The Mortal Coil

D. H. Lawrence

First published in 1917.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Mortal Coil


She stood motionless in the middle of the room, something tense in her reckless bearing. Her gown of reddish stuff fell silkily about her feet; she looked tall and splendid in the candlelight. Her dark-blond hair was gathered loosely in a fold on top of her head, her young, blossom-fresh face was lifted. From her throat to her feet she was clothed in the elegantly-made dress of silky red stuff, the colour of red earth. She looked complete and lovely, only love could make her such a strange, complete blossom. Her cloak and hat were thrown across a table just in front of her.

Quite alone, abstracted, she stood there arrested in a conflict of emotions. Her hand, down against her skirt, worked irritably, the ball of the thumb rubbing, rubbing across the tips of the fingers. There was a slight tension between her lifted brows.

About her the room glowed softly, reflecting the candlelight from its whitewashed walls, and from the great, bowed, whitewashed ceiling. It was a large attic, with two windows, and the ceiling curving down on either side, so that both the far walls were low. Against one, on one side, was a single bed, opened for the night, the white over-bolster piled back. Not far from this was the iron stove. Near the window closest to the bed was a table with writing materials, and a handsome cactus-plant with clear scarlet blossoms threw its bizarre shadow on the wall. There was another table near the second window, and opposite was the door on which hung a military cloak. Along the far wall, were guns and fishing-tackle, and some clothes too, hung on pegs — all men’s clothes, all military. It was evidently the room of a man, probably a young lieutenant.

The girl, in her pure red dress that fell about her feet, so that she looked a woman, not a girl, at last broke from her abstraction and went aimlessly to the writing-table. Her mouth was closed down stubbornly, perhaps in anger, perhaps in pain. She picked up a large seal made of agate, looked at the ingraven coat of arms, then stood rubbing her finger across the cut-out stone, time after time. At last she put the seal down, and looked at the other things — a beautiful old beer-mug used as a tobacco-jar, a silver box like an urn, old and of exquisite shape, a bowl of sealing wax. She fingered the pieces of wax. This, the dark-green, had sealed her last letter. Ah, well! She carelessly turned over the blotting book, which again had his arms stamped on the cover. Then she went away to the window. There, in the window-recess, she stood and looked out. She opened the casement and took a deep breath of the cold night air. Ah, it was good! Far below was the street, a vague golden milky way beneath her, its tiny black figures moving and crossing and re-crossing with marionette, insect-like intentness. A small horse-car rumbled along the lines, so belittled, it was an absurdity. So much for the world! . . . he did not come.

She looked overhead. The stars were white and flashing, they looked nearer than the street, more kin to her, more real. She stood pressing her breast on her arms, her face lifted to the stars, in the long, anguished suspense of waiting. Noises came up small from the street, as from some insect-world. But the great stars overhead struck white and invincible, infallible. Her heart felt cold like the stars.

At last she started. There was a noisy knocking at the door, and a female voice calling:

“Anybody there?”

“Come in,” replied the girl.

She turned round, shrinking from this intrusion, unable to bear it, after the flashing stars.

There entered a thin, handsome dark girl dressed in an extravagantly-made gown of dark purple silk and dark blue velvet. She was followed by a small swarthy, inconspicuous lieutenant in pale-blue uniform.

“Ah YOU! . . . alone?” cried Teresa, the newcomer, advancing into the room. “Where’s the Fritz, then?”

The girl in red raised her shoulders in a shrug, and turned her face aside, but did not speak.

“Not here! You don’t know where he is? Ach, the dummy, the lout!” Teresa swung round on her companion.

“Where is he?” she demanded.

He also lifted his shoulders in a shrug.

“He said he was coming in half an hour,” the young lieutenant replied.

“Ha! — half an hour! Looks like it! How long is that ago — two hours?”

Again the young man only shrugged. He had beautiful black eye-lashes, and steady eyes. He stood rather deprecatingly, whilst his girl, golden like a young panther, hung over him.

“One knows where he is,” said Teresa, going and sitting on the opened bed. A dangerous contraction came between the brows of Marta, the girl in red, at this act.

“Wine, Women and Cards!” said Teresa, in her loud voice. “But they prefer the women on the cards.

‘My love he has four Queenies,

Four Queenies has my lo-o-ove,’”

she sang. Then she broke off, and turned to Podewils. “Was he winning when you left him, Karl?”

Again the young baron raised his shoulders.

“Tant pis que mal,’ he replied, cryptically.

“Ah, YOU!” cried Teresa, “with your tant pis que mal! Are YOU tant pis que mal?” She laughed her deep, strange laugh. “Well,” she added, “he’ll be coming in with a fortune for you, Marta —”

There was a vague, unhappy silence.

“I know his fortunes,” said Marta.

“Yes,” said Teresa, in sudden sober irony, “he’s a horse-shoe round your neck, is that young jockey. — But what are you going to do, Matzen dearest? You’re not going to wait for him any longer? — Don’t dream of it! The idea, waiting for that young gentleman as if you were married to him! — Put your hat on, dearest, and come along with us . . . Where are we going, Karl, you pillar of salt? — Eh? — Geier’s? — To Geier’s, Marta, my dear. Come, quick, up — you’ve been martyred enough, Marta, my martyr — haw! — haw!! — put your hat on. Up — away!”

Teresa sprang up like an explosion, anxious to be off.

“No, I’ll wait for him,” said Marta, sullenly.

“Don’t be such a fool!” cried Teresa, in her deep voice. “Wait for him! I’D give him wait for him. Catch this little bird waiting.” She lifted her hand and blew a little puff across the fingers. “Choo-fly!” she sang, as if a bird had just flown.

The young lieutenant stood silent with smiling dark eyes. Teresa was quick, and golden as a panther.

“No, but really, Marta, you’re not going to wait any more — really! It’s stupid for you to play Gretchen — your eyes are much too green. Put your hat on, there’s a darling.”

“No,” said Marta, her flower-like face strangely stubborn. “I’ll wait for him. He’ll have to come some time.”

There was a moment’s uneasy pause.

“Well,” said Teresa, holding her long shoulders for her cloak, “so long as you don’t wait as long as Lenora-fuhr-ums-Morgenrot —! Adieu, my dear, God be with you.”

The young lieutenant bowed a solicitous bow, and the two went out, leaving the girl in red once more alone.

She went to the writing table, and on a sheet of paper began writing her name in stiff Gothic characters, time after time:

Marta Hohenest

Marta Hohenest

Marta Hohenest.

The vague sounds from the street below continued. The wind was cold. She rose and shut the window. Then she sat down again.

At last the door opened, and a young officer entered. He was buttoned up in a dark-blue great-coat, with large silver buttons going down on either side of the breast. He entered quickly, glancing over the room, at Marta, as she sat with her back to him. She was marking with a pencil on paper. He closed the door. Then with fine beautiful movements he divested himself of his coat and went to hang it up. How well Marta knew the sound of his movements, the quick light step! But she continued mechanically making crosses on the paper, her head bent forward between the candles, so that her hair made fine threads and mist of light, very beautiful. He saw this, and it touched him. But he could not afford to be touched any further.

“You have been waiting?” he said formally. The insulting futile question! She made no sign, as if she had not heard. He was absorbed in the tragedy of himself, and hardly heeded her.

He was a slim, good-looking youth, clear-cut and delicate in mould. His features now were pale, there was something evasive in his dilated, vibrating eyes. He was barely conscious of the girl, intoxicated with his own desperation, that held him mindless and distant.

To her, the atmosphere of the room was almost unbreathable, since he had come in. She felt terribly bound, walled up. She rose with a sudden movement that tore his nerves. She looked to him tall and bright and dangerous, as she faced round on him.

“Have you come back with a fortune?” she cried, in mockery, her eyes full of dangerous light.

He was unfastening his belt, to change his tunic. She watched him up and down, all the time. He could not answer, his lips seemed dumb. Besides, silence was his strength.

“Have you come back with a fortune?” she repeated, in her strong, clear voice of mockery.

“No,” he said, suddenly turning. “Let it please you that — that I’ve come back at all.”

He spoke desperately, and tailed off into silence. He was a man doomed. She looked at him: he was insignificant in his doom. She turned in ridicule. And yet she was afraid; she loved him.

He had stood long enough exposed, in his helplessness. With difficulty he took a few steps, went and sat down at the writing-table. He looked to her like a dog with its tail between its legs.

He saw the paper, where her name was repeatedly written. She must find great satisfaction in her own name, he thought vaguely. Then he picked up the seal and kept twisting it round in his fingers, doing some little trick. And continually the seal fell on to the table with a sudden rattle that made Marta stiffen cruelly. He was quite oblivious of her.

She stood watching as he sat bent forward in his stupefaction. The fine cloth of his uniform showed the moulding of his back. And something tortured her as she saw him, till she could hardly bear it: the desire of his finely-shaped body, the stupefaction and the abjectness of him now, his immersion in the tragedy of himself, his being unaware of her. All her will seemed to grip him, to bruise some manly nonchalance and attention out of him.

“I suppose you’re in a fury with me, for being late?” he said, with impotent irony in his voice. Her fury over trifles, when he was lost in calamity! How great was his real misery, how trivial her small offendedness!

Something in his tone burned her, and made her soul go cold.

“I’m not exactly pleased,” she said coldly, turning away to a window.

Still he sat bent over the table, twisting something with his fingers. She glanced round on him. How nervy he was! He had beautiful hands, and the big topaz signet-ring on his finger made yellow lights. Ah, if only his hands were really dare-devil and reckless! They always seemed so guilty, so cowardly.

“I’m done for now,” he said suddenly, as if to himself, tilting back his chair a little. In all his physical movement he was so fine and poised, so sensitive! Oh, and it attracted her so much!

“Why?” she said, carelessly.

An anger burned in him. She was so flippant. If he were going to be shot, she would not be moved more than about half a pound of sweets.

“Why!” he repeated laconically. “The same unimportant reason as ever.”

“Debts?” she cried, in contempt.


Her soul burned in anger.

“What have you done now? — lost more money?”

“Three thousand marks.”

She was silent in deep wrath.

“More fool you!” she said. Then, in her anger, she was silent for some minutes. “And so you’re done for, for three thousand marks?” she exclaimed, jeering at him. “You go pretty cheap.”

“Three thousand — and the rest,” he said, keeping up a manly sang froid.”

“And the rest!” she repeated in contempt. “And for three thousand — and the rest, your life is over!”

“My career,” he corrected her.

“Oh,” she mocked, “only your career! I thought it was a matter of life and death. Only your career? Oh, only that!”

His eyes grew furious under her mockery.

“My career IS my life,” he said.

“Oh, is it! — You’re not a MAN then, you are only a career?”

“I am a gentleman.”

“Oh, are you! How amusing! How very amusing, to be a gentleman, and not a man! — I suppose that’s what it means, to be a gentleman, to have no guts outside your career?”

“Outside my honour — none.”

“And might I ask what IS your honour?” She spoke in extreme irony.

“Yes, you may ask,” he replied coolly. “But if you don’t know without being told, I’m afraid I could never explain it.”

“Oh, you couldn’t! No, I believe you — you are incapable of explaining it, it wouldn’t bear explaining.” There was a long, tense pause. “So you’ve made too many debts, and you’re afraid they’ll kick you out of the army, therefore your honour is gone, is it? — And what then — what after that?”

She spoke in extreme irony. He winced again at her phrase “kick you out of the army”. But he tilted his chair back with assumed nonchalance.

“I’ve made too many debts, and I KNOW they’ll kick me out of the army,” he repeated, thrusting the thorn right home to the quick. “After that — I can shoot myself. Or I might even be a waiter in a restaurant — or possibly a clerk, with twenty-five shillings a week.”

“Really! — All those alternatives! — Well, why not, why not be a waiter in the Germania? It might be awfully jolly.”

“Why not?” he repeated ironically. “Because it wouldn’t become me.”

She looked at him, at his aristocratic fineness of physique, his extreme physical sensitiveness. And all her German worship for his old, proud family rose up in her. No, he could not be a waiter in the Germania: she could not bear it. He was too refined and beautiful a thing.

“Ha!” she cried suddenly. “It wouldn’t come to that, either. If they kick you out of the army, you’ll find somebody to get round — you’re like a cat, you’ll land on your feet.”

But this was just what he was not. He was not like a cat. His self-mistrust was too deep. Ultimately he had no belief in himself, as a separate isolated being. He knew he was sufficiently clever, an aristocrat, good-looking, the sensitive superior of most men. The trouble was, that apart from the social fabric he belonged to, he felt himself nothing, a cipher. He bitterly envied the common working-men for a certain manly aplomb, a grounded, almost stupid self-confidence he saw in them. Himself — he could lead such men through the gates of hell — for what did he care about danger or hurt to himself, whilst he was leading? But — cut him off from all this, and what was he? A palpitating rag of meaningless human life.

But she, coming from the people, could not fully understand. And it was best to leave her in the dark. The free indomitable self-sufficient being which a man must be in his relation to a woman who loves him — this he could pretend. But he knew he was not it. He knew that the world of man from which he took his value was his mistress beyond any woman. He wished, secretly, cravingly, almost cravenly, in his heart, it was not so. But so it was.

Therefore, he heard her phrase “you’re like a cat,” with some bitter envy.

“Whom shall I get round? — some woman, who will marry me?” he said.

This was a way out. And it was almost the inevitable thing, for him. But he felt it the last ruin of his manhood, even he.

The speech hurt her mortally, worse than death. She would rather he died, because then her own love would not turn to ash.

“Get married, then, if you want to,” she said, in a small broken voice.

“Naturally,” he said.

There was a long silence, a foretaste of barren hopelessness.

“Why is it so terrible to you,” she asked at length, “to come out of the army and trust to your own resources? Other men are strong enough.”

“Other men are not me,” he said.

Why would she torture him? She seemed to enjoy torturing him. The thought of his expulsion from the army was an agony to him, really worse than death. He saw himself in the despicable civilian clothes, engaged in some menial occupation. And he could not bear it. It was too heavy a cross.

Who was she to talk? She was herself, an actress, daughter of a tradesman. He was himself. How should one of them speak for the other? It was impossible. He loved her. He loved her far better than men usually loved their mistresses. He really cared. — And he was strangely proud of his love for her, as if it were a distinction to him . . . But there was a limit to her understanding. There was a point beyond which she had nothing to do with him, and she had better leave him alone. Here in this crisis, which was HIS crisis, his downfall, she should not presume to talk, because she did not understand. — But she loved to torture him, that was the truth.

“Why should it hurt you to work?” she reiterated.

He lifted his face, white and tortured, his grey eyes flaring with fear and hate.

“Work!” he cried. “What do you think I am worth? — Twenty-five shillings a week, if I am lucky.”

His evident anguish penetrated her. She sat dumbfounded, looking at him with wide eyes. He was white with misery and fear; his hand, that lay loose on the table, was abandoned in nervous ignominy. Her mind filled with wonder, and with deep, cold dread. Did he really care so much? But did it REALLY matter so much to him? When he said he was worth twenty-five shillings a week, he was like a man whose soul is pierced. He sat there, annihilated. She looked for him, and he was nothing then. She looked for the man, the free being that loved her. And he was not, he was gone, this blank figure remained. Something with a blanched face sat there in the chair, staring at nothing.

His amazement deepened with intolerable dread. It was as if the world had fallen away into chaos. Nothing remained. She seemed to grasp the air for foothold.

He sat staring in front of him, a dull numbness settled on his brain. He was watching the flame of the candle. And, in his detachment, he realized the flame was a swiftly travelling flood, flowing swiftly from the source of the wick through a white surge and on into the darkness above. It was like a fountain suddenly foaming out, then running on dark and smooth. Could one dam the flood? He took a piece of paper, and cut off the flame for a second.

The girl in red started at the pulse of the light. She seemed to come to, from some trance. She saw his face, clear now, attentive, abstract, absolved. He was quite absolved from his temporal self.

“It isn’t true,” she said, “is it? It’s not so tragic, really? — It’s only your pride is hurt, your silly little pride?” She was rather pleading.

He looked at her with clear steady eyes.

“My pride!” he said. “And isn’t my pride ME? What am I without my pride?”

“You are YOURSELF,” she said. “If they take your uniform off you, and turn you naked into the street, you are still YOURSELF.”

His eyes grew hot. Then he cried:

“What does it mean, MYSELF! It means I put on ready-made civilian clothes and do some dirty drudging elsewhere: that is what MYSELF amounts to.”

She knitted her brows.

“But what you are TO ME— that naked self which you are to me — that is something, isn’t it? — everything,” she said.

“What is it, if it means nothing?” he said: “What is it, more than a pound of chocolate dragées? — It stands for nothing — unless as you say, a petty clerkship, at twenty-five shillings a week.”

These were all wounds to her, very deep. She looked in wonder for a few moments.

“And what does it stand for now?” she said. “A magnificent second-lieutenant!”

He made a gesture of dismissal with his hand.

She looked at him from under lowered brows.

“And our love!” she said. “It means nothing to you, nothing at all?”

“To me as a menial clerk, what does it mean? What does love mean! Does it mean that a man shall be no more than a dirty rag in the world? — What worth do you think I have in love, if in life I am a wretched inky subordinate clerk?”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters everything.”

There was silence for a time, then the anger flashed up in her.

“It doesn’t matter to you what I feel, whether I care or not,” she cried, her voice rising. “They’ll take his little uniform with buttons off him, and he’ll have to be a common little civilian, so all he can do is to shoot himself! — It doesn’t matter that I’m there —”

He sat stubborn and silent. He thought her vulgar. And her raving did not alter the situation in the least.

“Don’t you see what value you put on ME, you clever little man?” she cried in fury. “I’ve loved you, loved you with all my soul, for two years — and you’ve lied, and said you loved me. And now, what do I get? He’ll shoot himself, because his tuppenny vanity is wounded. — Ah, FOOL—!”

He lifted his head and looked at her. His face was fixed and superior.

“All of which,” he said, “leaves the facts of the case quite untouched!”

She hated his cool little speeches.

“Then shoot yourself,” she cried, “and you’ll be worth LESS than twenty-five shillings a week!”

There was a fatal silence.

“THEN there’ll be no question of worth,” he said.

“Ha!” she ejaculated in scorn.

She had finished. She had no more to say. At length, after they had both sat motionless and silent, separate, for some time, she rose and went across to her hat and cloak. He shrank in apprehension. Now, he could not bear her to go. He shrank as if he were being whipped. She put her hat on, roughly, then swung her warm plaid cloak over her shoulders. Her hat was of black glossy silk, with a sheeny heap of cocks-feathers, her plaid cloak was dark green and blue, it swung open above her clear harsh-red dress. How beautiful she was, like a fiery Madonna!

“Good-bye,” she said, in her voice of mockery. “I’m going now.”

He sat motionless, as if loaded with fetters. She hesitated, then moved towards the door.

Suddenly, with a spring like a cat, he was confronting her, his back to the door. His eyes were full and dilated, like a cat’s, his face seemed to gleam at her. She quivered, as some subtle fluid ran through her nerves.

“Let me go,” she said dumbly. “I’ve had enough.” His eyes, with a wide, dark electric pupil, like a cat’s, only watched her objectively. And again a wave of female submissiveness went over her.

“I want to go,” she pleaded. “You know it’s no good. — You know this is no good.”

She stood humbly before him. A flexible little grin quivered round his mouth.

“You know you don’t want me,” she persisted. “You know you don’t really want me. — You only do this to show your power over me — which is a mean trick.”

But he did not answer, only his eyes narrowed in a sensual, cruel smile. She shrank, afraid, and yet she was fascinated.

“You won’t go yet,” he said.

She tried in vain to rouse her real opposition.

“I shall call out,” she threatened. “I shall shame you before people.”

His eyes narrowed again in the smile of vindictive, mocking indifference.

“Call then,” he said.

And at the sound of his still, cat-like voice, an intoxication ran over her veins.

“I WILL,” she said, looking defiantly into his eyes. But the smile in the dark, full, dilated pupils made her waver into submission again.

“Won’t you let me go?” she pleaded sullenly.

Now the smile went openly over his face.

“Take your hat off,” he said.

And with quick, light fingers he reached up and drew out the pins of her hat, unfastened the clasp of her cloak, and laid her things aside.

She sat down in a chair. Then she rose again, and went to the window. In the street below, the tiny figures were moving just the same. She opened the window, and leaned out, and wept.

He looked round at her in irritation as she stood in her long, clear-red dress in the window-recess, leaning out. She was exasperating.

“You will be cold,” he said.

She paid no heed. He guessed, by some tension in her attitude, that she was crying. It irritated him exceedingly, like a madness. After a few minutes of suspense, he went across to her, and took her by the arm. His hand was subtle, soft in its touch, and yet rather cruel than gentle.

“Come away,” he said. “Don’t stand there in the air — come away.”

He drew her slowly away to the bed, she sat down, and he beside her.

“What are you crying for?” he said in his strange, penetrating voice, that had a vibration of exultancy in it. But her tears only ran faster.

He kissed her face, that was soft, and fresh, and yet warm, wet with tears. He kissed her again, and again, in pleasure of the soft, wet saltness of her. She turned aside and wiped her face with her handkerchief, and blew her nose. He was disappointed — yet the way she blew her nose pleased him.

Suddenly she slid away to the floor, and hid her face in the side of the bed, weeping and crying loudly:

“You don’t love me — Oh, you don’t love me — I thought you did, and you let me go on thinking it — but you don’t, no, you don’t, and I can’t bear it. — Oh, I can’t bear it.”

He sat and listened to the strange, animal sound of her crying. His eyes flickered with exultancy, his body seemed full and surcharged with power. But his brows were knitted in tension. He laid his hand softly on her head, softly touched her face, which was buried against the bed.

She suddenly rubbed her face against the sheets, and looked up once more.

“You’ve deceived me,” she said, as she sat beside him.

“Have I? Then I’ve deceived myself.” His body felt so charged with male vigour, he was almost laughing in his strength.

“Yes,” she said enigmatically, fatally. She seemed absorbed in her thoughts. Then her face quivered again.

“And I loved you so much,” she faltered, the tears rising. There was a clangour of delight in his heart.

“I love YOU,” he said softly, softly touching her, softly kissing her, in a sort of subtle, restrained ecstasy.

She shook her head stubbornly. She tried to draw away. Then she did break away, and turned to look at him, in fear and doubt. The little, fascinating, fiendish lights were hovering in his eyes like laughter.

“Don’t hurt me so much,” she faltered, in a last protest.

A faint smile came on his face. He took her face between his hands and covered it with soft, blinding kisses, like a soft, narcotic rain. He felt himself such an unbreakable fountain-head of powerful blood. He was trembling finely in all his limbs, with mastery.

When she lifted her face and opened her eyes, her face was wet, and her greenish-golden eyes were shining, it was like sudden sunshine in wet foliage. She smiled at him like a child of knowledge, through the tears, and softly, infinitely softly he dried her tears with his mouth and his soft young moustache.

“You’d never shoot yourself, because you’re mine, aren’t you!” she said, knowing the fine quivering of his body, in mastery.

“Yes,” he said.

“Quite mine?” she said, her voice rising in ecstasy.


“Nobody else but mine — nothing at all —?”

“Nothing at all,” he re-echoed.

“But me?” came her last words of ecstasy.


And she seemed to be released free into the infinite of ecstasy.


They slept in fulfilment through the long night. But then strange dreams began to fill them both, strange dreams that were neither waking nor sleeping; — only, in curious weariness, through her dreams, she heard at last a continual low rapping. She awoke with difficulty. The rapping began again — she started violently. It was at the door — it would be the orderly rapping for Friedeburg. Everything seemed wild and unearthly. She put her hand on the shoulder of the sleeping man, and pulled him roughly, waited a moment, then pushed him, almost violently, to awake him. He woke with a sense of resentment at her violent handling. Then he heard the knocking of the orderly. He gathered his senses.

“Yes, Heinrich!” he said.

Strange, the sound of a voice! It seemed a far-off tearing sound. Then came the muffled voice of the servant.

“Half past four, Sir.”

“Right!” said Friedeburg, and automatically he got up and made a light. She was suddenly as wide awake as if it were daylight. But it was a strange, false day, like a delirium. She saw him put down the match, she saw him moving about, rapidly dressing. And the movement in the room was a trouble to her. He himself was vague and unreal, a thing seen but not comprehended. She watched all the acts of his toilet, saw all the motions, but never saw him. There was only a disturbance about her, which fretted her, she was not aware of any presence. Her mind, in its strange, hectic clarity, wanted to consider things in absolute detachment. For instance, she wanted to consider the cactus plant. It was a curious object with pure scarlet blossoms. Now, how did these scarlet blossoms come to pass, upon that earthly-looking unliving creature? Scarlet blossoms! How wonderful they were! What were they, then, how could one lay hold on their being? Her mind turned to him. Him, too, how could one lay hold on him, to have him? Where was he, what was he? She seemed to grasp at the air.

He was dipping his face in the cold water — the slight shock was good for him. He felt as if someone had stolen away his being in the night, he was moving about a light, quick shell, with all his meaning absent. His body was quick and active, but all his deep understanding, his soul was gone. He tried to rub it back into his face. He was quite dim, as if his spirit had left his body.

“Come and kiss me,” sounded the voice from the bed. He went over to her automatically. She put her arms around him and looked into his face with her clear brilliant, grey-green eyes, as if she too were looking for his soul.

“How are you?” came her meaningless words.

“All right.”

“Kiss me.”

He bent down and kissed her.

And still her clear, rather frightening eyes seemed to be searching for him inside himself. He was like a bird transfixed by her pellucid, grey-green, wonderful eyes. She put her hands into his soft, thick, fine hair, and gripped her hands full of his hair. He wondered with fear at her sudden painful clutching.

“I shall be late,” he said.

“Yes,” she answered. And she let him go.

As he fastened his tunic he glanced out of the window. It was still night: a night that must have lasted since eternity. There was a moon in the sky. In the streets below the yellow street-lamps burned small at intervals. This was the night of eternity.

There came a knock at the door, and the orderly’s voice.

“Coffee, Sir.”

“Leave it there.”

They heard the faint jingle of the tray as it was set down outside.

Friedeburg sat down to put on his boots. Then, with a man’s solid tread, he went and took in the tray. He felt properly heavy and secure now in his accoutrement. But he was always aware of her two wonderful, clear, unfolded eyes, looking on his heart, out of her uncanny silence.

There was a strong smell of coffee in the room.

“Have some coffee?” His eyes could not meet hers.

“No, thank you.”

“Just a drop?”

“No, thank you.”

Her voice sounded quite gay. She watched him dipping his bread in the coffee and eating quickly, absently. He did not know what he was doing, and yet the dipped bread and hot coffee gave him pleasure. He gulped down the remainder of his drink, and rose to his feet.

“I must go,” he said.

There was a curious, poignant smile in her eyes. Her eyes drew him to her. How beautiful she was, and dazzling, and frightening, with this look of brilliant tenderness seeming to glitter from her face. She drew his head down to her bosom, and held it fast prisoner there, murmuring with tender, triumphant delight: “Dear! Dear!”

At last she let him lift his head, and he looked into her eyes, that seemed to concentrate in a dancing, golden point of vision in which he felt himself perish.

“Dear!” she murmured. “You love me, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said mechanically.

The golden point of vision seemed to leap to him from her eyes, demanding something. He sat slackly, as if spellbound. Her hand pushed him a little.

“Mustn’t you go?” she said.

He rose. She watched him fastening the belt round his body, that seemed soft under the fine clothes. He pulled on his great-coat, and put on his peaked cap. He was again a young officer.

But he had forgotten his watch. It lay on the table near the bed. She watched him slinging it on his chain. He looked down at her. How beautiful she was, with her luminous face and her fine, stray hair! But he felt far away.

“Anything I can do for you?” he asked.

“No, thank you — I’ll sleep,” she replied, smiling. And the strange golden spark danced on her eyes again, again he felt as if his heart were gone, destroyed out of him. There was a fine pathos too in her vivid, dangerous face.

He kissed her for the last time, saying:

“I’ll blow the candles out, then?”

“Yes, my love — and I’ll sleep.”

“Yes — sleep as long as you like.”

The golden spark of her eyes seemed to dance on him like a destruction, she was beautiful, and pathetic. He touched her tenderly with his finger-tips, then suddenly blew out the candles, and walked across in the faint moonlight to the door.

He was gone. She heard his boots click on the stone stairs — she heard the far below tread of his feet on the pavement. Then he was gone. She lay quite still, in a swoon of deathly peace. She never wanted to move any more. It was finished. She lay quite still, utterly, utterly abandoned.

But again she was disturbed. There was a little tap at the door, then Teresa’s voice saying, with a shuddering sound because of the cold:

“Ugh! — I’m coming to you, Marta my dear. I can’t stand being left alone.”

“I’ll make a light,” said Marta, sitting up and reaching for the candle. “Lock the door, will you, Resie, and then nobody can bother us.”

She saw Teresa, loosely wrapped in her cloak, two thick ropes of hair hanging untidily. Teresa looked voluptuously sleepy and easy, like a cat running home to the warmth.

“Ugh!” she said, “it’s cold!”

And she ran to the stove. Marta heard the chink of the little shovel, a stirring of coals, then a clink of the iron door. Then Teresa came running to the bed, with a shuddering little run, she puffed out the light and slid in beside her friend.

“So cold!” she said, with a delicious shudder at the warmth. Marta made place for her, and they settled down.

“Aren’t you glad you’re not them?” said Resie, with a little shudder at the thought. “Ugh! — poor devils!”

“I am,” said Marta.

“Ah, sleep — sleep, how lovely!” said Teresa, with deep content. “Ah, it’s so good!”

“Yes,” said Marta.

“Good morning, good night, my dear,” said Teresa, already sleepily.

“Good night,” responded Marta.

Her mind flickered a little. Then she sank unconsciously to sleep. The room was silent.

Outside, the setting moon made peaked shadows of the high-roofed houses; from twin towers that stood like two dark, companion giants in the sky, the hour trembled out over the sleeping town. But the footsteps of hastening officers and cowering soldiers rang on the frozen pavements. Then a lantern appeared in the distance, accompanied by the rattle of a bullock wagon. By the light of the lantern on the wagon-pole could be seen the delicately moving feet and the pale, swinging dewlaps of the oxen. They drew slowly on, with a rattle of heavy wheels, the banded heads of the slow beasts swung rhythmically.

Ah, this was life! How sweet, sweet each tiny incident was! How sweet to Friedeburg, to give his orders ringingly on the frosty air, to see his men like bears shambling and shuffling into their places, with little dancing movements of uncouth playfulness and resentment, because of the pure cold.

Sweet, sweet it was to be marching beside his men, sweet to hear the great thresh-thresh of their heavy boots in the unblemished silence, sweet to feel the immense mass of living bodies coordinated into oneness near him, to catch the hot waft of their closeness, their breathing. Friedeburg was like a man condemned to die, catching at every impression as at an inestimable treasure.

Sweet it was to pass through the gates of the town, the scanty, loose suburb, into the open darkness and space of the country. This was almost best of all. It was like emerging in the open plains of eternal freedom.

They saw a dark figure hobbling along under the dark side of a shed. As they passed, through the open door of the shed, in the golden light were seen the low rafters, the pale, silken sides of the cows, evanescent. And a woman with a red kerchief bound round her head lifted her face from the flank of the beast she was milking, to look at the soldiers threshing like multitudes of heavy ghosts down the darkness. Some of the men called to her, cheerfully, impudently. Ah, the miraculous beauty and sweetness of the merest trifles like these!

They tramped on down a frozen, rutty road, under lines of bare trees. Beautiful trees! Beautiful frozen ruts in the road! Ah, even, in one of the ruts there was a silver of ice and of moon-glimpse. He heard ice tinkle as a passing soldier purposely put his toe in it. What a sweet noise!

But there was a vague uneasiness. He heard the men arguing as to whether dawn were coming. There was the silver moon, still riding on the high seas of the sky. A lovely thing she was, a jewel! But was there any blemish of day? He shrank a little from the rawness of the day to come. This night of morning was so rare and free.

Yes, he was sure. He saw a colourless paleness on the horizon. The earth began to look hard, like a great, concrete shadow. He shrank into himself. Glancing at the ranks of his men, he could see them like a company of rhythmic ghosts. The pallor was actually reflected on their livid faces. This was the coming day. It frightened him.

The dawn came. He saw the rosiness of it hang trembling with light, above the east. Then a strange glamour of scarlet passed over the land. At his feet, glints of ice flashed scarlet, even the hands of the men were red as they swung, sinister, heavy, reddened.

The sun surged up, her rim appeared, swimming with fire, hesitating, surging up. Suddenly there were shadows from trees and ruts, and grass was hoar and ice was gold against the ebony shadow. The faces of the men were alight, kindled with life. Ah, it was magical, it was all too marvellous! If only it were always like this!

When they stopped at the inn for breakfast, at nine o’clock, the smell of the inn went raw and ugly to his heart: beer and yesterday’s tobacco!

He went to the door to look at the men biting huge bites from their hunks of grey bread, or cutting off pieces with their clasp-knives. This made him still happy. Women were going to the fountain for water, the soldiers were chaffing them coarsely. He liked all this.

But the magic was going, inevitably, the crystal delight was thawing to desolation in his heart, his heart was cold, cold mud. Ah, it was awful. His face contracted, he almost wept with cold, stark despair.

Still he had the work, the day’s hard activity with the men. Whilst this lasted, he could live. But when this was over, and he had to face the horror of his own cold-thawing mud of despair: ah, it was not to be thought of. Still, he was happy at work with the men: the wild desolate place, the hard activity of mock warfare. Would to God it were real: war, with the prize of death!

By afternoon the sky had gone one dead, livid level of grey. It seemed low down, and oppressive. He was tired, the men were tired, and this let the heavy cold soak in to them like despair. Life could not keep it out.

And now, when his heart was so heavy it could sink no more, he must glance at his own situation again. He must remember what a fool he was, his new debts like half thawed mud in his heart. He knew, with the cold misery of hopelessness, that he would be turned out of the army. What then? — what then but death? After all, death was the solution for him. Let it be so.

They marched on and on, stumbling with fatigue under a great leaden sky, over a frozen dead country. The men were silent with weariness, the heavy motion of their marching was like an oppression. Friedeburg was tired too, and deadened, as his face was deadened by the cold air. He did not think any more; the misery of his soul was like a frost inside him.

He heard someone say it was going to snow. But the words had no meaning for him. He marched as a clock ticks, with the same monotony, everything numb and cold-soddened.

They were drawing near to the town. In the gloom of the afternoon he felt it ahead, as unbearable oppression on him. Ah the hideous suburb! What was his life, how did it come to pass that life was lived in a formless, hideous grey structure of hell! What did it all mean? Pale, sulphur-yellow lights spotted the livid air, and people, like soddened shadows, passed in front of the shops that were lit up ghastly in the early twilight. Out of the colourless space, crumbs of snow came and bounced animatedly off the breast of his coat.

At length he turned away home, to his room, to change and get warm and renewed, for he felt as cold-soddened as the grey, cold, heavy bread which felt hostile in the mouths of the soldiers. His life was to him like this dead, cold bread in his mouth.

As he neared his own house, the snow was peppering thinly down. He became aware of some unusual stir about the house-door. He looked — a strange, closed-in wagon, people, police. The sword of Damocles that had hung over his heart, fell. O God, a new shame, some new shame, some new torture! His body moved on. So it would move on through misery upon misery, as is our fate. There was no emergence, only this progress through misery unto misery, till the end. Strange, that human life was so tenacious! Strange, that men had made of life a long, slow process of torture to the soul. Strange, that it was no other than this! Strange, that but for man, this misery would not exist. For it was not God’s misery, but the misery of the world of man.

He saw two officials push something white and heavy into the cart, shut the doors behind with a bang, turn the silver handle, and run round to the front of the wagon. It moved off. But still most of the people lingered. Friedeburg drifted near in that inevitable motion which carries us through all our shame and torture. He knew the people talked about him. He went up the steps and into the square hall.

There stood a police-officer, with a note-book in his hand, talking to Herr Kapell, the housemaster. As Friedeburg entered through the swing door, the housemaster, whose brow was wrinkled in anxiety and perturbation, made a gesture with his hand, as if to point out a criminal.

“Ah! — the Herr Baron von Friedeburg!” he said, in self-exculpation.

The police officer turned, saluted politely, and said, with the polite, intolerable suffisance of officialdom:

“Good evening! Trouble here!”

“Yes?” said Friedeburg.

He was so frightened, his sensitive constitution was so lacerated, that something broke in him, he was a subservient, murmuring ruin.

“Two young ladies found dead in your room,” said the police-official, making an official statement. But under his cold impartiality of officialdom, what obscene unction! Ah, what obscene exposures now!

“Dead!” ejaculated Friedeburg, with the wide eyes of a child. He became quite child-like, the official had him completely in his power. He could torture him as much as he liked.

“Yes.” He referred to his note-book. “Asphyxiated by fumes from the stove.”

Friedeburg could only stand wide-eyed and meaningless.

“Please — will you go upstairs?”

The police-official marshalled Friedburg in front of himself. The youth slowly mounted the stairs, feeling as if transfixed through the base of the spine, as if he would lose the use of his legs. The official followed close on his heels.

They reached the bedroom. The policeman unlocked the door. The housekeeper followed with a lamp. Then the official examination began.

“A young lady slept here last night?”


“Name, please?”

“Marta Hohenest.”

“H-o-h-e-n-e-s-t,” spelled the official. “— And address?”

Friedeburg continued to answer. This was the end of him. The quick of him was pierced and killed. The living dead answered the living dead in obscene antiphony. Question and answer continued, the note-book worked as the hand of the old dead wrote in it the replies of the young who was dead.

The room was unchanged from the night before. There was her heap of clothing, the lustrous, pure-red dress lying soft where she had carelessly dropped it. Even, on the edge of the chair-back, her crimson silk garters hung looped.

But do not look, do not see. It is the business of the dead to bury their dead. Let the young dead bury their own dead, as the old dead have buried theirs. How can the dead remember, they being dead? Only the living can remember, and are at peace with their living who have passed away.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005