The White Peacock, by D. H. Lawrence

Chapter 8

A Prospect Among the Marshes of Lethe

George steadily declined from this time. I went to see him two years later. He was not at home. Meg wept to me as she told me of him, how he let the business slip, how he drank, what a brute he was in drink, and how unbearable afterwards. He was ruining his constitution, he was ruining her life and the children’s. I felt very sorry for her as she sat, large and ruddy, brimming over with bitter tears. She asked me if I did not think I might influence him. He was, she said, at the Ram. When he had an extra bad bout on he went up there, and stayed sometimes for a week at a time, with Oswald, coming back to the Hollies when he had recovered —“though,” said Meg, “he’s sick every morning and almost after every meal.”

All the time Meg was telling me this, sat curled up in a large chair their youngest boy, a pale, sensitive, rather spoiled lad of seven or eight years, with a petulant mouth and nervous dark eyes. He sat watching his mother as she told her tale, heaving his shoulders and settling himself in a new position when his feelings were nearly too much for him. He was full of wild, childish pity for his mother, and furious, childish hate of his father, the author of all their trouble. I called at the Ram and saw George. He was half drunk.

I went up to Highclose with a heavy heart. Lettie’s last child had been born, much to the surprise of everybody, some few months before I came down. There was a space of seven years between her youngest girl and this baby. Lettie was much absorbed in motherhood.

When I went up to talk to her about George, I found her in the bedroom nursing the baby, who was very good and quiet on her knee. She listened to me sadly, but her attention was caught away by each movement made by the child. As I was telling her of the attitude of George’s children towards their father and mother, she glanced from the baby to me, and exclaimed:

“See how he watches the light flash across your spectacles when you turn suddenly — Look!”

But I was weary of babies. My friends had all grown up and married and inflicted them on me. There were storms of babies. I longed for a place where they would be obsolete, and young, arrogant, impervious mothers might be a forgotten tradition. Lettie’s heart would quicken in answer to only one pulse, the easy, light ticking of the baby’s blood.

I remembered, one day as I sat in the train hastening to Charing Cross on my way from France, that that was George’s birthday. I had the feeling of him upon me, heavily, and I could not rid myself of the depression. I put it down to travel fatigue, and tried to dismiss it. As I watched the evening sun glitter along the new corn-stubble in the fields we passed, trying to describe the effect to myself, I found myself asking, “But — what’s the matter? I’ve not had bad news, have I, to make my chest feel so weighted?”

I was surprised when I reached my lodging in New Malden to find no letters for me, save one fat budget from Alice. I knew her squat, saturnine handwriting on the envelope, and I thought I knew what contents to expect from the letter.

She had married an old acquaintance who had been her particular aversion. This young man had got himself into trouble, so that the condemnations of the righteous pursued him like clouds of gnats on a summer evening. Alice immediately rose to sting back his vulgar enemies, and having rendered him a service, felt she could only wipe out the score by marrying him. They were fairly comfortable. Occasionally, as she said, there were displays of small fireworks in the back yard. He worked in the offices of some iron foundries just over the Erewash in Derbyshire. Alice lived in a dirty little place in the valley a mile and a half from Eberwich, not far from his work. She had no children, and practically no friends; a few young matrons for acquaintances. As wife of a superior clerk, she had to preserve her dignity among the work-people. So all her little crackling fires were sodded down with the sods of British respectability. Occasionally she smouldered a fierce smoke that made one’s eyes water. Occasionally, perhaps once a year, she wrote me a whole venomous budget, much to my amusement.

I was not in any haste to open this fat letter until, after supper, I turned to it as a resource from my depression.

“Oh dear, Cyril, I’m in a bubbling state, I want to yell, not write. Oh, Cyril, why didn’t you marry me, or why didn’t our Georgie Saxton, or somebody. I’m deadly sick. Percival Charles is enough to stop a clock. Oh, Cyril, he lives in an eternal Sunday suit, holy broadcloth and righteous three inches of cuffs! He goes to bed in it. Nay, he wallows in Bibles when he goes to bed. I can feel the brass covers of all his family Bibles sticking in my ribs as I lie by his side. I could weep with wrath, yet I put on my black hat and trot to chapel with him like a lamb.

“Oh, Cyril, nothing’s happened. Nothing has happened to me all these years. I shall die of it. When I see Percival Charles at dinner, after having asked a blessing, I feel as if I should never touch a bit at his table again. In about an hour I shall hear him hurrying up the entry — prayers always make him hungry — and his first look will be on the table. But I’m not fair to him — he’s really a good fellow — I only wish he wasn’t.

“It’s George Saxton who’s put this Seidlitz powder in my marital cup of cocoa. Cyril, I must a tale unfold. It is fifteen years since our George married Meg. When I count up, and think of the future, it nearly makes me scream. But my tale, my tale!

“Can you remember his faithful-dog, wounded-stag, gentle-gazelle eyes? Cyril, you can see the whisky or the brandy combusting in them. He’s got d.t.‘s, blue-devils — and I’ve seen him, and I’m swarming myself with little red devils after it. I went up to Eberwich on Wednesday afternoon for a pound of fry for Percival Charles’ Thursday dinner. I walked by that little path which you know goes round the back of the Hollies — it’s as near as any way for me. I thought I heard a row in the paddock at the back of the stables, so I said I might as well see the fun. I went to the gate, basket in one hand, ninepence in coppers in the other, a demure deacon’s wife. I didn’t take in the scene at first.

“There was our Georgie, in leggings and breeches as of yore, and a whip. He was flourishing, and striding, and yelling. ‘Go it, old boy,’ I said, ‘you’ll want your stocking round your throat tonight.’ But, Cyril, I had spoken too soon. Oh, lum! There came raking up the croft that long, wire-springy racehorse of his, ears flat, and, clinging to its neck, the pale-faced lad, Wilfred. The kid was white as death, and squealing ‘Mam! Mam!’ I thought it was a bit rotten of Georgie trying to teach the kid to jockey. The race-horse, Bonny-Boy — Boney Boy, I call him — came bouncing round like a spiral egg-whish. Then I saw our Georgie rush up screaming, nearly spitting the moustache off his face, and fetch the horse a cut with the whip. It went off like a flame along hot paraffin. The kid shrieked and clung. Georgie went rushing after him, running staggery, and swearing, fairly screaming — awful —‘a lily-livered little swine!’ The high lanky race-horse went larroping round as if it was going mad. I was dazed. Then Meg came rushing, and the other two lads, all screaming. She went for George, but he lifted his whip like the devil. She daren’t go near him — she rushed at him, and stopped, rushed at him, and stopped, striking at him with her two fists. He waved his whip and kept her off, and the race-horse kept tearing along. Meg flew to stop it, he ran with his drunken totter-step, brandishing his whip. I flew as well. I hit him with my basket. The kid fell off, and Mag rushed to him. Some men came running. George stood fairly shuddering. You would never have known his face, Cyril. He was mad, demoniacal. I feel sometimes as if I should burst and shatter to bits like a sky-rocket when I think of it. I’ve got such a weal on my arm.

“I lost Percival Charles’s ninepence and my nice white cloth out of the basket, and everything, besides having black looks on Thursday because it was mutton-chops, which he hates. Oh, Cyril, ‘I wish I was a cassowary, on the banks of the Timbuctoo.’ When I saw Meg sobbing over that lad — thank goodness he wasn’t hurt! — I wished our Georgie was dead; I do now, also; I wish we only had to remember him. I haven’t been to see them lately — can’t stand Meg’s ikeyness. I wonder how it all will end.

“There’s P. C. bidding ‘Good night and God bless You’ to Brother Jakes, and no supper ready —”

As soon as I could, after reading Alice’s letter, I went down to Eberwich to see how things were. Memories of the old days came over me again till my heart hungered for its old people.

They told me at the Hollies that, after a bad attack of delirium tremens, George had been sent to Papplewick in the lonely country to stay with Emily. I borrowed a bicycle to ride the nine miles. The summer had been wet, and everything was late. At the end of September the foliage was heavy green, and the wheat stood dejectedly in stook. I rode through the still sweetness of an autumn morning. The mist was folded blue along the hedges; the elm trees loomed up along the dim walls of the morning, the horse-chestnut trees at hand flickered with a few yellow leaves like bright blossoms. As I rode through the tree tunnel by the church where, on his last night, the keeper had told me his story, I smelled the cold rotting of the leaves of the cloudy summer.

I passed silently through the lanes, where the chill grass was weighed down with grey-blue seed-pearls of dew in the shadow, where the wet woollen spider-cloths of autumn were spread as on a loom. Brown birds rustled in flocks like driven leaves before me. I heard the far-off hooting of the “loose-all” at the pits, telling me it was half-past eleven, that the men and boys would be sitting in the narrow darkness of the mines eating their “snap”, while shadowy mice darted for the crumbs, and the boys laughed with red mouths rimmed with grime, as the bold little creatures peeped at them in the dim light of the lamps. The dogwood berries stood jauntily scarlet on the hedge-tops, the bunched scarlet and green berries of the convolvulus and bryony hung amid golden trails, the blackberries dropped ungathered. I rode slowly on, the plants dying around me, the berries leaning their heavy ruddy mouths, and languishing for the birds, the men imprisoned underground below me, the brown birds dashing in haste along the hedges.

Swineshed Farm, where the Renshaws lived, stood quite alone among its fields, hidden from the highway and from everything. The lane leading up to it was deep and unsunned. On my right, I caught glimpses through the hedge of the cornfields, where the shocks of wheat stood like small yellow-sailed ships in a widespread flotilla. The upper part of the field was cleared. I heard the clank of a wagon and the voices of men, and I saw the high load of sheaves go lurching, rocking up the incline to the stack-yard.

The lane debouched into a close-bitten field, and out of this empty land the farm rose up with its buildings like a huddle of old, painted vessels floating in still water. White fowls went stepping discreetly through the mild sunshine and the shadow. I leaned my bicycle against the grey, silken doors of the old coach-house. The place was breathing with silence. I hesitated to knock at the open door. Emily came. She was rich as always with her large beauty, and stately now with the stateliness of a strong woman six months gone with child.

She exclaimed with surprise, and I followed her into the kitchen, catching a glimpse of the glistening pans and the white wood baths as I passed through the scullery. The kitchen was a good-sized, low room that through long course of years had become absolutely a home. The great beams of the ceiling bowed easily, the chimney-seat had a bit of dark-green curtain, and under the high mantel-piece was another low shelf that the men could reach with their hands as they sat in the inglenook. There the pipes lay. Many generations of peaceful men and fruitful women had passed through the room, and not one but had added a new small comfort; a chair in the right place, a hook, a stool, a cushion, a certain pleasing cloth for the sofa covers, a shelf of books. The room, that looked so quiet and crude, was a home evolved through generations to fit the large bodies of the men who dwelled in it, and the placid fancy of the women. At last, it had an individuality. It was the home of the Renshaws, warm, lovable, serene. Emily was in perfect accord with its brownness, its shadows, its ease. I, as I sat on the sofa under the window, felt rejected by the kind room. I was distressed with a sense of ephemerality, of pale, erratic fragility.

Emily, in her full-blooded beauty, was at home. It is rare now to feel a kinship between a room and the one who inhabits it, a close bond of blood relation. Emily had at last found her place, and had escaped from the torture of strange, complex modern life. She was making a pie, and the flour was white on her brown arms. She pushed the tickling hair from her face with her arm, and looked at me with tranquil pleasure, as she worked the paste in the yellow bowl. I was quiet, subdued before her.

“You are very happy?” I said.

“Ah, very!” she replied. “And you? — you are not, you look worn.”

“Yes,” I replied. “I am happy enough. I am living my life.”

“Don’t you find it wearisome?” she asked pityingly.

She made me tell her all my doings, and she marvelled, but all the time her eyes were dubious and pitiful.

“You have George here,” I said.

“Yes. He’s in a poor state, but he’s not as sick as he was.”

“What about the delirium tremens?”

“Oh, he was better of that — very nearly — before he came here. He sometimes fancies they’re coming on again, and he’s terrified. Isn’t it awful! And he’s brought it all on himself. Tom’s very good to him.”

“There’s nothing the matter with him — physically, is there?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, as she went to the oven to turn a pie that was baking. She put her arm to her forehead and brushed aside her hair, leaving a mark of flour on her nose. For a moment or two she remained kneeling on the fender, looking into the fire and thinking. “He was in a poor way when he came here, could eat nothing, sick every morning. I suppose it’s his liver. They all end like that.” She continued to wipe the large black plums and put them in the dish.

“Hardening of the liver?” I asked. She nodded.

“And is he in bed?” I asked again.

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s as I say, if he’d get up and potter about a bit, he’d get over it. But he lies there skulking.”

“And what time will he get up?” I insisted.

“I don’t know. He may crawl down somewhere towards teatime. Do you want to see him? That’s what you came for, isn’t it?”

She smiled at me with a little sarcasm, and added, “You always thought more of him than anybody, didn’t you? Ah, well, come up and see him.”

I followed her up the back stairs, which led out of the kitchen, and which emerged straight in a bedroom. We crossed the hollow-sounding plaster-floor of this naked room and opened a door at the opposite side. George lay in bed watching us with apprehensive eyes.

“Here is Cyril come to see you,” said Emily, “so I’ve brought him up, for I didn’t know when you’d be downstairs.”

A small smile of relief came on his face, and he put out his hand from the bed. He lay with the disorderly clothes pulled up to his chin. His face was discoloured and rather bloated, his nose swollen.

“Don’t you feel so well this morning?” asked Emily, softening with pity when she came into contact with his sickness.

“Oh, all right,” he replied, wishing only to get rid of us.

“You should try to get up a bit, it’s a beautiful morning, warm and soft —” she said gently. He did not reply, and she went downstairs.

I looked round to the cold, whitewashed room, with its ceiling curving and sloping down the walls. It was sparsely furnished, and bare of even the slightest ornament. The only things of warm colour were the cow and horse skins on the floor. All the rest was white or grey or drab. On one side, the room sloped down so that the window was below my knees, and nearly touching the floor, on the other side was a larger window, breast high. Through it one could see the jumbled, ruddy roofs of the sheds and the skies. The tiles were shining with patches of vivid orange lichen. Beyond was the cornfield, and the men, small in the distance, lifting the sheaves on the cart.

“You will come back to farming again, won’t you?” I asked him, turning to the bed. He smiled.

“I don’t know,” he answered dully.

“Would you rather I went downstairs?” I asked.

“No, I’m glad to see you,” he replied, in the same uneasy fashion.

“I’ve only just come back from France,” I said.

“Ah!” he replied, indifferent.

“I am sorry you’re ill,” I said.

He stared unmovedly at the opposite wall. I went to the window and looked out. After some time, I compelled myself to say, in a casual manner:

“Won’t you get up and come out a bit?”

“I suppose I s’ll have to,” he said, gathering himself slowly together for the effort. He pushed himself up in bed.

When he took off the jacket of his pyjamas to wash himself I turned away. His arms seemed thin, and he had bellied, and was bowed and unsightly. I remembered the morning we swam in the millpond. I remembered that he was now in the prime of his life. I looked at his bluish feeble hands as he laboriously washed himself. The soap once slipped from his fingers as he was picking it up, and fell, rattling the pot loudly. It startled us, and he seemed to grip the sides of the washstand to steady himself. Then he went on with his slow, painful toilet. As he combed his hair he looked at himself with dull eyes of shame.

The men were coming in from the scullery when we got downstairs. Dinner was smoking on the table. I shook hands with Tom Renshaw, and with the old man’s hard, fierce left hand. Then I was introduced to Arthur Renshaw, a clean-faced, large, bashful lad of twenty. I nodded to the man, Jim, and to Jim’s wife, Annie. We all sat down to table.

“Well, an’ ‘ow are ter feelin’ by now, like?” asked the old man heartily of George. Receiving no answer, he continued, “Tha should ‘a gor up an’ corn’ an’ gen us a ‘and wi’ th’ wheat, it ‘ud ‘a done thee good.”

“You will have a bit of this mutton, won’t you?” Tom asked him, tapping the joint with the carving-knife. George shook his head.

“It’s quite lean and tender,” he said gently.

“No, thanks,” said George.

“Gi’e ’im a bit, gi’e ’im a bit!” cried the old man. “It’ll do ’im good — it’s what ‘e wants, a bit o’ strengthenin’ nourishment.”

“It’s no good if his stomach won’t have it.” said Tom, in mild reproof, as if he were sneaking of a child. Arthur filled George’s glass with beer without speaking. The two young men were full of kind, gentle attention.

“Let ’im ‘a’e a spoonful o’ tonnup then,” persisted the old man. “I canna eat while ‘is plate stands there emp’y.”

So they put turnip and onion sauce on George’s plate, and he took up his fork and tasted a few mouthfuls. The men ate largely, and with zest. The sight of their grand satisfaction, amounting almost to gusto, sickened him.

When at last the old man laid down the dessert-spoon which he used in place of a knife and fork, he looked again at George’s plate, and said:

“Why tha ‘asna aten a smite, not a smite! Tha non goos th’ raight road to be better.”

George maintained a stupid silence.

“Don’t bother him, Father,” said Emily.

“Tha art an öwd whittle, Feythey,” added Tom, smiling good-naturedly. He spoke to his father in dialect, but to Emily in good English. Whatever she said had Tom’s immediate support. Before serving us with pie, Emily gave her brother junket and damsons, setting the plate and the spoon before him as if he were a child. For this act of grace Tom looked at her lovingly, and stroked her hand as she passed.

After dinner, George said, with a miserable struggle for an indifferent tone:

“Aren’t you going to give Cyril a glass of whisky?”

He looked up furtively, in a conflict of shame and hope. A silence fell on the room.

“Ay!” said the old man softly. “Let ’im ‘ave a drop.”

“Yes!” added Tom, in submissive pleading.

All the men in the room shrank a little, awaiting the verdict of the woman.

“I don’t know,” she said clearly, “that Cyril wants a glass.”

“I don’t mind,” I answered, feeling myself blush. I had not the courage to counteract her will directly. Not even the old man had that courage. We waited in suspense. After keeping us so for a few minutes, while we smouldered with mortification, she went into another room, and we heard her unlocking a door. She returned with a decanter containing rather less than half a pint of liquor. She put out five tumblers.

“Tha neda gi’e me none,” said the old man. “Ah’m non a proud chap. Ah’m not.”

“Nor me neither,” said Arthur.

“You will, Tom?” she asked.

“Do you want me to?” he replied, smiling.

“I don’t,” she answered sharply. “I want nobody to have it, when you look at the results of it. But if Cyril is having a glass, you may as well have one with him.”

Tom was pleased with her. She gave her husband and me fairly stiff glasses.

“Steady, steady!” he said. “Give that George, and give me not so much. Two fingers, two of your fingers, you know.”

But she passed him the glass. When George had had his share, there remained but a drop in the decanter.

Emily watched the drunkard coldly as he took this remainder.

George and I talked for a time while the men smoked. He, from his glum stupidity, broke into a harsh, almost imbecile loquacity.

“Have you seen my family lately?” he asked, continuing. “Yes! Not badly set up, are they, the children? But the little devils are soft, mard-soft, every one of ’em. It’s their mother’s bringin’ up — she marded ’em till they were soft, an’ would never let me have a say in it. I should ‘a brought ’em up different, you know I should.”

Tom looked at Emily, and, remarking her angry contempt, suggested that she should go out with him to look at the stacks. I watched the tall, square-shouldered man leaning with deference and tenderness towards his wife as she walked calmly at his side. She was the mistress, quiet and self-assured, he her rejoiced husband and servant.

George was talking about himself. If I had not seen him, I should hardly have recognised the words as his. He was lamentably decayed. He talked stupidly, with vulgar contumely of others, and in weak praise of himself.

The old man rose, with a:

“Well, I suppose we mun ma’e another dag at it,” and the men left the house.

George continued his foolish, harsh monologue, making gestures of emphasis with his head and his hands. He continued when we were walking round the buildings into the fields, the same babble of bragging and abuse. I was wearied and disgusted. He looked, and he sounded, so worthless.

Across the empty cornfield the partridges were running. We walked through the September haze slowly, because he was feeble on his legs. As he became tired he ceased to talk. We leaned for some time on a gate, in the brief glow of the transient afternoon, and he was stupid again. He did not notice the brown haste of the partridges, he did not care to share with me the handful of ripe blackberries, and when I pulled the bryony ropes off the hedges, and held the great knots of red and green berries in my hand, he glanced at them without interest or appreciation.

“Poison-berries, aren’t they?” he said dully.

Like a tree that is falling, going soft and pale and rotten, clammy with small fungi, he stood leaning against the gate, while the dim afternoon drifted with a flow of thick sweet sunshine past him, not touching him.

In the stackyard, the summer’s splendid monuments of wheat and grass were reared in gold and grey. The wheat was littered brightly round the rising stack. The loaded wagon clanked slowly up the incline, drew near, and rode like a ship at anchor against the scotches, brushing the stack with a crisp, sharp sound. Tom climbed the ladder and stood a moment there against the sky, amid the brightness and fragrance of the gold corn, and waved his arm to his wife who was passing in the shadow of the building. Then Arthur began to lift the sheaves to the stack, and the two men worked in an exquisite, subtle rhythm, their white sleeves and their dark heads gleaming, moving against the mild sky and the corn. The silence was broken only by the occasional lurch of the body of the wagon, as the teamer stepped to the front, or again to the rear of the load. Occasionally I could catch the blue glitter of the prongs of the forks. Tom, now lifted high above the small wagon load, called to his brother some question about the stack. The sound of his voice was strong and mellow.

I turned to George, who was also watching, and said: “You ought to be like that.”

We heard Tom calling, “All right!” and saw him standing high up on the tallest corner of the stack, as on the prow of a ship.

George watched, and his face slowly gathered expression. He turned to me, his dark eyes alive with horror and despair.

“I shall soon — be out of everybody’s way!” he said. His moment of fear and despair was cruel. I cursed myself for having roused him from his stupor.

“You will be better,” I said.

He watched again the handsome movement of the men at the stack.

“I couldn’t team ten sheaves,” he said.

“You will in a month or two,” I urged.

He continued to watch, while Tom got on the ladder and came down the front of the stack.

“Nay, the sooner I clear out, the better,” he repeated to himself.

When we went in to tea, he was, as Tom said, “downcast”. The men talked uneasily with abated voices. Emily attended to him with a little, palpitating solicitude. We were all uncomfortably impressed with the sense of our alienation from him He sat apart and obscure among us, like a condemned man.

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