addressed Joe whilst the hay-loading was going on, and that young man always turned his back to her. He seemed thinner, and his limber figure looked more slouching. But still it had the tender, attractive appearance, especially from behind. His tanned face, a little thinned and darkened, took a handsome, slightly sinister look.
‘Come on, Joe!’ the corporal urged sharply one day. ‘What’re you doing, boy? Looking for beetles on the bank?’
Joe turned round swiftly, almost menacing, to work.
‘He’s a different fellow these days, Miss Stokes,’ said Albert to the young woman. ‘What’s got him? Is it Monkey nuts that don’t suit him, do you think?’
‘Choked with chaff, more like,’ she retorted. ‘It’s as bad as feeding a threshing machine, to have to listen to some folks.’
‘As bad as what?’ said Albert. ‘You don’t mean me, do you, Miss Stokes?’
‘No,’ she cried. ‘I don’t mean you.’
Joe’s face became dark red during these sallies, but he said nothing. He would eye the young woman curiously, as she swung so easily at the work, and he had some of the look of a dog which is going to bite.
Albert, with his nerves on edge, began to find the strain rather severe. The next Saturday evening, when Joe came in more black-browed than ever, he watched him, determined to have it out with him.
When the boy went upstairs to bed, the corporal followed him. He closed the door behind him carefully, sat on the bed and watched the younger man undressing. And for once he spoke in a natural voice, neither chaffing nor commanding.
‘What’s gone wrong, boy?’
Joe stopped a moment as if he had been shot. Then he went on unwinding his puttees, and did not answer or look up.
‘You can hear, can’t you?’ said Albert, nettled.
‘Yes, I can hear,’ said Joe, stooping over his puttees till his face was purple.
‘Then why don’t you answer?’
Joe sat up. He gave a long, sideways look at the corporal. Then he lifted his eyes and stared at a crack in the ceiling.
The corporal watched these movements shrewdly.
‘And then what?’ he asked, ironically.
Again Joe turned and stared him in the face. The corporal smiled very slightly, but kindly.
‘There’ll be murder done one of these days,’ said Joe, in a quiet, unimpassioned voice.
‘So long as it’s by daylight —’ replied Albert. Then he went over, sat down by Joe, put his hand on his shoulder affectionately, and continued, ‘What is it, boy? What’s gone wrong? You can trust me, can’t you?’
Joe turned and looked curiously at the face so near to his.
‘It’s nothing, that’s all,’ he said laconically.
‘Then who’s going to be murdered? — and who’s going to do the murdering? — me or you — which is it, boy?’ He smiled gently at the stupid youth, looking straight at him all the while, into his eyes. Gradually the stupid, hunted, glowering look died out of Joe’s eyes. He turned his head aside, gently, as one rousing from a spell.
‘I don’t want her,’ he said, with fierce resentment.
‘Then you needn’t have her,’ said Albert. ‘What do you go for, boy?’
But it wasn’t as simple as all that. Joe made no remark.
‘She’s a smart-looking girl. What’s wrong with her, my boy? I should have thought you were a lucky chap, myself.’
‘I don’t want ‘er,’ Joe barked, with ferocity and resentment.
‘Then tell her so and have done,’ said Albert. He waited awhile. There was no response. ‘Why don’t you?’ he added.
‘Because I don’t,’ confessed Joe, sulkily.
Albert pondered — rubbed his head.
‘You’re too soft-hearted, that’s where it is, boy. You want your mettle dipping in cold water, to temper it. You’re too soft-hearted —’
He laid his arm affectionately across the shoulders of the younger man. Joe seemed to yield a little towards him.
‘When are you going to see her again?’ Albert asked. For a long time there was no answer.
‘When is it, boy?’ persisted the softened voice of the corporal.
‘Tomorrow,’ confessed Joe.
‘Then let me go,’ said Albert. ‘Let me go, will you?’
The morrow was Sunday, a sunny day, but a cold evening. The sky was grey, the new foliage very green, but the air was chill and depressing. Albert walked briskly down the white road towards Beeley. He crossed a larch plantation, and followed a narrow by-road, where blue speedwell flowers fell from the banks into the dust. He walked swinging his cane, with mixed sensations. Then having gone a certain length, he turned and began to walk in the opposite direction.
So he saw a young woman approaching him. She was wearing a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet. She walked with slow inevitability. Albert faltered a little as he approached her. Then he saluted her, and his roguish, slightly withered skin flushed. She was staring straight into his face.
He fell in by her side, saying impudently:
‘Not so nice for a walk as it was, is it?’
She only stared at him. He looked back at her.
‘You’ve seen me before, you know,’ he said, grinning slightly. ‘Perhaps you never noticed me. Oh, I’m quite nice looking, in a quiet way, you know. What —?’
But Miss Stokes did not speak: she only stared with large, icy blue eyes at him. He became self-conscious, lifted up his chin, walked with his nose in the air, and whistled at random. So they went down the quiet, deserted grey lane. He was whistling the air: ‘I’m Gilbert, the filbert, the colonel of the nuts.’
At last she found her voice:
‘He thought you’d like a change: they say variety’s the salt of life — that’s why I’m mostly in pickle.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Am I my brother’s keeper? He’s gone his own ways.’
‘Nay, how am I to know? Not so far but he’ll be back for supper.’
She stopped in the middle of the lane. He stopped facing her.
‘Where’s Joe?’ she asked.
He struck a careless attitude, looked down the road this way and that, lifted his eyebrows, pushed his khaki cap on one side, and answered:
‘He is not conducting the service tonight: he asked me if I’d officiate.’
‘Why hasn’t he come?’
‘Didn’t want to, I expect. I wanted to.’
She stared him up and down, and he felt uncomfortable in his spine, but maintained his air of nonchalance. Then she turned slowly on her heel, and started to walk back. The corporal went at her side.
‘You’re not going back, are you?’ he pleaded. ‘Why, me and you, we should get on like a house on fire.’
She took no heed, but walked on. He went uncomfortably at her side, making his funny remarks from time to time. But she was as if stone deaf. He glanced at her, and to his dismay saw the tears running down her cheeks. He stopped suddenly, and pushed back his cap.
‘I say, you know —’ he began.
But she was walking on like an automaton, and he had to hurry after her.
She never spoke to him. At the gate of her farm she walked straight in, as if he were not there. He watched her disappear. Then he turned on his heel, cursing silently, puzzled, lifting off his cap to scratch his head.
That night, when they were in bed, he remarked: ‘Say, Joe, boy; strikes me you’re well-off without Monkey nuts. Gord love us, beans ain’t in it.’
So they slept in amity. But they waited with some anxiety for the morrow.
It was a cold morning, a grey sky shifting in a cold wind, and threatening rain. They watched the wagon come up the road and through the yard gates. Miss Stokes was with her team as usual; her ‘Whoa!’ rang out like a war-whoop.
She faced up at the truck where the two men stood.
‘Joe!’ she called, to the averted figure which stood up in the wind.
‘What?’ he turned unwillingly.
She made a queer movement, lifting her head slightly in a sipping, half-inviting, half-commanding gesture. And Joe was crouching already to jump off the truck to obey her, when Albert put his hand on his shoulder.
‘Half a minute, boy! Where are you off? Work’s work, and nuts is nuts. You stop here.’
Joe slowly straightened himself.
‘Joe!’ came the woman’s clear call from below.
Again Joe looked at her. But Albert’s hand was on his shoulder, detaining him. He stood half averted, with his tail between his legs.
‘Take your hand off him, you!’ said Miss Stokes.
‘Yes, Major,’ retorted Albert satirically.
She stood and watched.
‘Joe!’ Her voice rang for the third time.
Joe turned and looked at her, and a slow, jeering smile gathered on his face.
‘Monkey nuts!’ he replied, in a tone mocking her call.
She turned white — dead white. The men thought she would fall. Albert began yelling to the porters up the line to come and help with the load. He could yell like any non-commissioned officer upon occasion.
Some way or other the wagon was unloaded, the girl was gone. Joe and his corporal looked at one another and smiled slowly. But they had a weight on their minds, they were afraid.
They were reassured, however, when they found that Miss Stokes came no more with the hay. As far as they were concerned, she had vanished into oblivion. And Joe felt more relieved even than he had felt when he heard the firing cease, after the news had come that the armistice was signed.
There was thin, crisp snow on the ground, the sky was blue, the wind very cold, the air clear. Farmers were just turning out the cows for an hour or so in the midday, and the smell of cow-sheds was unendurable as I entered Tible. I noticed the ash-twigs up in the sky were pale and luminous, passing into the blue. And then I saw the peacocks. There they were in the road before me, three of them, and tailless, brown, speckled birds, with dark-blue necks and ragged crests. They stepped archly over the filigree snow, and their bodies moved with slow motion, like small, light, flat-bottomed boats. I admired them, they were curious. Then a gust of wind caught them, heeled them over as if they were three frail boats opening their feathers like ragged sails. They hopped and skipped with discomfort, to get out of the draught of the wind. And then, in the lee of the walls, they resumed their arch, wintry motion, light and unballasted now their tails were gone, indifferent. They were indifferent to my presence. I might have touched them. They turned off to the shelter of an open shed.
As I passed the end of the upper house, I saw a young woman just coming out of the back door. I had spoken to her in the summer. She recognized me at once, and waved to me. She was carrying a pail, wearing a white apron that was longer than her preposterously short skirt, and she had on the cotton bonnet. I took off my hat to her and was going on. But she put down her pail and darted with a swift, furtive movement after me.
‘Do you mind waiting a minute?’ she said. ‘I’ll be out in a minute.’
She gave me a slight, odd smile, and ran back. Her face was long and sallow and her nose rather red. But her gloomy black eyes softened caressively to me for a moment, with that momentary humility which makes a man lord of the earth.
I stood in the road, looking at the fluffy, dark-red young cattle that mooed and seemed to bark at me. They seemed happy, frisky cattle, a little impudent, and either determined to go back into the warm shed, or determined not to go back, I could not decide which.
Presently the woman came forward again, her head rather ducked. But she looked up at me and smiled, with that odd, immediate intimacy, something witch-like and impossible.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said. ‘Shall we stand in this cart-shed — it will be more out of the wind.’
So we stood among the shafts of the open cart-shed that faced the road. Then she looked down at the ground, a little sideways, and I noticed a small black frown on her brows. She seemed to brood for a moment. Then she looked straight into my eyes, so that I blinked and wanted to turn my face aside. She was searching me for something and her look was too near. The frown was still on her keen, sallow brow.
‘Can you speak French?’ she asked me abruptly.
‘More or less,’ I replied.
‘I was supposed to learn it at school,’ she said. ‘But I don’t know a word.’ She ducked her head and laughed, with a slightly ugly grimace and a rolling of her black eyes.
‘No good keeping your mind full of scraps,’ I answered.
But she had turned aside her sallow, long face, and did not hear what I said. Suddenly again she looked at me. She was searching. And at the same time she smiled at me, and her eyes looked softly, darkly, with infinite trustful humility into mine. I was being cajoled.
‘Would you mind reading a letter for me, in French,’ she said, her face immediately black and bitter-looking. She glanced at me, frowning.
‘Not at all,’ I said.
‘It’s a letter to my husband,’ she said, still scrutinizing.
I looked at her, and didn’t quite realize. She looked too far into me, my wits were gone. She glanced round. Then she looked at me shrewdly. She drew a letter from her pocket, and handed it to me. It was addressed from France to Lance-Corporal Goyte, at Tible. I took out the letter and began to read it, as mere words. ‘Mon cher Alfred’— it might have been a bit of a torn newspaper. So I followed the script: the trite phrases of a letter from a French-speaking girl to an English soldier. ‘I think of you always, always. Do you think sometimes of me?’ And then I vaguely realized that I was reading a man’s private correspondence. And yet, how could one consider these trivial, facile French phrases private! Nothing more trite and vulgar in the world, than such a love-letter — no newspaper more obvious.
Therefore I read with a callous heart the effusions of the Belgian damsel. But then I gathered my attention. For the letter went on, ‘Notre cher petit bébé — our dear little baby was born a week ago. Almost I died, knowing you were far away, and perhaps forgetting the fruit of our perfect love. But the child comforted me. He has the smiling eyes and virile air of his English father. I pray to the Mother of Jesus to send me the dear father of my child, that I may see him with my child in his arms, and that we may be united in holy family love. Ah, my Alfred, can I tell you how I miss you, how I weep for you. My thoughts are with you always, I think of nothing but you, I live for nothing but you and our dear baby. If you do not come back to me soon, I shall die, and our child will die. But no, you cannot come back to me. But I can come to you, come to England with our child. If you do not wish to present me to your good mother and father, you can meet me in some town, some city, for I shall be so frightened to be alone in England with my child, and no one to take care of us. Yet I must come to you, I must bring my child, my little Alfred to his father, the big, beautiful Alfred that I love so much. Oh, write and tell me where I shall come. I have some money, I am not a penniless creature. I have money for myself and my dear baby —’
I read to the end. It was signed: ‘Your very happy and still more unhappy Élise.’ I suppose I must have been smiling.
‘I can see it makes you laugh,’ said Mrs. Goyte, sardonically. I looked up at her.
‘It’s a love-letter, I know that,’ she said. ‘There’s too many “Alfreds” in it.’
‘One too many,’ I said.
‘Oh, yes — And what does she say — Eliza? We know her name’s Eliza, that’s another thing.’ She grimaced a little, looking up at me with a mocking laugh.
‘Where did you get this letter?’ I said.
‘Postman gave it me last week.’
‘And is your husband at home?’
‘I expect him home tonight. He’s been wounded, you know, and we’ve been applying for him home. He was home about six weeks ago — he’s been in Scotland since then. Oh, he was wounded in the leg. Yes, he’s all right, a great strapping fellow. But he’s lame, he limps a bit. He expects he’ll get his discharge — but I don’t think he will. We married? We’ve been married six years — and he joined up the first day of the war. Oh, he thought he’d like the life. He’d been through the South African War. No, he was sick of it, fed up. I’m living with his father and mother — I’ve no home of my own now. My people had a big farm — over a thousand acres — in Oxfordshire. Not like here — no. Oh, they’re very good to me, his father and mother. Oh, yes, they couldn’t be better. They think more of me than of their own daughters. But it’s not like being in a place of your own, is it? You can’t really do as you like. No, there’s only me and his father and mother at home. Before the war? Oh, he was anything. He’s had a good education — but he liked the farming better. Then he was a chauffeur. That’s how he knew French. He was driving a gentleman in France for a long time —’
At this point the peacocks came round the corner on a puff of wind.
‘Hello, Joey!’ she called, and one of the birds came forward, on delicate legs. Its grey speckled back was very elegant, it rolled its full, dark-blue neck as it moved to her. She crouched down. ‘Joey, dear,’ she said, in an odd, saturnine caressive voice, ‘you’re bound to find me, aren’t you?’ She put her face forward, and the bird rolled his neck, almost touching her face with his beak, as if kissing her.
‘He loves you,’ I said.
She twisted her face up at me with a laugh.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘he loves me, Joey does,’— then, to the bird —‘and I love Joey, don’t I. I do love Joey.’ And she smoothed his feathers for a moment. Then she rose, saying: ‘He’s an affectionate bird.’
I smiled at the roll of her ‘bir-rrd’.
‘Oh, yes, he is,’ she protested. ‘He came with me from my home seven years ago. Those others are his descendants — but they’re not like Joey — are they, dee-urr?’ Her voice rose at the end with a witch-like cry.
Then she forgot the birds in the cart-shed and turned to business again.
‘Won’t you read that letter?’ she said. ‘Read it, so that I know what it says.’
‘It’s rather behind his back,’ I said.
‘Oh, never mind him,’ she cried. ‘He’s been behind my back long enough — all these four years. If he never did no worse things behind my back than I do behind his, he wouldn’t have cause to grumble. You read me what it says.’
Now I felt a distinct reluctance to do as she bid, and yet I began —‘My dear Alfred.’
‘I guessed that much,’ she said. ‘Eliza’s dear Alfred.’ She laughed. ‘How do you say it in French? Eliza?’
I told her, and she repeated the name with great contempt —Élise.
‘Go on,’ she said. ‘You’re not reading.’
So I began —‘I have been thinking of you sometimes — have you been thinking of me?’—
‘Of several others as well, beside her, I’ll wager,’ said Mrs. Goyte.
‘Probably not,’ said I, and continued. ‘A dear little baby was born here a week ago. Ah, can I tell you my feelings when I take my darling little brother into my arms —’
‘I’ll bet it’s his,’ cried Mrs. Goyte.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s her mother’s.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ she cried. ‘It’s a blind. You mark, it’s her own right enough — and his.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s her mother’s.’ ‘He has sweet smiling eyes, but not like your beautiful English eyes —’
She suddenly struck her hand on her skirt with a wild motion, and bent down, doubled with laughter. Then she rose and covered her face with her hand.
‘I’m forced to laugh at the beautiful English eyes,’ she said.
‘Aren’t his eyes beautiful?’ I asked.
‘Oh, yes — very! Go on! — Joey, dear, dee-urr, Joey!’— this to the peacock.
—‘Er — We miss you very much. We all miss you. We wish you were here to see the darling baby. Ah, Alfred, how happy we were when you stayed with us. We all loved you so much. My mother will call the baby Alfred so that we shall never forget you —’
‘Of course it’s his right enough,’ cried Mrs. Goyte.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s the mother’s.’ Er —‘My mother is very well. My father came home yesterday — on leave. He is delighted with his son, my little brother, and wishes to have him named after you, because you were so good to us all in that terrible time, which I shall never forget. I must weep now when I think of it. Well, you are far away in England, and perhaps I shall never see you again. How did you find your dear mother and father? I am so happy that your wound is better, and that you can nearly walk —’
‘How did he find his dear wife!’ cried Mrs. Goyte. ‘He never told her he had one. Think of taking the poor girl in like that!’
‘We are so pleased when you write to us. Yet now you are in England you will forget the family you served so well —’
‘A bit too well — eh, Joey!’ cried the wife.
‘If it had not been for you we should not be alive now, to grieve and to rejoice in this life, that is so hard for us. But we have recovered some of our losses, and no longer feel the burden of poverty. The little Alfred is a great comfort to me. I hold him to my breast and think of the big, good Alfred, and I weep to think that those times of suffering were perhaps the times of a great happiness that is gone for ever.’
‘Oh, but isn’t it a shame, to take a poor girl in like that!’ cried Mrs. Goyte. ‘Never to let on that he was married, and raise her hopes — I call it beastly, I do.’
‘You don’t know,’ I said. ‘You know how anxious women are to fall in love, wife or no wife. How could he help it, if she was determined to fall in love with him?’
‘He could have helped it if he’d wanted.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘we aren’t all heroes.’
‘Oh, but that’s different! The big, good Alfred! — did ever you hear such tommy-rot in your life! Go on — what does she say at the end?’
‘Er — We shall be pleased to hear of your life in England. We all send many kind regards to your good parents. I wish you all happiness for your future days. Your very affectionate and ever-grateful Élise.’
There was silence for a moment, during which Mrs. Goyte remained with her head dropped, sinister and abstracted. Suddenly she lifted her face, and her eyes flashed.
‘Oh, but I call it beastly, I call it mean, to take a girl in like that.’
‘Nay,’ I said. ‘Probably he hasn’t taken her in at all. Do you think those French girls are such poor innocent things? I guess she’s a great deal more downy than he.’
‘Oh, he’s one of the biggest fools that ever walked,’ she cried.
‘There you are!’ said I.
‘But it’s his child right enough,’ she said.
‘I don’t think so,’ said I.
‘I’m sure of it.’
‘Oh, well,’ I said, ‘if you prefer to think that way.’
‘What other reason has she for writing like that —’
I went out into the road and looked at the cattle.
‘Who is this driving the cows?’ I said. She too came out.
‘It’s the boy from the next farm,’ she said.
‘Oh, well,’ said I, ‘those Belgian girls! You never know where their letters will end. And, after all, it’s his affair — you needn’t bother.’
‘Oh —!’ she cried, with rough scorn —‘it’s not me that bothers. But it’s the nasty meanness of it — me writing him such loving letters’— she put her hand before her face and laughed malevolently —‘and sending him parcels all the time. You bet he fed that gurrl on my parcels — I know he did. It’s just like him. I’ll bet they laughed together over my letters. I bet anything they did —’
‘Nay,’ said I. ‘He’d burn your letters for fear they’d give him away.’
There was a black look on her yellow face. Suddenly a voice was heard calling. She poked her head out of the shed, and answered coolly:
‘All right!’ Then turning to me: ‘That’s his mother looking after me.’
She laughed into my face, witch-like, and we turned down the road.
When I awoke, the morning after this episode, I found the house darkened with deep, soft snow, which had blown against the large west windows, covering them with a screen. I went outside, and saw the valley all white and ghastly below me, the trees beneath black and thin looking like wire, the rock-faces dark between the glistening shroud, and the sky above sombre, heavy, yellowish-dark, much too heavy for this world below of hollow bluey whiteness figured with black. I felt I was in a valley of the dead. And I sensed I was a prisoner, for the snow was everywhere deep, and drifted in places. So all the morning I remained indoors, looking up the drive at the shrubs so heavily plumed with snow, at the gateposts raised high with a foot or more of extra whiteness. Or I looked down into the white-and-black valley that was utterly motionless and beyond life, a hollow sarcophagus.
Nothing stirred the whole day — no plume fell off the shrubs, the valley was as abstracted as a grove of death. I looked over at the tiny, half-buried farms away on the bare uplands beyond the valley hollow, and I thought of Tible in the snow, of the black witch-like little Mrs. Goyte. And the snow seemed to lay me bare to influences I wanted to escape.
In the faint glow of the half-clear light that came about four o’clock in the afternoon, I was roused to see a motion in the snow away below, near where the thorn trees stood very black and dwarfed, like a little savage group, in the dismal white. I watched closely. Yes, there was a flapping and a struggle — a big bird, it must be, labouring in the snow. I wondered. Our biggest birds, in the valley, were the large hawks that often hung flickering opposite my windows, level with me, but high above some prey on the steep valleyside. This was much too big for a hawk — too big for any known bird. I searched in my mind for the largest English wild birds, geese, buzzards.
Still it laboured and strove, then was still, a dark spot, then struggled again. I went out of the house and down the steep slope, at risk of breaking my leg between the rocks. I knew the ground so well — and yet I got well shaken before I drew near the thorn-trees.
Yes, it was a bird. It was Joey. It was the grey-brown peacock with a blue neck. He was snow-wet and spent.
‘Joey — Joey, deurr!’ I said, staggering unevenly towards him. He looked so pathetic, rowing and struggling in the snow, too spent to rise, his blue neck stretching out and lying sometimes on the snow, his eye closing and opening quickly, his crest all battered.
‘Joey dee-uur! Dee-urr!’ I said caressingly to him. And at last he lay still, blinking, in the surged and furrowed snow, whilst I came near and touched him, stroked him, gathered him under my arm. He stretched his long, wetted neck away from me as I held him, none the less he was quiet in my arm, too tired, perhaps, to struggle. Still he held his poor, crested head away from me, and seemed sometimes to droop, to wilt, as if he might suddenly die.
He was not so heavy as I expected, yet it was a struggle to get up to the house with him again. We set him down, not too near the fire, and gently wiped him with cloths. He submitted, only now and then stretched his soft neck away from us, avoiding us helplessly. Then we set warm food by him. I put it to his beak, tried to make him eat. But he ignored it. He seemed to be ignorant of what we were doing, recoiled inside himself inexplicably. So we put him in a basket with cloths, and left him crouching oblivious. His food we put near him. The blinds were drawn, the house was warm, it was night. Sometimes he stirred, but mostly he huddled still, leaning his queer crested head on one side. He touched no food, and took no heed of sounds or movements. We talked of brandy or stimulants. But I realized we had best leave him alone.
In the night, however, we heard him thumping about. I got up anxiously with a candle. He had eaten some food, and scattered more, making a mess. And he was perched on the back of a heavy arm-chair. So I concluded he was recovered, or recovering.
The next day was clear, and the snow had frozen, so I decided to carry him back to Tible. He consented, after various flappings, to sit in a big fish-bag with his battered head peeping out with wild uneasiness. And so I set off with him, slithering down into the valley, making good progress down in the pale shadow beside the rushing waters, then climbing painfully up the arrested white valleyside, plumed with clusters of young pine trees, into the paler white radiance of the snowy, upper regions, where the wind cut fine. Joey seemed to watch all the time with wide anxious, unseeing eye, brilliant and inscrutable. As I drew near to Tible township he stirred violently in the bag, though I do not know if he had recognized the place. Then, as I came to the sheds, he looked sharply from side to side, and stretched his neck out long. I was a little afraid of him. He gave a loud, vehement yell, opening his sinister beak, and I stood still, looking at him as he struggled in the bag, shaken myself by his struggles, yet not thinking to release him.
Mrs. Goyte came darting past the end of the house, her head sticking forward in sharp scrutiny. She saw me, and came forward.
‘Have you got Joey?’ she cried sharply, as if I were a thief.
I opened the bag, and he flopped out, flapping as if he hated the touch of the snow now. She gathered him up, and put her lips to his beak. She was flushed and handsome, her eyes bright, her hair slack, thick, but more witch-like than ever. She did not speak.
She had been followed by a grey-haired woman with a round, rather sallow face and a slightly hostile bearing.
‘Did you bring him with you, then?’ she asked sharply. I answered that I had rescued him the previous evening.
From the background slowly approached a slender man with a grey moustache and large patches on his trousers.
‘You’ve got’im back ‘gain, ah see,’ he said to his daughter-inlaw. His wife explained how I had found Joey.
‘Ah,’ went on the grey man. ‘It wor our Alfred scared him off, back your life. He must’a flyed ower t’valley. Tha ma’ thank thy stars as ‘e wor fun, Maggie. ‘E’d a bin froze. They a bit nesh, you know,’ he concluded to me.
‘They are,’ I answered. ‘This isn’t their country.’
‘No, it isna,’ replied Mr. Goyte. He spoke very slowly and deliberately, quietly, as if the soft pedal were always down in his voice. He looked at his daughter-inlaw as she crouched, flushed and dark, before the peacock, which would lay its long blue neck for a moment along her lap. In spite of his grey moustache and thin grey hair, the elderly man had a face young and almost delicate, like a young man’s. His blue eyes twinkled with some inscrutable source of pleasure, his skin was fine and tender, his nose delicately arched. His grey hair being slightly ruffled, he had a debonair look, as of a youth who is in love.
‘We mun tell ’im it’s come,’ he said slowly, and turning he called: ‘Alfred — Alfred! Wheer’s ter gotten to?’
Then he turned again to the group.
‘Get up then, Maggie, lass, get up wi’ thee. Tha ma’es too much o’ th’bod.’
A young man approached, wearing rough khaki and kneebreeches. He was Danish looking, broad at the loins.
‘I’s come back then,’ said the father to the son; ‘leastwise, he’s bin browt back, flyed ower the Griff Low.’
The son looked at me. He had a devil-may-care bearing, his cap on one side, his hands stuck in the front pockets of his breeches. But he said nothing.
‘Shall you come in a minute, Master,’ said the elderly woman, to me.
‘Ay, come in an’ ha’e a cup o’ tea or summat. You’ll do wi’ summat, carrin’ that bod. Come on, Maggie wench, let’s go in.’
So we went indoors, into the rather stuffy, overcrowded living-room, that was too cosy, and too warm. The son followed last, standing in the doorway. The father talked to me.
Maggie put out the tea-cups. The mother went into the dairy again.
‘Tha’lt rouse thysen up a bit again, now, Maggie,’ the father-inlaw said — and then to me: ‘‘ers not bin very bright sin’ Alfred came whoam, an’ the bod flyed awee. ‘E come whoam a Wednesday night, Alfred did. But ay, you knowed, didna yer. Ay, ‘e comed ‘a Wednesday — an’ I reckon there wor a bit of a to-do between ’em, worn’t there, Maggie?’
He twinkled maliciously to his daughter-inlaw, who was flushed, brilliant and handsome.
‘Oh, be quiet, father. You’re wound up, by the sound of you,’ she said to him, as if crossly. But she could never be cross with him.
‘‘Ers got ‘er colour back this mornin’,’ continued the father-inlaw slowly. ‘It’s bin heavy weather wi’ ‘er this last two days. Ay —‘er’s bin northeast sin ‘er seed you a Wednesday.’
‘Father, do stop talking. You’d wear the leg off an iron pot. I can’t think where you’ve found your tongue, all of a sudden,’ said Maggie, with caressive sharpness.
‘Ah’ve found it wheer I lost it. Aren’t goin’ ter come in an’ sit thee down, Alfred?’
But Alfred turned and disappeared.
‘‘E’s got th’ monkey on ‘is back ower this letter job,’ said the father secretly to me. ‘Mother, ‘er knows nowt about it. Lot o’ tom-foolery, isn’t it? Ay! What’s good o’ makkin’ a peck o’ trouble over what’s far enough off, an’ ned niver come no nigher. No — not a smite o’ use. That’s what I tell ‘er. ‘Er should ta’e no notice on’t. Ty, what can y’ expect.’
The mother came in again, and the talk became general. Maggie flashed her eyes at me from time to time, complacent and satisfied, moving among the men. I paid her little compliments, which she did not seem to hear. She attended to me with a kind of sinister, witch-like graciousness, her dark head ducked between her shoulders, at once humble and powerful. She was happy as a child attending to her father-inlaw and to me. But there was something ominous between her eyebrows, as if a dark moth were settled there — and something ominous in her bent, hulking bearing.
She sat on a low stool by the fire, near her father-inlaw. Her head was dropped, she seemed in a state of abstraction. From time to time she would suddenly recover, and look up at us, laughing and chatting. Then she would forget again. Yet in her hulked black forgetting she seemed very near to us.
The door having been opened, the peacock came slowly in, prancing calmly. He went near to her and crouched down, coiling his blue neck. She glanced at him, but almost as if she did not observe him. The bird sat silent, seeming to sleep, and the woman also sat hulked and silent, seemingly oblivious. Then once more there was a heavy step, and Alfred entered. He looked at his wife, and he looked at the peacock crouching by her. He stood large in the doorway, his hands stuck in front of him, in his breeches pockets. Nobody spoke. He turned on his heel and went out again.
I rose also to go. Maggie started as if coming to herself.
‘Must you go?’ she asked, rising and coming near to me, standing in front of me, twisting her head sideways and looking up at me. ‘Can’t you stop a bit longer? We can all be cosy today, there’s nothing to do outdoors.’ And she laughed, showing her teeth oddly. She had a long chin.
I said I must go. The peacock uncoiled and coiled again his long blue neck, as he lay on the hearth. Maggie still stood close in front of me, so that I was acutely aware of my waistcoat buttons.
‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘you’ll come again, won’t you? Do come again.’
‘Come to tea one day — yes, do!’
I promised — one day.
The moment I went out of her presence I ceased utterly to exist for her — as utterly as I ceased to exist for Joey. With her curious abstractedness she forgot me again immediately. I knew it as I left her. Yet she seemed almost in physical contact with me while I was with her.
The sky was all pallid again, yellowish. When I went out there was no sun; the snow was blue and cold. I hurried away down the hill, musing on Maggie. The road made a loop down the sharp face of the slope. As I went crunching over the laborious snow I became aware of a figure striding down the steep scarp to intercept me. It was a man with his hands in front of him, half stuck in his breeches pockets, and his shoulders square — a real farmer of the hills; Alfred, of course. He waited for me by the stone fence.
‘Excuse me,’ he said as I came up.
I came to a halt in front of him and looked into his sullen blue eyes. He had a certain odd haughtiness on his brows. But his blue eyes stared insolently at me.
‘Do you know anything about a letter — in French — that my wife opened — a letter of mine —?’
‘Yes,’ said I. ‘She asked me to read it to her.’
He looked square at me. He did not know exactly how to feel.
‘What was there in it?’ he asked.
‘Why?’ I said. ‘Don’t you know?’
‘She makes out she’s burnt it,’ he said.
‘Without showing it you?’ I asked.
He nodded slightly. He seemed to be meditating as to what line of action he should take. He wanted to know the contents of the letter: he must know: and therefore he must ask me, for evidently his wife had taunted him. At the same time, no doubt, he would like to wreak untold vengeance on my unfortunate person. So he eyed me, and I eyed him, and neither of us spoke. He did not want to repeat his request to me. And yet I only looked at him, and considered.
Suddenly he threw back his head and glanced down the valley. Then he changed his position — he was a horse-soldier. Then he looked at me confidentially.
‘She burnt the blasted thing before I saw it,’ he said.
‘Well,’ I answered slowly, ‘she doesn’t know herself what was in it.’
He continued to watch me narrowly. I grinned to myself.
‘I didn’t like to read her out what there was in it,’ I continued.
He suddenly flushed so that the veins in his neck stood out, and he stirred again uncomfortably.
‘The Belgian girl said her baby had been born a week ago, and that they were going to call it Alfred,’ I told him.
He met my eyes. I was grinning. He began to grin, too.
‘Good luck to her,’ he said.
‘Best of luck,’ said I.
‘And what did you tell her?’ he asked.
‘That the baby belonged to the old mother — that it was brother to your girl, who was writing to you as a friend of the family.’
He stood smiling, with the long, subtle malice of a farmer.
‘And did she take it in?’ he asked.
‘As much as she took anything else.’
He stood grinning fixedly. Then he broke into a short laugh.
‘Good for her’ he exclaimed cryptically.
And then he laughed aloud once more, evidently feeling he had won a big move in his contest with his wife.
‘What about the other woman?’ I asked.
‘Oh’— he shifted uneasily —‘she was all right —’
‘You’ll be getting back to her,’ I said.
He looked at me. Then he made a grimace with his mouth.
‘Not me,’ he said. ‘Back your life it’s a plant.’
‘You don’t think the cher petit bébé is a little Alfred?’
‘It might be,’ he said.
‘Yes — an’ there’s lots of mites in a pound of cheese.’ He laughed boisterously but uneasily.
‘What did she say, exactly?’ he asked.
I began to repeat, as well as I could, the phrases of the letter:
‘Mon cher Alfred — Figure-toi comme je suis desolée —’
He listened with some confusion. When I had finished all I could remember, he said:
‘They know how to pitch you out a letter, those Belgian lasses.’
‘Practice,’ said I.
‘They get plenty,’ he said.
There was a pause.
‘Oh, well,’ he said. ‘I’ve never got that letter, anyhow.’
The wind blew fine and keen, in the sunshine, across the snow. I blew my nose and prepared to depart.
‘And she doesn’t know anything?’ he continued, jerking his head up the hill in the direction of Tible.
‘She knows nothing but what I’ve said — that is, if she really burnt the letter.’
‘I believe she burnt it,’ he said, ‘for spite. She’s a little devil, she is. But I shall have it out with her.’ His jaw was stubborn and sullen. Then suddenly he turned to me with a new note.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you wring that b —— peacock’s neck-that b —— Joey?’
‘Why?’ I said. ‘What for?’
‘I hate the brute,’ he said. ‘I had a shot at him —’
I laughed. He stood and mused.
‘Poor little Elise,’ he murmured.
‘Was she small — petite?’ I asked. He jerked up his head.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Rather tall.’
‘Taller than your wife, I suppose.’
Again he looked into my eyes. And then once more he went into a loud burst of laughter that made the still, snow-deserted valley clap again.
‘God, it’s a knockout!’ he said, thoroughly amused. Then he stood at ease, one foot out, his hands in his breeches pockets, in front of him, his head thrown back, a handsome figure of a man.
‘But I’ll do that blasted Joey in-’ he mused.
I ran down the hill, shouting with laughter.
The Pottery House was a square, ugly, brick house girt in by the wall that enclosed the whole grounds of the pottery itself. To be sure, a privet hedge partly masked the house and its ground from the pottery-yard and works: but only partly. Through the hedge could be seen the desolate yard, and the many-windowed, factory-like pottery, over the hedge could be seen the chimneys and the outhouses. But inside the hedge, a pleasant garden and lawn sloped down to a willow pool, which had once supplied the works.
The Pottery itself was now closed, the great doors of the yard permanently shut. No more the great crates with yellow straw showing through, stood in stacks by the packing shed. No more the drays drawn by great horses rolled down the hill with a high load. No more the pottery-lasses in their clay-coloured overalls, their faces and hair splashed with grey fine mud, shrieked and larked with the men. All that was over.
‘We like it much better — oh, much better — quieter,’ said Matilda Rockley.
‘Oh, yes,’ assented Emmie Rockley, her sister.
‘I’m sure you do,’ agreed the visitor.
But whether the two Rockley girls really liked it better, or whether they only imagined they did, is a question. Certainly their lives were much more grey and dreary now that the grey clay had ceased to spatter its mud and silt its dust over the premises. They did not quite realize how they missed the shrieking, shouting lasses, whom they had known all their lives and disliked so much.
Matilda and Emmie were already old maids. In a thorough industrial district, it is not easy for the girls who have expectations above the common to find husbands. The ugly industrial town was full of men, young men who were ready to marry. But they were all colliers or pottery-hands, mere workmen. The Rockley girls would have about ten thousand pounds each when their father died: ten thousand pounds’ worth of profitable house-property. It was not to be sneezed at: they felt so themselves, and refrained from sneezing away such a fortune on any mere member of the proletariat. Consequently, bank-clerks or nonconformist clergymen or even school-teachers having failed to come forward, Matilda had begun to give up all idea of ever leaving the Pottery House.
Matilda was a tall, thin, graceful fair girl, with a rather large nose. She was the Mary to Emmie’s Martha: that is, Matilda loved painting and music, and read a good many novels, whilst Emmie looked after the house-keeping. Emmie was shorter, plumper than her sister, and she had no accomplishments. She looked up to Matilda, whose mind was naturally refined and sensible.
In their quiet, melancholy way, the two girls were happy. Their mother was dead. Their father was ill also. He was an intelligent man who had had some education, but preferred to remain as if he were one with the rest of the working people. He had a passion for music and played the violin pretty well. But now he was getting old, he was very ill, dying of a kidney disease. He had been rather a heavy whisky-drinker.
This quiet household, with one servant-maid, lived on year after year in the Pottery House. Friends came in, the girls went out, the father drank himself more and more ill. Outside in the street there was a continual racket of the colliers and their dogs and children. But inside the pottery wall was a deserted quiet.
In all this ointment there was one little fly. Ted Rockley, the father of the girls, had had four daughters, and no son. As his girls grew, he felt angry at finding himself always in a house-hold of women. He went off to London and adopted a boy out of a Charity Institution. Emmie was fourteen years old, and Matilda sixteen, when their father arrived home with his prodigy, the boy of six, Hadrian.
Hadrian was just an ordinary boy from a Charity Home, with ordinary brownish hair and ordinary bluish eyes and of ordinary rather cockney speech. The Rockley girls — there were three at home at the time of his arrival — had resented his being sprung on them. He, with his watchful, charity-institution instinct, knew this at once. Though he was only six years old, Hadrian had a subtle, jeering look on his face when he regarded the three young women. They insisted he should address them as Cousin: Cousin Flora, Cousin Matilda, Cousin Emmie. He complied, but there seemed a mockery in his tone.
The girls, however, were kind-hearted by nature. Flora married and left home. Hadrian did very much as he pleased with Matilda and Emmie, though they had certain strictnesses. He grew up in the Pottery House and about the Pottery premises, went to an elementary school, and was invariably called Hadrian Rockley. He regarded Cousin Matilda and Cousin Emmie with a certain laconic indifference, was quiet and reticent in his ways. The girls called him sly, but that was unjust. He was merely cautious, and without frankness. His Uncle, Ted Rockley, understood him tacitly, their natures were somewhat akin. Hadrian and the elderly man had a real but unemotional regard for one another.
When he was thirteen years old the boy was sent to a High School in the County town. He did not like it. His Cousin Matilda had longed to make a little gentleman of him, but he refused to be made. He would give a little contemptuous curve to his lip, and take on a shy, charity-boy grin, when refinement was thrust upon him. He played truant from the High School, sold his books, his cap with its badge, even his very scarf and pocket-handkerchief, to his school-fellows, and went raking off heaven knows where with the money. So he spent two very unsatisfactory years.
When he was fifteen he announced that he wanted to leave England and go to the Colonies. He had kept touch with the Home. The Rockleys knew that, when Hadrian made a declaration, in his quiet, half-jeering manner, it was worse than useless to oppose him. So at last the boy departed, going to Canada under the protection of the Institution to which he had belonged. He said good-bye to the Rockleys without a word of thanks, and parted, it seemed, without a pang. Matilda and Emmie wept often to think of how he left them: even on their father’s face a queer look came. But Hadrian wrote fairly regularly from Canada. He had entered some electricity works near Montreal, and was doing well.
At last, however, the war came. In his turn, Hadrian joined up and came to Europe. The Rockleys saw nothing of him. They lived on, just the same, in the Pottery House. Ted Rockley was dying of a sort of dropsy, and in his heart he wanted to see the boy. When the armistice was signed, Hadrian had a long leave, and wrote that he was coming home to the Pottery House.
The girls were terribly fluttered. To tell the truth, they were a little afraid of Hadrian. Matilda, tall and thin, was frail in her health, both girls were worn with nursing their father. To have Hadrian, a young man of twenty-one, in the house with them, after he had left them so coldly five years before, was a trying circumstance.
They were in a flutter. Emmie persuaded her father to have his bed made finally in the morning-room downstairs, whilst his room upstairs was prepared for Hadrian. This was done, and preparations were going on for the arrival, when, at ten o’clock in the morning the young man suddenly turned up, quite unexpectedly. Cousin Emmie, with her hair bobbed up in absurd little bobs round her forehead, was busily polishing the stair-rods, while Cousin Matilda was in the kitchen washing the drawing-room ornaments in a lather, her sleeves rolled back on her thin arms, and her head tied up oddly and coquettishly in a duster.
Cousin Matilda blushed deep with mortification when the self-possessed young man walked in with his kit-bag, and put his cap on the sewing machine. He was little and self-confident, with a curious neatness about him that still suggested the Charity Institution. His face was brown, he had a small moustache, he was vigorous enough in his smallness.
‘Well, is it Hadrian!’ exclaimed Cousin Matilda, wringing the lather off her hand. ‘We didn’t expect you till tomorrow.’
‘I got off Monday night,’ said Hadrian, glancing round the room.
‘Fancy!’ said Cousin Matilda. Then, having dried her hands, she went forward, held out her hand, and said:
‘How are you?’
‘Quite well, thank you,’ said Hadrian.
‘You’re quite a man,’ said Cousin Matilda.
Hadrian glanced at her. She did not look her best: so thin, so large-nosed, with that pink-and-white checked duster tied round her head. She felt her disadvantage. But she had had a good deal of suffering and sorrow, she did not mind any more.
The servant entered — one that did not know Hadrian.
‘Come and see my father,’ said Cousin Matilda.
In the hall they roused Cousin Emmie like a partridge from cover. She was on the stairs pushing the bright stair-rods into place. Instinctively her hand went to the little knobs, her front hair bobbed on her forehead.
‘Why!’ she exclaimed, crossly. ‘What have you come today for?’
‘I got off a day earlier,’ said Hadrian, and his man’s voice so deep and unexpected was like a blow to Cousin Emmie.
‘Well, you’ve caught us in the midst of it,’ she said, with resentment. Then all three went into the middle room.
Mr. Rockley was dressed — that is, he had on his trousers and socks — but he was resting on the bed, propped up just under the window, from whence he could see his beloved and resplendent garden, where tulips and apple-trees were ablaze. He did not look as ill as he was, for the water puffed him up, and his face kept its colour. His stomach was much swollen. He glanced round swiftly, turning his eyes without turning his head. He was the wreck of a handsome, well-built man.
Seeing Hadrian, a queer, unwilling smile went over his face. The young man greeted him sheepishly.
‘You wouldn’t make a life-guardsman,’ he said. ‘Do you want something to eat?’
Hadrian looked round — as if for the meal.
‘I don’t mind,’ he said.
‘What shall you have — egg and bacon?’ asked Emmie shortly.
‘Yes, I don’t mind,’ said Hadrian.
The sisters went down to the kitchen, and sent the servant to finish the stairs.
‘Isn’t he altered?’ said Matilda, sotto voce.
‘Isn’t he!’ said Cousin Emmie. ‘What a little man!’
They both made a grimace, and laughed nervously.
‘Get the frying-pan,’ said Emmie to Matilda.
‘But he’s as cocky as ever,’ said Matilda, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head knowingly, as she handed the frying-pan.
‘Mannie!’ said Emmie sarcastically. Hadrian’s new-fledged, cock-sure manliness evidently found no favour in her eyes.
‘Oh, he’s not bad,’ said Matilda. ‘You don’t want to be prejudiced against him.’
I’m not prejudiced against him, I think he’s all right for looks,’ said Emmie, ‘but there’s too much of the little mannie about him.’
‘Fancy catching us like this,’ said Matilda.
‘They’ve no thought for anything,’ said Emmie with contempt. ‘You go up and get dressed, our Matilda. I don’t care about him. I can see to things, and you can talk to him. I shan’t.’
‘He’ll talk to my father,’ said Matilda, meaningful.
‘Sly —!’ exclaimed Emmie, with a grimace.
The sisters believed that Hadrian had come hoping to get something out of their father — hoping for a legacy. And they were not at all sure he would not get it.
Matilda went upstairs to change. She had thought it all out how she would receive Hadrian, and impress him. And he had caught her with her head tied up in a duster, and her thin arms in a basin of lather. But she did not care. She now dressed herself most scrupulously, carefully folded her long, beautiful, blonde hair, touched her pallor with a little rouge, and put her long string of exquisite crystal beads over her soft green dress. Now she looked elegant, like a heroine in a magazine illustration, and almost as unreal.
She found Hadrian and her father talking away. The young man was short of speech as a rule, but he could find his tongue with his ‘uncle’. They were both sipping a glass of brandy, and smoking, and chatting like a pair of old cronies. Hadrian was telling about Canada. He was going back there when his leave was up.
‘You wouldn’t like to stop in England, then?’ said Mr. Rockley.
‘No, I wouldn’t stop in England,’ said Hadrian.
‘How’s that? There’s plenty of electricians here,’ said Mr. Rockley.
‘Yes. But there’s too much difference between the men and the employers over here — too much of that for me,’ said Hadrian.
The sick man looked at him narrowly, with oddly smiling eyes.
‘That’s it, is it?’ he replied.
Matilda heard and understood. ‘So that’s your big idea, is it, my little man,’ she said to herself. She had always said of Hadrian that he had no proper respect for anybody or anything, that he was sly and common. She went down to the kitchen for a sotto voce confab with Emmie.
‘He thinks a rare lot of himself!’ she whispered.
‘He’s somebody, he is!’ said Emmie with contempt.
‘He thinks there’s too much difference between masters and men, over here,’ said Matilda.
‘Is it any different in Canada?’ asked Emmie.
‘Oh, yes — democratic,’ replied Matilda, ‘He thinks they’re all on a level over there.’
‘Ay, well he’s over here now,’ said Emmie dryly, ‘so he can keep his place.’
As they talked they saw the young man sauntering down the garden, looking casually at the flowers. He had his hands in his pockets, and his soldier’s cap neatly on his head. He looked quite at his ease, as if in possession. The two women, fluttered, watched him through the window.
‘We know what he’s come for,’ said Emmie, churlishly. Matilda looked a long time at the neat khaki figure. It had something of the charity-boy about it still; but now it was a man’s figure, laconic, charged with plebeian energy. She thought of the derisive passion in his voice as he had declaimed against the propertied classes, to her father.
‘You don’t know, Emmie. Perhaps he’s not come for that,’ she rebuked her sister. They were both thinking of the money.
They were still watching the young soldier. He stood away at the bottom of the garden, with his back to them, his hands in his pockets, looking into the water of the willow pond. Matilda’s dark-blue eyes had a strange, full look in them, the lids, with the faint blue veins showing, dropped rather low. She carried her head light and high, but she had a look of pain. The young man at the bottom of the garden turned and looked up the path. Perhaps he saw them through the window. Matilda moved into shadow.
That afternoon their father seemed weak and ill. He was easily exhausted. The doctor came, and told Matilda that the sick man might die suddenly at any moment — but then he might not. They must be prepared.
So the day passed, and the next. Hadrian made himself at home. He went about in the morning in his brownish jersey and his khaki trousers, collarless, his bare neck showing. He explored the pottery premises, as if he had some secret purpose in so doing, he talked with Mr. Rockley, when the sick man had strength. The two girls were always angry when the two men sat talking together like cronies. Yet it was chiefly a kind of politics they talked.
On the second day after Hadrian’s arrival, Matilda sat with her father in the evening. She was drawing a picture which she wanted to copy. It was very still, Hadrian was gone out somewhere, no one knew where, and Emmie was busy. Mr. Rockley reclined on his bed, looking out in silence over his evening-sunny garden.
‘If anything happens to me, Matilda,’ he said, ‘you won’t sell this house — you’ll stop here —’
Matilda’s eyes took their slightly haggard look as she stared at her father.
‘Well, we couldn’t do anything else,’ she said.
‘You don’t know what you might do,’ he said. ‘Everything is left to you and Emmie, equally. You’do as you like with it — only don’t sell this house, don’t part with it.’
‘No,’ she said.
‘And give Hadrian my watch and chain, and a hundred pounds out of what’s in the bank — and help him if he ever wants helping. I haven’t put his name in the will.’
‘Your watch and chain, and a hundred pounds — yes. But you’ll be here when he goes back to Canada, father.’
‘You never know what’ll happen,’ said her father.
Matilda sat and watched him, with her full, haggard eyes, for a long time, as if tranced. She saw that he knew he must go soon — she saw like a clairvoyant.
Later on she told Emmie what her father had said about the watch and chain and the money.
‘What right has he’— he — meaning Hadrian —‘to my father’s watch and chain — what has it to do with him? Let him have the money, and get off,’ said Emmie. She loved her father.
That night Matilda sat late in her room. Her heart was anxious and breaking, her mind seemed entranced. She was too much entranced even to weep, and all the time she thought of her father, only her father. At last she felt she must go to him.
It was near midnight. She went along the passage and to his room. There was a faint light from the moon outside. She listened at his door. Then she softly opened and entered. The room was faintly dark. She heard a movement on the bed.
‘Are you asleep?’ she said softly, advancing to the side of the bed.
‘Are you asleep?’ she repeated gently, as she stood at the side of the bed. And she reached her hand in the darkness to touch his forehead. Delicately, her fingers met the nose and the eyebrows, she laid her fine, delicate hand on his brow. It seemed fresh and smooth — very fresh and smooth. A sort of surprise stirred her, in her entranced state. But it could not waken her. Gently, she leaned over the bed and stirred her fingers over the low-growing hair on his brow.
‘Can’t you sleep tonight?’ she said.
There was a quick stirring in the bed. ‘Yes, I can,’ a voice answered. It was Hadrian’s voice. She started away. Instantly, she was wakened from her late-at-night trance. She remembered that her father was downstairs, that Hadrian had his room. She stood in the darkness as if stung.
‘It is you, Hadrian?’ she said. ‘I thought it was my father.’ She was so startled, so shocked, that she could not move. The young man gave an uncomfortable laugh, and turned in his bed.
At last she got out of the room. When she was back in her own room, in the light, and her door was closed, she stood holding up her hand that had touched him, as if it were hurt. She was almost too shocked, she could not endure.
‘Well,’ said her calm and weary mind, ‘it was only a mistake, why take any notice of it.’
But she could not reason her feelings so easily. She suffered, feeling herself in a false position. Her right hand, which she had laid so gently on his face, on his fresh skin, ached now, as if it were really injured. She could not forgive Hadrian for the mistake: it made her dislike him deeply.
Hadrian too slept badly. He had been awakened by the opening of the door, and had not realized what the question meant. But the soft, straying tenderness of her hand on his face startled something out of his soul. He was a charity boy, aloof and more or less at bay. The fragile exquisiteness of her caress startled him most, revealed unknown things to him.
In the morning she could feel the consciousness in his eyes, when she came downstairs. She tried to bear herself as if nothing at all had happened, and she succeeded. She had the calm self-control, self-indifference, of one who has suffered and borne her suffering. She looked at him from her darkish, almost drugged blue eyes, she met the spark of consciousness in his eyes, and quenched it. And with her long, fine hand she put the sugar in his coffee.
But she could not control him as she thought she could. He had a keen memory stinging his mind, a new set of sensations working in his consciousness. Something new was alert in him. At the back of his reticent, guarded mind he kept his secret alive and vivid. She was at his mercy, for he was unscrupulous, his standard was not her standard.
He looked at her curiously. She was not beautiful, her nose was too large, her chin was too small, her neck was too thin. But her skin was clear and fine, she had a high-bred sensitiveness. This queer, brave, high-bred quality she shared with her father. The charity boy could see it in her tapering fingers, which were white and ringed. The same glamour that he knew in the elderly man he now saw in the woman. And he wanted to possess himself of it, he wanted to make himself master of it. As he went about through the old pottery-yard, his secretive mind schemed and worked. To be master of that strange soft delicacy such as he had felt in her hand upon his face — this was what he set himself towards. He was secretly plotting.
He watched Matilda as she went about, and she became aware of his attention, as of some shadow following her. But her pride made her ignore it. When he sauntered near her, his hands in his pockets, she received him with that same commonplace kindliness which mastered him more than any contempt. Her superior breeding seemed to control him. She made herself feel towards him exactly as she had always felt: he was a young boy who lived in the house with them, but was a stranger. Only, she dared not remember his face under her hand. When she remembered that, she was bewildered. Her hand had offended her, she wanted to cut it off. And she wanted, fiercely, to cut off the memory in him. She assumed she had done so.
One day, when he sat talking with his ‘uncle’, he looked straight into the eyes of the sick man, and said:
‘But I shouldn’t like to live and die here in Rawsley.’
‘No — well — you needn’t,’ said the sick man.
‘Do you think Cousin Matilda likes it?’
‘I should think so.’
‘I don’t call it much of a life,’ said the youth. ‘How much older is she than me, Uncle?’
The sick man looked at the young soldier.
‘A good bit,’ he said.
‘Over thirty?’ said Hadrian.
‘Well, not so much. She’s thirty-two.’
Hadrian considered a while.
‘She doesn’t look it,’ he said.
Again the sick father looked at him.
‘Do you think she’d like to leave here?’ said Hadrian.
‘Nay, I don’t know,’ replied the father, restive.
Hadrian sat still, having his own thoughts. Then in a small, quiet voice, as if he were speaking from inside himself, he said:
‘I’d marry her if you wanted me to.’
The sick man raised his eyes suddenly, and stared. He stared for a long time. The youth looked inscrutably out of the window.
‘You!’ said the sick man, mocking, with some contempt. Hadrian turned and met his eyes. The two men had an inexplicable understanding.
‘If you wasn’t against it,’ said Hadrian.
‘Nay,’ said the father, turning aside, ‘I don’t think I’m against it. I’ve never thought of it. But — But Emmie’s the youngest.’
He had flushed, and looked suddenly more alive. Secretly he loved the boy.
‘You might ask her,’ said Hadrian.
The elder man considered.
‘Hadn’t you better ask her yourself?’ he said.
‘She’d take more notice of you,’ said Hadrian.
They were both silent. Then Emmie came in.
For two days Mr. Rockley was excited and thoughtful. Hadrian went about quietly, secretly, unquestioning. At last the father and daughter were alone together. It was very early morning, the father had been in much pain. As the pain abated, he lay still, thinking.
‘Matilda!’ he said suddenly, looking at his daughter.
‘Yes, I’m here,’ she said.
‘Ay! I want you to do something —’
She rose in anticipation.
‘Nay, sit still. I want you to marry Hadrian —’
She thought he was raving. She rose, bewildered and frightened.
‘Nay, sit you still, sit you still. You hear what I tell you.’
‘But you don’t know what you’re saying, father.’
‘Ay, I know well enough. I want you to marry Hadrian, I tell you.’
She was dumbfounded. He was a man of few words.
‘You’ll do what I tell you,’ he said.
She looked at him slowly.
‘What put such an idea in your mind?’ she said proudly.
Matilda almost looked her father down, her pride was so offended.
‘Why, it’s disgraceful,’ she said.
She watched him slowly.
‘What do you ask me for?’ she said. ‘It’s disgusting.’
‘The lad’s sound enough,’ he replied, testily.
‘You’d better tell him to clear out,’ she said, coldly.
He turned and looked out of the window. She sat flushed and erect for a long time. At length her father turned to her, looking really malevolent.
‘If you won’t,’ he said, ‘you’re a fool, and I’ll make you pay for your foolishness, do you see?’
Suddenly a cold fear gripped her. She could not believe her senses. She was terrified and bewildered. She stared at her father, believing him to be delirious, or mad, or drunk. What could she do?
‘I tell you,’ he said. ‘I’ll send for Whittle tomorrow if you don’t. You shall neither of you have anything of mine.’
Whittle was the solicitor. She understood her father well enough: he would send for his solicitor, and make a will leaving all his property to Hadrian: neither she nor Emmie should have anything. It was too much. She rose and went out of the room, up to her own room, where she locked herself in.
She did not come out for some hours. At last, late at night, she confided in Emmie.
‘The sliving demon, he wants the money,’ said Emmie. ‘My father’s out of his mind.’
The thought that Hadrian merely wanted the money was another blow to Matilda. She did not love the impossible youth — but she had not yet learned to think of him as a thing of evil. He now became hideous to her mind.
Emmie had a little scene with her father next day.
‘You don’t mean what you said to our Matilda yesterday, do you, father?’ she asked aggressively.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘What, that you’ll alter your will?’
‘You won’t,’ said his angry daughter.
But he looked at her with a malevolent little smile.
‘Annie!’ he shouted. ‘Annie!’
He had still power to make his voice carry. The servant maid came in from the kitchen.
‘Put your things on, and go down to Whittle’s office, and say I want to see Mr. Whittle as soon as he can, and will he bring a will-form.’
The sick man lay back a little — he could not lie down. His daughter sat as if she had been struck. Then she left the room.
Hadrian was pottering about in the garden. She went straight down to him.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘You’d better get off. You’d better take your things and go from here, quick.’
Hadrian looked slowly at the infuriated girl.
‘Who says so?’ he asked.
‘We say so — get off, you’ve done enough mischief and damage.’
‘Does Uncle say so?’
‘Yes, he does.’
‘I’ll go and ask him.’
But like a fury Emmie barred his way.
‘No, you needn’t. You needn’t ask him nothing at all. We don’t want you, so you can go.’
‘Uncle’s boss here.’
‘A man that’s dying, and you crawling round and working on him for his money! — you’re not fit to live.’
‘Oh!’ he said. ‘Who says I’m working for his money?’
‘I say. But my father told our Matilda, and she knows what you are. She knows what you’re after. So you might as well clear out, for all you’ll get — guttersnipe!’
He turned his back on her, to think. It had not occurred to him that they would think he was after the money. He did want the money — badly. He badly wanted to be an employer himself, not one of the employed. But he knew, in his subtle, calculating way, that it was not for money he wanted Matilda. He wanted both the money and Matilda. But he told himself the two desires were separate, not one. He could not do with Matilda, without the money. But he did not want her for the money.
When he got this clear in his mind, he sought for an opportunity to tell it her, lurking and watching. But she avoided him. In the evening the lawyer came. Mr. Rockley seemed to have a new access of strength — a will was drawn up, making the previous arrangements wholly conditional. The old will held good, if Matilda would consent to marry Hadrian. If she refused then at the end of six months the whole property passed to Hadrian.
Mr. Rockley told this to the young man, with malevolent satisfaction. He seemed to have a strange desire, quite unreasonable, for revenge upon the women who had surrounded him for so long, and served him so carefully.
‘Tell her in front of me,’ said Hadrian.
So Mr. Rockley sent for his daughters.
At last they came, pale, mute, stubborn. Matilda seemed to have retired far off, Emmie seemed like a fighter ready to fight to the death. The sick man reclined on the bed, his eyes bright, his puffed hand trembling. But his face had again some of its old, bright handsomeness. Hadrian sat quiet, a little aside: the indomitable, dangerous charity boy.
‘There’s the will,’ said their father, pointing them to the paper.
The two women sat mute and immovable, they took no notice.
‘Either you marry Hadrian, or he has everything,’ said the father with satisfaction.
‘Then let him have everything,’ said Matilda boldly.
‘He’s not! He’s not!’ cried Emmie fiercely. ‘He’s not going to have it. The guttersnipe!’
An amused look came on her father’s face.
‘You hear that, Hadrian,’ he said.
‘I didn’t offer to marry Cousin Matilda for the money,’ said Hadrian, flushing and moving on his seat.
Matilda looked at him slowly, with her dark-blue, drugged eyes. He seemed a strange little monster to her.
‘Why, you liar, you know you did,’ cried Emmie.
The sick man laughed. Matilda continued to gaze strangely at the young man.
‘She knows I didn’t,’ said Hadrian.
He too had his courage, as a rat has indomitable courage in the end. Hadrian had some of the neatness, the reserve, the underground quality of the rat. But he had perhaps the ultimate courage, the most unquenchable courage of all.
Emmie looked at her sister.
‘Oh, well,’ she said. ‘Matilda — don’t bother. Let him have everything, we can look after ourselves.’
‘I know he’ll take everything,’ said Matilda, abstractedly.
Hadrian did not answer. He knew in fact that if Matilda refused him he would take everything, and go off with it.
‘A clever little mannie —!’ said Emmie, with a jeering grimace.
The father laughed noiselessly to himself. But he was tired. . . .
‘Go on, then,’ he said. ‘Go on, let me be quiet.’
Emmie turned and looked at him.
‘You deserve what you’ve got,’ she said to her father bluntly.
‘Go on,’ he answered mildly. ‘Go on.’
Another night passed — a night nurse sat up with Mr. Rockley. Another day came. Hadrian was there as ever, in his woollen jersey and coarse khaki trousers and bare neck. Matilda went about, frail and distant, Emmie black-browed in spite of her blondness. They were all quiet, for they did not intend the mystified servant to learn anything.
Mr. Rockley had very bad attacks of pain, he could not breathe. The end seemed near. They all went about quiet and stoical, all unyielding. Hadrian pondered within himself. If he did not marry Matilda he would go to Canada with twenty thousand pounds. This was itself a very satisfactory prospect. If Matilda consented he would have nothing — she would have her own money.
Emmie was the one to act. She went off in search of the solicitor and brought him with her. There was an interview, and Whittle tried to frighten the youth into withdrawal — but without avail. The clergyman and relatives were summoned — but Hadrian stared at them and took no notice. It made him angry, however.
He wanted to catch Matilda alone. Many days went by, and he was not successful: she avoided him. At last, lurking, he surprised her one day as she came to pick gooseberries, and he cut off her retreat. He came to the point at once.
‘You don’t want me, then?’ he said, in his subtle, insinuating voice.
‘I don’t want to speak to you,’ she said, averting her face.
‘You put your hand on me, though,’ he said. ‘You shouldn’t have done that, and then I should never have thought of it. You shouldn’t have touched me.’
‘If you were anything decent, you’d know that was a mistake, and forget it,’ she said.
‘I know it was a mistake — but I shan’t forget it. If you wake a man up, he can’t go to sleep again because he’s told to.’
‘If you had any decent feeling in you, you’d have gone away,’ she replied.
‘I didn’t want to,’ he replied.
She looked away into the distance. At last she asked:
‘What do you persecute me for, if it isn’t for the money. I’m old enough to be your mother. In a way I’ve been your mother.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘You’ve been no mother to me. Let us marry and go out to Canada — you might as well — you’ve touched me.’
She was white and trembling. Suddenly she flushed with anger.
‘It’s so indecent,’ she said.
‘How?’ he retorted. ‘You touched me.’
But she walked away from him. She felt as if he had trapped her. He was angry and depressed, he felt again despised.
That same evening she went into her father’s room.
‘Yes,’ she said suddenly. ‘I’ll marry him.’
Her father looked up at her. He was in pain, and very ill.
‘You like him now, do you?’ he said, with a faint smile.
She looked down into his face, and saw death not far off. She turned and went coldly out of the room.
The solicitor was sent for, preparations were hastily made. In all the interval Matilda did not speak to Hadrian, never answered him if he addressed her. He approached her in the morning.
‘You’ve come round to it, then?’ he said, giving her a pleasant look from his twinkling, almost kindly eyes. She looked down at him and turned aside. She looked down on him both literally and figuratively. Still he persisted, and triumphed.
Emmie raved and wept, the secret flew abroad. But Matilda was silent and unmoved, Hadrian was quiet and satisfied, and nipped with fear also. But he held out against his fear. Mr. Rockley was very ill, but unchanged.
On the third day the marriage took place. Matilda and Hadrian drove straight home from the registrar, and went straight into the room of the dying man. His face lit up with a clear twinkling smile.
‘Hadrian — you’ve got her?’ he said, a little hoarsely.
‘Yes,’ said Hadrian, who was pale round the gills.
‘Ay, my lad, I’m glad you’re mine,’ replied the dying man. Then he turned his eyes closely on Matilda.
‘Let’s look at you, Matilda,’ he said. Then his voice went strange and unrecognizable. ‘Kiss me,’ he said.
She stooped and kissed him. She had never kissed him before, not since she was a tiny child. But she was quiet, very still.
‘Kiss him,’ the dying man said.
Obediently, Matilda put forward her mouth and kissed the young husband.
‘That’s right! That’s right!’ murmured the dying man.
A man got down from the motor-omnibus that runs from Penzance to St Just-inPenwith, and turned northwards, uphill towards the Polestar. It was only half past six, but already the stars were out, a cold little wind was blowing from the sea, and the crystalline, three-pulse flash of the lighthouse below the cliffs beat rhythmically in the first darkness.
The man was alone. He went his way unhesitating, but looked from side to side with cautious curiosity. Tall, ruined power-houses of tin-mines loomed in the darkness from time to time, like remnants of some by-gone civilization. The lights of many miners’ cottages scattered on the hilly darkness twinkled desolate in their disorder, yet twinkled with the lonely homeliness of the Celtic night.
He tramped steadily on, always watchful with curiosity. He was a tall, well-built man, apparently in the prime of life. His shoulders were square and rather stiff, he leaned forwards a little as he went, from the hips, like a man who must stoop to lower his height. But he did not stoop his shoulders: he bent his straight back from the hips.
Now and again short, stump, thick-legged figures of Cornish miners passed him, and he invariably gave them goodnight, as if to insist that he was on his own ground. He spoke with the west-Cornish intonation. And as he went along the dreary road, looking now at the lights of the dwellings on land, now at the lights away to sea, vessels veering round in sight of the Longships Lighthouse, the whole of the Atlantic Ocean in darkness and space between him and America, he seemed a little excited and pleased with himself, watchful, thrilled, veering along in a sense of mastery and of power in conflict.
The houses began to close on the road, he was entering the straggling, formless, desolate mining village, that he knew of old. On the left was a little space set back from the road, and cosy lights of an inn. There it was. He peered up at the sign: ‘The Tinners’ Rest’. But he could not make out the name of the proprietor. He listened. There was excited talking and laughing, a woman’s voice laughing shrilly among the men’s.
Stooping a little, he entered the warmly-lit bar. The lamp was burning, a buxom woman rose from the white-scrubbed deal table where the black and white and red cards were scattered, and several men, miners, lifted their faces from the game.
The stranger went to the counter, averting his face. His cap was pulled down over his brow.
‘Good-evening!’ said the landlady, in her rather ingratiating voice.
‘Good-evening. A glass of ale.’
‘A glass of ale,’ repeated the landlady suavely. ‘Cold night — but bright.’
‘Yes,’ the man assented, laconically. Then he added, when nobody expected him to say any more: ‘Seasonable weather.’
‘Quite seasonable, quite,’ said the landlady. ‘Thank you.’
The man lifted his glass straight to his lips, and emptied it. He put it down again on the zinc counter with a click.
‘Let’s have another,’ he said.
The woman drew the beer, and the man went away with his glass to the second table, near the fire. The woman, after a moment’s hesitation, took her seat again at the table with the card-players. She had noticed the man: a big fine fellow, well dressed, a stranger.
But he spoke with that Cornish-Yankee accent she accepted as the natural twang among the miners.
The stranger put his foot on the fender and looked into the fire. He was handsome, well coloured, with well-drawn Cornish eyebrows, and the usual dark, bright, mindless Cornish eyes. He seemed abstracted in thought. Then he watched the card-party.
The woman was buxom and healthy, with dark hair and small, quick brown eyes. She was bursting with life and vigour, the energy she threw into the game of cards excited all the men, they shouted, and laughed, and the woman held her breast, shrieking with laughter.
‘Oh, my, it’ll be the death o’ me,’ she panted. ‘Now, come on, Mr. Trevorrow, play fair. Play fair, I say, or I s’ll put the cards down.’
‘Play fair! Why who’s played unfair?’ ejaculated Mr. Trevorrow. ‘Do you mean t’accuse me, as I haven’t played fair, Mrs. Nankervis?’
‘I do. I say it, and I mean it. Haven’t you got the queen of spades? Now, come on, no dodging round me. I know you’ve got that queen, as well as I know my name’s Alice.’
‘Well — if your name’s Alice, you’ll have to have it —’
‘Ay, now — what did I say? Did you ever see such a man? My word, but your missus must be easy took in, by the looks of things.’
And off she went into peals of laughter. She was interrupted by the entrance of four men in khaki, a short, stumpy sergeant of middle age, a young corporal, and two young privates. The woman leaned back in her chair.
‘Oh, my!’ she cried. ‘If there isn’t the boys back: looking perished, I believe —’
‘Perished, Ma!’ exclaimed the sergeant. ‘Not yet.’
‘Near enough,’ said a young private, uncouthly.
The woman got up.
‘I’m sure you are, my dears. You’ll be wanting your suppers, I’ll be bound.’
‘We could do with ’em.’
‘Let’s have a wet first,’ said the sergeant.
The woman bustled about getting the drinks. The soldiers moved to the fire, spreading out their hands.
‘Have your suppers in here, will you?’ she said. ‘Or in the kitchen?’
‘Let’s have it here,’ said the sergeant. ‘More cosier — if you don’t mind.’
‘You shall have it where you like, boys, where you like.’
She disappeared. In a minute a girl of about sixteen came in. She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type.
‘Ho, Maryann! Evenin’, Maryann! How’s Maryann, now?’ came the multiple greeting.
She replied to everybody in a soft voice, a strange, soft aplomb that was very attractive. And she moved round with rather mechanical, attractive movements, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. But she had always this dim far-awayness in her bearing: a sort of modesty. The strange man by the fire watched her curiously. There was an alert, inquisitive, mindless curiosity on his well-coloured face.
‘I’ll have a bit of supper with you, if I might,’ he said.
She looked at him, with her clear, unreasoning eyes, just like the eyes of some non-human creature.
‘I’ll ask mother,’ she said. Her voice was soft-breathing, gently singsong.
When she came in again:
‘Yes,’ she said, almost whispering. ‘What will you have?’
‘What have you got?’ he said, looking up into her face.
‘There’s cold meat —’
‘That’s for me, then.’
The stranger sat at the end of the table and ate with the tired, quiet soldiers. Now, the landlady was interested in him. Her brow was knit rather tense, there was a look of panic in her large, healthy face, but her small brown eyes were fixed most dangerously. She was a big woman, but her eyes were small and tense. She drew near the stranger. She wore a rather loud-patterned flannelette blouse, and a dark skirt.
‘What will you have to drink with your supper?’ she asked, and there was a new, dangerous note in her voice.
He moved uneasily.
‘Oh, I’ll go on with ale.’
She drew him another glass. Then she sat down on the bench at the table with him and the soldiers, and fixed him with her attention.
‘You’ve come from St Just, have you?’ she said.
He looked at her with those clear, dark, inscrutable Cornish eyes, and answered at length:
‘No, from Penzance.’
‘Penzance! — but you’re not thinking of going back there tonight?’
‘No — no.’
He still looked at her with those wide, clear eyes that seemed like very bright agate. Her anger began to rise. It was seen on her brow. Yet her voice was still suave and deprecating.
‘I thought not — but you’re not living in these parts, are you?’
‘No — no, I’m not living here.’ He was always slow in answering, as if something intervened between him and any outside question.
‘Oh, I see,’ she said. ‘You’ve got relations down here.’
Again he looked straight into her eyes, as if looking her into silence.
‘Yes,’ he said.
He did not say any more. She rose with a flounce. The anger was tight on her brow. There was no more laughing and card-playing that evening, though she kept up her motherly, suave, good-humoured way with the men. But they knew her, they were all afraid of her.
The supper was finished, the table cleared, the stranger did not go. Two of the young soldiers went off to bed, with their cheery:
‘Good-night, Ma. Good-night, Maryann.’
The stranger talked a little to the sergeant about the war, which was in its first year, about the new army, a fragment of which was quartered in this district, about America.
The landlady darted looks at him from her small eyes, minute by minute the electric storm welled in her bosom, as still he did not go. She was quivering with suppressed, violent passion, something frightening and abnormal. She could not sit still for a moment. Her heavy form seemed to flash with sudden, involuntary movements as the minutes passed by, and still he sat there, and the tension on her heart grew unbearable. She watched the hands of the dock move on. Three of the soldiers had gone to bed, only the crop-headed, terrier-like old sergeant remained.
The landlady sat behind the bar fidgeting spasmodically with the newspaper. She looked again at the clock. At last it was five minutes to ten.
‘Gentlemen — the enemy!’ she said, in her diminished, furious voice. ‘Time, please. Time, my dears. And good-night all!’
The men began to drop out, with a brief good-night. It was a minute to ten. The landlady rose.
‘Come,’ she said. ‘I’m shutting the door.’
The last of the miners passed out. She stood, stout and menacing, holding the door. Still the stranger sat on by the fire, his black overcoat opened, smoking.
‘We’re closed now, sir,’ came the perilous, narrowed voice of the landlady.
The little, dog-like, hard-headed sergeant touched the arm of the stranger.
‘Closing time,’ he said.
The stranger turned round in his seat, and his quick-moving, dark, jewel-like eyes went from the sergeant to the landlady.
‘I’m stopping here tonight,’ he said, in his laconic Cornish-Yankee accent.
The landlady seemed to tower. Her eyes lifted strangely, frightening.
‘Oh! indeed!’ she cried.’ Oh, indeed! And whose orders are those, may I ask?’
He looked at her again.
‘My orders,’ he said.
Involuntarily she shut the door, and advanced like a great, dangerous bird. Her voice rose, there was a touch of hoarseness in it.
‘And what might your orders be, if you please?’ she cried. ‘Who might you be, to give orders, in the house?’
He sat still, watching her.
‘You know who I am,’ he said. ‘At least, I know who you are.’
‘Oh, you do? Oh, do you? And who am I then, if you’ll be so good as to tell me?’
He stared at her with his bright, dark eyes.
‘You’re my Missis, you are,’ he said. ‘And you know it, as well as I do.’
She started as if something had exploded in her.
Her eyes lifted and flared madly.
‘Do I know it, indeed!’ she cried. ‘I know no such thing! I know no such thing! Do you think a man’s going to walk into this bar, and tell me off-hand I’m his Missis, and I’m going to believe him? — I say to you, whoever you may be, you’re mistaken. I know myself for no Missis of yours, and I’ll thank you to go out of this house, this minute, before I get those that will put you out.’
The man rose to his feet, stretching his head towards her a little. He was a handsomely built Cornishman in the prime of life.
‘What you say, eh? You don’t know me?’ he said, in his sing-song voice, emotionless, but rather smothered and pressing: it reminded one of the girl’s. ‘I should know you anywhere, you see. I should! I shouldn’t have to look twice to know you, you see. You see, now, don’t you?’
The woman was baffled.
‘So you may say,’ she replied, staccato. ‘So you may say. That’s easy enough. My name’s known, and respected, by most people for ten miles round. But I don’t know you.’
Her voice ran to sarcasm. ‘I can’t say I know you. You’re a perfect stranger to me, and I don’t believe I’ve ever set eyes on you before tonight.’
Her voice was very flexible and sarcastic.
‘Yes, you have,’ replied the man, in his reasonable way.’ Yes, you have. Your name’s my name, and that girl Maryann is my girl; she’s my daughter. You’re my Missis right enough. As sure as I’m Willie Nankervis.’
He spoke as if it were an accepted fact. His face was handsome, with a strange, watchful alertness and a fundamental fixity of intention that maddened her.
‘You villain!’ she cried. ‘You villain, to come to this house and dare to speak to me. You villain, you down-right rascal!’
He looked at her.
‘Ay,’ he said, unmoved. ‘All that.’ He was uneasy before her. Only he was not afraid of her. There was something impenetrable about him, like his eyes, which were as bright as agate.
She towered, and drew near to him menacingly.
‘You’re going out of this house, aren’t you?’— She stamped her foot in sudden madness. ‘This minute!’
He watched her. He knew she wanted to strike him.
‘No,’ he said, with suppressed emphasis. ‘I’ve told you, I’m stopping here.’
He was afraid of her personality, but it did not alter him. She wavered. Her small, tawny-brown eyes concentrated in a point of vivid, sightless fury, like a tiger’s. The man was wincing, but he stood his ground. Then she bethought herself. She would gather her forces.
‘We’ll see whether you’re stopping here,’ she said. And she turned, with a curious, frightening lifting of her eyes, and surged out of the room. The man, listening, heard her go upstairs, heard her tapping at a bedroom door, heard her saying: ‘Do you mind coming down a minute, boys? I want you. I’m in trouble.’
The man in the bar took off his cap and his black overcoat, and threw them on the seat behind him. His black hair was short and touched with grey at the temples. He wore a well-cut, well-fitting suit of dark grey, American in style, and a turn-down collar. He looked well-to-do, a fine, solid figure of a man. The rather rigid look of the shoulders came from his having had his collar-bone twice broken in the mines.
The little terrier of a sergeant, in dirty khaki, looked at him furtively.
‘She’s your Missis?’ he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the departed woman.
‘Yes, she is,’ barked the man. ‘She’s that, sure enough.’
‘Not seen her for a long time, haven’t ye?’
‘Sixteen years come March month.’
And the sergeant laconically resumed his smoking.
The landlady was coming back, followed by the three young soldiers, who entered rather sheepishly, in trousers and shirt and stocking-feet. The woman stood histrionically at the end of the bar, and exclaimed:
‘That man refuses to leave the house, claims he’s stopping the night here. You know very well I have no bed, don’t you? And this house doesn’t accommodate travellers. Yet he’s going to stop in spite of all! But not while I’ve a drop of blood in my body, that I declare with my dying breath. And not if you men are worth the name of men, and will help a woman as has no one to help her.’
Her eyes sparkled, her face was flushed pink. She was drawn up like an Amazon.
The young soldiers did not quite know what to do. They looked at the man, they looked at the sergeant, one of them looked down and fastened his braces on the second button.
‘What say, sergeant?’ asked one whose face twinkled for a little devilment.
‘Man says he’s husband to Mrs. Nankervis,’ said the sergeant.
‘He’s no husband of mine. I declare I never set eyes on him before this night. It’s a dirty trick, nothing else, it’s a dirty trick.’
‘Why, you’re a liar, saying you never set eyes on me before,’ barked the man near the hearth. ‘You’re married to me, and that girl Maryann you had by me — well enough you know it.’
The young soldiers looked on in delight, the sergeant smoked imperturbed.
‘Yes,’ sang the landlady, slowly shaking her head in supreme sarcasm, ‘it sounds very pretty, doesn’t it? But you see we don’t believe a word of it, and how are you going to prove it?’ She smiled nastily.
The man watched in silence for a moment, then he said:
‘It wants no proof.’
‘Oh, yes, but it does! Oh, yes, but it does, sir, it wants a lot of proving!’ sang the lady’s sarcasm. ‘We’re not such gulls as all that, to swallow your words whole.’
But he stood unmoved near the fire. She stood with one hand resting on the zinc-covered bar, the sergeant sat with legs crossed, smoking, on the seat halfway between them, the three young soldiers in their shirts and braces stood wavering in the gloom behind the bar. There was silence.
‘Do you know anything of the whereabouts of your husband, Mrs. Nankervis? Is he still living?’ asked the sergeant, in his judicious fashion.
Suddenly the landlady began to cry, great scalding tears, that left the young men aghast.
‘I know nothing of him,’ she sobbed, feeling for her pocket handkerchief. ‘He left me when Maryann was a baby, went mining to America, and after about six months never wrote a line nor sent me a penny bit. I can’t say whether he’s alive or dead, the villain. All I’ve heard of him’s to the bad — and I’ve heard nothing for years an’ all, now.’ She sobbed violently.
The golden-skinned, handsome man near the fire watched her as she wept. He was frightened, he was troubled, he was bewildered, but none of his emotions altered him underneath.
There was no sound in the room but the violent sobbing of the landlady. The men, one and all, were overcome.
‘Don’t you think as you’d better go, for tonight?’ said the sergeant to the man, with sweet reasonableness. ‘You’d better leave it a bit, and arrange something between you. You can’t have much claim on a woman, I should imagine, if it’s how she says. And you’ve come down on her a bit too sudden-like.’
The landlady sobbed heart-brokenly. The man watched her large breasts shaken. They seemed to cast a spell over his mind.
‘How I’ve treated her, that’s no matter,’ he replied. ‘I’ve come back, and I’m going to stop in my own home — for a bit, anyhow. There you’ve got it.’
‘A dirty action,’ said the sergeant, his face flushing dark. ‘A dirty action, to come, after deserting a woman for that number of years, and want to force yourself on her! A dirty action — as isn’t allowed by the law.’
The landlady wiped her eyes.
‘Never you mind about law nor nothing,’ cried the man, in a strange, strong voice. ‘I’m not moving out of this public tonight.’
The woman turned to the soldiers behind her, and said in a wheedling, sarcastic tone:
‘Are we going to stand it, boys? — Are we going to be done like this, Sergeant Thomas, by a scoundrel and a bully as has led a life beyond mention, in those American mining-camps, and then wants to come back and make havoc of a poor woman’s life and savings, after having left her with a baby in arms to struggle as best she might? It’s a crying shame if nobody will stand up for me — a crying shame —!’
The soldiers and the little sergeant were bristling. The woman stooped and rummaged under the counter for a minute. Then, unseen to the man away near the fire, she threw out a plaited grass rope, such as is used for binding bales, and left it lying near the feet of the young soldiers, in the gloom at the back of the bar.
Then she rose and fronted the situation.
‘Come now,’ she said to the man, in a reasonable, coldly-coaxing tone, ‘put your coat on and leave us alone. Be a man, and not worse than a brute of a German. You can get a bed easy enough in St Just, and if you’ve nothing to pay for it sergeant would lend you a couple of shillings, I’m sure he would.’
All eyes were fixed on the man. He was looking down at the woman like a creature spell-bound or possessed by some devil’s own intention.
‘I’ve got money of my own,’ he said. ‘Don’t you be frightened for your money, I’ve plenty of that, for the time.’
‘Well, then,’ she coaxed, in a cold, almost sneering propitiation, ‘put your coat on and go where you’re wanted — be a man, not a brute of a German.’
She had drawn quite near to him, in her challenging coaxing intentness. He looked down at her with his bewitched face.
‘No, I shan’t,’ he said. ‘I shan’t do no such thing. You’ll put me up for tonight.’
‘Shall I!’ she cried. And suddenly she flung her arms round him, hung on to him with all her powerful weight, calling to the soldiers: ‘Get the rope, boys, and fasten him up. Alfred — John, quick now —’
The man reared, looked round with maddened eyes, and heaved his powerful body. But the woman was powerful also, and very heavy, and was clenched with the determination of death. Her face, with its exulting, horribly vindictive look, was turned up to him from his own breast; he reached back his head frantically, to get away from it. Meanwhile the young soldiers, after having watched this frightful Laocoon swaying for a moment, stirred, and the malicious one darted swiftly with the rope. It was tangled a little.
‘Give me the end here,’ cried the sergeant.
Meanwhile the big man heaved and struggled, swung the woman round against the seat and the table, in his convulsive effort to get free. But she pinned down his arms like a cuttlefish wreathed heavily upon him. And he heaved and swayed, and they crashed about the room, the soldiers hopping, the furniture bumping.
The young soldier had got the rope once round, the brisk sergeant helping him. The woman sank heavily lower, they got the rope round several times. In the struggle the victim fell over against the table. The ropes tightened till they cut his arms. The woman clung to his knees. Another soldier ran in a flash of genius, and fastened the strange man’s feet with the pair of braces. Seats had crashed over, the table was thrown against the wall, but the man was bound, his arms pinned against his sides, his feet tied. He lay half fallen, sunk against the table, still for a moment.
The woman rose, and sank, faint, on to the seat against the wall. Her breast heaved, she could not speak, she thought she was going to die. The bound man lay against the overturned table, his coat all twisted and pulled up beneath the ropes, leaving the loins exposed. The soldiers stood around, a little dazed, but excited with the row.
The man began to struggle again, heaving instinctively against the ropes, taking great, deep breaths. His face, with its golden skin, flushed dark and surcharged, he heaved again. The great veins in his neck stood out. But it was no good, he went relaxed. Then again, suddenly, he jerked his feet.
‘Another pair of braces, William,’ cried the excited soldier. He threw himself on the legs of the bound man, and managed to fasten the knees. Then again there was stillness. They could hear the clock tick.
The woman looked at the prostrate figure, the strong, straight limbs, the strong back bound in subjection, the wide-eyed face that reminded her of a calf tied in a sack in a cart, only its head stretched dumbly backwards. And she triumphed.
The bound-up body began to struggle again. She watched fascinated the muscles working, the shoulders, the hips, the large, clean thighs. Even now he might break the ropes. She was afraid. But the lively young soldier sat on the shoulders of the bound man, and after a few perilous moments, there was stillness again.
‘Now,’ said the judicious sergeant to the bound man, ‘if we untie you, will you promise to go off and make no more trouble.’
‘You’ll not untie him in here,’ cried the woman. ‘I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could blow him.’
There was silence.
‘We might carry him outside, and undo him there,’ said the soldier. ‘Then we could get the policeman, if he made any bother.’
‘Yes,’ said the sergeant. ‘We could do that.’ Then again, in an altered, almost severe tone, to the prisoner. ‘If we undo you outside, will you take your coat and go without creating any more disturbance?’
But the prisoner would not answer, he only lay with wide, dark, bright, eyes, like a bound animal. There was a space of perplexed silence.
‘Well, then, do as you say,’ said the woman irritably. ‘Carry him out amongst you, and let us shut up the house.’
They did so. Picking up the bound man, the four soldiers staggered clumsily into the silent square in front of the inn, the woman following with the cap and the overcoat. The young soldiers quickly unfastened the braces from the prisoner’s legs, and they hopped indoors. They were in their stocking-feet, and outside the stars flashed cold. They stood in the doorway watching. The man lay quite still on the cold ground.
‘Now,’ said the sergeant, in a subdued voice, ‘I’ll loosen the knot, and he can work himself free, if you go in, Missis.’
She gave a last look at the dishevelled, bound man, as he sat on the ground. Then she went indoors, followed quickly by the sergeant. Then they were heard locking and barring the door.
The man seated on the ground outside worked and strained at the rope. But it was not so easy to undo himself even now. So, with hands bound, making an effort, he got on his feet, and went and worked the cord against the rough edge of an old wall. The rope, being of a kind of plaited grass, soon frayed and broke, and he freed himself. He had various contusions. His arms were hurt and bruised from the bonds. He rubbed them slowly. Then he pulled his clothes straight, stooped, put on his cap, struggled into his overcoat, and walked away.
The stars were very brilliant. Clear as crystal, the beam from the lighthouse under the cliffs struck rhythmically on the night. Dazed, the man walked along the road past the churchyard. Then he stood leaning up against a wall, for a long time.
He was roused because his feet were so cold. So he pulled himself together, and turned again in the silent night, back towards the inn.
The bar was in darkness. But there was a light in the kitchen. He hesitated. Then very quietly he tried the door.
He was surprised to find it open. He entered, and quietly closed it behind him. Then he went down the step past the bar-counter, and through to the lighted doorway of the kitchen. There sat his wife, planted in front of the range, where a furze fire was burning. She sat in a chair full in front of the range, her knees wide apart on the fender. She looked over her shoulder at him as he entered, but she did not speak. Then she stared in the fire again.
It was a small, narrow kitchen. He dropped his cap on the table that was covered with yellowish American cloth, and took a seat with his back to the wall, near the oven. His wife still sat with her knees apart, her feet on the steel fender and stared into the fire, motionless. Her skin was smooth and rosy in the firelight. Everything in the house was very clean and bright. The man sat silent, too, his head dropped. And thus they remained.
It was a question who would speak first. The woman leaned forward and poked the ends of the sticks in between the bars of the range. He lifted his head and looked at her.
‘Others gone to bed, have they?’ he asked.
But she remained closed in silence.
‘‘S a cold night, out,’ he said, as if to himself.
And he laid his large, yet well-shapen workman’s hand on the top of the stove, that was polished black and smooth as velvet. She would not look at him, yet she glanced out of the corners of her eyes.
His eyes were fixed brightly on her, the pupils large and electric like those of a cat.
‘I should have picked you out among thousands,’ he said. ‘Though you’re bigger than I’d have believed. Fine flesh you’ve made.’
She was silent for some time. Then she turned in her chair upon him.
‘What do you think of yourself,’ she said, ‘coming back on me like this after over fifteen years? You don’t think I’ve not heard of you, neither, in Butte City and elsewhere?’
He was watching her with his clear, translucent, unchallenged eyes.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Chaps comes an’ goes — I’ve heard tell of you from time to time.’
She drew herself up.
‘And what lies have you heard about me?’ she demanded superbly.
‘I dunno as I’ve heard any lies at all —‘cept as you was getting on very well, like.’
His voice ran warily and detached. Her anger stirred again in her violently. But she subdued it, because of the danger there was in him, and more, perhaps, because of the beauty of his head and his level drawn brows, which she could not bear to forfeit.
‘That’s more than I can say of you,’ she said. ‘I’ve heard more harm than good about you.’
‘Ay, I dessay,’ he said, looking in the fire. It was a long time since he had seen the furze burning, he said to himself. There was a silence, during which she watched his face.
‘Do you call yourself a man?’ she said, more in contemptuous reproach than in anger. ‘Leave a woman as you’ve left me, you don’t care to what! — and then to turn up in this fashion, without a word to say for yourself.’
He stirred in his chair, planted his feet apart, and resting his arms on his knees, looked steadily into the fire, without answering. So near to her was his head, and the close black hair, she could scarcely refrain from starting away, as if it would bite her.
‘Do you call that the action of a man?’ she repeated.
‘No,’ he said, reaching and poking the bits of wood into the fire with his fingers. ‘I didn’t call it anything, as I know of. It’s no good calling things by any names whatsoever, as I know of.’
She watched him in his actions. There was a longer and longer pause between each speech, though neither knew it.
‘I wonder what you think of yourself!’ she exclaimed, with vexed emphasis. ‘I wonder what sort of a fellow you take yourself to be!’ She was really perplexed as well as angry.
‘Well,’ he said, lifting his head to look at her, ‘I guess I’ll answer for my own faults, if everybody else’ll answer for theirs.’
Her heart beat fiery hot as he lifted his face to her. She breathed heavily, averting her face, almost losing her self-control.
‘And what do you take me to be?’ she cried, in real helplessness.
His face was lifted watching her, watching her soft, averted face, and the softly heaving mass of her breasts.
‘I take you,’ he said, with that laconic truthfulness which exercised such power over her, ‘to be the deuce of a fine woman — darn me if you’re not as fine a built woman as I’ve seen, handsome with it as well. I shouldn’t have expected you to put on such handsome flesh: ‘struth I shouldn’t.’
Her heart beat fiery hot, as he watched her with those bright agate eyes, fixedly.
‘Been very handsome to you, for fifteen years, my sakes!’ she replied.
He made no answer to this, but sat with his bright, quick eyes upon her.
Then he rose. She started involuntarily. But he only said, in his laconic, measured way:
‘It’s warm in here now.’
And he pulled off his overcoat, throwing it on the table. She sat as if slightly cowed, whilst he did so.
‘Them ropes has given my arms something, by Ga-ard,’ he drawled, feeling his arms with his hands.
Still she sat in her chair before him, slightly cowed.
‘You was sharp, wasn’t you, to catch me like that, eh?’ he smiled slowly. ‘By Ga-ard, you had me fixed proper, proper you had. Darn me, you fixed me up proper — proper, you did.’
He leaned forwards in his chair towards her.
‘I don’t think no worse of you for it, no, darned if I do. Fine pluck in a woman’s what I admire. That I do, indeed.’
She only gazed into the fire.
‘We fet from the start, we did. And, my word, you begin again quick the minute you see me, you did. Darn me, you was too sharp for me. A darn fine woman, puts up a darn good fight. Darn me if I could find a woman in all the darn States as could get me down like that. Wonderful fine woman you be, truth to say, at this minute.’
She only sat glowering into the fire.
‘As grand a pluck as a man could wish to find in a woman, true as I’m here,’ he said, reaching forward his hand and tentatively touching her between her full, warm breasts, quietly.
She started, and seemed to shudder. But his hand insinuated itself between her breasts, as she continued to gaze in the fire.
‘And don’t you think I’ve come back here a-begging,’ he said. ‘I’ve more than one thousand pounds to my name, I have. And a bit of a fight for a how-dedo pleases me, that it do. But that doesn’t mean as you’re going to deny as you’re my Missis. . . . ’
A young man came out of the Victoria station, looking undecidedly at the taxi-cabs, dark-red and black, pressing against the kerb under the glass-roof. Several men in greatcoats and brass buttons jerked themselves erect to catch his attention, at the same time keeping an eye on the other people as they filtered through the open doorways of the station. Berry, however, was occupied by one of the men, a big, burly fellow whose blue eyes glared back and whose red-brown moustache bristled in defiance.
‘Do you want a cab, sir?’ the man asked, in a half-mocking, challenging voice.
Berry hesitated still.
‘Are you Daniel Sutton?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ replied the other defiantly, with uneasy conscience.
‘Then you are my uncle,’ said Berry.
They were alike in colouring, and somewhat in features, but the taxi driver was a powerful, well-fleshed man who glared at the world aggressively, being really on the defensive against his own heart. His nephew, of the same height, was thin, well-dressed, quiet and indifferent in his manner. And yet they were obviously kin.
‘And who the devil are you?’ asked the taxi driver.
‘I’m Daniel Berry,’ replied the nephew.
‘Well, I’m damned — never saw you since you were a kid.’
Rather awkwardly at this late hour the two shook hands.
‘How are you, lad?’
‘All right. I thought you were in Australia.’
‘Been back three months — bought a couple of these damned things’— he kicked the tyre of his taxi-cab in affectionate disgust. There was a moment’s silence.
‘Oh, but I’m going back out there. I can’t stand this cankering, rotten-hearted hell of a country any more; you want to come out to Sydney with me, lad. That’s the place for you — beautiful place, oh, you could wish for nothing better. And money in it, too. — How’s your mother?’
‘She died at Christmas,’ said the young man.
‘Dead! What! — our Anna!’ The big man’s eyes stared, and he recoiled in fear. ‘God, lad,’ he said, ‘that’s three of ’em gone!’
The two men looked away at the people passing along the pale grey pavements, under the wall of Trinity Church.
‘Well, strike me lucky!’ said the taxi driver at last, out of breath. ‘She wor th’ best o’ th’ bunch of ’em. I see nowt nor hear nowt from any of ’em-they’re not worth it, I’ll be damned if they are — our sermon-lapping Adela and Maud,’ he looked scornfully at his nephew. ‘But she was the best of ’em, our Anna was, that’s a fact.’
He was talking because he was afraid.
‘An’ after a hard life like she’d had. How old was she, lad?’
‘Fifty-five . . . ’ He hesitated. Then, in a rather hushed voice, he asked the question that frightened him:
‘And what was it, then?’
‘Cancer again, like Julia! I never knew there was cancer in our family. Oh, my good God, our poor Anna, after the life she’d had! — What, lad, do you see any God at the back of that? — I’m damned if I do.’
He was glaring, very blue-eyed and fierce, at his nephew. Berry lifted his shoulders slightly.
‘God?’ went on the taxi driver, in a curious intense tone, ‘You’ve only to look at the folk in the street to know there’s nothing keeps it going but gravitation. Look at ’em. Look at him!’— A mongrel-looking man was nosing past. ‘Wouldn’t he murder you for your watch-chain, but that he’s afraid of society. He’s got it in him. . . . Look at ’em.’
Berry watched the towns-people go by, and, sensitively feeling his uncle’s antipathy, it seemed he was watching a sort of danse macabre of ugly criminals.
‘Did you ever see such a God-forsaken crew creeping about! It gives you the very horrors to look at ’em. I sit in this damned car and watch ’em till, I can tell you, I feel like running the cab amuck among ’em, and running myself to kingdom come —’
Berry wondered at this outburst. He knew his uncle was the black-sheep, the youngest, the darling of his mother’s family. He knew him to be at outs with respectability, mixing with the looser, sporting type, all betting and drinking and showing dogs and birds, and racing. As a critic of life, however, he did not know him. But the young man felt curiously understanding. ‘He uses words like I do, he talks nearly as I talk, except that I shouldn’t say those things. But I might feel like that, in myself, if I went a certain road.’
‘I’ve got to go to Watmore,’ he said. ‘Can you take me?’
‘When d’you want to go?’ asked the uncle fiercely.
‘Come on, then. What d’yer stand gassin’ on th’ causeway for?’
The nephew took his seat beside the driver. The cab began to quiver, then it started forward with a whirr. The uncle, his hands and feet acting mechanically, kept his blue eyes fixed on the highroad into whose traffic the car was insinuating its way. Berry felt curiously as if he were sitting beside an older development of himself. His mind went back to his mother. She had been twenty years older than this brother of hers whom she had loved so dearly. ‘He was one of the most affectionate little lads, and such a curly head! I could never have believed he would grow into the great, coarse bully he is — for he’s nothing else. My father made a god of him — well, it’s a good thing his father is dead. He got in with that sporting gang, that’s what did it. Things were made too easy for him, and so he thought of no one but himself, and this is the result.’
Not that ‘Joky’ Sutton was so very black a sheep. He had lived idly till he was eighteen, then had suddenly married a young, beautiful girl with clear brows and dark grey eyes, a factory girl. Having taken her to live with his parents he, lover of dogs and pigeons, went on to the staff of a sporting paper. But his wife was without uplift or warmth. Though they made money enough, their house was dark and cold and uninviting. He had two or three dogs, and the whole attic was turned into a great pigeon-house. He and his wife lived together roughly, with no warmth, no refinement, no touch of beauty anywhere, except that she was beautiful. He was a blustering, impetuous man, she was rather cold in her soul, did not care about anything very much, was rather capable and close with money. And she had a common accent in her speech. He outdid her a thousand times in coarse language, and yet that cold twang in her voice tortured him with shame that he stamped down in bullying and in becoming more violent in his own speech.
Only his dogs adored him, and to them, and to his pigeons, he talked with rough, yet curiously tender caresses while they leaped and fluttered for joy.
After he and his wife had been married for seven years a little girl was born to them, then later, another. But the husband and wife drew no nearer together. She had an affection for her children almost like a cool governess. He had an emotional man’s fear of sentiment, which helped to nip his wife from putting out any shoots. He treated his children roughly, and pretended to think it a good job when one was adopted by a well-to-do maternal aunt. But in his soul he hated his wife that she could give away one of his children. For after her cool fashion, she loved him. With a chaos of a man such as he, she had no chance of being anything but cold and hard, poor thing. For she did love him.
In the end he fell absurdly and violently in love with a rather sentimental young woman who read Browning. He made his wife an allowance and established a new ménage with the young lady, shortly after emigrating with her to Australia. Meanwhile his wife had gone to live with a publican, a widower, with whom she had had one of those curious, tacit understandings of which quiet women are capable, something like an arrangement for provision in the future.
This was as much as the nephew knew. He sat beside his uncle, wondering how things stood at the present. They raced lightly out past the cemetery and along the boulevard, then turned into the rather grimy country. The mud flew out on either side, there was a fine mist of rain which blew in their faces. Berry covered himself up.
In the lanes the high hedges shone black with rain. The silvery grey sky, faintly dappled, spread wide over the low, green land. The elder man glanced fiercely up the road, then turned his red face to his nephew.
‘And how’re you going on, lad?’ he said loudly. Berry noticed that his uncle was slightly uneasy of him. It made him also uncomfortable. The elder man had evidently something pressing on his soul.
‘Who are you living with in town?’ asked the nephew. ‘Have you gone back to Aunt Maud?’
‘No,’ barked the uncle. ‘She wouldn’t have me. I offered to — I want to — but she wouldn’t.’
‘You’re alone, then?’
‘No, I’m not alone.’
He turned and glared with his fierce blue eyes at his nephew, but said no more for some time. The car ran on through the mud, under the wet wall of the park.
‘That other devil tried to poison me,’ suddenly shouted the elder man. ‘The one I went to Australia with.’ At which, in spite of himself, the younger smiled in secret.
‘How was that?’ he asked.
‘Wanted to get rid of me. She got in with another fellow on the ship. . . . By Jove, I was bad.’
‘Where? — on the ship?’
‘No,’ bellowed the other. ‘No. That was in Wellington, New Zealand. I was bad, and got lower an’ lower — couldn’t think what was up. I could hardly crawl about. As certain as I’m here, she was poisoning me, to get to th’ other chap — I’m certain of it.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘I cleared out — went to Sydney —’
‘And left her?’
‘Yes, I thought begod, I’d better clear out if I wanted to live.’
‘And you were all right in Sydney?’
‘Better in no time — I know she was putting poison in my coffee.’
There was a glum silence. The driver stared at the road ahead, fixedly, managing the car as if it were a live thing. The nephew felt that his uncle was afraid, quite stupefied with fear, fear of life, of death, of himself.
‘You’re in rooms, then?’ asked the nephew.
‘No, I’m in a house of my own,’ said the uncle defiantly, ‘wi’ th’ best little woman in th’ Midlands. She’s a marvel. — Why don’t you come an’ see us?’
‘I will. Who is she?’
‘Oh, she’s a good girl — a beautiful little thing. I was clean gone on her first time I saw her. An’ she was on me. Her mother lives with us — respectable girl, none o’ your. . . . ’
‘And how old is she?’
‘— how old is she? — she’s twenty-one.’
‘She’s right enough.’
‘You’d marry her — getting a divorce —?’
‘I shall marry her.’
There was a little antagonism between the two men.
‘Where’s Aunt Maud?’ asked the younger.
‘She’s at the Railway Arms — we passed it, just against Rollin’s Mill Crossing. . . . They sent me a note this morning to go an’ see her when I can spare time. She’s got consumption.’
‘Good Lord! Are you going?’
But again Berry felt that his uncle was afraid.
The young man got through his commission in the village, had a drink with his uncle at the inn, and the two were returning home. The elder man’s subject of conversation was Australia. As they drew near the town they grew silent, thinking both of the public-house. At last they saw the gates of the railway crossing were closed before them.
‘Shan’t you call?’ asked Berry, jerking his head in the direction of the inn, which stood at the corner between two roads, its sign hanging under a bare horse-chestnut tree in front.
‘I might as well. Come in an’ have a drink,’ said the uncle.
It had been raining all the morning, so shallow pools of water lay about. A brewer’s wagon, with wet barrels and warm-smelling horses, stood near the door of the inn. Everywhere seemed silent, but for the rattle of trains at the crossing. The two men went uneasily up the steps and into the bar. The place was paddled with wet feet, empty. As the bar-man was heard approaching, the uncle asked, his usual bluster slightly hushed by fear:
‘What yer goin’ ta have, lad? Same as last time?’
A man entered, evidently the proprietor. He was good-looking, with a long, heavy face and quick, dark eyes. His glance at Sutton was swift, a start, a recognition, and a withdrawal, into heavy neutrality.
‘How are yer, Dan?’ he said, scarcely troubling to speak.
‘Are yer, George?’ replied Sutton, hanging back. ‘My nephew, Dan Berry. Give us Red Seal, George.’
The publican nodded to the younger man, and set the glasses on the bar. He pushed forward the two glasses, then leaned back in the dark corner behind the door, his arms folded, evidently preferring to get back from the watchful eyes of the nephew.
‘—‘s luck,’ said Sutton.
The publican nodded in acknowledgement. Sutton and his nephew drank.
‘Why the hell don’t you get that road mended in Cinder Hill — ’ said Sutton fiercely, pushing back his driver’s cap and showing his short-cut, bristling hair.
‘They can’t find it in their hearts to pull it up,’ replied the publican, laconically.
‘Find in their hearts! They want settin’ in barrows an’ runnin’ up an’ down it till they cried for mercy.’
Sutton put down his glass. The publican renewed it with a sure hand, at ease in whatsoever he did. Then he leaned back against the bar. He wore no coat. He stood with arms folded, his chin on his chest, his long moustache hanging. His back was round and slack, so that the lower part of his abdomen stuck forward, though he was not stout. His cheek was healthy, brown-red, and he was muscular. Yet there was about him this physical slackness, a reluctance in his slow, sure movements. His eyes were keen under his dark brows, but reluctant also, as if he were gloomily apathetic.
There was a halt. The publican evidently would say nothing. Berry looked at the mahogany bar-counter, slopped with beer, at the whisky-bottles on the shelves. Sutton, his cap pushed back, showing a white brow above a weather-reddened face, rubbed his cropped hair uneasily.
The publican glanced round suddenly. It seemed that only his dark eyes moved.
‘Going up?’ he asked.
And something, perhaps his eyes, indicated the unseen bed-chamber.
‘Ay — that’s what I came for,’ replied Sutton, shifting nervously from one foot to the other. ‘She’s been asking for me?’
‘This morning,’ replied the publican, neutral.
Then he put up a flap of the bar, and turned away through the dark doorway behind. Sutton, pulling off his cap, showing a round, short-cropped head which now was ducked forward, followed after him, the buttons holding the strap of his great-coat behind glittering for a moment.
They climbed the dark stairs, the husband placing his feet carefully, because of his big boots. Then he followed down the passage, trying vaguely to keep a grip on his bowels, which seemed to be melting away, and definitely wishing for a neat brandy. The publican opened a door. Sutton, big and burly in his great-coat, went past him.
The bedroom seemed light and warm after the passage. There was a red eider-down on the bed. Then, making an effort, Sutton turned his eyes to see the sick woman. He met her eyes direct, dark, dilated. It was such a shock he almost started away. For a second he remained in torture, as if some invisible flame were playing on him to reduce his bones and fuse him down. Then he saw the sharp white edge of her jaw, and the black hair beside the hollow cheek. With a start he went towards the bed.
‘Hello, Maud!’ he said. ‘Why, what ye been doin’?’
The publican stood at the window with his back to the bed. The husband, like one condemned but on the point of starting away, stood by the bedside staring in horror at his wife, whose dilated grey eyes, nearly all black now, watched him wearily, as if she were looking at something a long way off.
Going exceedingly pale, he jerked up his head and stared at the wall over the pillows. There was a little coloured picture of a bird perched on a bell, and a nest among ivy leaves beneath. It appealed to him, made him wonder, roused a feeling of childish magic in him. They were wonderfully fresh, green ivy leaves, and nobody had seen the nest among them save him.
Then suddenly he looked down again at the face on the bed, to try and recognize it. He knew the white brow and the beautiful clear eyebrows. That was his wife, with whom he had passed his youth, flesh of his flesh, his, himself. Then those tired eyes, which met his again from a long way off, disturbed him until he did not know where he was. Only the sunken cheeks, and the mouth that seemed to protrude now were foreign to him, and filled him with horror. It seemed he lost his identity. He was the young husband of the woman with the clear brows; he was the married man fighting with her whose eyes watched him, a little indifferently, from a long way off; and he was a child in horror of that protruding mouth.
There came a crackling sound of her voice. He knew she had consumption of the throat, and braced himself hard to bear the noise.
‘What was it, Maud?’ he asked in panic.
Then the broken, crackling voice came again. He was too terrified of the sound of it to hear what was said. There was a pause.
‘You’ll take Winnie?’ the publican’s voice interpreted from the window.
‘Don’t you bother, Maud, I’ll take her,’ he said, stupefying his mind so as not to understand.
He looked curiously round the room. It was not a bad bedroom, light and warm. There were many medicine bottles aggregated in a corner of the washstand — and a bottle of Three Star brandy, half full. And there were also photographs of strange people on the chest of drawers. It was not a bad room.
Again he started as if he were shot. She was speaking. He bent down, but did not look at her.
‘Be good to her,’ she whispered.
When he realized her meaning, that he should be good to their child when the mother was gone, a blade went through his flesh.
‘I’ll be good to her, Maud, don’t you bother,’ he said, beginning to feel shaky.
He looked again at the picture of the bird. It perched cheerfully under a blue sky, with robust, jolly ivy leaves near. He was gathering his courage to depart. He looked down, but struggled hard not to take in the sight of his wife’s face.
‘I s’ll come again, Maud,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ll go on all right. Is there anything as you want?’
There was an almost imperceptible shake of the head from the sick woman, making his heart melt swiftly again. Then, dragging his limbs, he got out of the room and down the stairs.
The landlord came after him.
‘I’ll let you know if anything happens,’ the publican said, still laconic, but with his eyes dark and swift.
‘Ay, a’ right,’ said Button blindly. He looked round for his cap, which he had all the time in his hand. Then he got out of doors.
In a moment the uncle and nephew were in the car jolting on the level crossing. The elder man seemed as if something tight in his brain made him open his eyes wide, and stare. He held the steering wheel firmly. He knew he could steer accurately, to a hair’s breadth. Glaring fixedly ahead, he let the car go, till it bounded over the uneven road. There were three coal-carts in a string. In an instant the car grazed past them, almost biting the kerb on the other side. Sutton aimed his car like a projectile, staring ahead. He did not want to know, to think, to realize, he wanted to be only the driver of that quick taxi.
The town drew near, suddenly. There were allotment-gardens with dark-purple twiggy fruit-trees and wet alleys between the hedges. Then suddenly the streets of dwelling-houses whirled close, and the car was climbing the hill, with an angry whirr — up — up — till they rode out on to the crest and could see the tram-cars, dark-red and yellow, threading their way round the corner below, and all the traffic roaring between the shops.
‘Got anywhere to go?’ asked Sutton of his nephew.
‘I was going to see one or two people.’
‘Come an’ have a bit o’ dinner with us,’ said the other.
Berry knew that his uncle wanted to be distracted, so that he should not think nor realize. The big man was running hard away from the horror of realization.
‘All right,’ Berry agreed.
The car went quickly through the town. It ran up a long street nearly into the country again. Then it pulled up at a house that stood alone, below the road.
‘I s’ll be back in ten minutes,’ said the uncle.
The car went on to the garage. Berry stood curiously at the top of the stone stairs that led from the highroad down to the level of the house, an old stone place. The garden was dilapidated. Broken fruit-trees leaned at a sharp angle down the steep bank. Right across the dim grey atmosphere, in a kind of valley on the edge of the town, new suburb-patches showed pinkish on the dark earth. It was a kind of unresolved borderland.
Berry went down the steps. Through the broken black fence of the orchard, long grass showed yellow. The place seemed deserted. He knocked, then knocked again. An elderly woman appeared. She looked like a housekeeper. At first she said suspiciously that Mr. Sutton was not in.
‘My uncle just put me down. He’ll be in in ten minutes,’ replied the visitor.
‘Oh, are you the Mr. Berry who is related to him?’ exclaimed the elderly woman. ‘Come in-come in.’
She was at once kindly and a little bit servile. The young man entered. It was an old house, rather dark, and sparsely furnished. The elderly woman sat nervously on the edge of one of the chairs in a drawing-room that looked as if it were furnished from dismal relics of dismal homes, and there was a little straggling attempt at conversation. Mrs. Greenwell was evidently a working class woman unused to service or to any formality.
Presently she gathered up courage to invite her visitor into the dining-room. There from the table under the window rose a tall, slim girl with a cat in her arms. She was evidently a little more lady-like than was habitual to her, but she had a gentle, delicate, small nature. Her brown hair almost covered her ears, her dark lashes came down in shy awkwardness over her beautiful blue eyes. She shook hands in a frank way, yet she was shrinking. Evidently she was not sure how her position would affect her visitor. And yet she was assured in herself, shrinking and timid as she was.
‘She must be a good deal in love with him,’ thought Berry.
Both women glanced shamefacedly at the roughly laid table. Evidently they ate in a rather rough and ready fashion.
Elaine — she had this poetic name — fingered her cat timidly, not knowing what to say or to do, unable even to ask her visitor to sit down. He noticed how her skirt hung almost flat on her hips. She was young, scarce developed, a long, slender thing. Her colouring was warm and exquisite.
The elder woman bustled out to the kitchen. Berry fondled the terrier dogs that had come curiously to his heels, and glanced out of the window at the wet, deserted orchard.
This room, too, was not well furnished, and rather dark. But there was a big red fire.
‘He always has fox terriers,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she answered, showing her teeth in a smile.
‘Do you like them, too?’
‘Yes’— she glanced down at the dogs. ‘I like Tam better than Sally —’
Her speech always tailed off into an awkward silence.
‘We’ve been to see Aunt Maud,’ said the nephew.
Her eyes, blue and scared and shrinking, met his.
‘Dan had a letter,’ he explained. ‘She’s very bad.’
‘Isn’t it horrible!’ she exclaimed, her face crumbling up with fear.
The old woman, evidently a hard-used, rather down-trodden workman’s wife, came in with two soup-plates. She glanced anxiously to see how her daughter was progressing with the visitor.
‘Mother, Dan’s been to see Maud,’ said Elaine, in a quiet voice full of fear and trouble.
The old woman looked up anxiously, in question.
‘I think she wanted him to take the child. She’s very bad, I believe,’ explained Berry.
‘Oh, we should take Winnie!’ cried Elaine. But both women seemed uncertain, wavering in their position. Already Berry could see that his uncle had bullied them, as he bullied everybody. But they were used to unpleasant men, and seemed to keep at a distance.
‘Will you have some soup?’ asked the mother, humbly.
She evidently did the work. The daughter was to be a lady, more or less, always dressed and nice for when Sutton came in.
They heard him heavily running down the steps outside. The dogs got up. Elaine seemed to forget the visitor. It was as if she came into life. Yet she was nervous and afraid. The mother stood as if ready to exculpate herself.
Sutton burst open the door. Big, blustering, wet in his immense grey coat, he came into the dining-room.
‘Hello!’ he said to his nephew, ‘making yourself at home?’
‘Oh, yes,’ replied Berry.
‘Hello, Jack,’ he said to the girl. ‘Got owt to grizzle about?’
‘What for?’ she asked, in a clear, half-challenging voice, that had that peculiar twang, almost petulant, so female and so attractive. Yet she was defiant like a boy.
‘It’s a wonder if you haven’t,’ growled Sutton. And, with a really intimate movement, he stooped down and fondled his dogs, though paying no attention to them. Then he stood up, and remained with feet apart on the hearthrug, his head ducked forward, watching the girl. He seemed abstracted, as if he could only watch her. His great-coat hung open, so that she could see his figure, simple and human in the great husk of cloth. She stood nervously with her hands behind her, glancing at him, unable to see anything else. And he was scarcely conscious but of her. His eyes were still strained and staring, and as they followed the girl, when, long-limbed and languid, she moved away, it was as if he saw in her something impersonal, the female, not the woman.
‘Had your dinner?’ he asked.
‘We were just going to have it,’ she replied, with the same curious little vibration in her voice, like the twang of a string.
The mother entered, bringing a saucepan from which she ladled soup into three plates.
‘Sit down, lad,’ said Sutton. ‘You sit down, Jack, an’ give me mine here.’
‘Oh, aren’t you coming to table?’ she complained.
‘No, I tell you,’ he snarled, almost pretending to be disagreeable. But she was slightly afraid even of the pretence, which pleased and relieved him. He stood on the hearthrug eating his soup noisily.
‘Aren’t you going to take your coat off?’ she said. ‘It’s filling the place full of steam.’
He did not answer, but, with his head bent forward over the plate, he ate his soup hastily, to get it done with. When he put down his empty plate, she rose and went to him.
‘Do take your coat off, Dan,’ she said, and she took hold of the breast of his coat, trying to push it back over his shoulder. But she could not. Only the stare in his eyes changed to a glare as her hand moved over his shoulder. He looked down into her eyes. She became pale, rather frightened-looking, and she turned her face away, and it was drawn slightly with love and fear and misery. She tried again to put off his coat, her thin wrists pulling at it. He stood solidly planted, and did not look at her, but stared straight in front. She was playing with passion, afraid of it, and really wretched because it left her, the person, out of count. Yet she continued. And there came into his bearing, into his eyes, the curious smile of passion, pushing away even the death-horror. It was life stronger than death in him. She stood close to his breast. Their eyes met, and she was carried away.
‘Take your coat off, Dan,’ she said coaxingly, in a low tone meant for no one but him. And she slid her hands on his shoulder, and he yielded, so that the coat was pushed back. She had flushed, and her eyes had grown very bright. She got hold of the cuff of his coat. Gently, he eased himself, so that she drew it off. Then he stood in a thin suit, which revealed his vigorous, almost mature form.
‘What a weight!’ she exclaimed, in a peculiar penetrating voice, as she went out hugging the overcoat. In a moment she came back.
He stood still in the same position, a frown over his fiercely staring eyes. The pain, the fear, the horror in his breast were all burning away in the new, fiercest flame of passion.
‘Get your dinner,’ he said roughly to her.
‘I’ve had all I want,’ she said. ‘You come an’ have yours.’
He looked at the table as if he found it difficult to see things.
‘I want no more,’ he said.
She stood close to his chest. She wanted to touch him and to comfort him. There was something about him now that fascinated her. Berry felt slightly ashamed that she seemed to ignore the presence of others in the room.
The mother came in. She glanced at Sutton, standing planted on the hearthrug, his head ducked, the heavy frown hiding his eyes. There was a peculiar braced intensity about him that made the elder woman afraid. Suddenly he jerked his head round to his nephew.
‘Get on wi’ your dinner, lad,’ he said, and he went to the door. The dogs, which had continually lain down and got up again, uneasy, now rose and watched. The girl went after him, saying, clearly:
‘What did you want, Dan?’
Her slim, quick figure was gone, the door was closed behind her.
There was silence. The mother, still more slave-like in her movement, sat down in a low chair. Berry drank some beer.
‘That girl will leave him,’ he said to himself. ‘She’ll hate him like poison. And serve him right. Then she’ll go off with somebody else.’
And she did.
‘Well, Mabel, and what are you going to do with yourself?’ asked Joe, with foolish flippancy. He felt quite safe himself. Without listening for an answer, he turned aside, worked a grain of tobacco to the tip of his tongue, and spat it out. He did not care about anything, since he felt safe himself.
The three brothers and the sister sat round the desolate breakfast table, attempting some sort of desultory consultation. The morning’s post had given the final tap to the family fortunes, and all was over. The dreary dining-room itself, with its heavy mahogany furniture, looked as if it were waiting to be done away with.
But the consultation amounted to nothing. There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition. The girl was alone, a rather short, sullen-looking young woman of twenty-seven. She did not share the same life as her brothers. She would have been good-looking, save for the impassive fixity of her face, ‘bull-dog’, as her brothers called it.
There was a confused tramping of horses’ feet outside. The three men all sprawled round in their chairs to watch. Beyond the dark holly-bushes that separated the strip of lawn from the highroad, they could see a cavalcade of shire horses swinging out of their own yard, being taken for exercise. This was the last time. These were the last horses that would go through their hands. The young men watched with critical, callous look. They were all frightened at the collapse of their lives, and the sense of disaster in which they were involved left them no inner freedom.
Yet they were three fine, well-set fellows enough. Joe, the eldest, was a man of thirty-three, broad and handsome in a hot, flushed way. His face was red, he twisted his black moustache over a thick finger, his eyes were shallow and restless. He had a sensual way of uncovering his teeth when he laughed, and his bearing was stupid. Now he watched the horses with a glazed look of helplessness in his eyes, a certain stupor of downfall.
The great draught-horses swung past. They were tied head to tail, four of them, and they heaved along to where a lane branched off from the highroad, planting their great hoofs floutingly in the fine black mud, swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously, and trotting a few sudden steps as they were led into the lane, round the corner. Every movement showed a massive, slumbrous strength, and a stupidity which held them in subjection. The groom at the head looked back, jerking the leading rope. And the calvalcade moved out of sight up the lane, the tail of the last horse, bobbed up tight and stiff, held out taut from the swinging great haunches as they rocked behind the hedges in a motionlike sleep.
Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes. The horses were almost like his own body to him. He felt he was done for now. Luckily he was engaged to a woman as old as himself, and therefore her father, who was steward of a neighbouring estate, would provide him with a job. He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.
He turned uneasily aside, the retreating steps of the horses echoing in his ears. Then, with foolish restlessness, he reached for the scraps of bacon-rind from the plates, and making a faint whistling sound, flung them to the terrier that lay against the fender. He watched the dog swallow them, and waited till the creature looked into his eyes. Then a faint grin came on his face, and in a high, foolish voice he said:
‘You won’t get much more bacon, shall you, you little b ——?’
The dog faintly and dismally wagged its tail, then lowered his haunches, circled round, and lay down again.
There was another helpless silence at the table. Joe sprawled uneasily in his seat, not willing to go till the family conclave was dissolved. Fred Henry, the second brother, was erect, clean-limbed, alert. He had watched the passing of the horses with more sang-froid. If he was an animal, like Joe, he was an animal which controls, not one which is controlled. He was master of any horse, and he carried himself with a well-tempered air of mastery. But he was not master of the situations of life. He pushed his coarse brown moustache upwards, off his lip, and glanced irritably at his sister, who sat impassive and inscrutable.
‘You’ll go and stop with Lucy for a bit, shan’t you?’ he asked. The girl did not answer.
‘I don’t see what else you can do,’ persisted Fred Henry.
‘Go as a skivvy,’ Joe interpolated laconically.
The girl did not move a muscle.
‘If I was her, I should go in for training for a nurse,’ said Malcolm, the youngest of them all. He was the baby of the family, a young man of twenty-two, with a fresh, jaunty museau.
But Mabel did not take any notice of him. They had talked at her and round her for so many years, that she hardly heard them at all.
The marble clock on the mantel-piece softly chimed the half-hour, the dog rose uneasily from the hearthrug and looked at the party at the breakfast table. But still they sat on in ineffectual conclave.
‘Oh, all right,’ said Joe suddenly, à propos of nothing. ‘I’ll get a move on.’
He pushed back his chair, straddled his knees with a downward jerk, to get them free, in horsy fashion, and went to the fire. Still he did not go out of the room; he was curious to know what the others would do or say. He began to charge his pipe, looking down at the dog and saying, in a high, affected voice:
‘Going wi’ me? Going wi’ me are ter? Tha’rt goin’ further than tha counts on just now, dost hear?’
The dog faintly wagged its tail, the man stuck out his jaw and covered his pipe with his hands, and puffed intently, losing himself in the tobacco, looking down all the while at the dog with an absent brown eye. The dog looked up at him in mournful distrust. Joe stood with his knees stuck out, in real horsy fashion.
‘Have you had a letter from Lucy?’ Fred Henry asked of his sister.
‘Last week,’ came the neutral reply.
‘And what does she say?’
There was no answer.
‘Does she ask you to go and stop there?’ persisted Fred Henry.
‘She says I can if I like.’
‘Well, then, you’d better. Tell her you’ll come on Monday.’
This was received in silence.
‘That’s what you’ll do then, is it?’ said Fred Henry, in some exasperation.
But she made no answer. There was a silence of futility and irritation in the room. Malcolm grinned fatuously.
‘You’ll have to make up your mind between now and next Wednesday,’ said Joe loudly, ‘or else find yourself lodgings on the kerbstone.’
The face of the young woman darkened, but she sat on immutable.
‘Here’s Jack Fergusson!’ exclaimed Malcolm, who was looking aimlessly out of the window.
‘Where?’ exclaimed Joe, loudly.
‘Just gone past.’
Malcolm craned his neck to see the gate.
‘Yes,’ he said.
There was a silence. Mabel sat on like one condemned, at the head of the table. Then a whistle was heard from the kitchen. The dog got up and barked sharply. Joe opened the door and shouted:
After a moment a young man entered. He was muffled up in overcoat and a purple woollen scarf, and his tweed cap, which he did not remove, was pulled down on his head. He was of medium height, his face was rather long and pale, his eyes looked tired.
‘Hello, Jack! Well, Jack!’ exclaimed Malcolm and Joe. Fred Henry merely said, ‘Jack.’
‘What’s doing?’ asked the newcomer, evidently addressing Fred Henry.
‘Same. We’ve got to be out by Wednesday. — Got a cold?’
‘I have — got it bad, too.’
‘Why don’t you stop in?’
‘Me stop in? When I can’t stand on my legs, perhaps I shall have a chance.’ The young man spoke huskily. He had a slight Scotch accent.
‘It’s a knock-out, isn’t it,’ said Joe, boisterously, ‘if a doctor goes round croaking with a cold. Looks bad for the patients, doesn’t it?’
The young doctor looked at him slowly.
‘Anything the matter with you, then?’ he asked sarcastically.
‘Not as I know of. Damn your eyes, I hope not. Why?’
‘I thought you were very concerned about the patients, wondered if you might be one yourself.’
‘Damn it, no, I’ve never been patient to no flaming doctor, and hope I never shall be,’ returned Joe.
At this point Mabel rose from the table, and they all seemed to become aware of her existence. She began putting the dishes together. The young doctor looked at her, but did not address her. He had not greeted her. She went out of the room with the tray, her face impassive and unchanged.
‘When are you off then, all of you?’ asked the doctor.
‘I’m catching the eleven-forty,’ replied Malcolm. ‘Are you goin’ down wi’ th’ trap, Joe?’
‘Yes, I’ve told you I’m going down wi’ th’ trap, haven’t I?’
‘We’d better be getting her in then. — So long, Jack, if I don’t see you before I go,’ said Malcolm, shaking hands.
He went out, followed by Joe, who seemed to have his tail between his legs.
‘Well, this is the devil’s own,’ exclaimed the doctor, when he was left alone with Fred Henry. ‘Going before Wednesday, are you?’
‘That’s the orders,’ replied the other.
‘Where, to Northampton?’
‘The devil!’ exclaimed Fergusson, with quiet chagrin.
And there was silence between the two.
‘All settled up, are you?’ asked Fergusson.
There was another pause.
‘Well, I shall miss yer, Freddy, boy,’ said the young doctor.
‘And I shall miss thee, Jack,’ returned the other.
‘Miss you like hell,’ mused the doctor.
Fred Henry turned aside. There was nothing to say. Mabel came in again, to finish clearing the table.
‘What are you going to do, then, Miss Pervin?’ asked Fergusson. ‘Going to your sister’s, are you?’
Mabel looked at him with her steady, dangerous eyes, that always made him uncomfortable, unsettling his superficial ease.
‘No,’ she said.
‘Well, what in the name of fortune are you going to do? Say what you mean to do,’ cried Fred Henry, with futile intensity.
But she only averted her head, and continued her work. She folded the white table-cloth, and put on the chenille cloth.
‘The sulkiest bitch that ever trod!’ muttered her brother.
But she finished her task with perfectly impassive face, the young doctor watching her interestedly all the while. Then she went out.
Fred Henry stared after her, clenching his lips, his blue eyes fixing in sharp antagonism, as he made a grimace of sour exasperation.
‘You could bray her into bits, and that’s all you’d get out of her,’ he said, in a small, narrowed tone.
The doctor smiled faintly.
‘What’s she going to do, then?’ he asked.
‘Strike me if I know!’ returned the other.
There was a pause. Then the doctor stirred.
‘I’ll be seeing you tonight, shall I?’ he said to his friend.
‘Ay — where’s it to be? Are we going over to Jessdale?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve got such a cold on me. I’ll come round to the Moon and Stars, anyway.’
‘Let Lizzie and May miss their night for once, eh?’
‘That’s it — if I feel as I do now.’
‘All’s one —’
The two young men went through the passage and down to the back door together. The house was large, but it was servantless now, and desolate. At the back was a small bricked house-yard, and beyond that a big square, gravelled fine and red, and having stables on two sides. Sloping, dank, winter-dark fields stretched away on the open sides.
But the stables were empty. Joseph Pervin, the father of the family, had been a man of no education, who had become a fairly large horse dealer. The stables had been full of horses, there was a great turmoil and come-and-go of horses and of dealers and grooms. Then the kitchen was full of servants. But of late things had declined. The old man had married a second time, to retrieve his fortunes. Now he was dead and everything was gone to the dogs, there was nothing but debt and threatening.
For months, Mabel had been servantless in the big house, keeping the home together in penury for her ineffectual brothers. She had kept house for ten years. But previously, it was with unstinted means. Then, however brutal and coarse everything was, the sense of money had kept her proud, confident. The men might be foul-mouthed, the women in the kitchen might have bad reputations, her brothers might have illegitimate children. But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.
No company came to the house, save dealers and coarse men. Mabel had no associates of her own sex, after her sister went away. But she did not mind. She went regularly to church, she attended to her father. And she lived in the memory of her mother, who had died when she was fourteen, and whom she had loved. She had loved her father, too, in a different way, depending upon him, and feeling secure in him, until at the age of fifty-four he married again. And then she had set hard against him. Now he had died and left them all hopelessly in debt.
She had suffered badly during the period of poverty. Nothing, however, could shake the curious sullen, animal pride that dominated each member of the family. Now, for Mabel, the end had come. Still she would not cast about her. She would follow her own way just the same. She would always hold the keys of her own situation. Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day. Why should she think? Why should she answer anybody? It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out. She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye. She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the cheapest food. This was at an end. She thought of nobody, not even of herself. Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.
In the afternoon she took a little bag, with shears and sponge and a small scrubbing brush, and went out. It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields and an atmosphere blackened by the smoke of foundries not far off. She went quickly, darkly along the causeway, heeding nobody, through the town to the churchyard.
There she always felt secure, as if no one could see her, although as a matter of fact she was exposed to the stare of everyone who passed along under the churchyard wall. Nevertheless, once under the shadow of the great looming church, among the graves, she felt immune from the world, reserved within the thick churchyard wall as in another country.
Carefully she clipped the grass from the grave, and arranged the pinky-white, small chrysanthemums in the tin cross. When this was done, she took an empty jar from a neighbouring grave, brought water, and carefully, most scrupulously sponged the marble headstone and the coping-stone.
It gave her sincere satisfaction to do this. She felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother. She took minute pains, went through the park in a state bordering on pure happiness, as if in performing this task she came into a subtle, intimate connexion with her mother. For the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother.
The doctor’s house was just by the church. Fergusson, being a mere hired assistant, was slave to the countryside. As he hurried now to attend to the outpatients in the surgery, glancing across the graveyard with his quick eye, he saw the girl at her task at the grave. She seemed so intent and remote, it was like looking into another world. Some mystical element was touched in him. He slowed down as he walked, watching her as if spell-bound.
She lifted her eyes, feeling him looking. Their eyes met. And each looked again at once, each feeling, in some way, found out by the other. He lifted his cap and passed on down the road. There remained distinct in his consciousness, like a vision, the memory of her face, lifted from the tombstone in the churchyard, and looking at him with slow, large, portentous eyes. It was portentous, her face. It seemed to mesmerize him. There was a heavy power in her eyes which laid hold of his whole being, as if he had drunk some powerful drug. He had been feeling weak and done before. Now the life came back into him, he felt delivered from his own fretted, daily self.
He finished his duties at the surgery as quickly as might be, hastily filling up the bottles of the waiting people with cheap drugs. Then, in perpetual haste, he set off again to visit several cases in another part of his round, before teatime. At all times he preferred to walk, if he could, but particularly when he was not well. He fancied the motion restored him.
The afternoon was falling. It was grey, deadened, and wintry, with a slow, moist, heavy coldness sinking in and deadening all the faculties. But why should he think or notice? He hastily climbed the hill and turned across the dark-green fields, following the black cinder-track. In the distance, across a shallow dip in the country, the small town was clustered like smouldering ash, a tower, a spire, a heap of low, raw, extinct houses. And on the nearest fringe of the town, sloping into the dip, was Oldmeadow, the Pervins’ house. He could see the stables and the outbuildings distinctly, as they lay towards him on the slope. Well, he would not go there many more times! Another resource would be lost to him, another place gone: the only company he cared for in the alien, ugly little town he was losing. Nothing but work, drudgery, constant hastening from dwelling to dwelling among the colliers and the iron-workers. It wore him out, but at the same time he had a craving for it. It was a stimulant to him to be in the homes of the working people, moving as it were through the innermost body of their life. His nerves were excited and gratified. He could come so near, into the very lives of the rough, inarticulate, powerfully emotional men and women. He grumbled, he said he hated the hellish hole. But as a matter of fact it excited him, the contact with the rough, strongly-feeling people was a stimulant applied direct to his nerves.
Below Oldmeadow, in the green, shallow, soddened hollow of fields, lay a square, deep pond. Roving across the landscape, the doctor’s quick eye detected a figure in black passing through the gate of the field, down towards the pond. He looked again. It would be Mabel Pervin. His mind suddenly became alive and attentive.
Why was she going down there? He pulled up on the path on the slope above, and stood staring. He could just make sure of the small black figure moving in the hollow of the failing day. He seemed to see her in the midst of such obscurity, that he was like a clairvoyant, seeing rather with the mind’s eye than with ordinary sight. Yet he could see her positively enough, whilst he kept his eye attentive. He felt, if he looked away from her, in the thick, ugly falling dusk, he would lose her altogether.
He followed her minutely as she moved, direct and intent, like something transmitted rather than stirring in voluntary activity, straight down the field towards the pond. There she stood on the bank for a moment. She never raised her head. Then she waded slowly into the water.
He stood motionless as the small black figure walked slowly and deliberately towards the centre of the pond, very slowly, gradually moving deeper into the motionless water, and still moving forward as the water got up to her breast. Then he could see her no more in the dusk of the dead afternoon.
‘There!’ he exclaimed. ‘Would you believe it?’
And he hastened straight down, running over the wet, soddened fields, pushing through the hedges, down into the depression of callous wintry obscurity. It took him several minutes to come to the pond. He stood on the bank, breathing heavily. He could see nothing. His eyes seemed to penetrate the dead water. Yes, perhaps that was the dark shadow of her black clothing beneath the surface of the water.
He slowly ventured into the pond. The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs. As he stirred he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water. It was objectionable in his lungs. Still, repelled and yet not heeding, he moved deeper into the pond. The cold water rose over his thighs, over his loins, upon his abdomen. The lower part of his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element. And the bottom was so deeply soft and uncertain, he was afraid of pitching with his mouth underneath. He could not swim, and was afraid.
He crouched a little, spreading his hands under the water and moving them round, trying to feel for her. The dead cold pond swayed upon his chest. He moved again, a little deeper, and again, with his hands underneath, he felt all around under the water. And he touched her clothing. But it evaded his fingers. He made a desperate effort to grasp it.
And so doing he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments. At last, after what seemed an eternity, he got his footing, rose again into the air and looked around. He gasped, and knew he was in the world. Then he looked at the water. She had risen near him. He grasped her clothing, and drawing her nearer, turned to take his way to land again.
He went very slowly, carefully, absorbed in the slow progress. He rose higher, climbing out of the pond. The water was now only about his legs; he was thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond. He lifted her and staggered on to the bank, out of the horror of wet, grey clay.
He laid her down on the bank. She was quite unconscious and running with water. He made the water come from her mouth, he worked to restore her. He did not have to work very long before he could feel the breathing begin again in her; she was breathing naturally. He worked a little longer. He could feel her live beneath his hands; she was coming back. He wiped her face, wrapped her in his overcoat, looked round into the dim, dark-grey world, then lifted her and staggered down the bank and across the fields.
It seemed an unthinkably long way, and his burden so heavy he felt he would never get to the house. But at last he was in the stable-yard, and then in the house-yard. He opened the door and went into the house. In the kitchen he laid her down on the hearthrug, and called. The house was empty. But the fire was burning in the grate.
Then again he kneeled to attend to her. She was breathing regularly, her eyes were wide open and as if conscious, but there seemed something missing in her look. She was conscious in herself, but unconscious of her surroundings.
He ran upstairs, took blankets from a bed, and put them before the fire to warm. Then he removed her saturated, earthy-smelling clothing, rubbed her dry with a towel, and wrapped her naked in the blankets. Then he went into the dining-room, to look for spirits. There was a little whisky. He drank a gulp himself, and put some into her mouth.
The effect was instantaneous. She looked full into his face, as if she had been seeing him for some time, and yet had only just become conscious of him.
‘Dr. Fergusson?’ she said.
‘What?’ he answered.
He was divesting himself of his coat, intending to find some dry clothing upstairs. He could not bear the smell of the dead, clayey water, and he was mortally afraid for his own health.
‘What did I do?’ she asked.
‘Walked into the pond,’ he replied. He had begun to shudder like one sick, and could hardly attend to her. Her eyes remained full on him, he seemed to be going dark in his mind, looking back at her helplessly. The shuddering became quieter in him, his life came back in him, dark and unknowing, but strong again.
‘Was I out of my mind?’ she asked, while her eyes were fixed on him all the time.
‘Maybe, for the moment,’ he replied. He felt quiet, because his strength had come back. The strange fretful strain had left him.
‘Am I out of my mind now?’ she asked.
‘Are you?’ he reflected a moment. ‘No,’ he answered truthfully, ‘I don’t see that you are.’ He turned his face aside. He was afraid now, because he felt dazed, and felt dimly that her power was stronger than his, in this issue. And she continued to look at him fixedly all the time. ‘Can you tell me where I shall find some dry things to put on?’ he asked.
‘Did you dive into the pond for me?’ she asked.
‘No,’ he answered. ‘I walked in. But I went in overhead as well.’
There was silence for a moment. He hesitated. He very much wanted to go upstairs to get into dry clothing. But there was another desire in him. And she seemed to hold him. His will seemed to have gone to sleep, and left him, standing there slack before her. But he felt warm inside himself. He did not shudder at all, though his clothes were sodden on him.
‘Why did you?’ she asked.
‘Because I didn’t want you to do such a foolish thing,’ he said.
‘It wasn’t foolish,’ she said, still gazing at him as she lay on the floor, with a sofa cushion under her head. ‘It was the right thing to do. I knew best, then.’
‘I’ll go and shift these wet things,’ he said. But still he had not the power to move out of her presence, until she sent him. It was as if she had the life of his body in her hands, and he could not extricate himself. Or perhaps he did not want to.
Suddenly she sat up. Then she became aware of her own immediate condition. She felt the blankets about her, she knew her own limbs. For a moment it seemed as if her reason were going. She looked round, with wild eye, as if seeking something. He stood still with fear. She saw her clothing lying scattered.
‘Who undressed me?’ she asked, her eyes resting full and inevitable on his face.
‘I did,’ he replied, ‘to bring you round.’
For some moments she sat and gazed at him awfully, her lips parted.
‘Do you love me then?’ she asked.
He only stood and stared at her, fascinated. His soul seemed to melt.
She shuffled forward on her knees, and put her arms round him, round his legs, as he stood there, pressing her breasts against his knees and thighs, clutching him with strange, convulsive certainty, pressing his thighs against her, drawing him to her face, her throat, as she looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession.
‘You love me,’ she murmured, in strange transport, yearning and triumphant and confident. ‘You love me. I know you love me, I know.’
And she was passionately kissing his knees, through the wet clothing, passionately and indiscriminately kissing his knees, his legs, as if unaware of every thing.
He looked down at the tangled wet hair, the wild, bare, animal shoulders. He was amazed, bewildered, and afraid. He had never thought of loving her. He had never wanted to love her. When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient. He had had no single personal thought of her. Nay, this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour. It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees. It was horrible. He revolted from it, violently. And yet — and yet — he had not the power to break away.
She looked at him again, with the same supplication of powerful love, and that same transcendent, frightening light of triumph. In view of the delicate flame which seemed to come from her face like a light, he was powerless. And yet he had never intended to love her. He had never intended. And something stubborn in him could not give way.
‘You love me,’ she repeated, in a murmur of deep, rhapsodic assurance. ‘You love me.’
Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her. He was afraid, even a little horrified. For he had, really, no intention of loving her. Yet her hands were drawing him towards her. He put out his hand quickly to steady himself, and grasped her bare shoulder. A flame seemed to burn the hand that grasped her soft shoulder. He had no intention of loving her: his whole will was against his yielding. It was horrible. And yet wonderful was the touch of her shoulders, beautiful the shining of her face. Was she perhaps mad? He had a horror of yielding to her. Yet something in him ached also.
He had been staring away at the door, away from her. But his hand remained on her shoulder. She had gone suddenly very still. He looked down at her. Her eyes were now wide with fear, with doubt, the light was dying from her face, a shadow of terrible greyness was returning. He could not bear the touch of her eyes’ question upon him, and the look of death behind the question.
With an inward groan he gave way, and let his heart yield towards her. A sudden gentle smile came on his face. And her eyes, which never left his face, slowly, slowly filled with tears. He watched the strange water rise in her eyes, like some slow fountain coming up. And his heart seemed to burn and melt away in his breast.
He could not bear to look at her any more. He dropped on his knees and caught her head with his arms and pressed her face against his throat. She was very still. His heart, which seemed to have broken, was burning with a kind of agony in his breast. And he felt her slow, hot tears wetting his throat. But he could not move.
He felt the hot tears wet his neck and the hollows of his neck, and he remained motionless, suspended through one of man’s eternities. Only now it had become indispensable to him to have her face pressed close to him; he could never let her go again. He could never let her head go away from the close clutch of his arm. He wanted to remain like that for ever, with his heart hurting him in a pain that was also life to him. Without knowing, he was looking down on her damp, soft brown hair.
Then, as it were suddenly, he smelt the horrid stagnant smell of that water. And at the same moment she drew away from him and looked at him. Her eyes were wistful and unfathomable. He was afraid of them, and he fell to kissing her, not knowing what he was doing. He wanted her eyes not to have that terrible, wistful, unfathomable look.
When she turned her face to him again, a faint delicate flush was glowing, and there was again dawning that terrible shining of joy in her eyes, which really terrified him, and yet which he now wanted to see, because he feared the look of doubt still more.
‘You love me?’ she said, rather faltering.
‘Yes.’ The word cost him a painful effort. Not because it wasn’t true. But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart. And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.
She lifted her face to him, and he bent forward and kissed her on the mouth, gently, with the one kiss that is an eternal pledge. And as he kissed her his heart strained again in his breast. He never intended to love her. But now it was over. He had crossed over the gulf to her, and all that he had left behind had shrivelled and become void.
After the kiss, her eyes again slowly filled with tears. She sat still, away from him, with her face drooped aside, and her hands folded in her lap. The tears fell very slowly. There was complete silence. He too sat there motionless and silent on the hearthrug. The strange pain of his heart that was broken seemed to consume him. That he should love her? That this was love! That he should be ripped open in this way! — Him, a doctor! — How they would all jeer if they knew! — It was agony to him to think they might know.
In the curious naked pain of the thought he looked again to her. She was sitting there drooped into a muse. He saw a tear fall, and his heart flared hot. He saw for the first time that one of her shoulders was quite uncovered, one arm bare, he could see one of her small breasts; dimly, because it had become almost dark in the room.
‘Why are you crying?’ he asked, in an altered voice.
She looked up at him, and behind her tears the consciousness of her situation for the first time brought a dark look of shame to her eyes.
‘I’m not crying, really,’ she said, watching him half frightened.
He reached his hand, and softly closed it on her bare arm.
‘I love you! I love you!’ he said in a soft, low vibrating voice, unlike himself.
She shrank, and dropped her head. The soft, penetrating grip of his hand on her arm distressed her. She looked up at him.
‘I want to go,’ she said. ‘I want to go and get you some dry things.’
‘Why?’ he said. ‘I’m all right.’
‘But I want to go,’ she said. ‘And I want you to change your things.’
He released her arm, and she wrapped herself in the blanket, looking at him rather frightened. And still she did not rise.
‘Kiss me,’ she said wistfully.
He kissed her, but briefly, half in anger.
Then, after a second, she rose nervously, all mixed up in the blanket. He watched her in her confusion, as she tried to extricate herself and wrap herself up so that she could walk. He watched her relentlessly, as she knew. And as she went, the blanket trailing, and as he saw a glimpse of her feet and her white leg, he tried to remember her as she was when he had wrapped her in the blanket. But then he didn’t want to remember, because she had been nothing to him then, and his nature revolted from remembering her as she was when she was nothing to him.
A tumbling, muffled noise from within the dark house startled him. Then he heard her voice:—‘There are clothes.’ He rose and went to the foot of the stairs, and gathered up the garments she had thrown down. Then he came back to the fire, to rub himself down and dress. He grinned at his own appearance when he had finished.
The fire was sinking, so he put on coal. The house was now quite dark, save for the light of a street-lamp that shone in faintly from beyond the holly trees. He lit the gas with matches he found on the mantel-piece. Then he emptied the pockets of his own clothes, and threw all his wet things in a heap into the scullery. After which he gathered up her sodden clothes, gently, and put them in a separate heap on the copper-top in the scullery.
It was six o’clock on the clock. His own watch had stopped. He ought to go back to the surgery. He waited, and still she did not come down. So he went to the foot of the stairs and called:
‘I shall have to go.’
Almost immediately he heard her coming down. She had on her best dress of black voile, and her hair was tidy, but still damp. She looked at him — and in spite of herself, smiled.
‘I don’t like you in those clothes,’ she said.
‘Do I look a sight?’ he answered.
They were shy of one another.
‘I’ll make you some tea,’ she said.
‘No, I must go.’
‘Must you?’ And she looked at him again with the wide, strained, doubtful eyes. And again, from the pain of his breast, he knew how he loved her. He went and bent to kiss her, gently, passionately, with his heart’s painful kiss.
‘And my hair smells so horrible,’ she murmured in distraction. ‘And I’m so awful, I’m so awful! Oh, no, I’m too awful.’ And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing. ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’
‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly — tomorrow if I can.’
But she only sobbed terribly, and cried:
‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’
‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.
Flame-lurid his face as he turned among the throng of flame-lit and dark faces upon the platform. In the light of the furnace she caught sight of his drifting countenance, like a piece of floating fire. And the nostalgia, the doom of homecoming went through her veins like a drug. His eternal face, flame-lit now! The pulse and darkness of red fire from the furnace towers in the sky, lighting the desultory, industrial crowd on the wayside station, lit him and went out.
Of course he did not see her. Flame-lit and unseeing! Always the same, with his meeting eyebrows, his common cap, and his red-and-black scarf knotted round his throat. Not even a collar to meet her! The flames had sunk, there was shadow.
She opened the door of her grimy, branch-line carriage, and began to get down her bags. The porter was nowhere, of course, but there was Harry, obscure, on the outer edge of the little crowd, missing her, of course.
‘Here! Harry!’ she called, waving her umbrella in the twilight. He hurried forward.
‘Tha’s come, has ter?’ he said, in a sort of cheerful welcome. She got down, rather flustered, and gave him a peck of a kiss.
‘Two suit-cases!’ she said.
Her soul groaned within her, as he clambered into the carriage after her bags. Up shot the fire in the twilight sky, from the great furnace behind the station. She felt the red flame go across her face. She had come back, she had come back for good. And her spirit groaned dismally. She doubted if she could bear it.
There, on the sordid little station under the furnaces, she stood, tall and distinguished, in her well-made coat and skirt and her broad grey velour hat. She held her umbrella, her bead chatelaine, and a little leather case in her grey-gloved hands, while Harry staggered out of the ugly little train with her bags.
‘There’s a trunk at the back,’ she said in her bright voice. But she was not feeling bright. The twin black cones of the iron foundry blasted their sky-high fires into the night. The whole scene was lurid. The train waited cheerfully. It would wait another ten minutes. She knew it. It was all so deadly familiar.
Let us confess it at once. She was a lady’s maid, thirty years old, come back to marry her first-love, a foundry worker: after having kept him dangling, off and on, for a dozen years. Why had she come back? Did she love him? No. She didn’t pretend to. She had loved her brilliant and ambitious cousin, who had jilted her, and who had died. She had had other affairs which had come to nothing. So here she was, come back suddenly to marry her first-love, who had waited — or remained single — all these years.
‘Won’t a porter carry those?’ she said, as Harry strode with his workman’s stride down the platform towards the guard’s van.
‘I can manage,’ he said.
And with her umbrella, her chatelaine, and her little leather case, she followed him.
The trunk was there.
‘We’ll get Heather’s greengrocer’s cart to fetch it up,’ he said.
‘Isn’t there a cab?’ said Fanny, knowing dismally enough that there wasn’t.
‘I’ll just put it aside o’ the penny-inthe-slot, and Heather’s greengrocers’ll fetch it about half past eight,’ he said.
He seized the box by its two handles and staggered with it across the level-crossing, bumping his legs against it as he waddled. Then he dropped it by the red sweet-meats machine.
‘Will it be safe there?’ she said.
‘Ay — safe as houses,’ he answered. He returned for the two bags. Thus laden, they started to plod up the hill, under the great long black building of the foundry. She walked beside him — workman of workmen he was, trudging with that luggage. The red lights flared over the deepening darkness. From the foundry came the horrible, slow clang, clang, clang of iron, a great noise, with an interval just long enough to make it unendurable.
Compare this with the arrival at Gloucester: the carriage for her mistress, the dog-cart for herself with the luggage; the drive out past the river, the pleasant trees of the carriage-approach; and herself sitting beside Arthur, everybody so polite to her.
She had come home — for good! Her heart nearly stopped beating as she trudged up that hideous and interminable hill, beside the laden figure. What a come-down! What a come-down! She could not take it with her usual bright cheerfulness. She knew it all too well. It is easy to bear up against the unusual, but the deadly familiarity of an old stale past!
He dumped the bags down under a lamp-post, for a rest. There they stood, the two of them, in the lamplight. Passers-by stared at her, and gave good-night to Harry. Her they hardly knew, she had become a stranger.
‘They’re too heavy for you, let me carry one,’ she said.
‘They begin to weigh a bit by the time you’ve gone a mile,’ he answered.
‘Let me carry the little one,’ she insisted.
‘Tha can ha’e it for a minute, if ter’s a mind,’ he said, handing over the valise.
And thus they arrived in the streets of shops of the little ugly town on top of the hill. How everybody stared at her; my word, how they stared! And the cinema was just going in, and the queues were tailing down the road to the corner. And everybody took full stock of her. ‘Night, Harry!’ shouted the fellows, in an interested voice.
However, they arrived at her aunt’s — a little sweet-shop in a side street. They ‘pinged’ the door-bell, and her aunt came running forward out of the kitchen.
‘There you are, child! Dying for a cup of tea, I’m sure. How are you?’
Fanny’s aunt kissed her, and it was all Fanny could do to refrain from bursting into tears, she felt so low. Perhaps it was her tea she wanted.
‘You’ve had a drag with that luggage,’ said Fanny’s aunt to Harry.
‘Ay — I’m not sorry to put it down,’ he said, looking at his hand which was crushed and cramped by the bag handle.
Then he departed to see about Heather’s greengrocery cart.
When Fanny sat at tea, her aunt, a grey-haired, fair-faced little woman, looked at her with an admiring heart, feeling bitterly sore for her. For Fanny was beautiful: tall, erect, finely coloured, with her delicately arched nose, her rich brown hair, her large lustrous grey eyes. A passionate woman — a woman to be afraid of. So proud, so inwardly violent! She came of a violent race.
It needed a woman to sympathize with her. Men had not the courage. Poor Fanny! She was such a lady, and so straight and magnificent. And yet everything seemed to do her down. Every time she seemed to be doomed to humiliation and disappointment, this handsome, brilliantly sensitive woman, with her nervous, overwrought laugh.
‘So you’ve really come back, child?’ said her aunt.
‘I really have, Aunt,’ said Fanny.
‘Poor Harry! I’m not sure, you know, Fanny, that you’re not taking a bit of an advantage of him.’
‘Oh, Aunt, he’s waited so long, he may as well have what he’s waited for.’ Fanny laughed grimly.
‘Yes, child, he’s waited so long, that I’m not sure it isn’t a bit hard on him. You know, I like him, Fanny — though as you know quite well, I don’t think he’s good enough for you. And I think he thinks so himself, poor fellow.’
‘Don’t you be so sure of that, Aunt. Harry is common, but he’s not humble. He wouldn’t think the Queen was any too good for him, if he’d a mind to her.’
‘Well — It’s as well if he has a proper opinion of himself.’
‘It depends what you call proper,’ said Fanny. ‘But he’s got his good points —’
‘Oh, he’s a nice fellow, and I like him, I do like him. Only, as I tell you, he’s not good enough for you.’
‘I’ve made up my mind, Aunt,’ said Fanny, grimly.
‘Yes,’ mused the aunt. ‘They say all things come to him who waits —’
‘More than he’s bargained for, eh, Aunt?’ laughed Fanny rather bitterly.
The poor aunt, this bitterness grieved her for her niece.
They were interrupted by the ping of the shop-bell, and Harry’s call of ‘Right!’ But as he did not come in at once, Fanny, feeling solicitous for him presumably at the moment, rose and went into the shop. She saw a cart outside, and went to the door.
And the moment she stood in the doorway, she heard a woman’s common vituperative voice crying from the darkness of the opposite side of the road:
‘Tha’rt theer, ar ter? I’ll shame thee, Mester. I’ll shame thee, see if I dunna.’
Startled, Fanny stared across the darkness, and saw a woman in a black bonnet go under one of the lamps up the side street.
Harry and Bill Heather had dragged the trunk off the little dray, and she retreated before them as they came up the shop step with it.
‘Wheer shalt ha’e it?’ asked Harry.
‘Best take it upstairs,’ said Fanny.
She went up first to light the gas.
When Heather had gone, and Harry was sitting down having tea and pork pie, Fanny asked:
‘Who was that woman shouting?’
‘Nay, I canna tell thee. To somebody, Is’d think,’ replied Harry. Fanny looked at him, but asked no more.
He was a fair-haired fellow of thirty-two, with a fair moustache. He was broad in his speech, and looked like a foundry-hand, which he was. But women always liked him. There was something of a mother’s lad about him — something warm and playful and really sensitive.
He had his attractions even for Fanny. What she rebelled against so bitterly was that he had no sort of ambition. He was a moulder, but of very commonplace skill. He was thirty-two years old, and hadn’t saved twenty pounds. She would have to provide the money for the home. He didn’t care. He just didn’t care. He had no initiative at all. He had no vices — no obvious ones. But he was just indifferent, spending as he went, and not caring. Yet he did not look happy. She remembered his face in the fire-glow: something haunted, abstracted about it. As he sat there eating his pork pie, bulging his cheek out, she felt he was like a doom to her. And she raged against the doom of him. It wasn’t that he was gross. His way was common, almost on purpose. But he himself wasn’t really common. For instance, his food was not particularly important to him, he was not greedy. He had a charm, too, particularly for women, with his blondness and his sensitiveness and his way of making a woman feel that she was a higher being. But Fanny knew him, knew the peculiar obstinate limitedness of him, that would nearly send her mad.
He stayed till about half past nine. She went to the door with him.
‘When are you coming up?’ he said, jerking his head in the direction, presumably, of his own home.
‘I’ll come tomorrow afternoon,’ she said brightly. Between Fanny and Mrs. Goodall, his mother, there was naturally no love lost.
Again she gave him an awkward little kiss, and said good-night.
‘You can’t wonder, you know, child, if he doesn’t seem so very keen,’ said her aunt. ‘It’s your own fault.’
‘Oh, Aunt, I couldn’t stand him when he was keen. I can do with him a lot better as he is.’
The two women sat and talked far into the night. They understood each other. The aunt, too, had married as Fanny was marrying: a man who was no companion to her, a violent man, brother of Fanny’s father. He was dead, Fanny’s father was dead.
Poor Aunt Lizzie, she cried woefully over her bright niece, when she had gone to bed.
Fanny paid the promised visit to his people the next afternoon. Mrs. Goodall was a large woman with smooth-parted hair, a common, obstinate woman, who had spoiled her four lads and her one vixen of a married daughter. She was one of those old-fashioned powerful natures that couldn’t do with looks or education or any form of showing off. She fairly hated the sound of correct English. She thee’d and tha’d her prospective daughter-inlaw, and said:
‘I’m none as ormin’ as I look, seest ta.’
Fanny did not think her prospective mother-inlaw looked at all orming, so the speech was unnecessary.
‘I towd him mysen,’ said Mrs. Goodall, ‘‘Er’s held back all this long, let ‘er stop as ‘er is. ‘E’d none ha’ had thee for my tellin’— tha hears. No, ‘e’s a fool, an’ I know it. I says to him, ‘Tha looks a man, doesn’t ter, at thy age, goin’ an’ openin’ to her when ter hears her scrat’ at th’ gate, after she’s done gallivantin’ round wherever she’d a mind. That looks rare an’ soft.’ But it’s no use o’ any talking: he answered that letter o’ thine and made his own bad bargain.’
But in spite of the old woman’s anger, she was also flattered at Fanny’s coming back to Harry. For Mrs. Goodall was impressed by Fanny — a woman of her own match. And more than this, everybody knew that Fanny’s Aunt Kate had left her two hundred pounds: this apart from the girl’s savings.
So there was high tea in Princes Street when Harry came home black from work, and a rather acrid odour of cordiality, the vixen Jinny darting in to say vulgar things. Of course Jinny lived in a house whose garden end joined the paternal garden. They were a clan who stuck together, these Goodalls.
It was arranged that Fanny should come to tea again on the Sunday, and the wedding was discussed. It should take place in a fortnight’s time at Morley Chapel. Morley was a hamlet on the edge of the real country, and in its little Congregational Chapel Fanny and Harry had first met.
What a creature of habit he was! He was still in the choir of Morley Chapel — not very regular. He belonged just because he had a tenor voice, and enjoyed singing. Indeed his solos were only spoilt to local fame because when he sang he handled his aitches so hopelessly.
‘And I saw ‘eaven hopened And be’old, a wite ‘orse-’
This was one of Harry’s classics, only surpassed by the fine outburst of his heaving:
‘Hangels — hever bright an’ fair-’
It was a pity, but it was inalterable. He had a good voice, and he sang with a certain lacerating fire, but his pronunciation made it all funny. And nothing could alter him.
So he was never heard save at cheap concerts and in the little, poorer chapels. The others scoffed.
Now the month was September, and Sunday was Harvest Festival at Morley Chapel, and Harry was singing solos. So that Fanny was to go to afternoon service, and come home to a grand spread of Sunday tea with him. Poor Fanny! One of the most wonderful afternoons had been a Sunday afternoon service, with her cousin Luther at her side, Harvest Festival in Morley Chapel. Harry had sung solos then — ten years ago. She remembered his pale blue tie, and the purple asters and the great vegetable marrows in which he was framed, and her cousin Luther at her side, young, clever, come down from London, where he was getting on well, learning his Latin and his French and German so brilliantly.
However, once again it was Harvest Festival at Morley Chapel, and once again, as ten years before, a soft, exquisite September day, with the last roses pink in the cottage gardens, the last dahlias crimson, the last sunflowers yellow. And again the little old chapel was a bower, with its famous sheaves of corn and corn-plaited pillars, its great bunches of grapes, dangling like tassels from the pulpit corners, its marrows and potatoes and pears and apples and damsons, its purple asters and yellow Japanese sunflowers. Just as before, the red dahlias round the pillars were dropping, weak-headed among the oats. The place was crowded and hot, the plates of tomatoes seemed balanced perilously on the gallery front, the Rev. Enderby was weirder than ever to look at, so long and emaciated and hairless.
The Rev. Enderby, probably forewarned, came and shook hands with her and welcomed her, in his broad northern, melancholy singsong before he mounted the pulpit. Fanny was handsome in a gauzy dress and a beautiful lace hat. Being a little late, she sat in a chair in the side-aisle wedged in, right in front of the chapel. Harry was in the gallery above, and she could only see him from the eyes upwards. She noticed again how his eyebrows met, blond and not very marked, over his nose. He was attractive too: physically lovable, very. If only — if only her pride had not suffered! She felt he dragged her down.
‘Come, ye thankful people come, Raise the song of harvest-home. All is safely gathered in Ere the winter storms begin —’
Even the hymn was a falsehood, as the season had been wet, and half the crops were still out, and in a poor way.
Poor Fanny! She sang little, and looked beautiful through that inappropriate hymn. Above her stood Harry — mercifully in a dark suit and dark tie, looking almost handsome. And his lacerating, pure tenor sounded well, when the words were drowned in the general commotion. Brilliant she looked, and brilliant she felt, for she was hot and angrily miserable and inflamed with a sort of fatal despair. Because there was about him a physical attraction which she really hated, but which she could not escape from. He was the first man who had ever kissed her. And his kisses, even while she rebelled from them, had lived in her blood and sent roots down into her soul. After all this time she had come back to them. And her soul groaned, for she felt dragged down, dragged down to earth, as a bird which some dog has got down in the dust. She knew her life would be unhappy. She knew that what she was doing was fatal. Yet it was her doom. She had to come back to him.
He had to sing two solos this afternoon: one before the ‘address’ from the pulpit and one after. Fanny looked at him, and wondered he was not too shy to stand up there in front of all the people. But no, he was not shy. He had even a kind of assurance on his face as he looked down from the choir gallery at her: the assurance of a common man deliberately entrenched in his commonness. Oh, such a rage went through her veins as she saw the air of triumph, laconic, indifferent triumph which sat so obstinately and recklessly on his eyelids as he looked down at her. Ah, she despised him! But there he stood up in that choir gallery like Balaam’s ass in front of her, and she could not get beyond him. A certain winsomeness also about him. A certain physical winsomeness, and as if his flesh were new and lovely to touch. The thorn of desire rankled bitterly in her heart.
He, it goes without saying, sang like a canary this particular afternoon, with a certain defiant passion which pleasantly crisped the blood of the congregation. Fanny felt the crisp flames go through her veins as she listened. Even the curious loud-mouthed vernacular had a certain fascination. But, oh, also, it was so repugnant. He would triumph over her, obstinately he would drag her right back into the common people: a doom, a vulgar doom.
The second performance was an anthem, in which Harry sang the solo parts. It was clumsy, but beautiful, with lovely words.
‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy, He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him —’
‘Shall doubtless come, Shall doubtless come —’ softly intoned the altos —‘Bringing his she-e-eaves with him,’ the trebles flourished brightly, and then again began the half-wistful solo:
‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy —’
Yes, it was effective and moving.
But at the moment when Harry’s voice sank carelessly down to his close, and the choir, standing behind him, were opening their mouths for the final triumphant outburst, a shouting female voice rose up from the body of the congregation. The organ gave one startled trump, and went silent; the choir stood transfixed.
‘You look well standing there, singing in God’s holy house,’ came the loud, angry female shout. Everybody turned electrified. A stoutish, red-faced woman in a black bonnet was standing up denouncing the soloist. Almost fainting with shock, the congregation realized it. ‘You look well, don’t you, standing there singing solos in God’s holy house, you, Goodall. But I said I’d shame you. You look well, bringing your young woman here with you, don’t you? I’ll let her know who she’s dealing with. A scamp as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done.’ The hard-faced, frenzied woman turned in the direction of Fanny. ‘That’s what Harry Goodall is, if you want to know.’
And she sat down again in her seat. Fanny, startled like all the rest, had turned to look. She had gone white, and then a burning red, under the attack. She knew the woman: a Mrs. Nixon, a devil of a woman, who beat her pathetic, drunken, red-nosed second husband, Bob, and her two lanky daughters, grown-up as they were. A notorious character. Fanny turned round again, and sat motionless as eternity in her seat.
There was a minute of perfect silence and suspense. The audience was open-mouthed and dumb; the choir stood like Lot’s wife; and Harry, with his music-sheet, stood there uplifted, looking down with a dumb sort of indifference on Mrs. Nixon, his face naïve and faintly mocking. Mrs. Nixon sat defiant in her seat, braving them all.
Then a rustle, like a wood when the wind suddenly catches the leaves. And then the tall, weird minister got to his feet, and in his strong, bell-like, beautiful voice — the only beautiful thing about him — he said with infinite mournful pathos:
‘Let us unite in singing the last hymn on the hymn-sheet; the last hymn on the hymn-sheet, number eleven.
‘Fair waved the golden corn, In Canaan’s pleasant land.’
The organ tuned up promptly. During the hymn the offertory was taken. And after the hymn, the prayer.
Mr. Enderby came from Northumberland. Like Harry, he had never been able to conquer his accent, which was very broad. He was a little simple, one of God’s fools, perhaps, an odd bachelor soul, emotional, ugly, but very gentle.
‘And if, O our dear Lord, beloved Jesus, there should fall a shadow of sin upon our harvest, we leave it to Thee to judge, for Thou art judge. We lift our spirits and our sorrow, Jesus, to Thee, and our mouths are dumb. O, Lord, keep us from forward speech, restrain us from foolish words and thoughts, we pray Thee, Lord Jesus, who knowest all and judgest all.’
Thus the minister said in his sad, resonant voice, washed his hands before the Lord. Fanny bent forward open-eyed during the prayer. She could see the roundish head of Harry, also bent forward. His face was inscrutable and expressionless. The shock left her bewildered. Anger perhaps was her dominating emotion.
The audience began to rustle to its feet, to ooze slowly and excitedly out of the chapel, looking with wildly-interested eyes at Fanny, at Mrs. Nixon, and at Harry. Mrs. Nixon, shortish, stood defiant in her pew, facing the aisle, as if announcing that, without rolling her sleeves up, she was ready for anybody. Fanny sat quite still. Luckily the people did not have to pass her. And Harry, with red ears, was making his way sheepishly out of the gallery. The loud noise of the organ covered all the downstairs commotion of exit.
The minister sat silent and inscrutable in his pulpit, rather like a death’s-head, while the congregation filed out. When the last lingerers had unwillingly departed, craning their necks to stare at the still seated Fanny, he rose, stalked in his hooked fashion down the little country chapel and fastened the door. Then he returned and sat down by the silent young woman.
‘This is most unfortunate, most unfortunate!’ he moaned. ‘I am so sorry, I am so sorry, indeed, indeed, ah, indeed!’ he sighed himself to a close.
‘It’s a sudden surprise, that’s one thing,’ said Fanny brightly.
‘Yes — yes — indeed. Yes, a surprise, yes. I don’t know the woman, I don’t know her.’
‘I know her,’ said Fanny. ‘She’s a bad one.’
‘Well! Well!’ said the minister. ‘I don’t know her. I don’t understand. I don’t understand at all. But it is to be regretted, it is very much to be regretted. I am very sorry.’
Fanny was watching the vestry door. The gallery stairs communicated with the vestry, not with the body of the chapel. She knew the choir members had been peeping for information.
At last Harry came — rather sheepishly — with his hat in his hand.
‘Well!’ said Fanny, rising to her feet.
‘We’ve had a bit of an extra,’ said Harry.
‘I should think so,’ said Fanny.
‘A most unfortunate circumstance — a most unfortunate circumstance. Do you understand it, Harry? I don’t understand it at all.’
‘Ah, I understand it. The daughter’s goin’ to have a childt, an’ ‘er lays it on to me.’
‘And has she no occasion to?’ asked Fanny, rather censorious.
‘It’s no more mine than it is some other chap’s,’ said Harry, looking aside.
There was a moment of pause.
‘Which girl is it?’ asked Fanny.
‘Annie — the young one —’
There followed another silence.
‘I don’t think I know them, do I?’ asked the minister.
‘I shouldn’t think so. Their name’s Nixon — mother married old Bob for her second husband. She’s a tanger —‘s driven the gel to what she is. They live in Manners Road.’
‘Why, what’s amiss with the girl?’ asked Fanny sharply. ‘She was all right when I knew her.’
‘Ay — she’s all right. But she’s always in an’ out o’ th’ pubs, wi’ th’ fellows,’ said Harry.
‘A nice thing!’ said Fanny.
Harry glanced towards the door. He wanted to get out.
‘Most distressing, indeed!’ The minister slowly shook his head.
‘What about tonight, Mr. Enderby?’ asked Harry, in rather a small voice. ‘Shall you want me?’
Mr. Enderby looked up painedly, and put his hand to his brow. He studied Harry for some time, vacantly. There was the faintest sort of a resemblance between the two men.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I think. I think we must take no notice, and cause as little remark as possible.’
Fanny hesitated. Then she said to Harry.
‘But will you come?’
He looked at her.
‘Ay, I s’ll come,’ he said.
Then he turned to Mr. Enderby.
‘Well, good-afternoon, Mr. Enderby,’ he said.
‘Good-afternoon, Harry, good-afternoon,’ replied the mournful minister. Fanny followed Harry to the door, and for some time they walked in silence through the late afternoon.
‘And it’s yours as much as anybody else’s?’ she said.
‘Ay,’ he answered shortly.
And they went without another word, for the long mile or so, till they came to the corner of the street where Harry lived. Fanny hesitated. Should she go on to her aunt’s? Should she? It would mean leaving all this, for ever. Harry stood silent.
Some obstinacy made her turn with him along the road to his own home. When they entered the house-place, the whole family was there, mother and father and Jinny, with Jinny’s husband and children and Harry’s two brothers.
‘You’ve been having yours ears warmed, they tell me,’ said Mrs. Goodall grimly.
‘Who telled thee?’ asked Harry shortly.
‘Maggie and Luke’s both been in.’
‘You look well, don’t you!’ said interfering Jinny.
Harry went and hung his hat up, without replying.
‘Come upstairs and take your hat off,’ said Mrs. Goodall to Fanny, almost kindly. It would have annoyed her very much if Fanny had dropped her son at this moment.
‘What’s ‘er say, then?’ asked the father secretly of Harry, jerking his head in the direction of the stairs whence Fanny had disappeared.
‘Nowt yet,’ said Harry.
‘Serve you right if she chucks you now,’ said Jinny. ‘I’ll bet it’s right about Annie Nixon an’ you.’
‘Tha bets so much,’ said Harry.
‘Yi — but you can’t deny it,’ said Jinny.
‘I can if I’ve a mind.’
His father looked at him inquiringly.
‘It’s no more mine than it is Bill Bower’s, or Ted Slaney’s, or six or seven on ’em,’ said Harry to his father.
And the father nodded silently.
‘That’ll not get you out of it, in court,’ said Jinny.
Upstairs Fanny evaded all the thrusts made by his mother, and did not declare her hand. She tidied her hair, washed her hands, and put the tiniest bit of powder on her face, for coolness, there in front of Mrs. Goodall’s indignant gaze. It was like a declaration of independence. But the old woman said nothing.
They came down to Sunday tea, with sardines and tinned salmon and tinned peaches, besides tarts and cakes. The chatter was general. It concerned the Nixon family and the scandal.
‘Oh, she’s a foul-mouthed woman,’ said Jinny of Mrs. Nixon. ‘She may well talk about God’s holy house, she had. It’s first time she’s set foot in it, ever since she dropped off from being converted. She’s a devil and she always was one. Can’t you remember how she treated Bob’s children, mother, when we lived down in the Buildings? I can remember when I was a little girl she used to bathe them in the yard, in the cold, so that they shouldn’t splash the house. She’d half kill them if they made a mark on the floor, and the language she’d use! And one Saturday I can remember Garry, that was Bob’s own girl, she ran off when her stepmother was going to bathe her — ran off without a rag of clothes on — can you remember, mother? And she hid in Smedley’s closes — it was the time of mowing-grass — and nobody could find her. She hid out there all night, didn’t she, mother? Nobody could find her. My word, there was a talk. They found her on Sunday morning —’
‘Fred Coutts threatened to break every bone in the woman’s body, if she touched the children again,’ put in the father.
‘Anyhow, they frightened her,’ said Jinny. ‘But she was nearly as bad with her own two. And anybody can see that she’s driven old Bob till he’s gone soft.’
‘Ah, soft as mush,’ said Jack Goodall. ‘‘E’d never addle a week’s wage, nor yet a day’s if th’ chaps didn’t make it up to him.’
‘My word, if he didn’t bring her a week’s wage, she’d pull his head off,’ said Jinny.
‘But a clean woman, and respectable, except for her foul mouth,’ said Mrs. Goodall. ‘Keeps to herself like a bull-dog. Never lets anybody come near the house, and neighbours with nobody.’
‘Wanted it thrashed out of her,’ said Mr. Goodall, a silent, evasive sort of man.
‘Where Bob gets the money for his drink from is a mystery,’ said Jinny.
‘Chaps treats him,’ said Harry.
‘Well, he’s got the pair of frightenedest rabbit-eyes you’d wish to see,’ said Jinny.
‘Ay, with a drunken man’s murder in them, I think,’ said Mrs. Goodall.
So the talk went on after tea, till it was practically time to start off to chapel again.
‘You’ll have to be getting ready, Fanny,’ said Mrs. Goodall.
‘I’m not going tonight,’ said Fanny abruptly. And there was a sudden halt in the family. ‘I’ll stop with you tonight, Mother,’ she added.
‘Best you had, my gel,’ said Mrs. Goodall, flattered and assured.
End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of England, My England, by D.H. Lawrence
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005