"Which?" said Annie.
"All that came from Sheffield," said Paul.
"Ay—do!" said Annie.
The next day he was painting in the bedroom. She seemed to be asleep. He stepped softly backwards and forwards at his painting. Suddenly her small voice wailed:
"Don't walk about, Paul."
He looked round. Her eyes, like dark bubbles in her face, were looking at him.
"No, my dear," he said gently. Another fibre seemed to snap in his heart.
That evening he got all the morphia pills there were, and took them downstairs. Carefully he crushed them to powder.
"What are you doing?" said Annie.
"I s'll put 'em in her night milk."
Then they both laughed together like two conspiring children. On top of all their horror flicked this little sanity.
Nurse did not come that night to settle Mrs. Morel down. Paul went up with the hot milk in a feeding-cup. It was nine o'clock.
She was reared up in bed, and he put the feeding-cup between her lips that he would have died to save from any hurt. She took a sip, then put the spout of the cup away and looked at him with her dark, wondering eyes. He looked at her.
"Oh, it IS bitter, Paul!" she said, making a little grimace.
"It's a new sleeping draught the doctor gave me for you," he said. "He thought it would leave you in such a state in the morning."
"And I hope it won't," she said, like a child.
She drank some more of the milk.
"But it IS horrid!" she said.
He saw her frail fingers over the cup, her lips making a little move.
"I know—I tasted it," he said. "But I'll give you some clean milk afterwards."
"I think so," she said, and she went on with the draught. She was obedient to him like a child. He wondered if she knew. He saw her poor wasted throat moving as she drank with difficulty. Then he ran downstairs for more milk. There were no grains in the bottom of the cup.
"Has she had it?" whispered Annie.
"Yes—and she said it was bitter."
"Oh!" laughed Annie, putting her under lip between her teeth.
"And I told her it was a new draught. Where's that milk?"
They both went upstairs.
"I wonder why nurse didn't come to settle me down?" complained the mother, like a child, wistfully.
"She said she was going to a concert, my love," replied Annie.
They were silent a minute. Mrs. Morel gulped the little clean milk.
"Annie, that draught WAS horrid!" she said plaintively.
"Was it, my love? Well, never mind."
The mother sighed again with weariness. Her pulse was very irregular.
"Let US settle you down," said Annie. "Perhaps nurse will be so late."
"Ay," said the mother—"try."
They turned the clothes back. Paul saw his mother like a girl curled up in her flannel nightdress. Quickly they made one half of the bed, moved her, made the other, straightened her nightgown over her small feet, and covered her up.
"There," said Paul, stroking her softly. "There!—now you'll sleep."
"Yes," she said. "I didn't think you could do the bed so nicely," she added, almost gaily. Then she curled up, with her cheek on her hand, her head snugged between her shoulders. Paul put the long thin plait of grey hair over her shoulder and kissed her.
"You'll sleep, my love," he said.
"Yes," she answered trustfully. "Good-night."
They put out the light, and it was still.
Morel was in bed. Nurse did not come. Annie and Paul came to look at her at about eleven. She seemed to be sleeping as usual after her draught. Her mouth had come a bit open.
"Shall we sit up?" said Paul.
"I s'll lie with her as I always do," said Annie. "She might wake up."
"All right. And call me if you see any difference."
They lingered before the bedroom fire, feeling the night big and black and snowy outside, their two selves alone in the world. At last he went into the next room and went to bed.
He slept almost immediately, but kept waking every now and again. Then he went sound asleep. He started awake at Annie's whispered, "Paul, Paul!" He saw his sister in her white nightdress, with her long plait of hair down her back, standing in the darkness.
"Yes?" he whispered, sitting up.
"Come and look at her."
He slipped out of bed. A bud of gas was burning in the sick chamber. His mother lay with her cheek on her hand, curled up as she had gone to sleep. But her mouth had fallen open, and she breathed with great, hoarse breaths, like snoring, and there were long intervals between.
"She's going!" he whispered.
"Yes," said Annie.
"How long has she been like it?"
"I only just woke up."
Annie huddled into the dressing-gown, Paul wrapped himself in a brown blanket. It was three o'clock. He mended the fire. Then the two sat waiting. The great, snoring breath was taken—held awhile—then given back. There was a space—a long space. Then they started. The great, snoring breath was taken again. He bent close down and looked at her.
"Isn't it awful!" whispered Annie.
He nodded. They sat down again helplessly. Again came the great, snoring breath. Again they hung suspended. Again it was given back, long and harsh. The sound, so irregular, at such wide intervals, sounded through the house. Morel, in his room, slept on. Paul and Annie sat crouched, huddled, motionless. The great snoring sound began again—there was a painful pause while the breath was held—back came the rasping breath. Minute after minute passed. Paul looked at her again, bending low over her.
"She may last like this," he said.
They were both silent. He looked out of the window, and could faintly discern the snow on the garden.
"You go to my bed," he said to Annie. "I'll sit up."
"No," she said, "I'll stop with you."
"I'd rather you didn't," he said.
At last Annie crept out of the room, and he was alone. He hugged himself in his brown blanket, crouched in front of his mother, watching. She looked dreadful, with the bottom jaw fallen back. He watched. Sometimes he thought the great breath would never begin again. He could not bear it—the waiting. Then suddenly, startling him, came the great harsh sound. He mended the fire again, noiselessly. She must not be disturbed. The minutes went by. The night was going, breath by breath. Each time the sound came he felt it wring him, till at last he could not feel so much.
His father got up. Paul heard the miner drawing his stockings on, yawning. Then Morel, in shirt and stockings, entered.
"Hush!" said Paul.
Morel stood watching. Then he looked at his son, helplessly, and in horror.
"Had I better stop a-whoam?" he whispered.
"No. Go to work. She'll last through to-morrow."
"I don't think so."
"Yes. Go to work."
The miner looked at her again, in fear, and went obediently out of the room. Paul saw the tape of his garters swinging against his legs.
After another half-hour Paul went downstairs and drank a cup of tea, then returned. Morel, dressed for the pit, came upstairs again.
"Am I to go?" he said.
And in a few minutes Paul heard his father's heavy steps go thudding over the deadening snow. Miners called in the streets as they tramped in gangs to work. The terrible, long-drawn breaths continued—heave—heave—heave; then a long pause—then—ah-h-h-h-h! as it came back. Far away over the snow sounded the hooters of the ironworks. One after another they crowed and boomed, some small and far away, some near, the blowers of the collieries and the other works. Then there was silence. He mended the fire. The great breaths broke the silence—she looked just the same. He put back the blind and peered out. Still it was dark. Perhaps there was a lighter tinge. Perhaps the snow was bluer. He drew up the blind and got dressed. Then, shuddering, he drank brandy from the bottle on the wash-stand. The snow WAS growing blue. He heard a cart clanking down the street. Yes, it was seven o'clock, and it was coming a little bit light. He heard some people calling. The world was waking. A grey, deathly dawn crept over the snow. Yes, he could see the houses. He put out the gas. It seemed very dark. The breathing came still, but he was almost used to it. He could see her. She was just the same. He wondered if he piled heavy clothes on top of her it would stop. He looked at her. That was not her—not her a bit. If he piled the blanket and heavy coats on her—
Suddenly the door opened, and Annie entered. She looked at him questioningly.
"Just the same," he said calmly.
They whispered together a minute, then he went downstairs to get breakfast. It was twenty to eight. Soon Annie came down.
"Isn't it awful! Doesn't she look awful!" she whispered, dazed with horror.
"If she looks like that!" said Annie.
"Drink some tea," he said.
They went upstairs again. Soon the neighbours came with their frightened question:
"How is she?"
It went on just the same. She lay with her cheek in her hand, her mouth fallen open, and the great, ghastly snores came and went.
At ten o'clock nurse came. She looked strange and woebegone.
"Nurse," cried Paul, "she'll last like this for days?"
"She can't, Mr. Morel," said nurse. "She can't."
There was a silence.
"Isn't it dreadful!" wailed the nurse. "Who would have thought she could stand it? Go down now, Mr. Morel, go down."
At last, at about eleven o'clock, he went downstairs and sat in the neighbour's house. Annie was downstairs also. Nurse and Arthur were upstairs. Paul sat with his head in his hand. Suddenly Annie came flying across the yard crying, half mad:
In a second he was back in his own house and upstairs. She lay curled up and still, with her face on her hand, and nurse was wiping her mouth. They all stood back. He kneeled down, and put his face to hers and his arms round her:
"My love—my love—oh, my love!" he whispered again and again. "My love—oh, my love!"
Then he heard the nurse behind him, crying, saying:
"She's better, Mr. Morel, she's better."
When he took his face up from his warm, dead mother he went straight downstairs and began blacking his boots.
There was a good deal to do, letters to write, and so on. The doctor came and glanced at her, and sighed.
"Ay—poor thing!" he said, then turned away. "Well, call at the surgery about six for the certificate."
The father came home from work at about four o'clock. He dragged silently into the house and sat down. Minnie bustled to give him his dinner. Tired, he laid his black arms on the table. There were swede turnips for his dinner, which he liked. Paul wondered if he knew. It was some time, and nobody had spoken. At last the son said:
"You noticed the blinds were down?"
Morel looked up.
"No," he said. "Why—has she gone?"
"When wor that?"
"About twelve this morning."
The miner sat still for a moment, then began his dinner. It was as if nothing had happened. He ate his turnips in silence. Afterwards he washed and went upstairs to dress. The door of her room was shut.
"Have you seen her?" Annie asked of him when he came down.
"No," he said.
In a little while he went out. Annie went away, and Paul called on the undertaker, the clergyman, the doctor, the registrar. It was a long business. He got back at nearly eight o'clock. The undertaker was coming soon to measure for the coffin. The house was empty except for her. He took a candle and went upstairs.
The room was cold, that had been warm for so long. Flowers, bottles, plates, all sick-room litter was taken away; everything was harsh and austere. She lay raised on the bed, the sweep of the sheet from the raised feet was like a clean curve of snow, so silent. She lay like a maiden asleep. With his candle in his hand, he bent over her. She lay like a girl asleep and dreaming of her love. The mouth was a little open as if wondering from the suffering, but her face was young, her brow clear and white as if life had never touched it. He looked again at the eyebrows, at the small, winsome nose a bit on one side. She was young again. Only the hair as it arched so beautifully from her temples was mixed with silver, and the two simple plaits that lay on her shoulders were filigree of silver and brown. She would wake up. She would lift her eyelids. She was with him still. He bent and kissed her passionately. But there was coldness against his mouth. He bit his lips with horror. Looking at her, he felt he could never, never let her go. No! He stroked the hair from her temples. That, too, was cold. He saw the mouth so dumb and wondering at the hurt. Then he crouched on the floor, whispering to her:
He was still with her when the undertakers came, young men who had been to school with him. They touched her reverently, and in a quiet, businesslike fashion. They did not look at her. He watched jealously. He and Annie guarded her fiercely. They would not let anybody come to see her, and the neighbours were offended.
After a while Paul went out of the house, and played cards at a friend's. It was midnight when he got back. His father rose from the couch as he entered, saying in a plaintive way:
"I thought tha wor niver comin', lad."
"I didn't think you'd sit up," said Paul.
His father looked so forlorn. Morel had been a man without fear—simply nothing frightened him. Paul realised with a start that he had been afraid to go to bed, alone in the house with his dead. He was sorry.
"I forgot you'd be alone, father," he said.
"Dost want owt to eat?" asked Morel.
"Sithee—I made thee a drop o' hot milk. Get it down thee; it's cold enough for owt."
Paul drank it.
After a while Morel went to bed. He hurried past the closed door, and left his own door open. Soon the son came upstairs also. He went in to kiss her good-night, as usual. It was cold and dark. He wished they had kept her fire burning. Still she dreamed her young dream. But she would be cold.
"My dear!" he whispered. "My dear!"
And he did not kiss her, for fear she should be cold and strange to him. It eased him she slept so beautifully. He shut her door softly, not to wake her, and went to bed.
In the morning Morel summoned his courage, hearing Annie downstairs and Paul coughing in the room across the landing. He opened her door, and went into the darkened room. He saw the white uplifted form in the twilight, but her he dared not see. Bewildered, too frightened to possess any of his faculties, he got out of the room again and left her. He never looked at her again. He had not seen her for months, because he had not dared to look. And she looked like his young wife again.
"Have you seen her?" Annie asked of him sharply after breakfast.
"Yes," he said.
"And don't you think she looks nice?"
He went out of the house soon after. And all the time he seemed to be creeping aside to avoid it.
Paul went about from place to place, doing the business of the death. He met Clara in Nottingham, and they had tea together in a cafe, when they were quite jolly again. She was infinitely relieved to find he did not take it tragically.
Later, when the relatives began to come for the funeral, the affair became public, and the children became social beings. They put themselves aside. They buried her in a furious storm of rain and wind. The wet clay glistened, all the white flowers were soaked. Annie gripped his arm and leaned forward. Down below she saw a dark corner of William's coffin. The oak box sank steadily. She was gone. The rain poured in the grave. The procession of black, with its umbrellas glistening, turned away. The cemetery was deserted under the drenching cold rain.
Paul went home and busied himself supplying the guests with drinks. His father sat in the kitchen with Mrs. Morel's relatives, "superior" people, and wept, and said what a good lass she'd been, and how he'd tried to do everything he could for her—everything. He had striven all his life to do what he could for her, and he'd nothing to reproach himself with. She was gone, but he'd done his best for her. He wiped his eyes with his white handkerchief. He'd nothing to reproach himself for, he repeated. All his life he'd done his best for her.
And that was how he tried to dismiss her. He never thought of her personally. Everything deep in him he denied. Paul hated his father for sitting sentimentalising over her. He knew he would do it in the public-houses. For the real tragedy went on in Morel in spite of himself. Sometimes, later, he came down from his afternoon sleep, white and cowering.
"I HAVE been dreaming of thy mother," he said in a small voice.
"Have you, father? When I dream of her it's always just as she was when she was well. I dream of her often, but it seems quite nice and natural, as if nothing had altered."
But Morel crouched in front of the fire in terror.
The weeks passed half-real, not much pain, not much of anything, perhaps a little relief, mostly a nuit blanche. Paul went restless from place to place. For some months, since his mother had been worse, he had not made love to Clara. She was, as it were, dumb to him, rather distant. Dawes saw her very occasionally, but the two could not get an inch across the great distance between them. The three of them were drifting forward.
Dawes mended very slowly. He was in the convalescent home at Skegness at Christmas, nearly well again. Paul went to the seaside for a few days. His father was with Annie in Sheffield. Dawes came to Paul's lodgings. His time in the home was up. The two men, between whom was such a big reserve, seemed faithful to each other. Dawes depended on Morel now. He knew Paul and Clara had practically separated.
Two days after Christmas Paul was to go back to Nottingham. The evening before he sat with Dawes smoking before the fire.
"You know Clara's coming down for the day to-morrow?" he said.
The other man glanced at him.
"Yes, you told me," he replied.
Paul drank the remainder of his glass of whisky.
"I told the landlady your wife was coming," he said.
"Did you?" said Dawes, shrinking, but almost leaving himself in the other's hands. He got up rather stiffly, and reached for Morel's glass.
"Let me fill you up," he said.
Paul jumped up.
"You sit still," he said.
But Dawes, with rather shaky hand, continued to mix the drink.
"Say when," he said.
"Thanks!" replied the other. "But you've no business to get up."
"It does me good, lad," replied Dawes. "I begin to think I'm right again, then."
"You are about right, you know."
"I am, certainly I am," said Dawes, nodding to him.
"And Len says he can get you on in Sheffield."
Dawes glanced at him again, with dark eyes that agreed with everything the other would say, perhaps a trifle dominated by him.
"It's funny," said Paul, "starting again. I feel in a lot bigger mess than you."
"In what way, lad?"
"I don't know. I don't know. It's as if I was in a tangled sort of hole, rather dark and dreary, and no road anywhere."
"I know—I understand it," Dawes said, nodding. "But you'll find it'll come all right."
He spoke caressingly.
"I suppose so," said Paul.
Dawes knocked his pipe in a hopeless fashion.
"You've not done for yourself like I have," he said.
Morel saw the wrist and the white hand of the other man gripping the stem of the pipe and knocking out the ash, as if he had given up.
"How old are you?" Paul asked.
"Thirty-nine," replied Dawes, glancing at him.
Those brown eyes, full of the consciousness of failure, almost pleading for reassurance, for someone to re-establish the man in himself, to warm him, to set him up firm again, troubled Paul.
"You'll just be in your prime," said Morel. "You don't look as if much life had gone out of you."
The brown eyes of the other flashed suddenly.
"It hasn't," he said. "The go is there."
Paul looked up and laughed.
"We've both got plenty of life in us yet to make things fly," he said.
The eyes of the two men met. They exchanged one look. Having recognised the stress of passion each in the other, they both drank their whisky.
"Yes, begod!" said Dawes, breathless.
There was a pause.
"And I don't see," said Paul, "why you shouldn't go on where you left off."
"What—" said Dawes, suggestively.
"Yes—fit your old home together again."
Dawes hid his face and shook his head.
"Couldn't be done," he said, and looked up with an ironic smile.
"Why? Because you don't want?"
They smoked in silence. Dawes showed his teeth as he bit his pipe stem.
"You mean you don't want her?" asked Paul.
Dawes stared up at the picture with a caustic expression on his face.
"I hardly know," he said.
The smoke floated softly up.
"I believe she wants you," said Paul.
"Do you?" replied the other, soft, satirical, abstract.
"Yes. She never really hitched on to me—you were always there in the background. That's why she wouldn't get a divorce."
Dawes continued to stare in a satirical fashion at the picture over the mantelpiece.
"That's how women are with me," said Paul. "They want me like mad, but they don't want to belong to me. And she BELONGED to you all the time. I knew."
The triumphant male came up in Dawes. He showed his teeth more distinctly.
"Perhaps I was a fool," he said.
"You were a big fool," said Morel.
"But perhaps even THEN you were a bigger fool," said Dawes.
There was a touch of triumph and malice in it.
"Do you think so?" said Paul.
They were silent for some time.
"At any rate, I'm clearing out to-morrow," said Morel.
"I see," answered Dawes.
Then they did not talk any more. The instinct to murder each other had returned. They almost avoided each other.
They shared the same bedroom. When they retired Dawes seemed abstract, thinking of something. He sat on the side of the bed in his shirt, looking at his legs.
"Aren't you getting cold?" asked Morel.
"I was lookin' at these legs," replied the other.
"What's up with 'em? They look all right," replied Paul, from his bed.
"They look all right. But there's some water in 'em yet."
"And what about it?"
"Come and look."
Paul reluctantly got out of bed and went to look at the rather handsome legs of the other man that were covered with glistening, dark gold hair.
"Look here," said Dawes, pointing to his shin. "Look at the water under here."
"Where?" said Paul.
The man pressed in his finger-tips. They left little dents that filled up slowly.
"It's nothing," said Paul.
"You feel," said Dawes.
Paul tried with his fingers. It made little dents.
"H'm!" he said.
"Rotten, isn't it?" said Dawes.
"Why? It's nothing much."
"You're not much of a man with water in your legs."
"I can't see as it makes any difference," said Morel. "I've got a weak chest."
He returned to his own bed.
"I suppose the rest of me's all right," said Dawes, and he put out the light.
In the morning it was raining. Morel packed his bag. The sea was grey and shaggy and dismal. He seemed to be cutting himself off from life more and more. It gave him a wicked pleasure to do it.
The two men were at the station. Clara stepped out of the train, and came along the platform, very erect and coldly composed. She wore a long coat and a tweed hat. Both men hated her for her composure. Paul shook hands with her at the barrier. Dawes was leaning against the bookstall, watching. His black overcoat was buttoned up to the chin because of the rain. He was pale, with almost a touch of nobility in his quietness. He came forward, limping slightly.
"You ought to look better than this," she said.
"Oh, I'm all right now."
The three stood at a loss. She kept the two men hesitating near her.
"Shall we go to the lodging straight off," said Paul, "or somewhere else?"
"We may as well go home," said Dawes.
Paul walked on the outside of the pavement, then Dawes, then Clara. They made polite conversation. The sitting-room faced the sea, whose tide, grey and shaggy, hissed not far off.
Morel swung up the big arm-chair.
"Sit down, Jack," he said.
"I don't want that chair," said Dawes.
"Sit down!" Morel repeated.
Clara took off her things and laid them on the couch. She had a slight air of resentment. Lifting her hair with her fingers, she sat down, rather aloof and composed. Paul ran downstairs to speak to the landlady.
"I should think you're cold," said Dawes to his wife. "Come nearer to the fire."
"Thank you, I'm quite warm," she answered.
She looked out of the window at the rain and at the sea.
"When are you going back?" she asked.
"Well, the rooms are taken until to-morrow, so he wants me to stop. He's going back to-night."
"And then you're thinking of going to Sheffield?"
"Are you fit to start work?"
"I'm going to start."
"You've really got a place?"
"Yes—begin on Monday."
"You don't look fit."
"Why don't I?"
She looked again out of the window instead of answering.
"And have you got lodgings in Sheffield?"
Again she looked away out of the window. The panes were blurred with streaming rain.
"And can you manage all right?" she asked.
"I s'd think so. I s'll have to!"
They were silent when Morel returned.
"I shall go by the four-twenty," he said as he entered.
"I wish you'd take your boots off," he said to Clara.
"There's a pair of slippers of mine."
"Thank you," she said. "They aren't wet."
He put the slippers near her feet. She left them there.
Morel sat down. Both the men seemed helpless, and each of them had a rather hunted look. But Dawes now carried himself quietly, seemed to yield himself, while Paul seemed to screw himself up. Clara thought she had never seen him look so small and mean. He was as if trying to get himself into the smallest possible compass. And as he went about arranging, and as he sat talking, there seemed something false about him and out of tune. Watching him unknown, she said to herself there was no stability about him. He was fine in his way, passionate, and able to give her drinks of pure life when he was in one mood. And now he looked paltry and insignificant. There was nothing stable about him. Her husband had more manly dignity. At any rate HE did not waft about with any wind. There was something evanescent about Morel, she thought, something shifting and false. He would never make sure ground for any woman to stand on. She despised him rather for his shrinking together, getting smaller. Her husband at least was manly, and when he was beaten gave in. But this other would never own to being beaten. He would shift round and round, prowl, get smaller. She despised him. And yet she watched him rather than Dawes, and it seemed as if their three fates lay in his hands. She hated him for it.
She seemed to understand better now about men, and what they could or would do. She was less afraid of them, more sure of herself. That they were not the small egoists she had imagined them made her more comfortable. She had learned a good deal—almost as much as she wanted to learn. Her cup had been full. It was still as full as she could carry. On the whole, she would not be sorry when he was gone.
They had dinner, and sat eating nuts and drinking by the fire. Not a serious word had been spoken. Yet Clara realised that Morel was withdrawing from the circle, leaving her the option to stay with her husband. It angered her. He was a mean fellow, after all, to take what he wanted and then give her back. She did not remember that she herself had had what she wanted, and really, at the bottom of her heart, wished to be given back.
Paul felt crumpled up and lonely. His mother had really supported his life. He had loved her; they two had, in fact, faced the world together. Now she was gone, and for ever behind him was the gap in life, the tear in the veil, through which his life seemed to drift slowly, as if he were drawn towards death. He wanted someone of their own free initiative to help him. The lesser things he began to let go from him, for fear of this big thing, the lapse towards death, following in the wake of his beloved. Clara could not stand for him to hold on to. She wanted him, but not to understand him. He felt she wanted the man on top, not the real him that was in trouble. That would be too much trouble to her; he dared not give it her. She could not cope with him. It made him ashamed. So, secretly ashamed because he was in such a mess, because his own hold on life was so unsure, because nobody held him, feeling unsubstantial, shadowy, as if he did not count for much in this concrete world, he drew himself together smaller and smaller. He did not want to die; he would not give in. But he was not afraid of death. If nobody would help, he would go on alone.
Dawes had been driven to the extremity of life, until he was afraid. He could go to the brink of death, he could lie on the edge and look in. Then, cowed, afraid, he had to crawl back, and like a beggar take what offered. There was a certain nobility in it. As Clara saw, he owned himself beaten, and he wanted to be taken back whether or not. That she could do for him. It was three o'clock.
"I am going by the four-twenty," said Paul again to Clara. "Are you coming then or later?"
"I don't know," she said.
"I'm meeting my father in Nottingham at seven-fifteen," he said.
"Then," she answered, "I'll come later."
Dawes jerked suddenly, as if he had been held on a strain. He looked out over the sea, but he saw nothing.
"There are one or two books in the corner," said Morel. "I've done with 'em."
At about four o'clock he went.
"I shall see you both later," he said, as he shook hands.
"I suppose so," said Dawes. "An' perhaps—one day—I s'll be able to pay you back the money as—"
"I shall come for it, you'll see," laughed Paul. "I s'll be on the rocks before I'm very much older."
"Ay—well—" said Dawes.
"Good-bye," he said to Clara.
"Good-bye," she said, giving him her hand. Then she glanced at him for the last time, dumb and humble.
He was gone. Dawes and his wife sat down again.
"It's a nasty day for travelling," said the man.
"Yes," she answered.
They talked in a desultory fashion until it grew dark. The landlady brought in the tea. Dawes drew up his chair to the table without being invited, like a husband. Then he sat humbly waiting for his cup. She served him as she would, like a wife, not consulting his wish.
After tea, as it drew near to six o'clock, he went to the window. All was dark outside. The sea was roaring.
"It's raining yet," he said.
"Is it?" she answered.
"You won't go to-night, shall you?" he said, hesitating.
She did not answer. He waited.
"I shouldn't go in this rain," he said.
"Do you WANT me to stay?" she asked.
His hand as he held the dark curtain trembled.
"Yes," he said.
He remained with his back to her. She rose and went slowly to him. He let go the curtain, turned, hesitating, towards her. She stood with her hands behind her back, looking up at him in a heavy, inscrutable fashion.
"Do you want me, Baxter?" she asked.
His voice was hoarse as he answered:
"Do you want to come back to me?"
She made a moaning noise, lifted her arms, and put them round his neck, drawing him to her. He hid his face on her shoulder, holding her clasped.
"Take me back!" she whispered, ecstatic. "Take me back, take me back!" And she put her fingers through his fine, thin dark hair, as if she were only semi-conscious. He tightened his grasp on her.
"Do you want me again?" he murmured, broken.
CLARA went with her husband to Sheffield, and Paul scarcely saw her again. Walter Morel seemed to have let all the trouble go over him, and there he was, crawling about on the mud of it, just the same. There was scarcely any bond between father and son, save that each felt he must not let the other go in any actual want. As there was no one to keep on the home, and as they could neither of them bear the emptiness of the house, Paul took lodgings in Nottingham, and Morel went to live with a friendly family in Bestwood.
Everything seemed to have gone smash for the young man. He could not paint. The picture he finished on the day of his mother's death—one that satisfied him—was the last thing he did. At work there was no Clara. When he came home he could not take up his brushes again. There was nothing left.
So he was always in the town at one place or another, drinking, knocking about with the men he knew. It really wearied him. He talked to barmaids, to almost any woman, but there was that dark, strained look in his eyes, as if he were hunting something.
Everything seemed so different, so unreal. There seemed no reason why people should go along the street, and houses pile up in the daylight. There seemed no reason why these things should occupy the space, instead of leaving it empty. His friends talked to him: he heard the sounds, and he answered. But why there should be the noise of speech he could not understand.
He was most himself when he was alone, or working hard and mechanically at the factory. In the latter case there was pure forgetfulness, when he lapsed from consciousness. But it had to come to an end. It hurt him so, that things had lost their reality. The first snowdrops came. He saw the tiny drop-pearls among the grey. They would have given him the liveliest emotion at one time. Now they were there, but they did not seem to mean anything. In a few moments they would cease to occupy that place, and just the space would be, where they had been. Tall, brilliant tram-cars ran along the street at night. It seemed almost a wonder they should trouble to rustle backwards and forwards. "Why trouble to go tilting down to Trent Bridges?" he asked of the big trams. It seemed they just as well might NOT be as be.
The realest thing was the thick darkness at night. That seemed to him whole and comprehensible and restful. He could leave himself to it. Suddenly a piece of paper started near his feet and blew along down the pavement. He stood still, rigid, with clenched fists, a flame of agony going over him. And he saw again the sick-room, his mother, her eyes. Unconsciously he had been with her, in her company. The swift hop of the paper reminded him she was gone. But he had been with her. He wanted everything to stand still, so that he could be with her again.
The days passed, the weeks. But everything seemed to have fused, gone into a conglomerated mass. He could not tell one day from another, one week from another, hardly one place from another. Nothing was distinct or distinguishable. Often he lost himself for an hour at a time, could not remember what he had done.
One evening he came home late to his lodging. The fire was burning low; everybody was in bed. He threw on some more coal, glanced at the table, and decided he wanted no supper. Then he sat down in the arm-chair. It was perfectly still. He did not know anything, yet he saw the dim smoke wavering up the chimney. Presently two mice came out, cautiously, nibbling the fallen crumbs. He watched them as it were from a long way off. The church clock struck two. Far away he could hear the sharp clinking of the trucks on the railway. No, it was not they that were far away. They were there in their places. But where was he himself?
The time passed. The two mice, careering wildly, scampered cheekily over his slippers. He had not moved a muscle. He did not want to move. He was not thinking of anything. It was easier so. There was no wrench of knowing anything. Then, from time to time, some other consciousness, working mechanically, flashed into sharp phrases.
"What am I doing?"
And out of the semi-intoxicated trance came the answer:
Then a dull, live feeling, gone in an instant, told him that it was wrong. After a while, suddenly came the question:
Again there was no answer, but a stroke of hot stubbornness inside his chest resisted his own annihilation.
There was a sound of a heavy cart clanking down the road. Suddenly the electric light went out; there was a bruising thud in the penny-in-the-slot meter. He did not stir, but sat gazing in front of him. Only the mice had scuttled, and the fire glowed red in the dark room.
Then, quite mechanically and more distinctly, the conversation began again inside him.
"She's dead. What was it all for—her struggle?"
That was his despair wanting to go after her.
"She is—in you."
Suddenly he felt tired with the burden of it.
"You've got to keep alive for her sake," said his will in him.
Something felt sulky, as if it would not rouse.
"You've got to carry forward her living, and what she had done, go on with it."
But he did not want to. He wanted to give up.
"But you can go on with your painting," said the will in him. "Or else you can beget children. They both carry on her effort."
"Painting is not living."
"Marry whom?" came the sulky question.
"As best you can."
But he did not trust that.
He rose suddenly, went straight to bed. When he got inside his bedroom and closed the door, he stood with clenched fist.
"Mater, my dear—" he began, with the whole force of his soul. Then he stopped. He would not say it. He would not admit that he wanted to die, to have done. He would not own that life had beaten him, or that death had beaten him. Going straight to bed, he slept at once, abandoning himself to the sleep.
So the weeks went on. Always alone, his soul oscillated, first on the side of death, then on the side of life, doggedly. The real agony was that he had nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to say, and WAS nothing himself. Sometimes he ran down the streets as if he were mad: sometimes he was mad; things weren't there, things were there. It made him pant. Sometimes he stood before the bar of the public-house where he called for a drink. Everything suddenly stood back away from him. He saw the face of the barmaid, the gobbling drinkers, his own glass on the slopped, mahogany board, in the distance. There was something between him and them. He could not get into touch. He did not want them; he did not want his drink. Turning abruptly, he went out. On the threshold he stood and looked at the lighted street. But he was not of it or in it. Something separated him. Everything went on there below those lamps, shut away from him. He could not get at them. He felt he couldn't touch the lamp-posts, not if he reached. Where could he go? There was nowhere to go, neither back into the inn, or forward anywhere. He felt stifled. There was nowhere for him. The stress grew inside him; he felt he should smash.
"I mustn't," he said; and, turning blindly, he went in and drank. Sometimes the drink did him good; sometimes it made him worse. He ran down the road. For ever restless, he went here, there, everywhere. He determined to work. But when he had made six strokes, he loathed the pencil violently, got up, and went away, hurried off to a club where he could play cards or billiards, to a place where he could flirt with a barmaid who was no more to him than the brass pump-handle she drew.
He was very thin and lantern-jawed. He dared not meet his own eyes in the mirror; he never looked at himself. He wanted to get away from himself, but there was nothing to get hold of. In despair he thought of Miriam. Perhaps—perhaps—?
Then, happening to go into the Unitarian Church one Sunday evening, when they stood up to sing the second hymn he saw her before him. The light glistened on her lower lip as she sang. She looked as if she had got something, at any rate: some hope in heaven, if not in earth. Her comfort and her life seemed in the after-world. A warm, strong feeling for her came up. She seemed to yearn, as she sang, for the mystery and comfort. He put his hope in her. He longed for the sermon to be over, to speak to her.
The throng carried her out just before him. He could nearly touch her. She did not know he was there. He saw the brown, humble nape of her neck under its black curls. He would leave himself to her. She was better and bigger than he. He would depend on her.
She went wandering, in her blind way, through the little throngs of people outside the church. She always looked so lost and out of place among people. He went forward and put his hand on her arm. She started violently. Her great brown eyes dilated in fear, then went questioning at the sight of him. He shrank slightly from her.
"I didn't know—" she faltered.
"Nor I," he said.
He looked away. His sudden, flaring hope sank again.
"What are you doing in town?" he asked.
"I'm staying at Cousin Anne's."
"Ha! For long?"
"No; only till to-morrow."
"Must you go straight home?"
She looked at him, then hid her face under her hat-brim.
"No," she said—"no; it's not necessary."
He turned away, and she went with him. They threaded through the throng of church people. The organ was still sounding in St. Mary's. Dark figures came through the lighted doors; people were coming down the steps. The large coloured windows glowed up in the night. The church was like a great lantern suspended. They went down Hollow Stone, and he took the car for the Bridges.
"You will just have supper with me," he said: "then I'll bring you back."
"Very well," she replied, low and husky.
They scarcely spoke while they were on the car. The Trent ran dark and full under the bridge. Away towards Colwick all was black night. He lived down Holme Road, on the naked edge of the town, facing across the river meadows towards Sneinton Hermitage and the steep scrap of Colwick Wood. The floods were out. The silent water and the darkness spread away on their left. Almost afraid, they hurried along by the houses.
Supper was laid. He swung the curtain over the window. There was a bowl of freesias and scarlet anemones on the table. She bent to them. Still touching them with her finger-tips, she looked up at him, saying:
"Aren't they beautiful?"
"Yes," he said. "What will you drink—coffee?"
"I should like it," she said.
"Then excuse me a moment."
He went out to the kitchen.
Miriam took off her things and looked round. It was a bare, severe room. Her photo, Clara's, Annie's, were on the wall. She looked on the drawing-board to see what he was doing. There were only a few meaningless lines. She looked to see what books he was reading. Evidently just an ordinary novel. The letters in the rack she saw were from Annie, Arthur, and from some man or other she did not know. Everything he had touched, everything that was in the least personal to him, she examined with lingering absorption. He had been gone from her for so long, she wanted to rediscover him, his position, what he was now. But there was not much in the room to help her. It only made her feel rather sad, it was so hard and comfortless.
She was curiously examining a sketch-book when he returned with the coffee.
"There's nothing new in it," he said, "and nothing very interesting."
He put down the tray, and went to look over her shoulder. She turned the pages slowly, intent on examining everything.
"H'm!" he said, as she paused at a sketch. "I'd forgotten that. It's not bad, is it?"
"No," she said. "I don't quite understand it."
He took the book from her and went through it. Again he made a curious sound of surprise and pleasure.
"There's some not bad stuff in there," he said.
"Not at all bad," she answered gravely.
He felt again her interest in his work. Or was it for himself? Why was she always most interested in him as he appeared in his work?
They sat down to supper.
"By the way," he said, "didn't I hear something about your earning your own living?"
"Yes," she replied, bowing her dark head over her cup. "And what of it?"
"I'm merely going to the farming college at Broughton for three months, and I shall probably be kept on as a teacher there."
"I say—that sounds all right for you! You always wanted to be independent."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I only knew last week."
"But I heard a month ago," he said.
"Yes; but nothing was settled then."
"I should have thought," he said, "you'd have told me you were trying."
She ate her food in the deliberate, constrained way, almost as if she recoiled a little from doing anything so publicly, that he knew so well.
"I suppose you're glad," he said.
"Yes—it will be something."
He was rather disappointed.
"I think it will be a great deal," she said, almost haughtily, resentfully.
He laughed shortly.
"Why do you think it won't?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't think it won't be a great deal. Only you'll find earning your own living isn't everything."
"No," she said, swallowing with difficulty; "I don't suppose it is."
"I suppose work CAN be nearly everything to a man," he said, "though it isn't to me. But a woman only works with a part of herself. The real and vital part is covered up."
"But a man can give ALL himself to work?" she asked.
"And a woman only the unimportant part of herself?"
She looked up at him, and her eyes dilated with anger.
"Then," she said, "if it's true, it's a great shame."
"It is. But I don't know everything," he answered.
After supper they drew up to the fire. He swung her a chair facing him, and they sat down. She was wearing a dress of dark claret colour, that suited her dark complexion and her large features. Still, the curls were fine and free, but her face was much older, the brown throat much thinner. She seemed old to him, older than Clara. Her bloom of youth had quickly gone. A sort of stiffness, almost of woodenness, had come upon her. She meditated a little while, then looked at him.
"And how are things with you?" she asked.
"About all right," he answered.
She looked at him, waiting.
"Nay," she said, very low.
Her brown, nervous hands were clasped over her knee. They had still the lack of confidence or repose, the almost hysterical look. He winced as he saw them. Then he laughed mirthlessly. She put her fingers between her lips. His slim, black, tortured body lay quite still in the chair. She suddenly took her finger from her mouth and looked at him.
"And you have broken off with Clara?"
His body lay like an abandoned thing, strewn in the chair.
"You know," she said, "I think we ought to be married."
He opened his eyes for the first time since many months, and attended to her with respect.
"Why?" he said.
"See," she said, "how you waste yourself! You might be ill, you might die, and I never know—be no more then than if I had never known you."
"And if we married?" he asked.
"At any rate, I could prevent you wasting yourself and being a prey to other women—like—like Clara."
"A prey?" he repeated, smiling.
She bowed her head in silence. He lay feeling his despair come up again.
"I'm not sure," he said slowly, "that marriage would be much good."
"I only think of you," she replied.
"I know you do. But—you love me so much, you want to put me in your pocket. And I should die there smothered."
She bent her head, put her fingers between her lips, while the bitterness surged up in her heart.
"And what will you do otherwise?" she asked.
"I don't know—go on, I suppose. Perhaps I shall soon go abroad."
The despairing doggedness in his tone made her go on her knees on the rug before the fire, very near to him. There she crouched as if she were crushed by something, and could not raise her head. His hands lay quite inert on the arms of his chair. She was aware of them. She felt that now he lay at her mercy. If she could rise, take him, put her arms round him, and say, "You are mine," then he would leave himself to her. But dare she? She could easily sacrifice herself. But dare she assert herself? She was aware of his dark-clothed, slender body, that seemed one stroke of life, sprawled in the chair close to her. But no; she dared not put her arms round it, take it up, and say, "It is mine, this body. Leave it to me." And she wanted to. It called to all her woman's instinct. But she crouched, and dared not. She was afraid he would not let her. She was afraid it was too much. It lay there, his body, abandoned. She knew she ought to take it up and claim it, and claim every right to it. But—could she do it? Her impotence before him, before the strong demand of some unknown thing in him, was her extremity. Her hands fluttered; she half-lifted her head. Her eyes, shuddering, appealing, gone, almost distracted, pleaded to him suddenly. His heart caught with pity. He took her hands, drew her to him, and comforted her.
"Will you have me, to marry me?" he said very low.
Oh, why did not he take her? Her very soul belonged to him. Why would he not take what was his? She had borne so long the cruelty of belonging to him and not being claimed by him. Now he was straining her again. It was too much for her. She drew back her head, held his face between her hands, and looked him in the eyes. No, he was hard. He wanted something else. She pleaded to him with all her love not to make it her choice. She could not cope with it, with him, she knew not with what. But it strained her till she felt she would break.
"Do you want it?" she asked, very gravely.
"Not much," he replied, with pain.
She turned her face aside; then, raising herself with dignity, she took his head to her bosom, and rocked him softly. She was not to have him, then! So she could comfort him. She put her fingers through his hair. For her, the anguished sweetness of self-sacrifice. For him, the hate and misery of another failure. He could not bear it—that breast which was warm and which cradled him without taking the burden of him. So much he wanted to rest on her that the feint of rest only tortured him. He drew away.
"And without marriage we can do nothing?" he asked.
His mouth was lifted from his teeth with pain. She put her little finger between her lips.
"No," she said, low and like the toll of a bell. "No, I think not."
It was the end then between them. She could not take him and relieve him of the responsibility of himself. She could only sacrifice herself to him—sacrifice herself every day, gladly. And that he did not want. He wanted her to hold him and say, with joy and authority: "Stop all this restlessness and beating against death. You are mine for a mate." She had not the strength. Or was it a mate she wanted? or did she want a Christ in him?
He felt, in leaving her, he was defrauding her of life. But he knew that, in staying, stilling the inner, desperate man, he was denying his own life. And he did not hope to give life to her by denying his own.
She sat very quiet. He lit a cigarette. The smoke went up from it, wavering. He was thinking of his mother, and had forgotten Miriam. She suddenly looked at him. Her bitterness came surging up. Her sacrifice, then, was useless. He lay there aloof, careless about her. Suddenly she saw again his lack of religion, his restless instability. He would destroy himself like a perverse child. Well, then, he would!
"I think I must go," she said softly.
By her tone he knew she was despising him. He rose quietly.
"I'll come along with you," he answered.
She stood before the mirror pinning on her hat. How bitter, how unutterably bitter, it made her that he rejected her sacrifice! Life ahead looked dead, as if the glow were gone out. She bowed her face over the flowers—the freesias so sweet and spring-like, the scarlet anemones flaunting over the table. It was like him to have those flowers.
He moved about the room with a certain sureness of touch, swift and relentless and quiet. She knew she could not cope with him. He would escape like a weasel out of her hands. Yet without him her life would trail on lifeless. Brooding, she touched the flowers.
"Have them!" he said; and he took them out of the jar, dripping as they were, and went quickly into the kitchen. She waited for him, took the flowers, and they went out together, he talking, she feeling dead.
She was going from him now. In her misery she leaned against him as they sat on the car. He was unresponsive. Where would he go? What would be the end of him? She could not bear it, the vacant feeling where he should be. He was so foolish, so wasteful, never at peace with himself. And now where would he go? And what did he care that he wasted her? He had no religion; it was all for the moment's attraction that he cared, nothing else, nothing deeper. Well, she would wait and see how it turned out with him. When he had had enough he would give in and come to her.
He shook hands and left her at the door of her cousin's house. When he turned away he felt the last hold for him had gone. The town, as he sat upon the car, stretched away over the bay of railway, a level fume of lights. Beyond the town the country, little smouldering spots for more towns—the sea—the night—on and on! And he had no place in it! Whatever spot he stood on, there he stood alone. From his breast, from his mouth, sprang the endless space, and it was there behind him, everywhere. The people hurrying along the streets offered no obstruction to the void in which he found himself. They were small shadows whose footsteps and voices could be heard, but in each of them the same night, the same silence. He got off the car. In the country all was dead still. Little stars shone high up; little stars spread far away in the flood-waters, a firmament below. Everywhere the vastness and terror of the immense night which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom. There was no Time, only Space. Who could say his mother had lived and did not live? She had been in one place, and was in another; that was all. And his soul could not leave her, wherever she was. Now she was gone abroad into the night, and he was with her still. They were together. But yet there was his body, his chest, that leaned against the stile, his hands on the wooden bar. They seemed something. Where was he?—one tiny upright speck of flesh, less than an ear of wheat lost in the field. He could not bear it. On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.
"Mother!" he whispered—"mother!"
She was the only thing that held him up, himself, amid all this. And she was gone, intermingled herself. He wanted her to touch him, have him alongside with her.
But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city's gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.