The Overtone

D. H. Lawrence

First published in 1933.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Overtone

His wife was talking to two other women. He lay on the lounge pretending to read. The lamps shed a golden light, and, through the open door, the night was lustrous, and a white moon went like a woman, unashamed and naked across the sky. His wife, her dark hair tinged with grey looped low on her white neck, fingered as she talked the pearl that hung in a heavy, naked drop against the bosom of her dress. She was still a beautiful woman, and one who dressed like the night, for harmony. Her gown was of silk lace, all in flakes, as if the fallen, pressed petals of black and faded-red poppies were netted together with gossamer about her. She was fifty-one, and he was fifty-two. It seemed impossible. He felt his love cling round her like her dress, like a garment of dead leaves. She was talking to a quiet woman about the suffrage. The other girl, tall, rather aloof, sat listening in her chair, with the posture of one who neither accepts nor rejects, but who allows things to go on around her, and will know what she thinks only when she must act. She seemed to be looking away into the night. A scent of honeysuckle came through the open door. Then a large grey moth blundered into the light.

It was very still, almost too silent, inside the room. Mrs. Renshaw’s quiet, musical voice continued:

“But think of a case like Mrs. Mann’s now. She is a clever woman. If she had slept in my cradle, and I in hers, she would have looked a greater lady than I do at this minute. But she married Mann, and she has seven children by him, and goes out charring. Her children she can never leave. So she must stay with a dirty, drunken brute like Mann. If she had an income of two pounds a week, she could say to him: ‘Sir, good-bye to you,’ and she would be well rid. But no, she is tied to him for ever.”

They were discussing the State-endowment of mothers. She and Mrs. Hankin were bitterly keen upon it. Elsa Laskell sat and accepted their talk as she did the scent of the honeysuckle or the blundering adventure of the moth round the silk: it came burdened, not with the meaning of the words, but with the feeling of the woman’s heart as she spoke. Perhaps she heard a nightingale in the park outside — perhaps she did. And then this talk inside drifted also to the girl’s heart, like a sort of inarticulate music. Then she was vaguely aware of the man sprawled in his homespun suit upon the lounge. He had not changed for dinner: he was called unconventional.

She knew he was old enough to be her father, and yet he looked young enough to be her lover. They all seemed young, the beautiful hostess, too, but with a meaningless youth that cannot ripen, like an unfertilised flower which lasts a long time. He was a man she classed as a Dane — with fair, almost sandy hair, blue eyes, long loose limbs, and a boyish activity. But he was fifty-two — and he lay looking out on the night, with one of his hands swollen from hanging so long inert, silent. The women bored him.

Elsa Laskell sat in a sort of dreamy state, and the feelings of her hostess, and the feeling of her host drifted like iridesence upon the quick of her soul, among the white touch of that moon out there, and the exotic heaviness of the honeysuckle, and the strange flapping of the moth. So still, it was, behind the murmur of talk: a silence of being. Of the third woman, Mrs Hankin, the girl had no sensibility. But the night and the moon, the moth, Will Renshaw and Edith Renshaw and herself were all in full being, a harmony.

To him it was six months after his marriage, and the sky was the same, and the honeysuckle in the air. He was living again his crisis, as we all must, fretting and fretting against our failure, till we have worn away the thread of our life. It was six months after his marriage, and they were down at the little bungalow on the bank of the Soar. They were comparatively poor, though her father was rich, and his was well-to-do. And they were alone in the little two-roomed bungalow that stood on its wild bank over the river, among the honeysuckle bushes. He had cooked the evening meal, they had eaten the omelette and drank the coffee, and all was settling into stillness.

He sat outside, by the remnants of the fire, looking at the country lying level and lustrous grey opposite him. Trees hung like vapour in a perfect calm under the moonlight. And that was the moon so perfectly naked and unfaltering, going her errand simply through the night. And that was the river faintly rustling. And there, down the darkness, he saw a flashing of activity white betwixt black twigs. It was the water mingling and thrilling with the moon. So! It made him quiver, and reminded him of the starlit rush of a hare. There was vividness then in all this lucid night, things flashing and quivering with being, almost as the soul quivers in the darkness of the eye. He could feel it. The night’s great circle was the pupil of an eye, full of the mystery, and the unknown fire of life, that does not burn away, but flickers unquenchable.

So he rose, and went to look for his wife. She sat with her dark head bent into the light of a reading lamp, in the little hut. She wore a white dress, and he could see her shoulders’ softness and curve through the lawn. Yet she did not look up when he moved. He stood in the doorway, knowing that she felt his presence. Yet she gave no sign.

“Will you come out?” he asked.

She looked up at him as if to find out what he wanted, and she was rather cold to him. But when he had repeated his request, she had risen slowly to acquiesce, and a tiny shiver had passed down her shoulders. So he unhung from its peg her beautiful Paisley shawl, with its tempered colours that looked as if they had faltered through the years and now were here in their essence, and put it round her. They sat again outside the little hut, under the moonlight. He held both her hands. They were heavy with rings. But one ring was his wedding ring. He had married her, and there was nothing more to own. He owned her, and the night was the pupil of her eye, in which was everything. He kissed her fingers, but she sat and made no sign. It was as he wished. He kissed her fingers again.

Then a corncrake began to call in the meadow across the river, a strange, dispassionate sound, that made him feel not quite satisfied, not quite sure. It was not all achieved. The moon, in her white and naked candour, was beyond him. He felt a little numbness, as one who has gloves on. He could not feel that clear, clean moon. There was something betwixt him and her, as if he had gloves on. Yet he ached for the clear touch, skin to skin — even of the moonlight. He wanted a further purity, a newer cleanness and nakedness. The corncrake cried too. And he watched the moon, and he watched her light on his hands. It was like a butterfly on his glove, that he could see, but not feel. And he wanted to unglove himself. Quite clear, quite, quite bare to the moon, the touch of everything, he wanted to be. And after all, his wife was everything — moon, vapour of trees, trickling water and drift of perfume — it was all his wife. The moon glistened on her finger-tips as he cherished them, and a flash came out of a diamond, among the darkness. So, even here in the quiet harmony, life was at a flash with itself.

“Come with me to the top of the red hill,” he said to his wife quietly.

“But why?” she asked.

“Do come.”

And dumbly she acquiesced, and her shawl hung gleaming above the white flash of her skirt. He wanted to hold her hand, but she was walking apart from him, in her long shawl. So he went to her side, humbly. And he was humble, but he felt it was great. He had looked into the whole of the night, as into the pupil of an eye. And now, he would come perfectly clear out of all his embarrassments of shame and darkness, clean as the moon who walked naked across the night, so that the whole night was as an effluence from her, the whole of it was hers, held in her effluence of moonlight, which was her perfect nakedness, uniting her to everything. Covering was barrier, like cloud across the moon.

The red hill was steep, but there was a tiny path from the bungalow, which he had worn himself. And in the effort of climbing, he felt he was struggling nearer and nearer to himself. Always he looked half round, where, just behind him, she followed, in the lustrous obscurity of her shawl. Her steps came with a little effort up the steep hill, and he loved her feet, he wanted to kiss them as they strove upwards in the gloom. He put aside the twigs and branches. There was a strong scent of honeysuckle like a thick strand of gossamer over his mouth.

He knew a place on the ledge of the hill, on the lip of the cliff, where the trees stood back and left a little dancing-green, high up above the water, there in the midst of miles of moonlit, lonely country. He parted the boughs, sure as a fox that runs to its lair. And they stood together on this little dancing-green presented towards the moon, with the red cliff cumbered with bushes going down to the river below, and the haze of moon-dust on the meadows, and the trees behind them, and only the moon could look straight into the place he had chosen.

She stood always a little way behind him. He saw her face all compounded of shadows and moonlight, and he dared not kiss her yet.

“Will you,” he said, “will you take off your things and love me here?”

“I can’t,” she said.

He looked away to the moon. It was difficult to ask her again, yet it meant so much to him. There was not a sound in the night. He put his hand to his throat and began to unfasten his collar.

“Take off all your things and love me,” he pleaded.

For a moment she was silent.

“I can’t,” she said.

Mechanically, he had taken off his flannel collar and pushed it into his pocket. Then he stood on the edge of the land, looking down into all that gleam, as into the living pupil of an eye. He was bareheaded to the moon. Not a breath of air ruffled his bare throat. Still, in the dropping folds of her shawl, she stood, a thing of dusk and moonlight, a little back. He ached with the earnestness of his desire. All he wanted was to give himself, clean and clear, into this night, this time. Of which she was all, she was everything. He could go to her now, under the white candour of the moon, without shame or shadow, but in his completeness loving her completeness, without a stain, without a shadow between them such as even a flower could cast. For this he yearned as never in his life he could yearn more deeply.

“Do take me,” he said, gently parting the shawl on her breast. But she held it close, and her voice went hard.

“No — I can’t,” she said.


“I can’t — let us go back.”

He looked again over the countryside of dimness, saying in a low tone, his back towards her:

“But I love you — and I want you so much — like that, here and now. I’ll never ask you anything again,” he said quickly, passionately, as he turned to her. “Do this for me,” he said. “I’ll never trouble you for anything again. I promise.”

“I can’t,” she said stubbornly, with some hopelessness in her voice.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes. You trust me, don’t you?”

“I don’t want it. Not here — not now,” she said.

“Do,” he said. “Yes.”

“You can have me in the bungalow. Why do you want me here?” she asked.

“But I do. Have me, Edith. Have me now.”

“No,” she said, turning away. “I want to go down.”

“And you won’t?”

“No — I can’t.”

There was something like fear in her voice. They went down the hill together. And he did not know how he hated her, as if she had kept him out of the promised land that was justly his. He thought he was too generous to bear her a grudge. So he had always held himself deferential to her. And later that evening he had loved her. But she had hated it, it had been really his hate ravaging her. Why had he lied, calling it love? Ever since, it had seemed the same, more or less. So that he had ceased to come to her, gradually. For one night she had said: “I think a man’s body is ugly — all in parts with mechanical joints.” And now he had scarcely had her for some years. For she thought him an ugliness. And there were no children.

Now that everything was essentially over for both of them, they lived on the surface, and had good times. He drove to all kinds of unexpected places in his motor-car, bathed where he liked, said what he liked, and did what he liked. But nobody minded very much his often aggressive unconventionality. It was only fencing with the foils. There was no danger in his thrusts. He was a castrated bear. So he prided himself on being a bear, on being known as an uncouth bear.

It was not often he lay and let himself drift. But always when he did, he held it against her that on the night when they climbed the red bank, she refused to have him. There were perhaps many things he might have held against her, but this was the only one that remained: his real charge against her on the Judgment Day. Why had she done it? It had been, he might almost say, a holy desire on his part. It had been almost like taking off his shoes before God. Yet she refused him, she who was his religion to him. Perhaps she had been afraid, she who was so good — afraid of the big righteousness of it — as if she could not trust herself so near the Burning Bush, dared not go near for transfiguration, afraid of herself.

It was a thought he could not bear. Rising softly, because she was still talking, he went out into the night.

Elsa Laskell stirred uneasily in her chair. Mrs. Renshaw went on talking like a somnambule, not because she really had anything to say about the State-endowment of mothers, but because she had a weight on her heart that she wanted to talk away. The girl heard, and lifted her hand, and stirred her fingers uneasily in the dark-purple porphyry bowl, where pink rose-leaves and crimson, thrown this morning from the stem, lay gently shrivelling. There came a slight acrid scent of new rose-petals. And still the girl lifted her long white fingers among the red and pink in the dark bowl, as if they stirred in blood.

And she felt the nights behind like a purple bowl into which the woman’s heart-beats were shed, like rose-leaves fallen and left to wither and go brown. For Mrs. Renshaw had waited for him. During happy days of stillness and blueness she had moved, while the sunshine glancing through her blood made flowers in her heart, like blossoms underground thrilling with expectancy, lovely fragrant things that would have delight to appear. And all day long she had gone secretly and quietly saying, saying: “To-night — to-night they will blossom for him. To-night I shall be a bed of blossom for him, all narcissi and fresh fragrant things shaking for joy, when he comes with his deeper sunshine, when he turns the darkness like mould, and brings them forth with his sunshine for spade. Yea, there are two suns; him in the sky and that other, warmer one whose beams are our radiant bodies. He is a sun to me, shining full on my heart when he comes, and everything stirs.” But he had come like a bitter morning. He had never bared the sun of himself to her — a sullen day he had been on her heart, covered with cloud impenetrable. She had waited so heavy anxious, with such a wealth of possibility. And he in his blindness had never known. He could never let the real rays of his love through the cloud of fear and mistrust. For once she had denied him. And all her flowers had been shed inwards so that her heart was like a heap of leaves, brown, withered, almost scentless petals that had never given joy to anyone. And yet again she had come to him pregnant with beauty and love, but he had been afraid. When she lifted her eyes to him, he had looked aside. The kisses she needed like warm raindrops he dared not give, till she was parched and gone hard, and did not want them. Then he gave kisses enough. But he never trusted himself. When she was open and eager to him, he was afraid. When she was shut, it was like playing at pride, to pull her petals apart, a game that gave him pleasure.

So they had been mutually afraid of each other, but he most often. Whenever she had needed him at some mystery of love, he had overturned her censers and her sacraments, and made profane love in her sacred place. Which was why, at last, she had hated his body; but perhaps she had hated it at first, or feared it so much that it was hate.

And he had said to her: “If WE don’t have children, you might have them by another man —” which was surely one of the cruellest things a woman ever heard from her husband. For so little was she his, that he would give her a caller and not mind. This was all the wife she was to him. He was a free and easy man, and brought home to dinner any man who pleased him, from a beggar upwards. And his wife was to be as public as his board.

Nay, to the very bowl of her heart, any man might put his lips and he would not mind. And so, she sadly set down the bowl from between her two hands of offering, and went always empty, and aloof.

Yet they were married, they were good friends. It was said they were the most friendly married couple in the county. And this was it. And all the while, like a scent, the bitter psalm of the woman filled the room.

“Like a garden in winter, I was full of bulbs and roots, I was full of little flowers, all conceived inside me.

“And they were all shed away unborn, little abortions of flowers.

“Every day I went like a bee gathering honey from the sky and among the stars I rummaged for yellow honey, filling it in my comb.

“Then I broke the comb, and put it to your lips. But you turned your mouth aside and said: ‘You have made my face unclean, and smeared my mouth.’

“And week after week my body was a vineyard, my veins were vines. And as the grapes, the purple drops grew full and sweet, I crushed them in a bowl, I treasured the wine.

“Then when the bowl was full I came with joy to you. But you in fear started away, and the bowl was thrown from my hands, and broke in pieces at my feet.

“Many times, and many times, I said: ‘The hour is striking,’ but he answered: ‘Not yet.’

“Many times and many times he has heard the cock crow, and gone out and wept, he knew not why.

“I was a garden and he ran in me as in the grass.

“I was a stream, and he threw his waste in me.

“I held the rainbow balanced on my outspread hands, and he said: ‘You open your hands and give me nothing.’

“What am I now but a bowl of withered leaves, but a kaleidoscope of broken beauties, but an empty bee-hive, yea, a rich garment rusted that no one has worn, a dumb singer, with the voice of a nightingale yet making discord.

“And it was over with me, and my hour is gone. And soon like a barren sea-shell on the strand, I shall be crushed underfoot to dust.

“But meanwhile I sing to those that listen with their ear against me, of the sea that gave me form and being, the everlasting sea, and in my song is nothing but bitterness, for of the fluid life of the sea I have no more, but I am to be dust, that powdery stuff the sea knows not. I am to be dead, who was born of life, silent who was made a mouth, formless who was all of beauty. Yea, I was a seed that held the heavens lapped up in bud, with a whirl of stars and a steady moon.

“And the seed is crushed that never sprouted, there is a heaven lost, and stars and a moon that never came forth.

“I was a bud that never was discovered, and in my shut chalice, skies and lake water and brooks lie crumbling, and stars and the sun are smeared out, and birds are a little powdery dust, and their singing is dry air, and I am a dark chalice.”

And the girl, hearing the hostess talk, still talk, and yet her voice like the sound of a sea-shell whispering hoarsely of despair, rose and went out into the garden, timidly, beginning to cry. For what should she do for herself?

Renshaw, leaning on the wicket that led to the paddock, called:

“Come on, don’t be alarmed — Pan is dead.”

And then she bit back her tears. For when he said, “Pan is dead,” he meant Pan was dead in his own long, loose Dane’s body. Yet she was a nymph still, and if Pan were dead, she ought to die. So with tears she went up to him.

“It’s all right out here,” he said. “By Jove, when you see a night like this, how can you say that life’s tragedy — or death either, for that matter?”

“What is it then?” she asked.

“Nay, that’s one too many — a joke, eh?”

“I think,” she said, “one has no business to be irreverent.”

“Who?” he asked.

“You,” she said, “and me, and all of us.”

Then he leaned on the wicket, thinking till he laughed.

“Life’s a real good thing,” he said.

“But why protest it?” she answered.

And again he was silent.

“If the moon came nearer and nearer,” she said, “and were a naked woman, what would you do?”

“Fetch a wrap, probably,” he said.

“Yes — you would do that,” she answered.

“And if he were a man, ditto?” he teased.

“If a star came nearer and were a naked man, I should look at him.”

“That is surely very improper,” he mocked, with still a tinge of yearning.

“If he were a star come near —” she answered.

Again he was silent.

“You are a queer fish of a girl,” he said.

They stood at the gate, facing the silver-grey paddock. Presently their hostess came out, a long shawl hanging from her shoulders.

“So you are here,” she said. “Were you bored?”

“I was,” he replied amiably. “But there, you know I always am.”

“And I forgot,” replied the girl.

“What were you talking about?” asked Mrs. Renshaw, simply curious. She was not afraid of her husband’s running loose.

“We were just saying ‘Pan is dead’,” said the girl.

“Isn’t that rather trite?” asked the hostess.

“Some of us miss him fearfully,” said the girl.

“For what reason?” asked Mrs. Renshaw.

“Those of us who are nymphs — just lost nymphs among farm-lands and suburbs. I wish Pan were alive.”

“Did he die of old age?” mocked the hostess.

“Don’t they say, when Christ was born, a voice was heard in the air saying: ‘Pan is dead.’ I wish Christ needn’t have killed Pan.”

“I wonder how He managed it,” said Renshaw.

“By disapproving of him, I suppose,” replied his wife. And her retort cut herself, and gave her a sort of fakir pleasure.

“The men are all women now,” she said, “since the fauns died in a frost one night.”

“A frost of disapproval,” said the girl.

“A frost of fear,” said Renshaw.

There was a silence.

“Why was Christ afraid of Pan?” said the girl suddenly.

“Why was Pan so much afraid of Christ that he died?” asked Mrs. Renshaw bitterly.

“And all his fauns in a frost one night,” mocked Renshaw. Then a light dawned on him. “Christ was woman and Pan was man,” he said. It gave him a real joy to say this bitterly, keenly — a thrust into himself, and into his wife. “But the fauns and satyrs are there — you have only to remove the surplices that all men wear nowadays.”

“Nay,” said Mrs. Renshaw, “it is not true — the surplices have grown into their limbs, like Hercules’s garment.”

“That his wife put on him,” said Renshaw.

“Because she was afraid of him — not because she loved him,” said the girl.

“She imagined that all her lonely wasted hours wove him a robe of love,” said Mrs. Renshaw. “It was to her horror she was mistaken. You can’t weave love out of waste.”

“When I meet a man,” said the girl, “I shall look down the pupil of his eye, for a faun. And after a while it will come, skipping —”

“Perhaps a satyr,” said Mrs. Renshaw bitterly.

“No,” said the girl, “because satyrs are old, and I have seen some fearfully young men.”

“Will is young even now — quite a boy,” said his wife.

“Oh no!” cried the girl. “He says that neither life nor death is a tragedy. Only somebody very old could say that.”

There was a tension in the night. The man felt something give way inside him.

“Yes, Edith,” he said, with a quiet, bitter joy of cruelty, “I am old.”

The wife was frightened.

“You are always preposterous,” she said quickly, crying inside herself. She knew she herself had been never young.

“I shall look in the eyes of my man for the faun,” the girl continued in a sing-song, “and I shall find him. Then I shall pretend to run away from him. And both our surplices, and all the crucifix, will be outside the wood. Inside nymph and faun, Pan and his satyrs — ah, yes: for Christ and the Cross is only for day-time, and bargaining. Christ came to make us deal honourably.

“But love is no deal, nor merchant’s bargaining, and Christ neither spoke of it nor forbade it. He was afraid of it. If once His faun, the faun of the young Jesus had run free, seen one white nymph’s brief breast, He would not have been content to die on a Cross — and then the men would have gone on cheating the women in life’s business, all the time. Christ made one bargain in mankind’s business — and He made it for the women’s sake — I suppose for His mother’s, since He was fatherless. And Christ made a bargain for me, and I shall avail myself of it. I won’t be cheated by my man. When between my still hands I weave silk out of the air, like a cocoon, He shall not take it to pelt me with. He shall draw it forth and weave it up. For I want to finger the sunshine I have drawn through my body, stroke it, and have joy of the fabric.

“And when I run wild on the hills, with Dionysus, and shall come home like a bee that has rolled in floury crocuses, he must see the wonder on me, and make bread of it.

“And when I say to him, ‘It is harvest in my soul’, he shall look in my eyes and lower his nets where the shoal moves in a throng in the dark, and lift out the living blue silver for me to see, and know, and taste.

“All this, my faun in commerce, my faun at traffic with me.

“And if he cheat me, he must take his chance.

“But I will not cheat him, in his hour, when he runs like a faun after me. I shall flee, but only to be overtaken. I shall flee, but never out of the wood to the crucifix. For that is to deny I am a nymph; since how can a nymph cling at the crucifix? Nay, the cross is the sign I have on my money, for honesty.

“In the morning, when we come out of the wood, I shall say to him: ‘Touch the cross, and prove you will deal fairly,’ and if he will not, I will set the dogs of anger and judgment on him, and they shall chase him. But if, perchance, some night he contrive to crawl back into the wood, beyond the crucifix, he will be faun and I nymph, and I shall have no knowledge what happened outside, in the realm of the crucifix. But in the morning, I shall say: ‘Touch the cross, and prove you will deal fairly.’ And being renewed, he will touch the cross.

“Many a dead faun I have seen, like dead rabbits poisoned lying about the paths, and many a dead nymph, like swans that could not fly and the dogs destroyed.

“But I am a nymph and a woman, and Pan is for me, and Christ is for me.

“For Christ I cover myself in my robe, and weep, and vow my vow of honesty.

“For Pan I throw my coverings down and run headlong through the leaves, because of the joy of running.

“And Pan will give me my children and joy, and Christ will give me my pride.

“And Pan will give me my man, and Christ my husband.

“To Pan I am nymph, to Christ I am woman.

“And Pan is in the darkness, and Christ in the pale light.

“And night shall never be day, and day shall never be night.

“But side by side they shall go, day and night, night and day, for ever apart, for ever together.

“Pan and Christ, Christ and Pan.

“Both moving over me, so when in the sunshine I go in my robes among my neighbours, I am a Christian. But when I run robeless through the dark-scented woods alone, I am Pan’s nymph.

“Now I must go, for I want to run away. Not run away from myself, but to myself.

“For neither am I a lamp that stands in the way in the sunshine.

“Now am I a sundial foolish at night.

“I am myself, running through light and shadow for ever, a nymph and a Christian; I, not two things, but an apple with a gold side and a red, a freckled deer, a stream that tinkles and a pool where light is drowned; I, no fragment, no half-thing like the day, but a blackbird with a white breast and underwings, a peewit, a wild thing, beyond understanding.”

“I wonder if we shall hear the nightingale to-night,” said Mrs. Renshaw.

“He’s a gurgling fowl — I’d rather hear a linnet,” said Renshaw. “Come a drive with me tomorrow, Miss Laskell.”

And the three went walking back to the house. And Elsa Laskell was glad to get away from them.

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