He closed the door behind him, and was glad. It was a rainy evening. The Palmerston would be the cosier. He hastened forward in anticipation. All the slate roofs of the Bottoms shone black with wet. The roads, always dark with coal-dust, were full of blackish mud. He hastened along. The Palmerston windows were steamed over. The passage was paddled with wet feet. But the air was warm, if foul, and full of the sound of voices and the smell of beer and smoke.
"What shollt ha'e, Walter?" cried a voice, as soon as Morel appeared in the doorway.
"Oh, Jim, my lad, wheriver has thee sprung frae?"
The men made a seat for him, and took him in warmly. He was glad. In a minute or two they had thawed all responsibility out of him, all shame, all trouble, and he was clear as a bell for a jolly night.
On the Wednesday following, Morel was penniless. He dreaded his wife. Having hurt her, he hated her. He did not know what to do with himself that evening, having not even twopence with which to go to the Palmerston, and being already rather deeply in debt. So, while his wife was down the garden with the child, he hunted in the top drawer of the dresser where she kept her purse, found it, and looked inside. It contained a half-crown, two halfpennies, and a sixpence. So he took the sixpence, put the purse carefully back, and went out.
The next day, when she wanted to pay the greengrocer, she looked in the purse for her sixpence, and her heart sank to her shoes. Then she sat down and thought: "WAS there a sixpence? I hadn't spent it, had I? And I hadn't left it anywhere else?"
She was much put about. She hunted round everywhere for it. And, as she sought, the conviction came into her heart that her husband had taken it. What she had in her purse was all the money she possessed. But that he should sneak it from her thus was unbearable. He had done so twice before. The first time she had not accused him, and at the week-end he had put the shilling again into her purse. So that was how she had known he had taken it. The second time he had not paid back.
This time she felt it was too much. When he had had his dinner—he came home early that day—she said to him coldly:
"Did you take sixpence out of my purse last night?"
"Me!" he said, looking up in an offended way. "No, I didna! I niver clapped eyes on your purse."
But she could detect the lie.
"Why, you know you did," she said quietly.
"I tell you I didna," he shouted. "Yer at me again, are yer? I've had about enough on't."
"So you filch sixpence out of my purse while I'm taking the clothes in."
"I'll may yer pay for this," he said, pushing back his chair in desperation. He bustled and got washed, then went determinedly upstairs. Presently he came down dressed, and with a big bundle in a blue-checked, enormous handkerchief.
"And now," he said, "you'll see me again when you do."
"It'll be before I want to," she replied; and at that he marched out of the house with his bundle. She sat trembling slightly, but her heart brimming with contempt. What would she do if he went to some other pit, obtained work, and got in with another woman? But she knew him too well—he couldn't. She was dead sure of him. Nevertheless her heart was gnawed inside her.
"Where's my dad?" said William, coming in from school.
"He says he's run away," replied the mother.
"Eh, I don't know. He's taken a bundle in the blue handkerchief, and says he's not coming back."
"What shall we do?" cried the boy.
"Eh, never trouble, he won't go far."
"But if he doesn't come back," wailed Annie.
And she and William retired to the sofa and wept. Mrs. Morel sat and laughed.
"You pair of gabeys!" she exclaimed. "You'll see him before the night's out."
But the children were not to be consoled. Twilight came on. Mrs. Morel grew anxious from very weariness. One part of her said it would be a relief to see the last of him; another part fretted because of keeping the children; and inside her, as yet, she could not quite let him go. At the bottom, she knew very well he could NOT go.
When she went down to the coal-place at the end of the garden, however, she felt something behind the door. So she looked. And there in the dark lay the big blue bundle. She sat on a piece of coal and laughed. Every time she saw it, so fat and yet so ignominious, slunk into its corner in the dark, with its ends flopping like dejected ears from the knots, she laughed again. She was relieved.
Mrs. Morel sat waiting. He had not any money, she knew, so if he stopped he was running up a bill. She was very tired of him—tired to death. He had not even the courage to carry his bundle beyond the yard-end.
As she meditated, at about nine o'clock, he opened the door and came in, slinking, and yet sulky. She said not a word. He took off his coat, and slunk to his armchair, where he began to take off his boots.
"You'd better fetch your bundle before you take your boots off," she said quietly.
"You may thank your stars I've come back to-night," he said, looking up from under his dropped head, sulkily, trying to be impressive.
"Why, where should you have gone? You daren't even get your parcel through the yard-end," she said.
He looked such a fool she was not even angry with him. He continued to take his boots off and prepare for bed.
"I don't know what's in your blue handkerchief," she said. "But if you leave it the children shall fetch it in the morning."
Whereupon he got up and went out of the house, returning presently and crossing the kitchen with averted face, hurrying upstairs. As Mrs. Morel saw him slink quickly through the inner doorway, holding his bundle, she laughed to herself: but her heart was bitter, because she had loved him.
THE CASTING OFF OF MOREL—THE TAKING ON OF WILLIAM
DURING the next week Morel's temper was almost unbearable. Like all miners, he was a great lover of medicines, which, strangely enough, he would often pay for himself.
"You mun get me a drop o' laxy vitral," he said. "It's a winder as we canna ha'e a sup i' th' 'ouse."
So Mrs. Morel bought him elixir of vitriol, his favourite first medicine. And he made himself a jug of wormwood tea. He had hanging in the attic great bunches of dried herbs: wormwood, rue, horehound, elder flowers, parsley-purt, marshmallow, hyssop, dandelion, and centaury. Usually there was a jug of one or other decoction standing on the hob, from which he drank largely.
"Grand!" he said, smacking his lips after wormwood. "Grand!" And he exhorted the children to try.
"It's better than any of your tea or your cocoa stews," he vowed. But they were not to be tempted.
This time, however, neither pills nor vitriol nor all his herbs would shift the "nasty peens in his head". He was sickening for an attack of an inflammation of the brain. He had never been well since his sleeping on the ground when he went with Jerry to Nottingham. Since then he had drunk and stormed. Now he fell seriously ill, and Mrs. Morel had him to nurse. He was one of the worst patients imaginable. But, in spite of all, and putting aside the fact that he was breadwinner, she never quite wanted him to die. Still there was one part of her wanted him for herself.
The neighbours were very good to her: occasionally some had the children in to meals, occasionally some would do the downstairs work for her, one would mind the baby for a day. But it was a great drag, nevertheless. It was not every day the neighbours helped. Then she had nursing of baby and husband, cleaning and cooking, everything to do. She was quite worn out, but she did what was wanted of her.
And the money was just sufficient. She had seventeen shillings a week from clubs, and every Friday Barker and the other butty put by a portion of the stall's profits for Morel's wife. And the neighbours made broths, and gave eggs, and such invalids' trifles. If they had not helped her so generously in those times, Mrs. Morel would never have pulled through, without incurring debts that would have dragged her down.
The weeks passed. Morel, almost against hope, grew better. He had a fine constitution, so that, once on the mend, he went straight forward to recovery. Soon he was pottering about downstairs. During his illness his wife had spoilt him a little. Now he wanted her to continue. He often put his band to his head, pulled down the comers of his mouth, and shammed pains he did not feel. But there was no deceiving her. At first she merely smiled to herself. Then she scolded him sharply.
"Goodness, man, don't be so lachrymose."
That wounded him slightly, but still he continued to feign sickness.
"I wouldn't be such a mardy baby," said the wife shortly.
Then he was indignant, and cursed under his breath, like a boy. He was forced to resume a normal tone, and to cease to whine.
Nevertheless, there was a state of peace in the house for some time. Mrs. Morel was more tolerant of him, and he, depending on her almost like a child, was rather happy. Neither knew that she was more tolerant because she loved him less. Up till this time, in spite of all, he had been her husband and her man. She had felt that, more or less, what he did to himself he did to her. Her living depended on him. There were many, many stages in the ebbing of her love for him, but it was always ebbing.
Now, with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him. After this she scarcely desired him. And, standing more aloof from him, not feeling him so much part of herself, but merely part of her circumstances, she did not mind so much what he did, could leave him alone.
There was the halt, the wistfulness about the ensuing year, which is like autumn in a man's life. His wife was casting him off, half regretfully, but relentlessly; casting him off and turning now for love and life to the children. Henceforward he was more or less a husk. And he himself acquiesced, as so many men do, yielding their place to their children.
During his recuperation, when it was really over between them, both made an effort to come back somewhat to the old relationship of the first months of their marriage. He sat at home and, when the children were in bed, and she was sewing—she did all her sewing by hand, made all shirts and children's clothing—he would read to her from the newspaper, slowly pronouncing and delivering the words like a man pitching quoits. Often she hurried him on, giving him a phrase in anticipation. And then he took her words humbly.
The silences between them were peculiar. There would be the swift, slight "cluck" of her needle, the sharp "pop" of his lips as he let out the smoke, the warmth, the sizzle on the bars as he spat in the fire. Then her thoughts turned to William. Already he was getting a big boy. Already he was top of the class, and the master said he was the smartest lad in the school. She saw him a man, young, full of vigour, making the world glow again for her.
And Morel sitting there, quite alone, and having nothing to think about, would be feeling vaguely uncomfortable. His soul would reach out in its blind way to her and find her gone. He felt a sort of emptiness, almost like a vacuum in his soul. He was unsettled and restless. Soon he could not live in that atmosphere, and he affected his wife. Both felt an oppression on their breathing when they were left together for some time. Then he went to bed and she settled down to enjoy herself alone, working, thinking, living.
Meanwhile another infant was coming, fruit of this little peace and tenderness between the separating parents. Paul was seventeen months old when the new baby was born. He was then a plump, pale child, quiet, with heavy blue eyes, and still the peculiar slight knitting of the brows. The last child was also a boy, fair and bonny. Mrs. Morel was sorry when she knew she was with child, both for economic reasons and because she did not love her husband; but not for the sake of the infant.
They called the baby Arthur. He was very pretty, with a mop of gold curls, and he loved his father from the first. Mrs. Morel was glad this child loved the father. Hearing the miner's footsteps, the baby would put up his arms and crow. And if Morel were in a good temper, he called back immediately, in his hearty, mellow voice:
"What then, my beauty? I sh'll come to thee in a minute."
And as soon as he had taken off his pit-coat, Mrs. Morel would put an apron round the child, and give him to his father.
"What a sight the lad looks!" she would exclaim sometimes, taking back the baby, that was smutted on the face from his father's kisses and play. Then Morel laughed joyfully.
"He's a little collier, bless his bit o' mutton!" he exclaimed.
And these were the happy moments of her life now, when the children included the father in her heart.
Meanwhile William grew bigger and stronger and more active, while Paul, always rather delicate and quiet, got slimmer, and trotted after his mother like her shadow. He was usually active and interested, but sometimes he would have fits of depression. Then the mother would find the boy of three or four crying on the sofa.
"What's the matter?" she asked, and got no answer.
"What's the matter?" she insisted, getting cross.
"I don't know," sobbed the child.
So she tried to reason him out of it, or to amuse him, but without effect. It made her feel beside herself. Then the father, always impatient, would jump from his chair and shout:
"If he doesn't stop, I'll smack him till he does."
"You'll do nothing of the sort," said the mother coldly. And then she carried the child into the yard, plumped him into his little chair, and said: "Now cry there, Misery!"
And then a butterfly on the rhubarb-leaves perhaps caught his eye, or at last he cried himself to sleep. These fits were not often, but they caused a shadow in Mrs. Morel's heart, and her treatment of Paul was different from that of the other children.
Suddenly one morning as she was looking down the alley of the Bottoms for the barm-man, she heard a voice calling her. It was the thin little Mrs. Anthony in brown velvet.
"Here, Mrs. Morel, I want to tell you about your Willie."
"Oh, do you?" replied Mrs. Morel. "Why, what's the matter?"
"A lad as gets 'old of another an' rips his clothes off'n 'is back," Mrs. Anthony said, "wants showing something."
"Your Alfred's as old as my William," said Mrs. Morel.
"'Appen 'e is, but that doesn't give him a right to get hold of the boy's collar, an' fair rip it clean off his back."
"Well," said Mrs. Morel, "I don't thrash my children, and even if I did, I should want to hear their side of the tale."
"They'd happen be a bit better if they did get a good hiding," retorted Mrs. Anthony. "When it comes ter rippin' a lad's clean collar off'n 'is back a-purpose—"
"I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose," said Mrs. Morel.
"Make me a liar!" shouted Mrs. Anthony.
Mrs. Morel moved away and closed her gate. Her hand trembled as she held her mug of barm.
"But I s'll let your mester know," Mrs. Anthony cried after her.
At dinner-time, when William had finished his meal and wanted to be off again—he was then eleven years old—his mother said to him:
"What did you tear Alfred Anthony's collar for?"
"When did I tear his collar?"
"I don't know when, but his mother says you did."
"Why—it was yesterday—an' it was torn a'ready."
"But you tore it more."
"Well, I'd got a cobbler as 'ad licked seventeen—an' Alfy Ant'ny 'e says:
'Adam an' Eve an' pinch-me, Went down to a river to bade. Adam an' Eve got drownded, Who do yer think got saved?'
An' so I says: 'Oh, Pinch-YOU,' an' so I pinched 'im, an' 'e was mad, an' so he snatched my cobbler an' run off with it. An' so I run after 'im, an' when I was gettin' hold of 'im, 'e dodged, an' it ripped 'is collar. But I got my cobbler—"
He pulled from his pocket a black old horse-chestnut hanging on a string. This old cobbler had "cobbled"—hit and smashed—seventeen other cobblers on similar strings. So the boy was proud of his veteran.
"Well," said Mrs. Morel, "you know you've got no right to rip his collar."
"Well, our mother!" he answered. "I never meant tr'a done it—an' it was on'y an old indirrubber collar as was torn a'ready."
"Next time," said his mother, "YOU be more careful. I shouldn't like it if you came home with your collar torn off."
"I don't care, our mother; I never did it a-purpose."
The boy was rather miserable at being reprimanded.
"No—well, you be more careful."
William fled away, glad to be exonerated. And Mrs. Morel, who hated any bother with the neighbours, thought she would explain to Mrs. Anthony, and the business would be over.
But that evening Morel came in from the pit looking very sour. He stood in the kitchen and glared round, but did not speak for some minutes. Then:
"Wheer's that Willy?" he asked.
"What do you want HIM for?" asked Mrs. Morel, who had guessed.
"I'll let 'im know when I get him," said Morel, banging his pit-bottle on to the dresser.
"I suppose Mrs. Anthony's got hold of you and been yarning to you about Alfy's collar," said Mrs. Morel, rather sneering.
"Niver mind who's got hold of me," said Morel. "When I get hold of 'IM I'll make his bones rattle."
"It's a poor tale," said Mrs. Morel, "that you're so ready to side with any snipey vixen who likes to come telling tales against your own children."
"I'll learn 'im!" said Morel. "It none matters to me whose lad 'e is; 'e's none goin' rippin' an' tearin' about just as he's a mind."
"'Ripping and tearing about!'" repeated Mrs. Morel. "He was running after that Alfy, who'd taken his cobbler, and he accidentally got hold of his collar, because the other dodged—as an Anthony would."
"I know!" shouted Morel threateningly.
"You would, before you're told," replied his wife bitingly.
"Niver you mind," stormed Morel. "I know my business."
"That's more than doubtful," said Mrs. Morel, "supposing some loud-mouthed creature had been getting you to thrash your own children."
"I know," repeated Morel.
And he said no more, but sat and nursed his bad temper. Suddenly William ran in, saying:
"Can I have my tea, mother?"
"Tha can ha'e more than that!" shouted Morel.
"Hold your noise, man," said Mrs. Morel; "and don't look so ridiculous."
"He'll look ridiculous before I've done wi' him!" shouted Morel, rising from his chair and glaring at his son.
William, who was a tall lad for his years, but very sensitive, had gone pale, and was looking in a sort of horror at his father.
"Go out!" Mrs. Morel commanded her son.
William had not the wit to move. Suddenly Morel clenched his fist, and crouched.
"I'll GI'E him 'go out'!" he shouted like an insane thing.
"What!" cried Mrs. Morel, panting with rage. "You shall not touch him for HER telling, you shall not!"
"Shonna I?" shouted Morel. "Shonna I?"
And, glaring at the boy, he ran forward. Mrs. Morel sprang in between them, with her fist lifted.
"Don't you DARE!" she cried.
"What!" he shouted, baffled for the moment. "What!"
She spun round to her son.
"GO out of the house!" she commanded him in fury.
The boy, as if hypnotised by her, turned suddenly and was gone. Morel rushed to the door, but was too late. He returned, pale under his pit-dirt with fury. But now his wife was fully roused.
"Only dare!" she said in a loud, ringing voice. "Only dare, milord, to lay a finger on that child! You'll regret it for ever."
He was afraid of her. In a towering rage, he sat down.
When the children were old enough to be left, Mrs. Morel joined the Women's Guild. It was a little club of women attached to the Co-operative Wholesale Society, which met on Monday night in the long room over the grocery shop of the Bestwood "Co-op". The women were supposed to discuss the benefits to be derived from co-operation, and other social questions. Sometimes Mrs. Morel read a paper. It seemed queer to the children to see their mother, who was always busy about the house, sitting writing in her rapid fashion, thinking, referring to books, and writing again. They felt for her on such occasions the deepest respect.
But they loved the Guild. It was the only thing to which they did not grudge their mother—and that partly because she enjoyed it, partly because of the treats they derived from it. The Guild was called by some hostile husbands, who found their wives getting too independent, the "clat-fart" shop—that is, the gossip-shop. It is true, from off the basis of the Guild, the women could look at their homes, at the conditions of their own lives, and find fault. So the colliers found their women had a new standard of their own, rather disconcerting. And also, Mrs. Morel always had a lot of news on Monday nights, so that the children liked William to be in when their mother came home, because she told him things.
Then, when the lad was thirteen, she got him a job in the "Co-op." office. He was a very clever boy, frank, with rather rough features and real viking blue eyes.
"What dost want ter ma'e a stool-harsed Jack on 'im for?" said Morel. "All he'll do is to wear his britches behind out an' earn nowt. What's 'e startin' wi'?"
"It doesn't matter what he's starting with," said Mrs. Morel.
"It wouldna! Put 'im i' th' pit we me, an' 'ell earn a easy ten shillin' a wik from th' start. But six shillin' wearin' his truck-end out on a stool's better than ten shillin' i' th' pit wi'me, I know."
"He is NOT going in the pit," said Mrs. Morel, "and there's an end of it."
"It wor good enough for me, but it's non good enough for 'im."
"If your mother put you in the pit at twelve, it's no reason why I should do the same with my lad."
"Twelve! It wor a sight afore that!"
"Whenever it was," said Mrs. Morel.
She was very proud of her son. He went to the night school, and learned shorthand, so that by the time he was sixteen he was the best shorthand clerk and book-keeper on the place, except one. Then he taught in the night schools. But he was so fiery that only his good-nature and his size protected him.
All the things that men do—the decent things—William did. He could run like the wind. When he was twelve he won a first prize in a race; an inkstand of glass, shaped like an anvil. It stood proudly on the dresser, and gave Mrs. Morel a keen pleasure. The boy only ran for her. He flew home with his anvil, breathless, with a "Look, mother!" That was the first real tribute to herself. She took it like a queen.
"How pretty!" she exclaimed.
Then he began to get ambitious. He gave all his money to his mother. When he earned fourteen shillings a week, she gave him back two for himself, and, as he never drank, he felt himself rich. He went about with the bourgeois of Bestwood. The townlet contained nothing higher than the clergyman. Then came the bank manager, then the doctors, then the tradespeople, and after that the hosts of colliers. Willam began to consort with the sons of the chemist, the schoolmaster, and the tradesmen. He played billiards in the Mechanics' Hall. Also he danced—this in spite of his mother. All the life that Bestwood offered he enjoyed, from the sixpenny-hops down Church Street, to sports and billiards.
Paul was treated to dazzling descriptions of all kinds of flower-like ladies, most of whom lived like cut blooms in William's heart for a brief fortnight.
Occasionally some flame would come in pursuit of her errant swain. Mrs. Morel would find a strange girl at the door, and immediately she sniffed the air.
"Is Mr. Morel in?" the damsel would ask appealingly.
"My husband is at home," Mrs. Morel replied.
"I—I mean YOUNG Mr. Morel," repeated the maiden painfully.
"Which one? There are several."
Whereupon much blushing and stammering from the fair one.
"I—I met Mr. Morel—at Ripley," she explained.
"Oh—at a dance!"
"I don't approve of the girls my son meets at dances. And he is NOT at home."
Then he came home angry with his mother for having turned the girl away so rudely. He was a careless, yet eager-looking fellow, who walked with long strides, sometimes frowning, often with his cap pushed jollily to the back of his head. Now he came in frowning. He threw his cap on to the sofa, and took his strong jaw in his hand, and glared down at his mother. She was small, with her hair taken straight back from her forehead. She had a quiet air of authority, and yet of rare warmth. Knowing her son was angry, she trembled inwardly.
"Did a lady call for me yesterday, mother?" he asked.
"I don't know about a lady. There was a girl came."
"And why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I forgot, simply."
He fumed a little.
"A good-looking girl—seemed a lady?"
"I didn't look at her."
"Big brown eyes?"
"I did NOT look. And tell your girls, my son, that when they're running after you, they're not to come and ask your mother for you. Tell them that—brazen baggages you meet at dancing-classes."
"I'm sure she was a nice girl."
"And I'm sure she wasn't."
There ended the altercation. Over the dancing there was a great strife between the mother and the son. The grievance reached its height when William said he was going to Hucknall Torkard—considered a low town—to a fancy-dress ball. He was to be a Highlander. There was a dress he could hire, which one of his friends had had, and which fitted him perfectly. The Highland suit came home. Mrs. Morel received it coldly and would not unpack it.
"My suit come?" cried William.
"There's a parcel in the front room."
He rushed in and cut the string.
"How do you fancy your son in this!" he said, enraptured, showing her the suit.
"You know I don't want to fancy you in it."
On the evening of the dance, when he had come home to dress, Mrs. Morel put on her coat and bonnet.
"Aren't you going to stop and see me, mother?" he asked.
"No; I don't want to see you," she replied.
She was rather pale, and her face was closed and hard. She was afraid of her son's going the same way as his father. He hesitated a moment, and his heart stood still with anxiety. Then he caught sight of the Highland bonnet with its ribbons. He picked it up gleefully, forgetting her. She went out.
When he was nineteen he suddenly left the Co-op. office and got a situation in Nottingham. In his new place he had thirty shillings a week instead of eighteen. This was indeed a rise. His mother and his father were brimmed up with pride. Everybody praised William. It seemed he was going to get on rapidly. Mrs. Morel hoped, with his aid, to help her younger sons. Annie was now studying to be a teacher. Paul, also very clever, was getting on well, having lessons in French and German from his godfather, the clergyman who was still a friend to Mrs. Morel. Arthur, a spoilt and very good-looking boy, was at the Board school, but there was talk of his trying to get a scholarship for the High School in Nottingham.
William remained a year at his new post in Nottingham. He was studying hard, and growing serious. Something seemed to be fretting him. Still he went out to the dances and the river parties. He did not drink. The children were all rabid teetotallers. He came home very late at night, and sat yet longer studying. His mother implored him to take more care, to do one thing or another.
"Dance, if you want to dance, my son; but don't think you can work in the office, and then amuse yourself, and THEN study on top of all. You can't; the human frame won't stand it. Do one thing or the other—amuse yourself or learn Latin; but don't try to do both."
Then he got a place in London, at a hundred and twenty a year. This seemed a fabulous sum. His mother doubted almost whether to rejoice or to grieve.
"They want me in Lime Street on Monday week, mother," he cried, his eyes blazing as he read the letter. Mrs. Morel felt everything go silent inside her. He read the letter: "'And will you reply by Thursday whether you accept. Yours faithfully—' They want me, mother, at a hundred and twenty a year, and don't even ask to see me. Didn't I tell you I could do it! Think of me in London! And I can give you twenty pounds a year, mater. We s'll all be rolling in money."
"We shall, my son," she answered sadly.
It never occurred to him that she might be more hurt at his going away than glad of his success. Indeed, as the days drew near for his departure, her heart began to close and grow dreary with despair. She loved him so much! More than that, she hoped in him so much. Almost she lived by him. She liked to do things for him: she liked to put a cup for his tea and to iron his collars, of which he was so proud. It was a joy to her to have him proud of his collars. There was no laundry. So she used to rub away at them with her little convex iron, to polish them, till they shone from the sheer pressure of her arm. Now she would not do it for him. Now he was going away. She felt almost as if he were going as well out of her heart. He did not seem to leave her inhabited with himself. That was the grief and the pain to her. He took nearly all himself away.
A few days before his departure—he was just twenty—he burned his love-letters. They had hung on a file at the top of the kitchen cupboard. From some of them he had read extracts to his mother. Some of them she had taken the trouble to read herself. But most were too trivial.
Now, on the Saturday morning he said:
"Come on, Postle, let's go through my letters, and you can have the birds and flowers."
Mrs. Morel had done her Saturday's work on the Friday, because he was having a last day's holiday. She was making him a rice cake, which he loved, to take with him. He was scarcely conscious that she was so miserable.
He took the first letter off the file. It was mauve-tinted, and had purple and green thistles. William sniffed the page.
"Nice scent! Smell."
And he thrust the sheet under Paul's nose.
"Um!" said Paul, breathing in. "What d'you call it? Smell, mother."
His mother ducked her small, fine nose down to the paper.
"I don't want to smell their rubbish," she said, sniffing.
"This girl's father," said William, "is as rich as Croesus. He owns property without end. She calls me Lafayette, because I know French. 'You will see, I've forgiven you'—I like HER forgiving me. 'I told mother about you this morning, and she will have much pleasure if you come to tea on Sunday, but she will have to get father's consent also. I sincerely hope he will agree. I will let you know how it transpires. If, however, you—'"
"'Let you know how it' what?" interrupted Mrs. Morel.
"'Transpires!'" repeated Mrs. Morel mockingly. "I thought she was so well educated!"
William felt slightly uncomfortable, and abandoned this maiden, giving Paul the corner with the thistles. He continued to read extracts from his letters, some of which amused his mother, some of which saddened her and made her anxious for him.
"My lad," she said, "they're very wise. They know they've only got to flatter your vanity, and you press up to them like a dog that has its head scratched."
"Well, they can't go on scratching for ever," he replied. "And when they've done, I trot away."
"But one day you'll find a string round your neck that you can't pull off," she answered.
"Not me! I'm equal to any of 'em, mater, they needn't flatter themselves."
"You flatter YOURSELF," she said quietly.
Soon there was a heap of twisted black pages, all that remained of the file of scented letters, except that Paul had thirty or forty pretty tickets from the corners of the notepaper—swallows and forget-me-nots and ivy sprays. And William went to London, to start a new life.
THE YOUNG LIFE OF PAUL
PAUL would be built like his mother, slightly and rather small. His fair hair went reddish, and then dark brown; his eyes were grey. He was a pale, quiet child, with eyes that seemed to listen, and with a full, dropping underlip.
As a rule he seemed old for his years. He was so conscious of what other people felt, particularly his mother. When she fretted he understood, and could have no peace. His soul seemed always attentive to her.
As he grew older he became stronger. William was too far removed from him to accept him as a companion. So the smaller boy belonged at first almost entirely to Annie. She was a tomboy and a "flybie-skybie", as her mother called her. But she was intensely fond of her second brother. So Paul was towed round at the heels of Annie, sharing her game. She raced wildly at lerky with the other young wild-cats of the Bottoms. And always Paul flew beside her, living her share of the game, having as yet no part of his own. He was quiet and not noticeable. But his sister adored him. He always seemed to care for things if she wanted him to.
She had a big doll of which she was fearfully proud, though not so fond. So she laid the doll on the sofa, and covered it with an antimacassar, to sleep. Then she forgot it. Meantime Paul must practise jumping off the sofa arm. So he jumped crash into the face of the hidden doll. Annie rushed up, uttered a loud wail, and sat down to weep a dirge. Paul remained quite still.
"You couldn't tell it was there, mother; you couldn't tell it was there," he repeated over and over. So long as Annie wept for the doll he sat helpless with misery. Her grief wore itself out. She forgave her brother—he was so much upset. But a day or two afterwards she was shocked.
"Let's make a sacrifice of Arabella," he said. "Let's burn her."
She was horrified, yet rather fascinated. She wanted to see what the boy would do. He made an altar of bricks, pulled some of the shavings out of Arabella's body, put the waxen fragments into the hollow face, poured on a little paraffin, and set the whole thing alight. He watched with wicked satisfaction the drops of wax melt off the broken forehead of Arabella, and drop like sweat into the flame. So long as the stupid big doll burned he rejoiced in silence. At the end be poked among the embers with a stick, fished out the arms and legs, all blackened, and smashed them under stones.
"That's the sacrifice of Missis Arabella," he said. "An' I'm glad there's nothing left of her."
Which disturbed Annie inwardly, although she could say nothing. He seemed to hate the doll so intensely, because he had broken it.
All the children, but particularly Paul, were peculiarly against their father, along with their mother. Morel continued to bully and to drink. He had periods, months at a time, when he made the whole life of the family a misery. Paul never forgot coming home from the Band of Hope one Monday evening and finding his mother with her eye swollen and discoloured, his father standing on the hearthrug, feet astride, his head down, and William, just home from work, glaring at his father. There was a silence as the young children entered, but none of the elders looked round.
William was white to the lips, and his fists were clenched. He waited until the children were silent, watching with children's rage and hate; then he said:
"You coward, you daren't do it when I was in."
But Morel's blood was up. He swung round on his son. William was bigger, but Morel was hard-muscled, and mad with fury.
"Dossn't I?" he shouted. "Dossn't I? Ha'e much more o' thy chelp, my young jockey, an' I'll rattle my fist about thee. Ay, an' I sholl that, dost see?"
Morel crouched at the knees and showed his fist in an ugly, almost beast-like fashion. William was white with rage.
"Will yer?" he said, quiet and intense. "It 'ud be the last time, though."
Morel danced a little nearer, crouching, drawing back his fist to strike. William put his fists ready. A light came into his blue eyes, almost like a laugh. He watched his father. Another word, and the men would have begun to fight. Paul hoped they would. The three children sat pale on the sofa.
"Stop it, both of you," cried Mrs. Morel in a hard voice. "We've had enough for ONE night. And YOU," she said, turning on to her husband, "look at your children!"
Morel glanced at the sofa.
"Look at the children, you nasty little bitch!" he sneered. "Why, what have I done to the children, I should like to know? But they're like yourself; you've put 'em up to your own tricks and nasty ways—you've learned 'em in it, you 'ave."
She refused to answer him. No one spoke. After a while he threw his boots under the table and went to bed.
"Why didn't you let me have a go at him?" said William, when his father was upstairs. "I could easily have beaten him."
"A nice thing—your own father," she replied.
"'FATHER!'" repeated William. "Call HIM MY father!"
"Well, he is—and so—"
"But why don't you let me settle him? I could do, easily."
"The idea!" she cried. "It hasn't come to THAT yet."
"No," he said, "it's come to worse. Look at yourself. WHY didn't you let me give it him?"
"Because I couldn't bear it, so never think of it," she cried quickly.
And the children went to bed, miserably.
When William was growing up, the family moved from the Bottoms to a house on the brow of the hill, commanding a view of the valley, which spread out like a convex cockle-shell, or a clamp-shell, before it. In front of the house was a huge old ash-tree. The west wind, sweeping from Derbyshire, caught the houses with full force, and the tree shrieked again. Morel liked it.
"It's music," he said. "It sends me to sleep."
But Paul and Arthur and Annie hated it. To Paul it became almost a demoniacal noise. The winter of their first year in the new house their father was very bad. The children played in the street, on the brim of the wide, dark valley, until eight o'clock. Then they went to bed. Their mother sat sewing below. Having such a great space in front of the house gave the children a feeling of night, of vastness, and of terror. This terror came in from the shrieking of the tree and the anguish of the home discord. Often Paul would wake up, after he had been asleep a long time, aware of thuds downstairs. Instantly he was wide awake. Then he heard the booming shouts of his father, come home nearly drunk, then the sharp replies of his mother, then the bang, bang of his father's fist on the table, and the nasty snarling shout as the man's voice got higher. And then the whole was drowned in a piercing medley of shrieks and cries from the great, wind-swept ash-tree. The children lay silent in suspense, waiting for a lull in the wind to hear what their father was doing. He might hit their mother again. There was a feeling of horror, a kind of bristling in the darkness, and a sense of blood. They lay with their hearts in the grip of an intense anguish. The wind came through the tree fiercer and fiercer. All the chords of the great harp hummed, whistled, and shrieked. And then came the horror of the sudden silence, silence everywhere, outside and downstairs. What was it? Was it a silence of blood? What had he done?
The children lay and breathed the darkness. And then, at last, they heard their father throw down his boots and tramp upstairs in his stockinged feet. Still they listened. Then at last, if the wind allowed, they heard the water of the tap drumming into the kettle, which their mother was filling for morning, and they could go to sleep in peace.
So they were happy in the morning—happy, very happy playing, dancing at night round the lonely lamp-post in the midst of the darkness. But they had one tight place of anxiety in their hearts, one darkness in their eyes, which showed all their lives.
Paul hated his father. As a boy he had a fervent private religion.
"Make him stop drinking," he prayed every night. "Lord, let my father die," he prayed very often. "Let him not be killed at pit," he prayed when, after tea, the father did not come home from work.
That was another time when the family suffered intensely. The children came from school and had their teas. On the hob the big black saucepan was simmering, the stew-jar was in the oven, ready for Morel's dinner. He was expected at five o'clock. But for months he would stop and drink every night on his way from work.
In the winter nights, when it was cold, and grew dark early, Mrs. Morel would put a brass candlestick on the table, light a tallow candle to save the gas. The children finished their bread-and-butter, or dripping, and were ready to go out to play. But if Morel had not come they faltered. The sense of his sitting in all his pit-dirt, drinking, after a long day's work, not coming home and eating and washing, but sitting, getting drunk, on an empty stomach, made Mrs. Morel unable to bear herself. From her the feeling was transmitted to the other children. She never suffered alone any more: the children suffered with her.
Paul went out to play with the rest. Down in the great trough of twilight, tiny clusters of lights burned where the pits were. A few last colliers straggled up the dim field path. The lamplighter came along. No more colliers came. Darkness shut down over the valley; work was done. It was night.
Then Paul ran anxiously into the kitchen. The one candle still burned on the table, the big fire glowed red. Mrs. Morel sat alone. On the hob the saucepan steamed; the dinner-plate lay waiting on the table. All the room was full of the sense of waiting, waiting for the man who was sitting in his pit-dirt, dinnerless, some mile away from home, across the darkness, drinking himself drunk. Paul stood in the doorway.
"Has my dad come?" he asked.
"You can see he hasn't," said Mrs. Morel, cross with the futility of the question.
Then the boy dawdled about near his mother. They shared the same anxiety. Presently Mrs. Morel went out and strained the potatoes.
"They're ruined and black," she said; "but what do I care?"
Not many words were spoken. Paul almost hated his mother for suffering because his father did not come home from work.
"What do you bother yourself for?" he said. "If he wants to stop and get drunk, why don't you let him?"
"Let him!" flashed Mrs. Morel. "You may well say 'let him'."
She knew that the man who stops on the way home from work is on a quick way to ruining himself and his home. The children were yet young, and depended on the breadwinner. William gave her the sense of relief, providing her at last with someone to turn to if Morel failed. But the tense atmosphere of the room on these waiting evenings was the same.
The minutes ticked away. At six o'clock still the cloth lay on the table, still the dinner stood waiting, still the same sense of anxiety and expectation in the room. The boy could not stand it any longer. He could not go out and play. So he ran in to Mrs. Inger, next door but one, for her to talk to him. She had no children. Her husband was good to her but was in a shop, and came home late. So, when she saw the lad at the door, she called:
"Come in, Paul."
The two sat talking for some time, when suddenly the boy rose, saying:
"Well, I'll be going and seeing if my mother wants an errand doing."
He pretended to be perfectly cheerful, and did not tell his friend what ailed him. Then he ran indoors.
Morel at these times came in churlish and hateful.
"This is a nice time to come home," said Mrs. Morel.
"Wha's it matter to yo' what time I come whoam?" he shouted.
And everybody in the house was still, because he was dangerous. He ate his food in the most brutal manner possible, and, when he had done, pushed all the pots in a heap away from him, to lay his arms on the table. Then he went to sleep.
Paul hated his father so. The collier's small, mean head, with its black hair slightly soiled with grey, lay on the bare arms, and the face, dirty and inflamed, with a fleshy nose and thin, paltry brows, was turned sideways, asleep with beer and weariness and nasty temper. If anyone entered suddenly, or a noise were made, the man looked up and shouted:
"I'll lay my fist about thy y'ead, I'm tellin' thee, if tha doesna stop that clatter! Dost hear?"
And the two last words, shouted in a bullying fashion, usually at Annie, made the family writhe with hate of the man.
He was shut out from all family affairs. No one told him anything. The children, alone with their mother, told her all about the day's happenings, everything. Nothing had really taken place in them until it was told to their mother. But as soon as the father came in, everything stopped. He was like the scotch in the smooth, happy machinery of the home. And he was always aware of this fall of silence on his entry, the shutting off of life, the unwelcome. But now it was gone too far to alter.
He would dearly have liked the children to talk to him, but they could not. Sometimes Mrs. Morel would say:
"You ought to tell your father."
Paul won a prize in a competition in a child's paper. Everybody was highly jubilant.
"Now you'd better tell your father when he comes in," said Mrs. Morel. "You know how be carries on and says he's never told anything."
"All right," said Paul. But he would almost rather have forfeited the prize than have to tell his father.
"I've won a prize in a competition, dad," he said. Morel turned round to him.
"Have you, my boy? What sort of a competition?"
"Oh, nothing—about famous women."
"And how much is the prize, then, as you've got?"
"It's a book."
And that was all. Conversation was impossible between the father and any other member of the family. He was an outsider. He had denied the God in him.
The only times when he entered again into the life of his own people was when he worked, and was happy at work. Sometimes, in the evening, he cobbled the boots or mended the kettle or his pit-bottle. Then he always wanted several attendants, and the children enjoyed it. They united with him in the work, in the actual doing of something, when he was his real self again.
He was a good workman, dexterous, and one who, when he was in a good humour, always sang. He had whole periods, months, almost years, of friction and nasty temper. Then sometimes he was jolly again. It was nice to see him run with a piece of red-hot iron into the scullery, crying:
"Out of my road—out of my road!"
Then he hammered the soft, red-glowing stuff on his iron goose, and made the shape he wanted. Or he sat absorbed for a moment, soldering. Then the children watched with joy as the metal sank suddenly molten, and was shoved about against the nose of the soldering-iron, while the room was full of a scent of burnt resin and hot tin, and Morel was silent and intent for a minute. He always sang when he mended boots because of the jolly sound of hammering. And he was rather happy when he sat putting great patches on his moleskin pit trousers, which he would often do, considering them too dirty, and the stuff too hard, for his wife to mend.
But the best time for the young children was when he made fuses. Morel fetched a sheaf of long sound wheat-straws from the attic. These he cleaned with his hand, till each one gleamed like a stalk of gold, after which he cut the straws into lengths of about six inches, leaving, if he could, a notch at the bottom of each piece. He always had a beautifully sharp knife that could cut a straw clean without hurting it. Then he set in the middle of the table a heap of gunpowder, a little pile of black grains upon the white-scrubbed board. He made and trimmed the straws while Paul and Annie rifled and plugged them. Paul loved to see the black grains trickle down a crack in his palm into the mouth of the straw, peppering jollily downwards till the straw was full. Then he bunged up the mouth with a bit of soap—which he got on his thumb-nail from a pat in a saucer—and the straw was finished.
"Look, dad!" he said.
"That's right, my beauty," replied Morel, who was peculiarly lavish of endearments to his second son. Paul popped the fuse into the powder-tin, ready for the morning, when Morel would take it to the pit, and use it to fire a shot that would blast the coal down.
Meantime Arthur, still fond of his father, would lean on the arm of Morel's chair and say:
"Tell us about down pit, daddy."
This Morel loved to do.
"Well, there's one little 'oss—we call 'im Taffy," he would begin. "An' he's a fawce 'un!"
Morel had a warm way of telling a story. He made one feel Taffy's cunning.
"He's a brown 'un," he would answer, "an' not very high. Well, he comes i' th' stall wi' a rattle, an' then yo' 'ear 'im sneeze.
"'Ello, Taff,' you say, 'what art sneezin' for? Bin ta'ein' some snuff?'
"An' 'e sneezes again. Then he slives up an' shoves 'is 'ead on yer, that cadin'.
"'What's want, Taff?' yo' say."
"And what does he?" Arthur always asked.
"He wants a bit o' bacca, my duckie."
This story of Taffy would go on interminably, and everybody loved it.
Or sometimes it was a new tale.
"An' what dost think, my darlin'? When I went to put my coat on at snap-time, what should go runnin' up my arm but a mouse.
"'Hey up, theer!' I shouts.
"An' I wor just in time ter get 'im by th' tail."
"And did you kill it?"
"I did, for they're a nuisance. The place is fair snied wi' 'em."
"An' what do they live on?"
"The corn as the 'osses drops—an' they'll get in your pocket an' eat your snap, if you'll let 'em—no matter where yo' hing your coat—the slivin', nibblin' little nuisances, for they are."
These happy evenings could not take place unless Morel had some job to do. And then he always went to bed very early, often before the children. There was nothing remaining for him to stay up for, when he had finished tinkering, and had skimmed the headlines of the newspaper.
And the children felt secure when their father was in bed. They lay and talked softly a while. Then they started as the lights went suddenly sprawling over the ceiling from the lamps that swung in the hands of the colliers tramping by outside, going to take the nine o'clock shift. They listened to the voices of the men, imagined them dipping down into the dark valley. Sometimes they went to the window and watched the three or four lamps growing tinier and tinier, swaying down the fields in the darkness. Then it was a joy to rush back to bed and cuddle closely in the warmth.
Paul was rather a delicate boy, subject to bronchitis. The others were all quite strong; so this was another reason for his mother's difference in feeling for him. One day he came home at dinner-time feeling ill. But it was not a family to make any fuss.
"What's the matter with YOU?" his mother asked sharply.
"Nothing," he replied.
But he ate no dinner.
"If you eat no dinner, you're not going to school," she said.
"Why?" he asked.
So after dinner he lay down on the sofa, on the warm chintz cushions the children loved. Then he fell into a kind of doze. That afternoon Mrs. Morel was ironing. She listened to the small, restless noise the boy made in his throat as she worked. Again rose in her heart the old, almost weary feeling towards him. She had never expected him to live. And yet he had a great vitality in his young body. Perhaps it would have been a little relief to her if he had died. She always felt a mixture of anguish in her love for him.
He, in his semi-conscious sleep, was vaguely aware of the clatter of the iron on the iron-stand, of the faint thud, thud on the ironing-board. Once roused, he opened his eyes to see his mother standing on the hearthrug with the hot iron near her cheek, listening, as it were, to the heat. Her still face, with the mouth closed tight from suffering and disillusion and self-denial, and her nose the smallest bit on one side, and her blue eyes so young, quick, and warm, made his heart contract with love. When she was quiet, so, she looked brave and rich with life, but as if she had been done out of her rights. It hurt the boy keenly, this feeling about her that she had never had her life's fulfilment: and his own incapability to make up to her hurt him with a sense of impotence, yet made him patiently dogged inside. It was his childish aim.
She spat on the iron, and a little ball of spit bounded, raced off the dark, glossy surface. Then, kneeling, she rubbed the iron on the sack lining of the hearthrug vigorously. She was warm in the ruddy firelight. Paul loved the way she crouched and put her head on one side. Her movements were light and quick. It was always a pleasure to watch her. Nothing she ever did, no movement she ever made, could have been found fault with by her children. The room was warm and full of the scent of hot linen. Later on the clergyman came and talked softly with her.
Paul was laid up with an attack of bronchitis. He did not mind much. What happened happened, and it was no good kicking against the pricks. He loved the evenings, after eight o'clock, when the light was put out, and he could watch the fire-flames spring over the darkness of the walls and ceiling; could watch huge shadows waving and tossing, till the room seemed full of men who battled silently.
On retiring to bed, the father would come into the sickroom. He was always very gentle if anyone were ill. But he disturbed the atmosphere for the boy.
"Are ter asleep, my darlin'?" Morel asked softly.
"No; is my mother comin'?"
"She's just finishin' foldin' the clothes. Do you want anything?" Morel rarely "thee'd" his son.
"I don't want nothing. But how long will she be?"
"Not long, my duckie."
The father waited undecidedly on the hearthrug for a moment or two. He felt his son did not want him. Then he went to the top of the stairs and said to his wife:
"This childt's axin' for thee; how long art goin' to be?"
"Until I've finished, good gracious! Tell him to go to sleep."
"She says you're to go to sleep," the father repeated gently to Paul.
"Well, I want HER to come," insisted the boy.
"He says he can't go off till you come," Morel called downstairs.
"Eh, dear! I shan't be long. And do stop shouting downstairs. There's the other children—"
Then Morel came again and crouched before the bedroom fire. He loved a fire dearly.
"She says she won't be long," he said.
He loitered about indefinitely. The boy began to get feverish with irritation. His father's presence seemed to aggravate all his sick impatience. At last Morel, after having stood looking at his son awhile, said softly:
"Good-night, my darling."
"Good-night," Paul replied, turning round in relief to be alone.
Paul loved to sleep with his mother. Sleep is still most perfect, in spite of hygienists, when it is shared with a beloved. The warmth, the security and peace of soul, the utter comfort from the touch of the other, knits the sleep, so that it takes the body and soul completely in its healing. Paul lay against her and slept, and got better; whilst she, always a bad sleeper, fell later on into a profound sleep that seemed to give her faith.
In convalescence he would sit up in bed, see the fluffy horses feeding at the troughs in the field, scattering their hay on the trodden yellow snow; watch the miners troop home—small, black figures trailing slowly in gangs across the white field. Then the night came up in dark blue vapour from the snow.
In convalescence everything was wonderful. The snowflakes, suddenly arriving on the window-pane, clung there a moment like swallows, then were gone, and a drop of water was crawling down the glass. The snowflakes whirled round the corner of the house, like pigeons dashing by. Away across the valley the little black train crawled doubtfully over the great whiteness.
While they were so poor, the children were delighted if they could do anything to help economically. Annie and Paul and Arthur went out early in the morning, in summer, looking for mushrooms, hunting through the wet grass, from which the larks were rising, for the white-skinned, wonderful naked bodies crouched secretly in the green. And if they got half a pound they felt exceedingly happy: there was the joy of finding something, the joy of accepting something straight from the hand of Nature, and the joy of contributing to the family exchequer.
But the most important harvest, after gleaning for frumenty, was the blackberries. Mrs. Morel must buy fruit for puddings on the Saturdays; also she liked blackberries. So Paul and Arthur scoured the coppices and woods and old quarries, so long as a blackberry was to be found, every week-end going on their search. In that region of mining villages blackberries became a comparative rarity. But Paul hunted far and wide. He loved being out in the country, among the bushes. But he also could not bear to go home to his mother empty. That, he felt, would disappoint her, and he would have died rather.
"Good gracious!" she would exclaim as the lads came in, late, and tired to death, and hungry, "wherever have you been?"
"Well," replied Paul, "there wasn't any, so we went over Misk Hills. And look here, our mother!"
She peeped into the basket.
"Now, those are fine ones!" she exclaimed.
"And there's over two pounds—isn't there over two pounds"?
She tried the basket.
"Yes," she answered doubtfully.
Then Paul fished out a little spray. He always brought her one spray, the best he could find.
"Pretty!" she said, in a curious tone, of a woman accepting a love-token.
The boy walked all day, went miles and miles, rather than own himself beaten and come home to her empty-handed. She never realised this, whilst he was young. She was a woman who waited for her children to grow up. And William occupied her chiefly.
But when William went to Nottingham, and was not so much at home, the mother made a companion of Paul. The latter was unconsciously jealous of his brother, and William was jealous of him. At the same time, they were good friends.
Mrs. Morel's intimacy with her second son was more subtle and fine, perhaps not so passionate as with her eldest. It was the rule that Paul should fetch the money on Friday afternoons. The colliers of the five pits were paid on Fridays, but not individually. All the earnings of each stall were put down to the chief butty, as contractor, and he divided the wages again, either in the public-house or in his own home. So that the children could fetch the money, school closed early on Friday afternoons. Each of the Morel children—William, then Annie, then Paul—had fetched the money on Friday afternoons, until they went themselves to work. Paul used to set off at half-past three, with a little calico bag in his pocket. Down all the paths, women, girls, children, and men were seen trooping to the offices.
These offices were quite handsome: a new, red-brick building, almost like a mansion, standing in its own grounds at the end of Greenhill Lane. The waiting-room was the hall, a long, bare room paved with blue brick, and having a seat all round, against the wall. Here sat the colliers in their pit-dirt. They had come up early. The women and children usually loitered about on the red gravel paths. Paul always examined the grass border, and the big grass bank, because in it grew tiny pansies and tiny forget-me-nots. There was a sound of many voices. The women had on their Sunday hats. The girls chattered loudly. Little dogs ran here and there. The green shrubs were silent all around.
Then from inside came the cry "Spinney Park—Spinney Park." All the folk for Spinney Park trooped inside. When it was time for Bretty to be paid, Paul went in among the crowd. The pay-room was quite small. A counter went across, dividing it into half. Behind the counter stood two men—Mr. Braithwaite and his clerk, Mr. Winterbottom. Mr. Braithwaite was large, somewhat of the stern patriarch in appearance, having a rather thin white beard. He was usually muffled in an enormous silk neckerchief, and right up to the hot summer a huge fire burned in the open grate. No window was open. Sometimes in winter the air scorched the throats of the people, coming in from the freshness. Mr. Winterbottom was rather small and fat, and very bald. He made remarks that were not witty, whilst his chief launched forth patriarchal admonitions against the colliers.
The room was crowded with miners in their pit-dirt, men who had been home and changed, and women, and one or two children, and usually a dog. Paul was quite small, so it was often his fate to be jammed behind the legs of the men, near the fire which scorched him. He knew the order of the names—they went according to stall number.
"Holliday," came the ringing voice of Mr. Braithwaite. Then Mrs. Holliday stepped silently forward, was paid, drew aside.
A boy stepped to the counter. Mr. Braithwaite, large and irascible, glowered at him over his spectacles.
"John Bower!" he repeated.
"It's me," said the boy.
"Why, you used to 'ave a different nose than that," said glossy Mr. Winterbottom, peering over the counter. The people tittered, thinking of John Bower senior.
"How is it your father's not come!" said Mr. Braithwaite, in a large and magisterial voice.
"He's badly," piped the boy.
"You should tell him to keep off the drink," pronounced the great cashier.
"An' niver mind if he puts his foot through yer," said a mocking voice from behind.
All the men laughed. The large and important cashier looked down at his next sheet.
"Fred Pilkington!" he called, quite indifferent.
Mr. Braithwaite was an important shareholder in the firm.
Paul knew his turn was next but one, and his heart began to beat. He was pushed against the chimney-piece. His calves were burning. But he did not hope to get through the wall of men.
"Walter Morel!" came the ringing voice.
"Here!" piped Paul, small and inadequate.
"Morel—Walter Morel!" the cashier repeated, his finger and thumb on the invoice, ready to pass on.
Paul was suffering convulsions of self-consciousness, and could not or would not shout. The backs of the men obliterated him. Then Mr. Winterbottom came to the rescue.
"He's here. Where is he? Morel's lad?"
The fat, red, bald little man peered round with keen eyes. He pointed at the fireplace. The colliers looked round, moved aside, and disclosed the boy.
"Here he is!" said Mr. Winterbottom.
Paul went to the counter.
"Seventeen pounds eleven and fivepence. Why don't you shout up when you're called?" said Mr. Braithwaite. He banged on to the invoice a five-pound bag of silver, then in a delicate and pretty movement, picked up a little ten-pound column of gold, and plumped it beside the silver. The gold slid in a bright stream over the paper. The cashier finished counting off the money; the boy dragged the whole down the counter to Mr. Winterbottom, to whom the stoppages for rent and tools must be paid. Here he suffered again.
"Sixteen an' six," said Mr. Winterbottom.
The lad was too much upset to count. He pushed forward some loose silver and half a sovereign.
"How much do you think you've given me?" asked Mr. Winterbottom.
The boy looked at him, but said nothing. He had not the faintest notion.
"Haven't you got a tongue in your head?"
Paul bit his lip, and pushed forward some more silver.
"Don't they teach you to count at the Board-school?" he asked.
"Nowt but algibbra an' French," said a collier.
"An' cheek an' impidence," said another.
Paul was keeping someone waiting. With trembling fingers he got his money into the bag and slid out. He suffered the tortures of the damned on these occasions.
His relief, when he got outside, and was walking along the Mansfield Road, was infinite. On the park wall the mosses were green. There were some gold and some white fowls pecking under the apple trees of an orchard. The colliers were walking home in a stream. The boy went near the wall, self-consciously. He knew many of the men, but could not recognise them in their dirt. And this was a new torture to him.
When he got down to the New Inn, at Bretty, his father was not yet come. Mrs. Wharmby, the landlady, knew him. His grandmother, Morel's mother, had been Mrs. Wharmby's friend.
"Your father's not come yet," said the landlady, in the peculiar half-scornful, half-patronising voice of a woman who talks chiefly to grown men. "Sit you down."
Paul sat down on the edge of the bench in the bar. Some colliers were "reckoning"—sharing out their money—in a corner; others came in. They all glanced at the boy without speaking. At last Morel came; brisk, and with something of an air, even in his blackness.
"Hello!" he said rather tenderly to his son. "Have you bested me? Shall you have a drink of something?"
Paul and all the children were bred up fierce anti-alcoholists, and he would have suffered more in drinking a lemonade before all the men than in having a tooth drawn.
The landlady looked at him de haut en bas, rather pitying, and at the same time, resenting his clear, fierce morality. Paul went home, glowering. He entered the house silently. Friday was baking day, and there was usually a hot bun. His mother put it before him.
Suddenly he turned on her in a fury, his eyes flashing:
"I'm NOT going to the office any more," he said.
"Why, what's the matter?" his mother asked in surprise. His sudden rages rather amused her.
"I'm NOT going any more," he declared.
"Oh, very well, tell your father so."
He chewed his bun as if he hated it.
"I'm not—I'm not going to fetch the money."
"Then one of Carlin's children can go; they'd be glad enough of the sixpence," said Mrs. Morel.
This sixpence was Paul's only income. It mostly went in buying birthday presents; but it WAS an income, and he treasured it. But—
"They can have it, then!" he said. "I don't want it."
"Oh, very well," said his mother. "But you needn't bully ME about it."
"They're hateful, and common, and hateful, they are, and I'm not going any more. Mr. Braithwaite drops his 'h's', an' Mr. Winterbottom says 'You was'."
"And is that why you won't go any more?" smiled Mrs. Morel.
The boy was silent for some time. His face was pale, his eyes dark and furious. His mother moved about at her work, taking no notice of him.
"They always stan' in front of me, so's I can't get out," he said.
"Well, my lad, you've only to ASK them," she replied.
"An' then Alfred Winterbottom says, 'What do they teach you at the Board-school?'"
"They never taught HIM much," said Mrs. Morel, "that is a fact—neither manners nor wit—and his cunning he was born with."
So, in her own way, she soothed him. His ridiculous hypersensitiveness made her heart ache. And sometimes the fury in his eyes roused her, made her sleeping soul lift up its head a moment, surprised.
"What was the cheque?" she asked.
"Seventeen pounds eleven and fivepence, and sixteen and six stoppages," replied the boy. "It's a good week; and only five shillings stoppages for my father."
So she was able to calculate how much her husband had earned, and could call him to account if he gave her short money. Morel always kept to himself the secret of the week's amount.
Friday was the baking night and market night. It was the rule that Paul should stay at home and bake. He loved to stop in and draw or read; he was very fond of drawing. Annie always "gallivanted" on Friday nights; Arthur was enjoying himself as usual. So the boy remained alone.
Mrs. Morel loved her marketing. In the tiny market-place on the top of the hill, where four roads, from Nottingham and Derby, Ilkeston and Mansfield, meet, many stalls were erected. Brakes ran in from surrounding villages. The market-place was full of women, the streets packed with men. It was amazing to see so many men everywhere in the streets. Mrs. Morel usually quarrelled with her lace woman, sympathised with her fruit man—who was a gabey, but his wife was a bad 'un—laughed with the fish man—who was a scamp but so droll—put the linoleum man in his place, was cold with the odd-wares man, and only went to the crockery man when she was driven—or drawn by the cornflowers on a little dish; then she was coldly polite.
"I wondered how much that little dish was," she said.
"Sevenpence to you."
She put the dish down and walked away; but she could not leave the market-place without it. Again she went by where the pots lay coldly on the floor, and she glanced at the dish furtively, pretending not to.
She was a little woman, in a bonnet and a black costume. Her bonnet was in its third year; it was a great grievance to Annie.
"Mother!" the girl implored, "don't wear that nubbly little bonnet."
"Then what else shall I wear," replied the mother tartly. "And I'm sure it's right enough."
It had started with a tip; then had had flowers; now was reduced to black lace and a bit of jet.
"It looks rather come down," said Paul. "Couldn't you give it a pick-me-up?"
"I'll jowl your head for impudence," said Mrs. Morel, and she tied the strings of the black bonnet valiantly under her chin.
She glanced at the dish again. Both she and her enemy, the pot man, had an uncomfortable feeling, as if there were something between them. Suddenly he shouted:
"Do you want it for fivepence?"
She started. Her heart hardened; but then she stooped and took up her dish.
"I'll have it," she said.
"Yer'll do me the favour, like?" he said. "Yer'd better spit in it, like yer do when y'ave something give yer."
Mrs. Morel paid him the fivepence in a cold manner.
"I don't see you give it me," she said. "You wouldn't let me have it for fivepence if you didn't want to."
"In this flamin', scrattlin' place you may count yerself lucky if you can give your things away," he growled.
"Yes; there are bad times, and good," said Mrs. Morel.
But she had forgiven the pot man. They were friends. She dare now finger his pots. So she was happy.
Paul was waiting for her. He loved her home-coming. She was always her best so—triumphant, tired, laden with parcels, feeling rich in spirit. He heard her quick, light step in the entry and looked up from his drawing.
"Oh!" she sighed, smiling at him from the doorway.
"My word, you ARE loaded!" he exclaimed, putting down his brush.
"I am!" she gasped. "That brazen Annie said she'd meet me. SUCH a weight!"
She dropped her string bag and her packages on the table.
"Is the bread done?" she asked, going to the oven.
"The last one is soaking," he replied. "You needn't look, I've not forgotten it."
"Oh, that pot man!" she said, closing the oven door. "You know what a wretch I've said he was? Well, I don't think he's quite so bad."
The boy was attentive to her. She took off her little black bonnet.
"No. I think he can't make any money—well, it's everybody's cry alike nowadays—and it makes him disagreeable."
"It would ME," said Paul.
"Well, one can't wonder at it. And he let me have—how much do you think he let me have THIS for?"
She took the dish out of its rag of newspaper, and stood looking on it with joy.
"Show me!" said Paul.
The two stood together gloating over the dish.
"I LOVE cornflowers on things," said Paul.
"Yes, and I thought of the teapot you bought me—"
"One and three," said Paul.
"It's not enough, mother."
"No. Do you know, I fairly sneaked off with it. But I'd been extravagant, I couldn't afford any more. And he needn't have let me have it if he hadn't wanted to."
"No, he needn't, need he," said Paul, and the two comforted each other from the fear of having robbed the pot man.
"We c'n have stewed fruit in it," said Paul.
"Or custard, or a jelly," said his mother.
"Or radishes and lettuce," said he.
"Don't forget that bread," she said, her voice bright with glee.
Paul looked in the oven; tapped the loaf on the base.
"It's done," he said, giving it to her.
She tapped it also.
"Yes," she replied, going to unpack her bag. "Oh, and I'm a wicked, extravagant woman. I know I s'll come to want."
He hopped to her side eagerly, to see her latest extravagance. She unfolded another lump of newspaper and disclosed some roots of pansies and of crimson daisies.
"Four penn'orth!" she moaned.
"How CHEAP!" he cried.
"Yes, but I couldn't afford it THIS week of all weeks."
"But lovely!" he cried.
"Aren't they!" she exclaimed, giving way to pure joy. "Paul, look at this yellow one, isn't it—and a face just like an old man!"
"Just!" cried Paul, stooping to sniff. "And smells that nice! But he's a bit splashed."
He ran in the scullery, came back with the flannel, and carefully washed the pansy.
"NOW look at him now he's wet!" he said.
"Yes!" she exclaimed, brimful of satisfaction.
The children of Scargill Street felt quite select. At the end where the Morels lived there were not many young things. So the few were more united. Boys and girls played together, the girls joining in the fights and the rough games, the boys taking part in the dancing games and rings and make-belief of the girls.
Annie and Paul and Arthur loved the winter evenings, when it was not wet. They stayed indoors till the colliers were all gone home, till it was thick dark, and the street would be deserted. Then they tied their scarves round their necks, for they scorned overcoats, as all the colliers' children did, and went out. The entry was very dark, and at the end the whole great night opened out, in a hollow, with a little tangle of lights below where Minton pit lay, and another far away opposite for Selby. The farthest tiny lights seemed to stretch out the darkness for ever. The children looked anxiously down the road at the one lamp-post, which stood at the end of the field path. If the little, luminous space were deserted, the two boys felt genuine desolation. They stood with their hands in their pockets under the lamp, turning their backs on the night, quite miserable, watching the dark houses. Suddenly a pinafore under a short coat was seen, and a long-legged girl came flying up.
"Where's Billy Pillins an' your Annie an' Eddie Dakin?"
"I don't know."
But it did not matter so much—there were three now. They set up a game round the lamp-post, till the others rushed up, yelling. Then the play went fast and furious.
There was only this one lamp-post. Behind was the great scoop of darkness, as if all the night were there. In front, another wide, dark way opened over the hill brow. Occasionally somebody came out of this way and went into the field down the path. In a dozen yards the night had swallowed them. The children played on.
They were brought exceedingly close together owing to their isolation. If a quarrel took place, the whole play was spoilt. Arthur was very touchy, and Billy Pillins—really Philips—was worse. Then Paul had to side with Arthur, and on Paul's side went Alice, while Billy Pillins always had Emmie Limb and Eddie Dakin to back him up. Then the six would fight, hate with a fury of hatred, and flee home in terror. Paul never forgot, after one of these fierce internecine fights, seeing a big red moon lift itself up, slowly, between the waste road over the hilltop, steadily, like a great bird. And he thought of the Bible, that the moon should be turned to blood. And the next day he made haste to be friends with Billy Pillins. And then the wild, intense games went on again under the lamp-post, surrounded by so much darkness. Mrs. Morel, going into her parlour, would hear the children singing away:
"My shoes are made of Spanish leather, My socks are made of silk; I wear a ring on every finger, I wash myself in milk."
They sounded so perfectly absorbed in the game as their voices came out of the night, that they had the feel of wild creatures singing. It stirred the mother; and she understood when they came in at eight o'clock, ruddy, with brilliant eyes, and quick, passionate speech.
They all loved the Scargill Street house for its openness, for the great scallop of the world it had in view. On summer evenings the women would stand against the field fence, gossiping, facing the west, watching the sunsets flare quickly out, till the Derbyshire hills ridged across the crimson far away, like the black crest of a newt.
In this summer season the pits never turned full time, particularly the soft coal. Mrs. Dakin, who lived next door to Mrs. Morel, going to the field fence to shake her hearthrug, would spy men coming slowly up the hill. She saw at once they were colliers. Then she waited, a tall, thin, shrew-faced woman, standing on the hill brow, almost like a menace to the poor colliers who were toiling up. It was only eleven o'clock. From the far-off wooded hills the haze that hangs like fine black crape at the back of a summer morning had not yet dissipated. The first man came to the stile. "Chock-chock!" went the gate under his thrust.
"What, han' yer knocked off?" cried Mrs. Dakin.
"We han, missis."
"It's a pity as they letn yer goo," she said sarcastically.
"It is that," replied the man.
"Nay, you know you're flig to come up again," she said.
And the man went on. Mrs. Dakin, going up her yard, spied Mrs. Morel taking the ashes to the ash-pit.
"I reckon Minton's knocked off, missis," she cried.
"Isn't it sickenin!" exclaimed Mrs. Morel in wrath.
"Ha! But I'n just seed Jont Hutchby."
"They might as well have saved their shoe-leather," said Mrs. Morel. And both women went indoors disgusted.
The colliers, their faces scarcely blackened, were trooping home again. Morel hated to go back. He loved the sunny morning. But he had gone to pit to work, and to be sent home again spoilt his temper.
"Good gracious, at this time!" exclaimed his wife, as he entered.
"Can I help it, woman?" he shouted.
"And I've not done half enough dinner."
"Then I'll eat my bit o' snap as I took with me," he bawled pathetically. He felt ignominious and sore.
And the children, coming home from school, would wonder to see their father eating with his dinner the two thick slices of rather dry and dirty bread-and-butter that had been to pit and back.
"What's my dad eating his snap for now?" asked Arthur.
"I should ha'e it holled at me if I didna," snorted Morel.
"What a story!" exclaimed his wife.
"An' is it goin' to be wasted?" said Morel. "I'm not such a extravagant mortal as you lot, with your waste. If I drop a bit of bread at pit, in all the dust an' dirt, I pick it up an' eat it."
"The mice would eat it," said Paul. "It wouldn't be wasted."
"Good bread-an'-butter's not for mice, either," said Morel. "Dirty or not dirty, I'd eat it rather than it should be wasted."
"You might leave it for the mice and pay for it out of your next pint," said Mrs. Morel.
"Oh, might I?" he exclaimed.
They were very poor that autumn. William had just gone away to London, and his mother missed his money. He sent ten shillings once or twice, but he had many things to pay for at first. His letters came regularly once a week. He wrote a good deal to his mother, telling her all his life, how he made friends, and was exchanging lessons with a Frenchman, how he enjoyed London. His mother felt again he was remaining to her just as when he was at home. She wrote to him every week her direct, rather witty letters. All day long, as she cleaned the house, she thought of him. He was in London: he would do well. Almost, he was like her knight who wore HER favour in the battle.
He was coming at Christmas for five days. There had never been such preparations. Paul and Arthur scoured the land for holly and evergreens. Annie made the pretty paper hoops in the old-fashioned way. And there was unheard-of extravagance in the larder. Mrs. Morel made a big and magnificent cake. Then, feeling queenly, she showed Paul how to blanch almonds. He skinned the long nuts reverently, counting them all, to see not one was lost. It was said that eggs whisked better in a cold place. So the boy stood in the scullery, where the temperature was nearly at freezing-point, and whisked and whisked, and flew in excitement to his mother as the white of egg grew stiffer and more snowy.
"Just look, mother! Isn't it lovely?"
And he balanced a bit on his nose, then blew it in the air.
"Now, don't waste it," said the mother.
Everybody was mad with excitement. William was coming on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Morel surveyed her pantry. There was a big plum cake, and a rice cake, jam tarts, lemon tarts, and mince-pies—two enormous dishes. She was finishing cooking—Spanish tarts and cheese-cakes. Everywhere was decorated. The kissing bunch of berried holly hung with bright and glittering things, spun slowly over Mrs. Morel's head as she trimmed her little tarts in the kitchen. A great fire roared. There was a scent of cooked pastry. He was due at seven o'clock, but he would be late. The three children had gone to meet him. She was alone. But at a quarter to seven Morel came in again. Neither wife nor husband spoke. He sat in his armchair, quite awkward with excitement, and she quietly went on with her baking. Only by the careful way in which she did things could it be told how much moved she was. The clock ticked on.
"What time dost say he's coming?" Morel asked for the fifth time.
"The train gets in at half-past six," she replied emphatically.
"Then he'll be here at ten past seven."
"Eh, bless you, it'll be hours late on the Midland," she said indifferently. But she hoped, by expecting him late, to bring him early. Morel went down the entry to look for him. Then he came back.
"Goodness, man!" she said. "You're like an ill-sitting hen."
"Hadna you better be gettin' him summat t' eat ready?" asked the father.
"There's plenty of time," she answered.
"There's not so much as I can see on," he answered, turning crossly in his chair. She began to clear her table. The kettle was singing. They waited and waited.
Meantime the three children were on the platform at Sethley Bridge, on the Midland main line, two miles from home. They waited one hour. A train came—he was not there. Down the line the red and green lights shone. It was very dark and very cold.
"Ask him if the London train's come," said Paul to Annie, when they saw a man in a tip cap.
"I'm not," said Annie. "You be quiet—he might send us off."
But Paul was dying for the man to know they were expecting someone by the London train: it sounded so grand. Yet he was much too much scared of broaching any man, let alone one in a peaked cap, to dare to ask. The three children could scarcely go into the waiting-room for fear of being sent away, and for fear something should happen whilst they were off the platform. Still they waited in the dark and cold.
"It's an hour an' a half late," said Arthur pathetically.
"Well," said Annie, "it's Christmas Eve."
They all grew silent. He wasn't coming. They looked down the darkness of the railway. There was London! It seemed the utter-most of distance. They thought anything might happen if one came from London. They were all too troubled to talk. Cold, and unhappy, and silent, they huddled together on the platform.
At last, after more than two hours, they saw the lights of an engine peering round, away down the darkness. A porter ran out. The children drew back with beating hearts. A great train, bound for Manchester, drew up. Two doors opened, and from one of them, William. They flew to him. He handed parcels to them cheerily, and immediately began to explain that this great train had stopped for HIS sake at such a small station as Sethley Bridge: it was not booked to stop.
Meanwhile the parents were getting anxious. The table was set, the chop was cooked, everything was ready. Mrs. Morel put on her black apron. She was wearing her best dress. Then she sat, pretending to read. The minutes were a torture to her.
"H'm!" said Morel. "It's an hour an' a ha'ef."
"And those children waiting!" she said.
"Th' train canna ha' come in yet," he said.
"I tell you, on Christmas Eve they're HOURS wrong."
They were both a bit cross with each other, so gnawed with anxiety. The ash tree moaned outside in a cold, raw wind. And all that space of night from London home! Mrs. Morel suffered. The slight click of the works inside the clock irritated her. It was getting so late; it was getting unbearable.
At last there was a sound of voices, and a footstep in the entry.
"Ha's here!" cried Morel, jumping up.
Then he stood back. The mother ran a few steps towards the door and waited. There was a rush and a patter of feet, the door burst open. William was there. He dropped his Gladstone bag and took his mother in his arms.
"Mater!" he said.
"My boy!" she cried.
And for two seconds, no longer, she clasped him and kissed him. Then she withdrew and said, trying to be quite normal: