ARTHUR finished his apprenticeship, and got a job on the electrical plant at Minton Pit. He earned very little, but had a good chance of getting on. But he was wild and restless. He did not drink nor gamble. Yet he somehow contrived to get into endless scrapes, always through some hot-headed thoughtlessness. Either he went rabbiting in the woods, like a poacher, or he stayed in Nottingham all night instead of coming home, or he miscalculated his dive into the canal at Bestwood, and scored his chest into one mass of wounds on the raw stones and tins at the bottom.
He had not been at his work many months when again he did not come home one night.
“Do you know where Arthur is?” asked Paul at breakfast.
“I do not,” replied his mother.
“He is a fool,” said Paul. “And if he DID anything I shouldn’t mind. But no, he simply can’t come away from a game of whist, or else he must see a girl home from the skating-rink — quite proprietously — and so can’t get home. He’s a fool.”
“I don’t know that it would make it any better if he did something to make us all ashamed,” said Mrs. Morel.
“Well, I should respect him more,” said Paul.
“I very much doubt it,” said his mother coldly.
They went on with breakfast.
“Are you fearfully fond of him?” Paul asked his mother.
“What do you ask that for?”
“Because they say a woman always like the youngest best.”
“She may do — but I don’t. No, he wearies me.”
“And you’d actually rather he was good?”
“I’d rather he showed some of a man’s common sense.”
Paul was raw and irritable. He also wearied his mother very often. She saw the sunshine going out of him, and she resented it.
As they were finishing breakfast came the postman with a letter from Derby. Mrs. Morel screwed up her eyes to look at the address.
“Give it here, blind eye!” exclaimed her son, snatching it away from her.
She started, and almost boxed his ears.
“It’s from your son, Arthur,” he said.
“What now —-!” cried Mrs. Morel.
“‘My dearest Mother,’” Paul read, “‘I don’t know what made me such a fool. I want you to come and fetch me back from here. I came with Jack Bredon yesterday, instead of going to work, and enlisted. He said he was sick of wearing the seat of a stool out, and, like the idiot you know I am, I came away with him.
“‘I have taken the King’s shilling, but perhaps if you came for me they would let me go back with you. I was a fool when I did it. I don’t want to be in the army. My dear mother, I am nothing but a trouble to you. But if you get me out of this, I promise I will have more sense and consideration . . . .’”
Mrs. Morel sat down in her rocking-chair.
“Well, NOW,” she cried, “let him stop!”
“Yes,” said Paul, “let him stop.”
There was silence. The mother sat with her hands folded in her apron, her face set, thinking.
“If I’m not SICK!” she cried suddenly. “Sick!”
“Now,” said Paul, beginning to frown, “you’re not going to worry your soul out about this, do you hear.”
“I suppose I’m to take it as a blessing,” she flashed, turning on her son.
“You’re not going to mount it up to a tragedy, so there,” he retorted.
“The FOOL! — the young fool!” she cried.
“He’ll look well in uniform,” said Paul irritatingly.
His mother turned on him like a fury.
“Oh, will he!” she cried. “Not in my eyes!”
“He should get in a cavalry regiment; he’ll have the time of his life, and will look an awful swell.”
“Swell! — SWELL! — a mighty swell idea indeed! — a common soldier!”
“Well,” said Paul, “what am I but a common clerk?”
“A good deal, my boy!” cried his mother, stung.
“At any rate, a MAN, and not a thing in a red coat.”
“I shouldn’t mind being in a red coat — or dark blue, that would suit me better — if they didn’t boss me about too much.”
But his mother had ceased to listen.
“Just as he was getting on, or might have been getting on, at his job — a young nuisance — here he goes and ruins himself for life. What good will he be, do you think, after THIS?”
“It may lick him into shape beautifully,” said Paul.
“Lick him into shape! — lick what marrow there WAS out of his bones. A SOLDIER! — a common SOLDIER! — nothing but a body that makes movements when it hears a shout! It’s a fine thing!”
“I can’t understand why it upsets you,” said Paul.
“No, perhaps you can’t. But I understand”; and she sat back in her chair, her chin in one hand, holding her elbow with the other, brimmed up with wrath and chagrin.
“And shall you go to Derby?” asked Paul.
“It’s no good.”
“I’ll see for myself.”
“And why on earth don’t you let him stop. It’s just what he wants.”
“Of course,” cried the mother, “YOU know what he wants!”
She got ready and went by the first train to Derby, where she saw her son and the sergeant. It was, however, no good.
When Morel was having his dinner in the evening, she said suddenly:
“I’ve had to go to Derby to-day.”
The miner turned up his eyes, showing the whites in his black face.
“Has ter, lass. What took thee there?”
“Oh — an’ what’s agate now?”
“He’s only enlisted.”
Morel put down his knife and leaned back in his chair.
“Nay,” he said, “that he niver ’as!”
“And is going down to Aldershot tomorrow.”
“Well!” exclaimed the miner. “That’s a winder.” He considered it a moment, said “H’m!” and proceeded with his dinner. Suddenly his face contracted with wrath. “I hope he may never set foot i’ my house again,” he said.
“The idea!” cried Mrs. Morel. “Saying such a thing!”
“I do,” repeated Morel. “A fool as runs away for a soldier, let ’im look after ’issen; I s’ll do no more for ’im.”
“A fat sight you have done as it is,” she said.
And Morel was almost ashamed to go to his public-house that evening.
“Well, did you go?” said Paul to his mother when he came home.
“And could you see him?”
“And what did he say?”
“He blubbered when I came away.”
“And so did I, so you needn’t ‘h’m’!”
Mrs. Morel fretted after her son. She knew he would not like the army. He did not. The discipline was intolerable to him.
“But the doctor,” she said with some pride to Paul, “said he was perfectly proportioned — almost exactly; all his measurements were correct. He IS good-looking, you know.”
“He’s awfully nice-looking. But he doesn’t fetch the girls like William, does he?”
“No; it’s a different character. He’s a good deal like his father, irresponsible.”
To console his mother, Paul did not go much to Willey Farm at this time. And in the autumn exhibition of students’ work in the Castle he had two studies, a landscape in water-colour and a still life in oil, both of which had first-prize awards. He was highly excited.
“What do you think I’ve got for my pictures, mother?” he asked, coming home one evening. She saw by his eyes he was glad. Her face flushed.
“Now, how should I know, my boy!”
“A first prize for those glass jars —-”
“And a first prize for that sketch up at Willey Farm.”
There was a rosy, bright look about her, though she said nothing.
“It’s nice,” he said, “isn’t it?”
“Why don’t you praise me up to the skies?”
“I should have the trouble of dragging you down again,” she said.
But she was full of joy, nevertheless. William had brought her his sporting trophies. She kept them still, and she did not forgive his death. Arthur was handsome — at least, a good specimen — and warm and generous, and probably would do well in the end. But Paul was going to distinguish himself. She had a great belief in him, the more because he was unaware of his own powers. There was so much to come out of him. Life for her was rich with promise. She was to see herself fulfilled. Not for nothing had been her struggle.
Several times during the exhibition Mrs. Morel went to the Castle unknown to Paul. She wandered down the long room looking at the other exhibits. Yes, they were good. But they had not in them a certain something which she demanded for her satisfaction. Some made her jealous, they were so good. She looked at them a long time trying to find fault with them. Then suddenly she had a shock that made her heart beat. There hung Paul’s picture! She knew it as if it were printed on her heart.
“Name — Paul Morel — First Prize.”
It looked so strange, there in public, on the walls of the Castle gallery, where in her lifetime she had seen so many pictures. And she glanced round to see if anyone had noticed her again in front of the same sketch.
But she felt a proud woman. When she met well-dressed ladies going home to the Park, she thought to herself:
“Yes, you look very well — but I wonder if YOUR son has two first prizes in the Castle.”
And she walked on, as proud a little woman as any in Nottingham. And Paul felt he had done something for her, if only a trifle. All his work was hers.
One day, as he was going up Castle Gate, he met Miriam. He had seen her on the Sunday, and had not expected to meet her in town. She was walking with a rather striking woman, blonde, with a sullen expression, and a defiant carriage. It was strange how Miriam, in her bowed, meditative bearing, looked dwarfed beside this woman with the handsome shoulders. Miriam watched Paul searchingly. His gaze was on the stranger, who ignored him. The girl saw his masculine spirit rear its head.
“Hello!” he said, “you didn’t tell me you were coming to town.”
“No,” replied Miriam, half apologetically. “I drove in to Cattle Market with father.”
He looked at her companion.
“I’ve told you about Mrs. Dawes,” said Miriam huskily; she was nervous. “Clara, do you know Paul?”
“I think I’ve seen him before,” replied Mrs. Dawes indifferently, as she shook hands with him. She had scornful grey eyes, a skin like white honey, and a full mouth, with a slightly lifted upper lip that did not know whether it was raised in scorn of all men or out of eagerness to be kissed, but which believed the former. She carried her head back, as if she had drawn away in contempt, perhaps from men also. She wore a large, dowdy hat of black beaver, and a sort of slightly affected simple dress that made her look rather sack-like. She was evidently poor, and had not much taste. Miriam usually looked nice.
“Where have you seen me?” Paul asked of the woman.
She looked at him as if she would not trouble to answer. Then:
“Walking with Louie Travers,” she said.
Louie was one of the “Spiral” girls.
“Why, do you know her?” he asked.
She did not answer. He turned to Miriam.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the Castle.”
“What train are you going home by?”
“I am driving with father. I wish you could come too. What time are you free?”
“You know not till eight to-night, damn it!”
And directly the two women moved on.
Paul remembered that Clara Dawes was the daughter of an old friend of Mrs. Leivers. Miriam had sought her out because she had once been Spiral overseer at Jordan’s, and because her husband, Baxter Dawes, was smith for the factory, making the irons for cripple instruments, and so on. Through her Miriam felt she got into direct contact with Jordan’s, and could estimate better Paul’s position. But Mrs. Dawes was separated from her husband, and had taken up Women’s Rights. She was supposed to be clever. It interested Paul.
Baxter Dawes he knew and disliked. The smith was a man of thirty-one or thirty-two. He came occasionally through Paul’s corner — a big, well-set man, also striking to look at, and handsome. There was a peculiar similarity between himself and his wife. He had the same white skin, with a clear, golden tinge. His hair was of soft brown, his moustache was golden. And he had a similar defiance in his bearing and manner. But then came the difference. His eyes, dark brown and quick-shifting, were dissolute. They protruded very slightly, and his eyelids hung over them in a way that was half hate. His mouth, too, was sensual. His whole manner was of cowed defiance, as if he were ready to knock anybody down who disapproved of him — perhaps because he really disapproved of himself.
From the first day he had hated Paul. Finding the lad’s impersonal, deliberate gaze of an artist on his face, he got into a fury.
“What are yer lookin’ at?” he sneered, bullying.
The boy glanced away. But the smith used to stand behind the counter and talk to Mr. Pappleworth. His speech was dirty, with a kind of rottenness. Again he found the youth with his cool, critical gaze fixed on his face. The smith started round as if he had been stung.
“What’r yer lookin’ at, three hap’orth o’ pap?” he snarled.
The boy shrugged his shoulders slightly.
“Why yer —-!” shouted Dawes.
“Leave him alone,” said Mr. Pappleworth, in that insinuating voice which means, “He’s only one of your good little sops who can’t help it.”
Since that time the boy used to look at the man every time he came through with the same curious criticism, glancing away before he met the smith’s eye. It made Dawes furious. They hated each other in silence.
Clara Dawes had no children. When she had left her husband the home had been broken up, and she had gone to live with her mother. Dawes lodged with his sister. In the same house was a sister-in-law, and somehow Paul knew that this girl, Louie Travers, was now Dawes’s woman. She was a handsome, insolent hussy, who mocked at the youth, and yet flushed if he walked along to the station with her as she went home.
The next time he went to see Miriam it was Saturday evening. She had a fire in the parlour, and was waiting for him. The others, except her father and mother and the young children, had gone out, so the two had the parlour together. It was a long, low, warm room. There were three of Paul’s small sketches on the wall, and his photo was on the mantelpiece. On the table and on the high old rosewood piano were bowls of coloured leaves. He sat in the armchair, she crouched on the hearthrug near his feet. The glow was warm on her handsome, pensive face as she kneeled there like a devotee.
“What did you think of Mrs. Dawes?” she asked quietly.
“She doesn’t look very amiable,” he replied.
“No, but don’t you think she’s a fine woman?” she said, in a deep tone,
“Yes — in stature. But without a grain of taste. I like her for some things. IS she disagreeable?”
“I don’t think so. I think she’s dissatisfied.”
“Well — how would you like to be tied for life to a man like that?”
“Why did she marry him, then, if she was to have revulsions so soon?”
“Ay, why did she!” repeated Miriam bitterly.
“And I should have thought she had enough fight in her to match him,” he said.
Miriam bowed her head.
“Ay?” she queried satirically. “What makes you think so?”
“Look at her mouth — made for passion — and the very setback of her throat —-” He threw his head back in Clara’s defiant manner.
Miriam bowed a little lower.
“Yes,” she said.
There was a silence for some moments, while he thought of Clara.
“And what were the things you liked about her?” she asked.
“I don’t know — her skin and the texture of her — and her — I don’t know — there’s a sort of fierceness somewhere in her. I appreciate her as an artist, that’s all.”
He wondered why Miriam crouched there brooding in that strange way. It irritated him.
“You don’t really like her, do you?” he asked the girl.
She looked at him with her great, dazzled dark eyes.
“I do,” she said.
“You don’t — you can’t — not really.”
“Then what?” she asked slowly.
“Eh, I don’t know — perhaps you like her because she’s got a grudge against men.”
That was more probably one of his own reasons for liking Mrs. Dawes, but this did not occur to him. They were silent. There had come into his forehead a knitting of the brows which was becoming habitual with him, particularly when he was with Miriam. She longed to smooth it away, and she was afraid of it. It seemed the stamp of a man who was not her man in Paul Morel.
There were some crimson berries among the leaves in the bowl. He reached over and pulled out a bunch.
“If you put red berries in your hair,” he said, “why would you look like some witch or priestess, and never like a reveller?”
She laughed with a naked, painful sound.
“I don’t know,” she said.
His vigorous warm hands were playing excitedly with the berries.
“Why can’t you laugh?” he said. “You never laugh laughter. You only laugh when something is odd or incongruous, and then it almost seems to hurt you.”
She bowed her head as if he were scolding her.
“I wish you could laugh at me just for one minute — just for one minute. I feel as if it would set something free.”
“But”— and she looked up at him with eyes frightened and struggling —“I do laugh at you — I DO.”
“Never! There’s always a kind of intensity. When you laugh I could always cry; it seems as if it shows up your suffering. Oh, you make me knit the brows of my very soul and cogitate.”
Slowly she shook her head despairingly.
“I’m sure I don’t want to,” she said.
“I’m so damned spiritual with YOU always!” he cried.
She remained silent, thinking, “Then why don’t you be otherwise.” But he saw her crouching, brooding figure, and it seemed to tear him in two.
“But, there, it’s autumn,” he said, “and everybody feels like a disembodied spirit then.”
There was still another silence. This peculiar sadness between them thrilled her soul. He seemed so beautiful with his eyes gone dark, and looking as if they were deep as the deepest well.
“You make me so spiritual!” he lamented. “And I don’t want to be spiritual.”
She took her finger from her mouth with a little pop, and looked up at him almost challenging. But still her soul was naked in her great dark eyes, and there was the same yearning appeal upon her. If he could have kissed her in abstract purity he would have done so. But he could not kiss her thus — and she seemed to leave no other way. And she yearned to him.
He gave a brief laugh.
“Well,” he said, “get that French and we’ll do some — some Verlaine.”
“Yes,” she said in a deep tone, almost of resignation. And she rose and got the books. And her rather red, nervous hands looked so pitiful, he was mad to comfort her and kiss her. But then be dared not — or could not. There was something prevented him. His kisses were wrong for her. They continued the reading till ten o’clock, when they went into the kitchen, and Paul was natural and jolly again with the father and mother. His eyes were dark and shining; there was a kind of fascination about him.
When he went into the barn for his bicycle he found the front wheel punctured.
“Fetch me a drop of water in a bowl,” he said to her. “I shall be late, and then I s’ll catch it.”
He lighted the hurricane lamp, took off his coat, turned up the bicycle, and set speedily to work. Miriam came with the bowl of water and stood close to him, watching. She loved to see his hands doing things. He was slim and vigorous, with a kind of easiness even in his most hasty movements. And busy at his work he seemed to forget her. She loved him absorbedly. She wanted to run her hands down his sides. She always wanted to embrace him, so long as he did not want her.
“There!” he said, rising suddenly. “Now, could you have done it quicker?”
“No!” she laughed.
He straightened himself. His back was towards her. She put her two hands on his sides, and ran them quickly down.
“You are so FINE!” she said.
He laughed, hating her voice, but his blood roused to a wave of flame by her hands. She did not seem to realise HIM in all this. He might have been an object. She never realised the male he was.
He lighted his bicycle-lamp, bounced the machine on the barn floor to see that the tyres were sound, and buttoned his coat.
“That’s all right!” he said.
She was trying the brakes, that she knew were broken.
“Did you have them mended?” she asked.
“But why didn’t you?”
“The back one goes on a bit.”
“But it’s not safe.”
“I can use my toe.”
“I wish you’d had them mended,” she murmured.
“Don’t worry — come to tea tomorrow, with Edgar.”
“Do — about four. I’ll come to meet you.”
She was pleased. They went across the dark yard to the gate. Looking across, he saw through the uncurtained window of the kitchen the heads of Mr. and Mrs. Leivers in the warm glow. It looked very cosy. The road, with pine trees, was quite black in front.
“Till tomorrow,” he said, jumping on his bicycle.
“You’ll take care, won’t you?” she pleaded.
His voice already came out of the darkness. She stood a moment watching the light from his lamp race into obscurity along the ground. She turned very slowly indoors. Orion was wheeling up over the wood, his dog twinkling after him, half smothered. For the rest the world was full of darkness, and silent, save for the breathing of cattle in their stalls. She prayed earnestly for his safety that night. When he left her, she often lay in anxiety, wondering if he had got home safely.
He dropped down the hills on his bicycle. The roads were greasy, so he had to let it go. He felt a pleasure as the machine plunged over the second, steeper drop in the hill. “Here goes!” he said. It was risky, because of the curve in the darkness at the bottom, and because of the brewers’ waggons with drunken waggoners asleep. His bicycle seemed to fall beneath him, and he loved it. Recklessness is almost a man’s revenge on his woman. He feels he is not valued, so he will risk destroying himself to deprive her altogether.
The stars on the lake seemed to leap like grasshoppers, silver upon the blackness, as he spun past. Then there was the long climb home.
“See, mother!” he said, as he threw her the berries and leaves on to the table.
“H’m!” she said, glancing at them, then away again. She sat reading, alone, as she always did.
“Aren’t they pretty?”
He knew she was cross with him. After a few minutes he said:
“Edgar and Miriam are coming to tea tomorrow.”
She did not answer.
“You don’t mind?”
Still she did not answer.
“Do you?” he asked.
“You know whether I mind or not.”
“I don’t see why you should. I have plenty of meals there.”
“Then why do you begrudge them tea?”
“I begrudge whom tea?”
“What are you so horrid for?”
“Oh, say no more! You’ve asked her to tea, it’s quite sufficient. She’ll come.”
He was very angry with his mother. He knew it was merely Miriam she objected to. He flung off his boots and went to bed.
Paul went to meet his friends the next afternoon. He was glad to see them coming. They arrived home at about four o’clock. Everywhere was clean and still for Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Morel sat in her black dress and black apron. She rose to meet the visitors. With Edgar she was cordial, but with Miriam cold and rather grudging. Yet Paul thought the girl looked so nice in her brown cashmere frock.
He helped his mother to get the tea ready. Miriam would have gladly proffered, but was afraid. He was rather proud of his home. There was about it now, he thought, a certain distinction. The chairs were only wooden, and the sofa was old. But the hearthrug and cushions were cosy; the pictures were prints in good taste; there was a simplicity in everything, and plenty of books. He was never ashamed in the least of his home, nor was Miriam of hers, because both were what they should be, and warm. And then he was proud of the table; the china was pretty, the cloth was fine. It did not matter that the spoons were not silver nor the knives ivory-handled; everything looked nice. Mrs. Morel had managed wonderfully while her children were growing up, so that nothing was out of place.
Miriam talked books a little. That was her unfailing topic. But Mrs. Morel was not cordial, and turned soon to Edgar.
At first Edgar and Miriam used to go into Mrs. Morel’s pew. Morel never went to chapel, preferring the public-house. Mrs. Morel, like a little champion, sat at the head of her pew, Paul at the other end; and at first Miriam sat next to him. Then the chapel was like home. It was a pretty place, with dark pews and slim, elegant pillars, and flowers. And the same people had sat in the same places ever since he was a boy. It was wonderfully sweet and soothing to sit there for an hour and a half, next to Miriam, and near to his mother, uniting his two loves under the spell of the place of worship. Then he felt warm and happy and religious at once. And after chapel he walked home with Miriam, whilst Mrs. Morel spent the rest of the evening with her old friend, Mrs. Burns. He was keenly alive on his walks on Sunday nights with Edgar and Miriam. He never went past the pits at night, by the lighted lamp-house, the tall black headstocks and lines of trucks, past the fans spinning slowly like shadows, without the feeling of Miriam returning to him, keen and almost unbearable.
She did not very long occupy the Morels’ pew. Her father took one for themselves once more. It was under the little gallery, opposite the Morels’. When Paul and his mother came in the chapel the Leivers’s pew was always empty. He was anxious for fear she would not come: it was so far, and there were so many rainy Sundays. Then, often very late indeed, she came in, with her long stride, her head bowed, her face hidden under her bat of dark green velvet. Her face, as she sat opposite, was always in shadow. But it gave him a very keen feeling, as if all his soul stirred within him, to see her there. It was not the same glow, happiness, and pride, that he felt in having his mother in charge: something more wonderful, less human, and tinged to intensity by a pain, as if there were something he could not get to.
At this time he was beginning to question the orthodox creed. He was twenty-one, and she was twenty. She was beginning to dread the spring: he became so wild, and hurt her so much. All the way he went cruelly smashing her beliefs. Edgar enjoyed it. He was by nature critical and rather dispassionate. But Miriam suffered exquisite pain, as, with an intellect like a knife, the man she loved examined her religion in which she lived and moved and had her being. But he did not spare her. He was cruel. And when they went alone he was even more fierce, as if he would kill her soul. He bled her beliefs till she almost lost consciousness.
“She exults — she exults as she carries him off from me,” Mrs. Morel cried in her heart when Paul had gone. “She’s not like an ordinary woman, who can leave me my share in him. She wants to absorb him. She wants to draw him out and absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself. He will never be a man on his own feet — she will suck him up.” So the mother sat, and battled and brooded bitterly.
And he, coming home from his walks with Miriam, was wild with torture. He walked biting his lips and with clenched fists, going at a great rate. Then, brought up against a stile, he stood for some minutes, and did not move. There was a great hollow of darkness fronting him, and on the black upslopes patches of tiny lights, and in the lowest trough of the night, a flare of the pit. It was all weird and dreadful. Why was he torn so, almost bewildered, and unable to move? Why did his mother sit at home and suffer? He knew she suffered badly. But why should she? And why did he hate Miriam, and feel so cruel towards her, at the thought of his mother. If Miriam caused his mother suffering, then he hated her — and he easily hated her. Why did she make him feel as if he were uncertain of himself, insecure, an indefinite thing, as if he had not sufficient sheathing to prevent the night and the space breaking into him? How he hated her! And then, what a rush of tenderness and humility!
Suddenly he plunged on again, running home. His mother saw on him the marks of some agony, and she said nothing. But he had to make her talk to him. Then she was angry with him for going so far with Miriam.
“Why don’t you like her, mother?” he cried in despair.
“I don’t know, my boy,” she replied piteously. “I’m sure I’ve tried to like her. I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t — I can’t!”
And he felt dreary and hopeless between the two.
Spring was the worst time. He was changeable, and intense and cruel. So he decided to stay away from her. Then came the hours when he knew Miriam was expecting him. His mother watched him growing restless. He could not go on with his work. He could do nothing. It was as if something were drawing his soul out towards Willey Farm. Then he put on his hat and went, saying nothing. And his mother knew he was gone. And as soon as he was on the way he sighed with relief. And when he was with her he was cruel again.
One day in March he lay on the bank of Nethermere, with Miriam sitting beside him. It was a glistening, white-and-blue day. Big clouds, so brilliant, went by overhead, while shadows stole along on the water. The clear spaces in the sky were of clean, cold blue. Paul lay on his back in the old grass, looking up. He could not bear to look at Miriam. She seemed to want him, and he resisted. He resisted all the time. He wanted now to give her passion and tenderness, and he could not. He felt that she wanted the soul out of his body, and not him. All his strength and energy she drew into herself through some channel which united them. She did not want to meet him, so that there were two of them, man and woman together. She wanted to draw all of him into her. It urged him to an intensity like madness, which fascinated him, as drug-taking might.
He was discussing Michael Angelo. It felt to her as if she were fingering the very quivering tissue, the very protoplasm of life, as she heard him. It gave her deepest satisfaction. And in the end it frightened her. There he lay in the white intensity of his search, and his voice gradually filled her with fear, so level it was, almost inhuman, as if in a trance.
“Don’t talk any more,” she pleaded softly, laying her hand on his forehead.
He lay quite still, almost unable to move. His body was somewhere discarded.
“Why not? Are you tired?”
“Yes, and it wears you out.”
He laughed shortly, realising.
“Yet you always make me like it,” he said.
“I don’t wish to,” she said, very low.
“Not when you’ve gone too far, and you feel you can’t bear it. But your unconscious self always asks it of me. And I suppose I want it.”
He went on, in his dead fashion:
“If only you could want ME, and not want what I can reel off for you! ”
“I!” she cried bitterly —“I! Why, when would you let me take you?”
“Then it’s my fault,” he said, and, gathering himself together, he got up and began to talk trivialities. He felt insubstantial. In a vague way he hated her for it. And he knew he was as much to blame himself. This, however, did not prevent his hating her.
One evening about this time he had walked along the home road with her. They stood by the pasture leading down to the wood, unable to part. As the stars came out the clouds closed. They had glimpses of their own constellation, Orion, towards the west. His jewels glimmered for a moment, his dog ran low, struggling with difficulty through the spume of cloud.
Orion was for them chief in significance among the constellations. They had gazed at him in their strange, surcharged hours of feeling, until they seemed themselves to live in every one of his stars. This evening Paul had been moody and perverse. Orion had seemed just an ordinary constellation to him. He had fought against his glamour and fascination. Miriam was watching her lover’s mood carefully. But he said nothing that gave him away, till the moment came to part, when he stood frowning gloomily at the gathered clouds, behind which the great constellation must be striding still.
There was to be a little party at his house the next day, at which she was to attend.
“I shan’t come and meet you,” he said.
“Oh, very well; it’s not very nice out,” she replied slowly.
“It’s not that — only they don’t like me to. They say I care more for you than for them. And you understand, don’t you? You know it’s only friendship.”
Miriam was astonished and hurt for him. It had cost him an effort. She left him, wanting to spare him any further humiliation. A fine rain blew in her face as she walked along the road. She was hurt deep down; and she despised him for being blown about by any wind of authority. And in her heart of hearts, unconsciously, she felt that he was trying to get away from her. This she would never have acknowledged. She pitied him.
At this time Paul became an important factor in Jordan’s warehouse. Mr. Pappleworth left to set up a business of his own, and Paul remained with Mr. Jordan as Spiral overseer. His wages were to be raised to thirty shillings at the year-end, if things went well.
Still on Friday night Miriam often came down for her French lesson. Paul did not go so frequently to Willey Farm, and she grieved at the thought of her education’s coming to end; moreover, they both loved to be together, in spite of discords. So they read Balzac, and did compositions, and felt highly cultured.
Friday night was reckoning night for the miners. Morel “reckoned”— shared up the money of the stall — either in the New Inn at Bretty or in his own house, according as his fellow-butties wished. Barker had turned a non-drinker, so now the men reckoned at Morel’s house.
Annie, who had been teaching away, was at home again. She was still a tomboy; and she was engaged to be married. Paul was studying design.
Morel was always in good spirits on Friday evening, unless the week’s earnings were small. He bustled immediately after his dinner, prepared to get washed. It was decorum for the women to absent themselves while the men reckoned. Women were not supposed to spy into such a masculine privacy as the butties’ reckoning, nor were they to know the exact amount of the week’s earnings. So, whilst her father was spluttering in the scullery, Annie went out to spend an hour with a neighbour. Mrs. Morel attended to her baking.
“Shut that doo-er!” bawled Morel furiously.
Annie banged it behind her, and was gone.
“If tha oppens it again while I’m weshin’ me, I’ll ma’e thy jaw rattle,” he threatened from the midst of his soap-suds. Paul and the mother frowned to hear him.
Presently he came running out of the scullery, with the soapy water dripping from him, dithering with cold.
“Oh, my sirs!” he said. “Wheer’s my towel?”
It was hung on a chair to warm before the fire, otherwise he would have bullied and blustered. He squatted on his heels before the hot baking-fire to dry himself.
“F-ff-f!” he went, pretending to shudder with cold.
“Goodness, man, don’t be such a kid!” said Mrs. Morel. “It’s NOT cold.”
“Thee strip thysen stark nak’d to wesh thy flesh i’ that scullery,” said the miner, as he rubbed his hair; “nowt b’r a ice-’ouse!”
“And I shouldn’t make that fuss,” replied his wife.
“No, tha’d drop down stiff, as dead as a door-knob, wi’ thy nesh sides.”
“Why is a door-knob deader than anything else?” asked Paul, curious.
“Eh, I dunno; that’s what they say,” replied his father. “But there’s that much draught i’ yon scullery, as it blows through your ribs like through a five-barred gate.”
“It would have some difficulty in blowing through yours,” said Mrs. Morel.
Morel looked down ruefully at his sides.
“Me!” he exclaimed. “I’m nowt b’r a skinned rabbit. My bones fair juts out on me.”
“I should like to know where,” retorted his wife.
“Iv’ry-wheer! I’m nobbut a sack o’ faggots.”
Mrs. Morel laughed. He had still a wonderfully young body, muscular, without any fat. His skin was smooth and clear. It might have been the body of a man of twenty-eight, except that there were, perhaps, too many blue scars, like tattoo-marks, where the coal-dust remained under the skin, and that his chest was too hairy. But he put his hand on his side ruefully. It was his fixed belief that, because be did not get fat, he was as thin as a starved rat. Paul looked at his father’s thick, brownish hands all scarred, with broken nails, rubbing the fine smoothness of his sides, and the incongruity struck him. It seemed strange they were the same flesh.
“I suppose,” he said to his father, “you had a good figure once.”
“Eh!” exclaimed the miner, glancing round, startled and timid, like a child.
“He had,” exclaimed Mrs. Morel, “if he didn’t hurtle himself up as if he was trying to get in the smallest space he could.”
“Me!” exclaimed Morel —“me a good figure! I wor niver much more n’r a skeleton.”
“Man!” cried his wife, “don’t be such a pulamiter!”
“’Strewth!” he said. “Tha’s niver knowed me but what I looked as if I wor goin’ off in a rapid decline.”
She sat and laughed.
“You’ve had a constitution like iron,” she said; “and never a man had a better start, if it was body that counted. You should have seen him as a young man,” she cried suddenly to Paul, drawing herself up to imitate her husband’s once handsome bearing.
Morel watched her shyly. He saw again the passion she had had for him. It blazed upon her for a moment. He was shy, rather scared, and humble. Yet again he felt his old glow. And then immediately he felt the ruin he had made during these years. He wanted to bustle about, to run away from it.
“Gi’e my back a bit of a wesh,” he asked her.
His wife brought a well-soaped flannel and clapped it on his shoulders. He gave a jump.
“Eh, tha mucky little ’ussy!” he cried. “Cowd as death!”
“You ought to have been a salamander,” she laughed, washing his back. It was very rarely she would do anything so personal for him. The children did those things.
“The next world won’t be half hot enough for you,” she added.
“No,” he said; “tha’lt see as it’s draughty for me.”
But she had finished. She wiped him in a desultory fashion, and went upstairs, returning immediately with his shifting-trousers. When he was dried he struggled into his shirt. Then, ruddy and shiny, with hair on end, and his flannelette shirt hanging over his pit-trousers, he stood warming the garments he was going to put on. He turned them, he pulled them inside out, he scorched them.
“Goodness, man!” cried Mrs. Morel, “get dressed!”
“Should thee like to clap thysen into britches as cowd as a tub o’ water?” he said.
At last he took off his pit-trousers and donned decent black. He did all this on the hearthrug, as he would have done if Annie and her familiar friends had been present.
Mrs. Morel turned the bread in the oven. Then from the red earthenware panchion of dough that stood in a corner she took another handful of paste, worked it to the proper shape, and dropped it into a tin. As she was doing so Barker knocked and entered. He was a quiet, compact little man, who looked as if he would go through a stone wall. His black hair was cropped short, his head was bony. Like most miners, he was pale, but healthy and taut.
“Evenin’, missis,” he nodded to Mrs. Morel, and he seated himself with a sigh.
“Good-evening,” she replied cordially.
“Tha’s made thy heels crack,” said Morel.
“I dunno as I have,” said Barker.
He sat, as the men always did in Morel’s kitchen, effacing himself rather.
“How’s missis?” she asked of him.
He had told her some time back:
“We’re expectin’ us third just now, you see.”
“Well,” he answered, rubbing his head, “she keeps pretty middlin’, I think.”
“Let’s see — when?” asked Mrs. Morel.
“Well, I shouldn’t be surprised any time now.”
“Ah! And she’s kept fairly?”
“That’s a blessing, for she’s none too strong.”
“No. An’ I’ve done another silly trick.”
Mrs. Morel knew Barker wouldn’t do anything very silly.
“I’m come be-out th’ market-bag.”
“You can have mine.”
“Nay, you’ll be wantin’ that yourself.”
“I shan’t. I take a string bag always.”
She saw the determined little collier buying in the week’s groceries and meat on the Friday nights, and she admired him. “Barker’s little, but he’s ten times the man you are,” she said to her husband.
Just then Wesson entered. He was thin, rather frail-looking, with a boyish ingenuousness and a slightly foolish smile, despite his seven children. But his wife was a passionate woman.
“I see you’ve kested me,” he said, smiling rather vapidly.
“Yes,” replied Barker.
The newcomer took off his cap and his big woollen muffler. His nose was pointed and red.
“I’m afraid you’re cold, Mr. Wesson,” said Mrs. Morel.
“It’s a bit nippy,” he replied.
“Then come to the fire.”
“Nay, I s’ll do where I am.”
Both colliers sat away back. They could not be induced to come on to the hearth. The hearth is sacred to the family.
“Go thy ways i’ th’ armchair,” cried Morel cheerily.
“Nay, thank yer; I’m very nicely here.”
“Yes, come, of course,” insisted Mrs. Morel.
He rose and went awkwardly. He sat in Morel’s armchair awkwardly. It was too great a familiarity. But the fire made him blissfully happy.
“And how’s that chest of yours?” demanded Mrs. Morel.
He smiled again, with his blue eyes rather sunny.
“Oh, it’s very middlin’,” he said.
“Wi’ a rattle in it like a kettle-drum,” said Barker shortly.
“T-t-t-t!” went Mrs. Morel rapidly with her tongue. “Did you have that flannel singlet made?”
“Not yet,” he smiled.
“Then, why didn’t you?” she cried.
“It’ll come,” he smiled.
“Ah, an’ Doomsday!” exclaimed Barker.
Barker and Morel were both impatient of Wesson. But, then, they were both as hard as nails, physically.
When Morel was nearly ready he pushed the bag of money to Paul.
“Count it, boy,” he asked humbly.
Paul impatiently turned from his books and pencil, tipped the bag upside down on the table. There was a five-pound bag of silver, sovereigns and loose money. He counted quickly, referred to the checks — the written papers giving amount of coal — put the money in order. Then Barker glanced at the checks.
Mrs. Morel went upstairs, and the three men came to table. Morel, as master of the house, sat in his armchair, with his back to the hot fire. The two butties had cooler seats. None of them counted the money.
“What did we say Simpson’s was?” asked Morel; and the butties cavilled for a minute over the dayman’s earnings. Then the amount was put aside.
“An’ Bill Naylor’s?”
This money also was taken from the pack.
Then, because Wesson lived in one of the company’s houses, and his rent had been deducted, Morel and Barker took four-and-six each. And because Morel’s coals had come, and the leading was stopped, Barker and Wesson took four shillings each. Then it was plain sailing. Morel gave each of them a sovereign till there were no more sovereigns; each half a crown till there were no more half-crowns; each a shilling till there were no more shillings. If there was anything at the end that wouldn’t split, Morel took it and stood drinks.
Then the three men rose and went. Morel scuttled out of the house before his wife came down. She heard the door close, and descended. She looked hastily at the bread in the oven. Then, glancing on the table, she saw her money lying. Paul had been working all the time. But now he felt his mother counting the week’s money, and her wrath rising,
“T-t-t-t-t!” went her tongue.
He frowned. He could not work when she was cross. She counted again.
“A measly twenty-five shillings!” she exclaimed. “How much was the cheque?”
“Ten pounds eleven,” said Paul irritably. He dreaded what was coming.
“And he gives me a scrattlin’ twenty-five, an’ his club this week! But I know him. He thinks because YOU’RE earning he needn’t keep the house any longer. No, all he has to do with his money is to guttle it. But I’ll show him!”
“Oh, mother, don’t!” cried Paul.
“Don’t what, I should like to know?” she exclaimed.
“Don’t carry on again. I can’t work.”
She went very quiet.
“Yes, it’s all very well,” she said; “but how do you think I’m going to manage?”
“Well, it won’t make it any better to whittle about it.”
“I should like to know what you’d do if you had it to put up with.”
“It won’t be long. You can have my money. Let him go to hell.”
He went back to his work, and she tied her bonnet-strings grimly. When she was fretted he could not bear it. But now he began to insist on her recognizing him.
“The two loaves at the top,” she said, “will be done in twenty minutes. Don’t forget them.”
“All right,” he answered; and she went to market.
He remained alone working. But his usual intense concentration became unsettled. He listened for the yard-gate. At a quarter-past seven came a low knock, and Miriam entered.
“All alone?” she said.
As if at home, she took off her tam-o’-shanter and her long coat, hanging them up. It gave him a thrill. This might be their own house, his and hers. Then she came back and peered over his work.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Still design, for decorating stuffs, and for embroidery.”
She bent short-sightedly over the drawings.
It irritated him that she peered so into everything that was his, searching him out. He went into the parlour and returned with a bundle of brownish linen. Carefully unfolding it, he spread it on the floor. It proved to be a curtain or portiere, beautifully stencilled with a design on roses.
“Ah, how beautiful!” she cried.
The spread cloth, with its wonderful reddish roses and dark green stems, all so simple, and somehow so wicked-looking, lay at her feet. She went on her knees before it, her dark curls dropping. He saw her crouched voluptuously before his work, and his heart beat quickly. Suddenly she looked up at him.
“Why does it seem cruel?” she asked.
“There seems a feeling of cruelty about it,” she said.
“It’s jolly good, whether or not,” he replied, folding up his work with a lover’s hands.
She rose slowly, pondering.
“And what will you do with it?” she asked.
“Send it to Liberty’s. I did it for my mother, but I think she’d rather have the money.”
“Yes,” said Miriam. He had spoken with a touch of bitterness, and Miriam sympathised. Money would have been nothing to HER.
He took the cloth back into the parlour. When he returned he threw to Miriam a smaller piece. It was a cushion-cover with the same design.
“I did that for you,” he said.
She fingered the work with trembling hands, and did not speak. He became embarrassed.
“By Jove, the bread!” he cried.
He took the top loaves out, tapped them vigorously. They were done. He put them on the hearth to cool. Then he went to the scullery, wetted his hands, scooped the last white dough out of the punchion, and dropped it in a baking-tin. Miriam was still bent over her painted cloth. He stood rubbing the bits of dough from his hands.
“You do like it?” he asked.
She looked up at him, with her dark eyes one flame of love. He laughed uncomfortably. Then he began to talk about the design. There was for him the most intense pleasure in talking about his work to Miriam. All his passion, all his wild blood, went into this intercourse with her, when he talked and conceived his work. She brought forth to him his imaginations. She did not understand, any more than a woman understands when she conceives a child in her womb. But this was life for her and for him.
While they were talking, a young woman of about twenty-two, small and pale, hollow-eyed, yet with a relentless look about her, entered the room. She was a friend at the Morel’s.
“Take your things off,” said Paul.
“No, I’m not stopping.”
She sat down in the armchair opposite Paul and Miriam, who were on the sofa. Miriam moved a little farther from him. The room was hot, with a scent of new bread. Brown, crisp loaves stood on the hearth.
“I shouldn’t have expected to see you here to-night, Miriam Leivers,” said Beatrice wickedly.
“Why not?” murmured Miriam huskily.
“Why, let’s look at your shoes.”
Miriam remained uncomfortably still.
“If tha doesna tha durs’na,” laughed Beatrice.
Miriam put her feet from under her dress. Her boots had that queer, irresolute, rather pathetic look about them, which showed how self-conscious and self-mistrustful she was. And they were covered with mud.
“Glory! You’re a positive muck-heap,” exclaimed Beatrice. “Who cleans your boots?”
“I clean them myself.”
“Then you wanted a job,” said Beatrice. “It would ha’ taken a lot of men to ha’ brought me down here to-night. But love laughs at sludge, doesn’t it, ’Postle my duck?”
“Inter alia,” he said.
“Oh, Lord! are you going to spout foreign languages? What does it mean, Miriam?”
There was a fine sarcasm in the last question, but Miriam did not see it.
“‘Among other things,’ I believe,” she said humbly.
Beatrice put her tongue between her teeth and laughed wickedly.
“‘Among other things,’ ’Postle?” she repeated. “Do you mean love laughs at mothers, and fathers, and sisters, and brothers, and men friends, and lady friends, and even at the b’loved himself?”
She affected a great innocence.
“In fact, it’s one big smile,” he replied.
“Up its sleeve, ’Postle Morel — you believe me,” she said; and she went off into another burst of wicked, silent laughter.
Miriam sat silent, withdrawn into herself. Every one of Paul’s friends delighted in taking sides against her, and he left her in the lurch — seemed almost to have a sort of revenge upon her then.
“Are you still at school?” asked Miriam of Beatrice.
“You’ve not had your notice, then?”
“I expect it at Easter.”
“Isn’t it an awful shame, to turn you off merely because you didn’t pass the exam.?”
“I don’t know,” said Beatrice coldly.
“Agatha says you’re as good as any teacher anywhere. It seems to me ridiculous. I wonder why you didn’t pass.”
“Short of brains, eh, ’Postle?” said Beatrice briefly.
“Only brains to bite with,” replied Paul, laughing.
“Nuisance!” she cried; and, springing from her seat, she rushed and boxed his ears. She had beautiful small hands. He held her wrists while she wrestled with him. At last she broke free, and seized two handfuls of his thick, dark brown hair, which she shook.
“Beat!” he said, as he pulled his hair straight with his fingers. “I hate you!”
She laughed with glee.
“Mind!” she said. “I want to sit next to you.”
“I’d as lief be neighbours with a vixen,” he said, nevertheless making place for her between him and Miriam.
“Did it ruffle his pretty hair, then!” she cried; and, with her hair-comb, she combed him straight. “And his nice little moustache!” she exclaimed. She tilted his head back and combed his young moustache. “It’s a wicked moustache, ’Postle,” she said. “It’s a red for danger. Have you got any of those cigarettes?”
He pulled his cigarette-case from his pocket. Beatrice looked inside it.
“And fancy me having Connie’s last cig.,” said Beatrice, putting the thing between her teeth. He held a lit match to her, and she puffed daintily.
“Thanks so much, darling,” she said mockingly.
It gave her a wicked delight.
“Don’t you think he does it nicely, Miriam?” she asked.
“Oh, very!” said Miriam.
He took a cigarette for himself.
“Light, old boy?” said Beatrice, tilting her cigarette at him.
He bent forward to her to light his cigarette at hers. She was winking at him as he did so. Miriam saw his eyes trembling with mischief, and his full, almost sensual, mouth quivering. He was not himself, and she could not bear it. As he was now, she had no connection with him; she might as well not have existed. She saw the cigarette dancing on his full red lips. She hated his thick hair for being tumbled loose on his forehead.
“Sweet boy!” said Beatrice, tipping up his chin and giving him a little kiss on the cheek.
“I s’ll kiss thee back, Beat,” he said.
“Tha wunna!” she giggled, jumping up and going away. “Isn’t he shameless, Miriam?”
“Quite,” said Miriam. “By the way, aren’t you forgetting the bread?”
“By Jove!” he cried, flinging open the oven door.
Out puffed the bluish smoke and a smell of burned bread.
“Oh, golly!” cried Beatrice, coming to his side. He crouched before the oven, she peered over his shoulder. “This is what comes of the oblivion of love, my boy.”
Paul was ruefully removing the loaves. One was burnt black on the hot side; another was hard as a brick.
“Poor mater!” said Paul.
“You want to grate it,” said Beatrice. “Fetch me the nutmeg-grater.”
She arranged the bread in the oven. He brought the grater, and she grated the bread on to a newspaper on the table. He set the doors open to blow away the smell of burned bread. Beatrice grated away, puffing her cigarette, knocking the charcoal off the poor loaf.
“My word, Miriam! you’re in for it this time,” said Beatrice.
“I!” exclaimed Miriam in amazement.
“You’d better be gone when his mother comes in. I know why King Alfred burned the cakes. Now I see it! ’Postle would fix up a tale about his work making him forget, if he thought it would wash. If that old woman had come in a bit sooner, she’d have boxed the brazen thing’s ears who made the oblivion, instead of poor Alfred’s.”
She giggled as she scraped the loaf. Even Miriam laughed in spite of herself. Paul mended the fire ruefully.
The garden gate was heard to bang.
“Quick!” cried Beatrice, giving Paul the scraped loaf. “Wrap it up in a damp towel.”
Paul disappeared into the scullery. Beatrice hastily blew her scrapings into the fire, and sat down innocently. Annie came bursting in. She was an abrupt, quite smart young woman. She blinked in the strong light.
“Smell of burning!” she exclaimed.
“It’s the cigarettes,” replied Beatrice demurely.
Leonard had followed Annie. He had a long comic face and blue eyes, very sad.
“I suppose he’s left you to settle it between you,” he said. He nodded sympathetically to Miriam, and became gently sarcastic to Beatrice.
“No,” said Beatrice, “he’s gone off with number nine.”
“I just met number five inquiring for him,” said Leonard.
“Yes — we’re going to share him up like Solomon’s baby,” said Beatrice.
“Oh, ay,” said Leonard. “And which bit should you have?”
“I don’t know,” said Beatrice. “I’ll let all the others pick first.”
“An’ you’d have the leavings, like?” said Leonard, twisting up a comic face.
Annie was looking in the oven. Miriam sat ignored. Paul entered.
“This bread’s a fine sight, our Paul,” said Annie.
“Then you should stop an’ look after it,” said Paul.
“You mean YOU should do what you’re reckoning to do,” replied Annie.
“He should, shouldn’t he!” cried Beatrice.
“I s’d think he’d got plenty on hand,” said Leonard.
“You had a nasty walk, didn’t you, Miriam?” said Annie.
“Yes — but I’d been in all week —-”
“And you wanted a bit of a change, like,” insinuated Leonard kindly.
“Well, you can’t be stuck in the house for ever,” Annie agreed. She was quite amiable. Beatrice pulled on her coat, and went out with Leonard and Annie. She would meet her own boy.
“Don’t forget that bread, our Paul,” cried Annie. “Good-night, Miriam. I don’t think it will rain.”
When they had all gone, Paul fetched the swathed loaf, unwrapped it, and surveyed it sadly.
“It’s a mess!” he said.
“But,” answered Miriam impatiently, “what is it, after all — twopence, ha’penny.”
“Yes, but — it’s the mater’s precious baking, and she’ll take it to heart. However, it’s no good bothering.”
He took the loaf back into the scullery. There was a little distance between him and Miriam. He stood balanced opposite her for some moments considering, thinking of his behaviour with Beatrice. He felt guilty inside himself, and yet glad. For some inscrutable reason it served Miriam right. He was not going to repent. She wondered what he was thinking of as he stood suspended. His thick hair was tumbled over his forehead. Why might she not push it back for him, and remove the marks of Beatrice’s comb? Why might she not press his body with her two hands. It looked so firm, and every whit living. And he would let other girls, why not her?
Suddenly he started into life. It made her quiver almost with terror as he quickly pushed the hair off his forehead and came towards her.
“Half-past eight!” he said. “We’d better buck up. Where’s your French?”
Miriam shyly and rather bitterly produced her exercise-book. Every week she wrote for him a sort of diary of her inner life, in her own French. He had found this was the only way to get her to do compositions. And her diary was mostly a love-letter. He would read it now; she felt as if her soul’s history were going to be desecrated by him in his present mood. He sat beside her. She watched his hand, firm and warm, rigorously scoring her work. He was reading only the French, ignoring her soul that was there. But gradually his hand forgot its work. He read in silence, motionless. She quivered.
“‘Ce matin les oiseaux m’ont eveille,’” he read. “‘Il faisait encore un crepuscule. Mais la petite fenetre de ma chambre etait bleme, et puis, jaune, et tous les oiseaux du bois eclaterent dans un chanson vif et resonnant. Toute l’aube tressaillit. J’avais reve de vous. Est-ce que vous voyez aussi l’aube? Les oiseaux m’eveillent presque tous les matins, et toujours il y a quelque chose de terreur dans le cri des grives. Il est si clair —-’”
Miriam sat tremulous, half ashamed. He remained quite still, trying to understand. He only knew she loved him. He was afraid of her love for him. It was too good for him, and he was inadequate. His own love was at fault, not hers. Ashamed, he corrected her work, humbly writing above her words.
“Look,” he said quietly, “the past participle conjugated with avoir agrees with the direct object when it precedes.”
She bent forward, trying to see and to understand. Her free, fine curls tickled his face. He started as if they had been red hot, shuddering. He saw her peering forward at the page, her red lips parted piteously, the black hair springing in fine strands across her tawny, ruddy cheek. She was coloured like a pomegranate for richness. His breath came short as he watched her. Suddenly she looked up at him. Her dark eyes were naked with their love, afraid, and yearning. His eyes, too, were dark, and they hurt her. They seemed to master her. She lost all her self-control, was exposed in fear. And he knew, before he could kiss her, he must drive something out of himself. And a touch of hate for her crept back again into his heart. He returned to her exercise.
Suddenly he flung down the pencil, and was at the oven in a leap, turning the bread. For Miriam he was too quick. She started violently, and it hurt her with real pain. Even the way he crouched before the oven hurt her. There seemed to be something cruel in it, something cruel in the swift way he pitched the bread out of the tins, caught it up again. If only he had been gentle in his movements she would have felt so rich and warm. As it was, she was hurt.
He returned and finished the exercise.
“You’ve done well this week,” he said.
She saw he was flattered by her diary. It did not repay her entirely.
“You really do blossom out sometimes,” he said. “You ought to write poetry.”
She lifted her head with joy, then she shook it mistrustfully.
“I don’t trust myself,” she said.
“You should try!”
Again she shook her head.
“Shall we read, or is it too late?” he asked.
“It is late — but we can read just a little,” she pleaded.
She was really getting now the food for her life during the next week. He made her copy Baudelaire’s “Le Balcon”. Then he read it for her. His voice was soft and caressing, but growing almost brutal. He had a way of lifting his lips and showing his teeth, passionately and bitterly, when he was much moved. This he did now. It made Miriam feel as if he were trampling on her. She dared not look at him, but sat with her head bowed. She could not understand why he got into such a tumult and fury. It made her wretched. She did not like Baudelaire, on the whole — nor Verlaine.
“Behold her singing in the field
Yon solitary highland lass.”
That nourished her heart. So did “Fair Ines”. And —
“It was a beauteous evening, calm and pure,
And breathing holy quiet like a nun.”
These were like herself. And there was he, saying in his throat bitterly:
“Tu te rappelleras la beaute des caresses.”
The poem was finished; he took the bread out of the oven, arranging the burnt loaves at the bottom of the panchion, the good ones at the top. The desiccated loaf remained swathed up in the scullery.
“Mater needn’t know till morning,” he said. “It won’t upset her so much then as at night.”
Miriam looked in the bookcase, saw what postcards and letters he had received, saw what books were there. She took one that had interested him. Then he turned down the gas and they set off. He did not trouble to lock the door.
He was not home again until a quarter to eleven. His mother was seated in the rocking-chair. Annie, with a rope of hair hanging down her back, remained sitting on a low stool before the fire, her elbows on her knees, gloomily. On the table stood the offending loaf unswathed. Paul entered rather breathless. No one spoke. His mother was reading the little local newspaper. He took off his coat, and went to sit down on the sofa. His mother moved curtly aside to let him pass. No one spoke. He was very uncomfortable. For some minutes he sat pretending to read a piece of paper he found on the table. Then —-
“I forgot that bread, mother,” he said.
There was no answer from either woman.
“Well,” he said, “it’s only twopence ha’penny. I can pay you for that.”
Being angry, he put three pennies on the table and slid them towards his mother. She turned away her head. Her mouth was shut tightly.
“Yes,” said Annie, “you don’t know how badly my mother is!”
The girl sat staring glumly into the fire.
“Why is she badly?” asked Paul, in his overbearing way.
“Well!” said Annie. “She could scarcely get home.”
He looked closely at his mother. She looked ill.
“WHY could you scarcely get home?” he asked her, still sharply. She would not answer.
“I found her as white as a sheet sitting here,” said Annie, with a suggestion of tears in her voice.
“Well, WHY?” insisted Paul. His brows were knitting, his eyes dilating passionately.
“It was enough to upset anybody,” said Mrs. Morel, “hugging those parcels — meat, and green-groceries, and a pair of curtains —-”
“Well, why DID you hug them; you needn’t have done.”
“Then who would?”
“Let Annie fetch the meat.”
“Yes, and I WOULD fetch the meat, but how was I to know. You were off with Miriam, instead of being in when my mother came.”
“And what was the matter with you?” asked Paul of his mother.
“I suppose it’s my heart,” she replied. Certainly she looked bluish round the mouth.
“And have you felt it before?”
“Yes — often enough.”
“Then why haven’t you told me? — and why haven’t you seen a doctor?”
Mrs. Morel shifted in her chair, angry with him for his hectoring.
“You’d never notice anything,” said Annie. “You’re too eager to be off with Miriam.”
“Oh, am I— and any worse than you with Leonard?”
“I was in at a quarter to ten.”
There was silence in the room for a time.
“I should have thought,” said Mrs. Morel bitterly, “that she wouldn’t have occupied you so entirely as to burn a whole ovenful of bread.”
“Beatrice was here as well as she.”
“Very likely. But we know why the bread is spoilt.”
“Why?” he flashed.
“Because you were engrossed with Miriam,” replied Mrs. Morel hotly.
“Oh, very well — then it was NOT!” he replied angrily.
He was distressed and wretched. Seizing a paper, he began to read. Annie, her blouse unfastened, her long ropes of hair twisted into a plait, went up to bed, bidding him a very curt good-night.
Paul sat pretending to read. He knew his mother wanted to upbraid him. He also wanted to know what had made her ill, for he was troubled. So, instead of running away to bed, as he would have liked to do, he sat and waited. There was a tense silence. The clock ticked loudly.
“You’d better go to bed before your father comes in,” said the mother harshly. “And if you’re going to have anything to eat, you’d better get it.”
“I don’t want anything.”
It was his mother’s custom to bring him some trifle for supper on Friday night, the night of luxury for the colliers. He was too angry to go and find it in the pantry this night. This insulted her.
“If I WANTED you to go to Selby on Friday night, I can imagine the scene,” said Mrs. Morel. “But you’re never too tired to go if SHE will come for you. Nay, you neither want to eat nor drink then.”
“I can’t let her go alone.”
“Can’t you? And why does she come?”
“Not because I ask her.”
“She doesn’t come without you want her —-”
“Well, what if I DO want her —-” he replied.
“Why, nothing, if it was sensible or reasonable. But to go trapseing up there miles and miles in the mud, coming home at midnight, and got to go to Nottingham in the morning —-”
“If I hadn’t, you’d be just the same.”
“Yes, I should, because there’s no sense in it. Is she so fascinating that you must follow her all that way?” Mrs. Morel was bitterly sarcastic. She sat still, with averted face, stroking with a rhythmic, jerked movement, the black sateen of her apron. It was a movement that hurt Paul to see.
“I do like her,” he said, “but —-”
“LIKE her!” said Mrs. Morel, in the same biting tones. “It seems to me you like nothing and nobody else. There’s neither Annie, nor me, nor anyone now for you.”
“What nonsense, mother — you know I don’t love her — I— I tell you I DON’T love her — she doesn’t even walk with my arm, because I don’t want her to.”
“Then why do you fly to her so often?”
“I DO like to talk to her — I never said I didn’t. But I DON’T love her.”
“Is there nobody else to talk to?”
“Not about the things we talk of. There’s a lot of things that you’re not interested in, that —-”
Mrs. Morel was so intense that Paul began to pant.
“Why — painting — and books. YOU don’t care about Herbert Spencer.”
“No,” was the sad reply. “And YOU won’t at my age.”
“Well, but I do now — and Miriam does —-”
“And how do you know,” Mrs. Morel flashed defiantly, “that I shouldn’t. Do you ever try me!”
“But you don’t, mother, you know you don’t care whether a picture’s decorative or not; you don’t care what MANNER it is in.”
“How do you know I don’t care? Do you ever try me? Do you ever talk to me about these things, to try?”
“But it’s not that that matters to you, mother, you know t’s not.”
“What is it, then — what is it, then, that matters to me?” she flashed. He knitted his brows with pain.
“You’re old, mother, and we’re young.”
He only meant that the interests of HER age were not the interests of his. But he realised the moment he had spoken that he had said the wrong thing.
“Yes, I know it well — I am old. And therefore I may stand aside; I have nothing more to do with you. You only want me to wait on you — the rest is for Miriam.”
He could not bear it. Instinctively he realised that he was life to her. And, after all, she was the chief thing to him, the only supreme thing.
“You know it isn’t, mother, you know it isn’t!”
She was moved to pity by his cry.
“It looks a great deal like it,” she said, half putting aside her despair.
“No, mother — I really DON’T love her. I talk to her, but I want to come home to you.”
He had taken off his collar and tie, and rose, bare-throated, to go to bed. As he stooped to kiss his mother, she threw her arms round his neck, hid her face on his shoulder, and cried, in a whimpering voice, so unlike her own that he writhed in agony:
“I can’t bear it. I could let another woman — but not her. She’d leave me no room, not a bit of room —-”
And immediately he hated Miriam bitterly.
“And I’ve never — you know, Paul — I’ve never had a husband — not really —-”
He stroked his mother’s hair, and his mouth was on her throat.
“And she exults so in taking you from me — she’s not like ordinary girls.”
“Well, I don’t love her, mother,” he murmured, bowing his head and hiding his eyes on her shoulder in misery. His mother kissed him a long, fervent kiss.
“My boy!” she said, in a voice trembling with passionate love.
Without knowing, he gently stroked her face.
“There,” said his mother, “now go to bed. You’ll be so tired in the morning.” As she was speaking she heard her husband coming. “There’s your father — now go.” Suddenly she looked at him almost as if in fear. “Perhaps I’m selfish. If you want her, take her, my boy.”
His mother looked so strange, Paul kissed her, trembling.
“Ha — mother!” he said softly.
Morel came in, walking unevenly. His hat was over one corner of his eye. He balanced in the doorway.
“At your mischief again?” he said venomously.
Mrs. Morel’s emotion turned into sudden hate of the drunkard who had come in thus upon her.
“At any rate, it is sober,” she said.
“H’m — h’m! h’m — h’m!” he sneered. He went into the passage, hung up his hat and coat. Then they heard him go down three steps to the pantry. He returned with a piece of pork-pie in his fist. It was what Mrs. Morel had bought for her son.
“Nor was that bought for you. If you can give me no more than twenty-five shillings, I’m sure I’m not going to buy you pork-pie to stuff, after you’ve swilled a bellyful of beer.”
“Wha-at — wha-at!” snarled Morel, toppling in his balance. “Wha-at — not for me?” He looked at the piece of meat and crust, and suddenly, in a vicious spurt of temper, flung it into the fire.
Paul started to his feet.
“Waste your own stuff!” he cried.
“What — what!” suddenly shouted Morel, jumping up and clenching his fist. “I’ll show yer, yer young jockey!”
“All right!” said Paul viciously, putting his head on one side. “Show me!”
He would at that moment dearly have loved to have a smack at something. Morel was half crouching, fists up, ready to spring. The young man stood, smiling with his lips.
“Ussha!” hissed the father, swiping round with a great stroke just past his son’s face. He dared not, even though so close, really touch the young man, but swerved an inch away.
“Right!” said Paul, his eyes upon the side of his father’s mouth, where in another instant his fist would have hit. He ached for that stroke. But he heard a faint moan from behind. His mother was deadly pale and dark at the mouth. Morel was dancing up to deliver another blow.
“Father!” said Paul, so that the word rang.
Morel started, and stood at attention.
“Mother!” moaned the boy. “Mother!”
She began to struggle with herself. Her open eyes watched him, although she could not move. Gradually she was coming to herself. He laid her down on the sofa, and ran upstairs for a little whisky, which at last she could sip. The tears were hopping down his face. As he kneeled in front of her he did not cry, but the tears ran down his face quickly. Morel, on the opposite side of the room, sat with his elbows on his knees glaring across.
“What’s a-matter with ’er?” he asked.
“Faint!” replied Paul.
The elderly man began to unlace his boots. He stumbled off to bed. His last fight was fought in that home.
Paul kneeled there, stroking his mother’s hand.
“Don’t be poorly, mother — don’t be poorly!” he said time after time.
“It’s nothing, my boy,” she murmured.
At last he rose, fetched in a large piece of coal, and raked the fire. Then he cleared the room, put everything straight, laid the things for breakfast, and brought his mother’s candle.
“Can you go to bed, mother?”
“Yes, I’ll come.”
“Sleep with Annie, mother, not with him.”
“No. I’ll sleep in my own bed.”
“Don’t sleep with him, mother.”
“I’ll sleep in my own bed.”
She rose, and he turned out the gas, then followed her closely upstairs, carrying her candle. On the landing he kissed her close.
“Good-night!” she said.
He pressed his face upon the pillow in a fury of misery. And yet, somewhere in his soul, he was at peace because he still loved his mother best. It was the bitter peace of resignation.
The efforts of his father to conciliate him next day were a great humiliation to him.
Everybody tried to forget the scene.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10