DEFEAT OF MIRIAM
PAUL was dissatisfied with himself and with everything. The deepest of his love belonged to his mother. When he felt he had hurt her, or wounded his love for her, he could not bear it. Now it was spring, and there was battle between him and Miriam. This year he had a good deal against her. She was vaguely aware of it. The old feeling that she was to be a sacrifice to this love, which she had had when she prayed, was mingled in all her emotions. She did not at the bottom believe she ever would have him. She did not believe in herself primarily: doubted whether she could ever be what he would demand of her. Certainly she never saw herself living happily through a lifetime with him. She saw tragedy, sorrow, and sacrifice ahead. And in sacrifice she was proud, in renunciation she was strong, for she did not trust herself to support everyday life. She was prepared for the big things and the deep things, like tragedy. It was the sufficiency of the small day-life she could not trust.
The Easter holidays began happily. Paul was his own frank self. Yet she felt it would go wrong. On the Sunday afternoon she stood at her bedroom window, looking across at the oak-trees of the wood, in whose branches a twilight was tangled, below the bright sky of the afternoon. Grey-green rosettes of honeysuckle leaves hung before the window, some already, she fancied, showing bud. It was spring, which she loved and dreaded.
Hearing the clack of the gate she stood in suspense. It was a bright grey day. Paul came into the yard with his bicycle, which glittered as he walked. Usually he rang his bell and laughed towards the house. To-day he walked with shut lips and cold, cruel bearing, that had something of a slouch and a sneer in it. She knew him well by now, and could tell from that keen-looking, aloof young body of his what was happening inside him. There was a cold correctness in the way he put his bicycle in its place, that made her heart sink.
She came downstairs nervously. She was wearing a new net blouse that she thought became her. It had a high collar with a tiny ruff, reminding her of Mary, Queen of Scots, and making her, she thought, look wonderfully a woman, and dignified. At twenty she was full-breasted and luxuriously formed. Her face was still like a soft rich mask, unchangeable. But her eyes, once lifted, were wonderful. She was afraid of him. He would notice her new blouse.
He, being in a hard, ironical mood, was entertaining the family to a description of a service given in the Primitive Methodist Chapel, conducted by one of the well-known preachers of the sect. He sat at the head of the table, his mobile face, with the eyes that could be so beautiful, shining with tenderness or dancing with laughter, now taking on one expression and then another, in imitation of various people he was mocking. His mockery always hurt her; it was too near the reality. He was too clever and cruel. She felt that when his eyes were like this, hard with mocking hate, he would spare neither himself nor anybody else. But Mrs. Leivers was wiping her eyes with laughter, and Mr. Leivers, just awake from his Sunday nap, was rubbing his head in amusement. The three brothers sat with ruffled, sleepy appearance in their shirt-sleeves, giving a guffaw from time to time. The whole family loved a "take-off" more than anything.
He took no notice of Miriam. Later, she saw him remark her new blouse, saw that the artist approved, but it won from him not a spark of warmth. She was nervous, could hardly reach the teacups from the shelves.
When the men went out to milk, she ventured to address him personally.
"You were late," she said.
"Was I?" he answered.
There was silence for a while.
"Was it rough riding?" she asked.
"I didn't notice it." She continued quickly to lay the table. When she had finished---
"Tea won't be for a few minutes. Will you come and look at the daffodils?" she said.
He rose without answering. They went out into the back garden under the budding damson-trees. The hills and the sky were clean and cold. Everything looked washed, rather hard. Miriam glanced at Paul. He was pale and impassive. It seemed cruel to her that his eyes and brows, which she loved, could look so hurting.
"Has the wind made you tired?" she asked. She detected an underneath feeling of weariness about him.
"No, I think not," he answered.
"It must be rough on the road--the wood moans so."
"You can see by the clouds it's a south-west wind; that helps me here."
"You see, I don't cycle, so I don't understand," she murmured.
"Is there need to cycle to know that!" he said.
She thought his sarcasms were unnecessary. They went forward in silence. Round the wild, tussocky lawn at the back of the house was a thorn hedge, under which daffodils were craning forward from among their sheaves of grey-green blades. The cheeks of the flowers were greenish with cold. But still some had burst, and their gold ruffled and glowed. Miriam went on her knees before one cluster, took a wild-looking daffodil between her hands, turned up its face of gold to her, and bowed down, caressing it with her mouth and cheeks and brow. He stood aside, with his hands in his pockets, watching her. One after another she turned up to him the faces of the yellow, bursten flowers appealingly, fondling them lavishly all the while.
"Aren't they magnificent?" she murmured.
"Magnificent! It's a bit thick--they're pretty!"
She bowed again to her flowers at his censure of her praise. He watched her crouching, sipping the flowers with fervid kisses.
"Why must you always be fondling things?" he said irritably.
"But I love to touch them," she replied, hurt.
"Can you never like things without clutching them as if you wanted to pull the heart out of them? Why don't you have a bit more restraint, or reserve, or something?"
She looked up at him full of pain, then continued slowly to stroke her lips against a ruffled flower. Their scent, as she smelled it, was so much kinder than he; it almost made her cry.
"You wheedle the soul out of things," he said. "I would never wheedle--at any rate, I'd go straight."
He scarcely knew what he was saying. These things came from him mechanically. She looked at him. His body seemed one weapon, firm and hard against her.
"You're always begging things to love you," he said, "as if you were a beggar for love. Even the flowers, you have to fawn on them---"
Rhythmically, Miriam was swaying and stroking the flower with her mouth, inhaling the scent which ever after made her shudder as it came to her nostrils.
"You don't want to love--your eternal and abnormal craving is to be loved. You aren't positive, you're negative. You absorb, absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you've got a shortage somewhere."
She was stunned by his cruelty, and did not hear. He had not the faintest notion of what he was saying. It was as if his fretted, tortured soul, run hot by thwarted passion, jetted off these sayings like sparks from electricity. She did not grasp anything he said. She only sat crouched beneath his cruelty and his hatred of her. She never realised in a flash. Over everything she brooded and brooded.
After tea he stayed with Edgar and the brothers, taking no notice of Miriam. She, extremely unhappy on this looked-for holiday, waited for him. And at last he yielded and came to her. She was determined to track this mood of his to its origin. She counted it not much more than a mood.
"Shall we go through the wood a little way?" she asked him, knowing he never refused a direct request.
They went down to the warren. On the middle path they passed a trap, a narrow horseshoe hedge of small fir-boughs, baited with the guts of a rabbit. Paul glanced at it frowning. She caught his eye.
"Isn't it dreadful?" she asked.
"I don't know! Is it worse than a weasel with its teeth in a rabbit's throat? One weasel or many rabbits? One or the other must go!"
He was taking the bitterness of life badly. She was rather sorry for him.
"We will go back to the house," he said. "I don't want to walk out."
They went past the lilac-tree, whose bronze leaf-buds were coming unfastened. Just a fragment remained of the haystack, a monument squared and brown, like a pillar of stone. There was a little bed of hay from the last cutting.
"Let us sit here a minute," said Miriam.
He sat down against his will, resting his back against the hard wall of hay. They faced the amphitheatre of round hills that glowed with sunset, tiny white farms standing out, the meadows golden, the woods dark and yet luminous, tree-tops folded over tree-tops, distinct in the distance. The evening had cleared, and the east was tender with a magenta flush under which the land lay still and rich.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she pleaded.
But he only scowled. He would rather have had it ugly just then.
At that moment a big bull-terrier came rushing up, open-mouthed, pranced his two paws on the youth's shoulders, licking his face. Paul drew back, laughing. Bill was a great relief to him. He pushed the dog aside, but it came leaping back.
"Get out," said the lad, "or I'll dot thee one."
But the dog was not to be pushed away. So Paul had a little battle with the creature, pitching poor Bill away from him, who, however, only floundered tumultuously back again, wild with joy. The two fought together, the man laughing grudgingly, the dog grinning all over. Miriam watched them. There was something pathetic about the man. He wanted so badly to love, to be tender. The rough way he bowled the dog over was really loving. Bill got up, panting with happiness, his brown eyes rolling in his white face, and lumbered back again. He adored Paul. The lad frowned.
"Bill, I've had enough o' thee," he said.
But the dog only stood with two heavy paws, that quivered with love, upon his thigh, and flickered a red tongue at him. He drew back.
"No," he said--"no--I've had enough."
And in a minute the dog trotted off happily, to vary the fun.
He remained staring miserably across at the hills, whose still beauty he begrudged. He wanted to go and cycle with Edgar. Yet he had not the courage to leave Miriam.
"Why are you sad?" she asked humbly.
"I'm not sad; why should I be," he answered. "I'm only normal."
She wondered why he always claimed to be normal when he was disagreeable.
"But what is the matter?" she pleaded, coaxing him soothingly.
"Nay!" she murmured.
He picked up a stick and began to stab the earth with it.
"You'd far better not talk," he said.
"But I wish to know---" she replied.
He laughed resentfully.
"You always do," he said.
"It's not fair to me," she murmured.
He thrust, thrust, thrust at the ground with the pointed stick, digging up little clods of earth as if he were in a fever of irritation. She gently and firmly laid her band on his wrist.
"Don't!" she said. "Put it away."
He flung the stick into the currant-bushes, and leaned back. Now he was bottled up.
"What is it?" she pleaded softly.
He lay perfectly still, only his eyes alive, and they full of torment.
"You know," he said at length, rather wearily--"you know--we'd better break off."
It was what she dreaded. Swiftly everything seemed to darken before her eyes.
"Why!" she murmured. "What has happened?"
"Nothing has happened. We only realise where we are. It's no good---"
She waited in silence, sadly, patiently. It was no good being impatient with him. At any rate, he would tell her now what ailed him.
"We agreed on friendship," he went on in a dull, monotonous voice. "How often HAVE we agreed for friendship! And yet--it neither stops there, nor gets anywhere else."
He was silent again. She brooded. What did he mean? He was so wearying. There was something he would not yield. Yet she must be patient with him.
"I can only give friendship--it's all I'm capable of--it's a flaw in my make-up. The thing overbalances to one side--I hate a toppling balance. Let us have done."
There was warmth of fury in his last phrases. He meant she loved him more than he her. Perhaps he could not love her. Perhaps she had not in herself that which he wanted. It was the deepest motive of her soul, this self-mistrust. It was so deep she dared neither realise nor acknowledge. Perhaps she was deficient. Like an infinitely subtle shame, it kept her always back. If it were so, she would do without him. She would never let herself want him. She would merely see.
"But what has happened?" she said.
"Nothing--it's all in myself--it only comes out just now. We're always like this towards Easter-time."
He grovelled so helplessly, she pitied him. At least she never floundered in such a pitiable way. After all, it was he who was chiefly humiliated.
"What do you want?" she asked him.
"Why--I mustn't come often--that's all. Why should I monopolise you when I'm not--- You see, I'm deficient in something with regard to you---"
He was telling her he did not love her, and so ought to leave her a chance with another man. How foolish and blind and shamefully clumsy he was! What were other men to her! What were men to her at all! But he, ah! she loved his soul. Was HE deficient in something? Perhaps he was.
"But I don't understand," she said huskily. "Yesterday---"
The night was turning jangled and hateful to him as the twilight faded. And she bowed under her suffering.
"I know," he cried, "you never will! You'll never believe that I can't--can't physically, any more than I can fly up like a skylark---"
"What?" she murmured. Now she dreaded.
He hated her bitterly at that moment because he made her suffer. Love her! She knew he loved her. He really belonged to her. This about not loving her, physically, bodily, was a mere perversity on his part, because he knew she loved him. He was stupid like a child. He belonged to her. His soul wanted her. She guessed somebody had been influencing him. She felt upon him the hardness, the foreignness of another influence.
"What have they been saying at home?" she asked.
"It's not that," he answered.
And then she knew it was. She despised them for their commonness, his people. They did not know what things were really worth.
He and she talked very little more that night. After all he left her to cycle with Edgar.
He had come back to his mother. Hers was the strongest tie in his life. When he thought round, Miriam shrank away. There was a vague, unreal feel about her. And nobody else mattered. There was one place in the world that stood solid and did not melt into unreality: the place where his mother was. Everybody else could grow shadowy, almost non-existent to him, but she could not. It was as if the pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape, was his mother.
And in the same way she waited for him. In him was established her life now. After all, the life beyond offered very little to Mrs. Morel. She saw that our chance for DOING is here, and doing counted with her. Paul was going to prove that she had been right; he was going to make a man whom nothing should shift off his feet; he was going to alter the face of the earth in some way which mattered. Wherever he went she felt her soul went with him. Whatever he did she felt her soul stood by him, ready, as it were, to hand him his tools. She could not bear it when he was with Miriam. William was dead. She would fight to keep Paul.
And he came back to her. And in his soul was a feeling of the satisfaction of self-sacrifice because he was faithful to her. She loved him first; he loved her first. And yet it was not enough. His new young life, so strong and imperious, was urged towards something else. It made him mad with restlessness. She saw this, and wished bitterly that Miriam had been a woman who could take this new life of his, and leave her the roots. He fought against his mother almost as he fought against Miriam.
It was a week before he went again to Willey Farm. Miriam had suffered a great deal, and was afraid to see him again. Was she now to endure the ignominy of his abandoning her? That would only be superficial and temporary. He would come back. She held the keys to his soul. But meanwhile, how he would torture her with his battle against her. She shrank from it.
However, the Sunday after Easter he came to tea. Mrs. Leivers was glad to see him. She gathered something was fretting him, that he found things hard. He seemed to drift to her for comfort. And she was good to him. She did him that great kindness of treating him almost with reverence.
He met her with the young children in the front garden.
"I'm glad you've come," said the mother, looking at him with her great appealing brown eyes. "It is such a sunny day. I was just going down the fields for the first time this year."
He felt she would like him to come. That soothed him. They went, talking simply, he gentle and humble. He could have wept with gratitude that she was deferential to him. He was feeling humiliated.
At the bottom of the Mow Close they found a thrush's nest.
"Shall I show you the eggs?" he said.
"Do!" replied Mrs. Leivers. "They seem SUCH a sign of spring, and so hopeful."
He put aside the thorns, and took out the eggs, holding them in the palm of his hand.
"They are quite hot--I think we frightened her off them," he said.
"Ay, poor thing!" said Mrs. Leivers.
Miriam could not help touching the eggs, and his hand which, it seemed to her, cradled them so well.
"Isn't it a strange warmth!" she murmured, to get near him.
"Blood heat," he answered.
She watched him putting them back, his body pressed against the hedge, his arm reaching slowly through the thorns, his hand folded carefully over the eggs. He was concentrated on the act. Seeing him so, she loved him; he seemed so simple and sufficient to himself. And she could not get to him.
After tea she stood hesitating at the bookshelf. He took "Tartarin de Tarascon". Again they sat on the bank of hay at the foot of the stack. He read a couple of pages, but without any heart for it. Again the dog came racing up to repeat the fun of the other day. He shoved his muzzle in the man's chest. Paul fingered his ear for a moment. Then he pushed him away.
"Go away, Bill," he said. "I don't want you."
Bill slunk off, and Miriam wondered and dreaded what was coming. There was a silence about the youth that made her still with apprehension. It was not his furies, but his quiet resolutions that she feared.
Turning his face a little to one side, so that she could not see him, he began, speaking slowly and painfully:
"Do you think--if I didn't come up so much--you might get to like somebody else--another man?"
So this was what he was still harping on.
"But I don't know any other men. Why do you ask?" she replied, in a low tone that should have been a reproach to him.
"Why," he blurted, "because they say I've no right to come up like this--without we mean to marry---"
Miriam was indignant at anybody's forcing the issues between them. She had been furious with her own father for suggesting to Paul, laughingly, that he knew why he came so much.
"Who says?" she asked, wondering if her people had anything to do with it. They had not.
"Mother--and the others. They say at this rate everybody will consider me engaged, and I ought to consider myself so, because it's not fair to you. And I've tried to find out--and I don't think I love you as a man ought to love his wife. What do you think about it?"
Miriam bowed her head moodily. She was angry at having this struggle. People should leave him and her alone.
"I don't know," she murmured.
"Do you think we love each other enough to marry?" he asked definitely. It made her tremble.
"No," she answered truthfully. "I don't think so--we're too young."
"I thought perhaps," he went on miserably, "that you, with your intensity in things, might have given me more--than I could ever make up to you. And even now--if you think it better--we'll be engaged."
Now Miriam wanted to cry. And she was angry, too. He was always such a child for people to do as they liked with.
"No, I don't think so," she said firmly.
He pondered a minute.
"You see," he said, "with me--I don't think one person would ever monopolize me--be everything to me--I think never."
This she did not consider.
"No," she murmured. Then, after a pause, she looked at him, and her dark eyes flashed.
"This is your mother," she said. "I know she never liked me."
"No, no, it isn't," he said hastily. "It was for your sake she spoke this time. She only said, if I was going on, I ought to consider myself engaged." There was a silence. "And if I ask you to come down any time, you won't stop away, will you?"
She did not answer. By this time she was very angry.
"Well, what shall we do?" she said shortly. "I suppose I'd better drop French. I was just beginning to get on with it. But I suppose I can go on alone."
"I don't see that we need," he said. "I can give you a French lesson, surely."
"Well--and there are Sunday nights. I shan't stop coming to chapel, because I enjoy it, and it's all the social life I get. But you've no need to come home with me. I can go alone."
"All right," he answered, rather taken aback. "But if I ask Edgar, he'll always come with us, and then they can say nothing."
There was silence. After all, then, she would not lose much. For all their talk down at his home there would not be much difference. She wished they would mind their own business.
"And you won't think about it, and let it trouble you, will you?" he asked.
"Oh no," replied Miriam, without looking at him.
He was silent. She thought him unstable. He had no fixity of purpose, no anchor of righteousness that held him.
"Because," he continued, "a man gets across his bicycle--and goes to work--and does all sorts of things. But a woman broods."
"No, I shan't bother," said Miriam. And she meant it.
It had gone rather chilly. They went indoors.
"How white Paul looks!" Mrs. Leivers exclaimed. "Miriam, you shouldn't have let him sit out of doors. Do you think you've taken cold, Paul?"
"Oh, no!" he laughed.
But he felt done up. It wore him out, the conflict in himself. Miriam pitied him now. But quite early, before nine o'clock, he rose to go.
"You're not going home, are you?" asked Mrs. Leivers anxiously.
"Yes," he replied. "I said I'd be early." He was very awkward.
"But this IS early," said Mrs. Leivers.
Miriam sat in the rocking-chair, and did not speak. He hesitated, expecting her to rise and go with him to the barn as usual for his bicycle. She remained as she was. He was at a loss.
"Well--good-night, all!" he faltered.
She spoke her good-night along with all the others. But as he went past the window he looked in. She saw him pale, his brows knit slightly in a way that had become constant with him, his eyes dark with pain.
She rose and went to the doorway to wave good-bye to him as he passed through the gate. He rode slowly under the pine-trees, feeling a cur and a miserable wretch. His bicycle went tilting down the hills at random. He thought it would be a relief to break one's neck.
Two days later he sent her up a book and a little note, urging her to read and be busy.
At this time he gave all his friendship to Edgar. He loved the family so much, he loved the farm so much; it was the dearest place on earth to him. His home was not so lovable. It was his mother. But then he would have been just as happy with his mother anywhere. Whereas Willey Farm he loved passionately. He loved the little pokey kitchen, where men's boots tramped, and the dog slept with one eye open for fear of being trodden on; where the lamp hung over the table at night, and everything was so silent. He loved Miriam's long, low parlour, with its atmosphere of romance, its flowers, its books, its high rosewood piano. He loved the gardens and the buildings that stood with their scarlet roofs on the naked edges of the fields, crept towards the wood as if for cosiness, the wild country scooping down a valley and up the uncultured hills of the other side. Only to be there was an exhilaration and a joy to him. He loved Mrs. Leivers, with her unworldliness and her quaint cynicism; he loved Mr. Leivers, so warm and young and lovable; he loved Edgar, who lit up when he came, and the boys and the children and Bill--even the sow Circe and the Indian game-cock called Tippoo. All this besides Miriam. He could not give it up.
So he went as often, but he was usually with Edgar. Only all the family, including the father, joined in charades and games at evening. And later, Miriam drew them together, and they read Macbeth out of penny books, taking parts. It was great excitement. Miriam was glad, and Mrs. Leivers was glad, and Mr. Leivers enjoyed it. Then they all learned songs together from tonic sol-fa, singing in a circle round the fire. But now Paul was very rarely alone with Miriam. She waited. When she and Edgar and he walked home together from chapel or from the literary society in Bestwood, she knew his talk, so passionate and so unorthodox nowadays, was for her. She did envy Edgar, however, his cycling with Paul, his Friday nights, his days working in the fields. For her Friday nights and her French lessons were gone. She was nearly always alone, walking, pondering in the wood, reading, studying, dreaming, waiting. And he wrote to her frequently.
One Sunday evening they attained to their old rare harmony. Edgar had stayed to Communion--he wondered what it was like--with Mrs. Morel. So Paul came on alone with Miriam to his home. He was more or less under her spell again. As usual, they were discussing the sermon. He was setting now full sail towards Agnosticism, but such a religious Agnosticism that Miriam did not suffer so badly. They were at the Renan Vie de Jesus stage. Miriam was the threshing-floor on which he threshed out all his beliefs. While he trampled his ideas upon her soul, the truth came out for him. She alone was his threshing-floor. She alone helped him towards realization. Almost impassive, she submitted to his argument and expounding. And somehow, because of her, he gradually realized where he was wrong. And what he realized, she realized. She felt he could not do without her.
They came to the silent house. He took the key out of the scullery window, and they entered. All the time he went on with his discussion. He lit the gas, mended the fire, and brought her some cakes from the pantry. She sat on the sofa, quietly, with a plate on her knee. She wore a large white hat with some pinkish flowers. It was a cheap hat, but he liked it. Her face beneath was still and pensive, golden-brown and ruddy. Always her ears were hid in her short curls. She watched him.
She liked him on Sundays. Then he wore a dark suit that showed the lithe movement of his body. There was a clean, clear-cut look about him. He went on with his thinking to her. Suddenly he reached for a Bible. Miriam liked the way he reached up--so sharp, straight to the mark. He turned the pages quickly, and read her a chapter of St. John. As he sat in the armchair reading, intent, his voice only thinking, she felt as if he were using her unconsciously as a man uses his tools at some work he is bent on. She loved it. And the wistfulness of his voice was like a reaching to something, and it was as if she were what he reached with. She sat back on the sofa away from him, and yet feeling herself the very instrument his hand grasped. It gave her great pleasure.
Then he began to falter and to get self-conscious. And when he came to the verse, "A woman, when she is in travail, hath sorrow because her hour is come", he missed it out. Miriam had felt him growing uncomfortable. She shrank when the well-known words did not follow. He went on reading, but she did not hear. A grief and shame made her bend her head. Six months ago he would have read it simply. Now there was a scotch in his running with her. Now she felt there was really something hostile between them, something of which they were ashamed.
She ate her cake mechanically. He tried to go on with his argument, but could not get back the right note. Soon Edgar came in. Mrs. Morel had gone to her friends'. The three set off to Willey Farm.
Miriam brooded over his split with her. There was something else he wanted. He could not be satisfied; he could give her no peace. There was between them now always a ground for strife. She wanted to prove him. She believed that his chief need in life was herself. If she could prove it, both to herself and to him, the rest might go; she could simply trust to the future.
So in May she asked him to come to Willey Farm and meet Mrs. Dawes. There was something he hankered after. She saw him, whenever they spoke of Clara Dawes, rouse and get slightly angry. He said he did not like her. Yet he was keen to know about her. Well, he should put himself to the test. She believed that there were in him desires for higher things, and desires for lower, and that the desire for the higher would conquer. At any rate, he should try. She forgot that her "higher" and "lower" were arbitrary.
He was rather excited at the idea of meeting Clara at Willey Farm. Mrs. Dawes came for the day. Her heavy, dun-coloured hair was coiled on top of her head. She wore a white blouse and navy skirt, and somehow, wherever she was, seemed to make things look paltry and insignificant. When she was in the room, the kitchen seemed too small and mean altogether. Miriam's beautiful twilighty parlour looked stiff and stupid. All the Leivers were eclipsed like candles. They found her rather hard to put up with. Yet she was perfectly amiable, but indifferent, and rather hard.
Paul did not come till afternoon. He was early. As he swung off his bicycle, Miriam saw him look round at the house eagerly. He would be disappointed if the visitor had not come. Miriam went out to meet him, bowing her head because of the sunshine. Nasturtiums were coming out crimson under the cool green shadow of their leaves. The girl stood, dark-haired, glad to see him.
"Hasn't Clara come?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Miriam in her musical tone. "She's reading."
He wheeled his bicycle into the barn. He had put on a handsome tie, of which he was rather proud, and socks to match.
"She came this morning?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Miriam, as she walked at his side. "You said you'd bring me that letter from the man at Liberty's. Have you remembered?"
"Oh, dash, no!" he said. "But nag at me till you get it."
"I don't like to nag at you."
"Do it whether or not. And is she any more agreeable?" he continued.
"You know I always think she is quite agreeable."
He was silent. Evidently his eagerness to be early to-day had been the newcomer. Miriam already began to suffer. They went together towards the house. He took the clips off his trousers, but was too lazy to brush the dust from his shoes, in spite of the socks and tie.
Clara sat in the cool parlour reading. He saw the nape of her white neck, and the fine hair lifted from it. She rose, looking at him indifferently. To shake hands she lifted her arm straight, in a manner that seemed at once to keep him at a distance, and yet to fling something to him. He noticed how her breasts swelled inside her blouse, and how her shoulder curved handsomely under the thin muslin at the top of her arm.
"You have chosen a fine day," he said.
"It happens so," she said.
"Yes," he said; "I am glad."
She sat down, not thanking him for his politeness.
"What have you been doing all morning?" asked Paul of Miriam.
"Well, you see," said Miriam, coughing huskily, "Clara only came with father--and so--she's not been here very long."
Clara sat leaning on the table, holding aloof. He noticed her hands were large, but well kept. And the skin on them seemed almost coarse, opaque, and white, with fine golden hairs. She did not mind if he observed her hands. She intended to scorn him. Her heavy arm lay negligently on the table. Her mouth was closed as if she were offended, and she kept her face slightly averted.
"You were at Margaret Bonford's meeting the other evening," he said to her.
Miriam did not know this courteous Paul. Clara glanced at him.
"Yes," she said.
"Why," asked Miriam, "how do you know?"
"I went in for a few minutes before the train came," he answered.
Clara turned away again rather disdainfully.
"I think she's a lovable little woman," said Paul.
"Margaret Bonford!" exclaimed Clara. "She's a great deal cleverer than most men."
"Well, I didn't say she wasn't," he said, deprecating. "She's lovable for all that."
"And, of course, that is all that matters," said Clara witheringly.
He rubbed his head, rather perplexed, rather annoyed.
"I suppose it matters more than her cleverness," he said; "which, after all, would never get her to heaven."
"It's not heaven she wants to get--it's her fair share on earth," retorted Clara. She spoke as if he were responsible for some deprivation which Miss Bonford suffered.
"Well," he said, "I thought she was warm, and awfully nice--only too frail. I wished she was sitting comfortably in peace---"
"'Darning her husband's stockings,'" said Clara scathingly.
"I'm sure she wouldn't mind darning even my stockings," he said. "And I'm sure she'd do them well. Just as I wouldn't mind blacking her boots if she wanted me to."
But Clara refused to answer this sally of his. He talked to Miriam for a little while. The other woman held aloof.
"Well," he said, "I think I'll go and see Edgar. Is he on the land?"
"I believe," said Miriam, "he's gone for a load of coal. He should be back directly."
"Then," he said, "I'll go and meet him."
Miriam dared not propose anything for the three of them. He rose and left them.
On the top road, where the gorse was out, he saw Edgar walking lazily beside the mare, who nodded her white-starred forehead as she dragged the clanking load of coal. The young farmer's face lighted up as he saw his friend. Edgar was good-looking, with dark, warm eyes. His clothes were old and rather disreputable, and he walked with considerable pride.
"Hello!" he said, seeing Paul bareheaded. "Where are you going?"
"Came to meet you. Can't stand 'Nevermore.'"
Edgar's teeth flashed in a laugh of amusement.
"Who is 'Nevermore'?" he asked.
"The lady--Mrs. Dawes--it ought to be Mrs. The Raven that quothed 'Nevermore.'"
Edgar laughed with glee.
"Don't you like her?" he asked.
"Not a fat lot," said Paul. "Why, do you?"
"No!" The answer came with a deep ring of conviction. "No!" Edgar pursed up his lips. "I can't say she's much in my line." He mused a little. Then: "But why do you call her 'Nevermore'?" he asked.
"Well," said Paul, "if she looks at a man she says haughtily 'Nevermore,' and if she looks at herself in the looking-glass she says disdainfully 'Nevermore,' and if she thinks back she says it in disgust, and if she looks forward she says it cynically."
Edgar considered this speech, failed to make much out of it, and said, laughing:
"You think she's a man-hater?"
"SHE thinks she is," replied Paul.
"But you don't think so?"
"No," replied Paul.
"Wasn't she nice with you, then?"
"Could you imagine her NICE with anybody?" asked the young man.
Edgar laughed. Together they unloaded the coal in the yard. Paul was rather self-conscious, because he knew Clara could see if she looked out of the window. She didn't look.
On Saturday afternoons the horses were brushed down and groomed. Paul and Edgar worked together, sneezing with the dust that came from the pelts of Jimmy and Flower.
"Do you know a new song to teach me?" said Edgar.
He continued to work all the time. The back of his neck was sun-red when he bent down, and his fingers that held the brush were thick. Paul watched him sometimes.
"'Mary Morrison'?" suggested the younger.
Edgar agreed. He had a good tenor voice, and he loved to learn all the songs his friend could teach him, so that he could sing whilst he was carting. Paul had a very indifferent baritone voice, but a good ear. However, he sang softly, for fear of Clara. Edgar repeated the line in a clear tenor. At times they both broke off to sneeze, and first one, then the other, abused his horse.
Miriam was impatient of men. It took so little to amuse them--even Paul. She thought it anomalous in him that he could be so thoroughly absorbed in a triviality.
It was tea-time when they had finished.
"What song was that?" asked Miriam.
Edgar told her. The conversation turned to singing.
"We have such jolly times," Miriam said to Clara.
Mrs. Dawes ate her meal in a slow, dignified way. Whenever the men were present she grew distant.
"Do you like singing?" Miriam asked her.
"If it is good," she said.
Paul, of course, coloured.
"You mean if it is high-class and trained?" he said.
"I think a voice needs training before the singing is anything," she said.
"You might as well insist on having people's voices trained before you allowed them to talk," he replied. "Really, people sing for their own pleasure, as a rule."
"And it may be for other people's discomfort."
"Then the other people should have flaps to their ears," he replied.
The boys laughed. There was a silence. He flushed deeply, and ate in silence.
After tea, when all the men had gone but Paul, Mrs. Leivers said to Clara:
"And you find life happier now?"
"And you are satisfied?"
"So long as I can be free and independent."
"And you don't MISS anything in your life?" asked Mrs. Leivers gently.
"I've put all that behind me."
Paul had been feeling uncomfortable during this discourse. He got up.
"You'll find you're always tumbling over the things you've put behind you," he said. Then he took his departure to the cowsheds. He felt he had been witty, and his manly pride was high. He whistled as he went down the brick track.
Miriam came for him a little later to know if he would go with Clara and her for a walk. They set off down to Strelley Mill Farm. As they were going beside the brook, on the Willey Water side, looking through the brake at the edge of the wood, where pink campions glowed under a few sunbeams, they saw, beyond the tree-trunks and the thin hazel bushes, a man leading a great bay horse through the gullies. The big red beast seemed to dance romantically through that dimness of green hazel drift, away there where the air was shadowy, as if it were in the past, among the fading bluebells that might have bloomed for Deidre or Iseult.
The three stood charmed.
"What a treat to be a knight," he said, "and to have a pavilion here."
"And to have us shut up safely?" replied Clara.
"Yes," he answered, "singing with your maids at your broidery. I would carry your banner of white and green and heliotrope. I would have 'W.S.P.U.' emblazoned on my shield, beneath a woman rampant."
"I have no doubt," said Clara, "that you would much rather fight for a woman than let her fight for herself."
"I would. When she fights for herself she seems like a dog before a looking-glass, gone into a mad fury with its own shadow."
"And YOU are the looking-glass?" she asked, with a curl of the lip.
"Or the shadow," he replied.
"I am afraid," she said, "that you are too clever."
"Well, I leave it to you to be GOOD," he retorted, laughing. "Be good, sweet maid, and just let ME be clever."
But Clara wearied of his flippancy. Suddenly, looking at her, he saw that the upward lifting of her face was misery and not scorn. His heart grew tender for everybody. He turned and was gentle with Miriam, whom he had neglected till then.
At the wood's edge they met Limb, a thin, swarthy man of forty, tenant of Strelley Mill, which he ran as a cattle-raising farm. He held the halter of the powerful stallion indifferently, as if he were tired. The three stood to let him pass over the stepping-stones of the first brook. Paul admired that so large an animal should walk on such springy toes, with an endless excess of vigour. Limb pulled up before them.
"Tell your father, Miss Leivers," he said, in a peculiar piping voice, "that his young beas'es 'as broke that bottom fence three days an' runnin'."
"Which?" asked Miriam, tremulous.
The great horse breathed heavily, shifting round its red flanks, and looking suspiciously with its wonderful big eyes upwards from under its lowered head and falling mane.
"Come along a bit," replied Limb, "an' I'll show you."
The man and the stallion went forward. It danced sideways, shaking its white fetlocks and looking frightened, as it felt itself in the brook.
"No hanky-pankyin'," said the man affectionately to the beast.
It went up the bank in little leaps, then splashed finely through the second brook. Clara, walking with a kind of sulky abandon, watched it half-fascinated, half-contemptuous. Limb stopped and pointed to the fence under some willows.
"There, you see where they got through," he said. "My man's druv 'em back three times."
"Yes," answered Miriam, colouring as if she were at fault.
"Are you comin' in?" asked the man.
"No, thanks; but we should like to go by the pond."
"Well, just as you've a mind," he said.
The horse gave little whinneys of pleasure at being so near home.
"He is glad to be back," said Clara, who was interested in the creature.
"Yes--'e's been a tidy step to-day."
They went through the gate, and saw approaching them from the big farmhouse a smallish, dark, excitable-looking woman of about thirty-five. Her hair was touched with grey, her dark eyes looked wild. She walked with her hands behind her back. Her brother went forward. As it saw her, the big bay stallion whinneyed again. She came up excitedly.
"Are you home again, my boy!" she said tenderly to the horse, not to the man. The great beast shifted round to her, ducking his head. She smuggled into his mouth the wrinkled yellow apple she had been hiding behind her back, then she kissed him near the eyes. He gave a big sigh of pleasure. She held his head in her arms against her breast.
"Isn't he splendid!" said Miriam to her.
Miss Limb looked up. Her dark eyes glanced straight at Paul.
"Oh, good-evening, Miss Leivers," she said. "It's ages since you've been down."
Miriam introduced her friends.
"Your horse IS a fine fellow!" said Clara.
"Isn't he!" Again she kissed him. "As loving as any man!"
"More loving than most men, I should think," replied Clara.
"He's a nice boy!" cried the woman, again embracing the horse.
Clara, fascinated by the big beast, went up to stroke his neck.
"He's quite gentle," said Miss Limb. "Don't you think big fellows are?"
"He's a beauty!" replied Clara.
She wanted to look in his eyes. She wanted him to look at her.
"It's a pity he can't talk," she said.
"Oh, but he can--all but," replied the other woman.
Then her brother moved on with the horse.
"Are you coming in? DO come in, Mr.--I didn't catch it."
"Morel," said Miriam. "No, we won't come in, but we should like to go by the mill-pond."
"Yes--yes, do. Do you fish, Mr. Morel?"
"No," said Paul.
"Because if you do you might come and fish any time," said Miss Limb. "We scarcely see a soul from week's end to week's end. I should be thankful."
"What fish are there in the pond?" he asked.
They went through the front garden, over the sluice, and up the steep bank to the pond, which lay in shadow, with its two wooded islets. Paul walked with Miss Limb.
"I shouldn't mind swimming here," he said.
"Do," she replied. "Come when you like. My brother will be awfully pleased to talk with you. He is so quiet, because there is no one to talk to. Do come and swim."
Clara came up.
"It's a fine depth," she said, "and so clear."
"Yes," said Miss Limb.
"Do you swim?" said Paul. "Miss Limb was just saying we could come when we liked."
"Of course there's the farm-hands," said Miss Limb.
They talked a few moments, then went on up the wild hill, leaving the lonely, haggard-eyed woman on the bank.
The hillside was all ripe with sunshine. It was wild and tussocky, given over to rabbits. The three walked in silence. Then:
"She makes me feel uncomfortable," said Paul.
"You mean Miss Limb?" asked Miriam. "Yes."
"What's a matter with her? Is she going dotty with being too lonely?"
"Yes," said Miriam. "It's not the right sort of life for her. I think it's cruel to bury her there. I really ought to go and see her more. But--she upsets me."
"She makes me feel sorry for her--yes, and she bothers me," he said.
"I suppose," blurted Clara suddenly, "she wants a man."
The other two were silent for a few moments.
"But it's the loneliness sends her cracked," said Paul.
Clara did not answer, but strode on uphill. She was walking with her hand hanging, her legs swinging as she kicked through the dead thistles and the tussocky grass, her arms hanging loose. Rather than walking, her handsome body seemed to be blundering up the hill. A hot wave went over Paul. He was curious about her. Perhaps life had been cruel to her. He forgot Miriam, who was walking beside him talking to him. She glanced at him, finding he did not answer her. His eyes were fixed ahead on Clara.
"Do you still think she is disagreeable?" she asked.
He did not notice that the question was sudden. It ran with his thoughts.
"Something's the matter with her," he said.
"Yes," answered Miriam.
They found at the top of the hill a hidden wild field, two sides of which were backed by the wood, the other sides by high loose hedges of hawthorn and elder bushes. Between these overgrown bushes were gaps that the cattle might have walked through had there been any cattle now. There the turf was smooth as velveteen, padded and holed by the rabbits. The field itself was coarse, and crowded with tall, big cowslips that had never been cut. Clusters of strong flowers rose everywhere above the coarse tussocks of bent. It was like a roadstead crowded with tan, fairy shipping.
"Ah!" cried Miriam, and she looked at Paul, her dark eyes dilating. He smiled. Together they enjoyed the field of flowers. Clara, a little way off, was looking at the cowslips disconsolately. Paul and Miriam stayed close together, talking in subdued tones. He kneeled on one knee, quickly gathering the best blossoms, moving from tuft to tuft restlessly, talking softly all the time. Miriam plucked the flowers lovingly, lingering over them. He always seemed to her too quick and almost scientific. Yet his bunches had a natural beauty more than hers. He loved them, but as if they were his and he had a right to them. She had more reverence for them: they held something she had not.
The flowers were very fresh and sweet. He wanted to drink them. As he gathered them, he ate the little yellow trumpets. Clara was still wandering about disconsolately. Going towards her, he said:
"Why don't you get some?"
"I don't believe in it. They look better growing."
"But you'd like some?"
"They want to be left."
"I don't believe they do."
"I don't want the corpses of flowers about me," she said.
"That's a stiff, artificial notion," he said. "They don't die any quicker in water than on their roots. And besides, they LOOK nice in a bowl--they look jolly. And you only call a thing a corpse because it looks corpse-like."
"Whether it is one or not?" she argued.
"It isn't one to me. A dead flower isn't a corpse of a flower."
Clara now ignored him.
"And even so--what right have you to pull them?" she asked.
"Because I like them, and want them--and there's plenty of them."
"And that is sufficient?"
"Yes. Why not? I'm sure they'd smell nice in your room in Nottingham."
"And I should have the pleasure of watching them die."
"But then--it does not matter if they do die."
Whereupon he left her, and went stooping over the clumps of tangled flowers which thickly sprinkled the field like pale, luminous foam-clots. Miriam had come close. Clara was kneeling, breathing some scent from the cowslips.
"I think," said Miriam, "if you treat them with reverence you don't do them any harm. It is the spirit you pluck them in that matters."
"Yes," he said. "But no, you get 'em because you want 'em, and that's all." He held out his bunch.
Miriam was silent. He picked some more.
"Look at these!" he continued; "sturdy and lusty like little trees and like boys with fat legs."
Clara's hat lay on the grass not far off. She was kneeling, bending forward still to smell the flowers. Her neck gave him a sharp pang, such a beautiful thing, yet not proud of itself just now. Her breasts swung slightly in her blouse. The arching curve of her back was beautiful and strong; she wore no stays. Suddenly, without knowing, he was scattering a handful of cowslips over her hair and neck, saying:
The chill flowers fell on her neck. She looked up at him, with almost pitiful, scared grey eyes, wondering what he was doing. Flowers fell on her face, and she shut her eyes.
Suddenly, standing there above her, he felt awkward.
"I thought you wanted a funeral," he said, ill at ease.
Clara laughed strangely, and rose, picking the cowslips from her hair. She took up her hat and pinned it on. One flower had remained tangled in her hair. He saw, but would not tell her. He gathered up the flowers he had sprinkled over her.
At the edge of the wood the bluebells had flowed over into the field and stood there like flood-water. But they were fading now. Clara strayed up to them. He wandered after her. The bluebells pleased him.
"Look how they've come out of the wood!" he said.
Then she turned with a flash of warmth and of gratitude.
"Yes," she smiled.
His blood beat up.
"It makes me think of the wild men of the woods, how terrified they would be when they got breast to breast with the open space."
"Do you think they were?" she asked.
"I wonder which was more frightened among old tribes--those bursting out of their darkness of woods upon all the space of light, or those from the open tiptoeing into the forests."
"I should think the second," she answered.
"Yes, you DO feel like one of the open space sort, trying to force yourself into the dark, don't you?"
"How should I know?" she answered queerly.
The conversation ended there.
The evening was deepening over the earth. Already the valley was full of shadow. One tiny square of light stood opposite at Crossleigh Bank Farm. Brightness was swimming on the tops of the hills. Miriam came up slowly, her face in her big, loose bunch of flowers, walking ankle-deep through the scattered froth of the cowslips. Beyond her the trees were coming into shape, all shadow.
"Shall we go?" she asked.
And the three turned away. They were all silent. Going down the path they could see the light of home right across, and on the ridge of the hill a thin dark outline with little lights, where the colliery village touched the sky.
"It has been nice, hasn't it?" he asked.
Miriam murmured assent. Clara was silent.
"Don't you think so?" he persisted.
But she walked with her head up, and still did not answer. He could tell by the way she moved, as if she didn't care, that she suffered.
At this time Paul took his mother to Lincoln. She was bright and enthusiastic as ever, but as he sat opposite her in the railway carriage, she seemed to look frail. He had a momentary sensation as if she were slipping away from him. Then he wanted to get hold of her, to fasten her, almost to chain her. He felt he must keep hold of her with his hand.
They drew near to the city. Both were at the window looking for the cathedral.
"There she is, mother!" he cried.
They saw the great cathedral lying couchant above the plain.
"Ah!" she exclaimed. "So she is!"
He looked at his mother. Her blue eyes were watching the cathedral quietly. She seemed again to be beyond him. Something in the eternal repose of the uplifted cathedral, blue and noble against the sky, was reflected in her, something of the fatality. What was, WAS. With all his young will he could not alter it. He saw her face, the skin still fresh and pink and downy, but crow's-feet near her eyes, her eyelids steady, sinking a little, her mouth always closed with disillusion; and there was on her the same eternal look, as if she knew fate at last. He beat against it with all the strength of his soul.
"Look, mother, how big she is above the town! Think, there are streets and streets below her! She looks bigger than the city altogether."
"So she does!" exclaimed his mother, breaking bright into life again. But he had seen her sitting, looking steady out of the window at the cathedral, her face and eyes fixed, reflecting the relentlessness of life. And the crow's-feet near her eyes, and her mouth shut so hard, made him feel he would go mad.
They ate a meal that she considered wildly extravagant.
"Don't imagine I like it," she said, as she ate her cutlet. "I DON'T like it, I really don't! Just THINK of your money wasted!"
"You never mind my money," he said. "You forget I'm a fellow taking his girl for an outing."
And he bought her some blue violets.
"Stop it at once, sir!" she commanded. "How can I do it?"
"You've got nothing to do. Stand still!"
And in the middle of High Street he stuck the flowers in her coat.
"An old thing like me!" she said, sniffing.
"You see," he said, "I want people to think we're awful swells. So look ikey."
"I'll jowl your head," she laughed.
"Strut!" he commanded. "Be a fantail pigeon."
It took him an hour to get her through the street. She stood above Glory Hole, she stood before Stone Bow, she stood everywhere, and exclaimed.
A man came up, took off his hat, and bowed to her.
"Can I show you the town, madam?"
"No, thank you," she answered. "I've got my son."
Then Paul was cross with her for not answering with more dignity.
"You go away with you!" she exclaimed. "Ha! that's the Jew's House. Now, do you remember that lecture, Paul--?"
But she could scarcely climb the cathedral hill. He did not notice. Then suddenly he found her unable to speak. He took her into a little public-house, where she rested.
"It's nothing," she said. "My heart is only a bit old; one must expect it."
He did not answer, but looked at her. Again his heart was crushed in a hot grip. He wanted to cry, he wanted to smash things in fury.
They set off again, pace by pace, so slowly. And every step seemed like a weight on his chest. He felt as if his heart would burst. At last they came to the top. She stood enchanted, looking at the castle gate, looking at the cathedral front. She had quite forgotten herself.
"Now THIS is better than I thought it could be!" she cried.
But he hated it. Everywhere he followed her, brooding. They sat together in the cathedral. They attended a little service in the choir. She was timid.
"I suppose it is open to anybody?" she asked him.
"Yes," he replied. "Do you think they'd have the damned cheek to send us away."
"Well, I'm sure," she exclaimed, "they would if they heard your language."
Her face seemed to shine again with joy and peace during the service. And all the time he was wanting to rage and smash things and cry.
Afterwards, when they were leaning over the wall, looking at the town below, he blurted suddenly:
"Why can't a man have a YOUNG mother? What is she old for?"
"Well," his mother laughed, "she can scarcely help it."
"And why wasn't I the oldest son? Look--they say the young ones have the advantage--but look, THEY had the young mother. You should have had me for your eldest son."
"I didn't arrange it," she remonstrated. "Come to consider, you're as much to blame as me."
He turned on her, white, his eyes furious.
"What are you old for!" he said, mad with his impotence. "WHY can't you walk? WHY can't you come with me to places?"
"At one time," she replied, "I could have run up that hill a good deal better than you."
"What's the good of that to ME?" he cried, hitting his fist on the wall. Then he became plaintive. "It's too bad of you to be ill. Little, it is--"
"Ill!" she cried. "I'm a bit old, and you'll have to put up with it, that's all."
They were quiet. But it was as much as they could bear. They got jolly again over tea. As they sat by Brayford, watching the boats, he told her about Clara. His mother asked him innumerable questions.
"Then who does she live with?"
"With her mother, on Bluebell Hill."
"And have they enough to keep them?"
"I don't think so. I think they do lace work."
"And wherein lies her charm, my boy?"
"I don't know that she's charming, mother. But she's nice. And she seems straight, you know--not a bit deep, not a bit."
"But she's a good deal older than you."
"She's thirty, I'm going on twenty-three."
"You haven't told me what you like her for."
"Because I don't know--a sort of defiant way she's got--a sort of angry way."
Mrs. Morel considered. She would have been glad now for her son to fall in love with some woman who would--she did not know what. But he fretted so, got so furious suddenly, and again was melancholic. She wished he knew some nice woman-- She did not know what she wished, but left it vague. At any rate, she was not hostile to the idea of Clara.
Annie, too, was getting married. Leonard had gone away to work in Birmingham. One week-end when he was home she had said to him:
"You don't look very well, my lad."
"I dunno," he said. "I feel anyhow or nohow, ma."
He called her "ma" already in his boyish fashion.
"Are you sure they're good lodgings?" she asked.
"Yes--yes. Only--it's a winder when you have to pour your own tea out--an' nobody to grouse if you team it in your saucer and sup it up. It somehow takes a' the taste out of it."
Mrs. Morel laughed.
"And so it knocks you up?" she said.
"I dunno. I want to get married," he blurted, twisting his fingers and looking down at his boots. There was a silence.
"But," she exclaimed, "I thought you said you'd wait another year."
"Yes, I did say so," he replied stubbornly.
Again she considered.
"And you know," she said, "Annie's a bit of a spendthrift. She's saved no more than eleven pounds. And I know, lad, you haven't had much chance."
He coloured up to the ears.
"I've got thirty-three quid," he said.
"It doesn't go far," she answered.
He said nothing, but twisted his fingers.
"And you know," she said, "I've nothing---"
"I didn't want, ma!" he cried, very red, suffering and remonstrating.
"No, my lad, I know. I was only wishing I had. And take away five pounds for the wedding and things--it leaves twenty-nine pounds. You won't do much on that."
He twisted still, impotent, stubborn, not looking up.
"But do you really want to get married?" she asked. "Do you feel as if you ought?"
He gave her one straight look from his blue eyes.
"Yes," he said.
"Then," she replied, "we must all do the best we can for it, lad."
The next time he looked up there were tears in his eyes.
"I don't want Annie to feel handicapped," he said, struggling.
"My lad," she said, "you're steady--you've got a decent place. If a man had NEEDED me I'd have married him on his last week's wages. She may find it a bit hard to start humbly. Young girls ARE like that. They look forward to the fine home they think they'll have. But I had expensive furniture. It's not everything."
So the wedding took place almost immediately. Arthur came home, and was splendid in uniform. Annie looked nice in a dove-grey dress that she could take for Sundays. Morel called her a fool for getting married, and was cool with his son-in-law. Mrs. Morel had white tips in her bonnet, and some white on her blouse, and was teased by both her sons for fancying herself so grand. Leonard was jolly and cordial, and felt a fearful fool. Paul could not quite see what Annie wanted to get married for. He was fond of her, and she of him. Still, he hoped rather lugubriously that it would turn out all right. Arthur was astonishingly handsome in his scarlet and yellow, and he knew it well, but was secretly ashamed of the uniform. Annie cried her eyes up in the kitchen, on leaving her mother. Mrs. Morel cried a little, then patted her on the back and said:
"But don't cry, child, he'll be good to you."
Morel stamped and said she was a fool to go and tie herself up. Leonard looked white and overwrought. Mrs. Morel said to him:
"I s'll trust her to you, my lad, and hold you responsible for her."
"You can," he said, nearly dead with the ordeal. And it was all over.
When Morel and Arthur were in bed, Paul sat talking, as he often did, with his mother.
"You're not sorry she's married, mother, are you?" he asked.
"I'm not sorry she's married--but--it seems strange that she should go from me. It even seems to me hard that she can prefer to go with her Leonard. That's how mothers are--I know it's silly."
"And shall you be miserable about her?"
"When I think of my own wedding day," his mother answered, "I can only hope her life will be different."
"But you can trust him to be good to her?"
"Yes, yes. They say he's not good enough for her. But I say if a man is GENUINE, as he is, and a girl is fond of him--then--it should be all right. He's as good as she."
"So you don't mind?"
"I would NEVER have let a daughter of mine marry a man I didn't FEEL to be genuine through and through. And yet, there's a gap now she's gone."
They were both miserable, and wanted her back again. It seemed to Paul his mother looked lonely, in her new black silk blouse with its bit of white trimming.
"At any rate, mother, I s'll never marry," he said.
"Ay, they all say that, my lad. You've not met the one yet. Only wait a year or two."
"But I shan't marry, mother. I shall live with you, and we'll have a servant."
"Ay, my lad, it's easy to talk. We'll see when the time comes."
"What time? I'm nearly twenty-three."
"Yes, you're not one that would marry young. But in three years' time---"
"I shall be with you just the same."
"We'll see, my boy, we'll see."
"But you don't want me to marry?"
"I shouldn't like to think of you going through your life without anybody to care for you and do--no."
"And you think I ought to marry?"
"Sooner or later every man ought."
"But you'd rather it were later."
"It would be hard--and very hard. It's as they say:
"And you think I'd let a wife take me from you?"
"Well, you wouldn't ask her to marry your mother as well as you," Mrs. Morel smiled.
"She could do what she liked; she wouldn't have to interfere."
"She wouldn't--till she'd got you--and then you'd see."
"I never will see. I'll never marry while I've got you--I won't."
"But I shouldn't like to leave you with nobody, my boy," she cried.
"You're not going to leave me. What are you? Fifty-three! I'll give you till seventy-five. There you are, I'm fat and forty-four. Then I'll marry a staid body. See!"
His mother sat and laughed.
"Go to bed," she said--"go to bed."
"And we'll have a pretty house, you and me, and a servant, and it'll be just all right. I s'll perhaps be rich with my painting."
"Will you go to bed!"
"And then you s'll have a pony-carriage. See yourself--a little Queen Victoria trotting round."
"I tell you to go to bed," she laughed.
He kissed her and went. His plans for the future were always the same.
Mrs. Morel sat brooding--about her daughter, about Paul, about Arthur. She fretted at losing Annie. The family was very closely bound. And she felt she MUST live now, to be with her children. Life was so rich for her. Paul wanted her, and so did Arthur. Arthur never knew how deeply he loved her. He was a creature of the moment. Never yet had he been forced to realise himself. The army had disciplined his body, but not his soul. He was in perfect health and very handsome. His dark, vigorous hair sat close to his smallish head. There was something childish about his nose, something almost girlish about his dark blue eyes. But he had the fun red mouth of a man under his brown moustache, and his jaw was strong. It was his father's mouth; it was the nose and eyes of her own mother's people--good-looking, weak-principled folk. Mrs. Morel was anxious about him. Once he had really run the rig he was safe. But how far would he go?
The army had not really done him any good. He resented bitterly the authority of the officers. He hated having to obey as if he were an animal. But he had too much sense to kick. So he turned his attention to getting the best out of it. He could sing, he was a boon-companion. Often he got into scrapes, but they were the manly scrapes that are easily condoned. So he made a good time out of it, whilst his self-respect was in suppression. He trusted to his good looks and handsome figure, his refinement, his decent education to get him most of what he wanted, and he was not disappointed. Yet he was restless. Something seemed to gnaw him inside. He was never still, he was never alone. With his mother he was rather humble. Paul he admired and loved and despised slightly. And Paul admired and loved and despised him slightly.
Mrs. Morel had had a few pounds left to her by her father, and she decided to buy her son out of the army. He was wild with joy. Now he was like a lad taking a holiday.
He had always been fond of Beatrice Wyld, and during his furlough he picked up with her again. She was stronger and better in health. The two often went long walks together, Arthur taking her arm in soldier's fashion, rather stiffly. And she came to play the piano whilst he sang. Then Arthur would unhook his tunic collar. He grew flushed, his eyes were bright, he sang in a manly tenor. Afterwards they sat together on the sofa. He seemed to flaunt his body: she was aware of him so--the strong chest, the sides, the thighs in their close-fitting trousers.
He liked to lapse into the dialect when he talked to her. She would sometimes smoke with him. Occasionally she would only take a few whiffs at his cigarette.
"Nay," he said to her one evening, when she reached for his cigarette. "Nay, tha doesna. I'll gi'e thee a smoke kiss if ter's a mind."
"I wanted a whiff, no kiss at all," she answered.
"Well, an' tha s'lt ha'e a whiff," he said, "along wi' t' kiss."
"I want a draw at thy fag," she cried, snatching for the cigarette between his lips.
He was sitting with his shoulder touching her. She was small and quick as lightning. He just escaped.
"I'll gi'e thee a smoke kiss," he said.
"Tha'rt a knivey nuisance, Arty Morel," she said, sitting back.
"Ha'e a smoke kiss?"
The soldier leaned forward to her, smiling. His face was near hers.
"Shonna!" she replied, turning away her head.
He took a draw at his cigarette, and pursed up his mouth, and put his lips close to her. His dark-brown cropped moustache stood out like a brush. She looked at the puckered crimson lips, then suddenly snatched the cigarette from his fingers and darted away. He, leaping after her, seized the comb from her back hair. She turned, threw the cigarette at him. He picked it up, put it in his mouth, and sat down.
"Nuisance!" she cried. "Give me my comb!"
She was afraid that her hair, specially done for him, would come down. She stood with her hands to her head. He hid the comb between his knees.
"I've non got it," he said.
The cigarette trembled between his lips with laughter as he spoke.
"Liar!" she said.
"'S true as I'm here!" he laughed, showing his hands.
"You brazen imp!" she exclaimed, rushing and scuffling for the comb, which he had under his knees. As she wrestled with him, pulling at his smooth, tight-covered knees, he laughed till he lay back on the sofa shaking with laughter. The cigarette fell from his mouth almost singeing his throat. Under his delicate tan the blood flushed up, and he laughed till his blue eyes were blinded, his throat swollen almost to choking. Then he sat up. Beatrice was putting in her comb.
"Tha tickled me, Beat," he said thickly.
Like a flash her small white hand went out and smacked his face. He started up, glaring at her. They stared at each other. Slowly the flush mounted her cheek, she dropped her eyes, then her head. He sat down sulkily. She went into the scullery to adjust her hair. In private there she shed a few tears, she did not know what for.
When she returned she was pursed up close. But it was only a film over her fire. He, with ruffled hair, was sulking upon the sofa. She sat down opposite, in the armchair, and neither spoke. The clock ticked in the silence like blows.
"You are a little cat, Beat," he said at length, half apologetically.
"Well, you shouldn't be brazen," she replied.
There was again a long silence. He whistled to himself like a man much agitated but defiant. Suddenly she went across to him and kissed him.
"Did it, pore fing!" she mocked.
He lifted his face, smiling curiously.
"Kiss?" he invited her.
"Daren't I?" she asked.
"Go on!" he challenged, his mouth lifted to her.
Deliberately, and with a peculiar quivering smile that seemed to overspread her whole body, she put her mouth on his. Immediately his arms folded round her. As soon as the long kiss was finished she drew back her head from him, put her delicate fingers on his neck, through the open collar. Then she closed her eyes, giving herself up again in a kiss.
She acted of her own free will. What she would do she did, and made nobody responsible.
He grew more and more restless. Miriam did not satisfy him. His old mad desire to be with her grew weaker. Sometimes he met Clara in Nottingham, sometimes he went to meetings with her, sometimes he saw her at Willey Farm. But on these last occasions the situation became strained. There was a triangle of antagonism between Paul and Clara and Miriam. With Clara he took on a smart, worldly, mocking tone very antagonistic to Miriam. It did not matter what went before. She might be intimate and sad with him. Then as soon as Clara appeared, it all vanished, and he played to the newcomer.
Miriam had one beautiful evening with him in the hay. He had been on the horse-rake, and having finished, came to help her to put the hay in cocks. Then he talked to her of his hopes and despairs, and his whole soul seemed to lie bare before her. She felt as if she watched the very quivering stuff of life in him. The moon came out: they walked home together: he seemed to have come to her because he needed her so badly, and she listened to him, gave him all her love and her faith. It seemed to her he brought her the best of himself to keep, and that she would guard it all her life. Nay, the sky did not cherish the stars more surely and eternally than she would guard the good in the soul of Paul Morel. She went on home alone, feeling exalted, glad in her faith.
And then, the next day, Clara came. They were to have tea in the hayfield. Miriam watched the evening drawing to gold and shadow. And all the time Paul was sporting with Clara. He made higher and higher heaps of hay that they were jumping over. Miriam did not care for the game, and stood aside. Edgar and Geoffrey and Maurice and Clara and Paul jumped. Paul won, because he was light. Clara's blood was roused. She could run like an Amazon. Paul loved the determined way she rushed at the hay-cock and leaped, landed on the other side, her breasts shaken, her thick hair come undone.
"You touched!" he cried. "You touched!"
"No!" she flashed, turning to Edgar. "I didn't touch, did I? Wasn't I clear?"
"I couldn't say," laughed Edgar.
None of them could say.
"But you touched," said Paul. "You're beaten."
"I did NOT touch!" she cried.
"As plain as anything," said Paul.
"Box his ears for me!" she cried to Edgar.
"Nay," Edgar laughed. "I daren't. You must do it yourself."
"And nothing can alter the fact that you touched," laughed Paul.
She was furious with him. Her little triumph before these lads and men was gone. She had forgotten herself in the game. Now he was to humble her.
"I think you are despicable!" she said.
And again he laughed, in a way that tortured Miriam.
"And I KNEW you couldn't jump that heap," he teased.
She turned her back on him. Yet everybody could see that the only person she listened to, or was conscious of, was he, and he of her. It pleased the men to see this battle between them. But Miriam was tortured.
Paul could choose the lesser in place of the higher, she saw. He could be unfaithful to himself, unfaithful to the real, deep Paul Morel. There was a danger of his becoming frivolous, of his running after his satisfaction like any Arthur, or like his father. It made Miriam bitter to think that he should throw away his soul for this flippant traffic of triviality with Clara. She walked in bitterness and silence, while the other two rallied each other, and Paul sported.
And afterwards, he would not own it, but he was rather ashamed of himself, and prostrated himself before Miriam. Then again he rebelled.
"It's not religious to be religious," he said. "I reckon a crow is religious when it sails across the sky. But it only does it because it feels itself carried to where it's going, not because it thinks it is being eternal."
But Miriam knew that one should be religious in everything, have God, whatever God might be, present in everything.
"I don't believe God knows such a lot about Himself," he cried. "God doesn't KNOW things, He IS things. And I'm sure He's not soulful."
And then it seemed to her that Paul was arguing God on to his own side, because he wanted his own way and his own pleasure. There was a long battle between him and her. He was utterly unfaithful to her even in her own presence; then he was ashamed, then repentant; then he hated her, and went off again. Those were the ever-recurring conditions.
She fretted him to the bottom of his soul. There she remained--sad, pensive, a worshipper. And he caused her sorrow. Half the time he grieved for her, half the time he hated her. She was his conscience; and he felt, somehow, he had got a conscience that was too much for him. He could not leave her, because in one way she did hold the best of him. He could not stay with her because she did not take the rest of him, which was three-quarters. So he chafed himself into rawness over her.
When she was twenty-one he wrote her a letter which could only have been written to her.
"Ought I to send this letter?--I doubt it. But there--it is best to understand. Au revoir."
"You are a nun--you are a nun." The words went into her heart again and again. Nothing he ever had said had gone into her so deeply, fixedly, like a mortal wound.
She answered him two days after the party.
"'Our intimacy would have been all-beautiful but for one little mistake,'" she quoted. "Was the mistake mine?"
Almost immediately he replied to her from Nottingham, sending her at the same time a little "Omar Khayyam."
"I must thank you for your sympathy with my painting and drawing. Many a sketch is dedicated to you. I do look forward to your criticisms, which, to my shame and glory, are always grand appreciations. It is a lovely joke, that. Au revoir."