One day at this time Birkin was called to London. He was not very fixed in his abode. He had rooms in Nottingham, because his work lay chiefly in that town. But often he was in London, or in Oxford. He moved about a great deal, his life seemed uncertain, without any definite rhythm, any organic meaning.
On the platform of the railway station he saw Gerald Crich, reading a newspaper, and evidently waiting for the train. Birkin stood some distance off, among the people. It was against his instinct to approach anybody.
From time to time, in a manner characteristic of him, Gerald lifted his head and looked round. Even though he was reading the newspaper closely, he must keep a watchful eye on his external surroundings. There seemed to be a dual consciousness running in him. He was thinking vigorously of something he read in the newspaper, and at the same time his eye ran over the surfaces of the life round him, and he missed nothing. Birkin, who was watching him, was irritated by his duality. He noticed too, that Gerald seemed always to be at bay against everybody, in spite of his queer, genial, social manner when roused.
Now Birkin started violently at seeing this genial look flash on to Gerald’s face, at seeing Gerald approaching with hand outstretched.
‘Hallo, Rupert, where are you going?’
‘London. So are you, I suppose.’
Gerald’s eyes went over Birkin’s face in curiosity.
‘We’ll travel together if you like,’ he said.
‘Don’t you usually go first?’ asked Birkin.
‘I can’t stand the crowd,’ replied Gerald. ‘But third’ll be all right. There’s a restaurant car, we can have some tea.’
The two men looked at the station clock, having nothing further to say.
‘What were you reading in the paper?’ Birkin asked.
Gerald looked at him quickly.
‘Isn’t it funny, what they DO put in the newspapers,’ he said. ‘Here are two leaders —’ he held out his DAILY TELEGRAPH, ‘full of the ordinary newspaper cant —’ he scanned the columns down —‘and then there’s this little — I dunno what you’d call it, essay, almost — appearing with the leaders, and saying there must arise a man who will give new values to things, give us new truths, a new attitude to life, or else we shall be a crumbling nothingness in a few years, a country in ruin —’
‘I suppose that’s a bit of newspaper cant, as well,’ said Birkin.
‘It sounds as if the man meant it, and quite genuinely,’ said Gerald.
‘Give it to me,’ said Birkin, holding out his hand for the paper.
The train came, and they went on board, sitting on either side a little table, by the window, in the restaurant car. Birkin glanced over his paper, then looked up at Gerald, who was waiting for him.
‘I believe the man means it,’ he said, ‘as far as he means anything.’
‘And do you think it’s true? Do you think we really want a new gospel?’ asked Gerald.
Birkin shrugged his shoulders.
‘I think the people who say they want a new religion are the last to accept anything new. They want novelty right enough. But to stare straight at this life that we’ve brought upon ourselves, and reject it, absolutely smash up the old idols of ourselves, that we sh’ll never do. You’ve got very badly to want to get rid of the old, before anything new will appear — even in the self.’
Gerald watched him closely.
‘You think we ought to break up this life, just start and let fly?’ he asked.
‘This life. Yes I do. We’ve got to bust it completely, or shrivel inside it, as in a tight skin. For it won’t expand any more.’
There was a queer little smile in Gerald’s eyes, a look of amusement, calm and curious.
‘And how do you propose to begin? I suppose you mean, reform the whole order of society?’ he asked.
Birkin had a slight, tense frown between the brows. He too was impatient of the conversation.
‘I don’t propose at all,’ he replied. ‘When we really want to go for something better, we shall smash the old. Until then, any sort of proposal, or making proposals, is no more than a tiresome game for self-important people.’
The little smile began to die out of Gerald’s eyes, and he said, looking with a cool stare at Birkin:
‘So you really think things are very bad?’
The smile appeared again.
‘In what way?’
‘Every way,’ said Birkin. ‘We are such dreary liars. Our one idea is to lie to ourselves. We have an ideal of a perfect world, clean and straight and sufficient. So we cover the earth with foulness; life is a blotch of labour, like insects scurrying in filth, so that your collier can have a pianoforte in his parlour, and you can have a butler and a motor-car in your up-to-date house, and as a nation we can sport the Ritz, or the Empire, Gaby Deslys and the Sunday newspapers. It is very dreary.’
Gerald took a little time to re-adjust himself after this tirade.
‘Would you have us live without houses — return to nature?’ he asked.
‘I would have nothing at all. People only do what they want to do — and what they are capable of doing. If they were capable of anything else, there would be something else.’
Again Gerald pondered. He was not going to take offence at Birkin.
‘Don’t you think the collier’s PIANOFORTE, as you call it, is a symbol for something very real, a real desire for something higher, in the collier’s life?’
‘Higher!’ cried Birkin. ‘Yes. Amazing heights of upright grandeur. It makes him so much higher in his neighbouring collier’s eyes. He sees himself reflected in the neighbouring opinion, like in a Brocken mist, several feet taller on the strength of the pianoforte, and he is satisfied. He lives for the sake of that Brocken spectre, the reflection of himself in the human opinion. You do the same. If you are of high importance to humanity you are of high importance to yourself. That is why you work so hard at the mines. If you can produce coal to cook five thousand dinners a day, you are five thousand times more important than if you cooked only your own dinner.’
‘I suppose I am,’ laughed Gerald.
‘Can’t you see,’ said Birkin, ‘that to help my neighbour to eat is no more than eating myself. “I eat, thou eatest, he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat”— and what then? Why should every man decline the whole verb. First person singular is enough for me.’
‘You’ve got to start with material things,’ said Gerald. Which statement Birkin ignored.
‘And we’ve got to live for SOMETHING, we’re not just cattle that can graze and have done with it,’ said Gerald.
‘Tell me,’ said Birkin. ‘What do you live for?’
Gerald’s face went baffled.
‘What do I live for?’ he repeated. ‘I suppose I live to work, to produce something, in so far as I am a purposive being. Apart from that, I live because I am living.’
‘And what’s your work? Getting so many more thousands of tons of coal out of the earth every day. And when we’ve got all the coal we want, and all the plush furniture, and pianofortes, and the rabbits are all stewed and eaten, and we’re all warm and our bellies are filled and we’re listening to the young lady performing on the pianoforte — what then? What then, when you’ve made a real fair start with your material things?’
Gerald sat laughing at the words and the mocking humour of the other man. But he was cogitating too.
‘We haven’t got there yet,’ he replied. ‘A good many people are still waiting for the rabbit and the fire to cook it.’
‘So while you get the coal I must chase the rabbit?’ said Birkin, mocking at Gerald.
‘Something like that,’ said Gerald.
Birkin watched him narrowly. He saw the perfect good-humoured callousness, even strange, glistening malice, in Gerald, glistening through the plausible ethics of productivity.
‘Gerald,’ he said, ‘I rather hate you.’
‘I know you do,’ said Gerald. ‘Why do you?’
Birkin mused inscrutably for some minutes.
‘I should like to know if you are conscious of hating me,’ he said at last. ‘Do you ever consciously detest me — hate me with mystic hate? There are odd moments when I hate you starrily.’
Gerald was rather taken aback, even a little disconcerted. He did not quite know what to say.
‘I may, of course, hate you sometimes,’ he said. ‘But I’m not aware of it — never acutely aware of it, that is.’
‘So much the worse,’ said Birkin.
Gerald watched him with curious eyes. He could not quite make him out.
‘So much the worse, is it?’ he repeated.
There was a silence between the two men for some time, as the train ran on. In Birkin’s face was a little irritable tension, a sharp knitting of the brows, keen and difficult. Gerald watched him warily, carefully, rather calculatingly, for he could not decide what he was after.
Suddenly Birkin’s eyes looked straight and overpowering into those of the other man.
‘What do you think is the aim and object of your life, Gerald?’ he asked.
Again Gerald was taken aback. He could not think what his friend was getting at. Was he poking fun, or not?
‘At this moment, I couldn’t say off-hand,’ he replied, with faintly ironic humour.
‘Do you think love is the be-all and the end-all of life?’ Birkin asked, with direct, attentive seriousness.
‘Of my own life?’ said Gerald.
There was a really puzzled pause.
‘I can’t say,’ said Gerald. ‘It hasn’t been, so far.’
‘What has your life been, so far?’
‘Oh — finding out things for myself — and getting experiences — and making things GO.’
Birkin knitted his brows like sharply moulded steel.
‘I find,’ he said, ‘that one needs some one REALLY pure single activity — I should call love a single pure activity. But I DON’T really love anybody — not now.’
‘Have you ever really loved anybody?’ asked Gerald.
‘Yes and no,’ replied Birkin.
‘Not finally?’ said Gerald.
‘Finally — finally — no,’ said Birkin.
‘Nor I,’ said Gerald.
‘And do you want to?’ said Birkin.
Gerald looked with a long, twinkling, almost sardonic look into the eyes of the other man.
‘I don’t know,’ he said.
‘I do — I want to love,’ said Birkin.
‘Yes. I want the finality of love.’
‘The finality of love,’ repeated Gerald. And he waited for a moment.
‘Just one woman?’ he added. The evening light, flooding yellow along the fields, lit up Birkin’s face with a tense, abstract steadfastness. Gerald still could not make it out.
‘Yes, one woman,’ said Birkin.
But to Gerald it sounded as if he were insistent rather than confident.
‘I don’t believe a woman, and nothing but a woman, will ever make my life,’ said Gerald.
‘Not the centre and core of it — the love between you and a woman?’ asked Birkin.
Gerald’s eyes narrowed with a queer dangerous smile as he watched the other man.
‘I never quite feel it that way,’ he said.
‘You don’t? Then wherein does life centre, for you?’
‘I don’t know — that’s what I want somebody to tell me. As far as I can make out, it doesn’t centre at all. It is artificially held TOGETHER by the social mechanism.’
Birkin pondered as if he would crack something.
‘I know,’ he said, ‘it just doesn’t centre. The old ideals are dead as nails — nothing there. It seems to me there remains only this perfect union with a woman — sort of ultimate marriage — and there isn’t anything else.’
‘And you mean if there isn’t the woman, there’s nothing?’ said Gerald.
‘Pretty well that — seeing there’s no God.’
‘Then we’re hard put to it,’ said Gerald. And he turned to look out of the window at the flying, golden landscape.
Birkin could not help seeing how beautiful and soldierly his face was, with a certain courage to be indifferent.
‘You think its heavy odds against us?’ said Birkin.
‘If we’ve got to make our life up out of a woman, one woman, woman only, yes, I do,’ said Gerald. ‘I don’t believe I shall ever make up MY life, at that rate.’
Birkin watched him almost angrily.
‘You are a born unbeliever,’ he said.
‘I only feel what I feel,’ said Gerald. And he looked again at Birkin almost sardonically, with his blue, manly, sharp-lighted eyes. Birkin’s eyes were at the moment full of anger. But swiftly they became troubled, doubtful, then full of a warm, rich affectionateness and laughter.
‘It troubles me very much, Gerald,’ he said, wrinkling his brows.
‘I can see it does,’ said Gerald, uncovering his mouth in a manly, quick, soldierly laugh.
Gerald was held unconsciously by the other man. He wanted to be near him, he wanted to be within his sphere of influence. There was something very congenial to him in Birkin. But yet, beyond this, he did not take much notice. He felt that he, himself, Gerald, had harder and more durable truths than any the other man knew. He felt himself older, more knowing. It was the quick-changing warmth and venality and brilliant warm utterance he loved in his friend. It was the rich play of words and quick interchange of feelings he enjoyed. The real content of the words he never really considered: he himself knew better.
Birkin knew this. He knew that Gerald wanted to be FOND of him without taking him seriously. And this made him go hard and cold. As the train ran on, he sat looking at the land, and Gerald fell away, became as nothing to him.
Birkin looked at the land, at the evening, and was thinking: ‘Well, if mankind is destroyed, if our race is destroyed like Sodom, and there is this beautiful evening with the luminous land and trees, I am satisfied. That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost. After all, what is mankind but just one expression of the incomprehensible. And if mankind passes away, it will only mean that this particular expression is completed and done. That which is expressed, and that which is to be expressed, cannot be diminished. There it is, in the shining evening. Let mankind pass away — time it did. The creative utterances will not cease, they will only be there. Humanity doesn’t embody the utterance of the incomprehensible any more. Humanity is a dead letter. There will be a new embodiment, in a new way. Let humanity disappear as quick as possible.’
Gerald interrupted him by asking,
‘Where are you staying in London?’
Birkin looked up.
‘With a man in Soho. I pay part of the rent of a flat, and stop there when I like.’
‘Good idea — have a place more or less your own,’ said Gerald.
‘Yes. But I don’t care for it much. I’m tired of the people I am bound to find there.’
‘What kind of people?’
‘Art — music — London Bohemia — the most pettifogging calculating Bohemia that ever reckoned its pennies. But there are a few decent people, decent in some respects. They are really very thorough rejecters of the world — perhaps they live only in the gesture of rejection and negation — but negatively something, at any rate.’
‘What are they? — painters, musicians?’
‘Painters, musicians, writers — hangers-on, models, advanced young people, anybody who is openly at outs with the conventions, and belongs to nowhere particularly. They are often young fellows down from the University, and girls who are living their own lives, as they say.’
‘All loose?’ said Gerald.
Birkin could see his curiosity roused.
‘In one way. Most bound, in another. For all their shockingness, all on one note.’
He looked at Gerald, and saw how his blue eyes were lit up with a little flame of curious desire. He saw too how good-looking he was. Gerald was attractive, his blood seemed fluid and electric. His blue eyes burned with a keen, yet cold light, there was a certain beauty, a beautiful passivity in all his body, his moulding.
‘We might see something of each other — I am in London for two or three days,’ said Gerald.
‘Yes,’ said Birkin, ‘I don’t want to go to the theatre, or the music hall — you’d better come round to the flat, and see what you can make of Halliday and his crowd.’
‘Thanks — I should like to,’ laughed Gerald. ‘What are you doing tonight?’
‘I promised to meet Halliday at the Pompadour. It’s a bad place, but there is nowhere else.’
‘Where is it?’ asked Gerald.
‘Oh yes — well, shall I come round there?’
‘By all means, it might amuse you.’
The evening was falling. They had passed Bedford. Birkin watched the country, and was filled with a sort of hopelessness. He always felt this, on approaching London.
His dislike of mankind, of the mass of mankind, amounted almost to an illness.
‘“Where the quiet coloured end of evening smiles Miles and miles —”’ he was murmuring to himself, like a man condemned to death. Gerald, who was very subtly alert, wary in all his senses, leaned forward and asked smilingly:
‘What were you saying?’ Birkin glanced at him, laughed, and repeated:
‘“Where the quiet coloured end of evening smiles, Miles and miles, Over pastures where the something something sheep Half asleep —”’
Gerald also looked now at the country. And Birkin, who, for some reason was now tired and dispirited, said to him:
‘I always feel doomed when the train is running into London. I feel such a despair, so hopeless, as if it were the end of the world.’
‘Really!’ said Gerald. ‘And does the end of the world frighten you?’
Birkin lifted his shoulders in a slow shrug.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It does while it hangs imminent and doesn’t fall. But people give me a bad feeling — very bad.’
There was a roused glad smile in Gerald’s eyes.
‘Do they?’ he said. And he watched the other man critically.
In a few minutes the train was running through the disgrace of outspread London. Everybody in the carriage was on the alert, waiting to escape. At last they were under the huge arch of the station, in the tremendous shadow of the town. Birkin shut himself together — he was in now.
The two men went together in a taxi-cab.
‘Don’t you feel like one of the damned?’ asked Birkin, as they sat in a little, swiftly-running enclosure, and watched the hideous great street.
‘No,’ laughed Gerald.
‘It is real death,’ said Birkin.
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23