Collected Short Stories, by D. H. Lawrence

The Old Adam

The maid who opened the door was just developing into a handsome womanhood. Therefore she seemed to have the insolent pride of one newly come to an inheritance. She would be a splendid woman to look at, having just enough of Jewish blood to enrich her comeliness into beauty. At nineteen her fine grey eyes looked challenge, and her warm complexion, her black hair looped up slack, enforced the sensuous folding of her mouth.

She wore no cap nor apron, but a well-looking sleeved overall such as even very ladies don.

The man she opened to was tall and thin, but graceful in his energy. He wore white flannels, carried a tennis-racket. With a light bow to the maid he stepped beside her on the threshold. He was one of those who attract by their movement, whose movement is watched unconsciously, as we watch the flight of a sea-bird waving its wing leisurely. Instead of entering the house, the young man stood beside the maid-servant and looked back into the blackish evening. When in repose, he had the diffident, ironic bearing so remarkable in the educated youth of today, the very reverse of that traditional aggressiveness of youth.

“It is going to thunder, Kate,” he said.

“Yes, I think it is,” she replied, on an even footing.

The young man stood a moment looking at the trees across the road, and on the oppressive twilight.

“Look,” he said, “there’s not a trace of colour in the atmosphere, though it’s sunset; all a dark, lustrous grey; and those oaks kindle green like a low fire — see!”

“Yes,” said Kate, rather awkwardly.

“A troublesome sort of evening; must be, because it’s your last with us.”

“Yes,” said the girl, flushing and hardening.

There was another pause; then:

“Sorry you’re going?” he asked, with a faint tang of irony.

“In some ways,” she replied, rather haughtily.

He laughed, as if he understood what was not said, then, with an “Ah well!” he passed along the hall.

The maid stood for a few moments clenching her young fists, clenching her very breast in revolt. Then she closed the door.

Edward Severn went into the dining-room. It was eight o’clock, very dark for a June evening; on the dusk-blue walls only the gilt frames of the pictures glinted pale. The clock occupied the room with its delicate ticking.

The door opened into a tiny conservatory that was lined with a grapevine. Severn could hear, from the garden beyond, the high prattling of a child. He went to the glass door.

Running down the grass by the flower-border was a little girl of three, dressed in white. She was very bonny, very quick and intent in her movements; she reminded him of a fieldmouse which plays alone in the corn, for sheer joy. Severn lounged in the doorway, watching her. Suddenly she perceived him. She started, flashed into greeting, gave a little gay jump, and stood quite still again, as if pleading.

“Mr. Severn,” she cried, in wonderfully coaxing tones: “Come and see this.”

“What?” he asked.

“Com’ and see it,” she pleaded.

He laughed, knowing she only wanted to coax him into the garden; and he went.

“Look,” she said, spreading out her plump little arm.

“What?” he asked.

The baby was not going to admit that she had tricked him thither for her amusement.

“All gone up to buds,” she said, pointing to the closed marigolds. Then “See!” she shrieked, flinging herself at his legs, grasping the flannel of his trousers, and tugging at him wildly. She was a wild little Mænad. She flew shrieking like a revelling bird down the garden, glancing back to see if he were coming. He had not the heart to desist, but went swiftly after her. In the obscure garden, the two white figures darted through the flowering plants, the baby, with her full silk skirts, scudding like a ruffled bird, the man, lithe and fleet, snatching her up and smothering his face in hers. And all the time her piercing voice reechoed from his low calls of warning and of triumph as he hunted her. Often she was really frightened of him; then she clung fast round his neck, and he laughed and mocked her in a low, stirring voice, whilst she protested.

The garden was large for a London suburb. It was shut in by a high dark embankment, that rose above a row of black poplar trees. And over the spires of the trees, high up, slid by the golden-lighted trains, with the soft movement of caterpillars and a hoarse, subtle noise.

Mrs. Thomas stood in the dark doorway watching the night, the trains, the flash and run of the two white figures.

“And now we must go in,” she heard Severn say.

“No,” cried the baby, wild and defiant as a bacchanal. She clung to him like a wild-cat.

“Yes,” he said. “Where’s your mother?”

“Give me a swing,” demanded the child.

He caught her up. She strangled him hard with her young arms.

“I said, where’s your mother?” he persisted, half smothered.

“She’s op’tairs,” shouted the child. “Give me a swing.”

“I don’t think she is,” said Severn.

“She is. Give me a swing, a swi-iing!”

He bent forward, so that she hung from his neck like a great pendant. Then he swung her, laughing low to himself while she shrieked with fear. As she slipped he caught her to his breast.

“Mary!” called Mrs. Thomas, in that low, songful tone of a woman when her heart is roused and happy.

“Mary!” she called, long and sweet.

“Oh, no!” cried the child quickly.

But Severn bore her off. Laughing, he bowed his head and offered to the mother the baby who clung round his neck.

“Come along here,” said Mrs. Thomas roguishly, clasping the baby’s waist with her hands.

“Oh, no,” cried the child, tucking her head into the young man’s neck.

“But it’s bed-time,” said the mother. She laughed as she drew at the child to pull her loose from Severn. The baby clung tighter, and laughed, feeling no determination in her mother’s grip. Severn bent his head to loosen the child’s hold, bowed, and swung the heavy baby on his neck. The child clung to him, bubbling with laughter; the mother drew at her baby, laughing low, while the man swung gracefully, giving little jerks of laughter.

“Let Mr. Severn undress me,” said the child, hugging close to the young man, who had come to lodge with her parents when she was scarce a month old.

“You’re in high favour to-night,” said the mother to Severn. He laughed, and all three stood a moment watching the trains pass and repass in the sky beyond the garden-end. Then they went indoors, and Severn undressed the child.

She was a beautiful girl, a bacchanal with her wild, dull-gold hair tossing about like a loose chaplet, her hazel eyes shining daringly, her small, spaced teeth glistening in little passions of laughter within her red, small mouth. The young man loved her. She was such a little bright wave of wilfulness, so abandoned to her impulses, so white and smooth as she lay at rest, so startling as she flashed her naked limbs about. But she was growing too old for a young man to undress.

She sat on his knee in her high-waisted night-gown, eating her piece of bread-and-butter with savage little bites of resentment: she did not want to go to bed. But Severn made her repeat a Pater Noster. She lisped over the Latin, and Mrs. Thomas, listening, flushed with pleasure; although she was a Protestant, and although she deplored the unbelief of Severn, who had been a Catholic.

The mother took the baby to carry her to bed. Mrs. Thomas was thirty-four years old, full-bosomed and ripe. She had dark hair that twined lightly round her low, white brow. She had a clear complexion, and beautiful brows, and dark-blue eyes. The lower part of her face was heavy.

“Kiss me,” said Severn to the child.

He raised his face as he sat in the rocking-chair. The mother stood beside, looking down at him, and holding the laughing rogue of a baby against her breast. The man’s face was uptilted, his heavy brows set back from the laughing tenderness of his eyes, which looked dark, because the pupil was dilated. He pursed up his handsome mouth, his thick close-cut moustache roused.

He was a man who gave tenderness, but who did not ask for it. All his own troubles he kept, laughingly, to himself. But his eyes were very sad when quiet, and he was too quick to understand sorrow, not to know it.

Mrs. Thomas watched his fine mouth lifted for kissing. She leaned forward, lowering the baby, and suddenly, by a quick change in his eyes, she knew he was aware of her heavy woman’s breasts approaching down to him. The wild rogue of a baby bent her face to his, and then, instead of kissing him, suddenly licked his cheek with her wet, soft tongue. He started back in aversion, and his eyes and his teeth flashed with a dangerous laugh.

“No, no,” he laughed, in low strangled tones. “No dog-lick, my dear, oh no!”

The baby chuckled with glee, gave one wicked jerk of laughter, that came out like a bubble escaping.

He put up his mouth again, and again his face was horizontal below the face of the young mother. She looked down on him as if by a kind of fascination.

“Kiss me, then,” he said with thick throat.

The mother lowered the baby. She felt scarcely sure of her balance. Again the child, when near to his face, darted out her tongue to lick him. He swiftly averted his face, laughing in his throat.

Mrs. Thomas turned her face aside; she would see no more.

“Come then,” she said to the child. “If you won’t kiss Mr. Severn nicely —”

The child laughed over the mother’s shoulder like a squirrel crouched there. She was carried to bed.

It was still not quite dark; the clouds had opened slightly. The young man flung himself into an arm-chair, with a volume of French verse. He read one lyric, then he lay still.

“What, all in the dark!” exclaimed Mrs. Thomas, coming in. “And reading by THIS light.” She rebuked him with timid affectionateness. Then, glancing at his white-flannelled limbs sprawled out in the gloom, she went to the door. There she turned her back to him, looking out.

“Don’t these flags smell strongly in the evening?” she said at length.

He replied with a few lines of the French he had been reading.

She did not understand. There was a peculiar silence.

“A peculiar, brutal, carnal scent, iris,” he drawled at length. “Isn’t it?”

She laughed shortly, saying: “Eh, I don’t know about that.”

“It is,” he asserted calmly.

He rose from his chair, went to stand beside her at the door.

There was a great sheaf of yellow iris near the window. Farther off, in the last twilight, a gang of enormous poppies balanced and flapped their gold-scarlet, which even the darkness could not quite put out.

“We ought to be feeling very sad,” she said after a while.

“Why?” he asked.

“Well — isn’t it Kate’s last night?” she said, slightly mocking.

“She’s a tartar, Kate,” he said.

“Oh, she’s too rude, she is really! The way she criticises the things you do, and her insolence —”

“The things I do?” he asked.

“Oh no; you can’t do anything wrong. It’s the things I do.” Mrs. Thomas sounded very much incensed.

“Poor Kate, she’ll have to lower her key,” said Severn.

“Indeed she will, and a good thing too.”

There was silence again.

“It’s lightning,” he said at last.

“Where?” she asked, with a suddenness that surprised him. She turned, met his eyes for a second. He sank his head, abashed.

“Over there in the north-east,” he said, keeping his face from her. She watched his hand rather than the sky.

“Oh,” she said uninterestedly.

“The storm will wheel round, you’ll see,” he said.

“I hope it wheels the other way, then.”

“Well, it won’t. You don’t like lightning, do you? You’d even have to take refuge with Kate if I weren’t here.”

She laughed quietly at his irony.

“No,” she said, quite bitterly. “Mr. Thomas is never in when he’s wanted.”

“Well, as he won’t be urgently required, we’ll acquit him, eh?”

At that moment a white flash fell across the blackness. They looked at each other, laughing. The thunder came broken and hesitatingly.

“I think we’ll shut the door,” said Mrs. Thomas, in normal, sufficiently distant tones. A strong woman, she locked and bolted the stiff fastenings easily. Severn pressed on the light. Mrs. Thomas noticed the untidiness of the room. She rang, and presently Kate appeared.

“Will you clear baby’s things away?” she said, in the contemptuous tone of a hostile woman. Without answering, and in her superb, unhastening way, Kate began to gather up the small garments. Both women were aware of the observant, white figure of the man standing on the hearth. Severn balanced with a fine, easy poise, and smiled to himself, exulting a little to see the two women in this state of hostility. Kate moved about with bowed defiant head. Severn watched her curiously; he could not understand her. And she was leaving tomorrow. When she had gone out of the room, he remained still standing, thinking. Something in his lithe, vigorous balance, so alert, and white, and independent, caused Mrs. Thomas to glance at him from her sewing.

“I will let the blinds down,” he said, becoming aware that he was attracting attention.

“Thank you,” she replied conventionally.

He let the lattice blinds down, then flung himself into his chair.

Mrs. Thomas sat at the table, near him, sewing. She was a good-looking woman, well made. She sat under the one light that was turned on. The lamp-shade was of red silk lined with yellow. She sat in the warm-gold light. There was established between the two a peculiar silence, like suspense, almost painful to each of them, yet which neither would break. Severn listened to the snap of her needle, looked from the movement of her hand to the window, where the lightning beat and fluttered through the lattice. The thunder was as yet far off.

“Look,” he said, “at the lightning.”

Mrs. Thomas started at the sound of his voice, and some of the colour went from her face. She turned to the window.

There, between the cracks of the Venetian blinds, came the white flare of lightning, then the dark. Several storms were in the sky. Scarcely had one sudden glare fluttered and palpitated out, than another covered the window with white. It dropped, and another flew up, beat like a moth for a moment, then vanished. Thunder met and overlapped; two battles were fought together in the sky.

Mrs. Thomas went very pale. She tried not to look at the window, yet, when she felt the lightning blench the lamplight, she watched, and each time a flash leaped on the window, she shuddered. Severn, all unconsciously, was smiling with roused eyes.

“You don’t like it?” he said, at last, gently.

“Not much,” she answered, and he laughed.

“Yet all the storms are a fair way off,” he said. “Not one near enough to touch us.”

“No, but,” she replied, at last laying her hands in her lap, and turning to him, “it makes me feel worked up. You don’t know how it makes me feel, as if I couldn’t contain myself.”

She made a helpless gesture with her hand. He was watching her closely. She seemed to him pathetically helpless and bewildered; she was eight years older than he. He smiled in a strange, alert fashion, like a man who feels in jeopardy. She bent over her work, stitching nervously. There was a silence in which neither of them could breathe freely.

Presently a bigger flash than usual whitened through the yellow lamplight. Both glanced at the window, then at each other. For a moment it was a look of greeting; then his eyes dilated to a smile, wide with recklessness. He felt her waver, lose her composure, become incoherent. Seeing the faint helplessness of coming tears, he felt his heart thud to a crisis. She had her face at her sewing.

Severn sank in his chair, half suffocated by the beating of his heart. Yet, time after time, as the flashes came, they looked at each other, till in the end they both were panting, and afraid, not of the lightning but of themselves and of each other.

He was so much moved that he became conscious of his perturbation. “What the deuce is up?” he asked himself, wondering. At twenty-seven, he was quite chaste. Being highly civilised, he prized women for their intuition, and because of the delicacy with which he could transfer to them his thoughts and feelings, without cumbrous argument. From this to a state of passion he could only proceed by fine gradations, and such a procedure he had never begun. Now he was startled, astonished, perturbed, yet still scarcely conscious of his whereabouts. There was a pain in his chest that made him pant, and an involuntary tension in his arms, as if he must press someone to his breast. But the idea that this someone was Mrs. Thomas would have shocked him too much had he formed it. His passion had run on subconsciously, till now it had come to such a pitch it must drag his conscious soul into allegiance. This, however, would probably never happen; he would not yield allegiance, and blind emotion, in this direction, could not carry him alone.

Towards eleven o’clock Mr. Thomas came in.

“I wonder you come home at all,” Severn heard Mrs. Thomas say as her husband stepped indoors.

“I left the office at half-past ten,” the voice of Thomas replied, disagreeably.

“Oh, don’t try to tell me that old tale,” the woman answered contemptuously.

“I didn’t try anything at all, Gertie,” he replied with sarcasm. “Your question was answered.”

Severn imagined him bowing with affected, magisterial dignity, and he smiled. Mr. Thomas was something in the law.

Mrs. Thomas left her husband in the hall, came and sat down again at table, where she and Severn had just finished supper, both of them reading the while.

Thomas came in, flushed very red. He was of middle stature, a thickly-built man of forty, good-looking. But he had grown round-shouldered with thrusting forward his chin in order to look the aggressive, strong-jawed man. He HAD a good jaw; but his mouth was small and nervously pinched. His brown eyes were of the emotional, affectionate sort, lacking pride or any austerity.

He did not speak to Severn nor Severn to him. Although as a rule the two men were very friendly, there came these times when, for no reason whatever, they were sullenly hostile. Thomas sat down heavily, and reached his bottle of beer. His hands were thick, and in their movement rudimentary. Severn watched the thick fingers grasp the drinking-glass as if it were a treacherous enemy.

“Have you HAD supper, Gertie?” he asked, in tones that sounded like an insult. He could not bear that these two should sit reading as if he did not exist.

“Yes,” she replied, looking up at him in impatient surprise. “It’s late enough.” Then she buried herself again in her book.

Severn ducked low and grinned. Thomas swallowed a mouthful of beer.

“I wish you could answer my questions, Gertie, without superfluous detail,” he said nastily, thrusting out his chin at her as if cross-examining.

“Oh,” she said indifferently, not looking up. “Wasn’t my answer right, then?”

“Quite — I thank you,” he answered, bowing with great sarcasm. It was utterly lost on his wife.

“Hm-hm!” she murmured in abstraction, continuing to read.

Silence resumed. Severn was grinning to himself, chuckling.

“I HAD a compliment paid me to-night, Gertie,” said Thomas, quite amicably, after a while. He still ignored Severn.

“Hm-hm!” murmured his wife. This was a well-known beginning. Thomas valiantly struggled on with his courtship of his wife, swallowing his spleen.

“Councillor Jarndyce, in full committee — Are you listening, Gertie?”

“Yes,” she replied, looking up for a moment.

“You know Councillor Jarndyce’s style,” Thomas continued, in the tone of a man determined to be patient and affable: “— the courteous Old English Gentleman —”

“Hm-hm!” replied Mrs. Thomas.

“He was speaking in reply to . . .” Thomas gave innumerable wearisome details, which no one heeded.

“Then he bowed to me, then to the Chairman —‘I am compelled to say, Mr. Chairman, that we have ONE cause for congratulation; we are inestimably fortunate in ONE member of our staff; there is one point of which we can always be sure — the point of LAW; and it is an important point, Mr. Chairman.’

“He bowed to the Chairman, he bowed to me. And you should have heard the applause all round that Council Chamber — that great, horseshoe table, you don’t know how impressive it is. And every face turned to me, and all round the board: ‘Hear — Hear!’ You don’t know what respect I command in BUSINESS, Mrs. Thomas.”

“Then let it suffice you,” said Mrs. Thomas, calmly indifferent.

Mr. Thomas bit his bread-and-butter.

“The fat-head’s had two drops of Scotch, so he’s drawing on his imagination,” thought Severn chuckling deeply.

“I thought you said there was no meeting to-night,” Mrs. Thomas suddenly and innocently remarked after a while.

“There was a meeting, in camera,” replied her husband, drawing himself up with official dignity. His excessive and wounded dignity convulsed Severn; the lie disgusted Mrs. Thomas in spite of herself.

Presently Thomas, always courting his wife and insultingly overlooking Severn, raised a point of politics, passed a lordly opinion very offensive to the young man. Severn had risen, stretched himself, and laid down his book. He was leaning on the mantelpiece in an indifferent manner, as if he scarcely noticed the two talkers. But hearing Thomas pronounce like a boor upon the Woman’s Bill, he roused himself, and coolly contradicted his landlord. Mrs. Thomas shot a look of joy at the white-clad young man who lounged so scornfully on the hearth. Thomas cracked his knuckles one after another, and lowered his brown eyes, which were full of hate. After a sufficient pause, for his timidity was stronger than his impulse, he replied with a phrase that sounded final. Severn flipped the sense out of it with a few words. In the argument Severn, more cultured and far more nimble-witted than his antagonist, who hauled up his answers with a lawyer’s show of invincibility, but who had not any fineness of perception, merely spiked his opponent’s pieces and smiled at him. Also the young man enjoyed himself by looking down scornfully, straight into the brown eyes of his senior all the time, so that Thomas writhed.

Mrs. Thomas, meantime, took her husband’s side against women, without reserve. Severn was angry; he was scornfully angry with her. Mrs. Thomas glanced at him from time to time, a little ecstasy lighting her fine blue eyes. The irony of her part was delicious to her. If she had sided with Severn, that young man would have pitied the forlorn man, and been gentle with him.

The battle of words had got quieter and more intense. Mrs. Thomas made no move to check it. At last Severn was aware he and Thomas were both getting overheated. Thomas had doubled and dodged painfully, like a half-frenzied rabbit that will not realise it is trapped. Finally his efforts had moved even his opponent to pity. Mrs. Thomas was not pitiful. She scorned her husband’s dexterity of argument, when his intellectual dishonesty was so evident to her. Severn uttered his last phrases, and would say no more. Then Thomas cracked his knuckles one after the other, turned aside, consumed with morbid humiliation, and there was silence.

“I will go to bed,” said Severn. He would have spoken some conciliatory words to his landlord; he lingered with that purpose; but he could not bring his throat to utter his purpose.

“Oh, before you go, do you mind, Mr. Severn, helping Mr. Thomas down with Kate’s box? You may be gone before he’s up in the morning, and the cab comes at ten. Do you mind?”

“Why should I?” replied Severn.

“Are you ready, Joe?” she asked her husband.

Thomas rose with the air of a man who represses himself and is determined to be patient.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“On the top landing. I’ll tell Kate, and then we shan’t frighten her. She has gone to bed.”

Mrs. Thomas was quite mistress of the situation; both men were humble before her. She led the way, with a candle, to the third floor. There on the little landing, outside the closed door, stood a large tin trunk. The three were silent because of the baby.

“Poor Kate,” Severn thought. “It’s a shame to kick her out into the world, and all for nothing.” He felt an impulse of hate towards womankind.

“Shall I go first, Mr. Severn?” asked Thomas.

It was surprising how friendly the two men were, as soon as they had something to do together, or when Mrs. Thomas was absent. Then they were comrades, Thomas, the elder, the thick-set, playing the protector’s part, though always deferential to the younger, whimsical man.

“I had better go first,” said Thomas kindly. “And if you put this round the handle, it won’t cut your fingers.”

He offered the young man a little flexible book from his pocket. Severn had such small, fine hands that Thomas pitied them.

Severn raised one end of the trunk. Leaning back, and flashing a smile to Mrs. Thomas, who stood with the candle, he whispered: “Kate’s got a lot more impediments than I have.”

“I know it’s heavy,” laughed Mrs. Thomas.

Thomas, waiting at the brink of the stairs, saw the young man tilting his bare throat towards the smiling woman, and whispering words which pleased her.

“At your pleasure, sir,” he said in his most grating and official tones.

“Sorry,” Severn flung out scornfully.

The elder man retreated very cautiously, stiffly lowering himself down one stair, looking anxiously behind.

“Are you holding the light for ME, Gertie?” he snapped sarcastically, when he had managed one stair. She lifted the candle with a swoop. He was in a bustle and a funk, Severn, always indifferent, smiled slightly, and lowered the box with negligent ease of movement. As a matter of fact, three-quarters of the heavy weight: pressed on Thomas. Mrs. Thomas watched the two figures from above.

“If I slip now,” thought Severn, as he noticed the anxious, red face of his landlord, “I should squash him like a shrimp,” and he laughed to himself.

“Don’t come yet,” he called softly to Mrs. Thomas, whom he heard following. “If you slip, your husband’s bottom-most under the smash. ‘Beware the fearful avalanche!’”

He laughed, and Mrs. Thomas gave a little chuckle. Thomas, very red and flustered, glanced irritably back at them, but said nothing.

Near the bottom of the staircase there was a twist in the stairs. Severn was feeling particularly reckless. When he came to the turn, he chuckled to himself, feeling his house-slippers unsafe on the narrowed, triangular stairs. He loved a risk above all things, and a subconscious instinct made the risk doubly sweet when his rival was under the box. Though Severn would not knowingly have hurt a hair of his landlord’s head.

When Thomas was beginning to sweat with relief, being only one step from the landing, Severn did slip, quite accidentally. The great box crashed as if in pain, Severn glissaded down the stairs. Thomas was flung backwards across the landing, and his head went thud against the banister post. Severn, seeing no great harm done, was struggling to his feet, laughing and saying: “I’m awfully sorry —” when Thomas got up. The elder man was infuriated like a bull. He saw the laughing face of Severn and he went mad. His brown eyes flared.

“You — — you did it on purpose!” he shouted, and straightway he fetched the young man two heavy blows, upon the jaw and ear. Thomas, a footballer and a boxer in his youth, had been brought up among the roughs of Swansea; Severn in a religious college in France. The young man had never been struck in the face before. He instantly went white and mad with rage. Thomas stood on guard, fists up. But on the small, lumbered landing there was no room for fight. Moreover, Severn had no instinct of fisticuffs. With open, stiff fingers, the young man sprang on his adversary. In spite of the blow he received, but did not feel, he flung himself again forward, and then, catching Thomas’s collar, brought him down with a crash. Instantly his exquisite hands were dug in the other’s thick throat, the linen collar having been torn open. Thomas fought madly, with blind, brute strength. But the other lay wrapped on him like a white steel, his rare intelligence concentrated, not scattered; concentrated on strangling Thomas swiftly. He pressed forward, forcing his landlord’s head over the edge of the next flight of stairs. Thomas, stout and full-blooded, lost every trace of self-possession; he struggled like an animal at slaughter. The blood came out of his nose over his face; he made horrid choking sounds as he struggled.

Suddenly Severn felt his face turned between two hands. With a shock of real agony, he met the eyes of Kate. She bent forward, she captured his eyes.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she cried in frenzy of indignation. She leaned over him in her night-dress, her two black plaits hanging perpendicular. He hid his face, and took his hands away. As he kneeled to rise, he glanced up the stairs. Mrs. Thomas stood against the banisters, motionless in a trance of horror and remorse. He saw the remorse plainly. Severn turned away his face, and was wild with shame. He saw his landlord kneeling, his hands at his throat, choking, rattling, and gasping. The young man’s heart filled with remorse and grief. He put his arms round the heavy man, and raised him, saying tenderly:

“Let me help you up.”

He had got Thomas up against the wall, when the choked man began to slide down again in collapse, gasping all the time pitifully.

“No, stand up; you’re best standing up,” commanded Severn sharply, rearing his landlord up again. Thomas managed to obey, stupidly. His nose still bled, he still held his throat and gasped with a crowing sound. But his breathing was getting deeper.

“Water, Kate — and sponge — cold,” said Severn.

Kate was back in an instant. The young man bathed his landlord’s face and temples and throat. The bleeding ceased directly, the stout man’s breathing became a series of irregular, jerky gasps, like a child that has been sobbing hard. At last he took a long breath, and his breast settled into regular stroke, with little fluttering interruptions. Still holding his hand to his throat, he looked up with dazed, piteous brown eyes, mutely wretched and appealing. He moved his tongue as if to try it, put back his head a little, and moved the muscles of his throat. Then he replaced his hands on the place that ached.

Severn was grief-stricken. He would willingly, at that moment, have given his right hand for the man he had hurt.

Mrs. Thomas, meanwhile, stood on the stairs, watching: for a long time she dared not move, knowing she would sink down. She watched. One of the crises of her life was passing. Full of remorse, she passed over into the bitter land of repentance. She must no longer allow herself to hope for anything for herself. The rest of her life must be spent in self-abnegation: she must seek for no sympathy, must ask for no grace in love, no grace and harmony in living. Henceforward, as far as her own desires went, she was dead. She took a fierce joy in the anguish of it.

“Do you feel better?” Severn asked of the sick man. Thomas looked at the questioner with tragic brown eyes, in which was no anger, only mute self-pity. He did not answer, but looked like a wounded animal, very pitiable. Mrs. Thomas quickly repressed an impulse of impatient scorn, replacing it with a numb, abstract sense of duty, lofty and cold.

“Come,” said Severn, full of pity, and gentle as a woman. “Let me help you to bed.”

Thomas, leaning heavily on the young man, whose white garments were dabbed with blood and water, stumbled forlornly into his room. There Severn unlaced his boots and got off the remnant of his collar. At this point Mrs. Thomas came in. She had taken her part; she was weeping also.

“Thank you, Mr. Severn,” she said coldly. Severn, dismissed, slunk out of the room. She went up to her husband, took his pathetic head upon her bosom, and pressed it there. As Severn went downstairs, he heard the few sobs of the husband, among the quick sniffing of the wife’s tears. And he saw Kate, who had stood on the stairs to see all went well, climb up to her room with cold, calm face.

He locked up the house, put everything in order. Then he heated some water to bathe his face, which was swelling painfully. Having finished his fomentations, he sat thinking bitterly, with a good deal of shame.

As he sat, Mrs. Thomas came down for something. Her bearing was cold and hostile. She glanced round to see all was safe. Then:

“You will put out the light when you go to bed, Mr. Severn,” she said, more formally than a landlady at the seaside would speak. He was insulted: any ordinary being would turn off the light on retiring. Moreover, almost every night it was he who locked up the house, and came last to bed.

“I will, Mrs. Thomas,” he answered. He bowed, his eyes flickering with irony, because he knew his face was swollen.

She returned again after having reached the landing.

“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind helping ME down with the box,” she said, quietly and coldly. He did not reply, as he would have done an hour before, that he certainly should not help her, because it was a man’s job, and she must not do it. Now, he rose, bowed, and went upstairs with her. Taking the greater part of the weight, he came quickly downstairs with the load.

“Thank you; it’s very good of you. Good-night,” said Mrs. Thomas, and she retired.

In the morning Severn rose late. His face was considerably swollen. He went in his dressing-gown across to Thomas’s room. The other man lay in bed, looking much the same as ever, but mournful in aspect, though pleased within himself at being coddled.

“How are you this morning?” Severn asked.

Thomas smiled, looked almost with tenderness up at his friend.

“Oh, I’m all right, thanks,” he replied.

He looked at the other’s swollen and bruised cheek, then again, affectionately, into Severn’s eyes.

“I’m sorry”— with a glance of indication —“for that,” he said simply. Severn smiled with his eyes, in his own winsome manner.

“I didn’t know we were such essential brutes,” he said. “I thought I was so civilised . . .”

Again he smiled, with a wry, stiff mouth. Thomas gave a deprecating little grunt of a laugh.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “It shows a man’s got some fight in him.”

He looked up in the other’s face appealingly. Severn smiled, with a touch of bitterness. The two men grasped hands.

To the end of their acquaintance, Severn and Thomas were close friends, with a gentleness in their bearing, one towards the other. On the other hand, Mrs. Thomas was only polite and formal with Severn, treating him as if he were a stranger.

Kate, her fate disposed of by her “betters”, passed out of their three lives.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49