The road was heavy with mud. It was labour to move along it. The old, wide way, forsaken and grown over with grass, used not to be so bad. The farm traffic from Coney Grey must have cut it up. The young man crossed carefully again to the strip of grass on the other side.
It was a dreary, out-of-doors track, saved only by low fragments of fence and occasional bushes from the desolation of the large spaces of arable and of grassland on either side, where only the unopposed wind and the great clouds mattered, where even the little grasses bent to one another indifferent of any traveller. The abandoned road used to seem clean and firm. Cyril Mersham stopped to look round and to bring back old winters to the scene, over the ribbed red land and the purple wood. The surface of the field seemed suddenly to lift and break. Something had startled the peewits, and the fallow flickered over with pink gleams of birds white-breasting the sunset. Then the plovers turned, and were gone in the dusk behind.
Darkness was issuing out of the earth, and clinging to the trunks of the elms which rose like weird statues, lessening down the wayside. Mersham laboured forwards, the earth sucking and smacking at his feet. In front the Coney Grey farm was piled in shadow on the road. He came near to it, and saw the turnips heaped in a fabulous heap up the side of the barn, a buttress that rose almost to the eaves, and stretched out towards the cart-ruts in the road. Also, the pale breasts of the turnips got the sunset, and they were innumerable orange glimmers piled in the dusk. The two labourers who were pulping at the foot of the mound stood shadow-like to watch as he passed, breathing the sharp scent of turnips.
It was all very wonderful and glamorous here, in the old places that had seemed so ordinary. Three-quarters of the scarlet sun was settling among the branches of the elm in front, right ahead where he would come soon. But when he arrived at the brow where the hill swooped downwards, where the broad road ended suddenly, the sun had vanished from the space before him, and the evening star was white where the night urged up against the retreating, rose-coloured billow of day. Mersham passed through the stile and sat upon the remnant of the thorn tree on the brink of the valley. All the wide space before him was full of a mist of rose, nearly to his feet. The large ponds were hidden, the farms, the fields, the far-off coal-mine, under the rosy outpouring of twilight. Between him and the spaces of Leicestershire and the hills of Derbyshire, between him and all the South Country which he had fled, was the splendid rose-red strand of sunset, and the white star keeping guard.
Here, on the lee-shore of day, was the only purple showing of the woods and the great hedge below him; and the roof of the farm below him, with a film of smoke rising up. Unreal, like a dream which wastes a sleep with unrest, was the South and its hurrying to and fro. Here, on the farther shore of the sunset, with the flushed tide at his feet, and the large star flashing with strange laughter, did he himself naked walk with lifted arms into the quiet flood of life.
What was it he wanted, sought in the slowly-lapsing tide of days? Two years he had been in the large city in the south. There always his soul had moved among the faces that swayed on the thousand currents in that node of tides, hovering and wheeling and flying low over the faces of the multitude like a sea-gull over the waters, stopping now and again, and taking a fragment of life — a look, a contour, a movement — to feed upon. Of many people, his friends, he had asked that they would kindle again the smouldering embers of their experience; he had blown the low fires gently with his breath, and had leaned his face towards their glow, and had breathed in the words that rose like fumes from the revived embers, till he was sick with the strong drug of sufferings and ecstasies and sensations, and the dreams that ensued. But most folk had choked out the fires of their fiercer experience with rubble of sentimentality and stupid fear, and rarely could he feel the hot destruction of Life fighting out its way.
Surely, surely somebody could give him enough of the philtre of life to stop the craving which tortured him hither and thither, enough to satisfy for a while, to intoxicate him till he could laugh the crystalline laughter of the star, and bathe in the retreating flood of twilight like a naked boy in the surf, clasping the waves and beating them and answering their wild clawings with laughter sometimes, and sometimes gasps of pain.
He rose and stretched himself. The mist was lying in the valley like a flock of folded sheep; Orion had strode into the sky, and the Twins were playing towards the West. He shivered, stumbled down the path, and crossed the orchard, passing among the dark trees as if among people he knew.
He came into the yard. It was exceedingly, painfully muddy. He felt a disgust of his own feet, which were cold, and numbed, and heavy.
The window of the house was uncurtained, and shone like a yellow moon, with only a large leaf or two of ivy, and a cord of honeysuckle hanging across it. There seemed a throng of figures moving about the fire. Another light gleamed mysteriously among the out-buildings. He heard a voice in the cow-shed, and the impatient movement of a cow, and the rhythm of milk in the bucket.
He hesitated in the darkness of the porch; then he entered without knocking. A girl was opposite him, coming out of the dairy doorway with a loaf of bread. She started, and they stood a moment looking at each other across the room. They advanced to each other; he took her hand, plunged overhead, as it were, for a moment in her great brown eyes. Then he let her go, and looked aside, saying some words of greeting. He had not kissed her; he realised that when he heard her voice:
“When did you come?”
She was bent over the table, cutting bread-and-butter. What was it in her bowed, submissive pose, in the dark, small head with its black hair twining and hiding her face, that made him wince and shrink and close over his soul that had been open like a foolhardy flower to the night? Perhaps it was her very submission, which trammelled him, throwing the responsibility of her wholly on him, making him shrink from the burden of her.
Her brothers were home from the pit. They were two well-built lads of twenty and twenty-one. The coal-dust over their faces was like a mask, making them inscrutable, hiding any glow of greeting, making them strangers. He could only see their eyes wake with a sudden smile, which sank almost immediately, and they turned aside. The mother was kneeling at a big brown stew-jar in front of the open oven. She did not rise, but gave him her hand, saying: “Cyril! How are you?” Her large dark eyes wavered and left him. She continued with the spoon in the jar.
His disappointment rose as water suddenly heaves up the side of a ship. A sense of dreariness revived, a feeling, too, of the cold wet mud that he had struggled through.
These were the people who, a few months before, would look up in one fine broad glow of welcome whenever he entered the door, even if he came daily. Three years before, their lives would draw together into one flame, and whole evenings long would flare with magnificent mirth, and with play. They had known each other’s lightest and deepest feelings. Now, when he came back to them after a long absence, they withdrew, turned aside. He sat down on the sofa under the window, deeply chagrined. His heart closed tight like a fir-cone, which had been open and full of naked seeds when he came to them.
They asked him questions of the South. They were starved for news, they said, in that God-forsaken hole.
“It is such a treat to hear a bit of news from outside,” said the mother.
News! He smiled, and talked, plucking for them the leaves from off his tree: leaves of easy speech. He smiled, rather bitterly, as he slowly reeled off his news, almost mechanically. Yet he knew — and that was the irony of it — that they did not want his “records”; they wanted the timorous buds of his hopes, and the unknown fruits of his experience, full of the taste of tears and what sunshine of gladness had gone to their ripening. But they asked for his “news”, and, because of some subtle perversity, he gave them what they begged, not what they wanted, not what he desired most sincerely to give them.
Gradually he exhausted his store of talk, that he had thought was limitless. Muriel moved about all the time, laying the table and listening, only looking now and again across the barren garden of his talk into his windows. But he hardened his heart and turned his head from her. The boys had stripped to their waists, and had knelt on the hearth-rug and washed themselves in a large tin bowl, the mother sponging and drying their backs. Now they stood wiping themselves, the firelight bright and rosy on their fine torsos, their heavy arms swelling and sinking with life. They seemed to cherish the firelight on their bodies. Benjamin, the younger, leaned his breast to the warmth, and threw back his head, showing his teeth in a voluptuous little smile. Mersham watched them, as he had watched the peewits and the sunset.
Then they sat down to their dinners, and the room was dim with the steam of food. Presently the father and the eldest brother were in from the cow-sheds, and all assembled at table. The conversation went haltingly; a little badinage on Mersham’s part, a few questions on politics from the father. Then there grew an acute, fine feeling of discord. Mersham, particularly sensitive, reacted. He became extremely attentive to the others at table, and to his own manner of eating. He used English that was exquisitely accurate, pronounced with the Southern accent, very different from the heavily-sounded speech of the home folk. His nicety contrasted the more with their rough, country habit. They became shy and awkward, fumbling for something to say. The boys ate their dinners hastily, shovelling up the mass as a man shovels gravel. The eldest son clambered roughly with a great hand at the plate of bread-and-butter. Mersham tried to shut his eyes. He kept up all the time a brilliant tea-talk that they failed to appreciate in that atmosphere. It was evident to him; without forming the idea, he felt how irrevocably he was removing them from him, though he had loved them. The irony of the situation appealed to him, and added brightness and subtlety to his wit. Muriel, who had studied him so thoroughly, confusedly understood. She hung her head over her plate, and ate little. Now and again she would look up at him, toying all the time with her knife — though it was a family for ugly hands — and would address him some barren question. He always answered the question, but he invariably disregarded her look of earnestness, lapped in his unbreakable armour of light irony. He acknowledged, however, her power in the flicker of irritation that accompanied his reply. She quickly hid her face again.
They did not linger at tea, as in the old days. The men rose, with an “Ah well!” and went about their farm-work. One of the lads lay sprawling for sleep on the sofa; the other lighted a cigarette and sat with his arms on his knees, blinking into the fire. Neither of them ever wore a coat in the house, and their shirt-sleeves and their thick bare necks irritated the stranger still further by accentuating his strangeness. The men came tramping in and out to the boiler. The kitchen was full of bustle, of the carrying of steaming water, and of draughts. It seemed like a place out of doors. Mersham shrank up in his corner, and pretended to read the Daily News. He was ignored, like an owl sitting in the stalls of cattle.
“Go in the parlour, Cyril. Why don’t you? It’s comfortable there.”
Muriel turned to him with this reproach, this remonstrance, almost chiding him. She was keenly aware of his discomfort, and of his painful discord with his surroundings. He rose without a word and obeyed her.
The parlour was a long, low room with red colourings. A bunch of mistletoe hung from the beam, and thickly-berried holly was over the pictures — over the little gilt-blazed water-colours that he hated so much because he had done them in his ‘teens, and nothing is so hateful as the self one has left. He dropped in the tapestried chair called the Countess, and thought of the changes which this room had seen in him. There, by that hearth, they had threshed the harvest of their youth’s experience, gradually burning the chaff of sentimentality and false romance that covered the real grain of life. How infinitely far away, now, seemed Jane Eyre and George Eliot. These had marked the beginning. He smiled as he traced the graph onwards, plotting the points with Carlyle and Ruskin, Schopenhauer and Darwin and Huxley, Omar Khayyam, the Russians, Ibsen and Balzac; then Guy de Maupassant and Madame Bovary. They had parted in the midst of Madame Bovary. Since then had come only Nietzsche and William James. They had not done so badly, he thought, during those years which now he was apt to despise a little, because of their dreadful strenuousness, and because of their later deadly, unrelieved seriousness. He wanted her to come in and talk about the old times. He crossed to the other side of the fire and lay in the big horse-hair chair, which pricked the back of his head. He looked about, and stuffed behind him the limp green cushions that were always sweating down.
It was a week after Christmas. He guessed they had kept up the holly and mistletoe for him. The two photographs of himself still occupied the post of honour on the mantelpiece; but between them was a stranger. He wondered who the fellow could be; good-looking he seemed to be; but a bit of a clown beside the radiant, subtle photos of himself. He smiled broadly at his own arrogance. Then he remembered that Muriel and her people were leaving the farm come Lady-day. Immediately, in valediction, he began to call up the old days, when they had romped and played so boisterously, dances, and wild charades, and all mad games. He was just telling himself that those were the days, the days of unconscious, ecstatic fun, and he was smiling at himself over his information, when she entered.
She came in, hesitating. Seeing him sprawling in his old abandonment, she closed the door softly. For a moment or two she sat, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands, sucking her little finger, and withdrawing it from her lips with a little pop, looking all the while in the fire. She was waiting for him, knowing all the time he would not begin. She was trying to feel him, as it were. She wanted to assure herself of him after so many months. She dared not look at him directly. Like all brooding, constitutionally earnest souls, she gave herself away unwisely, and was defenceless when she found herself pushed back, rejected so often with contempt.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she asked at last.
“I wanted to have exactly one of the old tea-times, and evenings.”
“Ay!” she answered with hopeless bitterness. She was a dreadful pessimist. People had handled her so brutally, and had cheaply thrown away her most sacred intimacies.
He laughed, and looked at her kindly.
“Ah, well, if I’d thought about it I should have known this was what to expect. It’s my own fault.”
“Nay,” she answered, still bitterly; “it’s not your fault. It’s ours. You bring us to a certain point, and when you go away, we lose it all again, and receive you like creatures who have never known you.”
“Never mind,” he said easily. “If it is so, it is! How are you?”
She turned and looked full at him. She was very handsome; heavily moulded, coloured richly. He looked back smiling into her big, brown, serious eyes.
“Oh, I’m very well,” she answered, with puzzled irony. “How are you?”
“Me? You tell me. What do you think of me?”
“What do I think?” She laughed a little nervous laugh and shook her head. “I don’t know. Why — you look well — and very much of a gentleman.”
“Ah — and you are sorry?”
“No — No, I am not! No! Only you’re different, you see.”
“Ah, the pity! I shall never be as nice as I was at twenty-one, shall I?” He glanced at his photo on the mantelpiece, and smiled, gently chaffing her.
“Well — you’re different — it isn’t that you’re not so nice, but different. I always think you’re like that, really.”
She too glanced at the photo, which had been called the portrait of an intellectual prig, but which was really that of a sensitive, alert, exquisite boy. The subject of the portrait lay smiling at her. Then it turned voluptuously, like a cat spread out in the chair.
“And this is the last of it all —!”
She looked up at him, startled and pitiful.
“Of this phase, I mean,” he continued, indicating with his eyes the room, the surroundings. “Of Crossleigh Bank, I mean, and this part of our lives.”
“Ay!” she said, bowing her head, and putting into the exclamation all her depth of sadness and regret. He laughed.
“Aren’t you glad?” he asked.
She looked up, startled, a little shocked.
“Good-bye’s a fine word,” he explained. “It means you’re going to have a change, and a change is what you, of all people, want.”
Her expression altered as she listened.
“It’s true,” she said. “I do.”
“So you ought to say to yourself, ‘What a treat! I’m going to say good-bye directly to the most painful phase of my life.’ You make up your mind it shall be the most painful, by refusing to be hurt so much in the future. There you are! ‘Men at most times are masters of their fates,’ etcetera.”
She pondered his method of reasoning, and turned to him with a little laughter that was full of pleading and yearning.
“Well,” he said, lying, amiably smiling, “isn’t that so? — and aren’t you glad?”
“Yes!” she nodded. “I am — very glad.”
He twinkled playfully at her, and asked, in a soft voice:
“Then what do you want?”
“Yes,” she replied, a little breathlessly. “What do I?” She looked at him with a rash challenge that pricked him.
“Nay,” he said, evading her, “do you even ask me that?”
She veiled her eyes, and said, meekly in excuse:
“It’s a long time since I asked you anything, isn’t it?”
“Ay! I never thought of it. Whom have you asked in the interim?”
“Whom have I asked?”— she arched her brows and laughed a monosyllable of scorn.
“No one, of course!” he said, smiling. “The world asks questions of you, you ask questions of me, and I go to some oracle in the dark, don’t I?”
She laughed with him.
“No!” he said, suddenly serious. “Supposing you must answer me a big question — something I can never find out by myself?”
He lay out indolently in the chair and began smiling again. She turned to look with intensity at him, her hair’s fine foliage all loose round her face, her dark eyes haunted with doubt, her finger at her lips. A slight perplexity flickered over his eyes.
“At any rate,” he said, “you have something to give me.”
She continued to look at him with dark, absorbing eyes. He probed her with his regard. Then he seemed to withdraw, and his pupils dilated with thought.
“You see,” he said, “life’s no good but to live — and you can’t live your life by yourself. You must have a flint and a steel, both, to make the spark fly. Supposing you be my flint, my white flint, to spurt out red fire for me?”
“But how do you mean?” she asked breathlessly.
“You see,” he continued, thinking aloud as usual: “thought — that’s not life. It’s like washing and combing and carding and weaving the fleece that the year of life has produced. Now I think — we’ve carded and woven to the end of our bundle — nearly. We’ve got to begin again — you and me — living together, see? Not speculating and poetising together — see?”
She did not cease to gaze absorbedly at him.
“Yes?” she whispered, urging him on.
“You see — I’ll come back to you — to you —” He waited for her.
“But,” she said huskily, “I don’t understand.”
He looked at her with aggressive frankness, putting aside all her confusions.
“Fibber!” he said gently.
“But —” she turned in her chair from him —“but not clearly.”
He frowned slightly:
“Nay, you should be able by now to use the algebra of speech. Must I count up on your fingers for you what I mean, unit by unit, in bald arithmetic?”
“No — no!” she cried, justifying herself; “but how can I understand — the change in you? You used to say — you couldn’t. — Quite opposite.”
He lifted his head as if taking in her meaning.
“Ah, yes, I have changed. I forget. I suppose I must have changed in myself. I’m older — I’m twenty-six. I used to shrink from the thought of having to kiss you, didn’t I?” He smiled very brightly, and added, in a soft voice: “Well — I don’t, now.”
She flushed darkly and hid her face from him.
“Not,” he continued, with slow, brutal candour —“not that I know any more than I did then — what love is — as you know it — but — I think you’re beautiful — and we know each other so well — as we know nobody else, don’t we? And so we . . .”
His voice died away, and they sat in a tense silence, listening to the noise outside, for the dog was barking loudly. They heard a voice speaking and quieting him. Cyril Mersham listened. He heard the clatter of the barn door latch, and a slurring ring of a bicycle-bell brushing the wall.
“Who is it?” he asked, unsuspecting.
She looked at him, and confessed with her eyes, guiltily, beseeching. He understood immediately.
“Good Lord! — Him?” He looked at the photo on the mantelpiece. She nodded with her usual despair, her finger between her lips again. Mersham took some moments to adjust himself to the new situation.
“Well! — so HE’S in my place! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“How could I? — he’s not. Besides — you never would have a place.” She hid her face.
“No,” he drawled, thinking deeply. “I wouldn’t. It’s my fault altogether.” Then he smiled, and said whimsically: “But I thought you kept an old pair of my gloves in the chair beside you.”
“So I did, so I did!” she justified herself again with extreme bitterness, “till you asked me for them. You told me to — to take another man — and I did as you told me — as usual.”
“Did I tell you? — did I tell you? I suppose I must. I suppose I am a fool. And do you like him?”
She laughed aloud, with scorn and bitterness.
“He’s very good — and he’s very fond of me.”
“Naturally!” said Mersham, smiling and becoming ironical. “And how firmly is he fixed?”
She was mortified, and would not answer him. The question for him now was how much did this intruder count. He looked, and saw she wore no ring — but perhaps she had taken it off for his coming. He began diligently to calculate what attitude he might take. He had looked for many women to wake his love, but he had been always disappointed. So he had kept himself virtuous, and waited. Now he would wait no longer. No woman and he could ever understand each other so well as he and Muriel whom he had fiercely educated into womanhood along with his own struggling towards a manhood of independent outlook. They had breathed the same air of thought, they had been beaten with the same storms of doubt and disillusionment, they had expanded together in days of pure poetry. They had grown so; spiritually, or rather psychically, as he preferred to say, they were married; and now he found himself thinking of the way she moved about the house.
The outer door had opened and a man had entered the kitchen, greeting the family cordially, and without any formality. He had the throaty, penetrating voice of a tenor singer, and it came distinctly over the vibrating rumble of the men’s talking. He spoke good, easy English. The boys asked him about the “iron-men” and the electric haulage, and he answered them with rough technicalities, so Mersham concluded he was a working electrician in the mine. They continued to talk casually for some time, though there was a false note of secondary interest in it all. Then Benjamin came forward and broke the check, saying, with a dash of braggart taunting:
“Muriel’s in th’ parlour, Tom, if you want her.”
“Oh, is she? I saw a light in; I thought she might be.” He affected indifference, as if he were kept thus at every visit. Then he added, with a touch of impatience, and of the proprietor’s interest: “What is she doing?”
“She’s talking. Cyril Mersham’s come from London.”
“What! — is HE here?”
Mersham sat listening, smiling. Muriel saw his eyelids lift. She had run up her flag of challenge taut, but continually she slackened towards him with tenderness. Now her flag flew out bravely. She rose, and went to the door.
“Hello!” she said, greeting the stranger with a little song of welcome in one word, such as girls use when they become aware of the presence of their sweetheart.
“You’ve got a visitor, I hear,” he answered.
“Yes. Come along, come in!”
She spoke softly, with much gentle caressing.
He was a handsome man, well set-up, rather shorter than Mersham. The latter rose indolently, and held out his hand, smiling curiously into the beautiful, generous blue eyes of the other.
“Cyril — Mr. Vickers.”
Tom Vickers crushed Mersham’s hand, and answered his steady, smiling regard with a warm expansion of feeling, then bent his head, slightly confused.
“Sit here, will you?” said Mersham, languidly indicating the armchair.
“No, no, thanks, I won’t. I shall do here, thanks.” Tom Vickers took a chair and placed it in front of the fire. He was confusedly charmed with Mersham’s natural frankness and courtesy.
“If I’m not intruding,” he added, as he sat down.
“No, of course not!” said Muriel, in her wonderfully soft, fond tones — the indulgent tone of a woman who will sacrifice anything to love.
“Couldn’t!” added Mersham lazily. “We’re always a public meeting, Muriel and I. Aren’t we, Miel? We’re discussing affinities, that ancient topic. You’ll do for an audience. We agree so beastly well, we two. We always did. It’s her fault. Does she treat you so badly?”
The other was rather bewildered. Out of it all he dimly gathered that he was suggested as the present lover of Muriel, while Mersham referred to himself as the one discarded. So he smiled, reassured.
“How — badly?” he asked.
“Agreeing with you on every point?”
“No, I can’t say she does that,” said Vickers, smiling, and looking with little warm glances at her.
“Why, we never disagree, you know!” she remonstrated, in the same deep indulgent tone.
“I see,” Mersham said languidly, and yet keeping his wits keenly to the point. “YOU agree with everything SHE says. Lord, how interesting!”
Muriel arched her eyelids with a fine flare of intelligence across at him, and laughed.
“Something like that,” answered the other man, also indulgently, as became a healthy male towards one who lay limply in a chair and said clever nothings in a lazy drawl. Mersham noted the fine limbs, the solid, large thighs, and the thick wrists. He was classifying his rival among the men of handsome, healthy animalism, and good intelligence, who are children in simplicity, who can add two and two, but never xy and yx. His contours, his movements, his repose were, strictly, lovable. “But,” said Mersham to himself, “if I were blind, or sorrowful, or very tired, I should not want him. He is one of the men, as George Moore says, whom his wife would hate after a few years for the very way he walked across the floor. I can imagine him with a family of children, a fine father. But unless he had a domestic wife —”
Muriel had begun to make talk to him.
“Did you cycle?” she asked, in that irritating private tone so common to lovers, a tone that makes a third person an impertinence.
“Yes — I was rather late,” he replied, in the same caressing manner. The sense did not matter, the caress was everything.
“Didn’t you find it very muddy?”
“Well, I did — but not any worse than yesterday.”
Mersham sprawled his length in the chair, his eyelids almost shut, his fine white hands hanging over the arms of the chair like dead-white stoats from a bough. He was wondering how long Muriel would endure to indulge her sweetheart thus. Soon she began to talk second-hand to Mersham. They were speaking of Tom’s landlady.
“You don’t care for her, do you?” she asked, laughing insinuatingly, since the shadow of his dislike for other women heightened the radiance of his affection for her.
“Well, I can’t say that I love her.”
“How is it you always fall out with your landladies after six months? You must be a wretch to live with.”
“Nay, I don’t know that I am. But they’re all alike; they’re jam and cakes at first, but after a bit they’re dry bread.”
He spoke with solemnity, as if he uttered a universal truth. Mersham’s eyelids flickered now and again. Muriel turned to him:
“Mr. Vickers doesn’t like lodgings,” she said.
Mersham understood that Vickers therefore wanted to marry her; he also understood that as the pretendant tired of his landladies, so his wife and he would probably weary one another. He looked this intelligence at Muriel, and drawled:
“Doesn’t he? Lodgings are ideal. A good lodger can always boss the show, and have his own way. It’s the time of his life.”
“I don’t think!” laughed Vickers.
“It’s true,” drawled Mersham torpidly, giving his words the effect of droll irony. “You’re evidently not a good lodger. You only need to sympathise with a landlady — against her husband generally — and she’ll move heaven and earth for you.”
“Ah!” laughed Muriel, glancing at Mersham. “Tom doesn’t believe in sympathising with women — especially married women.”
“I don’t!” said Tom emphatically, “— it’s dangerous.”
“You leave it to the husband,” said Mersham.
“I do that! I don’t want ’em coming to me with their troubles. I should never know the end.”
“Wise of you. Poor woman! So you’ll broach your barrel of sympathy for your wife, eh, and for nobody else?”
“That’s it. Isn’t that right?”
“Oh, quite. Your wife will be a privileged person. Sort of homebrewed beer to drink ad infinitum? Quite all right, that!”
“There’s nothing better,” said Tom, laughing.
“Except a change,” said Mersham. “Now, I’m like a cup of tea to a woman.”
Muriel laughed aloud at this preposterous cynicism, and knitted her brows to bid him cease playing ball with bombs.
“A fresh cup each time. Women never weary of tea. Muriel, I can see you having a rich time. Sort of long after-supper drowse with a good husband.”
“Very delightful!” said Muriel sarcastically.
“If she’s got a good husband, what more can she want?” asked Tom, keeping the tone of banter, but really serious and somewhat resentful.
“A lodger — to make things interesting.”
“Why,” said Muriel, intervening, “do women like you so?”
Mersham looked up at her, quietly, smiling into her eyes. She was really perplexed. She wanted to know what he put in the pan to make the balance go down so heavily on his side. He had, as usual, to answer her seriously and truthfully, so he said: “Because I can make them believe that black is green or purple — which it is, in reality.” Then, smiling broadly as she wakened again with admiration for him, he added: “But you’re trying to make me conceited, Miel — to stain my virgin modesty.”
Muriel glanced up at him with softness and understanding, and laughed low. Tom gave a guffaw at the notion of Mersham’s virgin modesty. Muriel’s brow wrinkled with irritation, and she turned from her sweetheart to look in the fire.
Mersham, all unconsciously, had now developed the situation to the climax he desired. He was sure that Vickers would not count seriously in Muriel’s movement towards himself. So he turned away, uninterested.
The talk drifted for some time, after which he suddenly bethought himself:
“I say, Mr. Vickers, will you sing for us? You do sing, don’t you?”
“Well — nothing to speak of,” replied the other modestly, wondering at Mersham’s sudden change of interest. He looked at Muriel.
“Very well,” she answered him, indulging him now like a child. “But —” she turned to Mersham —“but do you, really?”
“Yes, of course. Play some of the old songs. Do you play any better?”
She began “Honour and Arms”.
“No, not that!” cried Mersham. “Something quiet —‘Sois triste et sois belle’.” He smiled gently at her, suggestively. “Try ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ or ‘Pur dicesti’.”
Vickers sang well, though without much imagination. But the songs they sang were the old songs that Mersham had taught Muriel years before, and she played with one of his memories in her heart. At the end of the first song, she turned and found him looking at her, and they met again in the poetry of the past.
“Daffodils,” he said softly, his eyes full of memories.
She dilated, quivered with emotion, in response. They had sat on the rim of the hill, where the wild daffodils stood up to the sky, and there he had taught her, singing line by line: “Du bist wie eine Blume.” He had no voice, but a very accurate ear.
The evening wore on to ten o’clock. The lads came through the room on their way to bed. The house was asleep save the father, who sat alone in the kitchen, reading The Octopus. They went in to supper.
Mersham had roused himself and was talking well. Muriel stimulated him, always, and turned him to talk of art and philosophy — abstract things that she loved, of which only he had ever spoken to her, of which only he could speak, she believed, with such beauty. He used quaint turns of speech, contradicted himself waywardly, then said something sad and whimsical, all in a wistful, irresponsible manner so that even the men leaned indulgent and deferential to him.
“Life,” he said, and he was always urging this on Muriel in one form or another, “life is beautiful, so long as it is consuming you. When it is rushing through you, destroying you, life is glorious. It is best to roar away, like a fire with a great draught, white-hot to the last bit. It’s when you burn a slow fire and save fuel that life’s not worth having.”
“You believe in a short life and a merry,” said the father.
“Needn’t be either short or merry. Grief is part of the fire of life — and suffering — they’re the root of the flame of joy, as they say. No! With life, we’re like the man who was so anxious to provide for his old age that he died at thirty from inanition.”
“That’s what we’re not likely to do,” laughed Tom.
“Oh, I don’t know. You live most intensely in human contact — and that’s what we shrink from, poor timid creatures, from giving our souls to somebody to touch; for they, bungling fools, will generally paw it with dirty hands.”
Muriel looked at him with dark eyes of grateful understanding. She herself had been much pawed, brutally, by her brothers. But, then, she had been foolish in offering herself.
“And,” concluded Mersham, “you are washed with the whitest fire of life — when you take a woman you love — and understand.”
Perhaps Mersham did not know what he was doing. Yet his whole talk lifted Muriel as in a net, like a sea-maiden out of the waters, and placed her in his arms, to breathe his thin, rare atmosphere. She looked at him, and was certain of his pure earnestness, and believed implicitly he could not do wrong.
Vickers believed otherwise. He would have expressed his opinion, whatever it might be, in an: “Oh, ay, he’s got plenty to say, and he’ll keep on saying it — but, hang it all . . .!”
For Vickers was an old-fashioned, inarticulate lover; such as has been found the brief joy and the unending disappointment of a woman’s life. At last he found he must go, as Mersham would not precede him. Muriel did not kiss him good-bye, nor did she offer to go out with him to his bicycle. He was angry at this, but more angry with the girl than with the man. He felt that she was fooling about, “showing off” before the stranger. Mersham was a stranger to him, and so, in his idea, to Muriel. Both young men went out of the house together, and down the rough brick track to the barn. Mersham made whimsical little jokes: “I wish my feet weren’t so fastidious. They dither when they go in a soft spot like a girl who’s touched a toad. Hark at that poor old wretch — she sounds as if she’d got whooping-cough.”
“A cow is not coughing when she makes that row,” said Vickers.
“Pretending, is she? — to get some Owbridge’s? Don’t blame her. I guess she’s got chilblains, at any rate. Do cows have chilblains, poor devils?”
Vickers laughed and felt he must take this man into his protection. “Mind,” he said, as they entered the barn, which was very dark. “Mind your forehead against this beam.” He put one hand on the beam, and stretched out the other to feel for Mersham. “Thanks,” said the latter gratefully. He knew the position of the beam to an inch, however dark the barn, but he allowed Vickers to guide him past it. He rather enjoyed being taken into Tom’s protection.
Vickers carefully struck a match, bowing over the ruddy core of light and illuminating himself like some beautiful lantern in the midst of the high darkness of the barn. For some moments he bent over his bicycle-lamp, trimming and adjusting the wick, and his face, gathering all the light on its ruddy beauty, seemed luminous and wonderful. Mersham could see the down on his cheeks above the razor-line, and the full lips in shadow beneath the moustache, and the brush of the eyebrows between the light.
“After all,” said Mersham, “he’s very beautiful; she’s a fool to give him up.”
Tom shut the lamp with a snap, and carefully crushed the match under his foot. Then he took the pump from the bicycle, and crouched on his heels in the dimness, inflating the tyre. The swift, unerring, untiring stroke of the pump, the light balance and the fine elastic adjustment of the man’s body to his movements pleased Mersham.
“She could have,” he was saying to himself, “some glorious hours with this man — yet she’d rather have me, because I can make her sad and set her wondering.”
But to the man he was saying:
“You know, love isn’t the twin-soul business. With you, for instance, women are like apples on a tree. You can have one that you can reach. Those that look best are overhead, but it’s no good bothering with them. So you stretch up, perhaps you pull down a bough and just get your fingers round a good one. Then it swings back and you feel wild and you say your heart’s broken. But there are plenty of apples as good for you no higher than your chest.”
Vickers smiled, and thought there was something in it — generally; but for himself, it was nothing.
They went out of the barn to the yard gate. He watched the young man swing over his saddle and vanish, calling “Good-night.”
“Sic transit,” he murmured — meaning Tom Vickers, and beautiful lustihood that is unconscious like a blossom.
Mersham went slowly in the house. Muriel was clearing away the supper things, and laying the table again for the men’s breakfasts. But she was waiting for him as clearly as if she had stood watching in the doorway. She looked up at him, and instinctively he lifted his face towards her as if to kiss her. They smiled, and she went on with her work.
The father rose, stretching his burly form, and yawning. Mersham put on his overcoat.
“You will come a little way with me?” he said. She answered him with her eyes. The father stood, large and silent, on the hearth-rug. His sleepy, mazed disapproval had no more effect than a little breeze which might blow against them. She smiled brightly at her lover, like a child, as she pinned on her hat.
It was very dark outside in the starlight. He groaned heavily, and swore with extravagance as he went ankle-deep in mud.
“See, you should follow me. Come here,” she commanded, delighted to have him in charge.
“Give me your hand,” he said, and they went hand-inhand over the rough places. The fields were open, and the night went up to the magnificent stars. The wood was very dark, and wet; they leaned forward and stepped stealthily, and gripped each other’s hands fast with a delightful sense of adventure. When they stood and looked up a moment, they did not know how the stars were scattered among the tree-tops till he found the three jewels of Orion right in front.
There was a strangeness everywhere, as if all things had ventured out alive to play in the night, as they do in fairy-tales; the trees, the many stars, the dark spaces, and the mysterious waters below uniting in some magnificent game.
They emerged from the wood on to the bare hillside. She came down from the wood-fence into his arms, and he kissed her, and they laughed low together. Then they went on across the wild meadows where there was no path.
“Why don’t you like him?” he asked playfully.
“Need you ask?” she said simply.
“Yes. Because he’s heaps nicer than I am.”
She laughed a full laugh of amusement.
“He is! Look! He’s like summer, brown and full of warmth. Think how splendid and fierce he’d be-”
“Why do you talk about him?” she said.
“Because I want you to know what you’re losing — and you won’t till you see him in my terms. He is very desirable — I should choose him in preference to me — for myself.”
“Should you?” she laughed. “But,” she added with soft certainty, “you don’t understand.”
“No — I don’t. I suppose it’s love; your sort, which is beyond me. I shall never be blindly in love, shall I?”
“I begin to think you never will,” she answered, not very sadly. “You won’t be blindly anything.”
“The voice of love!” he laughed; and then: “No, if you pull your flowers to pieces, and find how they pollinate, and where are the ovaries, you don’t go in blind ecstasies over to them. But they mean more to you; they are intimate, like friends of your heart, not like wonderful, dazing fairies.”
“Ay!” she assented, musing over it with the gladness of understanding him. “And then?”
Softly, almost without words, she urged him to the point.
“Well,” he said, “you think I’m a wonderful, magical person, don’t you? — and I’m not — I’m not as good, in the long run, as your Tom, who thinks you are a wonderful, magical person.”
She laughed and clung to him as they walked. He continued, very carefully and gently: “Now, I don’t imagine for a moment that you are princessy or angelic or wonderful. You often make me thundering mad because you’re an ass . . .”
She laughed low with shame and humiliation.
“Nevertheless — I come from the south to you — because — well, with you I can be just as I feel, conceited or idiotic, without being afraid to be myself . . .” He broke off suddenly. “I don’t think I’ve tried to make myself out to you — any bigger or better than I am?” he asked her wistfully.
“No,” she answered, in beautiful, deep assurance. “No! That’s where it is. You have always been so honest. You are more honest than anybody ever —” She did not finish, being deeply moved. He was silent for some time, then he continued, as if he must see the question to the end with her:
“But, you know — I do like you not to wear corsets. I like to see you move inside your dress.”
She laughed, half shame, half pleasure.
“I wondered if you’d notice,” she said.
“I did — directly.” There was a space of silence, after which he resumed: “You see — we would marry tomorrow — but I can’t keep myself. I am in debt —”
She came close to him, and took his arm.
“— And what’s the good of letting the years go, and the beauty of one’s youth —?”
“No,” she admitted, very slowly and softly, shaking her head.
“So — well! — you understand, don’t you? And if you’re willing — you’ll come to me, won’t you? — just naturally, as you used to come and go to church with me? — and it won’t be-it won’t be me coaxing you — reluctant? Will it?”
They had halted in front of a stile which they would have to climb. She turned to him in silence, and put up her face to him. He took her in his arms, and kissed her, and felt the night mist with which his moustache was drenched, and he bent his head and rubbed his face on her shoulder, and then pressed his lips on her neck. For a while they stood in silence, clasped together. Then he heard her voice, muffled in his shoulder, saying:
“But — but, you know — it’s much harder for the woman — it means something so different for a woman.”
“One can be wise,” he answered, slowly and gently. “One need not blunder into calamities.”
She was silent for a time. Then she spoke again.
“Yes, but — if it should be-you see — I couldn’t bear it.”
He let her go, and they drew apart, and the embrace no longer choked them from speaking. He recognised the woman defensive, playing the coward against her own inclinations, and even against her knowledge.
“If — if!” he exclaimed sharply, so that she shrank with a little fear. “There need be no ifs — need there?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, reproachfully, very quietly.
“If I say so —” he said, angry with her mistrust. Then he climbed the stile, and she followed.
“But you DO know,” he exclaimed. “I have given you books —”
“Yes, but —”
“But what?” He was getting really angry.
“It’s so different for a woman — you don’t know.”
He did not answer this. They stumbled together over the mole-hills, under the oak trees.
“And look — how we should have to be-creeping together in the dark —”
This stung him; at once, it was as if the glamour went out of life. It was as if she had tipped over the fine vessel that held the wine of his desire, and had emptied him of all his vitality. He had played a difficult, deeply-moving part all night, and now the lights suddenly switched out, and there was left only weariness. He was silent, tired, very tired, bodily and spiritually. They walked across the wide, dark meadow with sunken heads. Suddenly she caught his arm.
“Don’t be cold with me!” she cried.
He bent and kissed in acknowledgment the lips she offered him for love.
“No,” he said drearily; “no, it is not coldness — only — I have lost hold — for to-night.” He spoke with difficulty. It was hard to find a word to say. They stood together, apart, under the old thorn tree for some minutes, neither speaking. Then he climbed the fence, and stood on the highway above the meadow.
At parting also he had not kissed her. He stood a moment and looked at her. The water in a little brook under the hedge was running, chuckling with extraordinary loudness: away on Nethermere they heard the sad, haunting cry of the wild-fowl from the North. The stars still twinkled intensely. He was too spent to think of anything to say; she was too overcome with grief and fear and a little resentment. He looked down at the pale blotch of her face upturned from the low meadow beyond the fence. The thorn boughs tangled above her, drooping behind her like the roof of a hut. Beyond was the great width of the darkness. He felt unable to gather his energy to say anything vital.
“Good-bye,” he said. “I’m going back — on Saturday. But — you’ll write to me. Good-bye.”
He turned to go. He saw her white uplifted face vanish, and her dark form bend under the boughs of the tree, and go out into the great darkness. She did not say good-bye.
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23