The test on miriam
WITH the spring came again the old madness and battle. Now he knew he would have to go to Miriam. But what was his reluctance? He told himself it was only a sort of overstrong virginity in her and him which neither could break through. He might have married her; but his circumstances at home made it difficult, and, moreover, he did not want to marry. Marriage was for life, and because they had become close companions, he and she, he did not see that it should inevitably follow they should be man and wife. He did not feel that he wanted marriage with Miriam. He wished he did. He would have given his head to have felt a joyous desire to marry her and to have her. Then why couldn't he bring it off? There was some obstacle; and what was the obstacle? It lay in the physical bondage. He shrank from the physical contact. But why? With her he felt bound up inside himself. He could not go out to her. Something struggled in him, but he could not get to her. Why? She loved him. Clara said she even wanted him; then why couldn't he go to her, make love to her, kiss her? Why, when she put her arm in his, timidly, as they walked, did he feel he would burst forth in brutality and recoil? He owed himself to her; he wanted to belong to her. Perhaps the recoil and the shrinking from her was love in its first fierce modesty. He had no aversion for her. No, it was the opposite; it was a strong desire battling with a still stronger shyness and virginity. It seemed as if virginity were a positive force, which fought and won in both of them. And with her he felt it so hard to overcome; yet he was nearest to her, and with her alone could he deliberately break through. And he owed himself to her. Then, if they could get things right, they could marry; but he would not marry unless he could feel strong in the joy of it—never. He could not have faced his mother. It seemed to him that to sacrifice himself in a marriage he did not want would be degrading, and would undo all his life, make it a nullity. He would try what he COULD do.
And he had a great tenderness for Miriam. Always, she was sad, dreaming her religion; and he was nearly a religion to her. He could not bear to fail her. It would all come right if they tried.
He looked round. A good many of the nicest men he knew were like himself, bound in by their own virginity, which they could not break out of. They were so sensitive to their women that they would go without them for ever rather than do them a hurt, an injustice. Being the sons of mothers whose husbands had blundered rather brutally through their feminine sanctities, they were themselves too diffident and shy. They could easier deny themselves than incur any reproach from a woman; for a woman was like their mother, and they were full of the sense of their mother. They preferred themselves to suffer the misery of celibacy, rather than risk the other person.
He went back to her. Something in her, when he looked at her, brought the tears almost to his eyes. One day he stood behind her as she sang. Annie was playing a song on the piano. As Miriam sang her mouth seemed hopeless. She sang like a nun singing to heaven. It reminded him so much of the mouth and eyes of one who sings beside a Botticelli Madonna, so spiritual. Again, hot as steel, came up the pain in him. Why must he ask her for the other thing? Why was there his blood battling with her? If only he could have been always gentle, tender with her, breathing with her the atmosphere of reverie and religious dreams, he would give his right hand. It was not fair to hurt her. There seemed an eternal maidenhood about her; and when he thought of her mother, he saw the great brown eyes of a maiden who was nearly scared and shocked out of her virgin maidenhood, but not quite, in spite of her seven children. They had been born almost leaving her out of count, not of her, but upon her. So she could never let them go, because she never had possessed them.
Mrs. Morel saw him going again frequently to Miriam, and was astonished. He said nothing to his mother. He did not explain nor excuse himself. If he came home late, and she reproached him, he frowned and turned on her in an overbearing way:
"I shall come home when I like," he said; "I am old enough."
"Must she keep you till this time?"
"It is I who stay," he answered.
"And she lets you? But very well," she said.
And she went to bed, leaving the door unlocked for him; but she lay listening until he came, often long after. It was a great bitterness to her that he had gone back to Miriam. She recognised, however, the uselessness of any further interference. He went to Willey Farm as a man now, not as a youth. She had no right over him. There was a coldness between him and her. He hardly told her anything. Discarded, she waited on him, cooked for him still, and loved to slave for him; but her face closed again like a mask. There was nothing for her to do now but the housework; for all the rest he had gone to Miriam. She could not forgive him. Miriam killed the joy and the warmth in him. He had been such a jolly lad, and full of the warmest affection; now he grew colder, more and more irritable and gloomy. It reminded her of William; but Paul was worse. He did things with more intensity, and more realisation of what he was about. His mother knew how he was suffering for want of a woman, and she saw him going to Miriam. If he had made up his mind, nothing on earth would alter him. Mrs. Morel was tired. She began to give up at last; she had finished. She was in the way.
He went on determinedly. He realised more or less what his mother felt. It only hardened his soul. He made himself callous towards her; but it was like being callous to his own health. It undermined him quickly; yet he persisted.
He lay back in the rocking-chair at Willey Farm one evening. He had been talking to Miriam for some weeks, but had not come to the point. Now he said suddenly:
"I am twenty-four, almost."
She had been brooding. She looked up at him suddenly in surprise.
"Yes. What makes you say it?"
There was something in the charged atmosphere that she dreaded.
"Sir Thomas More says one can marry at twenty-four."
She laughed quaintly, saying:
"Does it need Sir Thomas More's sanction?"
"No; but one ought to marry about then."
"Ay," she answered broodingly; and she waited.
"I can't marry you," he continued slowly, "not now, because we've no money, and they depend on me at home."
She sat half-guessing what was coming.
"But I want to marry now—"
"You want to marry?" she repeated.
"A woman—you know what I mean."
She was silent.
"Now, at last, I must," he said.
"Ay," she answered.
"And you love me?"
She laughed bitterly.
"Why are you ashamed of it," he answered. "You wouldn't be ashamed before your God, why are you before people?"
"Nay," she answered deeply, "I am not ashamed."
"You are," he replied bitterly; "and it's my fault. But you know I can't help being—as I am—don't you?"
"I know you can't help it," she replied.
"I love you an awful lot—then there is something short."
"Where?" she answered, looking at him.
"Oh, in me! It is I who ought to be ashamed—like a spiritual cripple. And I am ashamed. It is misery. Why is it?"
"I don't know," replied Miriam.
"And I don't know," he repeated. "Don't you think we have been too fierce in our what they call purity? Don't you think that to be so much afraid and averse is a sort of dirtiness?"
She looked at him with startled dark eyes.
"You recoiled away from anything of the sort, and I took the motion from you, and recoiled also, perhaps worse."
There was silence in the room for some time.
"Yes," she said, "it is so."
"There is between us," he said, "all these years of intimacy. I feel naked enough before you. Do you understand?"
"I think so," she answered.
"And you love me?"
"Don't be bitter," he pleaded.
She looked at him and was sorry for him; his eyes were dark with torture. She was sorry for him; it was worse for him to have this deflated love than for herself, who could never be properly mated. He was restless, for ever urging forward and trying to find a way out. He might do as he liked, and have what he liked of her.
"Nay," she said softly, "I am not bitter."
She felt she could bear anything for him; she would suffer for him. She put her hand on his knee as he leaned forward in his chair. He took it and kissed it; but it hurt to do so. He felt he was putting himself aside. He sat there sacrificed to her purity, which felt more like nullity. How could he kiss her hand passionately, when it would drive her away, and leave nothing but pain? Yet slowly he drew her to him and kissed her.
They knew each other too well to pretend anything. As she kissed him, she watched his eyes; they were staring across the room, with a peculiar dark blaze in them that fascinated her. He was perfectly still. She could feel his heart throbbing heavily in his breast.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
The blaze in his eyes shuddered, became uncertain.
"I was thinking, all the while, I love you. I have been obstinate."
She sank her head on his breast.
"Yes," she answered.
"That's all," he said, and his voice seemed sure, and his mouth was kissing her throat.
Then she raised her head and looked into his eyes with her full gaze of love. The blaze struggled, seemed to try to get away from her, and then was quenched. He turned his head quickly aside. It was a moment of anguish.
"Kiss me," she whispered.
He shut his eyes, and kissed her, and his arms folded her closer and closer.
When she walked home with him over the fields, he said:
"I am glad I came back to you. I feel so simple with you—as if there was nothing to hide. We will be happy?"
"Yes," she murmured, and the tears came to her eyes.
"Some sort of perversity in our souls," he said, "makes us not want, get away from, the very thing we want. We have to fight against that."
"Yes," she said, and she felt stunned.
As she stood under the drooping-thorn tree, in the darkness by the roadside, he kissed her, and his fingers wandered over her face. In the darkness, where he could not see her but only feel her, his passion flooded him. He clasped her very close.
"Sometime you will have me?" he murmured, hiding his face on her shoulder. It was so difficult.
"Not now," she said.
His hopes and his heart sunk. A dreariness came over him.
"No," he said.
His clasp of her slackened.
"I love to feel your arm THERE!" she said, pressing his arm against her back, where it went round her waist. "It rests me so."
He tightened the pressure of his arm upon the small of her back to rest her.
"We belong to each other," he said.
"Then why shouldn't we belong to each other altogether?"
"But—" she faltered.
"I know it's a lot to ask," he said; "but there's not much risk for you really—not in the Gretchen way. You can trust me there?"
"Oh, I can trust you." The answer came quick and strong. "It's not that—it's not that at all—but—"
She hid her face in his neck with a little cry of misery.
"I don't know!" she cried.
She seemed slightly hysterical, but with a sort of horror. His heart died in him.
"You don't think it ugly?" he asked.
"No, not now. You have TAUGHT me it isn't."
"You are afraid?"
She calmed herself hastily.
"Yes, I am only afraid," she said.
He kissed her tenderly.
"Never mind," he said. "You should please yourself."
Suddenly she gripped his arms round her, and clenched her body stiff.
"You SHALL have me," she said, through her shut teeth.
His heart beat up again like fire. He folded her close, and his mouth was on her throat. She could not bear it. She drew away. He disengaged her.
"Won't you be late?" she asked gently.
He sighed, scarcely hearing what she said. She waited, wishing he would go. At last he kissed her quickly and climbed the fence. Looking round he saw the pale blotch of her face down in the darkness under the hanging tree. There was no more of her but this pale blotch.
"Good-bye!" she called softly. She had no body, only a voice and a dim face. He turned away and ran down the road, his fists clenched; and when he came to the wall over the lake he leaned there, almost stunned, looking up the black water.
Miriam plunged home over the meadows. She was not afraid of people, what they might say; but she dreaded the issue with him. Yes, she would let him have her if he insisted; and then, when she thought of it afterwards, her heart went down. He would be disappointed, he would find no satisfaction, and then he would go away. Yet he was so insistent; and over this, which did not seem so all-important to her, was their love to break down. After all, he was only like other men, seeking his satisfaction. Oh, but there was something more in him, something deeper! She could trust to it, in spite of all desires. He said that possession was a great moment in life. All strong emotions concentrated there. Perhaps it was so. There was something divine in it; then she would submit, religiously, to the sacrifice. He should have her. And at the thought her whole body clenched itself involuntarily, hard, as if against something; but Life forced her through this gate of suffering, too, and she would submit. At any rate, it would give him what he wanted, which was her deepest wish. She brooded and brooded and brooded herself towards accepting him.
He courted her now like a lover. Often, when he grew hot, she put his face from her, held it between her hands, and looked in his eyes. He could not meet her gaze. Her dark eyes, full of love, earnest and searching, made him turn away. Not for an instant would she let him forget. Back again he had to torture himself into a sense of his responsibility and hers. Never any relaxing, never any leaving himself to the great hunger and impersonality of passion; he must be brought back to a deliberate, reflective creature. As if from a swoon of passion she caged him back to the littleness, the personal relationship. He could not bear it. "Leave me alone—leave me alone!" he wanted to cry; but she wanted him to look at her with eyes full of love. His eyes, full of the dark, impersonal fire of desire, did not belong to her.
There was a great crop of cherries at the farm. The trees at the back of the house, very large and tall, hung thick with scarlet and crimson drops, under the dark leaves. Paul and Edgar were gathering the fruit one evening. It had been a hot day, and now the clouds were rolling in the sky, dark and warm. Paul combed high in the tree, above the scarlet roofs of the buildings. The wind, moaning steadily, made the whole tree rock with a subtle, thrilling motion that stirred the blood. The young man, perched insecurely in the slender branches, rocked till he felt slightly drunk, reached down the boughs, where the scarlet beady cherries hung thick underneath, and tore off handful after handful of the sleek, cool-fleshed fruit. Cherries touched his ears and his neck as he stretched forward, their chill finger-tips sending a flash down his blood. All shades of red, from a golden vermilion to a rich crimson, glowed and met his eyes under a darkness of leaves.
The sun, going down, suddenly caught the broken clouds. Immense piles of gold flared out in the south-east, heaped in soft, glowing yellow right up the sky. The world, till now dusk and grey, reflected the gold glow, astonished. Everywhere the trees, and the grass, and the far-off water, seemed roused from the twilight and shining.
Miriam came out wondering.
"Oh!" Paul heard her mellow voice call, "isn't it wonderful?"
He looked down. There was a faint gold glimmer on her face, that looked very soft, turned up to him.
"How high you are!" she said.
Beside her, on the rhubarb leaves, were four dead birds, thieves that had been shot. Paul saw some cherry stones hanging quite bleached, like skeletons, picked clear of flesh. He looked down again to Miriam.
"Clouds are on fire," he said.
"Beautiful!" she cried.
She seemed so small, so soft, so tender, down there. He threw a handful of cherries at her. She was startled and frightened. He laughed with a low, chuckling sound, and pelted her. She ran for shelter, picking up some cherries. Two fine red pairs she hung over her ears; then she looked up again.
"Haven't you got enough?" she asked.
"Nearly. It is like being on a ship up here."
"And how long will you stay?"
"While the sunset lasts."
She went to the fence and sat there, watching the gold clouds fall to pieces, and go in immense, rose-coloured ruin towards the darkness. Gold flamed to scarlet, like pain in its intense brightness. Then the scarlet sank to rose, and rose to crimson, and quickly the passion went out of the sky. All the world was dark grey. Paul scrambled quickly down with his basket, tearing his shirt-sleeve as he did so.
"They are lovely," said Miriam, fingering the cherries.
"I've torn my sleeve," he answered.
She took the three-cornered rip, saying:
"I shall have to mend it." It was near the shoulder. She put her fingers through the tear. "How warm!" she said.
He laughed. There was a new, strange note in his voice, one that made her pant.
"Shall we stay out?" he said.
"Won't it rain?" she asked.
"No, let us walk a little way."
They went down the fields and into the thick plantation of trees and pines.
"Shall we go in among the trees?" he asked.
"Do you want to?"
It was very dark among the firs, and the sharp spines pricked her face. She was afraid. Paul was silent and strange.
"I like the darkness," he said. "I wish it were thicker—good, thick darkness."
He seemed to be almost unaware of her as a person: she was only to him then a woman. She was afraid.
He stood against a pine-tree trunk and took her in his arms. She relinquished herself to him, but it was a sacrifice in which she felt something of horror. This thick-voiced, oblivious man was a stranger to her.
Later it began to rain. The pine-trees smelled very strong. Paul lay with his head on the ground, on the dead pine needles, listening to the sharp hiss of the rain—a steady, keen noise. His heart was down, very heavy. Now he realised that she had not been with him all the time, that her soul had stood apart, in a sort of horror. He was physically at rest, but no more. Very dreary at heart, very sad, and very tender, his fingers wandered over her face pitifully. Now again she loved him deeply. He was tender and beautiful.
"The rain!" he said.
"Yes—is it coming on you?"
She put her hands over him, on his hair, on his shoulders, to feel if the raindrops fell on him. She loved him dearly. He, as he lay with his face on the dead pine-leaves, felt extraordinarily quiet. He did not mind if the raindrops came on him: he would have lain and got wet through: he felt as if nothing mattered, as if his living were smeared away into the beyond, near and quite lovable. This strange, gentle reaching-out to death was new to him.
"We must go," said Miriam.
"Yes," he answered, but did not move.
To him now, life seemed a shadow, day a white shadow; night, and death, and stillness, and inaction, this seemed like BEING. To be alive, to be urgent and insistent—that was NOT-TO-BE. The highest of all was to melt out into the darkness and sway there, identified with the great Being.
"The rain is coming in on us," said Miriam.
He rose, and assisted her.
"It is a pity," he said.
"To have to go. I feel so still."
"Still!" she repeated.
"Stiller than I have ever been in my life."
He was walking with his hand in hers. She pressed his fingers, feeling a slight fear. Now he seemed beyond her; she had a fear lest she should lose him.
"The fir-trees are like presences on the darkness: each one only a presence."
She was afraid, and said nothing.
"A sort of hush: the whole night wondering and asleep: I suppose that's what we do in death—sleep in wonder."
She had been afraid before of the brute in him: now of the mystic. She trod beside him in silence. The rain fell with a heavy "Hush!" on the trees. At last they gained the cartshed.
"Let us stay here awhile," he said.
There was a sound of rain everywhere, smothering everything.
"I feel so strange and still," he said; "along with everything."
"Ay," she answered patiently.
He seemed again unaware of her, though he held her hand close.
"To be rid of our individuality, which is our will, which is our effort—to live effortless, a kind of curious sleep—that is very beautiful, I think; that is our after-life—our immortality."
"Yes—and very beautiful to have."
"You don't usually say that."
In a while they went indoors. Everybody looked at them curiously. He still kept the quiet, heavy look in his eyes, the stillness in his voice. Instinctively, they all left him alone.
About this time Miriam's grandmother, who lived in a tiny cottage in Woodlinton, fell ill, and the girl was sent to keep house. It was a beautiful little place. The cottage had a big garden in front, with red brick walls, against which the plum trees were nailed. At the back another garden was separated from the fields by a tall old hedge. It was very pretty. Miriam had not much to do, so she found time for her beloved reading, and for writing little introspective pieces which interested her.
At the holiday-time her grandmother, being better, was driven to Derby to stay with her daughter for a day or two. She was a crotchety old lady, and might return the second day or the third; so Miriam stayed alone in the cottage, which also pleased her.
Paul used often to cycle over, and they had as a rule peaceful and happy times. He did not embarrass her much; but then on the Monday of the holiday he was to spend a whole day with her.
It was perfect weather. He left his mother, telling her where he was going. She would be alone all the day. It cast a shadow over him; but he had three days that were all his own, when he was going to do as he liked. It was sweet to rush through the morning lanes on his bicycle.
He got to the cottage at about eleven o'clock. Miriam was busy preparing dinner. She looked so perfectly in keeping with the little kitchen, ruddy and busy. He kissed her and sat down to watch. The room was small and cosy. The sofa was covered all over with a sort of linen in squares of red and pale blue, old, much washed, but pretty. There was a stuffed owl in a case over a corner cupboard. The sunlight came through the leaves of the scented geraniums in the window. She was cooking a chicken in his honour. It was their cottage for the day, and they were man and wife. He beat the eggs for her and peeled the potatoes. He thought she gave a feeling of home almost like his mother; and no one could look more beautiful, with her tumbled curls, when she was flushed from the fire.
The dinner was a great success. Like a young husband, he carved. They talked all the time with unflagging zest. Then he wiped the dishes she had washed, and they went out down the fields. There was a bright little brook that ran into a bog at the foot of a very steep bank. Here they wandered, picking still a few marsh-marigolds and many big blue forget-me-nots. Then she sat on the bank with her hands full of flowers, mostly golden water-blobs. As she put her face down into the marigolds, it was all overcast with a yellow shine.
"Your face is bright," he said, "like a transfiguration."
She looked at him, questioning. He laughed pleadingly to her, laying his hands on hers. Then he kissed her fingers, then her face.
The world was all steeped in sunshine, and quite still, yet not asleep, but quivering with a kind of expectancy.
"I have never seen anything more beautiful than this," he said. He held her hand fast all the time.
"And the water singing to itself as it runs—do you love it?" She looked at him full of love. His eyes were very dark, very bright.
"Don't you think it's a great day?" he asked.
She murmured her assent. She WAS happy, and he saw it.
"And our day—just between us," he said.
They lingered a little while. Then they stood up upon the sweet thyme, and he looked down at her simply.
"Will you come?" he asked.
They went back to the house, hand in hand, in silence. The chickens came scampering down the path to her. He locked the door, and they had the little house to themselves.
He never forgot seeing her as she lay on the bed, when he was unfastening his collar. First he saw only her beauty, and was blind with it. She had the most beautiful body he had ever imagined. He stood unable to move or speak, looking at her, his face half-smiling with wonder. And then he wanted her, but as he went forward to her, her hands lifted in a little pleading movement, and he looked at her face, and stopped. Her big brown eyes were watching him, still and resigned and loving; she lay as if she had given herself up to sacrifice: there was her body for him; but the look at the back of her eyes, like a creature awaiting immolation, arrested him, and all his blood fell back.
"You are sure you want me?" he asked, as if a cold shadow had come over him.
"Yes, quite sure."
She was very quiet, very calm. She only realised that she was doing something for him. He could hardly bear it. She lay to be sacrificed for him because she loved him so much. And he had to sacrifice her. For a second, he wished he were sexless or dead. Then he shut his eyes again to her, and his blood beat back again.
And afterwards he loved her—loved her to the last fibre of his being. He loved her. But he wanted, somehow, to cry. There was something he could not bear for her sake. He stayed with her till quite late at night. As he rode home he felt that he was finally initiated. He was a youth no longer. But why had he the dull pain in his soul? Why did the thought of death, the after-life, seem so sweet and consoling?
He spent the week with Miriam, and wore her out with his passion before it was gone. He had always, almost wilfully, to put her out of count, and act from the brute strength of his own feelings. And he could not do it often, and there remained afterwards always the sense of failure and of death. If he were really with her, he had to put aside himself and his desire. If he would have her, he had to put her aside.
"When I come to you," he asked her, his eyes dark with pain and shame, "you don't really want me, do you?"
"Ah, yes!" she replied quickly.
He looked at her.
"Nay," he said.
She began to tremble.
"You see," she said, taking his face and shutting it out against her shoulder—"you see—as we are—how can I get used to you? It would come all right if we were married."
He lifted her head, and looked at her.
"You mean, now, it is always too much shock?"
"You are always clenched against me."
She was trembling with agitation.
"You see," she said, "I'm not used to the thought—"
"You are lately," he said.
"But all my life. Mother said to me: 'There is one thing in marriage that is always dreadful, but you have to bear it.' And I believed it."
"And still believe it," he said.
"No!" she cried hastily. "I believe, as you do, that loving, even in THAT way, is the high-water mark of living."
"That doesn't alter the fact that you never want it."
"No," she said, taking his head in her arms and rocking in despair. "Don't say so! You don't understand." She rocked with pain. "Don't I want your children?"
"But not me."
"How can you say so? But we must be married to have children—"
"Shall we be married, then? I want you to have my children."
He kissed her hand reverently. She pondered sadly, watching him.
"We are too young," she said at length.
"Twenty-four and twenty-three—"
"Not yet," she pleaded, as she rocked herself in distress.
"When you will," he said.
She bowed her head gravely. The tone of hopelessness in which he said these things grieved her deeply. It had always been a failure between them. Tacitly, she acquiesced in what he felt.
And after a week of love he said to his mother suddenly one Sunday night, just as they were going to bed:
"I shan't go so much to Miriam's, mother."
She was surprised, but she would not ask him anything.
"You please yourself," she said.
So he went to bed. But there was a new quietness about him which she had wondered at. She almost guessed. She would leave him alone, however. Precipitation might spoil things. She watched him in his loneliness, wondering where he would end. He was sick, and much too quiet for him. There was a perpetual little knitting of his brows, such as she had seen when he was a small baby, and which had been gone for many years. Now it was the same again. And she could do nothing for him. He had to go on alone, make his own way.
He continued faithful to Miriam. For one day he had loved her utterly. But it never came again. The sense of failure grew stronger. At first it was only a sadness. Then he began to feel he could not go on. He wanted to run, to go abroad, anything. Gradually he ceased to ask her to have him. Instead of drawing them together, it put them apart. And then he realised, consciously, that it was no good. It was useless trying: it would never be a success between them.
For some months he had seen very little of Clara. They had occasionally walked out for half an hour at dinner-time. But he always reserved himself for Miriam. With Clara, however, his brow cleared, and he was gay again. She treated him indulgently, as if he were a child. He thought he did not mind. But deep below the surface it piqued him.
Sometimes Miriam said:
"What about Clara? I hear nothing of her lately."
"I walked with her about twenty minutes yesterday," he replied.
"And what did she talk about?"
"I don't know. I suppose I did all the jawing—I usually do. I think I was telling her about the strike, and how the women took it."
So he gave the account of himself.
But insidiously, without his knowing it, the warmth he felt for Clara drew him away from Miriam, for whom he felt responsible, and to whom he felt he belonged. He thought he was being quite faithful to her. It was not easy to estimate exactly the strength and warmth of one's feelings for a woman till they have run away with one.
He began to give more time to his men friends. There was Jessop, at the art school; Swain, who was chemistry demonstrator at the university; Newton, who was a teacher; besides Edgar and Miriam's younger brothers. Pleading work, he sketched and studied with Jessop. He called in the university for Swain, and the two went "down town" together. Having come home in the train with Newton, he called and had a game of billiards with him in the Moon and Stars. If he gave to Miriam the excuse of his men friends, he felt quite justified. His mother began to be relieved. He always told her where he had been.
During the summer Clara wore sometimes a dress of soft cotton stuff with loose sleeves. When she lifted her hands, her sleeves fell back, and her beautiful strong arms shone out.
"Half a minute," he cried. "Hold your arm still."
He made sketches of her hand and arm, and the drawings contained some of the fascination the real thing had for him. Miriam, who always went scrupulously through his books and papers, saw the drawings.
"I think Clara has such beautiful arms," he said.
"Yes! When did you draw them?"
"On Tuesday, in the work-room. You know, I've got a corner where I can work. Often I can do every single thing they need in the department, before dinner. Then I work for myself in the afternoon, and just see to things at night."
"Yes," she said, turning the leaves of his sketch-book.
Frequently he hated Miriam. He hated her as she bent forward and pored over his things. He hated her way of patiently casting him up, as if he were an endless psychological account. When he was with her, he hated her for having got him, and yet not got him, and he tortured her. She took all and gave nothing, he said. At least, she gave no living warmth. She was never alive, and giving off life. Looking for her was like looking for something which did not exist. She was only his conscience, not his mate. He hated her violently, and was more cruel to her. They dragged on till the next summer. He saw more and more of Clara.
At last he spoke. He had been sitting working at home one evening. There was between him and his mother a peculiar condition of people frankly finding fault with each other. Mrs. Morel was strong on her feet again. He was not going to stick to Miriam. Very well; then she would stand aloof till he said something. It had been coming a long time, this bursting of the storm in him, when he would come back to her. This evening there was between them a peculiar condition of suspense. He worked feverishly and mechanically, so that he could escape from himself. It grew late. Through the open door, stealthily, came the scent of madonna lilies, almost as if it were prowling abroad. Suddenly he got up and went out of doors.
The beauty of the night made him want to shout. A half-moon, dusky gold, was sinking behind the black sycamore at the end of the garden, making the sky dull purple with its glow. Nearer, a dim white fence of lilies went across the garden, and the air all round seemed to stir with scent, as if it were alive. He went across the bed of pinks, whose keen perfume came sharply across the rocking, heavy scent of the lilies, and stood alongside the white barrier of flowers. They flagged all loose, as if they were panting. The scent made him drunk. He went down to the field to watch the moon sink under.
A corncrake in the hay-close called insistently. The moon slid quite quickly downwards, growing more flushed. Behind him the great flowers leaned as if they were calling. And then, like a shock, he caught another perfume, something raw and coarse. Hunting round, he found the purple iris, touched their fleshy throats and their dark, grasping hands. At any rate, he had found something. They stood stiff in the darkness. Their scent was brutal. The moon was melting down upon the crest of the hill. It was gone; all was dark. The corncrake called still.
Breaking off a pink, he suddenly went indoors.
"Come, my boy," said his mother. "I'm sure it's time you went to bed."
He stood with the pink against his lips.
"I shall break off with Miriam, mother," he answered calmly.
She looked up at him over her spectacles. He was staring back at her, unswerving. She met his eyes for a moment, then took off her glasses. He was white. The male was up in him, dominant. She did not want to see him too clearly.
"But I thought—" she began.
"Well," he answered, "I don't love her. I don't want to marry her—so I shall have done."
"But," exclaimed his mother, amazed, "I thought lately you had made up your mind to have her, and so I said nothing."
"I had—I wanted to—but now I don't want. It's no good. I shall break off on Sunday. I ought to, oughtn't I?"
"You know best. You know I said so long ago."
"I can't help that now. I shall break off on Sunday."
"Well," said his mother, "I think it will be best. But lately I decided you had made up your mind to have her, so I said nothing, and should have said nothing. But I say as I have always said, I DON'T think she is suited to you."
"On Sunday I break off," he said, smelling the pink. He put the flower in his mouth. Unthinking, he bared his teeth, closed them on the blossom slowly, and had a mouthful of petals. These he spat into the fire, kissed his mother, and went to bed.
On Sunday he went up to the farm in the early afternoon. He had written Miriam that they would walk over the fields to Hucknall. His mother was very tender with him. He said nothing. But she saw the effort it was costing. The peculiar set look on his face stilled her.
"Never mind, my son," she said. "You will be so much better when it is all over."
Paul glanced swiftly at his mother in surprise and resentment. He did not want sympathy.
Miriam met him at the lane-end. She was wearing a new dress of figured muslin that had short sleeves. Those short sleeves, and Miriam's brown-skinned arms beneath them—such pitiful, resigned arms—gave him so much pain that they helped to make him cruel. She had made herself look so beautiful and fresh for him. She seemed to blossom for him alone. Every time he looked at her—a mature young woman now, and beautiful in her new dress—it hurt so much that his heart seemed almost to be bursting with the restraint he put on it. But he had decided, and it was irrevocable.
On the hills they sat down, and he lay with his head in her lap, whilst she fingered his hair. She knew that "he was not there," as she put it. Often, when she had him with her, she looked for him, and could not find him. But this afternoon she was not prepared.
It was nearly five o'clock when he told her. They were sitting on the bank of a stream, where the lip of turf hung over a hollow bank of yellow earth, and he was hacking away with a stick, as he did when he was perturbed and cruel.
"I have been thinking," he said, "we ought to break off."
"Why?" she cried in surprise.
"Because it's no good going on."
"Why is it no good?"
"It isn't. I don't want to marry. I don't want ever to marry. And if we're not going to marry, it's no good going on."
"But why do you say this now?"
"Because I've made up my mind."
"And what about these last months, and the things you told me then?"
"I can't help it! I don't want to go on."
"You don't want any more of me?"
"I want us to break off—you be free of me, I free of you."
"And what about these last months?"
"I don't know. I've not told you anything but what I thought was true."
"Then why are you different now?"
"I'm not—I'm the same—only I know it's no good going on."
"You haven't told me why it's no good."
"Because I don't want to go on—and I don't want to marry."
"How many times have you offered to marry me, and I wouldn't?"
"I know; but I want us to break off."
There was silence for a moment or two, while he dug viciously at the earth. She bent her head, pondering. He was an unreasonable child. He was like an infant which, when it has drunk its fill, throws away and smashes the cup. She looked at him, feeling she could get hold of him and WRING some consistency out of him. But she was helpless. Then she cried:
"I have said you were only fourteen—you are only FOUR!"
He still dug at the earth viciously. He heard.
"You are a child of four," she repeated in her anger.
He did not answer, but said in his heart: "All right; if I'm a child of four, what do you want me for? I don't want another mother." But he said nothing to her, and there was silence.
"And have you told your people?" she asked.
"I have told my mother."
There was another long interval of silence.
"Then what do you WANT?" she asked.
"Why, I want us to separate. We have lived on each other all these years; now let us stop. I will go my own way without you, and you will go your way without me. You will have an independent life of your own then."
There was in it some truth that, in spite of her bitterness, she could not help registering. She knew she felt in a sort of bondage to him, which she hated because she could not control it. She hated her love for him from the moment it grew too strong for her. And, deep down, she had hated him because she loved him and he dominated her. She had resisted his domination. She had fought to keep herself free of him in the last issue. And she was free of him, even more than he of her.
"And," he continued, "we shall always be more or less each other's work. You have done a lot for me, I for you. Now let us start and live by ourselves."
"What do you want to do?" she asked.
"Nothing—only to be free," he answered.
She, however, knew in her heart that Clara's influence was over him to liberate him. But she said nothing.
"And what have I to tell my mother?" she asked.
"I told my mother," he answered, "that I was breaking off—clean and altogether."
"I shall not tell them at home," she said.
Frowning, "You please yourself," he said.
He knew he had landed her in a nasty hole, and was leaving her in the lurch. It angered him.
"Tell them you wouldn't and won't marry me, and have broken off," he said. "It's true enough."
She bit her finger moodily. She thought over their whole affair. She had known it would come to this; she had seen it all along. It chimed with her bitter expectation.
"Always—it has always been so!" she cried. "It has been one long battle between us—you fighting away from me."
It came from her unawares, like a flash of lightning. The man's heart stood still. Was this how she saw it?
"But we've had SOME perfect hours, SOME perfect times, when we were together!" he pleaded.
"Never!" she cried; "never! It has always been you fighting me off."
"Not always—not at first!" he pleaded.
"Always, from the very beginning—always the same!"
She had finished, but she had done enough. He sat aghast. He had wanted to say: "It has been good, but it is at an end." And she—she whose love he had believed in when he had despised himself—denied that their love had ever been love. "He had always fought away from her?" Then it had been monstrous. There had never been anything really between them; all the time he had been imagining something where there was nothing. And she had known. She had known so much, and had told him so little. She had known all the time. All the time this was at the bottom of her!
He sat silent in bitterness. At last the whole affair appeared in a cynical aspect to him. She had really played with him, not he with her. She had hidden all her condemnation from him, had flattered him, and despised him. She despised him now. He grew intellectual and cruel.
"You ought to marry a man who worships you," he said; "then you could do as you liked with him. Plenty of men will worship you, if you get on the private side of their natures. You ought to marry one such. They would never fight you off."
"Thank you!" she said. "But don't advise me to marry someone else any more. You've done it before."
"Very well," he said; "I will say no more."
He sat still, feeling as if he had had a blow, instead of giving one. Their eight years of friendship and love, THE eight years of his life, were nullified.
"When did you think of this?" she asked.
"I thought definitely on Thursday night."
"I knew it was coming," she said.
That pleased him bitterly. "Oh, very well! If she knew then it doesn't come as a surprise to her," he thought.
"And have you said anything to Clara?" she asked.
"No; but I shall tell her now."
There was a silence.
"Do you remember the things you said this time last year, in my grandmother's house—nay last month even?"
"Yes," he said; "I do! And I meant them! I can't help that it's failed."
"It has failed because you want something else."
"It would have failed whether or not. YOU never believed in me."
She laughed strangely.
He sat in silence. He was full of a feeling that she had deceived him. She had despised him when he thought she worshipped him. She had let him say wrong things, and had not contradicted him. She had let him fight alone. But it stuck in his throat that she had despised him whilst he thought she worshipped him. She should have told him when she found fault with him. She had not played fair. He hated her. All these years she had treated him as if he were a hero, and thought of him secretly as an infant, a foolish child. Then why had she left the foolish child to his folly? His heart was hard against her.
She sat full of bitterness. She had known—oh, well she had known! All the time he was away from her she had summed him up, seen his littleness, his meanness, and his folly. Even she had guarded her soul against him. She was not overthrown, not prostrated, not even much hurt. She had known. Only why, as he sat there, had he still this strange dominance over her? His very movements fascinated her as if she were hypnotised by him. Yet he was despicable, false, inconsistent, and mean. Why this bondage for her? Why was it the movement of his arm stirred her as nothing else in the world could? Why was she fastened to him? Why, even now, if he looked at her and commanded her, would she have to obey? She would obey him in his trifling commands. But once he was obeyed, then she had him in her power, she knew, to lead him where she would. She was sure of herself. Only, this new influence! Ah, he was not a man! He was a baby that cries for the newest toy. And all the attachment of his soul would not keep him. Very well, he would have to go. But he would come back when he had tired of his new sensation.
He hacked at the earth till she was fretted to death. She rose. He sat flinging lumps of earth in the stream.
"We will go and have tea here?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered.
They chattered over irrelevant subjects during tea. He held forth on the love of ornament—the cottage parlour moved him thereto—and its connection with aesthetics. She was cold and quiet. As they walked home, she asked:
"And we shall not see each other?"
"No—or rarely," he answered.
"Nor write?" she asked, almost sarcastically.
"As you will," he answered. "We're not strangers—never should be, whatever happened. I will write to you now and again. You please yourself."
"I see!" she answered cuttingly.
But he was at that stage at which nothing else hurts. He had made a great cleavage in his life. He had had a great shock when she had told him their love had been always a conflict. Nothing more mattered. If it never had been much, there was no need to make a fuss that it was ended.
He left her at the lane-end. As she went home, solitary, in her new frock, having her people to face at the other end, he stood still with shame and pain in the highroad, thinking of the suffering he caused her.
In the reaction towards restoring his self-esteem, he went into the Willow Tree for a drink. There were four girls who had been out for the day, drinking a modest glass of port. They had some chocolates on the table. Paul sat near with his whisky. He noticed the girls whispering and nudging. Presently one, a bonny dark hussy, leaned to him and said:
"Have a chocolate?"
The others laughed loudly at her impudence.
"All right," said Paul. "Give me a hard one—nut. I don't like creams."
"Here you are, then," said the girl; "here's an almond for you."
She held the sweet between her fingers. He opened his mouth. She popped it in, and blushed.
"You ARE nice!" he said.
"Well," she answered, "we thought you looked overcast, and they dared me offer you a chocolate."
"I don't mind if I have another—another sort," he said.
And presently they were all laughing together.
It was nine o'clock when he got home, falling dark. He entered the house in silence. His mother, who had been waiting, rose anxiously.
"I told her," he said.
"I'm glad," replied the mother, with great relief.
He hung up his cap wearily.
"I said we'd have done altogether," he said.
"That's right, my son," said the mother. "It's hard for her now, but best in the long run. I know. You weren't suited for her."
He laughed shakily as he sat down.
"I've had such a lark with some girls in a pub," he said.
His mother looked at him. He had forgotten Miriam now. He told her about the girls in the Willow Tree. Mrs. Morel looked at him. It seemed unreal, his gaiety. At the back of it was too much horror and misery.
"Now have some supper," she said very gently.
Afterwards he said wistfully:
"She never thought she'd have me, mother, not from the first, and so she's not disappointed."
"I'm afraid," said his mother, "she doesn't give up hopes of you yet."
"No," he said, "perhaps not."
"You'll find it's better to have done," she said.
"I don't know," he said desperately.
"Well, leave her alone," replied his mother. So he left her, and she was alone. Very few people cared for her, and she for very few people. She remained alone with herself, waiting.