“After all,” she said, with a little laugh, “I can’t see it was so wonderful of you to hurry home to me, if you are so cross when you do come.”
“You would rather I stayed away?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“You would rather I had stayed a day or two in Paris — or a night or two.”
She burst into a jeering “pouf!” of laughter.
“You!” she cried. “You and Parisian Nights’ Entertainment! What a fool you would look.”
“Still,” he said, “I could try.”
“You WOULD!” she mocked. “You would go dribbling up to a woman. ‘Please take me — my wife is so unkind to me!’”
He drank his tea in silence. They had been married a year. They had married quickly, for love. And during the last three months there had gone on almost continuously that battle between them which so many married people fight, without knowing why. Now it had begun again. He felt the physical sickness rising in him. Somewhere down in his belly the big, feverish pulse began to beat, where was the inflamed place caused by the conflict between them.
She was a beautiful woman of about thirty, fair, luxuriant, with proud shoulders and a face borne up by a fierce, native vitality. Her green eyes had a curiously puzzled contraction just now. She sat leaning on the table against the tea-tray, absorbed. It was as if she battled with herself in him. Her green dress reflected in the silver, against the red of the firelight. Leaning abstractedly forward, she pulled some primroses from the bowl, and threaded them at intervals in the plait which bound round her head in the peasant fashion. So, with her little starred fillet of flowers, there was something of the Gretchen about her. But her eyes retained the curious half-smile.
Suddenly her face lowered gloomily. She sank her beautiful arms, laying them on the table. Then she sat almost sullenly, as if she would not give in. He was looking away out of the window. With a quick movement she glanced down at her hands. She took off her wedding-ring, reached to the bowl for a long flower-stalk, and shook the ring glittering round and round upon it, regarding the spinning gold, and spinning it as if she would spurn it. Yet there was something about her of a fretful, naughty child as she did so.
The man sat by the fire, tired, but tense. His body seemed so utterly still because of the tension in which it was held. His limbs, thin and vigorous, lay braced like a listening thing, always vivid for action, yet held perfectly still. His face was set and expressionless. The wife was all the time, in spite of herself, conscious of him, as if the cheek that was turned towards him had a sense which perceived him. They were both rendered elemental, like impersonal forces, by the battle and the suffering.
She rose and went to the window. Their flat was the fourth, the top storey of a large house. Above the high-ridged, handsome red roof opposite was an assembly of telegraph wires, a square, squat framework, towards which hosts of wires sped from four directions, arriving in darkly-stretched lines out of the white sky. High up, at a great height, a seagull sailed. There was a noise of traffic from the town beyond.
Then, from behind the ridge of the house-roof opposite a man climbed up into the tower of wires, belted himself amid the netted sky, and began to work, absorbedly. Another man, half-hidden by the roof-ridge, stretched up to him with a wire. The man in the sky reached down to receive it. The other, having delivered, sank out of sight. The solitary man worked absorbedly. Then he seemed drawn away from his task. He looked round almost furtively, from his lonely height, the space pressing on him. His eyes met those of the beautiful woman who stood in her afternoon-gown, with flowers in her hair, at the window.
“I like you,” she said, in her normal voice.
Her husband, in the room with her, looked round slowly and asked:
“Whom do you like?”
Receiving no answer, he resumed his tense stillness.
She remained watching at the window, above the small, quiet street of large houses. The man, suspended there in the sky, looked across at her and she at him. The city was far below. Her eyes and his met across the lofty space. Then, crouching together again into his forgetfulness, he hid himself in his work. He would not look again. Presently he climbed down, and the tower of wires was empty against the sky.
The woman glanced at the little park at the end of the clear, grey street. The diminished, dark-blue form of a soldier was seen passing between the green stretches of grass, his spurs giving the faintest glitter to his walk.
Then she turned hesitating from the window, as if drawn by her husband. He was sitting still motionless, and detached from her, hard; held absolutely away from her by his will. She wavered, then went and crouched on the hearth-rug at his feet, laying her head on his knee.
“Don’t be horrid with me!” she pleaded, in a caressing, languid, impersonal voice. He shut his teeth hard, and his lips parted slightly with pain.
“You know you love me,” she continued, in the same heavy, sing-song way. He breathed hard, but kept still.
“Don’t you?” she said, slowly, and she put her arms round his waist, under his coat, drawing him to her. It was as if flames of fire were running under his skin.
“I have never denied it,” he said woodenly.
“Yes,” she pleaded, in the same heavy, toneless voice. “Yes. You are always trying to deny it.” She was rubbing her cheek against his knee, softly. Then she gave a little laugh, and shook her head. “But it’s no good.” She looked up at him. There was a curious light in his eyes, of subtle victory. “It’s no good, my love, is it?”
His heart ran hot. He knew it was no good trying to deny he loved her. But he saw her eyes, and his will remained set and hard. She looked away into the fire.
“You hate it that you have to love me,” she said, in a pensive voice through which the triumph flickered faintly. “You hate it that you love me — and it is petty and mean of you. You hate it that you had to hurry back to me from Paris.”
Her voice had become again quite impersonal, as if she were talking to herself.
“At any rate,” he said, “it is your triumph.”
She gave a sudden, bitter-contemptuous laugh.
“Ha!” she said. “What is triumph to me, you fool! You can have your triumph. I should be only too glad to give it you.”
“And I to take it.”
“Then take it,” she cried, in hostility. “I offer it you often enough.”
“But you never mean to part with it.”
“It is a lie. It is you, you, who are too paltry to take a woman. How often do I fling myself at you —”
“Then don’t — don’t.”
“Ha! — and if I don’t — I get nothing out of you. Self! self! that is all you are.”
His face remained set and expressionless. She looked up at him. Suddenly she drew him to her again, and hid her face against him.
“Don’t kick me off, Pietro, when I come to you,” she pleaded.
“You DON’T come to me,” he answered stubbornly.
She lifted her head a few inches away from him and seemed to listen, or to think.
“What do I do, then?” she asked, for the first time quietly.
“You treat me as if I were a piece of cake, for you to eat when you wanted.”
She rose from him with a mocking cry of scorn, that yet had something hollow in its sound.
“Treat you like a piece of cake, do I!” she cried. “I, who have done all I have for you!”
There was a knock, and the maid entered with a telegram. He tore it open.
“No answer,” he said, and the maid softly closed the door.
“I suppose it is for you,” he said, bitingly, rising and handing her the slip of paper. She read it, laughed, then read it again, aloud:
“‘Meet me Marble Arch 7.30 — theatre — Richard.” Who is Richard?” she asked, looking at her husband rather interested. He shook his head.
“Nobody of mine,” he said. “Who is he?”
“I haven’t the faintest notion,” she said, flippantly.
“But,” and his eyes went bullying, “you MUST know.”
She suddenly became quiet, and jeering, took up his challenge.
“Why must I know?” she asked.
“Because it isn’t for me, therefore it must be for you.”
“And couldn’t it be for anybody else?” she sneered.
“‘Moest, 14 Merrilies Street,’” he read, decisively.
For a second she was puzzled into earnestness.
“Pah, you fool,” she said, turning aside. “Think of your own friends,” and she flung the telegram away.
“It is not for me,” he said, stiffly and finally.
“Then it is for the man in the moon — I should think HIS name is Moest,” she added, with a pouf of laughter against him.
“Do you mean to say you know nothing about it?” he asked.
“Do you mean to say,” she mocked, mouthing the words, and sneering; “Yes, I do mean to say, poor little man.”
He suddenly went hard with disgust.
“Then I simply don’t believe you,” he said coldly.
“Oh — don’t you believe me!” she jeered, mocking the touch of sententiousness in his voice. “What a calamity. The poor man doesn’t believe!”
“It couldn’t possibly be any acquaintance of mine,” he said slowly.
“Then hold your tongue!” she cried harshly. “I’ve heard enough of it.”
He was silent, and soon she went out of the room. In a few minutes he heard her in the drawing-room, improvising furiously. It was a sound that maddened him: something yearning, yearning, striving, and something perverse, that counteracted the yearning. Her music was always working up towards a certain culmination, but never reaching it, falling away in a jangle. How he hated it. He lit a cigarette, and went across to the sideboard for a whisky and soda. Then she began to sing. She had a good voice, but she could not keep time. As a rule it made his heart warm with tenderness for her, hearing her ramble through the songs in her own fashion, making Brahms sound so different by altering his time. But today he hated her for it. Why the devil couldn’t she submit to the natural laws of the stuff!
In about fifteen minutes she entered, laughing. She laughed as she closed the door, and as she came to him where he sat.
“Oh,” she said, “you silly thing, you silly thing! Aren’t you a stupid clown?”
She crouched between his knees and put her arms round him. She was smiling into his face, her green eyes looking into his, were bright and wide. But somewhere in them, as he looked back, was a little twist that could not come loose to him, a little cast, that was like an aversion from him, a strain of hate for him. The hot waves of blood flushed over his body, and his heart seemed to dissolve under her caresses. But at last, after many months, he knew her well enough. He knew that curious little strain in her eyes, which was waiting for him to submit to her, and then would spurn him again. He resisted her while ever it was there.
“Why don’t you let yourself love me?” she asked, pleading, but a touch of mockery in her voice. His jaw set hard.
“Is it because you are afraid?”
He heard the slight sneer.
“Of what?” he asked.
“Afraid to trust yourself?”
There was silence. It made him furious that she could sit there caressing him and yet sneer at him.
“What HAVE I done with myself?” he asked.
“Carefully saved yourself from giving all to me, for fear you might lose something.”
“Why should I lose anything?” he asked.
And they were both silent. She rose at last and went away from him to get a cigarette. The silver box flashed red with firelight in her hands. She struck a match, bungled, threw the stick aside, lit another.
“What did you come running back for?” she asked, insolently, talking with half-shut lips because of the cigarette. “I told you I wanted peace. I’ve had none for a year. And for the last three months you’ve done nothing but try to destroy me.”
“You have not gone frail on it,” he answered sarcastically.
“Nevertheless,” she said, “I am ill inside me. I am sick of you — sick. You make an eternal demand, and you give nothing back. You leave one empty.” She puffed the cigarette in feminine fashion, then suddenly she struck her forehead with a wild gesture. “I have a ghastly, empty feeling in my head,” she said. “I feel I simply MUST have rest — I must.”
The rage went through his veins like flame.
“From your labours?” he asked, sarcastically, suppressing himself.
“From you — from YOU?” she cried, thrusting forward her head at him. “You, who use a woman’s soul up, with your rotten life. I suppose it is partly your health, and you can’t help it,” she added, more mildly. “But I simply can’t stick it — I simply can’t, and that is all.”
She shook her cigarette carelessly in the direction of the fire. The ash fell on the beautiful Asiatic rug. She glanced at it, but did not trouble. He sat, hard with rage.
“May I ask how I use you up, as you say?” he asked.
She was silent a moment, trying to get her feeling into words. Then she shook her hand at him passionately, and took the cigarette from her mouth.
“By — by following me about — by not leaving me ALONE. You give me no peace — I don’t know what you do, but it is something ghastly.”
Again the hard stroke of rage went down his mind.
“It is very vague,” he said.
“I know,” she cried. “I can’t put it into words — but there it is. You — you don’t love. I pour myself out to you, and then — there’s nothing there — you simply aren’t there.”
He was silent for some time. His jaw set hard with fury and hate.
“We have come to the incomprehensible,” he said. “And now, what about Richard?”
It had grown nearly dark in the room. She sat silent for a moment. Then she took the cigarette from her mouth and looked at it.
“I’m going to meet him,” her voice, mocking, answered out of the twilight.
His head went molten, and he could scarcely breathe.
“Who is he?” he asked, though he did not believe the affair to be anything at all, even if there were a Richard.
“I’ll introduce him to you when I know him a little better,” she said. He waited.
“But who is he?”
“I tell you, I’ll introduce him to you later.”
There was a pause.
“Shall I come with you?”
“It would be like you,” she answered, with a sneer.
The maid came in, softly, to draw the curtains and turn on the light. The husband and wife sat silent.
“I suppose,” he said, when the door was closed again, “you are wanting a Richard for a rest?”
She took his sarcasm simply as a statement.
“I am,” she said. “A simple, warm man who would love me without all these reservation and difficulties. That is just what I do want.”
“Well, you have your own independence,” he said.
“Ha,” she laughed. “You needn’t tell me that. It would take more than you to rob me of my independence.”
“I meant your own income,” he answered quietly, while his heart was plunging with bitterness and rage.
“Well,” she said, “I will go and dress.”
He remained without moving, in his chair. The pain of this was almost too much. For some moments the great, inflamed pulse struck through his body. It died gradually down, and he went dull. He had not wanted to separate from her at this point of their union; they would probably, if they parted in such a crisis, never come together again. But if she insisted, well then, it would have to be. He would go away for a month. He could easily make business in Italy. And when he came back, they could patch up some sort of domestic arrangement, as most other folk had to do.
He felt full and heavy inside, and without the energy for anything. The thought of having to pack and take a train to Milan appalled him; it would mean such an effort of will. But it would have to be done, and so he must do it. It was no use his waiting at home. He might stay in town a night, at his brother-inlaw’s, and go away the next day. It were better to give her a little time to come to herself. She was really impulsive. And he did not really want to go away from her.
He was still sitting thinking, when she came downstairs. She was in costume and furs and toque. There was a radiant, half-wistful, half-perverse look about her. She was a beautiful woman, her bright, fair face set among the black furs.
“Will you give me some money?” she said. “There isn’t any.”
He took two sovereigns, which she put in her little black purse. She would go without a word of reconciliation. It made his heart set hard again.
“You would like me to go away for a moment?” he said, calmly.
“Yes,” she answered, stubbornly.
“All right, then, I will. I must stop in town for tomorrow, but I will sleep at Edmund’s.”
“You could do that, couldn’t you?” she said, accepting his suggestion, a little bit hesitating.
“If you want me to.”
“I’m so TIRED!” she lamented.
But there was exasperation and hate in the last word, too.
“Very well,” he answered.
She finished buttoning her glove.
“You’ll go, then?” she said suddenly, brightly, turning to depart. “Good-bye.”
He hated her for the flippant insult of her leave-taking.
“I shall be at Edmund’s tomorrow,” he said.
“You will write to me from Italy, won’t you?”
He would not answer the unnecessary question.
“Have you taken the dead primroses out of your hair?” he asked.
“I haven’t,” she said.
And she unpinned her hat.
“Richard WOULD think me cracked,” she said, picking out the crumpled, creamy fragments. She strewed the withered flowers carelessly on the table, set her hat straight.
“Do you WANT me to go?” he asked, again, rather yearning.
She knitted her brows. It irked her to resist the appeal. Yet she had in her breast a hard, repellent feeling for him. She had loved him, too. She had loved him dearly. And — he had not seemed to realise her. So that now she DID want to be free of him for a while. Yet the love, the passion she had had for him clung about her. But she did want, first and primarily, to be free of him again.
“Yes,” she said, half pleading.
“Very well,” he answered.
She came across to him, and put her arms round his neck. Her hatpin caught his head, but he moved, and she did not notice.
“You don’t mind very much, do you, my love?” she said caressingly.
“I mind all the world, and all I am,” he said.
She rose from him, fretted, miserable, and yet determined.
“I MUST have some rest,” she repeated.
He knew that cry. She had had it, on occasions, for two months now. He had cursed her, and refused either to go away or to let her go. Now he knew it was no use.
“All right,” he said. “Go and get it from Richard.”
“Yes.” She hesitated. “Good-bye,” she called, and was gone.
He heard her cab whirr away. He had no idea whither she was gone — but probably to Madge, her friend.
He went upstairs to pack. Their bedroom made him suffer. She used to say, at first, that she would give up anything rather than her sleeping with him. And still they were always together. A kind of blind helplessness drove them to one another, even when, after he had taken her, they only felt more apart than ever. It had seemed to her that he had been mechanical and barren with her. She felt a horrible feeling of aversion from him, inside her, even while physically she still desired him. His body had always a kind of fascination for her. But had hers for him? He seemed, often, just to have served her, or to have obeyed some impersonal instinct for which she was the only outlet, in his loving her. So at last she rose against him, to cast him off. He seemed to follow her so, to draw her life into his. It made her feel she would go mad. For he seemed to do it just blindly, without having any notion of her herself. It was as if she were sucked out of herself by some non-human force. As for him, he seemed only like an instrument for his work, his business, not like a person at all. Sometimes she thought he was a big fountain-pen which was always sucking at her blood for ink.
He could not understand anything of this. He loved her — he could not bear to be away from her. He tried to realise her and to give her what she wanted. But he could not understand. He could not understand her accusations against him. Physically, he knew, she loved him, or had loved him, and was satisfied by him. He also knew that she would have loved another man nearly as well. And for the rest, he was only himself. He could not understand what she said about his using her and giving her nothing in return. Perhaps he did not think of her, as a separate person from himself, sufficiently. But then he did not see, he could not see that she had any real personal life, separate from himself. He tried to think of her in every possible way, and to give her what she wanted. But it was no good; she was never at peace. And lately there had been growing a breach between them. They had never come together without his realising it, afterwards. Now he must submit, and go away.
And her quilted dressing-gown — it was a little bit torn, like most of her things — and her pearl-backed mirror, with one of the pieces of pearl missing — all her untidy, flimsy, lovable things hurt him as he went about the bedroom, and made his heart go hard with hate, in the midst of his love.
Instead of going to his brother-inlaw’s, he went to an hotel for the night. It was not till he stood in the lift, with the attendant at his side, that he began to realise that he was only a mile or so away from his own home, and yet farther away than any miles could make him. It was about nine o’clock. He hated his bedroom. It was comfortable, and not ostentatious; its only fault was the neutrality necessary to an hotel apartment. He looked round. There was one semi-erotic Florentine picture of a lady with cat’s eyes, over the bed. It was not bad. The only other ornament on the walls was the notice of hours and prices of meals and rooms. The couch sat correctly before the correct little table, on which the writing-sachet and ink-stand stood mechanically. Down below, the quiet street was half illuminated, the people passed sparsely, like stunted shadows. And of all times of the night, it was a quarter-past nine. He thought he would go to bed. Then he looked at the white-and-glazed doors which shut him off from the bath. He would bath, to pass the time away. In the bath-closet everything was so comfortable and white and warm — too warm; the level, unvarying heat of the atmosphere, from which there was no escape anywhere, seemed so hideously hotel-like; this central-heating forced a unity into the great building, making it more than ever like an enormous box with incubating cells. He loathed it. But at any rate the bath-closet was human, white and business-like and luxurious.
He was trying, with the voluptuous warm water, and the exciting thrill of the shower-bath, to bring back the life into his dazed body. Since she had begun to hate him, he had gradually lost that physical pride and pleasure in his own physique which the first months of married life had given him. His body had gone meaningless to him again, almost as if it were not there. It had wakened up, there had been the physical glow and satisfaction about his movements of a creature which rejoices in itself; a glow which comes on a man who loves and is loved passionately and successfully. Now this was going again. All the life was accumulating in his mental consciousness, and his body felt like a piece of waste. He was not aware of this. It was instinct which made him want to bathe. But that, too, was a failure. He went under the shower-spray with his mind occupied by business, or some care of affairs, taking the tingling water almost without knowing it, stepping out mechanically, as a man going through a barren routine. He was dry again, and looking out of the window, without having experienced anything during the last hour.
Then he remembered that she did not know his address. He scribbled a note and rang to have it posted.
As soon as he had turned out the light, and there was nothing left for his mental consciousness to flourish amongst, it dropped, and it was dark inside him as without. It was his blood, and the elemental male in it, that now rose from him; unknown instincts suffocated him, and he could not bear it, that he was shut in this great, warm building. He wanted to be outside, with space springing from him. But, again, the reasonable being in him knew it was ridiculous, and he remained staring at the dark, having the horrible sensation of a roof low down over him; whilst that dark, unknown being, which lived below all his consciousness in the eternal gloom of his blood, heaved and raged blindly against him.
It was not his thoughts that represented him. They spun like straws or the iridescence of oil on a dark stream. He thought of her, sketchily, spending an evening of light amusement with the symbolical Richard. That did not mean much to him. He did not really speculate about Richard. He had the dark, powerful sense of her, how she wanted to get away from him and from the deep, underneath intimacy which had gradually come between them, back to the easy, everyday life where one knows nothing of the underneath, so that it takes its way apart from the consciousness. She did not want to have the deeper part of herself in direct contact with or under the influence of any other intrinsic being. She wanted, in the deepest sense, to be free of him. She could not bear the close, basic intimacy into which she had been drawn. She wanted her life for herself. It was true, her strongest desire had been previously to know the contact through the whole of her being, down to the very bottom. Now it troubled her. She wanted to disengage his roots. Above, in the open, she would live. But she must live perfectly free of herself, and not, at her source, be connected with anybody. She was using this symbolical Richard as a spade to dig him away from her. And he felt like a thing whose roots are all straining on their hold, and whose elemental life, that blind source, surges backwards and forwards darkly, in a chaos, like something which is threatened with spilling out of its own vessel.
This tremendous swaying of the most elemental part of him continued through the hours, accomplishing his being, whilst superficially he thought of the journey, of the Italian he would speak, how he had left his coat in the train, and the rascally official interpreter had tried to give him twenty lire for a sovereign — how the man in the hat-shop in the Strand had given him the wrong change — of the new shape in hats, and the new felt — and so on. Underneath it all, like the sea under a pleasure pier, his elemental, physical soul was heaving in great waves through his blood and his tissue, the sob, the silent lift, the slightly-washing fall away again. So his blood, out of whose darkness everything rose, being moved to its depth by her revulsion, heaved and swung towards its own rest, surging blindly to its own re-settling.
Without knowing it, he suffered that night almost more than he had ever suffered during his life. But it was all below his consciousness. It was his life itself at storm, not his mind and his will engaged at all.
In the morning he got up, thin and quiet, without much movement anywhere, only with some of the clearing afterstorm. His body felt like a clean, empty shell. His mind was limpidly clear. He went through the business of the toilet with a certain accuracy, and at breakfast, in the restaurant, there was about him that air of neutral correctness which makes men seem so unreal.
At lunch, there was a telegram for him. It was like her to telegraph.
“Come to tea, my dear love.”
As he read it, there was a great heave of resistance in him. But then he faltered. With his consciousness, he remembered how impulsive and eager she was when she dashed off her telegram, and he relaxed. It went without saying that he would go.
When he stood in the lift going up to his own flat, he was almost blind with the hurt of it all. They had loved each other so much in his first home. The parlour-maid opened to him, and he smiled at her affectionately. In the golden-brown and cream-coloured hall — Paula would have nothing heavy or sombre about her — a bush of rose-coloured azaleas shone, and a little tub of lilies twinkled naïvely.
She did not come out to meet him.
“Tea is in the drawing-room,” the maid said, and he went in while she was hanging up his coat. It was a big room, with a sense of space, and a spread of whity carpet almost the colour of unpolished marble — and grey and pink border; of pink roses on big white cushions, pretty Dresden china, and deep chintz-covered chairs and sofas which looked as if they were used freely. It was a room where one could roll in soft, fresh-comfort, a room which had not much breakable in it, and which seemed, in the dusky spring evening, fuller of light than the streets outside.
Paula rose, looking queenly and rather radiant, as she held out her hand. A young man whom Peter scarcely noticed rose on the other side of the hearth.
“I expected you an hour ago,” she said, looking into her husband’s eyes. But though she looked at him, she did not see him. And he sank his head.
“This is another Moest,” she said, presenting the stranger. “He knows Richard, too.”
The young man, a German of about thirty, with a clean-shaven æsthetic face, long black hair brushed back a little wearily or bewildered from his brow, and inclined to fall in an odd loose strand again, so that he nervously put it back with his fine hand, looked at Moest and bowed. He had a finely-cut face, but his dark-blue eyes were strained, as if he did not quite know where he was. He sat down again, and his pleasant figure took a self-conscious attitude, of a man whose business it was to say things that should be listened to. He was not conceited or affected — naturally sensitive and rather naïve; but he could only move in an atmosphere of literature and literary ideas; yet he seemed to know there was something else, vaguely, and he felt rather at a loss. He waited for the conversation to move his way, as, inert, an insect waits for the sun to set it flying.
“Another Moest,” Paula was pronouncing emphatically. “Actually another Moest, of whom we have never heard, and under the same roof with us.”
The stranger laughed, his lips moving nervously over his teeth.
“You are in this house?” Peter asked, surprised.
The young man shifted in his chair, dropped his head, looked up again.
“Yes,” he said, meeting Moest’s eyes as if he were somewhat dazzled. “I am staying with the Lauriers, on the second floor.”
He spoke English slowly, with a quaint, musical quality in his voice, and a certain rhythmic enunciation.
“I see; and the telegram was for you?” said the host.
“Yes,” replied the stranger, with a nervous little laugh.
“My husband,” broke in Paula, evidently repeating to the German what she had said before, for Peter’s benefit this time, “was quite convinced I had an affaire”— she pronounced it in the French fashion —“with this terrible Richard.”
The German gave his little laugh, and moved, painfully self-conscious, in his chair.
“Yes,” he said, glancing at Moest.
“Did you spend a night of virtuous indignation?” Paula laughed to her husband, “imagining my perfidy?”
“I did not,” said her husband. “Were you at Madge’s?”
“No,” she said. Then, turning to her guest: “Who is Richard, Mr. Moest?”
“Richard,” began the German, word by word, “is my cousin.” He glanced quickly at Paula, to see if he were understood. She rustled her skirts, and arranged herself comfortably, lying, or almost squatting, on the sofa by the fire. “He lives in Hampstead.”
“And what is he like?” she asked, with eager interest.
The German gave his little laugh. Then he moved his fingers across his brow, in his dazed fashion. Then he looked, with his beautiful blue eyes, at his beautiful hostess.
“I—” He laughed again nervously. “He is a man whose parts — are not very much — very well known to me. You see,” he broke forth, and it was evident he was now conversing to an imaginary audience — “I cannot easily express myself in English. I— I never have talked it. I shall speak, because I know nothing of modern England, a kind of Renaissance English.”
“How lovely!” cried Paula. “But if you would rather, speak German. We shall understand sufficiently.”
“I would rather hear some Renaissance English,” said Moest.
Paula was quite happy with the new stranger. She listened to descriptions of Richard, shifting animatedly on her sofa. She wore a new dress, of a rich red-tile colour, glossy and long and soft, and she had threaded daisies, like buttons, in the braided plait of her hair. Her husband hated her for these familiarities. But she was beautiful too, and warm-hearted. Only, through all her warmth and kindliness, lay, he said, at the bottom, an almost feline selfishness, a coldness.
She was playing to the stranger — nay, she was not playing, she was really occupied by him. The young man was the favourite disciple of the most famous present-day German poet and Meister. He himself was occupied in translating Shakespeare. Having been always a poetic disciple, he had never come into touch with life save through literature, and for him, since he was a rather fine-hearted young man, with a human need to live, this was a tragedy. Paula was not long in discovering what ailed him, and she was eager to come to his rescue.
It pleased her, nevertheless, to have her husband sitting by, watching her. She forgot to give tea to anyone. Moest and the German both helped themselves, and the former attended also to his wife’s cup. He sat rather in the background, listening, and waiting. She had made a fool of him with her talk to this stranger of “Richard”; lightly and flippantly she had made a fool of him. He minded, but was used to it. Now she had absorbed herself in this dazed, starved, literature-bewildered young German, who was, moreover, really lovable, evidently a gentleman. And she was seeing in him her mission —“just as”, said Moest bitterly to himself, “she saw her mission in me, a year ago. She is no woman. She’s got a big heart for everybody, but it must be like a common-room; she’s got no private, sacred heart, except perhaps for herself, where there’s no room for a man in it.”
At length the stranger rose to go, promising to come again.
“Isn’t he adorable?” cried Paula, as her husband returned to the drawing-room. “I think he is simply adorable.”
“Yes!” said Moest.
“He called this morning to ask about the telegram. But, poor devil, isn’t it a shame what they’ve done to him?”
“What who have done to him?” her husband asked coldly, jealous.
“Those literary creatures. They take a young fellow like that, and stick him up among the literary gods, like a mantelpiece ornament, and there he has to sit, being a minor ornament, while all his youth is gone. It is criminal.”
“He should get off the mantelpiece, then,” said Moest.
But inside him his heart was black with rage against her. What had she, after all, to do with this young man, when he himself was being smashed up by her? He loathed her pity and her kindliness, which was like a charitable institution. There was no core to the woman. She was full of generosity and bigness and kindness, but there was no heart in her, no security, no place for one single man. He began to understand now sirens and sphinxes and the other Greek fabulous female things. They had not been created by fancy, but out of bitter necessity of the man’s human heart to express itself.
“Ha!” she laughed, half contemptuous. “Did YOU get off your miserable, starved isolation by yourself? — you didn’t. You had to be fetched down, and I had to do it.”
“Out of your usual charity,” he said.
“But you can sneer at another man’s difficulties,” she said.
“Your name ought to be Panacea, not Paula,” he replied.
He felt furious and dead against her. He could even look at her without the tenderness coming. And he was glad. He hated her. She seemed unaware. Very well; let her be so.
“Oh, but he makes me so miserable, to see him!” she cried. “Self-conscious, can’t get into contact with anybody, living a false literary life like a man who takes poetry as a drug. — One OUGHT to help him.”
She was really earnest and distressed.
“Out of the frying-pan into the fire,” he said.
“I’d rather be in the fire any day, than in a frying-pan,” she said, abstractedly, with a little shudder. She never troubled to see the meaning of her husband’s sarcasms.
They remained silent. The maid came in for the tray, and to ask him if he would be in to dinner. He waited for his wife to answer. She sat with her chin in her hands, brooding over the young German, and did not hear. The rage flashed up in his heart. He would have liked to smash her out of this false absorption.
“No,” he said to the maid. “I think not. Are you at home for dinner, Paula?”
“Yes,” she said.
And he knew by her tone, easy and abstracted, that she intended him to stay, too. But she did not trouble to say anything.
At last, after some time, she asked:
“What did you do?”
“Nothing — went to bed early,” he replied.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you.”
And he recognised the ludicrous civilities of married people, and he wanted to go. She was silent for a time. Then she asked, and her voice had gone still and grave:
“Why don’t you ask me what I did?”
“Because I don’t care — you just went to somebody’s for dinner.”
“Why don’t you care what I do? Isn’t it your place to care?”
“About the things you do to spite me? — no!”
“Ha!” she mocked. “I did nothing to spite you. I was in deadly earnest.”
“Even with your Richard?”
“Yes,” she cried. “There MIGHT have been a Richard. What did you care!”
“In that case you’d have been a liar and worse, so why should I care about you then?”
“You DON’T care about me,” she said, sullenly.
“You say what you please,” he answered.
She was silent for some time.
“And did you do absolutely nothing last night?” she asked.
“I had a bath and went to bed.”
Then she pondered.
“No,” she said, “you don’t care for me.”
He did not trouble to answer. Softly, a little china clock rang six.
“I shall go to Italy in the morning,” he said.
“And,” he said, slowly, forcing the words out, “I shall stay at the Aquila Nera at Milan — you know my address.”
“Yes,” she answered.
“I shall be away about a month. Meanwhile you can rest.”
“Yes,” she said, in her throat, with a little contempt of him and his stiffness. He, in spite of himself, was breathing heavily. He knew that this parting was the real separation of their souls, marked the point beyond which they could go no farther, but accepted the marriage as a comparative failure. And he had built all his life on his marriage. She accused him of not loving her. He gripped the arms of his chair. Was there something in it? Did he only want the attributes which went along with her, the peace of heart which a man has in living to one woman, even if the love between them be not complete; the singleness and unity in his life that made it easy; the fixed establishment of himself as a married man with a home; the feeling that he belonged somewhere, that one woman existed — not was paid but EXISTED— really to take care of him; was it these things he wanted, and not her? But he wanted her for these purposes — her, and nobody else. But was that not enough for her? Perhaps he wronged her — it was possible. What she said against him was in earnest. And what she said in earnest he had to believe, in the long run, since it was the utterance of her being. He felt miserable and tired.
When he looked at her, across the gathering twilight of the room, she was staring into the fire and biting her finger-nail, restlessly, restlessly, without knowing. And all his limbs went suddenly weak, as he realised that she suffered too, that something was gnawing at her. Something in the look of her, the crouching, dogged, wondering look made him faint with tenderness for her.
“Don’t bite your finger-nails,” he said quietly, and, obediently, she took her hand from her mouth. His heart was beating quickly. He could feel the atmosphere of the room changing. It had stood aloof, the room, like something placed round him, like a great box. Now everything got softer, as if it partook of the atmosphere, of which he partook himself, and they were all one.
His mind reverted to her accusations, and his heart beat like a caged thing against what he could not understand. She said he did not love her. But he knew that in his way, he did. In his way — but was his way wrong? His way was himself, he thought, struggling. Was there something wrong, something missing in his nature, that he could not love? He struggled, as if he were in a mesh, and could not get out. He did not want to believe that he was deficient in his nature. Wherein was he deficient? It was nothing physical. She said he would not come out of himself, that he was no good to her, because he could not get outside himself. What did she mean? Not outside himself! It seemed like some acrobatic feat, some slippery, contortionist trick. No, he could not understand. His heart flashed hot with resentment. She did nothing but find fault with him. What did she care about him, really, when she could taunt him with not being able to take a light woman when he was in Paris? Though his heart, forced to do her justice, knew that for this she loved him, really.
But it was too complicated and difficult, and already, as they sat thinking, it had gone wrong between them and things felt twisted, horribly twisted, so that he could not breathe. He must go. He could dine at the hotel and go to the theatre.
“Well,” he said casually, “I must go. I think I shall go and see The ‘Black Sheep’.”
She did not answer. Then she turned and looked at him with a queer, half-bewildered, half-perverse smile that seemed conscious of pain. Her eyes, shining rather dilated and triumphant, and yet with something heavily yearning behind them, looked at him. He could not understand, and, between her appeal and her defiant triumph, he felt as if his chest was crushed so that he could not breathe.
“My love,” she said, in a little singing, abstract fashion, her lips somehow sipping towards him, her eyes shining dilated; and yet he felt as if he were not in it, himself.
His heart was a flame that prevented his breathing. He gripped the chair like a man who is going to be put under torture.
“What?” he said, staring back at her.
“Oh, my love!” she said softly, with a little, intense laugh on her face, that made him pant. And she slipped from her sofa and came across to him quickly, and put her hand hesitating on his hair. The blood struck like flame across his consciousness, and the hurt was keen like joy, like the releasing of something that hurts as the pressure is relaxed and the movement comes, before the peace. Afraid, his fingers touched her hand, and she sank swiftly between his knees, and put her face on his breast. He held her head hard against his chest, and again and again the flame went down his blood, as he felt her round, small, nut of a head between his hands pressing into his chest where the hurt had been bruised in so deep. His wrists quivered as he pressed her head to him, as he felt the deadness going out of him; the real life released, flowing into his body again. How hard he had shut it off, against her, when she hated him. He was breathing heavily with relief, blindly pressing her head against him. He believed in her again.
She looked up, laughing, childish, inviting him with her lips. He bent to kiss her, and as his eyes closed, he saw hers were shut. The feeling of restoration was almost unbearable.
“Do you love me?” she whispered, in a little ecstasy.
He did not answer, except with the quick tightening of his arms, clutching her a little closer against him. And he loved the silkiness of her hair, and its natural scent. And it hurt him that the daisies she had threaded in should begin to wither. He resented their hurting her by their dying.
He had not understood. But the trouble had gone off. He was quiet, and he watched her from out of his sensitive stillness, a little bit dimly, unable to recover. She was loving to him, protective, and bright, laughing like a glad child too.
“We must tell Maud I shall be in to dinner,” he said.
That was like him — always aware of the practical side of the case, and the appearances. She laughed a little bit ironically. Why should she have to take her arm from round him, just to tell Maud he would be in to dinner?
“I’ll go,” she said.
He drew the curtains and turned on the light in the big lamp that stood in a corner. The room was dim, and palely warm. He loved it dearly.
His wife, when she came back, as soon as she had closed the door, lifted her arms to him in a little ecstasy, coming to him. They clasped each other closer, body to body. And the intensity of his feeling was so fierce, he felt himself going dim, fusing into something soft and plastic between her hands. And this connection with her was bigger than life or death. And at the bottom of his heart was a sob.
She was gay and winsome at the dinner. Like lovers, they were just deliciously waiting for the night to come up. But there remained in him always the slightly broken feeling which the night before had left.
“And you won’t go to Italy,” she said, as if it were an understood thing.
She gave him the best things to eat, and was solicitous for his welfare — which was not usual with her. It gave him deep, shy pleasure. He remembered a verse she was often quoting as one she loved. He did not know it for himself:
“On my breasts I warm thy foot-soles;
Wine I pour, and dress thy meats;
Humbly, when my lord disposes,
Lie with him on perfumed sheets.”
She said it to him sometimes, looking up at him from the pillow. But it never seemed real to him. She might, in her sudden passion, put his feet between her breasts. But he never felt like a lord, never more pained and insignificant than at those times. As a little girl, she must have subjected herself before her dolls. And he was something like her lordliest plaything. He liked that too. If only . . .
Then, seeing some frightened little way of looking at him which she had, the pure pain came back. He loved her, and it would never be peace between them; she would never belong to him, as a wife. She would take him and reject him, like a mistress. And perhaps for that reason he would love her all the more; it might be so.
But then, he forgot. Whatever was or was not, now she loved him. And whatever came after, this evening he was the lord. What matter if he were deposed tomorrow, and she hated him!
Her eyes, wide and candid, were staring at him a little bit wondering, a little bit forlorn. She knew he had not quite come back. He held her close to him.
“My love,” she murmured consolingly. “My love.”
And she put her fingers through his hair, arranging it in little, loose curves, playing with it and forgetting everything else. He loved that dearly, to feel the light lift and touch — touch of her finger-tips making his hair, as she said, like an Apollo’s. She lifted his face to see how he looked, and, with a little laugh of love, kissed him. And he loved to be made much of by her. But he had the dim, hurting sense that she would not love him tomorrow, that it was only her great need to love that exalted him to-night. He KNEW he was no king; he did not feel a king, even when she was crowning and kissing him.
“Do you love me?” she asked, playfully whispering.
He held her fast and kissed her, while the blood hurt in his heart-chambers.
“You know,” he answered, with a struggle.
Later, when he lay holding her with a passion intense like pain, the words blurted from him:
“Flesh of my flesh. Paula! — Will you —?”
“Yes, my love,” she answered consolingly.
He bit his mouth with pain. For him it was almost an agony of appeal.
“But, Paula — I mean it — flesh of my flesh — a wife?”
She tightened her arms round him without answering. And he knew, and she knew, that she put him off like that.
Two months later, she was writing to him in Italy: “Your idea of your woman is that she is an expansion, no, a RIB of yourself, without any existence of her own. That I am a being by myself is more than you can grasp. I wish I could absolutely submerge myself in a man — and SO I DO. I ALWAYS loved you . . .
“You will say ‘I was patient.’ Do you call that patient, hanging on for your needs, as you have done? The innermost life you have ALWAYS had of me, and you held yourself aloof because you were afraid.
“The unpardonable thing was you told me you loved me. — Your FEELINGS have hated me these three months, which did not prevent you from taking my love and every breath from me. — Underneath you undermined me, in some subtle, corrupt way that I did not see because I believed you, when you told me you loved me . . .
“The insult of the way you took me these last three months I shall never forgive you. I honestly DID give myself, and always in vain and rebuffed. The strain of it all has driven me quite mad.
“You say I am a tragédienne, but I don’t do any of your perverse undermining tricks. You are always luring one into the open like a clever enemy, but you keep safely under cover all the time.
“This practically means, for me, that life is over, my belief in life — I hope it will recover, but it never could do so with you . . .”
To which he answered: “If I kept under cover it is funny, for there isn’t any cover now. — And you can hope, pretty easily, for your own recovery apart from me. For my side, without you, I am done . . . But you lie to yourself. You WOULDN’T love ME, and you won’t be able to love anybody else — except yourself.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52