The plumes of the chimneys floated perpendicular against skies of smoky rose.
Gordon caught the 27 bus at ten past eight. The streets were still locked in their Sunday sleep. On the doorsteps the milk bottles waited ungathered like little white sentinels. Gordon had fourteen shillings in his hand — thirteen and nine, rather, because the bus fare was threepence. Nine bob he had set aside from his wages — God knew what that was going to mean, later in the week! — and five he had borrowed from Julia.
He had gone round to Julia’s place on Thursday night. Julia’s room in Earl’s Court, though only a second-floor back, was not just a vulgar bedroom like Gordon’s. It was a bed-sitting with the accent on the sitting. Julia would have died of starvation sooner than put up with such squalor as Gordon lived in. Indeed every one of her scraps of furniture, collected over intervals of years, represented a period of semi-starvation. There was a divan bed that could very nearly be mistaken for a sofa, and a little round fumed oak table, and two ‘antique’ hardwood chairs, and an ornamental footstool and a chintz-covered armchair — Drage’s: thirteen monthly payments — in front of the tiny gas-fire; and there were various brackets with framed photos of father and mother and Gordon and Aunt Angela, and a birchwood calendar — somebody’s Christmas present — with ‘It’s a long lane that has no turning’ done on it in pokerwork. Julia depressed Gordon horribly. He was always telling himself that he ought to go and see her oftener; but in practice he never went near her except to ‘borrow’ money.
When Gordon had given three knocks — three knocks for second floor — Julia took him up to her room and knelt down in front of the gas-fire.
‘I’ll light the fire again,’ she said. ‘You’d like a cup of tea, wouldn’t you?’
He noted the ‘again’. The room was beastly cold — no fire had been lighted in it this evening. Julia always ‘saved gas’ when she was alone. He looked at her long narrow back as she knelt down. How grey her hair was getting! Whole locks of it were quite grey. A little more, and it would be ‘grey hair’ tout court.
‘You like your tea strong, don’t you?’ breathed Julia, hovering over the tea-caddy with tender, goose-like movements.
Gordon drank his cup of tea standing up, his eye on the birchwood calendar. Out with it! Get it over! Yet his heart almost failed him. The meanness of this hateful cadging! What would it all tot up to, the money he had ‘borrowed’ from her in all these years?
‘I say, Julia, I’m damned sorry — I hate asking you; but look here —’
‘Yes, Gordon?’ she said quietly. She knew what was coming.
‘Look here, Julia, I’m damned sorry, but could you lend me five bob?’
‘Yes, Gordon, I expect so.’
She sought out the small, worn black leather purse that was hidden at the bottom of her linen drawer. He knew what she was thinking. It meant less for Christmas presents. That was the great event of her life nowadays — Christmas and the giving of presents: hunting through the glittering streets, late at night after the teashop was shut, from one bargain counter to another, picking out the trash that women are so curiously fond of. Handkerchief sachets, letter racks, teapots, manicure sets, birchwood calendars with mottoes in pokerwork. All through the year she was scraping from her wretched wages for ‘So-and-so’s Christmas present’, or ‘So-and-so’s birthday present’. And had she not, last Christmas, because Gordon was ‘fond of poetry’, given him the Selected Poems of John Drinkwater in green morocco, which he had sold for half a crown? Poor Julia! Gordon made off with his five bob as soon as he decently could. Why is it that one can’t borrow from a rich friend and can from a half-starved relative? But one’s family, of course, ‘don’t count’.
On the top of the bus he did mental arithmetic. Thirteen and nine in hand. Two day-returns to Slough, five bob. Bus fares, say two bob more, seven bob. Bread and cheese and beer at a pub, say a bob each, nine bob. Tea, eightpence each, twelve bob. A bob for cigarettes, thirteen bob. That left ninepence for emergencies. They would manage all right. And how about the rest of the week? Not a penny for tobacco! But he refused to let it worry him. Today would be worth it, anyway.
Rosemary met him on time. It was one of her virtues that she was never late, and even at this hour of the morning she was bright and debonair. She was rather nicely dressed, as usual. She was wearing her mock-shovel hat again, because he had said he liked it. They had the station practically to themselves. The huge grey place, littered and deserted, had a blowsy, unwashed air, as though it were still sleeping off a Saturday night debauch. A yawning porter in need of a shave told them the best way to get to Burnham Beeches, and presently they were in a third-class smoker, rolling westward, and the mean wilderness of London was opening out and giving way to narrow sooty fields dotted with ads for Carter’s Little Liver Pills. The day was very still and warm. Gordon’s prayer had come true. It was one of those windless days which you can hardly tell from summer. You could feel the sun behind the mist; it would break through presently, with any luck. Gordon and Rosemary were profoundly and rather absurdly happy. There was a sense of wild adventure in getting out of London, with the long day in ‘the country’ stretching out ahead of them. It was months since Rosemary and a year since Gordon had set foot in ‘the country’. They sat close together with the Sunday Times open across their knees; they did not read it, however, but watched the fields and cows and houses and the empty goods trucks and great sleeping factories rolling past. Both of them enjoyed the railway journey so much that they wished it had been longer.
At Slough they got out and travelled to Farnham Common in an absurd chocolate-coloured bus with no top. Slough was still half asleep. Rosemary remembered the way now that they had got to Farnham Common. You walked down a rutted road and came out on to stretches of fine, wet, tussocky grass dotted with little naked birches. The beech woods were beyond. Not a bough or a blade was stirring. The trees stood like ghosts in the still, misty air. Both Rosemary and Gordon exclaimed at the loveliness of everything. The dew, the stillness, the satiny stems of the birches, the softness of the turf under your feet! Nevertheless, at first they felt shrunken and out of place, as Londoners do when they get outside London. Gordon felt as though he had been living underground for a long time past. He felt etiolated and unkempt. He slipped behind Rosemary as they walked, so that she should not see his lined, colourless face. Also, they were out of breath before they had walked far, because they were only used to London walking, and for the first half hour they scarcely talked. They plunged into the woods and started westward, with not much idea of where they were making for — anywhere, so long as it was away from London. All round them the beech-trees soared, curiously phallic with their smooth skin-like bark and their flutings at the base. Nothing grew at their roots, but the dried leaves were strewn so thickly that in the distance the slopes looked like folds of copper-coloured silk. Not a soul seemed to be awake. Presently Gordon came level with Rosemary. They walked on hand in hand, swishing through the dry coppery leaves that had drifted into the ruts. Sometimes they came out on to stretches of road where they passed huge desolate houses — opulent country houses, once, in the carriage days, but now deserted and unsaleable. Down the road the mist-dimmed hedges wore that strange purplish brown, the colour of brown madder, that naked brushwood takes on in winter. There were a few birds about — jays, sometimes, passing between the trees with dipping flight, and pheasants that loitered across the road with long tails trailing, almost as tame as hens, as though knowing they were safe on Sunday. But in half an hour Gordon and Rosemary had not passed a human being. Sleep lay upon the countryside. It was hard to believe that they were only twenty miles out of London.
Presently they had walked themselves into trim. They had got their second wind and the blood glowed in their veins. It was one of those days when you feel you could walk a hundred miles if necessary. Suddenly, as they came out on to the road again, the dew all down the hedge glittered with a diamond flash. The sun had pierced the clouds. The light came slanting and yellow across the fields, and delicate unexpected colours sprang out in everything, as though some giant’s child had been let loose with a new paintbox. Rosemary caught Gordon’s arm and pulled him against her.
‘Oh, Gordon, what a LOVELY day!’
‘And, oh, look, look! Look at all the rabbits in that field!’
Sure enough, at the other end of the field, innumerable rabbits were browsing, almost like a flock of sheep. Suddenly there was a flurry under the hedge. A rabbit had been lying there. It leapt from its nest in the grass with a flirt of dew and dashed away down the field, its white tail lifted. Rosemary threw herself into Gordon’s arms. It was astonishingly warm, as warm as summer. They pressed their bodies together in a sort of sexless rapture, like children. Here in the open air he could see the marks of time quite clearly upon her face. She was nearly thirty, and looked it, and he was nearly thirty, and looked more; and it mattered nothing. He pulled off the absurd flat hat. The three white hairs gleamed on her crown. At the moment he did not wish them away. They were part of her and therefore lovable.
‘What fun to be here alone with you! I’m so glad we came!’
‘And, oh, Gordon, to think we’ve got all day together! And it might so easily have rained. How lucky we are!’
‘Yes. We’ll burn a sacrifice to the immortal gods, presently.’
They were extravagantly happy. As they walked on they fell into absurd enthusiasms over everything they saw: over a jay’s feather that they picked up, blue as lapis lazuli; over a stagnant pool like a jet mirror, with boughs reflected deep down in it; over the fungi that sprouted from the trees like monstrous horizontal ears. They discussed for a long time what would be the best epithet to describe a beech-tree. Both agreed that beeches look more like sentient creatures than other trees. It is because of the smoothness of their bark, probably, and the curious limb-like way in which the boughs sprout from the trunk. Gordon said that the little knobs on the bark were like the nipples of breasts and that the sinuous upper boughs, with their smooth sooty skin, were like the writhing trunks of elephants. They argued about similes and metaphors. From time to time they quarrelled vigorously, according to their custom. Gordon began to tease her by finding ugly similes for everything they passed. He said that the russet foliage of the hornbeams was like the hair of Burne-Jones maidens, and that the smooth tentacles of the ivy that wound about the trees were like the clinging arms of Dickens heroines. Once he insisted upon destroying some mauve toadstools because he said they reminded him of a Rackham illustration and he suspected fairies of dancing round them. Rosemary called him a soulless pig. She waded through a bed of drifted beech leaves that rustled about her, knee-deep, like a weightless red-gold sea.
‘Oh, Gordon, these leaves! Look at them with the sun on them! They’re like gold. They really are like gold.’
‘Fairy gold. You’ll be going all Barrie in another moment. As a matter of fact, if you want an exact simile, they’re just the colour of tomato soup.’
‘Don’t be a pig, Gordon! Listen how they rustle. “Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa.”’
‘Or like one of those American breakfast cereals. Truweet Breakfast Crisps. “Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps.”’
‘You are a beast!’
She laughed. They walked on hand in hand, swishing ankle-deep through the leaves and declaiming:
‘Thick as the Breakfast Crisps that strow the plates
In Welwyn Garden City!’
It was great fun. Presently they came out of the wooded area. There were plenty of people abroad now, but not many cars if you kept away from the main roads. Sometimes they heard church bells ringing and made detours to avoid the churchgoers. They began to pass through straggling villages on whose outskirts pseudo-Tudor villas stood sniffishly apart, amid their garages, their laurel shrubberies and their raw-looking lawns. And Gordon had some fun railing against the villas and the godless civilization of which they were part — a civilization of stockbrokers and their lip-sticked wives, of golf, whisky, ouija-boards, and Aberdeen terriers called Jock. So they walked another four miles or so, talking and frequently quarrelling. A few gauzy clouds were drifting across the sky, but there was hardly a breath of wind.
They were growing rather footsore and more and more hungry. Of its own accord the conversation began to turn upon food. Neither of them had a watch, but when they passed through a village they saw that the pubs were open, so that it must be after twelve o’clock. They hesitated outside a rather low-looking pub called the Bird in Hand. Gordon was for going in; privately he reflected that in a pub like that your bread and cheese and beer would cost you a bob at the very most. But Rosemary said that it was a nasty-looking place, which indeed it was, and they went on, hoping to find a pleasanter pub at the other end of the village. They had visions of a cosy bar-parlour, with an oak settle and perhaps a stuffed pike in a glass case on the wall.
But there were no more pubs in the village, and presently they were in open country again, with no houses in sight and not even any signposts. Gordon and Rosemary began to be alarmed. At two the pubs would shut, and then there would be no food to be had, except perhaps a packet of biscuits from some village sweetshop. At this thought a ravening hunger took possession of them. They toiled exhaustedly up an enormous hill, hoping to find a village on the other side. There was no village, but far below a dark green river wound, with what seemed quite like a large town scattered along its edge and a grey bridge crossing it. They did not even know what river it was — it was the Thames, of course.
‘Thank God!’ said Gordon. ‘There must be plenty of pubs down there. We’d better take the first one we can find.’
‘Yes, do let’s. I’m starving.’
But when they neared the town it seemed strangely quiet. Gordon wondered whether the people were all at church or eating their Sunday dinners, until he realized that the place was quite deserted. It was Crickham-on-Thames, one of those riverside towns which live for the boating season and go into hibernation for the rest of the year. It straggled along the bank for a mile or more, and it consisted entirely of boat-houses and bungalows, all of them shut up and empty. There were no signs of life anywhere. At last, however, they came upon a fat, aloof, red-nosed man, with a ragged moustache, sitting on a camp-stool beside a jar of beer on the towpath. He was fishing with a twenty-foot roach pole, while on the smooth green water two swans circled about his float, trying to steal his bait as often as he pulled it up.
‘Can you tell us where we can get something to eat?’ said Gordon.
The fat man seemed to have been expecting this question and to derive a sort of private pleasure from it. He answered without looking at Gordon.
‘YOU won’t get nothing to eat. Not here you won’t,’ he said.
‘But dash it! Do you mean to say there isn’t a pub in the whole place? We’ve walked all the way from Farnham Common.’
The fat man sniffed and seemed to reflect, still keeping his eye on the float. ‘I dessay you might try the Ravenscroft Hotel,’ he said. ‘About half a mile along, that is. I dessay they’d give you something; that is, they would if they was open.’
‘But ARE they open?’
‘They might be and they might not,’ said the fat man comfortably.
‘And can you tell us what time it is?’ said Rosemary.
‘It’s jest gone ten parse one.’
The two swans followed Gordon and Rosemary a little way along the towpath, evidently expecting to be fed. There did not seem much hope that the Ravenscroft Hotel would be open. The whole place had that desolate flyblown air of pleasure resorts in the off-season. The woodwork of the bungalows was cracking, the white paint was peeling off, the dusty windows showed bare interiors. Even the slot machines that were dotted along the bank were out of order. There seemed to be another bridge at the other end of the town. Gordon swore heartily.
‘What bloody fools we were not to go in that pub when we had the chance!’
‘Oh, dear! I’m simply STARVING. Had we better turn back, do you think?’
‘It’s no use, there were no pubs the way we came. We must keep on. I suppose the Ravenscroft Hotel’s on the other side of that bridge. If that’s a main road there’s just a chance it’ll be open. Otherwise we’re sunk.’
They dragged their way as far as the bridge. They were thoroughly footsore now. But behold! here at last was what they wanted, for just beyond the bridge, down a sort of private road, stood a biggish, smartish hotel, its back lawns running down to the river. It was obviously open. Gordon and Rosemary started eagerly towards it, and then paused, daunted.
‘It looks frightfully expensive,’ said Rosemary.
It did look expensive. It was a vulgar pretentious place, all gilt and white paint — one of those hotels which have overcharging and bad service written on every brick. Beside the drive, commanding the road, a snobbish board announced in gilt lettering:
THE RAVENSCROFT HOTEL
OPEN TO NON-RESIDENTS
DANCE HALL AND TENNIS COURTS
PARTIES CATERED FOR
Two gleaming two-seater cars were parked in the drive. Gordon quailed. The money in his pocket seemed to shrink to nothing, this was the very opposite to the cosy pub they had been looking for. But he was very hungry. Rosemary tweaked at his arm.
‘It looks a beastly place. I vote we go on.’
‘But we’ve got to get some food. It’s our last chance. We shan’t find another pub.’
‘The food’s always so disgusting in these places. Beastly cold beef that tastes as if it had been saved up from last year. And they charge you the earth for it.’
‘Oh, well, we’ll just order bread and cheese and beer. It always costs about the same.’
‘But they hate you doing that. They’ll try to bully us into having a proper lunch, you’ll see. We must be firm and just say bread and cheese.’
‘All right, we’ll be firm. Come on.’
They went in, resolved to be firm. But there was an expensive smell in the draughty hallway — a smell of chintz, dead flowers, Thames water, and the rinsings of wine bottles. It was the characteristic smell of a riverside hotel. Gordon’s heart sank lower. He knew the type of place this was. It was one of those desolate hotels which exist all along the motor roads and are frequented by stockbrokers airing their whores on Sunday afternoons. In such places you are insulted and overcharged almost as a matter of course. Rosemary shrank nearer to him. She too was intimidated. They saw a door marked ‘Saloon’ and pushed it open, thinking it must be the bar. It was not a bar, however, but a large, smart, chilly room with corduroy-upholstered chairs and settees. You could have mistaken it for an ordinary drawing-room except that all the ashtrays advertised White Horse whisky. And round one of the tables the people from the cars outside — two blond, flat-headed, fattish men, over-youthfully dressed, and two disagreeable elegant young women — were sitting, having evidently just finished lunch. A waiter, bending over their table, was serving them with liqueurs.
Gordon and Rosemary had halted in the doorway. The people at the table were already eyeing them with offensive upper-middle-class eyes. Gordon and Rosemary looked tired and dirty, and they knew it. The notion of ordering bread and cheese and beer had almost vanished from their minds. In such a place as this you couldn’t possibly say ‘Bread and cheese and beer’; ‘Lunch’ was the only thing you could say. There was nothing for it but ‘Lunch’ or flight. The waiter was almost openly contemptuous. He had summed them up at a glance as having no money; but also he had divined that it was in their minds to fly and was determined to stop them before they could escape.
‘Sare?’ he demanded, lifting his tray off the table.
Now for it! Say ‘Bread and cheese and beer’, and damn the consequences! Alas! his courage was gone. ‘Lunch’ it would have to be. With a seeming-careless gesture he thrust his hand into his pocket. He was feeling his money to make sure that it was still there. Seven and elevenpence left, he knew. The waiter’s eye followed the movement; Gordon had a hateful feeling that the man could actually see through the cloth and count the money in his pocket. In a tone as lordly as he could make it, he remarked:
‘Can we have some lunch, please?’
‘Luncheon, sare? Yes, sare. Zees way.’
The waiter was a black-haired young man with a very smooth, well-featured, sallow face. His dress clothes were excellently cut and yet unclean-looking, as though he seldom took them off. He looked like a Russian prince; probably he was an Englishman and had assumed a foreign accent because this was proper in a waiter. Defeated, Rosemary and Gordon followed him to the dining-room, which was at the back, giving on to the lawn. It was exactly like an aquarium. It was built entirely of greenish glass, and it was so damp and chilly that you could almost have fancied yourself under water. You could both see and smell the river outside. In the middle of each of the small round tables there was a bowl of paper flowers, but at one side, to complete the aquarium effect, there was a whole florist’s stand of evergreens, palms, and aspidistras and so forth, like dreary water-plants. In summer such a room might be pleasant enough; at present, when the sun had gone behind a cloud, it was merely dank and miserable. Rosemary was almost as much afraid of the waiter as Gordon was. As they sat down and he turned away for a moment she made a face at his back.
‘I’m going to pay for my own lunch,’ she whispered to Gordon, across the table.
‘No, you’re not.’
‘What a horrible place! The food’s sure to be filthy. I do wish we hadn’t come.’
The waiter had come back with a flyblown printed menu. He handed it to Gordon and stood over him with the menacing air of a waiter who knows that you have not much money in your pocket. Gordon’s heart pounded. If it was a table d’hote lunch at three and sixpence or even half a crown, they were sunk. He set his teeth and looked at the menu. Thank God! It was a la carte. The cheapest thing on the list was cold beef and salad for one and sixpence. He said, or rather mumbled:
‘We’ll have some cold beef, please.’
The waiter’s delicate eyebrows lifted. He feigned surprise.
‘ONLY ze cold beef, sare?’
‘Yes that’ll do to go on with, anyway.’
‘But you will not have ANYSING else, sare?’
‘Oh, well. Bring us some bread, of course. And butter.’
‘But no soup to start wiz, sare?’
‘No. No soup.’
‘Nor any fish, sare? Only ze cold beef?’
‘Do we want any fish, Rosemary? I don’t think we do. No. No fish.’
‘Nor any sweet to follow, sare? ONLY ze cold beef?’
Gordon had difficulty in controlling his features. He thought he had never hated anyone so much as he hated this waiter.
‘We’ll tell you afterwards if we want anything else,’ he said.
‘And you will drink sare?’
Gordon had meant to ask for beer, but he hadn’t the courage now. He had got to win back his prestige after this affair of the cold beef.
‘Bring me the wine list,’ he said flatly.
Another flyblown list was produced. All the wines looked impossibly expensive. However, at the very top of the list there was some nameless table claret at two and nine a bottle. Gordon made hurried calculations. He could just manage two and nine. He indicated the wine with his thumbnail.
‘Bring us a bottle of this,’ he said.
The waiter’s eyebrows rose again. He essayed a stroke of irony.
‘You will have ze WHOLE bottle, sare? You would not prefare ze half bottle?’
‘A whole bottle,’ said Gordon coldly.
All in a single delicate movement of contempt the waiter inclined his head, shrugged his left shoulder, and turned away. Gordon could not stand it. He caught Rosemary’s eye across the table. Somehow or other they had got to put that waiter in his place! In a moment the waiter came back, carrying the bottle of cheap wine by the neck, and half concealing it behind his coat tails, as though it were something a little indecent or unclean. Gordon had thought of a way to avenge himself. As the waiter displayed the bottle he put out a hand, felt it, and frowned.
‘That’s not the way to serve red wine,’ he said.
Just for a moment the waiter was taken aback. ‘Sare?’ he said.
‘It’s stone cold. Take the bottle away and warm it.’
‘Very good, sare.’
But it was not really a victory. The waiter did not look abashed. Was the wine worth warming? his raised eyebrow said. He bore the bottle away with easy disdain, making it quite clear to Rosemary and Gordon that it was bad enough to order the cheapest wine on the list without making this fuss about it afterwards.
The beef and salad were corpse-cold and did not seem like real food at all. They tasted like water. The rolls, also, though stale, were damp. The reedy Thames water seemed to have got into everything. It was no surprise that when the wine was opened it tasted like mud. But it was alcoholic, that was the great thing. It was quite a surprise to find how stimulating it was, once you had got it past your gullet and into your stomach. After drinking a glass and a half Gordon felt very much better. The waiter stood by the door, ironically patient, his napkin over his arm, trying to make Gordon and Rosemary uncomfortable by his presence. At first he succeeded, but Gordon’s back was towards him, and he disregarded him and presently almost forgot him. By degrees their courage returned. They began to talk more easily and in louder voices.
‘Look,’ said Gordon. ‘Those swans have followed us all the way up here.’
Sure enough, there were the two swans sailing vaguely to and fro over the dark green water. And at this moment the sun burst out again and the dreary aquarium of a dining-room was flooded with pleasant greenish light. Gordon and Rosemary felt suddenly warm and happy. They began chattering about nothing, almost as though the waiter had not been there, and Gordon took up the bottle and poured out two more glasses of wine. Over their glasses their eyes met. She was looking at him with a sort of yielding irony. ‘I’m your mistress,’ her eyes said; ‘what a joke!’ Their knees were touching under the small table; momentarily she squeezed his knee between her own. Something leapt inside him; a warm wave of sensuality and tenderness crept up his body. He had remembered! She was his girl, his mistress. Presently, when they were alone, in some hidden place in the warm, windless air, he would have her naked body all for his own at last. True, all the morning he had known this, but somehow the knowledge had been unreal. It was only now that he grasped it. Without words said, with a sort of bodily certainty, he knew that within an hour she would be in his arms, naked. As they sat there in the warm light, their knees touching, their eyes meeting, they felt as though already everything had been accomplished. There was deep intimacy between them. They could have sat there for hours, just looking at one another and talking of trivial things that had meanings for them and for nobody else. They did sit there for twenty minutes or more. Gordon had forgotten the waiter — had even forgotten, momentarily, the disaster of being let in for this wretched lunch that was going to strip him of every penny he had. But presently the sun went in, the room grew grey again, and they realized that it was time to go.
‘The bill,’ said Gordon, turning half round.
The waiter made a final effort to be offensive.
‘Ze bill, sare? But you do not wish any coffee, sare?’
‘No, no coffee. The bill.’
The waiter retired and came back with a folded slip on a salver. Gordon opened it. Six and threepence — and he had exactly seven and elevenpence in the world! Of course he had known approximately what the bill must be, and yet it was a shock now that it came. He stood up, felt in his pocket, and took out all his money. The sallow young waiter, his salver on his arm, eyed the handful of money; plainly he divined that it was all Gordon had. Rosemary also had got up and come round the table. She pinched Gordon’s elbow; this was a signal that she would like to pay her share. Gordon pretended not to notice. He paid the six and threepence, and, as he turned away, dropped another shilling on to the salver. The waiter balanced it for a moment on his hand, flicked it over, and then slipped it into his waistcoat pocket with the air of covering up something unmentionable.
As they went down the passage, Gordon felt dismayed, helpless — dazed, almost. All his money gone at a single swoop! It was a ghastly thing to happen. If only they had not come to this accursed place! The whole day was ruined now — and all for the sake of a couple of plates of cold beef and a bottle of muddy wine! Presently there would be tea to think about, and he had only six cigarettes left, and there were the bus fares back to Slough and God knew what else; and he had just eightpence to pay for the lot! They got outside the hotel feeling as if they had been kicked out and the door slammed behind them. All the warm intimacy of a moment ago was gone. Everything seemed different now that they were outside. Their blood seemed to grow suddenly cooler in the open air. Rosemary walked ahead of him, rather nervous, not speaking. She was half frightened now by the thing she had resolved to do. He watched her strong delicate limbs moving. There was her body that he had wanted so long; but now when the time had come it only daunted him. He wanted her to be his, he wanted to HAVE HAD her, but he wished it were over and done with. It was an effort — a thing he had got to screw himself up to. It was strange that that beastly business of the hotel bill could have upset him so completely. The easy carefree mood of the morning was shattered; in its place there had come back the hateful, harassing, familiar thing — worry about money. In a minute he would have to own up that he had only eightpence left; he would have to borrow money off her to get them home; it would be squalid and shameful. Only the wine inside him kept up his courage. The warmth of the wine, and the hateful feeling of having only eightpence left, warred together in his body, neither getting the better of the other.
They walked rather slowly, but soon they were away from the river and on higher ground again. Each searched desperately for something to say and could think of nothing. He came level with her, took her hand, and wound her fingers within his own. Like that they felt better. But his heart beat painfully, his entrails were constricted. He wondered whether she felt the same.
‘There doesn’t seem to be a soul about,’ she said at last.
‘It’s Sunday afternoon. They’re all asleep under the aspidistra, after roast beef and Yorkshire.’
There was another silence. They walked on fifty yards or so. With difficulty mastering his voice, he managed to say:
‘It’s extraordinarily warm. We might sit down for a bit if we can find a place.’
‘Yes, all right. If you like.’
Presently they came to a small copse on the left of the road. It looked dead and empty, nothing growing under the naked trees. But at the corner of the copse, on the far side, there was a great tangled patch of sloe or blackthorn bushes. He put his arm round her without saying anything and turned her in that direction. There was a gap in the hedge with some barbed wire strung across it. He held the wire up for her and she slipped nimbly under it. His heart leapt again. How supple and strong she was! But as he climbed over the wire to follow her, the eightpence — a sixpence and two pennies — clinked in his pocket, daunting him anew.
When they got to the bushes they found a natural alcove. On three sides were beds of thorns, leafless but impenetrable, and on the other side you looked downhill over a sweep of naked ploughed fields. At the bottom of the hill stood a low-roofed cottage, tiny as a child’s toy, its chimneys smokeless. Not a creature was stirring anywhere. You could not have been more alone than in such a place. The grass was the fine mossy stuff that grows under trees.
‘We ought to have brought a mackintosh,’ he said. He had knelt down.
‘It doesn’t matter. The ground’s fairly dry.’
He pulled her to the ground beside him, kissed her, pulled off the flat felt hat, lay upon her breast to breast, kissed her face all over. She lay under him, yielding rather than responding. She did not resist when his hand sought her breasts. But in her heart she was still frightened. She would do it — oh, yes! she would keep her implied promise, she would not draw back; but all the same she was frightened. And at heart he too was half reluctant. It dismayed him to find how little, at this moment, he really wanted her. The money-business still unnerved him. How can you make love when you have only eightpence in your pocket and are thinking about it all the time? Yet in a way he wanted her. Indeed, he could not do without her. His life would be a different thing when once they were really lovers. For a long time he lay on her breast, her head turned sideways, his face against her neck and hair, attempting nothing further.
Then the sun came out again. It was getting low in the sky now. The warm light poured over them as though a membrane across the sky had broken. It had been a little cold on the grass, really, with the sun behind the clouds; but now once again it was almost as warm as summer. Both of them sat up to exclaim at it.
‘Oh, Gordon, look! Look how the sun’s lighting everything up!’
As the clouds melted away a widening yellow beam slid swiftly across the valley, gilding everything in its path. Grass that had been dull green shone suddenly emerald. The empty cottage below sprang out into warm colours, purply-blue of tiles, cherry-red of brick. Only the fact that no birds were singing reminded you that it was winter. Gordon put his arm round Rosemary and pulled her hard against him. They sat cheek to cheek, looking down the hill. He turned her round and kissed her.
‘You do like me, don’t you?’
‘Adore you, silly.’
‘And you’re going to be nice to me, aren’t you?’
‘Nice to you?’
‘Let me do what I want with you?’
‘Yes, I expect so.’
‘Yes, all right. Anything.’
He pressed her back upon the grass. It was quite different now. The warmth of the sun seemed to have got into their bones. ‘Take your clothes off, there’s a dear,’ he whispered. She did it readily enough. She had no shame before him. Besides, it was so warm and the place was so solitary that it did not matter how many clothes you took off. They spread her clothes out and made a sort of bed for her to lie on. Naked, she lay back, her hands behind her head, her eyes shut, smiling slightly, as though she had considered everything and were at peace in her mind. For a long time he knelt and gazed at her body. Its beauty startled him. She looked much younger naked than with her clothes on. Her face, thrown back, with eyes shut, looked almost childish. He moved closer to her. Once again the coins clinked in his pocket. Only eightpence left! Trouble coming presently. But he wouldn’t think of it now. Get on with it, that’s the great thing, get on with it and damn the future! He put an arm beneath her and laid his body to hers.
‘May I? — now?’
‘Yes. All right.’
‘You’re not frightened?’
‘I’ll be as gentle as I can with you.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
A moment later:
‘Oh, Gordon, no! No, no, no!’
‘What? What is it?’
‘No, Gordon, no! You mustn’t! NO!’
She put her hands against him and pushed him violently back. Her face looked remote, frightened, almost hostile. It was terrible to feel her push him away at such a moment. It was as though cold water had been dashed all over him. He fell back from her, dismayed, hurriedly rearranging his clothes.
‘What is it? What’s the matter?’
‘Oh, Gordon! I thought you — oh, dear!’
She threw her arm over her face and rolled over on her side, away from him, suddenly ashamed.
‘What is it?’ he repeated.
‘How could you be so THOUGHTLESS?’
‘What do you mean — thoughtless?’
‘Oh! you know what I mean!’
His heart shrank. He did know what she meant; but he had never thought of it till this moment. And of course — oh, yes! — he ought to have thought of it. He stood up and turned away from her. Suddenly he knew that he could go no further with this business. In a wet field on a Sunday afternoon — and in mid-winter at that! Impossible! It seemed so right, so natural only a minute ago; now it seemed merely squalid and ugly.
‘I didn’t expect THIS,’ he said bitterly.
‘But I couldn’t help it, Gordon! You ought to have — you know.’
‘You don’t think I go in for that kind of thing, do you?’
‘But what else can we do? I can’t have a baby, can I?’
‘You must take your chance.’
‘Oh, Gordon, how impossible you are!’
She lay looking up at him, her face full of distress, too overcome for the moment even to remember that she was naked. His disappointment had turned to anger. There you are, you see! Money again! Even the most secret action of your life you don’t escape it; you’ve still got to spoil everything with filthy cold-blooded precautions for money’s sake. Money, money, always money! Even in the bridal bed, the finger of the money-god intruding! In the heights or in the depths, he is there. He walked a pace or two up and down, his hands in his pockets.
‘Money again, you see!’ he said. ‘Even at a moment like this it’s got the power to stand over us and bully us. Even when we’re alone and miles from anywhere, with not a soul to see us.’
‘What’s MONEY got to do with it?’
‘I tell you it’d never enter your head to worry about a baby if it wasn’t for the money. You’d WANT the baby if it wasn’t for that. You say you “can’t” have a baby. What do you mean, you “can’t” have a baby? You mean you daren’t; because you’d lose your job and I’ve got no money and all of us would starve. This birth-control business! It’s just another way they’ve found out of bullying us. And you want to acquiesce in it, apparently.’
‘But what am I to do, Gordon? What am I to do?’
At this moment the sun disappeared behind the clouds. It became perceptibly colder. After all, the scene was grotesque — the naked woman lying in the grass, the dressed man standing moodily by with his hands in his pockets. She’d catch her death of cold in another moment, lying there like that. The whole thing was absurd and indecent.
‘But what else am I to do?’ she repeated.
‘I should think you might start by putting your clothes on,’ he said coldly.
He had only said it to avenge his irritation; but its result was to make her so painfully and obviously embarrassed that he had to turn his back on her. She had dressed herself in a very few moments. As she knelt lacing up her shoes he heard her sniff once or twice. She was on the point of crying and was struggling to restrain herself. He felt horribly ashamed. He would have liked to throw himself on his knees beside her, put his arms round her, and ask her pardon. But he could do nothing of the kind; the scene had left him lumpish and awkward. It was with difficulty that he could command his voice even for the most banal remark.
‘Are you ready?’ he said flatly.
They went back to the road, climbed through the wire, and started down the hill without another word. Fresh clouds were rolling across the sun. It was getting much colder. Another hour and the early dusk would have fallen. They reached the bottom of the hill and came in sight of the Ravenscroft Hotel, scene of their disaster.
‘Where are we going?’ said Rosemary in a small sulky voice.
‘Back to Slough, I suppose. We must cross the bridge and have a look at the signposts.’
They scarcely spoke again till they had gone several miles. Rosemary was embarrassed and miserable. A number of times she edged closer to him, meaning to take his arm, but he edged away from her; and so they walked abreast with almost the width of the road between them. She imagined that she had offended him mortally. She supposed that it was because of his disappointment — because she had pushed him away at the critical moment — that he was angry with her; she would have apologized if he had given her a quarter of a chance. But as a matter of fact he was scarcely thinking of this any longer. His mind had turned away from that side of things. It was the money-business that was troubling him now — the fact that he had only eightpence in his pocket. In a very little while he would have to confess it. There would be the bus fares from Farnham to Slough, and tea in Slough, and cigarettes, and more bus fares and perhaps another meal when they got back to London; and just eightpence to cover the lot! He would have to borrow from Rosemary after all. And that was so damned humiliating. It is hateful to have to borrow money off someone you have just been quarrelling with. What nonsense it made of all his fine attitudes! There was he, lecturing her, putting on superior airs, pretending to be shocked because she took contraception for granted; and the next moment turning round and asking her for money! But there you are, you see, that’s what money can do. There is no attitude that money or the lack of it cannot puncture.
By half past four it was almost completely dark. They tramped along misty roads where there was no illumination save the cracks of cottage windows and the yellow beam of an occasional car. It was getting beastly cold, too, but they had walked four miles and the exercise had warmed them. It was impossible to go on being unsociable any longer. They began to talk more easily and by degrees they edged closer together. Rosemary took Gordon’s arm. Presently she stopped him and swung him round to face her.
‘Gordon, WHY are you so beastly to me?’
‘How am I beastly to you?’
‘Coming all this way without speaking a word!’
‘Are you still angry with me because of what happened just now?’
‘No. I was never angry with you. YOU’RE not to blame.’
She looked up at him, trying to divine the expression of his face in the almost pitch darkness. He drew her against him, and, as she seemed to expect it, tilted her face back and kissed her. She clung to him eagerly; her body melted against his. She had been waiting for this, it seemed.
‘Gordon, you do love me, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Things went wrong somehow. I couldn’t help it. I got frightened suddenly.’
‘It doesn’t matter. Another time it’ll be all right.’
She was lying limp against him, her head on his breast. He could feel her heart beating. It seemed to flutter violently, as though she were taking some decision.
‘I don’t care,’ she said indistinctly, her face buried in his coat.
‘Don’t care about what?’
‘The baby. I’ll risk it. You can do what you like with me.’
At these surrendering words a weak desire raised itself in him and died away at once. He knew why she had said it. It was not because, at this moment, she really wanted to be made love to. It was from a mere generous impulse to let him know that she loved him and would take a dreaded risk rather than disappoint him.
‘Now?’ he said.
‘Yes, if you like.’
He considered. He so wanted to be sure that she was his! But the cold night air flowed over them. Behind the hedges the long grass would be wet and chill. This was not the time or the place. Besides, that business of the eightpence had usurped his mind. He was not in the mood any longer.
‘I can’t,’ he said finally.
‘You can’t! But, Gordon! I thought —’
‘I know. But it’s all different now.’
‘You’re still upset?’
‘Yes. In a way.’
He pushed her a little away from him. As well have the explanation now as later. Nevertheless he was so ashamed that he mumbled rather than said:
‘I’ve got a beastly thing to say to you. It’s been worrying me all the way along.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s this. Can you lend me some money? I’m absolutely cleaned out. I had just enough money for today, but that beastly hotel bill upset everything. I’ve only eightpence left.’
Rosemary was amazed. She broke right out of his arms in her amazement.
‘Only eightpence left! What ARE you talking about? What does it matter if you’ve only eightpence left?’
‘Don’t I tell you I shall have to borrow money off you in another minute? You’ll have to pay for your own bus fares, and my bus fares, and your tea and Lord knows what. And I asked you to come out with me! You’re supposed to be my guest. It’s bloody.’
‘Your GUEST! Oh, Gordon. Is THAT what’s been worrying you all this time?’
‘Gordon, you ARE a baby! How can you let yourself be worried by a thing like that? As though I minded lending you money! Aren’t I always telling you I want to pay my share when we go out together?’
‘Yes, and you know how I hate your paying. We had that out the other night.’
‘Oh, how absurd, how absurd you are! Do you think there’s anything to be ashamed of in having no money?’
‘Of course there is! It’s the only thing in the world there IS to be ashamed of.’
‘But what’s it got to do with you and me making love, anyway? I don’t understand you. First you want to and then you don’t want to. What’s money got to do with it?’
He wound her arm in his and started down the road. She would never understand. Nevertheless he had got to explain.
‘Don’t you understand that one isn’t a full human being — that one doesn’t FEEL a human being — unless one’s got money in one’s pocket?’
‘No. I think that’s just silly.’
‘It isn’t that I don’t want to make love to you. I do. But I tell you I can’t make love to you when I’ve only eightpence in my pocket. At least when you know I’ve only eightpence. I just can’t do it. It’s physically impossible.’
‘But why? Why?’
‘You’ll find it in Lempriere,’ he said obscurely.
That settled it. They talked no more about it. For the second time he had behaved grossly badly and yet he had made her feel as if it were she who was in the wrong. They walked on. She did not understand him; on the other hand, she forgave him everything. Presently they reached Farnham Common, and, after a wait at the cross road, got a bus to Slough. In the darkness, as the bus loomed near, Rosemary found Gordon’s hand and slipped half a crown into it, so that he might pay the fares and not be shamed in public by letting a woman pay for him.
For his own part Gordon would sooner have walked to Slough and saved the bus fares, but he knew Rosemary would refuse. In Slough, also, he was for taking the train straight back to London, but Rosemary said indignantly that she wasn’t going to go without her tea, so they went to a large, dreary, draughty hotel near the station. Tea, with little wilting sandwiches and rock cakes like balls of putty, was two shillings a head. It was torment to Gordon to let her pay for his food. He sulked, ate nothing, and, after a whispered argument, insisted on contributing his eightpence towards the cost of the tea.
It was seven o’clock when they took the train back to London. The train was full of tired hikers in khaki shorts. Rosemary and Gordon did not talk much. They sat close together, Rosemary with her arm twined through his, playing with his hand, Gordon looking out of the window. People in the carriage eyed them, wondering what they had quarrelled about. Gordon watched the lamp-starred darkness streaming past. So the day to which he had looked forward was ended. And now back to Willowbed Road, with a penniless week ahead. For a whole week, unless some miracle happened, he wouldn’t even be able to buy himself a cigarette. What a bloody fool he had been! Rosemary was not angry with him. By the pressure of her hand she tried to make it clear to him that she loved him. His pale discontented face, turned half away from her, his shabby coat, and his unkempt mouse-coloured hair that wanted cutting more than ever, filled her with profound pity. She felt more tenderly towards him than she would have done if everything had gone well, because in her feminine way she grasped that he was unhappy and that life was difficult for him.
‘See me home, will you?’ she said as they got out at Paddington.
‘If you don’t mind walking. I haven’t got the fare.’
‘But let ME pay the fare. Oh, dear! I suppose you won’t. But how are you going to get home yourself?’
‘Oh, I’ll walk. I know the way. It’s not very far.’
‘I hate to think of you walking all that way. You look so tired. Be a dear and let me pay your fare home. DO!’
‘No. You’ve paid quite enough for me already.’
‘Oh, dear! You are so silly!’
They halted at the entrance to the Underground. He took her hand. ‘I suppose we must say good-bye for the present,’ he said.
‘Good-bye, Gordon dear. Thanks ever so much for taking me out. It was such fun this morning.’
‘Ah, this morning! It was different then.’ His mind went back to the morning hours, when they had been alone on the road together and there was still money in his pocket. Compunction seized him. On the whole he had behaved badly. He pressed her hand a little tighter. ‘You’re not angry with me, are you?’
‘No, silly, of course not.’
‘I didn’t mean to be beastly to you. It was the money. It’s always the money.’
‘Never mind, it’ll be better next time. We’ll go to some better place. We’ll go down to Brighton for the week-end, or something.’
‘Perhaps, when I’ve got the money. You will write soon, won’t you?’
‘Your letters are the only things that keep me going. Tell me when you’ll write, so that I can have your letter to look forward to.’
‘I’ll write tomorrow night and post it on Tuesday. Then you’ll get it last post on Tuesday night.’
‘Then good-bye, Rosemary dear.’
‘Good-bye, Gordon darling.’
He left her at the booking-office. When he had gone twenty yards he felt a hand laid on his arm. He turned sharply. It was Rosemary. She thrust a packet of twenty Gold Flake, which she had bought at the tobacco kiosk, into his coat pocket and ran back to the Underground before he could protest.
He trailed homeward through the wastes of Marylebone and Regent’s Park. It was the fag-end of the day. The streets were dark and desolate, with that strange listless feeling of Sunday night when people are more tired after a day of idleness than after a day of work. It was vilely cold, too. The wind had risen when the night fell. Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over. Gordon was footsore, having walked a dozen or fifteen miles, and also hungry. He had had little food all day. In the morning he had hurried off without a proper breakfast, and the lunch at the Ravenscroft Hotel wasn’t the kind of meal that did you much good; since then he had had no solid food. However, there was no hope of getting anything when he got home. He had told Mother Wisbeach that he would be away all day.
When he reached the Hampstead Road he had to wait on the kerb to let a stream of cars go past. Even here everything seemed dark and gloomy, in spite of the glaring lamps and the cold glitter of the jewellers’ windows. The raw wind pierced his thin clothes, making him shiver. Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over The bending poplars, newly bare. He had finished that poem, all except the last two lines. He thought again of those hours this morning — the empty misty roads, the feeling of freedom and adventure, of having the whole day and the whole country before you in which to wander at will. It was having money that did it, of course. Seven and elevenpence he had had in his pocket this morning. It had been a brief victory over the money-god; a morning’s apostasy, a holiday in the groves of Ashtaroth. But such things never last. Your money goes and your freedom with it. Circumcise ye your foreskins, saith the Lord. And back we creep, duly snivelling.
Another shoal of cars swam past. One in particular caught his eye, a long slender thing, elegant as a swallow, all gleaming blue and silver; a thousand guineas it would have cost, he thought. A blue-clad chauffeur sat at the wheel, upright, immobile, like some scornful statue. At the back, in the pink-lit interior, four elegant young people, two youths, and two girls, were smoking cigarettes and laughing. He had a glimpse of sleek bunny-faces; faces of ravishing pinkness and smoothness, lit by that peculiar inner glow that can never be counterfeited, the soft warm radiance of money.
He crossed the road. No food tonight. However, there was still oil in the lamp, thank God; he would have a secret cup of tea when he got back. At this moment he saw himself and his life without saving disguises. Every night the same — back to the cold lonely bedroom and the grimy littered sheets of the poem that never got any further. It was a blind alley. He would never finish London Pleasures, he would never marry Rosemary, he would never set his life in order. He would only drift and sink, drift and sink, like the others of his family; but worse than them — down, down into some dreadful sub-world that as yet he could only dimly imagine. It was what he had chosen when he declared war on money. Serve the money-god or go under; there is no other rule.
Something deep below made the stone street shiver. The tube-train, sliding through middle earth. He had a vision of London, of the western world; he saw a thousand million slaves toiling and grovelling about the throne of money. The earth is ploughed, ships sail, miners sweat in dripping tunnels underground, clerks hurry for the eight-fifteen with the fear of the boss eating at their vitals. And even in bed with their wives they tremble and obey. Obey whom? The money-priesthood, the pink-faced masters of the world. The Upper Crust. A welter of sleek young rabbits in thousand guinea motor cars, of golfing stockbrokers and cosmopolitan financiers, of Chancery lawyers and fashionable Nancy boys, of bankers, newspaper peers, novelists of all four sexes, American pugilists, lady aviators, film stars, bishops, titled poets, and Chicago gorillas.
When he had gone another fifty yards the rhyme for the final stanza of his poem occurred to him. He walked homeward, repeating the poem to himself:
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over The bending poplars, newly bare, And the dark ribbons of the chimneys Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,
Torn posters flutter; coldly sound The boom of trains and the rattle of hooves, And the clerks who hurry to the station Look, shuddering, over the eastern rooves,
Thinking, each one, ‘Here comes the winter! Please God I keep my job this year!’ And bleakly, as the cold strikes through Their entrails like an icy spear,
They think of rent, rates, season tickets, Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages, Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment Upon the two twin beds from Drage’s.
For if in careless summer days In groves of Ashtaroth we whored, Repentant now, when winds blow cold, We kneel before our rightful lord;
The lord of all, the money-god, Who rules us blood and hand and brain, Who gives the roof that stops the wind, And, giving, takes away again;
Who spies with jealous, watchful care, Our thoughts, our dreams, our secret ways, Who picks our words and cuts our clothes, And maps the pattern of our days;
Who chills our anger, curbs our hope, And buys our lives and pays with toys, Who claims as tribute broken faith, Accepted insults, muted joys;
Who binds with chains the poet’s wit, The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride, And lays the sleek, estranging shield Between the lover and his bride.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58