The months went slowly along. Paul had more or less got into connection with the Socialist, Suffragette, Unitarian people in Nottingham, owing to his acquaintance with Clara. One day a friend of his and of Clara's, in Bestwood, asked him to take a message to Mrs. Dawes. He went in the evening across Sneinton Market to Bluebell Hill. He found the house in a mean little street paved with granite cobbles and having causeways of dark blue, grooved bricks. The front door went up a step from off this rough pavement, where the feet of the passersby rasped and clattered. The brown paint on the door was so old that the naked wood showed between the rents. He stood on the street below and knocked. There came a heavy footstep; a large, stout woman of about sixty towered above him. He looked up at her from the pavement. She had a rather severe face.
She admitted him into the parlour, which opened on to the street. It was a small, stuffy, defunct room, of mahogany, and deathly enlargements of photographs of departed people done in carbon. Mrs. Radford left him. She was stately, almost martial. In a moment Clara appeared. She flushed deeply, and he was covered with confusion. It seemed as if she did not like being discovered in her home circumstances.
"I thought it couldn't be your voice," she said.
But she might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. She invited him out of the mausoleum of a parlour into the kitchen.
That was a little, darkish room too, but it was smothered in white lace. The mother had seated herself again by the cupboard, and was drawing thread from a vast web of lace. A clump of fluff and ravelled cotton was at her right hand, a heap of three-quarter-inch lace lay on her left, whilst in front of her was the mountain of lace web, piling the hearthrug. Threads of curly cotton, pulled out from between the lengths of lace, strewed over the fender and the fireplace. Paul dared not go forward, for fear of treading on piles of white stuff.
On the table was a jenny for carding the lace. There was a pack of brown cardboard squares, a pack of cards of lace, a little box of pins, and on the sofa lay a heap of drawn lace.
The room was all lace, and it was so dark and warm that the white, snowy stuff seemed the more distinct.
"If you're coming in you won't have to mind the work," said Mrs. Radford. "I know we're about blocked up. But sit you down."
Clara, much embarrassed, gave him a chair against the wall opposite the white heaps. Then she herself took her place on the sofa, shamedly.
"Will you drink a bottle of stout?" Mrs. Radford asked. "Clara, get him a bottle of stout."
He protested, but Mrs. Radford insisted.
"You look as if you could do with it," she said. "Haven't you never any more colour than that?"
"It's only a thick skin I've got that doesn't show the blood through," he answered.
Clara, ashamed and chagrined, brought him a bottle of stout and a glass. He poured out some of the black stuff.
"Well," he said, lifting the glass, "here's health!"
"And thank you," said Mrs. Radford.
He took a drink of stout.
"And light yourself a cigarette, so long as you don't set the house on fire," said Mrs. Radford.
"Thank you," he replied.
"Nay, you needn't thank me," she answered. "I s'll be glad to smell a bit of smoke in th' 'ouse again. A house o' women is as dead as a house wi' no fire, to my thinkin'. I'm not a spider as likes a corner to myself. I like a man about, if he's only something to snap at."
Clara began to work. Her jenny spun with a subdued buzz; the white lace hopped from between her fingers on to the card. It was filled; she snipped off the length, and pinned the end down to the banded lace. Then she put a new card in her jenny. Paul watched her. She sat square and magnificent. Her throat and arms were bare. The blood still mantled below her ears; she bent her head in shame of her humility. Her face was set on her work. Her arms were creamy and full of life beside the white lace; her large, well-kept hands worked with a balanced movement, as if nothing would hurry them. He, not knowing, watched her all the time. He saw the arch of her neck from the shoulder, as she bent her head; he saw the coil of dun hair; he watched her moving, gleaming arms.
"I've heard a bit about you from Clara," continued the mother. "You're in Jordan's, aren't you?" She drew her lace unceasing.
"Ay, well, and I can remember when Thomas Jordan used to ask ME for one of my toffies."
"Did he?" laughed Paul. "And did he get it?"
"Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't—which was latterly. For he's the sort that takes all and gives naught, he is—or used to be."
"I think he's very decent," said Paul.
"Yes; well, I'm glad to hear it."
Mrs. Radford looked across at him steadily. There was something determined about her that he liked. Her face was falling loose, but her eyes were calm, and there was something strong in her that made it seem she was not old; merely her wrinkles and loose cheeks were an anachronism. She had the strength and sang-froid of a woman in the prime of life. She continued drawing the lace with slow, dignified movements. The big web came up inevitably over her apron; the length of lace fell away at her side. Her arms were finely shapen, but glossy and yellow as old ivory. They had not the peculiar dull gleam that made Clara's so fascinating to him.
"And you've been going with Miriam Leivers?" the mother asked him.
"Well—" he answered.
"Yes, she's a nice girl," she continued. "She's very nice, but she's a bit too much above this world to suit my fancy."
"She is a bit like that," he agreed.
"She'll never be satisfied till she's got wings and can fly over everybody's head, she won't," she said.
Clara broke in, and he told her his message. She spoke humbly to him. He had surprised her in her drudgery. To have her humble made him feel as if he were lifting his head in expectation.
"Do you like jennying?" he asked.
"What can a woman do!" she replied bitterly.
"Is it sweated?"
"More or less. Isn't ALL woman's work? That's another trick the men have played, since we force ourselves into the labour market."
"Now then, you shut up about the men," said her mother. "If the women wasn't fools, the men wouldn't be bad uns, that's what I say. No man was ever that bad wi' me but what he got it back again. Not but what they're a lousy lot, there's no denying it."
"But they're all right really, aren't they?" he asked.
"Well, they're a bit different from women," she answered.
"Would you care to be back at Jordan's?" he asked Clara.
"I don't think so," she replied.
"Yes, she would!" cried her mother; "thank her stars if she could get back. Don't you listen to her. She's for ever on that 'igh horse of hers, an' it's back's that thin an' starved it'll cut her in two one of these days."
Clara suffered badly from her mother. Paul felt as if his eyes were coming very wide open. Wasn't he to take Clara's fulminations so seriously, after all? She spun steadily at her work. He experienced a thrill of joy, thinking she might need his help. She seemed denied and deprived of so much. And her arm moved mechanically, that should never have been subdued to a mechanism, and her head was bowed to the lace, that never should have been bowed. She seemed to be stranded there among the refuse that life has thrown away, doing her jennying. It was a bitter thing to her to be put aside by life, as if it had no use for her. No wonder she protested.
She came with him to the door. He stood below in the mean street, looking up at her. So fine she was in her stature and her bearing, she reminded him of Juno dethroned. As she stood in the doorway, she winced from the street, from her surroundings.
"And you will go with Mrs. Hodgkisson to Hucknall?"
He was talking quite meaninglessly, only watching her. Her grey eyes at last met his. They looked dumb with humiliation, pleading with a kind of captive misery. He was shaken and at a loss. He had thought her high and mighty.
When he left her, he wanted to run. He went to the station in a sort of dream, and was at home without realising he had moved out of her street.
He had an idea that Susan, the overseer of the Spiral girls, was about to be married. He asked her the next day.
"I say, Susan, I heard a whisper of your getting married. What about it?"
Susan flushed red.
"Who's been talking to you?" she replied.
"Nobody. I merely heard a whisper that you WERE thinking—"
"Well, I am, though you needn't tell anybody. What's more, I wish I wasn't!"
"Nay, Susan, you won't make me believe that."
"Shan't I? You CAN believe it, though. I'd rather stop here a thousand times."
Paul was perturbed.
The girl's colour was high, and her eyes flashed.
"And must you?"
For answer, she looked at him. There was about him a candour and gentleness which made the women trust him. He understood.
"Ah, I'm sorry," he said.
Tears came to her eyes.
"But you'll see it'll turn out all right. You'll make the best of it," he continued rather wistfully.
"There's nothing else for it."
"Yea, there's making the worst of it. Try and make it all right."
He soon made occasion to call again on Clara.
"Would you," he said, "care to come back to Jordan's?"
She put down her work, laid her beautiful arms on the table, and looked at him for some moments without answering. Gradually the flush mounted her cheek.
"Why?" she asked.
Paul felt rather awkward.
"Well, because Susan is thinking of leaving," he said.
Clara went on with her jennying. The white lace leaped in little jumps and bounds on to the card. He waited for her. Without raising her head, she said at last, in a peculiar low voice:
"Have you said anything about it?"
"Except to you, not a word."
There was again a long silence.
"I will apply when the advertisement is out," she said.
"You will apply before that. I will let you know exactly when."
She went on spinning her little machine, and did not contradict him.
Clara came to Jordan's. Some of the older hands, Fanny among them, remembered her earlier rule, and cordially disliked the memory. Clara had always been "ikey", reserved, and superior. She had never mixed with the girls as one of themselves. If she had occasion to find fault, she did it coolly and with perfect politeness, which the defaulter felt to be a bigger insult than crassness. Towards Fanny, the poor, overstrung hunchback, Clara was unfailingly compassionate and gentle, as a result of which Fanny shed more bitter tears than ever the rough tongues of the other overseers had caused her.
There was something in Clara that Paul disliked, and much that piqued him. If she were about, he always watched her strong throat or her neck, upon which the blonde hair grew low and fluffy. There was a fine down, almost invisible, upon the skin of her face and arms, and when once he had perceived it, he saw it always.
When he was at his work, painting in the afternoon, she would come and stand near to him, perfectly motionless. Then he felt her, though she neither spoke nor touched him. Although she stood a yard away he felt as if he were in contact with her. Then he could paint no more. He flung down the brushes, and turned to talk to her.
Sometimes she praised his work; sometimes she was critical and cold.
"You are affected in that piece," she would say; and, as there was an element of truth in her condemnation, his blood boiled with anger.
Again: "What of this?" he would ask enthusiastically.
"H'm!" She made a small doubtful sound. "It doesn't interest me much."
"Because you don't understand it," he retorted.
"Then why ask me about it?"
"Because I thought you would understand."
She would shrug her shoulders in scorn of his work. She maddened him. He was furious. Then he abused her, and went into passionate exposition of his stuff. This amused and stimulated her. But she never owned that she had been wrong.
During the ten years that she had belonged to the women's movement she had acquired a fair amount of education, and, having had some of Miriam's passion to be instructed, had taught herself French, and could read in that language with a struggle. She considered herself as a woman apart, and particularly apart, from her class. The girls in the Spiral department were all of good homes. It was a small, special industry, and had a certain distinction. There was an air of refinement in both rooms. But Clara was aloof also from her fellow-workers.
None of these things, however, did she reveal to Paul. She was not the one to give herself away. There was a sense of mystery about her. She was so reserved, he felt she had much to reserve. Her history was open on the surface, but its inner meaning was hidden from everybody. It was exciting. And then sometimes he caught her looking at him from under her brows with an almost furtive, sullen scrutiny, which made him move quickly. Often she met his eyes. But then her own were, as it were, covered over, revealing nothing. She gave him a little, lenient smile. She was to him extraordinarily provocative, because of the knowledge she seemed to possess, and gathered fruit of experience he could not attain.
One day he picked up a copy of Lettres de mon Moulin from her work-bench.
"You read French, do you?" he cried.
Clara glanced round negligently. She was making an elastic stocking of heliotrope silk, turning the Spiral machine with slow, balanced regularity, occasionally bending down to see her work or to adjust the needles; then her magnificent neck, with its down and fine pencils of hair, shone white against the lavender, lustrous silk. She turned a few more rounds, and stopped.
"What did you say?" she asked, smiling sweetly.
Paul's eyes glittered at her insolent indifference to him.
"I did not know you read French," he said, very polite.
"Did you not?" she replied, with a faint, sarcastic smile.
"Rotten swank!" he said, but scarcely loud enough to be heard.
He shut his mouth angrily as he watched her. She seemed to scorn the work she mechanically produced; yet the hose she made were as nearly perfect as possible.
"You don't like Spiral work," he said.
"Oh, well, all work is work," she answered, as if she knew all about it.
He marvelled at her coldness. He had to do everything hotly. She must be something special.
"What would you prefer to do?" he asked.
She laughed at him indulgently, as she said:
"There is so little likelihood of my ever being given a choice, that I haven't wasted time considering."
"Pah!" he said, contemptuous on his side now. "You only say that because you're too proud to own up what you want and can't get."
"You know me very well," she replied coldly.
"I know you think you're terrific great shakes, and that you live under the eternal insult of working in a factory."
He was very angry and very rude. She merely turned away from him in disdain. He walked whistling down the room, flirted and laughed with Hilda.
Later on he said to himself:
"What was I so impudent to Clara for?" He was rather annoyed with himself, at the same time glad. "Serve her right; she stinks with silent pride," he said to himself angrily.
In the afternoon he came down. There was a certain weight on his heart which he wanted to remove. He thought to do it by offering her chocolates.
"Have one?" he said. "I bought a handful to sweeten me up."
To his great relief, she accepted. He sat on the work-bench beside her machine, twisting a piece of silk round his finger. She loved him for his quick, unexpected movements, like a young animal. His feet swung as he pondered. The sweets lay strewn on the bench. She bent over her machine, grinding rhythmically, then stooping to see the stocking that hung beneath, pulled down by the weight. He watched the handsome crouching of her back, and the apron-strings curling on the floor.
"There is always about you," he said, "a sort of waiting. Whatever I see you doing, you're not really there: you are waiting—like Penelope when she did her weaving." He could not help a spurt of wickedness. "I'll call you Penelope," he said.
"Would it make any difference?" she said, carefully removing one of her needles.
"That doesn't matter, so long as it pleases me. Here, I say, you seem to forget I'm your boss. It just occurs to me."
"And what does that mean?" she asked coolly.
"It means I've got a right to boss you."
"Is there anything you want to complain about?"
"Oh, I say, you needn't be nasty," he said angrily.
"I don't know what you want," she said, continuing her task.
"I want you to treat me nicely and respectfully."
"Call you 'sir', perhaps?" she asked quietly.
"Yes, call me 'sir'. I should love it."
"Then I wish you would go upstairs, sir."
His mouth closed, and a frown came on his face. He jumped suddenly down.
"You're too blessed superior for anything," he said.
And he went away to the other girls. He felt he was being angrier than he had any need to be. In fact, he doubted slightly that he was showing off. But if he were, then he would. Clara heard him laughing, in a way she hated, with the girls down the next room.
When at evening he went through the department after the girls had gone, he saw his chocolates lying untouched in front of Clara's machine. He left them. In the morning they were still there, and Clara was at work. Later on Minnie, a little brunette they called Pussy, called to him:
"Hey, haven't you got a chocolate for anybody?"
"Sorry, Pussy," he replied. "I meant to have offered them; then I went and forgot 'em."
"I think you did," she answered.
"I'll bring you some this afternoon. You don't want them after they've been lying about, do you?"
"Oh, I'm not particular," smiled Pussy.
"Oh no," he said. "They'll be dusty."
He went up to Clara's bench.
"Sorry I left these things littering about," he said.
She flushed scarlet. He gathered them together in his fist.
"They'll be dirty now," he said. "You should have taken them. I wonder why you didn't. I meant to have told you I wanted you to."
He flung them out of the window into the yard below. He just glanced at her. She winced from his eyes.
In the afternoon he brought another packet.
"Will you take some?" he said, offering them first to Clara. "These are fresh."
She accepted one, and put it on to the bench.
"Oh, take several—for luck," he said.
She took a couple more, and put them on the bench also. Then she turned in confusion to her work. He went on up the room.
"Here you are, Pussy," he said. "Don't be greedy!"
"Are they all for her?" cried the others, rushing up.
"Of course they're not," he said.
The girls clamoured round. Pussy drew back from her mates.
"Come out!" she cried. "I can have first pick, can't I, Paul?"
"Be nice with 'em," he said, and went away.
"You ARE a dear," the girls cried.
"Tenpence," he answered.
He went past Clara without speaking. She felt the three chocolate creams would burn her if she touched them. It needed all her courage to slip them into the pocket of her apron.
The girls loved him and were afraid of him. He was so nice while he was nice, but if he were offended, so distant, treating them as if they scarcely existed, or not more than the bobbins of thread. And then, if they were impudent, he said quietly: "Do you mind going on with your work," and stood and watched.
When he celebrated his twenty-third birthday, the house was in trouble. Arthur was just going to be married. His mother was not well. His father, getting an old man, and lame from his accidents, was given a paltry, poor job. Miriam was an eternal reproach. He felt he owed himself to her, yet could not give himself. The house, moreover, needed his support. He was pulled in all directions. He was not glad it was his birthday. It made him bitter.
He got to work at eight o'clock. Most of the clerks had not turned up. The girls were not due till 8.30. As he was changing his coat, he heard a voice behind him say:
"Paul, Paul, I want you."
It was Fanny, the hunchback, standing at the top of her stairs, her face radiant with a secret. Paul looked at her in astonishment.
"I want you," she said.
He stood, at a loss.
"Come on," she coaxed. "Come before you begin on the letters."
He went down the half-dozen steps into her dry, narrow, "finishing-off" room. Fanny walked before him: her black bodice was short—the waist was under her armpits—and her green-black cashmere skirt seemed very long, as she strode with big strides before the young man, himself so graceful. She went to her seat at the narrow end of the room, where the window opened on to chimney-pots. Paul watched her thin hands and her flat red wrists as she excitedly twitched her white apron, which was spread on the bench in front of her. She hesitated.
"You didn't think we'd forgot you?" she asked, reproachful.
"Why?" he asked. He had forgotten his birthday himself.
"'Why,' he says! 'Why!' Why, look here!" She pointed to the calendar, and he saw, surrounding the big black number "21", hundreds of little crosses in black-lead.
"Oh, kisses for my birthday," he laughed. "How did you know?"
"Yes, you want to know, don't you?" Fanny mocked, hugely delighted. "There's one from everybody—except Lady Clara—and two from some. But I shan't tell you how many I put."
"Oh, I know, you're spooney," he said.
"There you ARE mistaken!" she cried, indignant. "I could never be so soft." Her voice was strong and contralto.
"You always pretend to be such a hard-hearted hussy," he laughed. "And you know you're as sentimental—"
"I'd rather be called sentimental than frozen meat," Fanny blurted. Paul knew she referred to Clara, and he smiled.
"Do you say such nasty things about me?" he laughed.
"No, my duck," the hunchback woman answered, lavishly tender. She was thirty-nine. "No, my duck, because you don't think yourself a fine figure in marble and us nothing but dirt. I'm as good as you, aren't I, Paul?" and the question delighted her.
"Why, we're not better than one another, are we?" he replied.
"But I'm as good as you, aren't I, Paul?" she persisted daringly.
"Of course you are. If it comes to goodness, you're better."
She was rather afraid of the situation. She might get hysterical.
"I thought I'd get here before the others—won't they say I'm deep! Now shut your eyes—" she said.
"And open your mouth, and see what God sends you," he continued, suiting action to words, and expecting a piece of chocolate. He heard the rustle of the apron, and a faint clink of metal. "I'm going to look," he said.
He opened his eyes. Fanny, her long cheeks flushed, her blue eyes shining, was gazing at him. There was a little bundle of paint-tubes on the bench before him. He turned pale.
"No, Fanny," he said quickly.
"From us all," she answered hastily.
"Are they the right sort?" she asked, rocking herself with delight.
"Jove! they're the best in the catalogue."
"But they're the right sorts?" she cried.
"They're off the little list I'd made to get when my ship came in." He bit his lip.
Fanny was overcome with emotion. She must turn the conversation.
"They was all on thorns to do it; they all paid their shares, all except the Queen of Sheba."
The Queen of Sheba was Clara.
"And wouldn't she join?" Paul asked.
"She didn't get the chance; we never told her; we wasn't going to have HER bossing THIS show. We didn't WANT her to join."
Paul laughed at the woman. He was much moved. At last he must go. She was very close to him. Suddenly she flung her arms round his neck and kissed him vehemently.
"I can give you a kiss to-day," she said apologetically. "You've looked so white, it's made my heart ache."
Paul kissed her, and left her. Her arms were so pitifully thin that his heart ached also.
That day he met Clara as he ran downstairs to wash his hands at dinner-time.
"You have stayed to dinner!" he exclaimed. It was unusual for her.
"Yes; and I seem to have dined on old surgical-appliance stock. I MUST go out now, or I shall feel stale india-rubber right through."
She lingered. He instantly caught at her wish.
"You are going anywhere?" he asked.
They went together up to the Castle. Outdoors she dressed very plainly, down to ugliness; indoors she always looked nice. She walked with hesitating steps alongside Paul, bowing and turning away from him. Dowdy in dress, and drooping, she showed to great disadvantage. He could scarcely recognise her strong form, that seemed to slumber with power. She appeared almost insignificant, drowning her stature in her stoop, as she shrank from the public gaze.
The Castle grounds were very green and fresh. Climbing the precipitous ascent, he laughed and chattered, but she was silent, seeming to brood over something. There was scarcely time to go inside the squat, square building that crowns the bluff of rock. They leaned upon the wall where the cliff runs sheer down to the Park. Below them, in their holes in the sandstone, pigeons preened themselves and cooed softly. Away down upon the boulevard at the foot of the rock, tiny trees stood in their own pools of shadow, and tiny people went scurrying about in almost ludicrous importance.
"You feel as if you could scoop up the folk like tadpoles, and have a handful of them," he said.
She laughed, answering:
"Yes; it is not necessary to get far off in order to see us proportionately. The trees are much more significant."
"Bulk only," he said.
She laughed cynically.
Away beyond the boulevard the thin stripes of the metals showed upon the railway-track, whose margin was crowded with little stacks of timber, beside which smoking toy engines fussed. Then the silver string of the canal lay at random among the black heaps. Beyond, the dwellings, very dense on the river flat, looked like black, poisonous herbage, in thick rows and crowded beds, stretching right away, broken now and then by taller plants, right to where the river glistened in a hieroglyph across the country. The steep scarp cliffs across the river looked puny. Great stretches of country darkened with trees and faintly brightened with corn-land, spread towards the haze, where the hills rose blue beyond grey.
"It is comforting," said Mrs. Dawes, "to think the town goes no farther. It is only a LITTLE sore upon the country yet."
"A little scab," Paul said.
She shivered. She loathed the town. Looking drearily across at the country which was forbidden her, her impassive face, pale and hostile, she reminded Paul of one of the bitter, remorseful angels.
"But the town's all right," he said; "it's only temporary. This is the crude, clumsy make-shift we've practised on, till we find out what the idea is. The town will come all right."
The pigeons in the pockets of rock, among the perched bushes, cooed comfortably. To the left the large church of St. Mary rose into space, to keep close company with the Castle, above the heaped rubble of the town. Mrs. Dawes smiled brightly as she looked across the country.
"I feel better," she said.
"Thank you," he replied. "Great compliment!"
"Oh, my brother!" she laughed.
"H'm! that's snatching back with the left hand what you gave with the right, and no mistake," he said.
She laughed in amusement at him.
"But what was the matter with you?" he asked. "I know you were brooding something special. I can see the stamp of it on your face yet."
"I think I will not tell you," she said.
"All right, hug it," he answered.
She flushed and bit her lip.
"No," she said, "it was the girls."
"What about 'em?" Paul asked.
"They have been plotting something for a week now, and to-day they seem particularly full of it. All alike; they insult me with their secrecy."
"Do they?" he asked in concern.
"I should not mind," she went on, in the metallic, angry tone, "if they did not thrust it into my face—the fact that they have a secret."
"Just like women," said he.
"It is hateful, their mean gloating," she said intensely.
Paul was silent. He knew what the girls gloated over. He was sorry to be the cause of this new dissension.
"They can have all the secrets in the world," she went on, brooding bitterly; "but they might refrain from glorying in them, and making me feel more out of it than ever. It is—it is almost unbearable."
Paul thought for a few minutes. He was much perturbed.
"I will tell you what it's all about," he said, pale and nervous. "It's my birthday, and they've bought me a fine lot of paints, all the girls. They're jealous of you"—he felt her stiffen coldly at the word 'jealous'—"merely because I sometimes bring you a book," he added slowly. "But, you see, it's only a trifle. Don't bother about it, will you—because"—he laughed quickly—"well, what would they say if they saw us here now, in spite of their victory?"
She was angry with him for his clumsy reference to their present intimacy. It was almost insolent of him. Yet he was so quiet, she forgave him, although it cost her an effort.
Their two hands lay on the rough stone parapet of the Castle wall. He had inherited from his mother a fineness of mould, so that his hands were small and vigorous. Hers were large, to match her large limbs, but white and powerful looking. As Paul looked at them he knew her. "She is wanting somebody to take her hands—for all she is so contemptuous of us," he said to himself. And she saw nothing but his two hands, so warm and alive, which seemed to live for her. He was brooding now, staring out over the country from under sullen brows. The little, interesting diversity of shapes had vanished from the scene; all that remained was a vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy, the same in all the houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds; they were only shapen differently. And now that the forms seemed to have melted away, there remained the mass from which all the landscape was composed, a dark mass of struggle and pain. The factory, the girls, his mother, the large, uplifted church, the thicket of the town, merged into one atmosphere—dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit.
"Is that two o'clock striking?" Mrs. Dawes said in surprise.
Paul started, and everything sprang into form, regained its individuality, its forgetfulness, and its cheerfulness.
They hurried back to work.
When he was in the rush of preparing for the night's post, examining the work up from Fanny's room, which smelt of ironing, the evening postman came in.
"'Mr. Paul Morel,'" he said, smiling, handing Paul a package. "A lady's handwriting! Don't let the girls see it."
The postman, himself a favourite, was pleased to make fun of the girls' affection for Paul.
It was a volume of verse with a brief note: "You will allow me to send you this, and so spare me my isolation. I also sympathise and wish you well.—C.D." Paul flushed hot.
"Good Lord! Mrs. Dawes. She can't afford it. Good Lord, who ever'd have thought it!"
He was suddenly intensely moved. He was filled with the warmth of her. In the glow he could almost feel her as if she were present—her arms, her shoulders, her bosom, see them, feel them, almost contain them.
This move on the part of Clara brought them into closer intimacy. The other girls noticed that when Paul met Mrs. Dawes his eyes lifted and gave that peculiar bright greeting which they could interpret. Knowing he was unaware, Clara made no sign, save that occasionally she turned aside her face from him when he came upon her.
They walked out together very often at dinner-time; it was quite open, quite frank. Everybody seemed to feel that he was quite unaware of the state of his own feeling, and that nothing was wrong. He talked to her now with some of the old fervour with which he had talked to Miriam, but he cared less about the talk; he did not bother about his conclusions.
One day in October they went out to Lambley for tea. Suddenly they came to a halt on top of the hill. He climbed and sat on a gate, she sat on the stile. The afternoon was perfectly still, with a dim haze, and yellow sheaves glowing through. They were quiet.
"How old were you when you married?" he asked quietly.
Her voice was subdued, almost submissive. She would tell him now.
"It is eight years ago?"
"And when did you leave him?"
"Three years ago."
"Five years! Did you love him when you married him?"
She was silent for some time; then she said slowly:
"I thought I did—more or less. I didn't think much about it. And he wanted me. I was very prudish then."
"And you sort of walked into it without thinking?"
"Yes. I seemed to have been asleep nearly all my life."
"Somnambule? But—when did you wake up?"
"I don't know that I ever did, or ever have—since I was a child."
"You went to sleep as you grew to be a woman? How queer! And he didn't wake you?"
"No; he never got there," she replied, in a monotone.
The brown birds dashed over the hedges where the rose-hips stood naked and scarlet.
"Got where?" he asked.
"At me. He never really mattered to me."
The afternoon was so gently warm and dim. Red roofs of the cottages burned among the blue haze. He loved the day. He could feel, but he could not understand, what Clara was saying.
"But why did you leave him? Was he horrid to you?"
She shuddered lightly.
"He—he sort of degraded me. He wanted to bully me because he hadn't got me. And then I felt as if I wanted to run, as if I was fastened and bound up. And he seemed dirty."
He did not at all see.
"And was he always dirty?" he asked.
"A bit," she replied slowly. "And then he seemed as if he couldn't get AT me, really. And then he got brutal—he WAS brutal!"
"And why did you leave him finally?"
"Because—because he was unfaithful to me—"
They were both silent for some time. Her hand lay on the gate-post as she balanced. He put his own over it. His heart beat quickly.
"But did you—were you ever—did you ever give him a chance?"
"To come near to you."
"I married him—and I was willing—"
They both strove to keep their voices steady.
"I believe he loves you," he said.
"It looks like it," she replied.
He wanted to take his hand away, and could not. She saved him by removing her own. After a silence, he began again:
"Did you leave him out of count all along?"
"He left me," she said.
"And I suppose he couldn't MAKE himself mean everything to you?"
"He tried to bully me into it."
But the conversation had got them both out of their depth. Suddenly Paul jumped down.
"Come on," he said. "Let's go and get some tea."
They found a cottage, where they sat in the cold parlour. She poured out his tea. She was very quiet. He felt she had withdrawn again from him. After tea, she stared broodingly into her tea-cup, twisting her wedding ring all the time. In her abstraction she took the ring off her finger, stood it up, and spun it upon the table. The gold became a diaphanous, glittering globe. It fell, and the ring was quivering upon the table. She spun it again and again. Paul watched, fascinated.
But she was a married woman, and he believed in simple friendship. And he considered that he was perfectly honourable with regard to her. It was only a friendship between man and woman, such as any civilised persons might have.
He was like so many young men of his own age. Sex had become so complicated in him that he would have denied that he ever could want Clara or Miriam or any woman whom he knew. Sex desire was a sort of detached thing, that did not belong to a woman. He loved Miriam with his soul. He grew warm at the thought of Clara, he battled with her, he knew the curves of her breast and shoulders as if they had been moulded inside him; and yet he did not positively desire her. He would have denied it for ever. He believed himself really bound to Miriam. If ever he should marry, some time in the far future, it would be his duty to marry Miriam. That he gave Clara to understand, and she said nothing, but left him to his courses. He came to her, Mrs. Dawes, whenever he could. Then he wrote frequently to Miriam, and visited the girl occasionally. So he went on through the winter; but he seemed not so fretted. His mother was easier about him. She thought he was getting away from Miriam.
Miriam knew now how strong was the attraction of Clara for him; but still she was certain that the best in him would triumph. His feeling for Mrs. Dawes—who, moreover, was a married woman—was shallow and temporal, compared with his love for herself. He would come back to her, she was sure; with some of his young freshness gone, perhaps, but cured of his desire for the lesser things which other women than herself could give him. She could bear all if he were inwardly true to her and must come back.
He saw none of the anomaly of his position. Miriam was his old friend, lover, and she belonged to Bestwood and home and his youth. Clara was a newer friend, and she belonged to Nottingham, to life, to the world. It seemed to him quite plain.
Mrs. Dawes and he had many periods of coolness, when they saw little of each other; but they always came together again.
"Were you horrid with Baxter Dawes?" he asked her. It was a thing that seemed to trouble him.
"In what way?"
"Oh, I don't know. But weren't you horrid with him? Didn't you do something that knocked him to pieces?"
"Making him feel as if he were nothing—I know," Paul declared.
"You are so clever, my friend," she said coolly.
The conversation broke off there. But it made her cool with him for some time.
She very rarely saw Miriam now. The friendship between the two women was not broken off, but considerably weakened.
"Will you come in to the concert on Sunday afternoon?" Clara asked him just after Christmas.
"I promised to go up to Willey Farm," he replied.
"Oh, very well."
"You don't mind, do you?" he asked.
"Why should I?" she answered.
Which almost annoyed him.
"You know," he said, "Miriam and I have been a lot to each other ever since I was sixteen—that's seven years now."
"It's a long time," Clara replied.
"Yes; but somehow she—it doesn't go right—"
"How?" asked Clara.
"She seems to draw me and draw me, and she wouldn't leave a single hair of me free to fall out and blow away—she'd keep it."
"But you like to be kept."
"No," he said, "I don't. I wish it could be normal, give and take—like me and you. I want a woman to keep me, but not in her pocket."
"But if you love her, it couldn't be normal, like me and you."
"Yes; I should love her better then. She sort of wants me so much that I can't give myself."
"Wants you how?"
"Wants the soul out of my body. I can't help shrinking back from her."
"And yet you love her!"
"No, I don't love her. I never even kiss her."
"Why not?" Clara asked.
"I don't know."
"I suppose you're afraid," she said.
"I'm not. Something in me shrinks from her like hell—she's so good, when I'm not good."
"How do you know what she is?"
"I do! I know she wants a sort of soul union."
"But how do you know what she wants?"
"I've been with her for seven years."
"And you haven't found out the very first thing about her."
"That she doesn't want any of your soul communion. That's your own imagination. She wants you."
He pondered over this. Perhaps he was wrong.
"But she seems—" he began.
"You've never tried," she answered.
THE TEST ON MIRIAM
WITH the spring came again the old madness and battle. Now he knew he would have to go to Miriam. But what was his reluctance? He told himself it was only a sort of overstrong virginity in her and him which neither could break through. He might have married her; but his circumstances at home made it difficult, and, moreover, he did not want to marry. Marriage was for life, and because they had become close companions, he and she, he did not see that it should inevitably follow they should be man and wife. He did not feel that he wanted marriage with Miriam. He wished he did. He would have given his head to have felt a joyous desire to marry her and to have her. Then why couldn't he bring it off? There was some obstacle; and what was the obstacle? It lay in the physical bondage. He shrank from the physical contact. But why? With her he felt bound up inside himself. He could not go out to her. Something struggled in him, but he could not get to her. Why? She loved him. Clara said she even wanted him; then why couldn't he go to her, make love to her, kiss her? Why, when she put her arm in his, timidly, as they walked, did he feel he would burst forth in brutality and recoil? He owed himself to her; he wanted to belong to her. Perhaps the recoil and the shrinking from her was love in its first fierce modesty. He had no aversion for her. No, it was the opposite; it was a strong desire battling with a still stronger shyness and virginity. It seemed as if virginity were a positive force, which fought and won in both of them. And with her he felt it so hard to overcome; yet he was nearest to her, and with her alone could he deliberately break through. And he owed himself to her. Then, if they could get things right, they could marry; but he would not marry unless he could feel strong in the joy of it—never. He could not have faced his mother. It seemed to him that to sacrifice himself in a marriage he did not want would be degrading, and would undo all his life, make it a nullity. He would try what he COULD do.
And he had a great tenderness for Miriam. Always, she was sad, dreaming her religion; and he was nearly a religion to her. He could not bear to fail her. It would all come right if they tried.
He looked round. A good many of the nicest men he knew were like himself, bound in by their own virginity, which they could not break out of. They were so sensitive to their women that they would go without them for ever rather than do them a hurt, an injustice. Being the sons of mothers whose husbands had blundered rather brutally through their feminine sanctities, they were themselves too diffident and shy. They could easier deny themselves than incur any reproach from a woman; for a woman was like their mother, and they were full of the sense of their mother. They preferred themselves to suffer the misery of celibacy, rather than risk the other person.
He went back to her. Something in her, when he looked at her, brought the tears almost to his eyes. One day he stood behind her as she sang. Annie was playing a song on the piano. As Miriam sang her mouth seemed hopeless. She sang like a nun singing to heaven. It reminded him so much of the mouth and eyes of one who sings beside a Botticelli Madonna, so spiritual. Again, hot as steel, came up the pain in him. Why must he ask her for the other thing? Why was there his blood battling with her? If only he could have been always gentle, tender with her, breathing with her the atmosphere of reverie and religious dreams, he would give his right hand. It was not fair to hurt her. There seemed an eternal maidenhood about her; and when he thought of her mother, he saw the great brown eyes of a maiden who was nearly scared and shocked out of her virgin maidenhood, but not quite, in spite of her seven children. They had been born almost leaving her out of count, not of her, but upon her. So she could never let them go, because she never had possessed them.
Mrs. Morel saw him going again frequently to Miriam, and was astonished. He said nothing to his mother. He did not explain nor excuse himself. If he came home late, and she reproached him, he frowned and turned on her in an overbearing way:
"I shall come home when I like," he said; "I am old enough."
"Must she keep you till this time?"
"It is I who stay," he answered.
"And she lets you? But very well," she said.
And she went to bed, leaving the door unlocked for him; but she lay listening until he came, often long after. It was a great bitterness to her that he had gone back to Miriam. She recognised, however, the uselessness of any further interference. He went to Willey Farm as a man now, not as a youth. She had no right over him. There was a coldness between him and her. He hardly told her anything. Discarded, she waited on him, cooked for him still, and loved to slave for him; but her face closed again like a mask. There was nothing for her to do now but the housework; for all the rest he had gone to Miriam. She could not forgive him. Miriam killed the joy and the warmth in him. He had been such a jolly lad, and full of the warmest affection; now he grew colder, more and more irritable and gloomy. It reminded her of William; but Paul was worse. He did things with more intensity, and more realisation of what he was about. His mother knew how he was suffering for want of a woman, and she saw him going to Miriam. If he had made up his mind, nothing on earth would alter him. Mrs. Morel was tired. She began to give up at last; she had finished. She was in the way.
He went on determinedly. He realised more or less what his mother felt. It only hardened his soul. He made himself callous towards her; but it was like being callous to his own health. It undermined him quickly; yet he persisted.
He lay back in the rocking-chair at Willey Farm one evening. He had been talking to Miriam for some weeks, but had not come to the point. Now he said suddenly:
"I am twenty-four, almost."
She had been brooding. She looked up at him suddenly in surprise.
"Yes. What makes you say it?"
There was something in the charged atmosphere that she dreaded.
"Sir Thomas More says one can marry at twenty-four."
She laughed quaintly, saying:
"Does it need Sir Thomas More's sanction?"
"No; but one ought to marry about then."
"Ay," she answered broodingly; and she waited.
"I can't marry you," he continued slowly, "not now, because we've no money, and they depend on me at home."
She sat half-guessing what was coming.
"But I want to marry now—"
"You want to marry?" she repeated.
"A woman—you know what I mean."
She was silent.
"Now, at last, I must," he said.
"Ay," she answered.
"And you love me?"
She laughed bitterly.
"Why are you ashamed of it," he answered. "You wouldn't be ashamed before your God, why are you before people?"
"Nay," she answered deeply, "I am not ashamed."
"You are," he replied bitterly; "and it's my fault. But you know I can't help being—as I am—don't you?"
"I know you can't help it," she replied.
"I love you an awful lot—then there is something short."
"Where?" she answered, looking at him.
"Oh, in me! It is I who ought to be ashamed—like a spiritual cripple. And I am ashamed. It is misery. Why is it?"
"I don't know," replied Miriam.
"And I don't know," he repeated. "Don't you think we have been too fierce in our what they call purity? Don't you think that to be so much afraid and averse is a sort of dirtiness?"
She looked at him with startled dark eyes.
"You recoiled away from anything of the sort, and I took the motion from you, and recoiled also, perhaps worse."
There was silence in the room for some time.
"Yes," she said, "it is so."
"There is between us," he said, "all these years of intimacy. I feel naked enough before you. Do you understand?"
"I think so," she answered.
"And you love me?"
"Don't be bitter," he pleaded.
She looked at him and was sorry for him; his eyes were dark with torture. She was sorry for him; it was worse for him to have this deflated love than for herself, who could never be properly mated. He was restless, for ever urging forward and trying to find a way out. He might do as he liked, and have what he liked of her.
"Nay," she said softly, "I am not bitter."
She felt she could bear anything for him; she would suffer for him. She put her hand on his knee as he leaned forward in his chair. He took it and kissed it; but it hurt to do so. He felt he was putting himself aside. He sat there sacrificed to her purity, which felt more like nullity. How could he kiss her hand passionately, when it would drive her away, and leave nothing but pain? Yet slowly he drew her to him and kissed her.
They knew each other too well to pretend anything. As she kissed him, she watched his eyes; they were staring across the room, with a peculiar dark blaze in them that fascinated her. He was perfectly still. She could feel his heart throbbing heavily in his breast.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
The blaze in his eyes shuddered, became uncertain.
"I was thinking, all the while, I love you. I have been obstinate."
She sank her head on his breast.
"Yes," she answered.
"That's all," he said, and his voice seemed sure, and his mouth was kissing her throat.
Then she raised her head and looked into his eyes with her full gaze of love. The blaze struggled, seemed to try to get away from her, and then was quenched. He turned his head quickly aside. It was a moment of anguish.
"Kiss me," she whispered.
He shut his eyes, and kissed her, and his arms folded her closer and closer.
When she walked home with him over the fields, he said:
"I am glad I came back to you. I feel so simple with you—as if there was nothing to hide. We will be happy?"
"Yes," she murmured, and the tears came to her eyes.
"Some sort of perversity in our souls," he said, "makes us not want, get away from, the very thing we want. We have to fight against that."
"Yes," she said, and she felt stunned.
As she stood under the drooping-thorn tree, in the darkness by the roadside, he kissed her, and his fingers wandered over her face. In the darkness, where he could not see her but only feel her, his passion flooded him. He clasped her very close.
"Sometime you will have me?" he murmured, hiding his face on her shoulder. It was so difficult.
"Not now," she said.
His hopes and his heart sunk. A dreariness came over him.
"No," he said.
His clasp of her slackened.
"I love to feel your arm THERE!" she said, pressing his arm against her back, where it went round her waist. "It rests me so."
He tightened the pressure of his arm upon the small of her back to rest her.
"We belong to each other," he said.
"Then why shouldn't we belong to each other altogether?"
"But—" she faltered.
"I know it's a lot to ask," he said; "but there's not much risk for you really—not in the Gretchen way. You can trust me there?"
"Oh, I can trust you." The answer came quick and strong. "It's not that—it's not that at all—but—"
She hid her face in his neck with a little cry of misery.
"I don't know!" she cried.
She seemed slightly hysterical, but with a sort of horror. His heart died in him.
"You don't think it ugly?" he asked.
"No, not now. You have TAUGHT me it isn't."
"You are afraid?"
She calmed herself hastily.
"Yes, I am only afraid," she said.
He kissed her tenderly.
"Never mind," he said. "You should please yourself."
Suddenly she gripped his arms round her, and clenched her body stiff.
"You SHALL have me," she said, through her shut teeth.
His heart beat up again like fire. He folded her close, and his mouth was on her throat. She could not bear it. She drew away. He disengaged her.
"Won't you be late?" she asked gently.
He sighed, scarcely hearing what she said. She waited, wishing he would go. At last he kissed her quickly and climbed the fence. Looking round he saw the pale blotch of her face down in the darkness under the hanging tree. There was no more of her but this pale blotch.
"Good-bye!" she called softly. She had no body, only a voice and a dim face. He turned away and ran down the road, his fists clenched; and when he came to the wall over the lake he leaned there, almost stunned, looking up the black water.
Miriam plunged home over the meadows. She was not afraid of people, what they might say; but she dreaded the issue with him. Yes, she would let him have her if he insisted; and then, when she thought of it afterwards, her heart went down. He would be disappointed, he would find no satisfaction, and then he would go away. Yet he was so insistent; and over this, which did not seem so all-important to her, was their love to break down. After all, he was only like other men, seeking his satisfaction. Oh, but there was something more in him, something deeper! She could trust to it, in spite of all desires. He said that possession was a great moment in life. All strong emotions concentrated there. Perhaps it was so. There was something divine in it; then she would submit, religiously, to the sacrifice. He should have her. And at the thought her whole body clenched itself involuntarily, hard, as if against something; but Life forced her through this gate of suffering, too, and she would submit. At any rate, it would give him what he wanted, which was her deepest wish. She brooded and brooded and brooded herself towards accepting him.
He courted her now like a lover. Often, when he grew hot, she put his face from her, held it between her hands, and looked in his eyes. He could not meet her gaze. Her dark eyes, full of love, earnest and searching, made him turn away. Not for an instant would she let him forget. Back again he had to torture himself into a sense of his responsibility and hers. Never any relaxing, never any leaving himself to the great hunger and impersonality of passion; he must be brought back to a deliberate, reflective creature. As if from a swoon of passion she caged him back to the littleness, the personal relationship. He could not bear it. "Leave me alone—leave me alone!" he wanted to cry; but she wanted him to look at her with eyes full of love. His eyes, full of the dark, impersonal fire of desire, did not belong to her.
There was a great crop of cherries at the farm. The trees at the back of the house, very large and tall, hung thick with scarlet and crimson drops, under the dark leaves. Paul and Edgar were gathering the fruit one evening. It had been a hot day, and now the clouds were rolling in the sky, dark and warm. Paul combed high in the tree, above the scarlet roofs of the buildings. The wind, moaning steadily, made the whole tree rock with a subtle, thrilling motion that stirred the blood. The young man, perched insecurely in the slender branches, rocked till he felt slightly drunk, reached down the boughs, where the scarlet beady cherries hung thick underneath, and tore off handful after handful of the sleek, cool-fleshed fruit. Cherries touched his ears and his neck as he stretched forward, their chill finger-tips sending a flash down his blood. All shades of red, from a golden vermilion to a rich crimson, glowed and met his eyes under a darkness of leaves.
The sun, going down, suddenly caught the broken clouds. Immense piles of gold flared out in the south-east, heaped in soft, glowing yellow right up the sky. The world, till now dusk and grey, reflected the gold glow, astonished. Everywhere the trees, and the grass, and the far-off water, seemed roused from the twilight and shining.
Miriam came out wondering.
"Oh!" Paul heard her mellow voice call, "isn't it wonderful?"
He looked down. There was a faint gold glimmer on her face, that looked very soft, turned up to him.
"How high you are!" she said.
Beside her, on the rhubarb leaves, were four dead birds, thieves that had been shot. Paul saw some cherry stones hanging quite bleached, like skeletons, picked clear of flesh. He looked down again to Miriam.
"Clouds are on fire," he said.
"Beautiful!" she cried.
She seemed so small, so soft, so tender, down there. He threw a handful of cherries at her. She was startled and frightened. He laughed with a low, chuckling sound, and pelted her. She ran for shelter, picking up some cherries. Two fine red pairs she hung over her ears; then she looked up again.
"Haven't you got enough?" she asked.
"Nearly. It is like being on a ship up here."
"And how long will you stay?"
"While the sunset lasts."
She went to the fence and sat there, watching the gold clouds fall to pieces, and go in immense, rose-coloured ruin towards the darkness. Gold flamed to scarlet, like pain in its intense brightness. Then the scarlet sank to rose, and rose to crimson, and quickly the passion went out of the sky. All the world was dark grey. Paul scrambled quickly down with his basket, tearing his shirt-sleeve as he did so.
"They are lovely," said Miriam, fingering the cherries.
"I've torn my sleeve," he answered.
She took the three-cornered rip, saying:
"I shall have to mend it." It was near the shoulder. She put her fingers through the tear. "How warm!" she said.
He laughed. There was a new, strange note in his voice, one that made her pant.
"Shall we stay out?" he said.
"Won't it rain?" she asked.
"No, let us walk a little way."
They went down the fields and into the thick plantation of trees and pines.
"Shall we go in among the trees?" he asked.
"Do you want to?"
It was very dark among the firs, and the sharp spines pricked her face. She was afraid. Paul was silent and strange.
"I like the darkness," he said. "I wish it were thicker—good, thick darkness."
He seemed to be almost unaware of her as a person: she was only to him then a woman. She was afraid.
He stood against a pine-tree trunk and took her in his arms. She relinquished herself to him, but it was a sacrifice in which she felt something of horror. This thick-voiced, oblivious man was a stranger to her.
Later it began to rain. The pine-trees smelled very strong. Paul lay with his head on the ground, on the dead pine needles, listening to the sharp hiss of the rain—a steady, keen noise. His heart was down, very heavy. Now he realised that she had not been with him all the time, that her soul had stood apart, in a sort of horror. He was physically at rest, but no more. Very dreary at heart, very sad, and very tender, his fingers wandered over her face pitifully. Now again she loved him deeply. He was tender and beautiful.
"The rain!" he said.
"Yes—is it coming on you?"
She put her hands over him, on his hair, on his shoulders, to feel if the raindrops fell on him. She loved him dearly. He, as he lay with his face on the dead pine-leaves, felt extraordinarily quiet. He did not mind if the raindrops came on him: he would have lain and got wet through: he felt as if nothing mattered, as if his living were smeared away into the beyond, near and quite lovable. This strange, gentle reaching-out to death was new to him.
"We must go," said Miriam.
"Yes," he answered, but did not move.
To him now, life seemed a shadow, day a white shadow; night, and death, and stillness, and inaction, this seemed like BEING. To be alive, to be urgent and insistent—that was NOT-TO-BE. The highest of all was to melt out into the darkness and sway there, identified with the great Being.
"The rain is coming in on us," said Miriam.
He rose, and assisted her.
"It is a pity," he said.
"To have to go. I feel so still."
"Still!" she repeated.
"Stiller than I have ever been in my life."
He was walking with his hand in hers. She pressed his fingers, feeling a slight fear. Now he seemed beyond her; she had a fear lest she should lose him.
"The fir-trees are like presences on the darkness: each one only a presence."
She was afraid, and said nothing.
"A sort of hush: the whole night wondering and asleep: I suppose that's what we do in death—sleep in wonder."
She had been afraid before of the brute in him: now of the mystic. She trod beside him in silence. The rain fell with a heavy "Hush!" on the trees. At last they gained the cartshed.
"Let us stay here awhile," he said.
There was a sound of rain everywhere, smothering everything.
"I feel so strange and still," he said; "along with everything."
"Ay," she answered patiently.
He seemed again unaware of her, though he held her hand close.
"To be rid of our individuality, which is our will, which is our effort—to live effortless, a kind of curious sleep—that is very beautiful, I think; that is our after-life—our immortality."
"Yes—and very beautiful to have."
"You don't usually say that."
In a while they went indoors. Everybody looked at them curiously. He still kept the quiet, heavy look in his eyes, the stillness in his voice. Instinctively, they all left him alone.
About this time Miriam's grandmother, who lived in a tiny cottage in Woodlinton, fell ill, and the girl was sent to keep house. It was a beautiful little place. The cottage had a big garden in front, with red brick walls, against which the plum trees were nailed. At the back another garden was separated from the fields by a tall old hedge. It was very pretty. Miriam had not much to do, so she found time for her beloved reading, and for writing little introspective pieces which interested her.
At the holiday-time her grandmother, being better, was driven to Derby to stay with her daughter for a day or two. She was a crotchety old lady, and might return the second day or the third; so Miriam stayed alone in the cottage, which also pleased her.
Paul used often to cycle over, and they had as a rule peaceful and happy times. He did not embarrass her much; but then on the Monday of the holiday he was to spend a whole day with her.
It was perfect weather. He left his mother, telling her where he was going. She would be alone all the day. It cast a shadow over him; but he had three days that were all his own, when he was going to do as he liked. It was sweet to rush through the morning lanes on his bicycle.
He got to the cottage at about eleven o'clock. Miriam was busy preparing dinner. She looked so perfectly in keeping with the little kitchen, ruddy and busy. He kissed her and sat down to watch. The room was small and cosy. The sofa was covered all over with a sort of linen in squares of red and pale blue, old, much washed, but pretty. There was a stuffed owl in a case over a corner cupboard. The sunlight came through the leaves of the scented geraniums in the window. She was cooking a chicken in his honour. It was their cottage for the day, and they were man and wife. He beat the eggs for her and peeled the potatoes. He thought she gave a feeling of home almost like his mother; and no one could look more beautiful, with her tumbled curls, when she was flushed from the fire.
The dinner was a great success. Like a young husband, he carved. They talked all the time with unflagging zest. Then he wiped the dishes she had washed, and they went out down the fields. There was a bright little brook that ran into a bog at the foot of a very steep bank. Here they wandered, picking still a few marsh-marigolds and many big blue forget-me-nots. Then she sat on the bank with her hands full of flowers, mostly golden water-blobs. As she put her face down into the marigolds, it was all overcast with a yellow shine.
"Your face is bright," he said, "like a transfiguration."
She looked at him, questioning. He laughed pleadingly to her, laying his hands on hers. Then he kissed her fingers, then her face.
The world was all steeped in sunshine, and quite still, yet not asleep, but quivering with a kind of expectancy.
"I have never seen anything more beautiful than this," he said. He held her hand fast all the time.
"And the water singing to itself as it runs—do you love it?" She looked at him full of love. His eyes were very dark, very bright.
"Don't you think it's a great day?" he asked.
She murmured her assent. She WAS happy, and he saw it.
"And our day—just between us," he said.
They lingered a little while. Then they stood up upon the sweet thyme, and he looked down at her simply.
"Will you come?" he asked.
They went back to the house, hand in hand, in silence. The chickens came scampering down the path to her. He locked the door, and they had the little house to themselves.
He never forgot seeing her as she lay on the bed, when he was unfastening his collar. First he saw only her beauty, and was blind with it. She had the most beautiful body he had ever imagined. He stood unable to move or speak, looking at her, his face half-smiling with wonder. And then he wanted her, but as he went forward to her, her hands lifted in a little pleading movement, and he looked at her face, and stopped. Her big brown eyes were watching him, still and resigned and loving; she lay as if she had given herself up to sacrifice: there was her body for him; but the look at the back of her eyes, like a creature awaiting immolation, arrested him, and all his blood fell back.
"You are sure you want me?" he asked, as if a cold shadow had come over him.
"Yes, quite sure."
She was very quiet, very calm. She only realised that she was doing something for him. He could hardly bear it. She lay to be sacrificed for him because she loved him so much. And he had to sacrifice her. For a second, he wished he were sexless or dead. Then he shut his eyes again to her, and his blood beat back again.
And afterwards he loved her—loved her to the last fibre of his being. He loved her. But he wanted, somehow, to cry. There was something he could not bear for her sake. He stayed with her till quite late at night. As he rode home he felt that he was finally initiated. He was a youth no longer. But why had he the dull pain in his soul? Why did the thought of death, the after-life, seem so sweet and consoling?
He spent the week with Miriam, and wore her out with his passion before it was gone. He had always, almost wilfully, to put her out of count, and act from the brute strength of his own feelings. And he could not do it often, and there remained afterwards always the sense of failure and of death. If he were really with her, he had to put aside himself and his desire. If he would have her, he had to put her aside.
"When I come to you," he asked her, his eyes dark with pain and shame, "you don't really want me, do you?"
"Ah, yes!" she replied quickly.
He looked at her.
"Nay," he said.
She began to tremble.
"You see," she said, taking his face and shutting it out against her shoulder—"you see—as we are—how can I get used to you? It would come all right if we were married."
He lifted her head, and looked at her.
"You mean, now, it is always too much shock?"
"You are always clenched against me."
She was trembling with agitation.
"You see," she said, "I'm not used to the thought—"
"You are lately," he said.
"But all my life. Mother said to me: 'There is one thing in marriage that is always dreadful, but you have to bear it.' And I believed it."
"And still believe it," he said.
"No!" she cried hastily. "I believe, as you do, that loving, even in THAT way, is the high-water mark of living."
"That doesn't alter the fact that you never want it."
"No," she said, taking his head in her arms and rocking in despair. "Don't say so! You don't understand." She rocked with pain. "Don't I want your children?"
"But not me."
"How can you say so? But we must be married to have children—"
"Shall we be married, then? I want you to have my children."
He kissed her hand reverently. She pondered sadly, watching him.
"We are too young," she said at length.
"Twenty-four and twenty-three—"
"Not yet," she pleaded, as she rocked herself in distress.
"When you will," he said.
She bowed her head gravely. The tone of hopelessness in which he said these things grieved her deeply. It had always been a failure between them. Tacitly, she acquiesced in what he felt.
And after a week of love he said to his mother suddenly one Sunday night, just as they were going to bed:
"I shan't go so much to Miriam's, mother."
She was surprised, but she would not ask him anything.
"You please yourself," she said.
So he went to bed. But there was a new quietness about him which she had wondered at. She almost guessed. She would leave him alone, however. Precipitation might spoil things. She watched him in his loneliness, wondering where he would end. He was sick, and much too quiet for him. There was a perpetual little knitting of his brows, such as she had seen when he was a small baby, and which had been gone for many years. Now it was the same again. And she could do nothing for him. He had to go on alone, make his own way.
He continued faithful to Miriam. For one day he had loved her utterly. But it never came again. The sense of failure grew stronger. At first it was only a sadness. Then he began to feel he could not go on. He wanted to run, to go abroad, anything. Gradually he ceased to ask her to have him. Instead of drawing them together, it put them apart. And then he realised, consciously, that it was no good. It was useless trying: it would never be a success between them.
For some months he had seen very little of Clara. They had occasionally walked out for half an hour at dinner-time. But he always reserved himself for Miriam. With Clara, however, his brow cleared, and he was gay again. She treated him indulgently, as if he were a child. He thought he did not mind. But deep below the surface it piqued him.
Sometimes Miriam said:
"What about Clara? I hear nothing of her lately."
"I walked with her about twenty minutes yesterday," he replied.
"And what did she talk about?"
"I don't know. I suppose I did all the jawing—I usually do. I think I was telling her about the strike, and how the women took it."
So he gave the account of himself.
But insidiously, without his knowing it, the warmth he felt for Clara drew him away from Miriam, for whom he felt responsible, and to whom he felt he belonged. He thought he was being quite faithful to her. It was not easy to estimate exactly the strength and warmth of one's feelings for a woman till they have run away with one.
He began to give more time to his men friends. There was Jessop, at the art school; Swain, who was chemistry demonstrator at the university; Newton, who was a teacher; besides Edgar and Miriam's younger brothers. Pleading work, he sketched and studied with Jessop. He called in the university for Swain, and the two went "down town" together. Having come home in the train with Newton, he called and had a game of billiards with him in the Moon and Stars. If he gave to Miriam the excuse of his men friends, he felt quite justified. His mother began to be relieved. He always told her where he had been.
During the summer Clara wore sometimes a dress of soft cotton stuff with loose sleeves. When she lifted her hands, her sleeves fell back, and her beautiful strong arms shone out.
"Half a minute," he cried. "Hold your arm still."
He made sketches of her hand and arm, and the drawings contained some of the fascination the real thing had for him. Miriam, who always went scrupulously through his books and papers, saw the drawings.
"I think Clara has such beautiful arms," he said.
"Yes! When did you draw them?"
"On Tuesday, in the work-room. You know, I've got a corner where I can work. Often I can do every single thing they need in the department, before dinner. Then I work for myself in the afternoon, and just see to things at night."
"Yes," she said, turning the leaves of his sketch-book.
Frequently he hated Miriam. He hated her as she bent forward and pored over his things. He hated her way of patiently casting him up, as if he were an endless psychological account. When he was with her, he hated her for having got him, and yet not got him, and he tortured her. She took all and gave nothing, he said. At least, she gave no living warmth. She was never alive, and giving off life. Looking for her was like looking for something which did not exist. She was only his conscience, not his mate. He hated her violently, and was more cruel to her. They dragged on till the next summer. He saw more and more of Clara.
At last he spoke. He had been sitting working at home one evening. There was between him and his mother a peculiar condition of people frankly finding fault with each other. Mrs. Morel was strong on her feet again. He was not going to stick to Miriam. Very well; then she would stand aloof till he said something. It had been coming a long time, this bursting of the storm in him, when he would come back to her. This evening there was between them a peculiar condition of suspense. He worked feverishly and mechanically, so that he could escape from himself. It grew late. Through the open door, stealthily, came the scent of madonna lilies, almost as if it were prowling abroad. Suddenly he got up and went out of doors.
The beauty of the night made him want to shout. A half-moon, dusky gold, was sinking behind the black sycamore at the end of the garden, making the sky dull purple with its glow. Nearer, a dim white fence of lilies went across the garden, and the air all round seemed to stir with scent, as if it were alive. He went across the bed of pinks, whose keen perfume came sharply across the rocking, heavy scent of the lilies, and stood alongside the white barrier of flowers. They flagged all loose, as if they were panting. The scent made him drunk. He went down to the field to watch the moon sink under.
A corncrake in the hay-close called insistently. The moon slid quite quickly downwards, growing more flushed. Behind him the great flowers leaned as if they were calling. And then, like a shock, he caught another perfume, something raw and coarse. Hunting round, he found the purple iris, touched their fleshy throats and their dark, grasping hands. At any rate, he had found something. They stood stiff in the darkness. Their scent was brutal. The moon was melting down upon the crest of the hill. It was gone; all was dark. The corncrake called still.
Breaking off a pink, he suddenly went indoors.
"Come, my boy," said his mother. "I'm sure it's time you went to bed."
He stood with the pink against his lips.
"I shall break off with Miriam, mother," he answered calmly.
She looked up at him over her spectacles. He was staring back at her, unswerving. She met his eyes for a moment, then took off her glasses. He was white. The male was up in him, dominant. She did not want to see him too clearly.
"But I thought—" she began.
"Well," he answered, "I don't love her. I don't want to marry her—so I shall have done."
"But," exclaimed his mother, amazed, "I thought lately you had made up your mind to have her, and so I said nothing."
"I had—I wanted to—but now I don't want. It's no good. I shall break off on Sunday. I ought to, oughtn't I?"
"You know best. You know I said so long ago."
"I can't help that now. I shall break off on Sunday."
"Well," said his mother, "I think it will be best. But lately I decided you had made up your mind to have her, so I said nothing, and should have said nothing. But I say as I have always said, I DON'T think she is suited to you."
"On Sunday I break off," he said, smelling the pink. He put the flower in his mouth. Unthinking, he bared his teeth, closed them on the blossom slowly, and had a mouthful of petals. These he spat into the fire, kissed his mother, and went to bed.
On Sunday he went up to the farm in the early afternoon. He had written Miriam that they would walk over the fields to Hucknall. His mother was very tender with him. He said nothing. But she saw the effort it was costing. The peculiar set look on his face stilled her.
"Never mind, my son," she said. "You will be so much better when it is all over."
Paul glanced swiftly at his mother in surprise and resentment. He did not want sympathy.
Miriam met him at the lane-end. She was wearing a new dress of figured muslin that had short sleeves. Those short sleeves, and Miriam's brown-skinned arms beneath them—such pitiful, resigned arms—gave him so much pain that they helped to make him cruel. She had made herself look so beautiful and fresh for him. She seemed to blossom for him alone. Every time he looked at her—a mature young woman now, and beautiful in her new dress—it hurt so much that his heart seemed almost to be bursting with the restraint he put on it. But he had decided, and it was irrevocable.
On the hills they sat down, and he lay with his head in her lap, whilst she fingered his hair. She knew that "he was not there," as she put it. Often, when she had him with her, she looked for him, and could not find him. But this afternoon she was not prepared.
It was nearly five o'clock when he told her. They were sitting on the bank of a stream, where the lip of turf hung over a hollow bank of yellow earth, and he was hacking away with a stick, as he did when he was perturbed and cruel.
"I have been thinking," he said, "we ought to break off."
"Why?" she cried in surprise.
"Because it's no good going on."
"Why is it no good?"
"It isn't. I don't want to marry. I don't want ever to marry. And if we're not going to marry, it's no good going on."
"But why do you say this now?"
"Because I've made up my mind."
"And what about these last months, and the things you told me then?"
"I can't help it! I don't want to go on."
"You don't want any more of me?"
"I want us to break off—you be free of me, I free of you."
"And what about these last months?"
"I don't know. I've not told you anything but what I thought was true."
"Then why are you different now?"
"I'm not—I'm the same—only I know it's no good going on."
"You haven't told me why it's no good."
"Because I don't want to go on—and I don't want to marry."
"How many times have you offered to marry me, and I wouldn't?"
"I know; but I want us to break off."
There was silence for a moment or two, while he dug viciously at the earth. She bent her head, pondering. He was an unreasonable child. He was like an infant which, when it has drunk its fill, throws away and smashes the cup. She looked at him, feeling she could get hold of him and WRING some consistency out of him. But she was helpless. Then she cried:
"I have said you were only fourteen—you are only FOUR!"
He still dug at the earth viciously. He heard.
"You are a child of four," she repeated in her anger.
He did not answer, but said in his heart: "All right; if I'm a child of four, what do you want me for? I don't want another mother." But he said nothing to her, and there was silence.
"And have you told your people?" she asked.
"I have told my mother."
There was another long interval of silence.
"Then what do you WANT?" she asked.
"Why, I want us to separate. We have lived on each other all these years; now let us stop. I will go my own way without you, and you will go your way without me. You will have an independent life of your own then."
There was in it some truth that, in spite of her bitterness, she could not help registering. She knew she felt in a sort of bondage to him, which she hated because she could not control it. She hated her love for him from the moment it grew too strong for her. And, deep down, she had hated him because she loved him and he dominated her. She had resisted his domination. She had fought to keep herself free of him in the last issue. And she was free of him, even more than he of her.
"And," he continued, "we shall always be more or less each other's work. You have done a lot for me, I for you. Now let us start and live by ourselves."
"What do you want to do?" she asked.
"Nothing—only to be free," he answered.
She, however, knew in her heart that Clara's influence was over him to liberate him. But she said nothing.
"And what have I to tell my mother?" she asked.
"I told my mother," he answered, "that I was breaking off—clean and altogether."
"I shall not tell them at home," she said.
Frowning, "You please yourself," he said.
He knew he had landed her in a nasty hole, and was leaving her in the lurch. It angered him.
"Tell them you wouldn't and won't marry me, and have broken off," he said. "It's true enough."
She bit her finger moodily. She thought over their whole affair. She had known it would come to this; she had seen it all along. It chimed with her bitter expectation.
"Always—it has always been so!" she cried. "It has been one long battle between us—you fighting away from me."
It came from her unawares, like a flash of lightning. The man's heart stood still. Was this how she saw it?
"But we've had SOME perfect hours, SOME perfect times, when we were together!" he pleaded.
"Never!" she cried; "never! It has always been you fighting me off."
"Not always—not at first!" he pleaded.
"Always, from the very beginning—always the same!"
She had finished, but she had done enough. He sat aghast. He had wanted to say: "It has been good, but it is at an end." And she—she whose love he had believed in when he had despised himself—denied that their love had ever been love. "He had always fought away from her?" Then it had been monstrous. There had never been anything really between them; all the time he had been imagining something where there was nothing. And she had known. She had known so much, and had told him so little. She had known all the time. All the time this was at the bottom of her!
He sat silent in bitterness. At last the whole affair appeared in a cynical aspect to him. She had really played with him, not he with her. She had hidden all her condemnation from him, had flattered him, and despised him. She despised him now. He grew intellectual and cruel.
"You ought to marry a man who worships you," he said; "then you could do as you liked with him. Plenty of men will worship you, if you get on the private side of their natures. You ought to marry one such. They would never fight you off."
"Thank you!" she said. "But don't advise me to marry someone else any more. You've done it before."
"Very well," he said; "I will say no more."
He sat still, feeling as if he had had a blow, instead of giving one. Their eight years of friendship and love, THE eight years of his life, were nullified.
"When did you think of this?" she asked.
"I thought definitely on Thursday night."
"I knew it was coming," she said.
That pleased him bitterly. "Oh, very well! If she knew then it doesn't come as a surprise to her," he thought.
"And have you said anything to Clara?" she asked.
"No; but I shall tell her now."
There was a silence.
"Do you remember the things you said this time last year, in my grandmother's house—nay last month even?"
"Yes," he said; "I do! And I meant them! I can't help that it's failed."
"It has failed because you want something else."
"It would have failed whether or not. YOU never believed in me."
She laughed strangely.
He sat in silence. He was full of a feeling that she had deceived him. She had despised him when he thought she worshipped him. She had let him say wrong things, and had not contradicted him. She had let him fight alone. But it stuck in his throat that she had despised him whilst he thought she worshipped him. She should have told him when she found fault with him. She had not played fair. He hated her. All these years she had treated him as if he were a hero, and thought of him secretly as an infant, a foolish child. Then why had she left the foolish child to his folly? His heart was hard against her.
She sat full of bitterness. She had known—oh, well she had known! All the time he was away from her she had summed him up, seen his littleness, his meanness, and his folly. Even she had guarded her soul against him. She was not overthrown, not prostrated, not even much hurt. She had known. Only why, as he sat there, had he still this strange dominance over her? His very movements fascinated her as if she were hypnotised by him. Yet he was despicable, false, inconsistent, and mean. Why this bondage for her? Why was it the movement of his arm stirred her as nothing else in the world could? Why was she fastened to him? Why, even now, if he looked at her and commanded her, would she have to obey? She would obey him in his trifling commands. But once he was obeyed, then she had him in her power, she knew, to lead him where she would. She was sure of herself. Only, this new influence! Ah, he was not a man! He was a baby that cries for the newest toy. And all the attachment of his soul would not keep him. Very well, he would have to go. But he would come back when he had tired of his new sensation.
He hacked at the earth till she was fretted to death. She rose. He sat flinging lumps of earth in the stream.
"We will go and have tea here?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered.
They chattered over irrelevant subjects during tea. He held forth on the love of ornament—the cottage parlour moved him thereto—and its connection with aesthetics. She was cold and quiet. As they walked home, she asked:
"And we shall not see each other?"
"No—or rarely," he answered.
"Nor write?" she asked, almost sarcastically.
"As you will," he answered. "We're not strangers—never should be, whatever happened. I will write to you now and again. You please yourself."
"I see!" she answered cuttingly.
But he was at that stage at which nothing else hurts. He had made a great cleavage in his life. He had had a great shock when she had told him their love had been always a conflict. Nothing more mattered. If it never had been much, there was no need to make a fuss that it was ended.
He left her at the lane-end. As she went home, solitary, in her new frock, having her people to face at the other end, he stood still with shame and pain in the highroad, thinking of the suffering he caused her.
In the reaction towards restoring his self-esteem, he went into the Willow Tree for a drink. There were four girls who had been out for the day, drinking a modest glass of port. They had some chocolates on the table. Paul sat near with his whisky. He noticed the girls whispering and nudging. Presently one, a bonny dark hussy, leaned to him and said:
"Have a chocolate?"
The others laughed loudly at her impudence.
"All right," said Paul. "Give me a hard one—nut. I don't like creams."
"Here you are, then," said the girl; "here's an almond for you."
She held the sweet between her fingers. He opened his mouth. She popped it in, and blushed.
"You ARE nice!" he said.
"Well," she answered, "we thought you looked overcast, and they dared me offer you a chocolate."
"I don't mind if I have another—another sort," he said.
And presently they were all laughing together.
It was nine o'clock when he got home, falling dark. He entered the house in silence. His mother, who had been waiting, rose anxiously.
"I told her," he said.
"I'm glad," replied the mother, with great relief.
He hung up his cap wearily.
"I said we'd have done altogether," he said.
"That's right, my son," said the mother. "It's hard for her now, but best in the long run. I know. You weren't suited for her."
He laughed shakily as he sat down.
"I've had such a lark with some girls in a pub," he said.
His mother looked at him. He had forgotten Miriam now. He told her about the girls in the Willow Tree. Mrs. Morel looked at him. It seemed unreal, his gaiety. At the back of it was too much horror and misery.
"Now have some supper," she said very gently.
Afterwards he said wistfully:
"She never thought she'd have me, mother, not from the first, and so she's not disappointed."
"I'm afraid," said his mother, "she doesn't give up hopes of you yet."
"No," he said, "perhaps not."
"You'll find it's better to have done," she said.
"I don't know," he said desperately.
"Well, leave her alone," replied his mother. So he left her, and she was alone. Very few people cared for her, and she for very few people. She remained alone with herself, waiting.
HE was gradually making it possible to earn a livelihood by his art. Liberty's had taken several of his painted designs on various stuffs, and he could sell designs for embroideries, for altar-cloths, and similar things, in one or two places. It was not very much he made at present, but he might extend it. He had also made friends with the designer for a pottery firm, and was gaining some knowledge of his new acquaintance's art. The applied arts interested him very much. At the same time he laboured slowly at his pictures. He loved to paint large figures, full of light, but not merely made up of lights and cast shadows, like the impressionists; rather definite figures that had a certain luminous quality, like some of Michael Angelo's people. And these he fitted into a landscape, in what he thought true proportion. He worked a great deal from memory, using everybody he knew. He believed firmly in his work, that it was good and valuable. In spite of fits of depression, shrinking, everything, he believed in his work.
He was twenty-four when he said his first confident thing to his mother.
"Mother," he said, "I s'll make a painter that they'll attend to."
She sniffed in her quaint fashion. It was like a half-pleased shrug of the shoulders.
"Very well, my boy, we'll see," she said.
"You shall see, my pigeon! You see if you're not swanky one of these days!"
"I'm quite content, my boy," she smiled.
"But you'll have to alter. Look at you with Minnie!"
Minnie was the small servant, a girl of fourteen.
"And what about Minnie?" asked Mrs. Morel, with dignity.
"I heard her this morning: 'Eh, Mrs. Morel! I was going to do that,' when you went out in the rain for some coal," he said. "That looks a lot like your being able to manage servants!"
"Well, it was only the child's niceness," said Mrs. Morel.
"And you apologising to her: 'You can't do two things at once, can you?'"
"She WAS busy washing up," replied Mrs. Morel.
"And what did she say? 'It could easy have waited a bit. Now look how your feet paddle!'"
"Yes—brazen young baggage!" said Mrs. Morel, smiling.
He looked at his mother, laughing. She was quite warm and rosy again with love of him. It seemed as if all the sunshine were on her for a moment. He continued his work gladly. She seemed so well when she was happy that he forgot her grey hair.
And that year she went with him to the Isle of Wight for a holiday. It was too exciting for them both, and too beautiful. Mrs. Morel was full of joy and wonder. But he would have her walk with him more than she was able. She had a bad fainting bout. So grey her face was, so blue her mouth! It was agony to him. He felt as if someone were pushing a knife in his chest. Then she was better again, and he forgot. But the anxiety remained inside him, like a wound that did not close.
After leaving Miriam he went almost straight to Clara. On the Monday following the day of the rupture he went down to the work-room. She looked up at him and smiled. They had grown very intimate unawares. She saw a new brightness about him.
"Well, Queen of Sheba!" he said, laughing.
"But why?" she asked.
"I think it suits you. You've got a new frock on."
She flushed, asking:
"And what of it?"
"Suits you—awfully! I could design you a dress."
"How would it be?"
He stood in front of her, his eyes glittering as he expounded. He kept her eyes fixed with his. Then suddenly he took hold of her. She half-started back. He drew the stuff of her blouse tighter, smoothed it over her breast.
"More SO!" he explained.
But they were both of them flaming with blushes, and immediately he ran away. He had touched her. His whole body was quivering with the sensation.
There was already a sort of secret understanding between them. The next evening he went to the cinematograph with her for a few minutes before train-time. As they sat, he saw her hand lying near him. For some moments he dared not touch it. The pictures danced and dithered. Then he took her hand in his. It was large and firm; it filled his grasp. He held it fast. She neither moved nor made any sign. When they came out his train was due. He hesitated.
"Good-night," she said. He darted away across the road.
The next day he came again, talking to her. She was rather superior with him.
"Shall we go a walk on Monday?" he asked.
She turned her face aside.
"Shall you tell Miriam?" she replied sarcastically.
"I have broken off with her," he said.
"No! I had made up my mind. I told her quite definitely I should consider myself free."
Clara did not answer, and he returned to his work. She was so quiet and so superb!
On the Saturday evening he asked her to come and drink coffee with him in a restaurant, meeting him after work was over. She came, looking very reserved and very distant. He had three-quarters of an hour to train-time.
"We will walk a little while," he said.
She agreed, and they went past the Castle into the Park. He was afraid of her. She walked moodily at his side, with a kind of resentful, reluctant, angry walk. He was afraid to take her hand.
"Which way shall we go?" he asked as they walked in darkness.
"I don't mind."
"Then we'll go up the steps."
He suddenly turned round. They had passed the Park steps. She stood still in resentment at his suddenly abandoning her. He looked for her. She stood aloof. He caught her suddenly in his arms, held her strained for a moment, kissed her. Then he let her go.
"Come along," he said, penitent.
She followed him. He took her hand and kissed her finger-tips. They went in silence. When they came to the light, he let go her hand. Neither spoke till they reached the station. Then they looked each other in the eyes.
"Good-night," she said.
And he went for his train. His body acted mechanically. People talked to him. He heard faint echoes answering them. He was in a delirium. He felt that he would go mad if Monday did not come at once. On Monday he would see her again. All himself was pitched there, ahead. Sunday intervened. He could not bear it. He could not see her till Monday. And Sunday intervened—hour after hour of tension. He wanted to beat his head against the door of the carriage. But he sat still. He drank some whisky on the way home, but it only made it worse. His mother must not be upset, that was all. He dissembled, and got quickly to bed. There he sat, dressed, with his chin on his knees, staring out of the window at the far hill, with its few lights. He neither thought nor slept, but sat perfectly still, staring. And when at last he was so cold that he came to himself, he found his watch had stopped at half-past two. It was after three o'clock. He was exhausted, but still there was the torment of knowing it was only Sunday morning. He went to bed and slept. Then he cycled all day long, till he was fagged out. And he scarcely knew where he had been. But the day after was Monday. He slept till four o'clock. Then he lay and thought. He was coming nearer to himself—he could see himself, real, somewhere in front. She would go a walk with him in the afternoon. Afternoon! It seemed years ahead.
Slowly the hours crawled. His father got up; he heard him pottering about. Then the miner set off to the pit, his heavy boots scraping the yard. Cocks were still crowing. A cart went down the road. His mother got up. She knocked the fire. Presently she called him softly. He answered as if he were asleep. This shell of himself did well.
He was walking to the station—another mile! The train was near Nottingham. Would it stop before the tunnels? But it did not matter; it would get there before dinner-time. He was at Jordan's. She would come in half an hour. At any rate, she would be near. He had done the letters. She would be there. Perhaps she had not come. He ran downstairs. Ah! he saw her through the glass door. Her shoulders stooping a little to her work made him feel he could not go forward; he could not stand. He went in. He was pale, nervous, awkward, and quite cold. Would she misunderstand him? He could not write his real self with this shell.
"And this afternoon," he struggled to say. "You will come?"
"I think so," she replied, murmuring.
He stood before her, unable to say a word. She hid her face from him. Again came over him the feeling that he would lose consciousness. He set his teeth and went upstairs. He had done everything correctly yet, and he would do so. All the morning things seemed a long way off, as they do to a man under chloroform. He himself seemed under a tight band of constraint. Then there was his other self, in the distance, doing things, entering stuff in a ledger, and he watched that far-off him carefully to see he made no mistake.
But the ache and strain of it could not go on much longer. He worked incessantly. Still it was only twelve o'clock. As if he had nailed his clothing against the desk, he stood there and worked, forcing every stroke out of himself. It was a quarter to one; he could clear away. Then he ran downstairs.
"You will meet me at the Fountain at two o'clock," he said.
"I can't be there till half-past."
"Yes!" he said.
She saw his dark, mad eyes.
"I will try at a quarter past."
And he had to be content. He went and got some dinner. All the time he was still under chloroform, and every minute was stretched out indefinitely. He walked miles of streets. Then he thought he would be late at the meeting-place. He was at the Fountain at five past two. The torture of the next quarter of an hour was refined beyond expression. It was the anguish of combining the living self with the shell. Then he saw her. She came! And he was there.
"You are late," he said.
"Only five minutes," she answered.
"I'd never have done it to you," he laughed.
She was in a dark blue costume. He looked at her beautiful figure.
"You want some flowers," he said, going to the nearest florist's.
She followed him in silence. He bought her a bunch of scarlet, brick-red carnations. She put them in her coat, flushing.
"That's a fine colour!" he said.
"I'd rather have had something softer," she said.
"Do you feel like a blot of vermilion walking down the street?" he said.
She hung her head, afraid of the people they met. He looked sideways at her as they walked. There was a wonderful close down on her face near the ear that he wanted to touch. And a certain heaviness, the heaviness of a very full ear of corn that dips slightly in the wind, that there was about her, made his brain spin. He seemed to be spinning down the street, everything going round.
As they sat in the tramcar, she leaned her heavy shoulder against him, and he took her hand. He felt himself coming round from the anaesthetic, beginning to breathe. Her ear, half-hidden among her blonde hair, was near to him. The temptation to kiss it was almost too great. But there were other people on top of the car. It still remained to him to kiss it. After all, he was not himself, he was some attribute of hers, like the sunshine that fell on her.