“He is very fine and strong somewhere, but he does need a level-headed woman to look after him.”
That was the FRIENDLY feminine verdict upon him. It flattered him, it pleased him, it galled him.
Having divorced a very charming and clever wife, who had held this opinion for ten years, and at last had got tired of the level-headed protective game, his gall was uppermost.
“I want to throw Jimmy out on the world, but I know the poor little man will go and fall on some woman’s bosom. That’s the worst of him. If he could only stand alone for ten minutes. But he can’t. At the same time, there IS something fine about him, something rare.”
This had been Clarissa’s summing-up as she floated away in the arms of the rich young American. The rich young American got rather angry when Jimmy’s name was mentioned. Clarissa was now HIS wife. But she did sometimes talk as if she were still married to Jimmy.
Not in Jimmy’s estimation, however. That worm had turned. Gall was uppermost. Gall and wormwood. He knew exactly what Clarissa thought — and said — about him. And the “something fine, something rare, something strong” which he was supposed to have “about him” was utterly outbalanced, in his feelings at least, by the “poor little man” nestled upon “some woman’s bosom”, which he was supposed to BE.
“I am NOT,” he said to himself, “a poor little man nestled upon some woman’s bosom. If I could only find the right sort of woman, she should nestle on mine.”
Jimmy was now thirty-five, and this point, to nestle or to be nestled, was the emotional crux and turning-point.
He imagined to himself some really WOMANLY woman, to whom he should be ONLY “fine and strong”, and not for one moment “the poor little man”. Why not some simple uneducated girl, some Tess of the D’Urbervilles, some wistful Gretchen, some humble Ruth gleaning an aftermath? Why not? Surely the world was full of such!
The trouble was he never met them. He only met sophisticated women. He really never had a chance of meeting “real” people. So few of us ever do. Only the people we DON’T meet are the “real” people, the simple, genuine, direct spontaneous, unspoilt souls. Ah, the simple, genuine, unspoilt people we DON’T meet! What a tragedy it is!
Because, of course, they must be there! Somewhere! Only we never come across them.
Jimmy was terribly handicapped by his position. It brought him into contact with so many people. Only never the right sort. Never the “real” people: the simple, genuine, unspoilt, etc., etc.
He was editor of a high-class, rather high-brow, rather successful magazine, and his rather personal, very candid editorials brought him shoals, swarms, hosts of admiring acquaintances. Realise that he was handsome, and could be extraordinarily “nice”, when he liked, and was really very clever, in his own critical way, and you see how many chances he had of being adored and protected.
In the first place his good looks: the fine, clean lines of his face, like the face of the laughing faun in one of the faun’s unlaughing, moody moments. The long, clean lines of the cheeks, the strong chin and the slightly arched, full nose, the beautiful dark-grey eyes with long lashes, and the thick black brows. In his mocking moments, when he seemed most himself, it was a pure Pan face, with thick black eyebrows cocked up, and grey eyes with a sardonic goaty gleam, and nose and mouth curling with satire. A good-looking, smooth-skinned satyr. That was Jimmy at his best. In the opinion of his men friends.
In his own opinion, he was a sort of Martyred Saint Sebastian, at whom the wicked world shot arrow after arrow — Mater Dolorosa nothing to him — and he counted the drops of blood as they fell: when he could keep count. Sometimes — as for instance when Clarissa said she was really departing with the rich young American, and should she divorce Jimmy, or was Jimmy going to divorce her? — then the arrows assailed him like a flight of starlings flying straight at him, jabbing at him, and the drops of martyred blood simply spattered down, he couldn’t keep count.
So, naturally, he divorced Clarissa.
In the opinion of his men friends, he was, or should be, a consistently grinning faun, satyr, or Pan-person. In his own opinion, he was a Martyred Saint Sebastian with the mind of Plato. In the opinion of his woman friends, he was a fascinating little man with a profound understanding of life and the capacity really to understand a woman and to make a woman feel a queen; which of course was to make a woman feel her REAL self . . .
He might, naturally, have made rich and resounding marriages, especially after the divorce. He didn’t. The reason was, secretly, his resolve never to make any woman feel a queen any more. It was the turn of the women to make him feel a king.
Some unspoilt, unsophisticated, wild-blooded woman, to whom he would be a sort of Solomon of wisdom, beauty, and wealth. She would need to be in reduced circumstances to appreciate his wealth, which amounted to the noble sum of three thousand pounds and a little week-ending cottage in Hampshire. And to be unsophisticated she would have to be a woman of the people. Absolutely.
At the same time, not just the “obscure vulgar simplican”.
He received many letters, many, many, many, enclosing poems, stories, articles, or more personal unbosomings. He read them all: like a solemn rook pecking and scratching among the litter.
And one — not one letter, but one correspondent — might be THE one — Mrs Emilia Pinnegar, who wrote from a mining village in Yorkshire. She was, of course, unhappily married.
Now Jimmy had always had a mysterious feeling about these dark and rather dreadful mining villages in the north. He himself had scarcely set foot north of Oxford. He felt that these miners up there must be the real stuff. And Pinnegar was a name, surely! And Emilia!
She wrote a poem, with a brief little note, that, if the editor of the Commentator thought the verses of no value, would he simply destroy them. Jimmy, as editor of the Commentator, thought the verses quite good and admired the brevity of the note. But he wasn’t sure about printing the poem. He wrote back, Had Mrs Pinnegar nothing else to submit?
Then followed a correspondence. And at length, upon request, this from Mrs Pinnegar:
“You ask me about myself, but what shall I say? I am a woman of thirty-one, with one child, a girl of eight, and I am married to a man who lives in the same house with me, but goes to another woman. I try to write poetry, if it is poetry, because I have no other way of expressing myself at all, and even if it doesn’t matter to anybody besides myself, I feel I must and will express myself, if only to save myself from developing cancer or some disease that women have. I was a school-teacher before I was married, and I got my certificates at Rotherham College. If I could, I would teach again, and live alone. But married teachers can’t get jobs any more, they aren’t allowed —”
The donkey-engine’s beating noise
And the rattle, rattle of the sorting screens
Come down on me like the beat of his heart,
And mean the same as his breathing means.
The burning big pit-hill with fumes
Fills the air like the presence of that fair-haired man.
And the burning fire burning deeper and deeper
Is his will insisting since time began.
As he breathes the chair goes up and down
In the pit-shaft; he lusts as the wheel-fans spin
The sucking air: he lives in the coal
Underground: and his soul is a strange engine.
That is the manner of man he is.
I married him and I should know.
The mother earth from bowels of coal
Brought him forth for the overhead woe.
This was the poem that the editor of the Commentator hesitated about. He reflected, also, that Mrs Pinnegar didn’t sound like one of the nestling, unsophisticated rustic type. It was something else that still attracted him: something desperate in a woman, something tragic.
If at evening, when the twilight comes,
You ask me what the day has been,
I shall not know. The distant drums
Of some new-comer intervene
Between me and the day that’s been.
Some strange man leading long columns
Of unseen soldiers through the green
Sad twilight of these smoky slums.
And as the darkness slowly numbs
My senses, everything I’ve seen
Or heard the daylight through, becomes
Rubbish behind an opaque screen.
Instead, the sound of muffled drums
Inside myself: I have to lean
And listen as my strength succumbs,
To hear what these oncomings mean.
Perhaps the Death-God striking his thumbs
On the drums in a deadly rat-ta-ta-plan.
Or a strange man marching slow as he strums
The tune of a new weird hope in Man.
What does it matter! The day that began
In coal-dust is ending the same, in crumbs
Of darkness like coal. I live if I can;
If I can’t, then I welcome whatever comes.
This poem sounded so splendidly desperate, the editor of the Commentator decided to print it, and, moreover, to see the authoress. He wrote, Would she care to see him, if he happened to be in her neighbourhood? He was going to lecture in Sheffield. She replied, Certainly.
He gave his afternoon lecture, on Men in Books and Men in Life. Naturally, men in books came first. Then he caught a train to reach the mining village where the Pinnegars lived.
It was February, with gruesome patches of snow. It was dark when he arrived at Mill Valley, a sort of thick, turgid darkness full of menace, where men speaking in a weird accent went past like ghosts, dragging their heavy feet and emitting the weird scent of the coal-mine underworld. Weird and a bit gruesome it was.
He knew he had to walk uphill to the little market-place. As he went, he looked back and saw the black valleys with bunches of light, like camps of demons it seemed to him. And the demonish smell of sulphur and coal in the air, in the heavy, pregnant, clammy darkness.
They directed him to New London Lane, and down he went down another hill. His skin crept a little. The place felt uncanny and hostile, hard, as if iron and minerals breathed into the black air. Thank goodness he couldn’t see much, or be seen. When he had to ask his way the people treated him in a “heave-half-a-brick-at-him” fashion.
After much weary walking and asking, he entered a lane between trees, in the cold slushy mud of the unfrozen February. The mines, apparently, were on the outskirts of the town, in some mud-sunk country. He could see the red, sore fires of the burning pit-hill through the trees, and he smelt the sulphur. He felt like some modern Ulysses wandering in the realms of Hecate. How much more dismal and horrible, a modern Odyssey among mines and factories, than any Sirens, Scyllas or Charybdises.
So he mused to himself as he waded through icy black mud, in a black lane, under black trees that moaned an accompaniment to the sound of the coal-mine’s occasional hissing and chuffing, under a black sky that quenched even the electric sparkle of the colliery. And the place seemed unhabitated like a cold black jungle.
At last he came in sight of a glimmer. Apparently, there were dwellings. Yes, a new little street, with one street-lamp, and the houses all apparently dark. He paused. Absolute desertion. Then three children.
They told him the house, and he stumbled up a dark passage. There was light on the little backyard. He knocked, in some trepidation. A rather tall woman, looking down at him with a “Who are you?” look, from the step above.
“Oh, is it you, Mr Frith? Come in.”
He stumbled up the step into the glaring light of the kitchen. There stood Mrs Pinnegar, a tall woman with a face like a mask of passive anger, looking at him coldly. Immediately he felt his own shabbiness and smallness. In utter confusion, he stuck out his hand.
“I had an awful time getting here,” he said. “I’m afraid I shall make a frightful mess of your house.” He looked down at his boots.
“That’s all right,” she said. “Have you had your tea?”
“No — but don’t you bother about me.”
There was a little girl with fair hair in a fringe over her forehead, troubled blue eyes under the fringe, and two dolls. He felt easier.
“Is this your little girl?” he asked. “She’s awfully nice. What is her name?”
“How are you, Jane?” he said. But the child only stared at him with the baffled, bewildered, pained eyes of a child who lives with hostile parents.
Mrs Pinnegar set his tea, bread and butter, jam, and buns. Then she sat opposite him. She was handsome, dark straight brows and grey eyes with yellow grains in them, and a way of looking straight at you as if she were used to holding her own. Her eyes were the nicest part of her. They had a certain kindliness, mingled, like the yellow grains among the grey, with a relentless, unyielding feminine will. Her nose and mouth were straight, like a Greek mask, and the expression was fixed. She gave him at once the impression of a woman who has made a mistake, who knows it, but who will not change: who cannot now change.
He felt very uneasy. Being a rather small, shambling man, she made him aware of his physical inconspicuousness. And she said not a word, only looked down on him, as he drank his tea, with that changeless look of a woman who is holding her own against Man and Fate. While, from the corner across the kitchen, the little girl with her fair hair and her dolls, watched him also in absolute silence, from her hot blue eyes.
“This seems a pretty awful place,” he said to her.
“It is. It’s absolutely awful,” the woman said.
“You ought to get away from it,” he said.
But she received this in dead silence.
It was exceedingly difficult to make any headway. He asked about Mr Pinnegar. She glanced at the clock.
“He comes up at nine,” she said.
“Is he down the mine?”
“Yes. He’s on the afternoon shift.”
There was never a sound from the little girl.
“Doesn’t Jane ever talk?” he asked.
“Not much,” said her mother, glancing round.
He talked a little about his lectures, about Sheffield, about London. But she was not really interested. She sat there rather distant, very laconic, looking at him with those curious unyielding eyes. She looked to him like a woman who has had her revenge, and is left stranded on the reefs where she wrecked her opponent. Still unrelenting, unregretting, unyielding, she seemed rather undecided as to what her revenge had been, and what it had all been about.
“You ought to get away from here,” he said to her.
“Where to?” she asked.
“Oh”— he made a vague gesture —“anywhere, so long as it is QUITE away.”
She seemed to ponder this, under her portentous brow.
“I don’t see what difference it would make,” she said. Then glancing round at her child: “I don’t see what difference anything would make, except getting out of the world altogether. But there’s HER to consider.” And she jerked her head in the direction of the child.
Jimmy felt definitely frightened. He wasn’t used to this sort of grimness. At the same time he was excited. This handsome, laconic woman, with her soft brown hair and her unflinching eyes with their gold flecks, seemed to be challenging him to something. There was a touch of challenge in her remaining gold-flecked kindness. Somewhere, she had a heart. But what had happened to it? And why?
What had gone wrong with her? In some way, she must have gone against herself.
“Why don’t you come and live with me?” he said, like the little gambler he was.
The queer, conflicting smile was on his face. He had taken up her challenge, like a gambler. The very sense of a gamble, in which he could not lose desperately, excited him. At the same time, he was scared of her, and determined to get beyond his scare.
She sat and watched him, with the faintest touch of a grim smile on her handsome mouth.
“How do you mean, live with you?” she said.
“Oh — I mean what it usually means,” he said, with a little puff of self-conscious laughter.
“You’re evidently not happy here. You’re evidently in the wrong circumstances altogether. You’re obviously NOT just an ordinary woman. Well, then, break away. When I say, Come and live with me, I mean just what I say. Come to London and live with me, as my wife, if you like, and then if we want to marry, when you get a divorce, why, we can do it.”
Jimmy made this speech more to himself than to the woman. That was how he was. He worked out all his things inside himself, as if it were all merely an interior problem of his own. And while he did so, he had an odd way of squinting his left eye and wagging his head loosely, like a man talking absolutely to himself, and turning his eyes inwards.
The woman watched him in a sort of wonder. This was something she was NOT used to. His extraordinary manner, and his extraordinary bald proposition, roused her from her own tense apathy.
“Well!” she said. “That’s got to be thought about. What about HER?”— and again she jerked her head towards the round-eyed child in the corner. Jane sat with a completely expressionless face, her little red mouth fallen a little open. She seemed in a sort of trance: as if she understood like a grown-up person, but, as a child, sat in a trance, unconscious.
The mother wheeled round in her chair and stared at her child. The little girl stared back at her mother, with hot, troubled, almost guilty blue eyes. And neither said a word. Yet they seemed to exchange worlds of meaning.
“Why, of course,” said Jimmy, twisting his head again; “she’d come, too.”
The woman gave a last look at her child, then turned to him, and started watching HIM with that slow, straight stare.
“It’s not”— he began, stuttering —“it’s not anything SUDDEN and unconsidered on my part. I’ve been considering it for quite a long time — ever since I had the first poem, and your letter.”
He spoke still with his eyes turned inwards, talking to himself.” And the woman watched him unflinchingly.
“Before you ever saw me?” she asked, with a queer irony.
“Oh, of course. Of course before I ever saw you. Or else I never SHOULD have seen you. From the very first, I had a definite feeling —”
He made odd, sharp gestures, like a drunken man, and he spoke like a drunken man, his eyes turned inward, talking to himself. The woman was no more than a ghost moving inside his own consciousness, and he was addressing her there.
The actual woman sat outside looking on in a sort of wonder. This was really something new to her.
“And now you see me, do you want me, really, to come to London?”
She spoke in a dull tone of incredulity. The thing was just a little preposterous to her. But why not? It would have to be something a little preposterous, to get her out of the tomb she was in.
“Of course I do!” he cried, with another scoop of his head and scoop of his hand. “NOW I do ACTUALLY want you, now I actually see you.” He never looked at her. His eyes were still turned in. He was still talking to himself, in a sort of drunkenness with himself.
To her, it was something extraordinary. But it roused her from apathy.
He became aware of the hot blue eyes of the hot-cheeked little girl fixed upon him from the distant corner. And he gave a queer little giggle.
“Why, it’s more than I could ever have hoped for,” he said, “to have you and Jane to live with me! Why, it will mean LIFE to me.” He spoke in an odd, strained voice, slightly delirious. And for the first time he looked up at the woman and, apparently, STRAIGHT at her. But, even as he seemed to look straight at her, the curious cast was in his eye, and he was only looking at himself, inside himself, at the shadows inside his own consciousness.
“And when would you like me to come?” she asked, rather coldly.
“Why, as soon as possible. Come back with me tomorrow, if you will. I’ve got a little house in St John’s Wood, WAITING for you. Come with me tomorrow. That’s the simplest.”
She watched him for some time, as he sat with ducked head. He looked like a man who is drunk — drunk with himself. He was going bald at the crown, his rather curly black hair was thin.
“I couldn’t come tomorrow, I should need a few days,” she said.
She wanted to see his face again. It was as if she could not remember what his face was like, this strange man who had appeared out of nowhere, with such a strange proposition.
He lifted his face, his eyes still cast in that inturned, blind look. He looked now like a Mephistopheles who has gone blind. With his black brows cocked up, Mephistopheles, Mephistopheles blind and begging in the street.
“Why, of course it’s wonderful that it’s happened like this for me,” he said, with odd pouting emphasis, pushing out his lips. “I was finished, absolutely finished. I was finished while Clarissa was with me. But after she’d gone, I was ABSOLUTELY finished. And I thought there was no chance for me in the world again. It seems to me perfectly marvellous that this has happened — that I’ve come across you —” he lifted his face sightlessly —“and Jane — Jane — why she’s REALLY too good to be true.” He gave a slight hysterical laugh. “She really is.”
The woman, and Jane, watched him with some embarrassment.
“I shall have to settle up here, with Mr Pinnegar,” she said, rather coldly musing. “Do you want to see him?”
“Oh, I—” he said, with a deprecating gesture, “I don’t CARE. But if you think I’d better — why, certainly —”
“I do think you’d better,” she said.
“Very well, then, I WILL. I’ll see him whenever you like.”
“He comes in soon after nine,” she said.
“All right, I’ll see him then. Much better. But I suppose I’d better see about finding a place to sleep first. Better not leave it too late.”
“I’ll come with you and ask for you.”
“Oh, you’d better not, really. If you tell me where to go —”
He had taken on a protective tone: he was protecting her against herself and against scandal. It was his manner, his rather Oxfordy manner, more than anything else, that went beyond her. She wasn’t used to it.
Jimmy plunged out into the gulfing blackness of the Northern night, feeling how horrible it was, but pressing his hat on his brow in a sense of strong adventure. He was going through with it.
At the baker’s shop, where she had suggested he should ask for a bed, they would have none of him. Absolutely they didn’t like the looks of him. At the Pub, too, they shook their heads: didn’t want to have anything to do with him. But, in a voice more expostulatingly Oxford than ever, he said:
“But look here — you can’t ask a man to sleep under one of these hedges. Can’t I see the landlady?”
He persuaded the landlady to promise to let him sleep on the big, soft settee in the parlour, where the fire was burning brightly. Then, saying he would be back about ten, he returned through mud and drizzle up New London Lane.
The child was in bed, a saucepan was boiling by the fire. Already the lines had softened a little in the woman’s face.
She spread a cloth on the table. Jimmy sat in silence, feeling that she was hardly aware of his presence. She was absorbed, no doubt, in the coming of her husband. The stranger merely sat on the sofa, and waited. He felt himself wound up tight. And once he was really wound up, he could go through with anything.
They heard the nine-o’clock whistle at the mine. The woman then took the saucepan from the fire and went into the scullery. Jimmy could smell the smell of potatoes being strained. He sat quite still. There was nothing for him to do or to say. He was wearing his big black-rimmed spectacles, and his face, blank and expressionless in the suspense of waiting, looked like the death-mask of some sceptical philosopher, who could wait through the ages, and who could hardly distinguish life from death at any time.
Came the heavy-shod tread up the house entry, and the man entered, rather like a blast of wind. The fair moustache stuck out from the blackish, mottled face, and the fierce blue eyes rolled their whites in the coal-blackened sockets.
“This gentleman is Mr Frith,” said Emily Pinnegar.
Jimmy got up, with a bit of an Oxford wriggle, and held out his hand, saying: “How do you do?”
His grey eyes, behind the spectacles, had an uncanny whitish gleam.
“My hand’s not fit to shake hands,” said the miner. “Take a seat.”
“Oh, nobody minds coal-dust,” said Jimmy, subsiding on to the sofa. “It’s clean dirt.”
“They say so,” said Pinnegar.
He was a man of medium height, thin, but energetic in build.
Mrs Pinnegar was running hot water into a pail from the bright brass tap of the stove, which had a boiler to balance the oven. Pinnegar dropped heavily into a wooden armchair, and stooped to pull off his ponderous grey pit-boots. He smelled of the strange, stale underground. In silence he pulled on his slippers, then rose, taking his boots into the scullery. His wife followed with the pail of hot water. She returned and spread a coarse roller-towel on the steel fender. The man could be heard washing in the scullery, in the semi-dark. Nobody said anything. Mrs Pinnegar attended to her husband’s dinner.
After a while, Pinnegar came running in, naked to the waist, and squatted plumb in front of the big red fire, on his heels. His head and face and the front part of his body were all wet. His back was grey and unwashed. He seized the towel from the fender and began to rub his face and head with a sort of brutal vigour, while his wife brought a bowl, and with a soapy flannel silently washed his back, right down to the loins, where the trousers were rolled back. The man was entirely oblivious of the stranger — this washing was part of the collier’s ritual, and nobody existed for the moment. The woman, washing her husband’s back, stooping there as he kneeled with knees wide apart, squatting on his heels on the rag hearthrug, had a peculiar look on her strong, handsome face, a look sinister and derisive. She was deriding something or somebody; but Jimmy could not make out whom or what.
It was a new experience for him to sit completely and brutally excluded, from a personal ritual. The collier vigorously rubbed his own fair short hair, till it all stood on end, then he stared into the red-hot fire, oblivious, while the red colour burned in his cheeks. Then again he rubbed his breast and his body with the rough towel, brutally, as if his body were some machine he was cleaning, while his wife, with a peculiar slow movement, dried his back with another towel.
She took away the towel and bowl. The man was dry. He still squatted with his hands on his knees, gazing abstractedly, blankly into the fire. That, too, seemed part of his daily ritual. The colour flushed in his cheeks, his fair moustache was rubbed on end. But his hot blue eyes stared hot and vague into the red coals, while the red glare of the coal fell on his breast and naked body.
He was a man of about thirty-five, in his prime, with a pure smooth skin and no fat on his body. His muscles were not large, but quick, alive with energy. And as he squatted bathing abstractedly in the glow of the fire, he seemed like some pure-moulded engine that sleeps between its motions, with incomprehensible eyes of dark iron-blue.
He looked round, always averting his face from the stranger on the sofa, shutting him out of consciousness. The wife took out a bundle from the dresser-cupboard, and handed it to the out-stretched, work-scarred hand of the man on the hearth. Curious, that big, horny, work-battered clean hand, at the end of the suave, thin naked arm.
Pinnegar unrolled his shirt and undervest in front of the fire, warmed them for a moment in the glow, vaguely, sleepily, then pulled them over his head. And then at last he rose, with his shirt hanging over his trousers, and in the same abstract, sleepy way, shutting the world out of his consciousness, he went out again to the scullery, pausing at the same dresser-cupboard to take out his rolled-up day trousers.
Mrs Pinnegar took away the towels and set the dinner on the table — rich, oniony stew out of a hissing brown stew-jar, boiled potatoes, and a cup of tea. The man returned from the scullery, in his clean flannelette shirt and black trousers, his fair hair neatly brushed. He planked his wooden armchair beside the table, and sat heavily down, to eat.
Then he looked at Jimmy, as one wary, probably hostile man looks at another.
“You’re a stranger in these parts, I gather?” he said. There was something slightly formal, even a bit pompous, in his speech.
“An absolute stranger,” replied Jimmy, with a slight aside grin.
The man dabbed some mustard on his plate, and glanced at his food to see if he would like it.
“Come from a distance, do you?” he asked, as he began to eat. As he ate, he seemed to become oblivious again of Jimmy, bent his head over his plate, and ate. But probably he was ruminating something all the time, with barbaric wariness.
“From London,” said Jimmy, warily.
“London!” said Pinnegar, without looking from his plate.
Mrs Pinnegar came and sat, in ritualistic silence, in her tail-backed rocking-chair under the light.
“What brings you this way, then?” asked Pinnegar, stirring his tea.
“Oh!” Jimmy writhed a little on the sofa. “I came to see Mrs Pinnegar.”
The miner took a hasty gulp of tea.
“You’re acquainted then, are you?” he said, still without looking round. He sat with his side-face to Jimmy.
“Yes, we are NOW,” explained Jimmy. “I didn’t know Mrs Pinnegar till this evening. As a matter of fact, she sent me some poems for the Commentator — I’m the editor — and I thought they were good, so I wrote and told her so. Then I felt I wanted to come and see her, and she was willing, so I came.”
The man reached out, cut himself a piece of bread, and swallowed a large mouthful.
“You thought her poetry was good?” he said, turning at last to Jimmy and looking straight at him, with a stare something like the child’s, but aggressive. “Are you going to put it in your magazine?”
“Yes, I think I am,” said Jimmy.
“I never read but one of her poems — something about a collier she knew all about, because she’d married him,” he said, in his peculiar harsh voice, that had a certain jeering clang in it, and a certain indomitableness.
Jimmy was silent. The other man’s harsh fighting-voice made him shrink.
“I could never get on with the Commentator myself,” said Pinnegar, looking round for his pudding, pushing his meat-plate aside. “Seems to me to go a long way round to get nowhere.”
“Well, probably it DOES,” said Jimmy, squirming a little. “But so long as the WAY is interesting! I don’t see that anything gets anywhere at present — certainly no periodical.”
“I don’t know,” said Pinnegar. “There’s some facts in the Liberator — and there’s some ideas in the Janus. I can’t see the use myself, of all these feelings folk say they have. They get you nowhere.”
“But,” said Jimmy, with a slight pouf of laughter, “where do you WANT to get? It’s all very well talking about getting somewhere, but where, where in the world today do you WANT to get? In general, I mean. If you want a better job in the mine — all right, go ahead and get it. But when you begin to talk about getting somewhere in LIFE— why, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m a man, aren’t I?” said the miner, going very still and hard.
“But what do you MEAN, when you say you’re a man?” snarled Jimmy, really exasperated. “What do you mean? Yes, you ARE a man. But what about it?”
“Haven’t I the right to say I won’t be made use of?” said the collier, slow, harsh, and heavy.
“You’ve got a right to SAY it,” retorted Jimmy, with a pouf of laughter. “But it doesn’t MEAN anything. We’re all made use of, from King George downwards. We have to be. When you eat your pudding you’re making use of hundreds of people — including your wife.”
“I know it. I know it. It makes no difference, though. I’m not going to be made use of.”
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh, all right!” he said. “That’s just a phrase, like any other.”
The miner sat very still in his chair, his face going hard and remote. He was evidently thinking over something that was stuck like a barb in his consciousness, something he was trying to harden over, as the skin sometimes hardens over a steel splinter in the flesh.
“I’m nothing but made use of,” he said, now talking hard and final, to himself, and staring out into space. “Down the pit, I’m made use of, and they give me a wage, such as it is. At the house, I’m made use of, and my wife sets the dinner on the table as if I was a customer in a shop.”
“But what do you EXPECT?” cried Jimmy, writhing in his chair.
“Me? What do I expect? I expect nothing. But I tell you what —” he turned, and looked straight and hard into Jimmy’s eyes —“I’m not going to put up with anything, either.”
Jimmy saw the hard finality in the other man’s eyes, and squirmed away from it.
“If you KNOW what you’re not going to put up with —” he said.
“I don’t want my wife writing poetry! And sending it to a parcel of men she’s never seen. I don’t want my wife sitting like Queen Boadicea, when I come home, and a face like a stone wall with holes is it. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She doesn’t know herself. But she does as she likes. Only, mark you, I do the same.”
“Of course!” cried Jimmy, though there was no of course about it.
“She’s told you I’ve got another woman?”
“And I’ll tell you for why. If I give in to the coal face, and go down the mine every day to eight hours’ slavery, more or less, somebody’s got to give in to me.”
“Then,” said Jimmy, after a pause, “if you mean you want your wife to submit to you — well, that’s the problem. You have to marry the woman who WILL submit.”
It was amazing, this from Jimmy. He sat there and lectured the collier like a Puritan Father, completely forgetting the disintegrating flutter of Clarissa, in his own background.
“I want a wife who’ll please me, who’ll want to please me,” said the collier.
“Why should YOU be pleased, any more than anybody else?” asked the wife coldly.
“My child, my little girl wants to please me — if her mother would let her. But the women hang together. I tell you”— and here he turned to Jimmy, with a blaze in his dark blue eyes —“I want a woman to please me, a woman who’s anxious to please me. And if I can’t find her in my own home, I’ll find her out of it.”
“I hope she pleases you,” said the wife, rocking slightly.
“Well,” said the man, “she does.”
“Then why don’t you go and live with her altogether?” she said.
He turned and looked at her.
“Why don’t I?” he said. “Because I’ve got my home. I’ve got my house, I’ve got my wife, let her be what she may, as a woman to live with. And I’ve got my child. Why should I break it all up?”
“And what about me?” she asked, coldly and fiercely.
“You? You’ve got a home. You’ve got a child. You’ve got a man who works for you. You’ve got what you want. You do as you like —”
“Do I?” she asked, with intolerable sarcasm.
“Yes. Apart from the bit of work in the house, you do as you like. If you want to go, you can go. But while you live in my house, you must respect it. You bring no men here, you see.”
“Do YOU respect your home?” she said.
“Yes! I do! If I get another woman — who pleases me — I deprive you of nothing. All I ask of you is to do your duty as a housewife.”
“Down to washing your back!” she said, heavily sarcastic; and, Jimmy thought, a trifle vulgar.
“Down to washing my back, since it’s got to be washed,” he said.
“What about the other woman? Let her do it.”
“This is my home.”
The wife gave a strange movement, like a mad woman.
Jimmy sat rather pale and frightened. Behind the collier’s quietness he felt the concentration of almost cold anger and an unchanging will. In the man’s lean face he could see the bones, the fixity of the male bones, and it was as if the human soul, or spirit, had gone into the living skull and skeleton, almost invulnerable.
Jimmy, for some strange reason, felt a wild anger against this bony and logical man. It was the hard-driven coldness, fixity, that he could not bear.
“Look here!” he cried, in a resonant Oxford voice, his eyes glaring and casting inwards behind his spectacles. “You say Mrs Pinnegar is FREE— free to do as she pleases. In that case, you have no objection if she comes with me right away from here.”
The collier looked at the pale, strange face of the editor in wonder. Jimmy kept his face slightly averted, and sightless, seeing nobody. There was a Mephistophelian tilt about the eyebrows, and a Martyred Sebastian straightness about the mouth.
“Does she WANT to?” asked Pinnegar, with devastating incredulity. The wife smiled faintly, grimly. She could see the vanity of her husband in his utter inability to believe that she could prefer the other man to him.
“That,” said Jimmy, “you must ask her yourself. But it’s what I came here for: to ask her to come and live with me, and bring the child.”
“You came without having seen her, to ask her that?” said the husband, in growing wonder.
“Yes,” said Jimmy, vehemently, nodding his head with drunken emphasis. “Yes! Without ever having seen her!”
“You’ve caught a funny fish this time, with your poetry,” he said, turning with curious husband-familiarity to his wife. She hated this offhand husband-familiarity.
“What sort of fish have YOU caught?” she retorted. “And what did you catch HER with?”
“Bird-lime!” he said, with a faint, quick grin.
Jimmy was sitting in suspense. They all three sat in suspense, for some time.
“And what are you saying to him?” said the collier at length.
Jimmy looked up, and the malevolent half-smile on his face made him look rather handsome again, a mixture of faun and Mephisto. He glanced curiously, invitingly, at the woman who was watching him from afar.
“I say yes!” she replied, in a cool voice.
The husband became very still, sitting erect in his wooden armchair and staring into space. It was as if he were fixedly watching something fly away from him, out of his own soul. But he was not going to yield at all, to any emotion.
He could not now believe that this woman should WANT to leave him. Yet she did.
“I’m sure it’s all for the best,” said Jimmy, in his Puritan-Father voice. “You don’t mind, really”— he drawled uneasily —“if she brings the child. I give you my word I’ll do my very best for it.”
The collier looked at him as if he were very far away. Jimmy quailed under the look. He could see that the other man was relentlessly killing the emotion in himself, stripping himself, as it were, of his own flesh, stripping himself to the hard unemotional bone of the human male.
“I give her a blank cheque,” said Pinnegar, with numb lips. “She does as she pleases.”
“So much for fatherly love, compared with selfishness,” she said.
He turned and looked at her with that curious power of remote anger. And immediately she became still, quenched.
“I give you a blank cheque, as far as I’m concerned,” he repeated abstractedly.
“It IS blank indeed!” she said, with her first touch of bitterness.
Jimmy looked at the clock. It was growing late: he might be shut out of the public-house. He rose to go, saying he would return in the morning. He was leaving the next day, at noon, for London.
He plunged into the darkness and mud of that black, night-ridden country. There was a curious elation in his spirits, mingled with fear. But then he always needed an element of fear, really, to elate him. He thought with terror of those two human beings left in that house together. The frightening state of tension! He himself could never bear an extreme tension. He always had to compromise, to become apologetic and pathetic. He would be able to manage Mrs Pinnegar that way. Emily! He must get used to saying it. Emily! The Emilia was absurd. He had never known an Emily.
He felt really scared, and really elated. He was doing something big. It was not that he was in LOVE with the woman. But, my God, he wanted to take her away from that man. And he wanted the adventure of her. Absolutely the adventure of her. He felt really elated, really himself, really manly.
But in the morning he returned rather sheepishly to the collier’s house. It was another dark, drizzling day, with black trees, black road, black hedges, blackish brick houses, and the smell and the sound of collieries under a skyless day. Like living in some weird underground.
Unwillingly he went up that passage-entry again, and knocked at the back door, glancing at the miserable little back garden with its cabbage-stalks and its ugly sanitary arrangements.
The child opened the door to him: with her fair hair, flushed cheeks, and hot, dark-blue eyes.
“Hello, Jane!” he said.
The mother stood tall and square, by the table, watching him with portentous eyes, as he entered. She was handsome, but her skin was not very good: as if the battle had been too much for her health. Jimmy glanced up at her smiling his slow, ingratiating smile, that always brought a glow of success into a woman’s spirit. And as he saw her gold-flecked eyes searching in his eyes, without a bit of kindliness, he thought to himself: “My God, however am I going to sleep with that woman!” His will was ready, however, and he would manage it somehow.
And when he glanced at the motionless, bony head and lean figure of the collier seated in the wooden armchair by the fire, he was the more ready. He must triumph over that man.
“What train are you going by?” asked Mrs Pinnegar.
“By the twelve thirty.” He looked up at her as he spoke, with the wide, shining, childlike, almost coy eyes that were his peculiar asset. She looked down at him in a sort of interested wonder. She seemed almost fascinated by his childlike, shining, inviting dark-grey eyes, with their long lashes: such an absolute change from that resentful unyielding that looked out always from the back of her husband’s blue eyes. Her husband always seemed like a menace to her, in his thinness, his concentration, his eternal unyielding. And this man looked at one with the wide, shining, fascinating eyes of a young Persian kitten, something at once bold and shy and coy and strangely inviting. She fell at once under their spell.
“You’ll have dinner before you go,” she said.
“No!” he cried in panic, unwilling indeed to eat before that other man. “No, I ate a fabulous breakfast. I will get a sandwich when I change in Sheffield: REALLY!”
She had to go out shopping. She said she would go out to the station with him when she got back. It was just after eleven.
“But look here,” he said, addressing also the thin abstracted man who sat unnoticing, with a newspaper, “we’ve got to get this thing settled. I WANT Mrs Pinnegar to come and live with me, her and the child. And she’s coming! So don’t you think, now, it would be better if she came right along with me today! Just put a few things in a bag and come along. Why drag the thing out?”
“I tell you,” replied the husband, “she has a blank cheque from me to do as she likes.”
“All right, then! Won’t you do that? Won’t you come along with me now?” said Jimmy, looking up at her exposedly, but casting his eyes a bit inwards. Throwing himself with deliberate impulsiveness on her mercy.
“I can’t!” she said decisively. “I can’t come today.”
“But why not — really? Why not, while I’m here? You have that blank cheque, you can do as you please —”
“The blank cheque won’t get me far,” she said rudely; “I can’t come today, anyhow.”
“When can you come, then?” he said, with that queer, petulant pleading. “The sooner the better, surely.”
“I can come on Monday,” she said abruptly.
“Monday!” He gazed up at her in a kind of panic, through his spectacles. Then he set his teeth again, and nodded his head up and down. “All right, then! To-day is Saturday. Then Monday!”
“If you’ll excuse me,” she said, “I’ve got to go out for a few things. I’ll walk to the station with you when I get back.”
She bundled Jane into a little sky-blue coat and bonnet, put on a heavy black coat and black hat herself, and went out.
Jimmy sat very uneasily opposite the collier, who also wore spectacles to read. Pinnegar put down the newspaper and pulled the spectacles off his nose, saying something about a Labour Government.
“Yes,” said Jimmy. “After all, best be logical. If you ARE democratic, the only logical thing is a Labour Government. Though, personally, one Government is as good as another, to me.”
“Maybe so!” said the collier. “But SOMETHING’S got to come to an end, sooner or later.”
“Oh, a great deal!” said Jimmy, and they lapsed into silence.
“Have you been married before?” asked Pinnegar, at length.
“Yes. My wife and I are divorced.”
“I suppose you want me to divorce MY wife?” said the collier.
“Why — yes! — that would be best —”
“It’s the same to me,” said Pinnegar; “divorce or no divorce. I’ll LIVE with another woman, but I’ll never MARRY another. Enough is as good as a feast. But if she wants a divorce, she can have it.”
“It would certainly be best,” said Jimmy.
There was a long pause. Jimmy wished the woman would come back.
“I look on you as an instrument,” said the miner. “Something had to break. You are the instrument that breaks it.”
It was strange to sit in the room with this thin, remote, wilful man. Jimmy was a bit fascinated by him. But, at the same time, he hated him because he could not be in the same room with him without being under his spell. He felt himself dominated. And he hated it.
“My wife,” said Pinnegar, looking up at Jimmy with a peculiar, almost humorous, teasing grin, “expects to see me go to the dogs when she leaves me. It is her last hope.”
Jimmy ducked his head and was silent, not knowing what to say. The other man sat still in his chair, like a sort of infinitely patient prisoner, looking away out of the window and waiting.
“She thinks,” he said again, “that she has some wonderful future awaiting her somewhere, and you’re going to open the door.”
And again the same amused grin was in his eyes.
And again Jimmy was fascinated by the man. And again he hated the spell of this fascination. For Jimmy wanted to be, in his own mind, the strongest man among men, but particularly among women. And this thin, peculiar man could dominate him. He knew it. The very silent unconsciousness of Pinnegar dominated the room, wherever he was.
Jimmy hated this.
At last Mrs Pinnegar came back, and Jimmy set off with her. He shook hands with the collier.
“Good-bye!” he said.
“Good-bye!” said Pinnegar, looking down at him with those amused blue eyes, which Jimmy knew he would never be able to get beyond.
And the walk to the station was almost a walk of conspiracy against the man left behind, between the man in spectacles and the tall woman. They arranged the details for Monday. Emily was to come by the nine o’clock train: Jimmy would meet her at Marylebone, and instal her in his house in St John’s Wood. Then, with the child, they would begin a new life. Pinnegar would divorce his wife, or she would divorce him: and then, another marriage.
Jimmy got a tremendous kick out of it all on the journey home. He felt he had really done something desperate and adventurous. But he was in too wild a flutter to analyse any results. Only, as he drew near London, a sinking feeling came over him. He was desperately tired after it all, almost too tired to keep up.
Nevertheless, he went after dinner and sprang it all on Severn.
“You damn fool!” said Severn, in consternation. “What did you do it for?”
“Well,” said Jimmy, writhing. “Because I WANTED to.”
“Good God! The woman sounds like the head of Medusa. You’re a hero of some stomach, I must say! Remember Clarissa?”
“Oh,” writhed Jimmy. “But this is different.”
“Ay, her name’s Emma, or something of that sort, isn’t it?”
“Emily!” said Jimmy briefly.
“Well, you’re a fool, anyway, so you may as well keep on acting in character. I’ve no doubt, by playing weeping-willow, you’ll outlive all the female storms you ever prepare for yourself. I never yet did see a weeping-willow uprooted by a gale, so keep on hanging your harp on it, and you’ll be all right. Here’s luck! But for a man who was looking for a little Gretchen to adore him, you’re a corker!”
Which was all that Severn had to say. But Jimmy went home with his knees shaking. On Sunday morning he wrote an anxious letter. He didn’t know how to begin it: Dear Mrs Pinnegar and Dear Emily seemed either too late in the day or too early. So he just plunged in, without dear anything.
“I want you to have this before you come. Perhaps we have been precipitate. I only beg you to decide FINALLY, for yourself, before you come. Don’t come, please, unless you are absolutely sure of yourself. If you are IN THE LEAST unsure, wait a while, wait till you are quite certain, one way or the other.
“For myself, if you don’t come I shall understand. But please send me a telegram. If you do come, I shall welcome both you and the child. Yours ever — J.F.”
He paid a man his return fare, and three pounds extra, to go on the Sunday and deliver this letter.
The man came back in the evening. He had delivered the letter. There was no answer.
Awful Sunday night: tense Monday morning!
A telegram: “Arrive Marylebone 12.50 with Jane. Yours ever. Emily.”
Jimmy set his teeth and went to the station. But when he felt her looking at him, and so met her eyes: and after that saw her coming slowly down the platform, holding the child by the hand, her slow cat’s eyes smouldering under her straight brows, smouldering at him: he almost swooned. A sickly grin came over him as he held out his hand. Nevertheless he said:
“I’m AWFULLY glad you came.”
And as he sat in the taxi, a perverse but intense desire for her came over him, making him almost helpless. He could feel, so strongly, the presence of that other man about her, and this went to his head like neat spirits. That other man! In some subtle, inexplicable way, he was actually bodily present, the husband. The woman moved in his aura. She was hopelessly married to him.
And this went to Jimmy’s head like neat whisky. Which of the two would fall before him with a greater fall — the woman, or the man, her husband?
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23