He looked quickly away. It had been raining. The big bluff of the Castle rock was streaked with rain, as it reared above the flat of the town. They crossed the wide, black space of the Midland Railway, and passed the cattle enclosure that stood out white. Then they ran down sordid Wilford Road.
She rocked slightly to the tram's motion, and as she leaned against him, rocked upon him. He was a vigorous, slender man, with exhaustless energy. His face was rough, with rough-hewn features, like the common people's; but his eyes under the deep brows were so full of life that they fascinated her. They seemed to dance, and yet they were still trembling on the finest balance of laughter. His mouth the same was just going to spring into a laugh of triumph, yet did not. There was a sharp suspense about him. She bit her lip moodily. His hand was hard clenched over hers.
They paid their two halfpennies at the turnstile and crossed the bridge. The Trent was very full. It swept silent and insidious under the bridge, travelling in a soft body. There had been a great deal of rain. On the river levels were flat gleams of flood water. The sky was grey, with glisten of silver here and there. In Wilford churchyard the dahlias were sodden with rain—wet black-crimson balls. No one was on the path that went along the green river meadow, along the elm-tree colonnade.
There was the faintest haze over the silvery-dark water and the green meadow-bank, and the elm-trees that were spangled with gold. The river slid by in a body, utterly silent and swift, intertwining among itself like some subtle, complex creature. Clara walked moodily beside him.
"Why," she asked at length, in rather a jarring tone, "did you leave Miriam?"
"Because I WANTED to leave her," he said.
"Because I didn't want to go on with her. And I didn't want to marry."
She was silent for a moment. They picked their way down the muddy path. Drops of water fell from the elm-trees.
"You didn't want to marry Miriam, or you didn't want to marry at all?" she asked.
"Both," he answered—"both!"
They had to manoeuvre to get to the stile, because of the pools of water.
"And what did she say?" Clara asked.
"Miriam? She said I was a baby of four, and that I always HAD battled her off."
Clara pondered over this for a time.
"But you have really been going with her for some time?" she asked.
"And now you don't want any more of her?"
"No. I know it's no good."
She pondered again.
"Don't you think you've treated her rather badly?" she asked.
"Yes; I ought to have dropped it years back. But it would have been no good going on. Two wrongs don't make a right."
"How old ARE you?" Clara asked.
"And I am thirty," she said.
"I know you are."
"I shall be thirty-one—or AM I thirty-one?"
"I neither know nor care. What does it matter!"
They were at the entrance to the Grove. The wet, red track, already sticky with fallen leaves, went up the steep bank between the grass. On either side stood the elm-trees like pillars along a great aisle, arching over and making high up a roof from which the dead leaves fell. All was empty and silent and wet. She stood on top of the stile, and he held both her hands. Laughing, she looked down into his eyes. Then she leaped. Her breast came against his; he held her, and covered her face with kisses.
They went on up the slippery, steep red path. Presently she released his hand and put it round her waist.
"You press the vein in my arm, holding it so tightly," she said.
They walked along. His finger-tips felt the rocking of her breast. All was silent and deserted. On the left the red wet plough-land showed through the doorways between the elm-boles and their branches. On the right, looking down, they could see the tree-tops of elms growing far beneath them, hear occasionally the gurgle of the river. Sometimes there below they caught glimpses of the full, soft-sliding Trent, and of water-meadows dotted with small cattle.
"It has scarcely altered since little Kirke White used to come," he said.
But he was watching her throat below the ear, where the flush was fusing into the honey-white, and her mouth that pouted disconsolate. She stirred against him as she walked, and his body was like a taut string.
Halfway up the big colonnade of elms, where the Grove rose highest above the river, their forward movement faltered to an end. He led her across to the grass, under the trees at the edge of the path. The cliff of red earth sloped swiftly down, through trees and bushes, to the river that glimmered and was dark between the foliage. The far-below water-meadows were very green. He and she stood leaning against one another, silent, afraid, their bodies touching all along. There came a quick gurgle from the river below.
"Why," he asked at length, "did you hate Baxter Dawes?"
She turned to him with a splendid movement. Her mouth was offered him, and her throat; her eyes were half-shut; her breast was tilted as if it asked for him. He flashed with a small laugh, shut his eyes, and met her in a long, whole kiss. Her mouth fused with his; their bodies were sealed and annealed. It was some minutes before they withdrew. They were standing beside the public path.
"Will you go down to the river?" he asked.
She looked at him, leaving herself in his hands. He went over the brim of the declivity and began to climb down.
"It is slippery," he said.
"Never mind," she replied.
The red clay went down almost sheer. He slid, went from one tuft of grass to the next, hanging on to the bushes, making for a little platform at the foot of a tree. There he waited for her, laughing with excitement. Her shoes were clogged with red earth. It was hard for her. He frowned. At last he caught her hand, and she stood beside him. The cliff rose above them and fell away below. Her colour was up, her eyes flashed. He looked at the big drop below them.
"It's risky," he said; "or messy, at any rate. Shall we go back?"
"Not for my sake," she said quickly.
"All right. You see, I can't help you; I should only hinder. Give me that little parcel and your gloves. Your poor shoes!"
They stood perched on the face of the declivity, under the trees.
"Well, I'll go again," he said.
Away he went, slipping, staggering, sliding to the next tree, into which he fell with a slam that nearly shook the breath out of him. She came after cautiously, hanging on to the twigs and grasses. So they descended, stage by stage, to the river's brink. There, to his disgust, the flood had eaten away the path, and the red decline ran straight into the water. He dug in his heels and brought himself up violently. The string of the parcel broke with a snap; the brown parcel bounded down, leaped into the water, and sailed smoothly away. He hung on to his tree.
"Well, I'll be damned!" he cried crossly. Then he laughed. She was coming perilously down.
"Mind!" he warned her. He stood with his back to the tree, waiting. "Come now," he called, opening his arms.
She let herself run. He caught her, and together they stood watching the dark water scoop at the raw edge of the bank. The parcel had sailed out of sight.
"It doesn't matter," she said.
He held her close and kissed her. There was only room for their four feet.
"It's a swindle!" he said. "But there's a rut where a man has been, so if we go on I guess we shall find the path again."
The river slid and twined its great volume. On the other bank cattle were feeding on the desolate flats. The cliff rose high above Paul and Clara on their right hand. They stood against the tree in the watery silence.
"Let us try going forward," he said; and they struggled in the red clay along the groove a man's nailed boots had made. They were hot and flushed. Their barkled shoes hung heavy on their steps. At last they found the broken path. It was littered with rubble from the water, but at any rate it was easier. They cleaned their boots with twigs. His heart was beating thick and fast.
Suddenly, coming on to the little level, he saw two figures of men standing silent at the water's edge. His heart leaped. They were fishing. He turned and put his hand up warningly to Clara. She hesitated, buttoned her coat. The two went on together.
The fishermen turned curiously to watch the two intruders on their privacy and solitude. They had had a fire, but it was nearly out. All kept perfectly still. The men turned again to their fishing, stood over the grey glinting river like statues. Clara went with bowed head, flushing; he was laughing to himself. Directly they passed out of sight behind the willows.
"Now they ought to be drowned," said Paul softly.
Clara did not answer. They toiled forward along a tiny path on the river's lip. Suddenly it vanished. The bank was sheer red solid clay in front of them, sloping straight into the river. He stood and cursed beneath his breath, setting his teeth.
"It's impossible!" said Clara.
He stood erect, looking round. Just ahead were two islets in the stream, covered with osiers. But they were unattainable. The cliff came down like a sloping wall from far above their heads. Behind, not far back, were the fishermen. Across the river the distant cattle fed silently in the desolate afternoon. He cursed again deeply under his breath. He gazed up the great steep bank. Was there no hope but to scale back to the public path?
"Stop a minute," he said, and, digging his heels sideways into the steep bank of red clay, he began nimbly to mount. He looked across at every tree-foot. At last he found what he wanted. Two beech-trees side by side on the hill held a little level on the upper face between their roots. It was littered with damp leaves, but it would do. The fishermen were perhaps sufficiently out of sight. He threw down his rainproof and waved to her to come.
She toiled to his side. Arriving there, she looked at him heavily, dumbly, and laid her head on his shoulder. He held her fast as he looked round. They were safe enough from all but the small, lonely cows over the river. He sunk his mouth on her throat, where he felt her heavy pulse beat under his lips. Everything was perfectly still. There was nothing in the afternoon but themselves.
When she arose, he, looking on the ground all the time, saw suddenly sprinkled on the black wet beech-roots many scarlet carnation petals, like splashed drops of blood; and red, small splashes fell from her bosom, streaming down her dress to her feet.
"Your flowers are smashed," he said.
She looked at him heavily as she put back her hair. Suddenly he put his finger-tips on her cheek.
"Why dost look so heavy?" he reproached her.
She smiled sadly, as if she felt alone in herself. He caressed her cheek with his fingers, and kissed her.
"Nay!" he said. "Never thee bother!"
She gripped his fingers tight, and laughed shakily. Then she dropped her hand. He put the hair back from her brows, stroking her temples, kissing them lightly.
"But tha shouldna worrit!" he said softly, pleading.
"No, I don't worry!" she laughed tenderly and resigned.
"Yea, tha does! Dunna thee worrit," he implored, caressing.
"No!" she consoled him, kissing him.
They had a stiff climb to get to the top again. It took them a quarter of an hour. When he got on to the level grass, he threw off his cap, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and sighed.
"Now we're back at the ordinary level," he said.
She sat down, panting, on the tussocky grass. Her cheeks were flushed pink. He kissed her, and she gave way to joy.
"And now I'll clean thy boots and make thee fit for respectable folk," he said.
He kneeled at her feet, worked away with a stick and tufts of grass. She put her fingers in his hair, drew his head to her, and kissed it.
"What am I supposed to be doing," he said, looking at her laughing; "cleaning shoes or dibbling with love? Answer me that!"
"Just whichever I please," she replied.
"I'm your boot-boy for the time being, and nothing else!" But they remained looking into each other's eyes and laughing. Then they kissed with little nibbling kisses.
"T-t-t-t!" he went with his tongue, like his mother. "I tell you, nothing gets done when there's a woman about."
And he returned to his boot-cleaning, singing softly. She touched his thick hair, and he kissed her fingers. He worked away at her shoes. At last they were quite presentable.
"There you are, you see!" he said. "Aren't I a great hand at restoring you to respectability? Stand up! There, you look as irreproachable as Britannia herself!"
He cleaned his own boots a little, washed his hands in a puddle, and sang. They went on into Clifton village. He was madly in love with her; every movement she made, every crease in her garments, sent a hot flash through him and seemed adorable.
The old lady at whose house they had tea was roused into gaiety by them.
"I could wish you'd had something of a better day," she said, hovering round.
"Nay!" he laughed. "We've been saying how nice it is."
The old lady looked at him curiously. There was a peculiar glow and charm about him. His eyes were dark and laughing. He rubbed his moustache with a glad movement.
"Have you been saying SO!" she exclaimed, a light rousing in her old eyes.
"Truly!" he laughed.
"Then I'm sure the day's good enough," said the old lady.
She fussed about, and did not want to leave them.
"I don't know whether you'd like some radishes as well," she said to Clara; "but I've got some in the garden—AND a cucumber."
Clara flushed. She looked very handsome.
"I should like some radishes," she answered.
And the old lady pottered off gleefully.
"If she knew!" said Clara quietly to him.
"Well, she doesn't know; and it shows we're nice in ourselves, at any rate. You look quite enough to satisfy an archangel, and I'm sure I feel harmless—so—if it makes you look nice, and makes folk happy when they have us, and makes us happy—why, we're not cheating them out of much!"
They went on with the meal. When they were going away, the old lady came timidly with three tiny dahlias in full blow, neat as bees, and speckled scarlet and white. She stood before Clara, pleased with herself, saying:
"I don't know whether—" and holding the flowers forward in her old hand.
"Oh, how pretty!" cried Clara, accepting the flowers.
"Shall she have them all?" asked Paul reproachfully of the old woman.
"Yes, she shall have them all," she replied, beaming with joy. "You have got enough for your share."
"Ah, but I shall ask her to give me one!" he teased.
"Then she does as she pleases," said the old lady, smiling. And she bobbed a little curtsey of delight.
Clara was rather quiet and uncomfortable. As they walked along, he said:
"You don't feel criminal, do you?"
She looked at him with startled grey eyes.
"Criminal!" she said. "No."
"But you seem to feel you have done a wrong?"
"No," she said. "I only think, 'If they knew!'"
"If they knew, they'd cease to understand. As it is, they do understand, and they like it. What do they matter? Here, with only the trees and me, you don't feel not the least bit wrong, do you?"
He took her by the arm, held her facing him, holding her eyes with his. Something fretted him.
"Not sinners, are we?" he said, with an uneasy little frown.
"No," she replied.
He kissed her, laughing.
"You like your little bit of guiltiness, I believe," he said. "I believe Eve enjoyed it, when she went cowering out of Paradise."
But there was a certain glow and quietness about her that made him glad. When he was alone in the railway-carriage, he found himself tumultuously happy, and the people exceedingly nice, and the night lovely, and everything good.
Mrs. Morel was sitting reading when he got home. Her health was not good now, and there had come that ivory pallor into her face which he never noticed, and which afterwards he never forgot. She did not mention her own ill-health to him. After all, she thought, it was not much.
"You are late!" she said, looking at him.
His eyes were shining; his face seemed to glow. He smiled to her.
"Yes; I've been down Clifton Grove with Clara."
His mother looked at him again.
"But won't people talk?" she said.
"Why? They know she's a suffragette, and so on. And what if they do talk!"
"Of course, there may be nothing wrong in it," said his mother. "But you know what folks are, and if once she gets talked about—"
"Well, I can't help it. Their jaw isn't so almighty important, after all."
"I think you ought to consider HER."
"So I DO! What can people say?—that we take a walk together. I believe you're jealous."
"You know I should be GLAD if she weren't a married woman."
"Well, my dear, she lives separate from her husband, and talks on platforms; so she's already singled out from the sheep, and, as far as I can see, hasn't much to lose. No; her life's nothing to her, so what's the worth of nothing? She goes with me—it becomes something. Then she must pay—we both must pay! Folk are so frightened of paying; they'd rather starve and die."
"Very well, my son. We'll see how it will end."
"Very well, my mother. I'll abide by the end."
"And she's—she's AWFULLY nice, mother; she is really! You don't know!"
"That's not the same as marrying her."
"It's perhaps better."
There was silence for a while. He wanted to ask his mother something, but was afraid.
"Should you like to know her?" He hesitated.
"Yes," said Mrs. Morel coolly. "I should like to know what she's like."
"But she's nice, mother, she is! And not a bit common!"
"I never suggested she was."
"But you seem to think she's—not as good as—She's better than ninety-nine folk out of a hundred, I tell you! She's BETTER, she is! She's fair, she's honest, she's straight! There isn't anything underhand or superior about her. Don't be mean about her!"
Mrs. Morel flushed.
"I am sure I am not mean about her. She may be quite as you say, but—"
"You don't approve," he finished.
"And do you expect me to?" she answered coldly.
"Yes!—yes!—if you'd anything about you, you'd be glad! Do you WANT to see her?"
"I said I did."
"Then I'll bring her—shall I bring her here?"
"You please yourself."
"Then I WILL bring her here—one Sunday—to tea. If you think a horrid thing about her, I shan't forgive you."
His mother laughed.
"As if it would make any difference!" she said. He knew he had won.
"Oh, but it feels so fine, when she's there! She's such a queen in her way."
Occasionally he still walked a little way from chapel with Miriam and Edgar. He did not go up to the farm. She, however, was very much the same with him, and he did not feel embarrassed in her presence. One evening she was alone when he accompanied her. They began by talking books: it was their unfailing topic. Mrs. Morel had said that his and Miriam's affair was like a fire fed on books—if there were no more volumes it would die out. Miriam, for her part, boasted that she could read him like a book, could place her finger any minute on the chapter and the line. He, easily taken in, believed that Miriam knew more about him than anyone else. So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.
"And what have you been doing lately?"
"I—oh, not much! I made a sketch of Bestwood from the garden, that is nearly right at last. It's the hundredth try."
So they went on. Then she said:
"You've not been out, then, lately?"
"Yes; I went up Clifton Grove on Monday afternoon with Clara."
"It was not very nice weather," said Miriam, "was it?"
"But I wanted to go out, and it was all right. The Trent IS full."
"And did you go to Barton?" she asked.
"No; we had tea in Clifton."
"DID you! That would be nice."
"It was! The jolliest old woman! She gave us several pompom dahlias, as pretty as you like."
Miriam bowed her head and brooded. He was quite unconscious of concealing anything from her.
"What made her give them you?" she asked.
"Because she liked us—because we were jolly, I should think."
Miriam put her finger in her mouth.
"Were you late home?" she asked.
At last he resented her tone.
"I caught the seven-thirty."
They walked on in silence, and he was angry.
"And how IS Clara?" asked Miriam.
"Quite all right, I think."
"That's good!" she said, with a tinge of irony. "By the way, what of her husband? One never hears anything of him."
"He's got some other woman, and is also quite all right," he replied. "At least, so I think."
"I see—you don't know for certain. Don't you think a position like that is hard on a woman?"
"It's so unjust!" said Miriam. "The man does as he likes—"
"Then let the woman also," he said.
"How can she? And if she does, look at her position!"
"What of it?"
"Why, it's impossible! You don't understand what a woman forfeits—"
"No, I don't. But if a woman's got nothing but her fair fame to feed on, why, it's thin tack, and a donkey would die of it!"
So she understood his moral attitude, at least, and she knew he would act accordingly.
She never asked him anything direct, but she got to know enough.
Another day, when he saw Miriam, the conversation turned to marriage, then to Clara's marriage with Dawes.
"You see," he said, "she never knew the fearful importance of marriage. She thought it was all in the day's march—it would have to come—and Dawes—well, a good many women would have given their souls to get him; so why not him? Then she developed into the femme incomprise, and treated him badly, I'll bet my boots."
"And she left him because he didn't understand her?"
"I suppose so. I suppose she had to. It isn't altogether a question of understanding; it's a question of living. With him, she was only half-alive; the rest was dormant, deadened. And the dormant woman was the femme incomprise, and she HAD to be awakened."
"And what about him."
"I don't know. I rather think he loves her as much as he can, but he's a fool."
"It was something like your mother and father," said Miriam.
"Yes; but my mother, I believe, got real joy and satisfaction out of my father at first. I believe she had a passion for him; that's why she stayed with him. After all, they were bound to each other."
"Yes," said Miriam.
"That's what one MUST HAVE, I think," he continued—"the real, real flame of feeling through another person—once, only once, if it only lasts three months. See, my mother looks as if she'd HAD everything that was necessary for her living and developing. There's not a tiny bit of feeling of sterility about her."
"No," said Miriam.
"And with my father, at first, I'm sure she had the real thing. She knows; she has been there. You can feel it about her, and about him, and about hundreds of people you meet every day; and, once it has happened to you, you can go on with anything and ripen."
"What happened, exactly?" asked Miriam.
"It's so hard to say, but the something big and intense that changes you when you really come together with somebody else. It almost seems to fertilise your soul and make it that you can go on and mature."
"And you think your mother had it with your father?"
"Yes; and at the bottom she feels grateful to him for giving it her, even now, though they are miles apart."
"And you think Clara never had it?"
Miriam pondered this. She saw what he was seeking—a sort of baptism of fire in passion, it seemed to her. She realised that he would never be satisfied till he had it. Perhaps it was essential to him, as to some men, to sow wild oats; and afterwards, when he was satisfied, he would not rage with restlessness any more, but could settle down and give her his life into her hands. Well, then, if he must go, let him go and have his fill—something big and intense, he called it. At any rate, when he had got it, he would not want it—that he said himself; he would want the other thing that she could give him. He would want to be owned, so that he could work. It seemed to her a bitter thing that he must go, but she could let him go into an inn for a glass of whisky, so she could let him go to Clara, so long as it was something that would satisfy a need in him, and leave him free for herself to possess.
"Have you told your mother about Clara?" she asked.
She knew this would be a test of the seriousness of his feeling for the other woman: she knew he was going to Clara for something vital, not as a man goes for pleasure to a prostitute, if he told his mother.
"Yes," he said, "and she is coming to tea on Sunday."
"To your house?"
"Yes; I want mater to see her."
There was a silence. Things had gone quicker than she thought. She felt a sudden bitterness that he could leave her so soon and so entirely. And was Clara to be accepted by his people, who had been so hostile to herself?
"I may call in as I go to chapel," she said. "It is a long time since I saw Clara."
"Very well," he said, astonished, and unconsciously angry.
On the Sunday afternoon he went to Keston to meet Clara at the station. As he stood on the platform he was trying to examine in himself if he had a premonition.
"Do I FEEL as if she'd come?" he said to himself, and he tried to find out. His heart felt queer and contracted. That seemed like foreboding. Then he HAD a foreboding she would not come! Then she would not come, and instead of taking her over the fields home, as he had imagined, he would have to go alone. The train was late; the afternoon would be wasted, and the evening. He hated her for not coming. Why had she promised, then, if she could not keep her promise? Perhaps she had missed her train—he himself was always missing trains—but that was no reason why she should miss this particular one. He was angry with her; he was furious.
Suddenly he saw the train crawling, sneaking round the corner. Here, then, was the train, but of course she had not come. The green engine hissed along the platform, the row of brown carriages drew up, several doors opened. No; she had not come! No! Yes; ah, there she was! She had a big black hat on! He was at her side in a moment.
"I thought you weren't coming," he said.
She was laughing rather breathlessly as she put out her hand to him; their eyes met. He took her quickly along the platform, talking at a great rate to hide his feeling. She looked beautiful. In her hat were large silk roses, coloured like tarnished gold. Her costume of dark cloth fitted so beautifully over her breast and shoulders. His pride went up as he walked with her. He felt the station people, who knew him, eyed her with awe and admiration.
"I was sure you weren't coming," he laughed shakily.
She laughed in answer, almost with a little cry.
"And I wondered, when I was in the train, WHATEVER I should do if you weren't there!" she said.
He caught her hand impulsively, and they went along the narrow twitchel. They took the road into Nuttall and over the Reckoning House Farm. It was a blue, mild day. Everywhere the brown leaves lay scattered; many scarlet hips stood upon the hedge beside the wood. He gathered a few for her to wear.
"Though, really," he said, as he fitted them into the breast of her coat, "you ought to object to my getting them, because of the birds. But they don't care much for rose-hips in this part, where they can get plenty of stuff. You often find the berries going rotten in the springtime."
So he chattered, scarcely aware of what he said, only knowing he was putting berries in the bosom of her coat, while she stood patiently for him. And she watched his quick hands, so full of life, and it seemed to her she had never SEEN anything before. Till now, everything had been indistinct.
They came near to the colliery. It stood quite still and black among the corn-fields, its immense heap of slag seen rising almost from the oats.
"What a pity there is a coal-pit here where it is so pretty!" said Clara.
"Do you think so?" he answered. "You see, I am so used to it I should miss it. No; and I like the pits here and there. I like the rows of trucks, and the headstocks, and the steam in the daytime, and the lights at night. When I was a boy, I always thought a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night was a pit, with its steam, and its lights, and the burning bank,—and I thought the Lord was always at the pit-top."
As they drew near home she walked in silence, and seemed to hang back. He pressed her fingers in his own. She flushed, but gave no response.
"Don't you want to come home?" he asked.
"Yes, I want to come," she replied.
It did not occur to him that her position in his home would be rather a peculiar and difficult one. To him it seemed just as if one of his men friends were going to be introduced to his mother, only nicer.
The Morels lived in a house in an ugly street that ran down a steep hill. The street itself was hideous. The house was rather superior to most. It was old, grimy, with a big bay window, and it was semi-detached; but it looked gloomy. Then Paul opened the door to the garden, and all was different. The sunny afternoon was there, like another land. By the path grew tansy and little trees. In front of the window was a plot of sunny grass, with old lilacs round it. And away went the garden, with heaps of dishevelled chrysanthemums in the sunshine, down to the sycamore-tree, and the field, and beyond one looked over a few red-roofed cottages to the hills with all the glow of the autumn afternoon.
Mrs. Morel sat in her rocking-chair, wearing her black silk blouse. Her grey-brown hair was taken smooth back from her brow and her high temples; her face was rather pale. Clara, suffering, followed Paul into the kitchen. Mrs. Morel rose. Clara thought her a lady, even rather stiff. The young woman was very nervous. She had almost a wistful look, almost resigned.
"Mother—Clara," said Paul.
Mrs. Morel held out her hand and smiled.
"He has told me a good deal about you," she said.
The blood flamed in Clara's cheek.
"I hope you don't mind my coming," she faltered.
"I was pleased when he said he would bring you," replied Mrs. Morel.
Paul, watching, felt his heart contract with pain. His mother looked so small, and sallow, and done-for beside the luxuriant Clara.
"It's such a pretty day, mother!" he said. "And we saw a jay."
His mother looked at him; he had turned to her. She thought what a man he seemed, in his dark, well-made clothes. He was pale and detached-looking; it would be hard for any woman to keep him. Her heart glowed; then she was sorry for Clara.
"Perhaps you'll leave your things in the parlour," said Mrs. Morel nicely to the young woman.
"Oh, thank you," she replied.
"Come on," said Paul, and he led the way into the little front room, with its old piano, its mahogany furniture, its yellowing marble mantelpiece. A fire was burning; the place was littered with books and drawing-boards. "I leave my things lying about," he said. "It's so much easier."
She loved his artist's paraphernalia, and the books, and the photos of people. Soon he was telling her: this was William, this was William's young lady in the evening dress, this was Annie and her husband, this was Arthur and his wife and the baby. She felt as if she were being taken into the family. He showed her photos, books, sketches, and they talked a little while. Then they returned to the kitchen. Mrs. Morel put aside her book. Clara wore a blouse of fine silk chiffon, with narrow black-and-white stripes; her hair was done simply, coiled on top of her head. She looked rather stately and reserved.
"You have gone to live down Sneinton Boulevard?" said Mrs. Morel. "When I was a girl—girl, I say!—when I was a young woman WE lived in Minerva Terrace."
"Oh, did you!" said Clara. "I have a friend in number 6."
And the conversation had started. They talked Nottingham and Nottingham people; it interested them both. Clara was still rather nervous; Mrs. Morel was still somewhat on her dignity. She clipped her language very clear and precise. But they were going to get on well together, Paul saw.
Mrs. Morel measured herself against the younger woman, and found herself easily stronger. Clara was deferential. She knew Paul's surprising regard for his mother, and she had dreaded the meeting, expecting someone rather hard and cold. She was surprised to find this little interested woman chatting with such readiness; and then she felt, as she felt with Paul, that she would not care to stand in Mrs. Morel's way. There was something so hard and certain in his mother, as if she never had a misgiving in her life.
Presently Morel came down, ruffled and yawning, from his afternoon sleep. He scratched his grizzled head, he plodded in his stocking feet, his waistcoat hung open over his shirt. He seemed incongruous.
"This is Mrs. Dawes, father," said Paul.
Then Morel pulled himself together. Clara saw Paul's manner of bowing and shaking hands.
"Oh, indeed!" exclaimed Morel. "I am very glad to see you—I am, I assure you. But don't disturb yourself. No, no make yourself quite comfortable, and be very welcome."
Clara was astonished at this flood of hospitality from the old collier. He was so courteous, so gallant! She thought him most delightful.
"And may you have come far?" he asked.
"Only from Nottingham," she said.
"From Nottingham! Then you have had a beautiful day for your journey."
Then he strayed into the scullery to wash his hands and face, and from force of habit came on to the hearth with the towel to dry himself.
At tea Clara felt the refinement and sang-froid of the household. Mrs. Morel was perfectly at her ease. The pouring out the tea and attending to the people went on unconsciously, without interrupting her in her talk. There was a lot of room at the oval table; the china of dark blue willow-pattern looked pretty on the glossy cloth. There was a little bowl of small, yellow chrysanthemums. Clara felt she completed the circle, and it was a pleasure to her. But she was rather afraid of the self-possession of the Morels, father and all. She took their tone; there was a feeling of balance. It was a cool, clear atmosphere, where everyone was himself, and in harmony. Clara enjoyed it, but there was a fear deep at the bottom of her.
Paul cleared the table whilst his mother and Clara talked. Clara was conscious of his quick, vigorous body as it came and went, seeming blown quickly by a wind at its work. It was almost like the hither and thither of a leaf that comes unexpected. Most of herself went with him. By the way she leaned forward, as if listening, Mrs. Morel could see she was possessed elsewhere as she talked, and again the elder woman was sorry for her.
Having finished, he strolled down the garden, leaving the two women to talk. It was a hazy, sunny afternoon, mild and soft. Clara glanced through the window after him as he loitered among the chrysanthemums. She felt as if something almost tangible fastened her to him; yet he seemed so easy in his graceful, indolent movement, so detached as he tied up the too-heavy flower branches to their stakes, that she wanted to shriek in her helplessness.
Mrs. Morel rose.
"You will let me help you wash up," said Clara.
"Eh, there are so few, it will only take a minute," said the other.
Clara, however, dried the tea-things, and was glad to be on such good terms with his mother; but it was torture not to be able to follow him down the garden. At last she allowed herself to go; she felt as if a rope were taken off her ankle.
The afternoon was golden over the hills of Derbyshire. He stood across in the other garden, beside a bush of pale Michaelmas daisies, watching the last bees crawl into the hive. Hearing her coming, he turned to her with an easy motion, saying:
"It's the end of the run with these chaps."
Clara stood near him. Over the low red wall in front was the country and the far-off hills, all golden dim.
At that moment Miriam was entering through the garden-door. She saw Clara go up to him, saw him turn, and saw them come to rest together. Something in their perfect isolation together made her know that it was accomplished between them, that they were, as she put it, married. She walked very slowly down the cinder-track of the long garden.
Clara had pulled a button from a hollyhock spire, and was breaking it to get the seeds. Above her bowed head the pink flowers stared, as if defending her. The last bees were falling down to the hive.
"Count your money," laughed Paul, as she broke the flat seeds one by one from the roll of coin. She looked at him.
"I'm well off," she said, smiling.
"How much? Pf!" He snapped his fingers. "Can I turn them into gold?"
"I'm afraid not," she laughed.
They looked into each other's eyes, laughing. At that moment they became aware of Miriam. There was a click, and everything had altered.
"Hello, Miriam!" he exclaimed. "You said you'd come!"
"Yes. Had you forgotten?"
She shook hands with Clara, saying:
"It seems strange to see you here."
"Yes," replied the other; "it seems strange to be here."
There was a hesitation.
"This is pretty, isn't it?" said Miriam.
"I like it very much," replied Clara.
Then Miriam realised that Clara was accepted as she had never been.
"Have you come down alone?" asked Paul.
"Yes; I went to Agatha's to tea. We are going to chapel. I only called in for a moment to see Clara."
"You should have come in here to tea," he said.
Miriam laughed shortly, and Clara turned impatiently aside.
"Do you like the chrysanthemums?" he asked.
"Yes; they are very fine," replied Miriam.
"Which sort do you like best?" he asked.
"I don't know. The bronze, I think."
"I don't think you've seen all the sorts. Come and look. Come and see which are YOUR favourites, Clara."
He led the two women back to his own garden, where the towsled bushes of flowers of all colours stood raggedly along the path down to the field. The situation did not embarrass him, to his knowledge.
"Look, Miriam; these are the white ones that came from your garden. They aren't so fine here, are they?"
"No," said Miriam.
"But they're hardier. You're so sheltered; things grow big and tender, and then die. These little yellow ones I like. Will you have some?"
While they were out there the bells began to ring in the church, sounding loud across the town and the field. Miriam looked at the tower, proud among the clustering roofs, and remembered the sketches he had brought her. It had been different then, but he had not left her even yet. She asked him for a book to read. He ran indoors.
"What! is that Miriam?" asked his mother coldly.
"Yes; she said she'd call and see Clara."
"You told her, then?" came the sarcastic answer.
"Yes; why shouldn't I?"
"There's certainly no reason why you shouldn't," said Mrs. Morel, and she returned to her book. He winced from his mother's irony, frowned irritably, thinking: "Why can't I do as I like?"
"You've not seen Mrs. Morel before?" Miriam was saying to Clara.
"No; but she's so nice!"
"Yes," said Miriam, dropping her head; "in some ways she's very fine."
"I should think so."
"Had Paul told you much about her?"
"He had talked a good deal."
There was silence until he returned with the book.
"When will you want it back?" Miriam asked.
"When you like," he answered.
Clara turned to go indoors, whilst he accompanied Miriam to the gate.
"When will you come up to Willey Farm?" the latter asked.
"I couldn't say," replied Clara.
"Mother asked me to say she'd be pleased to see you any time, if you cared to come."
"Thank you; I should like to, but I can't say when."
"Oh, very well!" exclaimed Miriam rather bitterly, turning away.
She went down the path with her mouth to the flowers he had given her.
"You're sure you won't come in?" he said.
"We are going to chapel."
"Ah, I shall see you, then!" Miriam was very bitter.
They parted. He felt guilty towards her. She was bitter, and she scorned him. He still belonged to herself, she believed; yet he could have Clara, take her home, sit with her next his mother in chapel, give her the same hymn-book he had given herself years before. She heard him running quickly indoors.
But he did not go straight in. Halting on the plot of grass, he heard his mother's voice, then Clara's answer:
"What I hate is the bloodhound quality in Miriam."
"Yes," said his mother quickly, "yes; DOESN'T it make you hate her, now!"
His heart went hot, and he was angry with them for talking about the girl. What right had they to say that? Something in the speech itself stung him into a flame of hate against Miriam. Then his own heart rebelled furiously at Clara's taking the liberty of speaking so about Miriam. After all, the girl was the better woman of the two, he thought, if it came to goodness. He went indoors. His mother looked excited. She was beating with her hand rhythmically on the sofa-arm, as women do who are wearing out. He could never bear to see the movement. There was a silence; then he began to talk.
In chapel Miriam saw him find the place in the hymn-book for Clara, in exactly the same way as he used for herself. And during the sermon he could see the girl across the chapel, her hat throwing a dark shadow over her face. What did she think, seeing Clara with him? He did not stop to consider. He felt himself cruel towards Miriam.
After chapel he went over Pentrich with Clara. It was a dark autumn night. They had said good-bye to Miriam, and his heart had smitten him as he left the girl alone. "But it serves her right," he said inside himself, and it almost gave him pleasure to go off under her eyes with this other handsome woman.
There was a scent of damp leaves in the darkness. Clara's hand lay warm and inert in his own as they walked. He was full of conflict. The battle that raged inside him made him feel desperate.
Up Pentrich Hill Clara leaned against him as he went. He slid his arm round her waist. Feeling the strong motion of her body under his arm as she walked, the tightness in his chest because of Miriam relaxed, and the hot blood bathed him. He held her closer and closer.
Then: "You still keep on with Miriam," she said quietly.
"Only talk. There never WAS a great deal more than talk between us," he said bitterly.
"Your mother doesn't care for her," said Clara.
"No, or I might have married her. But it's all up really!"
Suddenly his voice went passionate with hate.
"If I was with her now, we should be jawing about the 'Christian Mystery', or some such tack. Thank God, I'm not!"
They walked on in silence for some time.
"But you can't really give her up," said Clara.
"I don't give her up, because there's nothing to give," he said.
"There is for her."
"I don't know why she and I shouldn't be friends as long as we live," he said. "But it'll only be friends."
Clara drew away from him, leaning away from contact with him.
"What are you drawing away for?" he asked.
She did not answer, but drew farther from him.
"Why do you want to walk alone?" he asked.
Still there was no answer. She walked resentfully, hanging her head.
"Because I said I would be friends with Miriam!" he exclaimed.
She would not answer him anything.
"I tell you it's only words that go between us," he persisted, trying to take her again.
She resisted. Suddenly he strode across in front of her, barring her way.
"Damn it!" he said. "What do you want now?"
"You'd better run after Miriam," mocked Clara.
The blood flamed up in him. He stood showing his teeth. She drooped sulkily. The lane was dark, quite lonely. He suddenly caught her in his arms, stretched forward, and put his mouth on her face in a kiss of rage. She turned frantically to avoid him. He held her fast. Hard and relentless his mouth came for her. Her breasts hurt against the wall of his chest. Helpless, she went loose in his arms, and he kissed her, and kissed her.
He heard people coming down the hill.
"Stand up! stand up!" he said thickly, gripping her arm till it hurt. If he had let go, she would have sunk to the ground.
She sighed and walked dizzily beside him. They went on in silence.
"We will go over the fields," he said; and then she woke up.
But she let herself be helped over the stile, and she walked in silence with him over the first dark field. It was the way to Nottingham and to the station, she knew. He seemed to be looking about. They came out on a bare hilltop where stood the dark figure of the ruined windmill. There he halted. They stood together high up in the darkness, looking at the lights scattered on the night before them, handfuls of glittering points, villages lying high and low on the dark, here and there.
"Like treading among the stars," he said, with a quaky laugh.
Then he took her in his arms, and held her fast. She moved aside her mouth to ask, dogged and low:
"What time is it?"
"It doesn't matter," he pleaded thickly.
"Yes it does—yes! I must go!"
"It's early yet," he said.
"What time is it?" she insisted.
All round lay the black night, speckled and spangled with lights.
"I don't know."
She put her hand on his chest, feeling for his watch. He felt the joints fuse into fire. She groped in his waistcoat pocket, while he stood panting. In the darkness she could see the round, pale face of the watch, but not the figures. She stooped over it. He was panting till he could take her in his arms again.
"I can't see," she said.
"Then don't bother."
"Yes; I'm going!" she said, turning away.
"Wait! I'll look!" But he could not see. "I'll strike a match."
He secretly hoped it was too late to catch the train. She saw the glowing lantern of his hands as he cradled the light: then his face lit up, his eyes fixed on the watch. Instantly all was dark again. All was black before her eyes; only a glowing match was red near her feet. Where was he?
"What is it?" she asked, afraid.
"You can't do it," his voice answered out of the darkness.
There was a pause. She felt in his power. She had heard the ring in his voice. It frightened her.
"What time is it?" she asked, quiet, definite, hopeless.
"Two minutes to nine," he replied, telling the truth with a struggle.
"And can I get from here to the station in fourteen minutes?"
"No. At any rate—"
She could distinguish his dark form again a yard or so away. She wanted to escape.
"But can't I do it?" she pleaded.
"If you hurry," he said brusquely. "But you could easily walk it, Clara; it's only seven miles to the tram. I'll come with you."
"No; I want to catch the train."
"I do—I want to catch the train."
Suddenly his voice altered.
"Very well," he said, dry and hard. "Come along, then."
And he plunged ahead into the darkness. She ran after him, wanting to cry. Now he was hard and cruel to her. She ran over the rough, dark fields behind him, out of breath, ready to drop. But the double row of lights at the station drew nearer. Suddenly:
"There she is!" he cried, breaking into a run.
There was a faint rattling noise. Away to the right the train, like a luminous caterpillar, was threading across the night. The rattling ceased.
"She's over the viaduct. You'll just do it."
Clara ran, quite out of breath, and fell at last into the train. The whistle blew. He was gone. Gone!—and she was in a carriage full of people. She felt the cruelty of it.
He turned round and plunged home. Before he knew where he was he was in the kitchen at home. He was very pale. His eyes were dark and dangerous-looking, as if he were drunk. His mother looked at him.
"Well, I must say your boots are in a nice state!" she said.
He looked at his feet. Then he took off his overcoat. His mother wondered if he were drunk.
"She caught the train then?" she said.
"I hope HER feet weren't so filthy. Where on earth you dragged her I don't know!"
He was silent and motionless for some time.
"Did you like her?" he asked grudgingly at last.
"Yes, I liked her. But you'll tire of her, my son; you know you will."
He did not answer. She noticed how he laboured in his breathing.
"Have you been running?" she asked.
"We had to run for the train."
"You'll go and knock yourself up. You'd better drink hot milk."
It was as good a stimulant as he could have, but he refused and went to bed. There he lay face down on the counterpane, and shed tears of rage and pain. There was a physical pain that made him bite his lips till they bled, and the chaos inside him left him unable to think, almost to feel.
"This is how she serves me, is it?" he said in his heart, over and over, pressing his face in the quilt. And he hated her. Again he went over the scene, and again he hated her.
The next day there was a new aloofness about him. Clara was very gentle, almost loving. But he treated her distantly, with a touch of contempt. She sighed, continuing to be gentle. He came round.
One evening of that week Sarah Bernhardt was at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, giving "La Dame aux Camelias". Paul wanted to see this old and famous actress, and he asked Clara to accompany him. He told his mother to leave the key in the window for him.
"Shall I book seats?" he asked of Clara.
"Yes. And put on an evening suit, will you? I've never seen you in it."
"But, good Lord, Clara! Think of ME in evening suit at the theatre!" he remonstrated.
"Would you rather not?" she asked.
"I will if you WANT me to; but I s'll feel a fool."
She laughed at him.
"Then feel a fool for my sake, once, won't you?"
The request made his blood flush up.
"I suppose I s'll have to."
"What are you taking a suitcase for?" his mother asked.
He blushed furiously.
"Clara asked me," he said.
"And what seats are you going in?"
"Well, I'm sure!" exclaimed his mother sarcastically.
"It's only once in the bluest of blue moons," he said.
He dressed at Jordan's, put on an overcoat and a cap, and met Clara in a cafe. She was with one of her suffragette friends. She wore an old long coat, which did not suit her, and had a little wrap over her head, which he hated. The three went to the theatre together.
Clara took off her coat on the stairs, and he discovered she was in a sort of semi-evening dress, that left her arms and neck and part of her breast bare. Her hair was done fashionably. The dress, a simple thing of green crape, suited her. She looked quite grand, he thought. He could see her figure inside the frock, as if that were wrapped closely round her. The firmness and the softness of her upright body could almost be felt as he looked at her. He clenched his fists.
And he was to sit all the evening beside her beautiful naked arm, watching the strong throat rise from the strong chest, watching the breasts under the green stuff, the curve of her limbs in the tight dress. Something in him hated her again for submitting him to this torture of nearness. And he loved her as she balanced her head and stared straight in front of her, pouting, wistful, immobile, as if she yielded herself to her fate because it was too strong for her. She could not help herself; she was in the grip of something bigger than herself. A kind of eternal look about her, as if she were a wistful sphinx, made it necessary for him to kiss her. He dropped his programme, and crouched down on the floor to get it, so that he could kiss her hand and wrist. Her beauty was a torture to him. She sat immobile. Only, when the lights went down, she sank a little against him, and he caressed her hand and arm with his fingers. He could smell her faint perfume. All the time his blood kept sweeping up in great white-hot waves that killed his consciousness momentarily.
The drama continued. He saw it all in the distance, going on somewhere; he did not know where, but it seemed far away inside him. He was Clara's white heavy arms, her throat, her moving bosom. That seemed to be himself. Then away somewhere the play went on, and he was identified with that also. There was no himself. The grey and black eyes of Clara, her bosom coming down on him, her arm that he held gripped between his hands, were all that existed. Then he felt himself small and helpless, her towering in her force above him.
Only the intervals, when the lights came up, hurt him expressibly. He wanted to run anywhere, so long as it would be dark again. In a maze, he wandered out for a drink. Then the lights were out, and the strange, insane reality of Clara and the drama took hold of him again.
The play went on. But he was obsessed by the desire to kiss the tiny blue vein that nestled in the bend of her arm. He could feel it. His whole face seemed suspended till he had put his lips there. It must be done. And the other people! At last he bent quickly forward and touched it with his lips. His moustache brushed the sensitive flesh. Clara shivered, drew away her arm.
When all was over, the lights up, the people clapping, he came to himself and looked at his watch. His train was gone.
"I s'll have to walk home!" he said.
Clara looked at him.
"It is too late?" she asked.
He nodded. Then he helped her on with her coat.
"I love you! You look beautiful in that dress," he murmured over her shoulder, among the throng of bustling people.
She remained quiet. Together they went out of the theatre. He saw the cabs waiting, the people passing. It seemed he met a pair of brown eyes which hated him. But he did not know. He and Clara turned away, mechanically taking the direction to the station.
The train had gone. He would have to walk the ten miles home.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I shall enjoy it."
"Won't you," she said, flushing, "come home for the night? I can sleep with mother."
He looked at her. Their eyes met.
"What will your mother say?" he asked.
"She won't mind."
"SHALL I come?"
"If you will."
And they turned away. At the first stopping-place they took the car. The wind blew fresh in their faces. The town was dark; the tram tipped in its haste. He sat with her hand fast in his.
"Will your mother be gone to bed?" he asked.
"She may be. I hope not."
They hurried along the silent, dark little street, the only people out of doors. Clara quickly entered the house. He hesitated.
He leaped up the step and was in the room. Her mother appeared in the inner doorway, large and hostile.
"Who have you got there?" she asked.
"It's Mr. Morel; he has missed his train. I thought we might put him up for the night, and save him a ten-mile walk."
"H'm," exclaimed Mrs. Radford. "That's your lookout! If you've invited him, he's very welcome as far as I'm concerned. YOU keep the house!"
"If you don't like me, I'll go away again," he said.
"Nay, nay, you needn't! Come along in! I dunno what you'll think of the supper I'd got her."
It was a little dish of chip potatoes and a piece of bacon. The table was roughly laid for one.
"You can have some more bacon," continued Mrs. Radford. "More chips you can't have."
"It's a shame to bother you," he said.
"Oh, don't you be apologetic! It doesn't DO wi' me! You treated her to the theatre, didn't you?" There was a sarcasm in the last question.
"Well?" laughed Paul uncomfortably.
"Well, and what's an inch of bacon! Take your coat off."
The big, straight-standing woman was trying to estimate the situation. She moved about the cupboard. Clara took his coat. The room was very warm and cosy in the lamplight.
"My sirs!" exclaimed Mrs. Radford; "but you two's a pair of bright beauties, I must say! What's all that get-up for?"
"I believe we don't know," he said, feeling a victim.
"There isn't room in THIS house for two such bobby-dazzlers, if you fly your kites THAT high!" she rallied them. It was a nasty thrust.
He in his dinner jacket, and Clara in her green dress and bare arms, were confused. They felt they must shelter each other in that little kitchen.
"And look at THAT blossom!" continued Mrs. Radford, pointing to Clara. "What does she reckon she did it for?"
Paul looked at Clara. She was rosy; her neck was warm with blushes. There was a moment of silence.
"You like to see it, don't you?" he asked.
The mother had them in her power. All the time his heart was beating hard, and he was tight with anxiety. But he would fight her.
"Me like to see it!" exclaimed the old woman. "What should I like to see her make a fool of herself for?"
"I've seen people look bigger fools," he said. Clara was under his protection now.
"Oh, ay! and when was that?" came the sarcastic rejoinder.
"When they made frights of themselves," he answered.
Mrs. Radford, large and threatening, stood suspended on the hearthrug, holding her fork.
"They're fools either road," she answered at length, turning to the Dutch oven.
"No," he said, fighting stoutly. "Folk ought to look as well as they can."
"And do you call THAT looking nice!" cried the mother, pointing a scornful fork at Clara. "That—that looks as if it wasn't properly dressed!"
"I believe you're jealous that you can't swank as well," he said laughing.
"Me! I could have worn evening dress with anybody, if I'd wanted to!" came the scornful answer.
"And why didn't you want to?" he asked pertinently. "Or DID you wear it?"
There was a long pause. Mrs. Radford readjusted the bacon in the Dutch oven. His heart beat fast, for fear he had offended her.
"Me!" she exclaimed at last. "No, I didn't! And when I was in service, I knew as soon as one of the maids came out in bare shoulders what sort SHE was, going to her sixpenny hop!"
"Were you too good to go to a sixpenny hop?" he said.
Clara sat with bowed head. His eyes were dark and glittering. Mrs. Radford took the Dutch oven from the fire, and stood near him, putting bits of bacon on his plate.
"THERE'S a nice crozzly bit!" she said.
"Don't give me the best!" he said.
"SHE'S got what SHE wants," was the answer.
There was a sort of scornful forbearance in the woman's tone that made Paul know she was mollified.
"But DO have some!" he said to Clara.
She looked up at him with her grey eyes, humiliated and lonely.
"No thanks!" she said.
"Why won't you?" he answered carelessly.
The blood was beating up like fire in his veins. Mrs. Radford sat down again, large and impressive and aloof. He left Clara altogether to attend to the mother.
"They say Sarah Bernhardt's fifty," he said.
"Fifty! She's turned sixty!" came the scornful answer.
"Well," he said, "you'd never think it! She made me want to howl even now."
"I should like to see myself howling at THAT bad old baggage!" said Mrs. Radford. "It's time she began to think herself a grandmother, not a shrieking catamaran—"
"A catamaran is a boat the Malays use," he said.
"And it's a word as I use," she retorted.
"My mother does sometimes, and it's no good my telling her," he said.
"I s'd think she boxes your ears," said Mrs. Radford, good-humouredly.
"She'd like to, and she says she will, so I give her a little stool to stand on."
"That's the worst of my mother," said Clara. "She never wants a stool for anything."
"But she often can't touch THAT lady with a long prop," retorted Mrs. Radford to Paul.
"I s'd think she doesn't want touching with a prop," he laughed. "I shouldn't."
"It might do the pair of you good to give you a crack on the head with one," said the mother, laughing suddenly.
"Why are you so vindictive towards me?" he said. "I've not stolen anything from you."
"No; I'll watch that," laughed the older woman.
Soon the supper was finished. Mrs. Radford sat guard in her chair. Paul lit a cigarette. Clara went upstairs, returning with a sleeping-suit, which she spread on the fender to air.
"Why, I'd forgot all about THEM!" said Mrs. Radford. "Where have they sprung from?"
"Out of my drawer."
"H'm! You bought 'em for Baxter, an' he wouldn't wear 'em, would he?"—laughing. "Said he reckoned to do wi'out trousers i' bed." She turned confidentially to Paul, saying: "He couldn't BEAR 'em, them pyjama things."
The young man sat making rings of smoke.
"Well, it's everyone to his taste," he laughed.
Then followed a little discussion of the merits of pyjamas.
"My mother loves me in them," he said. "She says I'm a pierrot."
"I can imagine they'd suit you," said Mrs. Radford.
After a while he glanced at the little clock that was ticking on the mantelpiece. It was half-past twelve.
"It is funny," he said, "but it takes hours to settle down to sleep after the theatre."
"It's about time you did," said Mrs. Radford, clearing the table.
"Are YOU tired?" he asked of Clara.
"Not the least bit," she answered, avoiding his eyes.
"Shall we have a game at cribbage?" he said.
"I've forgotten it."
"Well, I'll teach you again. May we play crib, Mrs. Radford?" he asked.
"You'll please yourselves," she said; "but it's pretty late."
"A game or so will make us sleepy," he answered.
Clara brought the cards, and sat spinning her wedding-ring whilst he shuffled them. Mrs. Radford was washing up in the scullery. As it grew later Paul felt the situation getting more and more tense.
"Fifteen two, fifteen four, fifteen six, and two's eight—!"
The clock struck one. Still the game continued. Mrs. Radford had done all the little jobs preparatory to going to bed, had locked the door and filled the kettle. Still Paul went on dealing and counting. He was obsessed by Clara's arms and throat. He believed he could see where the division was just beginning for her breasts. He could not leave her. She watched his hands, and felt her joints melt as they moved quickly. She was so near; it was almost as if he touched her, and yet not quite. His mettle was roused. He hated Mrs. Radford. She sat on, nearly dropping asleep, but determined and obstinate in her chair. Paul glanced at her, then at Clara. She met his eyes, that were angry, mocking, and hard as steel. Her own answered him in shame. He knew SHE, at any rate, was of his mind. He played on.
At last Mrs. Radford roused herself stiffly, and said:
"Isn't it nigh on time you two was thinking o' bed?"
Paul played on without answering. He hated her sufficiently to murder her.
"Half a minute," he said.
The elder woman rose and sailed stubbornly into the scullery, returning with his candle, which she put on the mantelpiece. Then she sat down again. The hatred of her went so hot down his veins, he dropped his cards.
"We'll stop, then," he said, but his voice was still a challenge.
Clara saw his mouth shut hard. Again he glanced at her. It seemed like an agreement. She bent over the cards, coughing, to clear her throat.
"Well, I'm glad you've finished," said Mrs. Radford. "Here, take your things"—she thrust the warm suit in his hand—"and this is your candle. Your room's over this; there's only two, so you can't go far wrong. Well, good-night. I hope you'll rest well."
"I'm sure I shall; I always do," he said.
"Yes; and so you ought at your age," she replied.
He bade good-night to Clara, and went. The twisting stairs of white, scrubbed wood creaked and clanged at every step. He went doggedly. The two doors faced each other. He went in his room, pushed the door to, without fastening the latch.
It was a small room with a large bed. Some of Clara's hair-pins were on the dressing-table—her hair-brush. Her clothes and some skirts hung under a cloth in a corner. There was actually a pair of stockings over a chair. He explored the room. Two books of his own were there on the shelf. He undressed, folded his suit, and sat on the bed, listening. Then he blew out the candle, lay down, and in two minutes was almost asleep. Then click!—he was wide awake and writhing in torment. It was as if, when he had nearly got to sleep, something had bitten him suddenly and sent him mad. He sat up and looked at the room in the darkness, his feet doubled under him, perfectly motionless, listening. He heard a cat somewhere away outside; then the heavy, poised tread of the mother; then Clara's distinct voice:
"Will you unfasten my dress?"
There was silence for some time. At last the mother said:
"Now then! aren't you coming up?"
"No, not yet," replied the daughter calmly.
"Oh, very well then! If it's not late enough, stop a bit longer. Only you needn't come waking me up when I've got to sleep."
"I shan't be long," said Clara.
Immediately afterwards Paul heard the mother slowly mounting the stairs. The candlelight flashed through the cracks in his door. Her dress brushed the door, and his heart jumped. Then it was dark, and he heard the clatter of her latch. She was very leisurely indeed in her preparations for sleep. After a long time it was quite still. He sat strung up on the bed, shivering slightly. His door was an inch open. As Clara came upstairs, he would intercept her. He waited. All was dead silence. The clock struck two. Then he heard a slight scrape of the fender downstairs. Now he could not help himself. His shivering was uncontrollable. He felt he must go or die.
He stepped off the bed, and stood a moment, shuddering. Then he went straight to the door. He tried to step lightly. The first stair cracked like a shot. He listened. The old woman stirred in her bed. The staircase was dark. There was a slit of light under the stair-foot door, which opened into the kitchen. He stood a moment. Then he went on, mechanically. Every step creaked, and his back was creeping, lest the old woman's door should open behind him up above. He fumbled with the door at the bottom. The latch opened with a loud clack. He went through into the kitchen, and shut the door noisily behind him. The old woman daren't come now.
Then he stood, arrested. Clara was kneeling on a pile of white underclothing on the hearthrug, her back towards him, warming herself. She did not look round, but sat crouching on her heels, and her rounded beautiful back was towards him, and her face was hidden. She was warming her body at the fire for consolation. The glow was rosy on one side, the shadow was dark and warm on the other. Her arms hung slack.
He shuddered violently, clenching his teeth and fists hard to keep control. Then he went forward to her. He put one hand on her shoulder, the fingers of the other hand under her chin to raise her face. A convulsed shiver ran through her, once, twice, at his touch. She kept her head bent.
"Sorry!" he murmured, realising that his hands were very cold.
Then she looked up at him, frightened, like a thing that is afraid of death.
"My hands are so cold," he murmured.
"I like it," she whispered, closing her eyes.
The breath of her words were on his mouth. Her arms clasped his knees. The cord of his sleeping-suit dangled against her and made her shiver. As the warmth went into him, his shuddering became less.
At length, unable to stand so any more, he raised her, and she buried her head on his shoulder. His hands went over her slowly with an infinite tenderness of caress. She clung close to him, trying to hide herself against him. He clasped her very fast. Then at last she looked at him, mute, imploring, looking to see if she must be ashamed.
His eyes were dark, very deep, and very quiet. It was as if her beauty and his taking it hurt him, made him sorrowful. He looked at her with a little pain, and was afraid. He was so humble before her. She kissed him fervently on the eyes, first one, then the other, and she folded herself to him. She gave herself. He held her fast. It was a moment intense almost to agony.
She stood letting him adore her and tremble with joy of her. It healed her hurt pride. It healed her; it made her glad. It made her feel erect and proud again. Her pride had been wounded inside her. She had been cheapened. Now she radiated with joy and pride again. It was her restoration and her recognition.
Then he looked at her, his face radiant. They laughed to each other, and he strained her to his chest. The seconds ticked off, the minutes passed, and still the two stood clasped rigid together, mouth to mouth, like a statue in one block.
But again his fingers went seeking over her, restless, wandering, dissatisfied. The hot blood came up wave upon wave. She laid her head on his shoulder.
"Come you to my room," he murmured.
She looked at him and shook her head, her mouth pouting disconsolately, her eyes heavy with passion. He watched her fixedly.
"Yes!" he said.
Again she shook her head.
"Why not?" he asked.
She looked at him still heavily, sorrowfully, and again she shook her head. His eyes hardened, and he gave way.
When, later on, he was back in bed, he wondered why she had refused to come to him openly, so that her mother would know. At any rate, then things would have been definite. And she could have stayed with him the night, without having to go, as she was, to her mother's bed. It was strange, and he could not understand it. And then almost immediately he fell asleep.
He awoke in the morning with someone speaking to him. Opening his eyes, he saw Mrs. Radford, big and stately, looking down on him. She held a cup of tea in her hand.
"Do you think you're going to sleep till Doomsday?" she said.
He laughed at once.
"It ought only to be about five o'clock," he said.
"Well," she answered, "it's half-past seven, whether or not. Here, I've brought you a cup of tea."
He rubbed his face, pushed the tumbled hair off his forehead, and roused himself.
"What's it so late for!" he grumbled.
He resented being wakened. It amused her. She saw his neck in the flannel sleeping-jacket, as white and round as a girl's. He rubbed his hair crossly.
"It's no good your scratching your head," she said. "It won't make it no earlier. Here, an' how long d'you think I'm going to stand waiting wi' this here cup?"
"Oh, dash the cup!" he said.
"You should go to bed earlier," said the woman.
He looked up at her, laughing with impudence.
"I went to bed before YOU did," he said.
"Yes, my Guyney, you did!" she exclaimed.
"Fancy," he said, stirring his tea, "having tea brought to bed to me! My mother'll think I'm ruined for life."
"Don't she never do it?" asked Mrs. Radford.
"She'd as leave think of flying."
"Ah, I always spoilt my lot! That's why they've turned out such bad uns," said the elderly woman.
"You'd only Clara," he said. "And Mr. Radford's in heaven. So I suppose there's only you left to be the bad un."
"I'm not bad; I'm only soft," she said, as she went out of the bedroom. "I'm only a fool, I am!"
Clara was very quiet at breakfast, but she had a sort of air of proprietorship over him that pleased him infinitely. Mrs. Radford was evidently fond of him. He began to talk of his painting.
"What's the good," exclaimed the mother, "of your whittling and worrying and twistin' and too-in' at that painting of yours? What GOOD does it do you, I should like to know? You'd better be enjoyin' yourself."
"Oh, but," exclaimed Paul, "I made over thirty guineas last year."
"Did you! Well, that's a consideration, but it's nothing to the time you put in."
"And I've got four pounds owing. A man said he'd give me five pounds if I'd paint him and his missis and the dog and the cottage. And I went and put the fowls in instead of the dog, and he was waxy, so I had to knock a quid off. I was sick of it, and I didn't like the dog. I made a picture of it. What shall I do when he pays me the four pounds?"
"Nay! you know your own uses for your money," said Mrs. Radford.
"But I'm going to bust this four pounds. Should we go to the seaside for a day or two?"
"You and Clara and me."
"What, on your money!" she exclaimed, half-wrathful.
"YOU wouldn't be long in breaking your neck at a hurdle race!" she said.
"So long as I get a good run for my money! Will you?"
"Nay; you may settle that atween you."
"And you're willing?" he asked, amazed and rejoicing.
"You'll do as you like," said Mrs. Radford, "whether I'm willing or not."
SOON after Paul had been to the theatre with Clara, he was drinking in the Punch Bowl with some friends of his when Dawes came in. Clara's husband was growing stout; his eyelids were getting slack over his brown eyes; he was losing his healthy firmness of flesh. He was very evidently on the downward track. Having quarrelled with his sister, he had gone into cheap lodgings. His mistress had left him for a man who would marry her. He had been in prison one night for fighting when he was drunk, and there was a shady betting episode in which he was concerned.
Paul and he were confirmed enemies, and yet there was between them that peculiar feeling of intimacy, as if they were secretly near to each other, which sometimes exists between two people, although they never speak to one another. Paul often thought of Baxter Dawes, often wanted to get at him and be friends with him. He knew that Dawes often thought about him, and that the man was drawn to him by some bond or other. And yet the two never looked at each other save in hostility.
Since he was a superior employee at Jordan's, it was the thing for Paul to offer Dawes a drink.
"What'll you have?" he asked of him.
"Nowt wi' a bleeder like you!" replied the man.
Paul turned away with a slight disdainful movement of the shoulders, very irritating.
"The aristocracy," he continued, "is really a military institution. Take Germany, now. She's got thousands of aristocrats whose only means of existence is the army. They're deadly poor, and life's deadly slow. So they hope for a war. They look for war as a chance of getting on. Till there's a war they are idle good-for-nothings. When there's a war, they are leaders and commanders. There you are, then—they WANT war!"
He was not a favourite debater in the public-house, being too quick and overbearing. He irritated the older men by his assertive manner, and his cocksureness. They listened in silence, and were not sorry when he finished.
Dawes interrupted the young man's flow of eloquence by asking, in a loud sneer:
"Did you learn all that at th' theatre th' other night?"
Paul looked at him; their eyes met. Then he knew Dawes had seen him coming out of the theatre with Clara.
"Why, what about th' theatre?" asked one of Paul's associates, glad to get a dig at the young fellow, and sniffing something tasty.
"Oh, him in a bob-tailed evening suit, on the lardy-da!" sneered Dawes, jerking his head contemptuously at Paul.
"That's comin' it strong," said the mutual friend. "Tart an' all?"
"Tart, begod!" said Dawes.
"Go on; let's have it!" cried the mutual friend.
"You've got it," said Dawes, "an' I reckon Morelly had it an' all."
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" said the mutual friend. "An' was it a proper tart?"
"Tart, God blimey—yes!"
"How do you know?"
"Oh," said Dawes, "I reckon he spent th' night—"
There was a good deal of laughter at Paul's expense.
"But who WAS she? D'you know her?" asked the mutual friend.
"I should SHAY SHO," said Dawes.
This brought another burst of laughter.
"Then spit it out," said the mutual friend.
Dawes shook his head, and took a gulp of beer.
"It's a wonder he hasn't let on himself," he said. "He'll be braggin' of it in a bit."
"Come on, Paul," said the friend; "it's no good. You might just as well own up."
"Own up what? That I happened to take a friend to the theatre?"
"Oh well, if it was all right, tell us who she was, lad," said the friend.
"She WAS all right," said Dawes.
Paul was furious. Dawes wiped his golden moustache with his fingers, sneering.
"Strike me—! One o' that sort?" said the mutual friend. "Paul, boy, I'm surprised at you. And do you know her, Baxter?"
"Just a bit, like!"
He winked at the other men.
"Oh well," said Paul, "I'll be going!"
The mutual friend laid a detaining hand on his shoulder.
"Nay," he said, "you don't get off as easy as that, my lad. We've got to have a full account of this business."
"Then get it from Dawes!" he said.
"You shouldn't funk your own deeds, man," remonstrated the friend.
Then Dawes made a remark which caused Paul to throw half a glass of beer in his face.
"Oh, Mr. Morel!" cried the barmaid, and she rang the bell for the "chucker-out".
Dawes spat and rushed for the young man. At that minute a brawny fellow with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his trousers tight over his haunches intervened.
"Now, then!" he said, pushing his chest in front of Dawes.
"Come out!" cried Dawes.
Paul was leaning, white and quivering, against the brass rail of the bar. He hated Dawes, wished something could exterminate him at that minute; and at the same time, seeing the wet hair on the man's forehead, he thought he looked pathetic. He did not move.
"Come out, you—," said Dawes.
"That's enough, Dawes," cried the barmaid.
"Come on," said the "chucker-out", with kindly insistence, "you'd better be getting on."
And, by making Dawes edge away from his own close proximity, he worked him to the door.
"THAT'S the little sod as started it!" cried Dawes, half-cowed, pointing to Paul Morel.
"Why, what a story, Mr. Dawes!" said the barmaid. "You know it was you all the time."
Still the "chucker-out" kept thrusting his chest forward at him, still he kept edging back, until he was in the doorway and on the steps outside; then he turned round.
"All right," he said, nodding straight at his rival.
Paul had a curious sensation of pity, almost of affection, mingled with violent hate, for the man. The coloured door swung to; there was silence in the bar.
"Serve, him, jolly well right!" said the barmaid.
"But it's a nasty thing to get a glass of beer in your eyes," said the mutual friend.
"I tell you I was glad he did," said the barmaid. "Will you have another, Mr. Morel?"
She held up Paul's glass questioningly. He nodded.
"He's a man as doesn't care for anything, is Baxter Dawes," said one.
"Pooh! is he?" said the barmaid. "He's a loud-mouthed one, he is, and they're never much good. Give me a pleasant-spoken chap, if you want a devil!"
"Well, Paul, my lad," said the friend, "you'll have to take care of yourself now for a while."
"You won't have to give him a chance over you, that's all," said the barmaid.
"Can you box?" asked a friend.
"Not a bit," he answered, still very white.
"I might give you a turn or two," said the friend.
"Thanks, I haven't time."
And presently he took his departure.
"Go along with him, Mr. Jenkinson," whispered the barmaid, tipping Mr. Jenkinson the wink.
The man nodded, took his hat, said: "Good-night all!" very heartily, and followed Paul, calling:
"Half a minute, old man. You an' me's going the same road, I believe."
"Mr. Morel doesn't like it," said the barmaid. "You'll see, we shan't have him in much more. I'm sorry; he's good company. And Baxter Dawes wants locking up, that's what he wants."
Paul would have died rather than his mother should get to know of this affair. He suffered tortures of humiliation and self-consciousness. There was now a good deal of his life of which necessarily he could not speak to his mother. He had a life apart from her—his sexual life. The rest she still kept. But he felt he had to conceal something from her, and it irked him. There was a certain silence between them, and he felt he had, in that silence, to defend himself against her; he felt condemned by her. Then sometimes he hated her, and pulled at her bondage. His life wanted to free itself of her. It was like a circle where life turned back on itself, and got no farther. She bore him, loved him, kept him, and his love turned back into her, so that he could not be free to go forward with his own life, really love another woman. At this period, unknowingly, he resisted his mother's influence. He did not tell her things; there was a distance between them.
Clara was happy, almost sure of him. She felt she had at last got him for herself; and then again came the uncertainty. He told her jestingly of the affair with her husband. Her colour came up, her grey eyes flashed.
"That's him to a 'T'," she cried—"like a navvy! He's not fit for mixing with decent folk."
"Yet you married him," he said.
It made her furious that he reminded her.
"I did!" she cried. "But how was I to know?"
"I think he might have been rather nice," he said.
"You think I made him what he is!" she exclaimed.
"Oh no! he made himself. But there's something about him—"
Clara looked at her lover closely. There was something in him she hated, a sort of detached criticism of herself, a coldness which made her woman's soul harden against him.
"And what are you going to do?" she asked.
"There's nothing to do, is there?" he replied.
"You can fight him if you have to, I suppose?" she said.
"No; I haven't the least sense of the 'fist'. It's funny. With most men there's the instinct to clench the fist and hit. It's not so with me. I should want a knife or a pistol or something to fight with."
"Then you'd better carry something," she said.
"Nay," he laughed; "I'm not daggeroso."
"But he'll do something to you. You don't know him."
"All right," he said, "we'll see."
"And you'll let him?"
"Perhaps, if I can't help it."
"And if he kills you?" she said.
"I should be sorry, for his sake and mine."
Clara was silent for a moment.
"You DO make me angry!" she exclaimed.
"That's nothing afresh," he laughed.
"But why are you so silly? You don't know him."
"And don't want."
"Yes, but you're not going to let a man do as he likes with you?"
"What must I do?" he replied, laughing.
"I should carry a revolver," she said. "I'm sure he's dangerous."
"I might blow my fingers off," he said.
"No; but won't you?" she pleaded.
"And you'll leave him to—?"
"You are a fool!"
She set her teeth with anger.
"I could SHAKE you!" she cried, trembling with passion.
"Let a man like HIM do as he likes with you."
"You can go back to him if he triumphs," he said.
"Do you want me to hate you?" she asked.
"Well, I only tell you," he said.
"And YOU say you LOVE me!" she exclaimed, low and indignant.
"Ought I to slay him to please you?" he said. "But if I did, see what a hold he'd have over me."
"Do you think I'm a fool!" she exclaimed.
"Not at all. But you don't understand me, my dear."
There was a pause between them.
"But you ought NOT to expose yourself," she pleaded.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"'The man in righteousness arrayed, The pure and blameless liver, Needs not the keen Toledo blade, Nor venom-freighted quiver,'"
She looked at him searchingly.
"I wish I could understand you," she said.
"There's simply nothing to understand," he laughed.
She bowed her head, brooding.
He did not see Dawes for several days; then one morning as he ran upstairs from the Spiral room he almost collided with the burly metal-worker.
"What the—!" cried the smith.
"Sorry!" said Paul, and passed on.
"SORRY!" sneered Dawes.
Paul whistled lightly, "Put Me among the Girls".
"I'll stop your whistle, my jockey!" he said.
The other took no notice.
"You're goin' to answer for that job of the other night."
Paul went to his desk in his corner, and turned over the leaves of the ledger.
"Go and tell Fanny I want order 097, quick!" he said to his boy.
Dawes stood in the doorway, tall and threatening, looking at the top of the young man's head.
"Six and five's eleven and seven's one-and-six," Paul added aloud.
"An' you hear, do you!" said Dawes.
"FIVE AND NINEPENCE!" He wrote a figure. "What's that?" he said.
"I'm going to show you what it is," said the smith.
The other went on adding the figures aloud.
"Yer crawlin' little—, yer daresn't face me proper!"
Paul quickly snatched the heavy ruler. Dawes started. The young man ruled some lines in his ledger. The elder man was infuriated.
"But wait till I light on you, no matter where it is, I'll settle your hash for a bit, yer little swine!"
"All right," said Paul.
At that the smith started heavily from the doorway. Just then a whistle piped shrilly. Paul went to the speaking-tube.
"Yes!" he said, and he listened. "Er—yes!" He listened, then he laughed. "I'll come down directly. I've got a visitor just now."
Dawes knew from his tone that he had been speaking to Clara. He stepped forward.
"Yer little devil!" he said. "I'll visitor you, inside of two minutes! Think I'm goin' to have YOU whipperty-snappin' round?"
The other clerks in the warehouse looked up. Paul's office-boy appeared, holding some white article.
"Fanny says you could have had it last night if you'd let her know," he said.
"All right," answered Paul, looking at the stocking. "Get it off." Dawes stood frustrated, helpless with rage. Morel turned round.
"Excuse me a minute," he said to Dawes, and he would have run downstairs.
"By God, I'll stop your gallop!" shouted the smith, seizing him by the arm. He turned quickly.
"Hey! Hey!" cried the office-boy, alarmed.
Thomas Jordan started out of his little glass office, and came running down the room.
"What's a-matter, what's a-matter?" he said, in his old man's sharp voice.
"I'm just goin' ter settle this little—, that's all," said Dawes desperately.
"What do you mean?" snapped Thomas Jordan.
"What I say," said Dawes, but he hung fire.
Morel was leaning against the counter, ashamed, half-grinning.
"What's it all about?" snapped Thomas Jordan.
"Couldn't say," said Paul, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders.
"Couldn't yer, couldn't yer!" cried Dawes, thrusting forward his handsome, furious face, and squaring his fist.
"Have you finished?" cried the old man, strutting. "Get off about your business, and don't come here tipsy in the morning."
Dawes turned his big frame slowly upon him.
"Tipsy!" he said. "Who's tipsy? I'm no more tipsy than YOU are!"
"We've heard that song before," snapped the old man. "Now you get off, and don't be long about it. Comin' HERE with your rowdying."
The smith looked down contemptuously on his employer. His hands, large, and grimy, and yet well shaped for his labour, worked restlessly. Paul remembered they were the hands of Clara's husband, and a flash of hate went through him.
"Get out before you're turned out!" snapped Thomas Jordan.
"Why, who'll turn me out?" said Dawes, beginning to sneer.
Mr. Jordan started, marched up to the smith, waving him off, thrusting his stout little figure at the man, saying:
"Get off my premises—get off!"
He seized and twitched Dawes's arm.
"Come off!" said the smith, and with a jerk of the elbow he sent the little manufacturer staggering backwards.
Before anyone could help him, Thomas Jordan had collided with the flimsy spring-door. It had given way, and let him crash down the half-dozen steps into Fanny's room. There was a second of amazement; then men and girls were running. Dawes stood a moment looking bitterly on the scene, then he took his departure.
Thomas Jordan was shaken and braised, not otherwise hurt. He was, however, beside himself with rage. He dismissed Dawes from his employment, and summoned him for assault.
At the trial Paul Morel had to give evidence. Asked how the trouble began, he said:
"Dawes took occasion to insult Mrs. Dawes and me because I accompanied her to the theatre one evening; then I threw some beer at him, and he wanted his revenge."
"Cherchez la femme!" smiled the magistrate.
The case was dismissed after the magistrate had told Dawes he thought him a skunk.
"You gave the case away," snapped Mr. Jordan to Paul.
"I don't think I did," replied the latter. "Besides, you didn't really want a conviction, did you?"
"What do you think I took the case up for?"
"Well," said Paul, "I'm sorry if I said the wrong thing." Clara was also very angry.
"Why need MY name have been dragged in?" she said.
"Better speak it openly than leave it to be whispered."
"There was no need for anything at all," she declared.
"We are none the poorer," he said indifferently.
"YOU may not be," she said.
"And you?" he asked.
"I need never have been mentioned."
"I'm sorry," he said; but he did not sound sorry.
He told himself easily: "She will come round." And she did.
He told his mother about the fall of Mr. Jordan and the trial of Dawes. Mrs. Morel watched him closely.
"And what do you think of it all?" she asked him.
"I think he's a fool," he said.
But he was very uncomfortable, nevertheless.
"Have you ever considered where it will end?" his mother said.
"No," he answered; "things work out of themselves."
"They do, in a way one doesn't like, as a rule," said his mother.
"And then one has to put up with them," he said.
"You'll find you're not as good at 'putting up' as you imagine," she said.
He went on working rapidly at his design.
"Do you ever ask HER opinion?" she said at length.
"Of you, and the whole thing."
"I don't care what her opinion of me is. She's fearfully in love with me, but it's not very deep."
"But quite as deep as your feeling for her."
He looked up at his mother curiously.
"Yes," he said. "You know, mother, I think there must be something the matter with me, that I CAN'T love. When she's there, as a rule, I DO love her. Sometimes, when I see her just as THE WOMAN, I love her, mother; but then, when she talks and criticises, I often don't listen to her."
"Yet she's as much sense as Miriam."
"Perhaps; and I love her better than Miriam. But WHY don't they hold me?"
The last question was almost a lamentation. His mother turned away her face, sat looking across the room, very quiet, grave, with something of renunciation.
"But you wouldn't want to marry Clara?" she said.
"No; at first perhaps I would. But why—why don't I want to marry her or anybody? I feel sometimes as if I wronged my women, mother."
"How wronged them, my son?"
"I don't know."
He went on painting rather despairingly; he had touched the quick of the trouble.
"And as for wanting to marry," said his mother, "there's plenty of time yet."
"But no, mother. I even love Clara, and I did Miriam; but to GIVE myself to them in marriage I couldn't. I couldn't belong to them. They seem to want ME, and I can't ever give it them."
"You haven't met the right woman."
"And I never shall meet the right woman while you live," he said.
She was very quiet. Now she began to feel again tired, as if she were done.
"We'll see, my son," she answered.
The feeling that things were going in a circle made him mad.
Clara was, indeed, passionately in love with him, and he with her, as far as passion went. In the daytime he forgot her a good deal. She was working in the same building, but he was not aware of it. He was busy, and her existence was of no matter to him. But all the time she was in her Spiral room she had a sense that he was upstairs, a physical sense of his person in the same building. Every second she expected him to come through the door, and when he came it was a shock to her. But he was often short and offhand with her. He gave her his directions in an official manner, keeping her at bay. With what wits she had left she listened to him. She dared not misunderstand or fail to remember, but it was a cruelty to her. She wanted to touch his chest. She knew exactly how his breast was shapen under the waistcoat, and she wanted to touch it. It maddened her to hear his mechanical voice giving orders about the work. She wanted to break through the sham of it, smash the trivial coating of business which covered him with hardness, get at the man again; but she was afraid, and before she could feel one touch of his warmth he was gone, and she ached again.
He knew that she was dreary every evening she did not see him, so he gave her a good deal of his time. The days were often a misery to her, but the evenings and the nights were usually a bliss to them both. Then they were silent. For hours they sat together, or walked together in the dark, and talked only a few, almost meaningless words. But he had her hand in his, and her bosom left its warmth in his chest, making him feel whole.
One evening they were walking down by the canal, and something was troubling him. She knew she had not got him. All the time he whistled softly and persistently to himself. She listened, feeling she could learn more from his whistling than from his speech. It was a sad dissatisfied tune—a tune that made her feel he would not stay with her. She walked on in silence. When they came to the swing bridge he sat down on the great pole, looking at the stars in the water. He was a long way from her. She had been thinking.
"Will you always stay at Jordan's?" she asked.
"No," he answered without reflecting. "No; I s'll leave Nottingham and go abroad—soon."
"Go abroad! What for?"
"I dunno! I feel restless."
"But what shall you do?"
"I shall have to get some steady designing work, and some sort of sale for my pictures first," he said. "I am gradually making my way. I know I am."
"And when do you think you'll go?"
"I don't know. I shall hardly go for long, while there's my mother."
"You couldn't leave her?"
"Not for long."
She looked at the stars in the black water. They lay very white and staring. It was an agony to know he would leave her, but it was almost an agony to have him near her.
"And if you made a nice lot of money, what would you do?" she asked.
"Go somewhere in a pretty house near London with my mother."
There was a long pause.
"I could still come and see you," he said. "I don't know. Don't ask me what I should do; I don't know."
There was a silence. The stars shuddered and broke upon the water. There came a breath of wind. He went suddenly to her, and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Don't ask me anything about the future," he said miserably. "I don't know anything. Be with me now, will you, no matter what it is?"
And she took him in her arms. After all, she was a married woman, and she had no right even to what he gave her. He needed her badly. She had him in her arms, and he was miserable. With her warmth she folded him over, consoled him, loved him. She would let the moment stand for itself.
After a moment he lifted his head as if he wanted to speak.
"Clara," he said, struggling.
She caught him passionately to her, pressed his head down on her breast with her hand. She could not bear the suffering in his voice. She was afraid in her soul. He might have anything of her—anything; but she did not want to KNOW. She felt she could not bear it. She wanted him to be soothed upon her—soothed. She stood clasping him and caressing him, and he was something unknown to her—something almost uncanny. She wanted to soothe him into forgetfulness.
And soon the struggle went down in his soul, and he forgot. But then Clara was not there for him, only a woman, warm, something he loved and almost worshipped, there in the dark. But it was not Clara, and she submitted to him. The naked hunger and inevitability of his loving her, something strong and blind and ruthless in its primitiveness, made the hour almost terrible to her. She knew how stark and alone he was, and she felt it was great that he came to her; and she took him simply because his need was bigger either than her or him, and her soul was still within her. She did this for him in his need, even if he left her, for she loved him.