Death in the family
ARTHUR MOREL was growing up. He was a quick, careless, impulsive boy, a good deal like his father. He hated study, made a great moan if he had to work, and escaped as soon as possible to his sport again.
In appearance he remained the flower of the family, being well made, graceful, and full of life. His dark brown hair and fresh colouring, and his exquisite dark blue eyes shaded with long lashes, together with his generous manner and fiery temper, made him a favourite. But as he grew older his temper became uncertain. He flew into rages over nothing, seemed unbearably raw and irritable.
His mother, whom he loved, wearied of him sometimes. He thought only of himself. When he wanted amusement, all that stood in his way he hated, even if it were she. When he was in trouble he moaned to her ceaselessly.
"Goodness, boy!" she said, when he groaned about a master who, he said, hated him, "if you don't like it, alter it, and if you can't alter it, put up with it."
And his father, whom he had loved and who had worshipped him, he came to detest. As he grew older Morel fell into a slow ruin. His body, which had been beautiful in movement and in being, shrank, did not seem to ripen with the years, but to get mean and rather despicable. There came over him a look of meanness and of paltriness. And when the mean-looking elderly man bullied or ordered the boy about, Arthur was furious. Moreover, Morel's manners got worse and worse, his habits somewhat disgusting. When the children were growing up and in the crucial stage of adolescence, the father was like some ugly irritant to their souls. His manners in the house were the same as he used among the colliers down pit.
"Dirty nuisance!" Arthur would cry, jumping up and going straight out of the house when his father disgusted him. And Morel persisted the more because his children hated it. He seemed to take a kind of satisfaction in disgusting them, and driving them nearly mad, while they were so irritably sensitive at the age of fourteen or fifteen. So that Arthur, who was growing up when his father was degenerate and elderly, hated him worst of all.
Then, sometimes, the father would seem to feel the contemptuous hatred of his children.
"There's not a man tries harder for his family!" he would shout. "He does his best for them, and then gets treated like a dog. But I'm not going to stand it, I tell you!"
But for the threat and the fact that he did not try so hard as he imagined, they would have felt sorry. As it was, the battle now went on nearly all between father and children, he persisting in his dirty and disgusting ways, just to assert his independence. They loathed him.
Arthur was so inflamed and irritable at last, that when he won a scholarship for the Grammar School in Nottingham, his mother decided to let him live in town, with one of her sisters, and only come home at week-ends.
Annie was still a junior teacher in the Board-school, earning about four shillings a week. But soon she would have fifteen shillings, since she had passed her examination, and there would be financial peace in the house.
Mrs. Morel clung now to Paul. He was quiet and not brilliant. But still he stuck to his painting, and still he stuck to his mother. Everything he did was for her. She waited for his coming home in the evening, and then she unburdened herself of all she had pondered, or of all that had occurred to her during the day. He sat and listened with his earnestness. The two shared lives.
William was engaged now to his brunette, and had bought her an engagement ring that cost eight guineas. The children gasped at such a fabulous price.
"Eight guineas!" said Morel. "More fool him! If he'd gen me some on't, it 'ud ha' looked better on 'im."
"Given YOU some of it!" cried Mrs. Morel. "Why give YOU some of it!"
She remembered HE had bought no engagement ring at all, and she preferred William, who was not mean, if he were foolish. But now the young man talked only of the dances to which he went with his betrothed, and the different resplendent clothes she wore; or he told his mother with glee how they went to the theatre like great swells.
He wanted to bring the girl home. Mrs. Morel said she should come at the Christmas. This time William arrived with a lady, but with no presents. Mrs. Morel had prepared supper. Hearing footsteps, she rose and went to the door. William entered.
"Hello, mother!" He kissed her hastily, then stood aside to present a tall, handsome girl, who was wearing a costume of fine black-and-white check, and furs.
Miss Western held out her hand and showed her teeth in a small smile.
"Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Morel!" she exclaimed.
"I am afraid you will be hungry," said Mrs. Morel.
"Oh no, we had dinner in the train. Have you got my gloves, Chubby?"
William Morel, big and raw-boned, looked at her quickly.
"How should I?" he said.
"Then I've lost them. Don't be cross with me."
A frown went over his face, but he said nothing. She glanced round the kitchen. It was small and curious to her, with its glittering kissing-bunch, its evergreens behind the pictures, its wooden chairs and little deal table. At that moment Morel came in.
"Hello, my son! Tha's let on me!"
The two shook hands, and William presented the lady. She gave the same smile that showed her teeth.
"How do you do, Mr. Morel?"
Morel bowed obsequiously.
"I'm very well, and I hope so are you. You must make yourself very welcome."
"Oh, thank you," she replied, rather amused.
"You will like to go upstairs," said Mrs. Morel.
"If you don't mind; but not if it is any trouble to you."
"It is no trouble. Annie will take you. Walter, carry up this box."
"And don't be an hour dressing yourself up," said William to his betrothed.
Annie took a brass candlestick, and, too shy almost to speak, preceded the young lady to the front bedroom, which Mr. and Mrs. Morel had vacated for her. It, too, was small and cold by candlelight. The colliers' wives only lit fires in bedrooms in case of extreme illness.
"Shall I unstrap the box?" asked Annie.
"Oh, thank you very much!"
Annie played the part of maid, then went downstairs for hot water.
"I think she's rather tired, mother," said William. "It's a beastly journey, and we had such a rush."
"Is there anything I can give her?" asked Mrs. Morel.
"Oh no, she'll be all right."
But there was a chill in the atmosphere. After half an hour Miss Western came down, having put on a purplish-coloured dress, very fine for the collier's kitchen.
"I told you you'd no need to change," said William to her.
"Oh, Chubby!" Then she turned with that sweetish smile to Mrs. Morel. "Don't you think he's always grumbling, Mrs. Morel?"
"Is he?" said Mrs. Morel. "That's not very nice of him."
"It isn't, really!"
"You are cold," said the mother. "Won't you come near the fire?"
Morel jumped out of his armchair.
"Come and sit you here!" he cried. "Come and sit you here!"
"No, dad, keep your own chair. Sit on the sofa, Gyp," said William.
"No, no!" cried Morel. "This cheer's warmest. Come and sit here, Miss Wesson."
"Thank you so much," said the girl, seating herself in the collier's armchair, the place of honour. She shivered, feeling the warmth of the kitchen penetrate her.
"Fetch me a hanky, Chubby dear!" she said, putting up her mouth to him, and using the same intimate tone as if they were alone; which made the rest of the family feel as if they ought not to be present. The young lady evidently did not realise them as people: they were creatures to her for the present. William winced.
In such a household, in Streatham, Miss Western would have been a lady condescending to her inferiors. These people were to her, certainly clownish—in short, the working classes. How was she to adjust herself?
"I'll go," said Annie.
Miss Western took no notice, as if a servant had spoken. But when the girl came downstairs again with the handkerchief, she said: "Oh, thank you!" in a gracious way.
She sat and talked about the dinner on the train, which had been so poor; about London, about dances. She was really very nervous, and chattered from fear. Morel sat all the time smoking his thick twist tobacco, watching her, and listening to her glib London speech, as he puffed. Mrs. Morel, dressed up in her best black silk blouse, answered quietly and rather briefly. The three children sat round in silence and admiration. Miss Western was the princess. Everything of the best was got out for her: the best cups, the best spoons, the best table cloth, the best coffee-jug. The children thought she must find it quite grand. She felt strange, not able to realise the people, not knowing how to treat them. William joked, and was slightly uncomfortable.
At about ten o'clock he said to her:
"Aren't you tired, Gyp?"
"Rather, Chubby," she answered, at once in the intimate tones and putting her head slightly on one side.
"I'll light her the candle, mother," he said.
"Very well," replied the mother.
Miss Western stood up, held out her hand to Mrs. Morel.
"Good-night, Mrs. Morel," she said.
Paul sat at the boiler, letting the water run from the tap into a stone beer-bottle. Annie swathed the bottle in an old flannel pit-singlet, and kissed her mother good-night. She was to share the room with the lady, because the house was full.
"You wait a minute," said Mrs. Morel to Annie. And Annie sat nursing the hot-water bottle. Miss Western shook hands all round, to everybody's discomfort, and took her departure, preceded by William. In five minutes he was downstairs again. His heart was rather sore; he did not know why. He talked very little till everybody had gone to bed, but himself and his mother. Then he stood with his legs apart, in his old attitude on the hearthrug, and said hesitatingly:
"Well, my son?"
She sat in the rocking-chair, feeling somehow hurt and humiliated, for his sake.
"Do you like her?"
"Yes," came the slow answer.
"She's shy yet, mother. She's not used to it. It's different from her aunt's house, you know."
"Of course it is, my boy; and she must find it difficult."
"She does." Then he frowned swiftly. "If only she wouldn't put on her BLESSED airs!"
"It's only her first awkwardness, my boy. She'll be all right."
"That's it, mother," he replied gratefully. But his brow was gloomy. "You know, she's not like you, mother. She's not serious, and she can't think."
"She's young, my boy."
"Yes; and she's had no sort of show. Her mother died when she was a child. Since then she's lived with her aunt, whom she can't bear. And her father was a rake. She's had no love."
"No! Well, you must make up to her."
"And so—you have to forgive her a lot of things."
"WHAT do you have to forgive her, my boy?"
"I dunno. When she seems shallow, you have to remember she's never had anybody to bring her deeper side out. And she's FEARFULLY fond of me."
"Anybody can see that."
"But you know, mother—she's—she's different from us. Those sort of people, like those she lives amongst, they don't seem to have the same principles."
"You mustn't judge too hastily," said Mrs. Morel.
But he seemed uneasy within himself.
In the morning, however, he was up singing and larking round the house.
"Hello!" he called, sitting on the stairs. "Are you getting up?"
"Yes," her voice called faintly.
"Merry Christmas!" he shouted to her.
Her laugh, pretty and tinkling, was heard in the bedroom. She did not come down in half an hour.
"Was she REALLY getting up when she said she was?" he asked of Annie.
"Yes, she was," replied Annie.
He waited a while, then went to the stairs again.
"Happy New Year," he called.
"Thank you, Chubby dear!" came the laughing voice, far away.
"Buck up!" he implored.
It was nearly an hour, and still he was waiting for her. Morel, who always rose before six, looked at the clock.
"Well, it's a winder!" he exclaimed.
The family had breakfasted, all but William. He went to the foot of the stairs.
"Shall I have to send you an Easter egg up there?" he called, rather crossly. She only laughed. The family expected, after that time of preparation, something like magic. At last she came, looking very nice in a blouse and skirt.
"Have you REALLY been all this time getting ready?" he asked.
"Chubby dear! That question is not permitted, is it, Mrs. Morel?"
She played the grand lady at first. When she went with William to chapel, he in his frock-coat and silk hat, she in her furs and London-made costume, Paul and Arthur and Annie expected everybody to bow to the ground in admiration. And Morel, standing in his Sunday suit at the end of the road, watching the gallant pair go, felt he was the father of princes and princesses.
And yet she was not so grand. For a year now she had been a sort of secretary or clerk in a London office. But while she was with the Morels she queened it. She sat and let Annie or Paul wait on her as if they were her servants. She treated Mrs. Morel with a certain glibness and Morel with patronage. But after a day or so she began to change her tune.
William always wanted Paul or Annie to go along with them on their walks. It was so much more interesting. And Paul really DID admire "Gipsy" wholeheartedly; in fact, his mother scarcely forgave the boy for the adulation with which he treated the girl.
On the second day, when Lily said: "Oh, Annie, do you know where I left my muff?" William replied:
"You know it is in your bedroom. Why do you ask Annie?"
And Lily went upstairs with a cross, shut mouth. But it angered the young man that she made a servant of his sister.
On the third evening William and Lily were sitting together in the parlour by the fire in the dark. At a quarter to eleven Mrs. Morel was heard raking the fire. William came out to the kitchen, followed by his beloved.
"Is it as late as that, mother?" he said. She had been sitting alone.
"It is not LATE, my boy, but it is as late as I usually sit up."
"Won't you go to bed, then?" he asked.
"And leave you two? No, my boy, I don't believe in it."
"Can't you trust us, mother?"
"Whether I can or not, I won't do it. You can stay till eleven if you like, and I can read."
"Go to bed, Gyp," he said to his girl. "We won't keep mater waiting."
"Annie has left the candle burning, Lily," said Mrs. Morel; "I think you will see."
"Yes, thank you. Good-night, Mrs. Morel."
William kissed his sweetheart at the foot of the stairs, and she went. He returned to the kitchen.
"Can't you trust us, mother?" he repeated, rather offended.
"My boy, I tell you I don't BELIEVE in leaving two young things like you alone downstairs when everyone else is in bed."
And he was forced to take this answer. He kissed his mother good-night.
At Easter he came over alone. And then he discussed his sweetheart endlessly with his mother.
"You know, mother, when I'm away from her I don't care for her a bit. I shouldn't care if I never saw her again. But, then, when I'm with her in the evenings I am awfully fond of her."
"It's a queer sort of love to marry on," said Mrs. Morel, "if she holds you no more than that!"
"It IS funny!" he exclaimed. It worried and perplexed him. "But yet—there's so much between us now I couldn't give her up."
"You know best," said Mrs. Morel. "But if it is as you say, I wouldn't call it LOVE—at any rate, it doesn't look much like it."
"Oh, I don't know, mother. She's an orphan, and—"
They never came to any sort of conclusion. He seemed puzzled and rather fretted. She was rather reserved. All his strength and money went in keeping this girl. He could scarcely afford to take his mother to Nottingham when he came over.
Paul's wages had been raised at Christmas to ten shillings, to his great joy. He was quite happy at Jordan's, but his health suffered from the long hours and the confinement. His mother, to whom he became more and more significant, thought how to help.
His half-day holiday was on Monday afternoon. On a Monday morning in May, as the two sat alone at breakfast, she said:
"I think it will be a fine day."
He looked up in surprise. This meant something.
"You know Mr. Leivers has gone to live on a new farm. Well, he asked me last week if I wouldn't go and see Mrs. Leivers, and I promised to bring you on Monday if it's fine. Shall we go?"
"I say, little woman, how lovely!" he cried. "And we'll go this afternoon?"
Paul hurried off to the station jubilant. Down Derby Road was a cherry-tree that glistened. The old brick wall by the Statutes ground burned scarlet, spring was a very flame of green. And the steep swoop of highroad lay, in its cool morning dust, splendid with patterns of sunshine and shadow, perfectly still. The trees sloped their great green shoulders proudly; and inside the warehouse all the morning, the boy had a vision of spring outside.
When he came home at dinner-time his mother was rather excited.
"Are we going?" he asked.
"When I'm ready," she replied.
Presently he got up.
"Go and get dressed while I wash up," he said.
She did so. He washed the pots, straightened, and then took her boots. They were quite clean. Mrs. Morel was one of those naturally exquisite people who can walk in mud without dirtying their shoes. But Paul had to clean them for her. They were kid boots at eight shillings a pair. He, however, thought them the most dainty boots in the world, and he cleaned them with as much reverence as if they had been flowers.
Suddenly she appeared in the inner doorway rather shyly. She had got a new cotton blouse on. Paul jumped up and went forward.
"Oh, my stars!" he exclaimed. "What a bobby-dazzler!"
She sniffed in a little haughty way, and put her head up.
"It's not a bobby-dazzler at all!" she replied. "It's very quiet."
She walked forward, whilst he hovered round her.
"Well," she asked, quite shy, but pretending to be high and mighty, "do you like it?"
"Awfully! You ARE a fine little woman to go jaunting out with!"
He went and surveyed her from the back.
"Well," he said, "if I was walking down the street behind you, I should say: 'Doesn't THAT little person fancy herself!"'
"Well, she doesn't," replied Mrs. Morel. "She's not sure it suits her."
"Oh no! she wants to be in dirty black, looking as if she was wrapped in burnt paper. It DOES suit you, and I say you look nice."
She sniffed in her little way, pleased, but pretending to know better.
"Well," she said, "it's cost me just three shillings. You couldn't have got it ready-made for that price, could you?"
"I should think you couldn't," he replied.
"And, you know, it's good stuff."
"Awfully pretty," he said.
The blouse was white, with a little sprig of heliotrope and black.
"Too young for me, though, I'm afraid," she said.
"Too young for you!" he exclaimed in disgust. "Why don't you buy some false white hair and stick it on your head."
"I s'll soon have no need," she replied. "I'm going white fast enough."
"Well, you've no business to," he said. "What do I want with a white-haired mother?"
"I'm afraid you'll have to put up with one, my lad," she said rather strangely.
They set off in great style, she carrying the umbrella William had given her, because of the sun. Paul was considerably taller than she, though he was not big. He fancied himself.
On the fallow land the young wheat shone silkily. Minton pit waved its plumes of white steam, coughed, and rattled hoarsely.
"Now look at that!" said Mrs. Morel. Mother and son stood on the road to watch. Along the ridge of the great pit-hill crawled a little group in silhouette against the sky, a horse, a small truck, and a man. They climbed the incline against the heavens. At the end the man tipped the wagon. There was an undue rattle as the waste fell down the sheer slope of the enormous bank.
"You sit a minute, mother," he said, and she took a seat on a bank, whilst he sketched rapidly. She was silent whilst he worked, looking round at the afternoon, the red cottages shining among their greenness.
"The world is a wonderful place," she said, "and wonderfully beautiful."
"And so's the pit," he said. "Look how it heaps together, like something alive almost—a big creature that you don't know."
"Yes," she said. "Perhaps!"
"And all the trucks standing waiting, like a string of beasts to be fed," he said.
"And very thankful I am they ARE standing," she said, "for that means they'll turn middling time this week."
"But I like the feel of MEN on things, while they're alive. There's a feel of men about trucks, because they've been handled with men's hands, all of them."
"Yes," said Mrs. Morel.
They went along under the trees of the highroad. He was constantly informing her, but she was interested. They passed the end of Nethermere, that was tossing its sunshine like petals lightly in its lap. Then they turned on a private road, and in some trepidation approached a big farm. A dog barked furiously. A woman came out to see.
"Is this the way to Willey Farm?" Mrs. Morel asked.
Paul hung behind in terror of being sent back. But the woman was amiable, and directed them. The mother and son went through the wheat and oats, over a little bridge into a wild meadow. Peewits, with their white breasts glistening, wheeled and screamed about them. The lake was still and blue. High overhead a heron floated. Opposite, the wood heaped on the hill, green and still.
"It's a wild road, mother," said Paul. "Just like Canada."
"Isn't it beautiful!" said Mrs. Morel, looking round.
"See that heron—see—see her legs?"
He directed his mother, what she must see and what not. And she was quite content.
"But now," she said, "which way? He told me through the wood."
The wood, fenced and dark, lay on their left.
"I can feel a bit of a path this road," said Paul. "You've got town feet, somehow or other, you have."
They found a little gate, and soon were in a broad green alley of the wood, with a new thicket of fir and pine on one hand, an old oak glade dipping down on the other. And among the oaks the bluebells stood in pools of azure, under the new green hazels, upon a pale fawn floor of oak-leaves. He found flowers for her.
"Here's a bit of new-mown hay," he said; then, again, he brought her forget-me-nots. And, again, his heart hurt with love, seeing her hand, used with work, holding the little bunch of flowers he gave her. She was perfectly happy.
But at the end of the riding was a fence to climb. Paul was over in a second.
"Come," he said, "let me help you."
"No, go away. I will do it in my own way."
He stood below with his hands up ready to help her. She climbed cautiously.
"What a way to climb!" he exclaimed scornfully, when she was safely to earth again.
"Hateful stiles!" she cried.
"Duffer of a little woman," he replied, "who can't get over 'em."
In front, along the edge of the wood, was a cluster of low red farm buildings. The two hastened forward. Flush with the wood was the apple orchard, where blossom was falling on the grindstone. The pond was deep under a hedge and overhanging oak trees. Some cows stood in the shade. The farm and buildings, three sides of a quadrangle, embraced the sunshine towards the wood. It was very still.
Mother and son went into the small railed garden, where was a scent of red gillivers. By the open door were some floury loaves, put out to cool. A hen was just coming to peck them. Then, in the doorway suddenly appeared a girl in a dirty apron. She was about fourteen years old, had a rosy dark face, a bunch of short black curls, very fine and free, and dark eyes; shy, questioning, a little resentful of the strangers, she disappeared. In a minute another figure appeared, a small, frail woman, rosy, with great dark brown eyes.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, smiling with a little glow, "you've come, then. I AM glad to see you." Her voice was intimate and rather sad.
The two women shook hands.
"Now are you sure we're not a bother to you?" said Mrs. Morel. "I know what a farming life is."
"Oh no! We're only too thankful to see a new face, it's so lost up here."
"I suppose so," said Mrs. Morel.
They were taken through into the parlour—a long, low room, with a great bunch of guelder-roses in the fireplace. There the women talked, whilst Paul went out to survey the land. He was in the garden smelling the gillivers and looking at the plants, when the girl came out quickly to the heap of coal which stood by the fence.
"I suppose these are cabbage-roses?" he said to her, pointing to the bushes along the fence.
She looked at him with startled, big brown eyes.
"I suppose they are cabbage-roses when they come out?" he said.
"I don't know," she faltered. "They're white with pink middles."
"Then they're maiden-blush."
Miriam flushed. She had a beautiful warm colouring.
"I don't know," she said.
"You don't have MUCH in your garden," he said.
"This is our first year here," she answered, in a distant, rather superior way, drawing back and going indoors. He did not notice, but went his round of exploration. Presently his mother came out, and they went through the buildings. Paul was hugely delighted.
"And I suppose you have the fowls and calves and pigs to look after?" said Mrs. Morel to Mrs. Leivers.
"No," replied the little woman. "I can't find time to look after cattle, and I'm not used to it. It's as much as I can do to keep going in the house."
"Well, I suppose it is," said Mrs. Morel.
Presently the girl came out.
"Tea is ready, mother," she said in a musical, quiet voice.
"Oh, thank you, Miriam, then we'll come," replied her mother, almost ingratiatingly. "Would you CARE to have tea now, Mrs. Morel?"
"Of course," said Mrs. Morel. "Whenever it's ready."
Paul and his mother and Mrs. Leivers had tea together. Then they went out into the wood that was flooded with bluebells, while fumy forget-me-nots were in the paths. The mother and son were in ecstasy together.
When they got back to the house, Mr. Leivers and Edgar, the eldest son, were in the kitchen. Edgar was about eighteen. Then Geoffrey and Maurice, big lads of twelve and thirteen, were in from school. Mr. Leivers was a good-looking man in the prime of life, with a golden-brown moustache, and blue eyes screwed up against the weather.
The boys were condescending, but Paul scarcely observed it. They went round for eggs, scrambling into all sorts of places. As they were feeding the fowls Miriam came out. The boys took no notice of her. One hen, with her yellow chickens, was in a coop. Maurice took his hand full of corn and let the hen peck from it.
"Durst you do it?" he asked of Paul.
"Let's see," said Paul.
He had a small hand, warm, and rather capable-looking. Miriam watched. He held the corn to the hen. The bird eyed it with her hard, bright eye, and suddenly made a peck into his hand. He started, and laughed. "Rap, rap, rap!" went the bird's beak in his palm. He laughed again, and the other boys joined.
"She knocks you, and nips you, but she never hurts," said Paul, when the last corn had gone. "Now, Miriam," said Maurice, "you come an 'ave a go."
"No," she cried, shrinking back.
"Ha! baby. The mardy-kid!" said her brothers.
"It doesn't hurt a bit," said Paul. "It only just nips rather nicely."
"No," she still cried, shaking her black curls and shrinking.
"She dursn't," said Geoffrey. "She niver durst do anything except recite poitry."
"Dursn't jump off a gate, dursn't tweedle, dursn't go on a slide, dursn't stop a girl hittin' her. She can do nowt but go about thinkin' herself somebody. 'The Lady of the Lake.' Yah!" cried Maurice.
Miriam was crimson with shame and misery.
"I dare do more than you," she cried. "You're never anything but cowards and bullies."
"Oh, cowards and bullies!" they repeated mincingly, mocking her speech.
"Not such a clown shall anger me,
A boor is answered silently,"
he quoted against her, shouting with laughter.
She went indoors. Paul went with the boys into the orchard, where they had rigged up a parallel bar. They did feats of strength. He was more agile than strong, but it served. He fingered a piece of apple-blossom that hung low on a swinging bough.
"I wouldn't get the apple-blossom," said Edgar, the eldest brother. "There'll be no apples next year."
"I wasn't going to get it," replied Paul, going away.
The boys felt hostile to him; they were more interested in their own pursuits. He wandered back to the house to look for his mother. As he went round the back, he saw Miriam kneeling in front of the hen-coop, some maize in her hand, biting her lip, and crouching in an intense attitude. The hen was eyeing her wickedly. Very gingerly she put forward her hand. The hen bobbed for her. She drew back quickly with a cry, half of fear, half of chagrin.
"It won't hurt you," said Paul.
She flushed crimson and started up.
"I only wanted to try," she said in a low voice.
"See, it doesn't hurt," he said, and, putting only two corns in his palm, he let the hen peck, peck, peck at his bare hand. "It only makes you laugh," he said.
She put her hand forward and dragged it away, tried again, and started back with a cry. He frowned.
"Why, I'd let her take corn from my face," said Paul, "only she bumps a bit. She's ever so neat. If she wasn't, look how much ground she'd peck up every day."
He waited grimly, and watched. At last Miriam let the bird peck from her hand. She gave a little cry—fear, and pain because of fear—rather pathetic. But she had done it, and she did it again.
"There, you see," said the boy. "It doesn't hurt, does it?"
She looked at him with dilated dark eyes.
"No," she laughed, trembling.
Then she rose and went indoors. She seemed to be in some way resentful of the boy.
"He thinks I'm only a common girl," she thought, and she wanted to prove she was a grand person like the "Lady of the Lake".
Paul found his mother ready to go home. She smiled on her son. He took the great bunch of flowers. Mr. and Mrs. Leivers walked down the fields with them. The hills were golden with evening; deep in the woods showed the darkening purple of bluebells. It was everywhere perfectly stiff, save for the rustling of leaves and birds.
"But it is a beautiful place," said Mrs. Morel.
"Yes," answered Mr. Leivers; "it's a nice little place, if only it weren't for the rabbits. The pasture's bitten down to nothing. I dunno if ever I s'll get the rent off it."
He clapped his hands, and the field broke into motion near the woods, brown rabbits hopping everywhere.
"Would you believe it!" exclaimed Mrs. Morel.
She and Paul went on alone together.
"Wasn't it lovely, mother?" he said quietly.
A thin moon was coming out. His heart was full of happiness till it hurt. His mother had to chatter, because she, too, wanted to cry with happiness.
"Now WOULDN'T I help that man!" she said. "WOULDN'T I see to the fowls and the young stock! And I'D learn to milk, and I'D talk with him, and I'D plan with him. My word, if I were his wife, the farm would be run, I know! But there, she hasn't the strength—she simply hasn't the strength. She ought never to have been burdened like it, you know. I'm sorry for her, and I'm sorry for him too. My word, if I'D had him, I shouldn't have thought him a bad husband! Not that she does either; and she's very lovable."
William came home again with his sweetheart at the Whitsuntide. He had one week of his holidays then. It was beautiful weather. As a rule, William and Lily and Paul went out in the morning together for a walk. William did not talk to his beloved much, except to tell her things from his boyhood. Paul talked endlessly to both of them. They lay down, all three, in a meadow by Minton Church. On one side, by the Castle Farm, was a beautiful quivering screen of poplars. Hawthorn was dropping from the hedges; penny daisies and ragged robin were in the field, like laughter. William, a big fellow of twenty-three, thinner now and even a bit gaunt, lay back in the sunshine and dreamed, while she fingered with his hair. Paul went gathering the big daisies. She had taken off her hat; her hair was black as a horse's mane. Paul came back and threaded daisies in her jet-black hair—big spangles of white and yellow, and just a pink touch of ragged robin.
"Now you look like a young witch-woman," the boy said to her. "Doesn't she, William?"
Lily laughed. William opened his eyes and looked at her. In his gaze was a certain baffled look of misery and fierce appreciation.
"Has he made a sight of me?" she asked, laughing down on her lover.
"That he has!" said William, smiling.
He looked at her. Her beauty seemed to hurt him. He glanced at her flower-decked head and frowned.
"You look nice enough, if that's what you want to know," he said.
And she walked without her hat. In a little while William recovered, and was rather tender to her. Coming to a bridge, he carved her initials and his in a heart.
L. L. W.
She watched his strong, nervous hand, with its glistening hairs and freckles, as he carved, and she seemed fascinated by it.
All the time there was a feeling of sadness and warmth, and a certain tenderness in the house, whilst William and Lily were at home. But often he got irritable. She had brought, for an eight-days' stay, five dresses and six blouses.
"Oh, would you mind," she said to Annie, "washing me these two blouses, and these things?"
And Annie stood washing when William and Lily went out the next morning. Mrs. Morel was furious. And sometimes the young man, catching a glimpse of his sweetheart's attitude towards his sister, hated her.
On Sunday morning she looked very beautiful in a dress of foulard, silky and sweeping, and blue as a jay-bird's feather, and in a large cream hat covered with many roses, mostly crimson. Nobody could admire her enough. But in the evening, when she was going out, she asked again:
"Chubby, have you got my gloves?"
"Which?" asked William.
"My new black SUEDE."
There was a hunt. She had lost them.
"Look here, mother," said William, "that's the fourth pair she's lost since Christmas—at five shillings a pair!"
"You only gave me TWO of them," she remonstrated.
And in the evening, after supper, he stood on the hearthrug whilst she sat on the sofa, and he seemed to hate her. In the afternoon he had left her whilst he went to see some old friend. She had sat looking at a book. After supper William wanted to write a letter.
"Here is your book, Lily," said Mrs. Morel. "Would you care to go on with it for a few minutes?"
"No, thank you," said the girl. "I will sit still."
"But it is so dull."
William scribbled irritably at a great rate. As he sealed the envelope he said:
"Read a book! Why, she's never read a book in her life."
"Oh, go along!" said Mrs. Morel, cross with the exaggeration,
"It's true, mother—she hasn't," he cried, jumping up and taking his old position on the hearthrug. "She's never read a book in her life."
"'Er's like me," chimed in Morel. "'Er canna see what there is i' books, ter sit borin' your nose in 'em for, nor more can I."
"But you shouldn't say these things," said Mrs. Morel to her son.
"But it's true, mother—she CAN'T read. What did you give her?"
"Well, I gave her a little thing of Annie Swan's. Nobody wants to read dry stuff on Sunday afternoon."
"Well, I'll bet she didn't read ten lines of it."
"You are mistaken," said his mother.
All the time Lily sat miserably on the sofa. He turned to her swiftly.
"DID you ready any?" he asked.
"Yes, I did," she replied.
"I don't know how many pages."
"Tell me ONE THING you read."
She could not.
She never got beyond the second page. He read a great deal, and had a quick, active intelligence. She could understand nothing but love-making and chatter. He was accustomed to having all his thoughts sifted through his mother's mind; so, when he wanted companionship, and was asked in reply to be the billing and twittering lover, he hated his betrothed.
"You know, mother," he said, when he was alone with her at night, "she's no idea of money, she's so wessel-brained. When she's paid, she'll suddenly buy such rot as marrons glaces, and then I have to buy her season ticket, and her extras, even her underclothing. And she wants to get married, and I think myself we might as well get married next year. But at this rate—"
"A fine mess of a marriage it would be," replied his mother. "I should consider it again, my boy."
"Oh, well, I've gone too far to break off now," he said, "and so I shall get married as soon as I can."
"Very well, my boy. If you will, you will, and there's no stopping you; but I tell you, I can't sleep when I think about it."
"Oh, she'll be all right, mother. We shall manage."
"And she lets you buy her underclothing?" asked the mother.
"Well," he began apologetically, "she didn't ask me; but one morning—and it WAS cold—I found her on the station shivering, not able to keep still; so I asked her if she was well wrapped up. She said: 'I think so.' So I said: 'Have you got warm underthings on?' And she said: 'No, they were cotton.' I asked her why on earth she hadn't got something thicker on in weather like that, and she said because she HAD nothing. And there she is—a bronchial subject! I HAD to take her and get some warm things. Well, mother, I shouldn't mind the money if we had any. And, you know, she OUGHT to keep enough to pay for her season-ticket; but no, she comes to me about that, and I have to find the money."
"It's a poor lookout," said Mrs. Morel bitterly.
He was pale, and his rugged face, that used to be so perfectly careless and laughing, was stamped with conflict and despair.
"But I can't give her up now; it's gone too far," he said. "And, besides, for SOME things I couldn't do without her."
"My boy, remember you're taking your life in your hands," said Mrs. Morel. "NOTHING is as bad as a marriage that's a hopeless failure. Mine was bad enough, God knows, and ought to teach you something; but it might have been worse by a long chalk."
He leaned with his back against the side of the chimney-piece, his hands in his pockets. He was a big, raw-boned man, who looked as if he would go to the world's end if he wanted to. But she saw the despair on his face.
"I couldn't give her up now," he said.
"Well," she said, "remember there are worse wrongs than breaking off an engagement."
"I can't give her up NOW," he said.
The clock ticked on; mother and son remained in silence, a conflict between them; but he would say no more. At last she said:
"Well, go to bed, my son. You'll feel better in the morning, and perhaps you'll know better."
He kissed her, and went. She raked the fire. Her heart was heavy now as it had never been. Before, with her husband, things had seemed to be breaking down in her, but they did not destroy her power to live. Now her soul felt lamed in itself. It was her hope that was struck.
And so often William manifested the same hatred towards his betrothed. On the last evening at home he was railing against her.
"Well," he said, "if you don't believe me, what she's like, would you believe she has been confirmed three times?"
"Nonsense!" laughed Mrs. Morel.
"Nonsense or not, she HAS! That's what confirmation means for her—a bit of a theatrical show where she can cut a figure."
"I haven't, Mrs. Morel!" cried the girl—"I haven't! it is not true!"
"What!" he cried, flashing round on her. "Once in Bromley, once in Beckenham, and once somewhere else."
"Nowhere else!" she said, in tears—"nowhere else!"
"It WAS! And if it wasn't why were you confirmed TWICE?"
"Once I was only fourteen, Mrs. Morel," she pleaded, tears in her eyes.
"Yes," said Mrs. Morel; "I can quite understand it, child. Take no notice of him. You ought to be ashamed, William, saying such things."
"But it's true. She's religious—she had blue velvet Prayer-Books—and she's not as much religion, or anything else, in her than that table-leg. Gets confirmed three times for show, to show herself off, and that's how she is in EVERYTHING—EVERYTHING!"
The girl sat on the sofa, crying. She was not strong.
"As for LOVE!" he cried, "you might as well ask a fly to love you! It'll love settling on you—"
"Now, say no more," commanded Mrs. Morel. "If you want to say these things, you must find another place than this. I am ashamed of you, William! Why don't you be more manly. To do nothing but find fault with a girl, and then pretend you're engaged to her!"
Mrs. Morel subsided in wrath and indignation.
William was silent, and later he repented, kissed and comforted the girl. Yet it was true, what he had said. He hated her.
When they were going away, Mrs. Morel accompanied them as far as Nottingham. It was a long way to Keston station.
"You know, mother," he said to her, "Gyp's shallow. Nothing goes deep with her."
"William, I WISH you wouldn't say these things," said Mrs. Morel, very uncomfortable for the girl who walked beside her.
"But it doesn't, mother. She's very much in love with me now, but if I died she'd have forgotten me in three months."
Mrs. Morel was afraid. Her heart beat furiously, hearing the quiet bitterness of her son's last speech.
"How do you know?" she replied. "You DON'T know, and therefore you've no right to say such a thing."
"He's always saying these things!" cried the girl.
"In three months after I was buried you'd have somebody else, and I should be forgotten," he said. "And that's your love!"
Mrs. Morel saw them into the train in Nottingham, then she returned home.
"There's one comfort," she said to Paul—"he'll never have any money to marry on, that I AM sure of. And so she'll save him that way."
So she took cheer. Matters were not yet very desperate. She firmly believed William would never marry his Gipsy. She waited, and she kept Paul near to her.
All summer long William's letters had a feverish tone; he seemed unnatural and intense. Sometimes he was exaggeratedly jolly, usually he was flat and bitter in his letter.
"Ah," his mother said, "I'm afraid he's ruining himself against that creature, who isn't worthy of his love—no, no more than a rag doll."
He wanted to come home. The midsummer holiday was gone; it was a long while to Christmas. He wrote in wild excitement, saying he could come for Saturday and Sunday at Goose Fair, the first week in October.
"You are not well, my boy," said his mother, when she saw him. She was almost in tears at having him to herself again.
"No, I've not been well," he said. "I've seemed to have a dragging cold all the last month, but it's going, I think."
It was sunny October weather. He seemed wild with joy, like a schoolboy escaped; then again he was silent and reserved. He was more gaunt than ever, and there was a haggard look in his eyes.
"You are doing too much," said his mother to him.
He was doing extra work, trying to make some money to marry on, he said. He only talked to his mother once on the Saturday night; then he was sad and tender about his beloved.
"And yet, you know, mother, for all that, if I died she'd be broken-hearted for two months, and then she'd start to forget me. You'd see, she'd never come home here to look at my grave, not even once."
"Why, William," said his mother, "you're not going to die, so why talk about it?"
"But whether or not—" he replied.
"And she can't help it. She is like that, and if you choose her—well, you can't grumble," said his mother.
On the Sunday morning, as he was putting his collar on:
"Look," he said to his mother, holding up his chin, "what a rash my collar's made under my chin!"
Just at the junction of chin and throat was a big red inflammation.
"It ought not to do that," said his mother. "Here, put a bit of this soothing ointment on. You should wear different collars."
He went away on Sunday midnight, seeming better and more solid for his two days at home.
On Tuesday morning came a telegram from London that he was ill. Mrs. Morel got off her knees from washing the floor, read the telegram, called a neighbour, went to her landlady and borrowed a sovereign, put on her things, and set off. She hurried to Keston, caught an express for London in Nottingham. She had to wait in Nottingham nearly an hour. A small figure in her black bonnet, she was anxiously asking the porters if they knew how to get to Elmers End. The journey was three hours. She sat in her corner in a kind of stupor, never moving. At King's Cross still no one could tell her how to get to Elmers End. Carrying her string bag, that contained her nightdress, a comb and brush, she went from person to person. At last they sent her underground to Cannon Street.
It was six o'clock when she arrived at William's lodging. The blinds were not down.
"How is he?" she asked.
"No better," said the landlady.
She followed the woman upstairs. William lay on the bed, with bloodshot eyes, his face rather discoloured. The clothes were tossed about, there was no fire in the room, a glass of milk stood on the stand at his bedside. No one had been with him.
"Why, my son!" said the mother bravely.
He did not answer. He looked at her, but did not see her. Then he began to say, in a dull voice, as if repeating a letter from dictation: "Owing to a leakage in the hold of this vessel, the sugar had set, and become converted into rock. It needed hacking—"
He was quite unconscious. It had been his business to examine some such cargo of sugar in the Port of London.
"How long has he been like this?" the mother asked the landlady.
"He got home at six o'clock on Monday morning, and he seemed to sleep all day; then in the night we heard him talking, and this morning he asked for you. So I wired, and we fetched the doctor."
"Will you have a fire made?"
Mrs. Morel tried to soothe her son, to keep him still.
The doctor came. It was pneumonia, and, he said, a peculiar erysipelas, which had started under the chin where the collar chafed, and was spreading over the face. He hoped it would not get to the brain.
Mrs. Morel settled down to nurse. She prayed for William, prayed that he would recognise her. But the young man's face grew more discoloured. In the night she struggled with him. He raved, and raved, and would not come to consciousness. At two o'clock, in a dreadful paroxysm, he died.
Mrs. Morel sat perfectly still for an hour in the lodging bedroom; then she roused the household.
At six o'clock, with the aid of the charwoman, she laid him out; then she went round the dreary London village to the registrar and the doctor.
At nine o'clock to the cottage on Scargill Street came another wire:
"William died last night. Let father come, bring money."
Annie, Paul, and Arthur were at home; Mr. Morel was gone to work. The three children said not a word. Annie began to whimper with fear; Paul set off for his father.
It was a beautiful day. At Brinsley pit the white steam melted slowly in the sunshine of a soft blue sky; the wheels of the headstocks twinkled high up; the screen, shuffling its coal into the trucks, made a busy noise.
"I want my father; he's got to go to London," said the boy to the first man he met on the bank.
"Tha wants Walter Morel? Go in theer an' tell Joe Ward."
Paul went into the little top office.
"I want my father; he's got to go to London."
"Thy feyther? Is he down? What's his name?"
"What, Walter? Is owt amiss?"
"He's got to go to London."
The man went to the telephone and rang up the bottom office.
"Walter Morel's wanted, number 42, Hard. Summat's amiss; there's his lad here."
Then he turned round to Paul.
"He'll be up in a few minutes," he said.
Paul wandered out to the pit-top. He watched the chair come up, with its wagon of coal. The great iron cage sank back on its rest, a full carfle was hauled off, an empty tram run on to the chair, a bell ting'ed somewhere, the chair heaved, then dropped like a stone.
Paul did not realise William was dead; it was impossible, with such a bustle going on. The puller-off swung the small truck on to the turn-table, another man ran with it along the bank down the curving lines.
"And William is dead, and my mother's in London, and what will she be doing?" the boy asked himself, as if it were a conundrum.
He watched chair after chair come up, and still no father. At last, standing beside a wagon, a man's form! the chair sank on its rests, Morel stepped off. He was slightly lame from an accident.
"Is it thee, Paul? Is 'e worse?"
"You've got to go to London."
The two walked off the pit-bank, where men were watching curiously. As they came out and went along the railway, with the sunny autumn field on one side and a wall of trucks on the other, Morel said in a frightened voice:
"'E's niver gone, child?"
"Last night. We had a telegram from my mother."
Morel walked on a few strides, then leaned up against a truck-side, his hand over his eyes. He was not crying. Paul stood looking round, waiting. On the weighing machine a truck trundled slowly. Paul saw everything, except his father leaning against the truck as if he were tired.
Morel had only once before been to London. He set off, scared and peaked, to help his wife. That was on Tuesday. The children were left alone in the house. Paul went to work, Arthur went to school, and Annie had in a friend to be with her.
On Saturday night, as Paul was turning the corner, coming home from Keston, he saw his mother and father, who had come to Sethley Bridge Station. They were walking in silence in the dark, tired, straggling apart. The boy waited.
"Mother!" he said, in the darkness.
Mrs. Morel's small figure seemed not to observe. He spoke again.
"Paul!" she said, uninterestedly.
She let him kiss her, but she seemed unaware of him.
In the house she was the same—small, white, and mute. She noticed nothing, she said nothing, only:
"The coffin will be here to-night, Walter. You'd better see about some help." Then, turning to the children: "We're bringing him home."
Then she relapsed into the same mute looking into space, her hands folded on her lap. Paul, looking at her, felt he could not breathe. The house was dead silent.
"I went to work, mother," he said plaintively.
"Did you?" she answered, dully.
After half an hour Morel, troubled and bewildered, came in again.
"Wheer s'll we ha'e him when he DOEScome?" he asked his wife.
"In the front-room."
"Then I'd better shift th' table?"
"An' ha'e him across th' chairs?"
"You know there—Yes, I suppose so."
Morel and Paul went, with a candle, into the parlour. There was no gas there. The father unscrewed the top of the big mahogany oval table, and cleared the middle of the room; then he arranged six chairs opposite each other, so that the coffin could stand on their beds.
"You niver seed such a length as he is!" said the miner, and watching anxiously as he worked.
Paul went to the bay window and looked out. The ash-tree stood monstrous and black in front of the wide darkness. It was a faintly luminous night. Paul went back to his mother.
At ten o'clock Morel called:
Everyone started. There was a noise of unbarring and unlocking the front door, which opened straight from the night into the room.
"Bring another candle," called Morel.
Annie and Arthur went. Paul followed with his mother. He stood with his arm round her waist in the inner doorway. Down the middle of the cleared room waited six chairs, face to face. In the window, against the lace curtains, Arthur held up one candle, and by the open door, against the night, Annie stood leaning forward, her brass candlestick glittering.
There was the noise of wheels. Outside in the darkness of the street below Paul could see horses and a black vehicle, one lamp, and a few pale faces; then some men, miners, all in their shirt-sleeves, seemed to struggle in the obscurity. Presently two men appeared, bowed beneath a great weight. It was Morel and his neighbour.
"Steady!" called Morel, out of breath.
He and his fellow mounted the steep garden step, heaved into the candlelight with their gleaming coffin-end. Limbs of other men were seen struggling behind. Morel and Burns, in front, staggered; the great dark weight swayed.
"Steady, steady!" cried Morel, as if in pain.
All the six bearers were up in the small garden, holding the great coffin aloft. There were three more steps to the door. The yellow lamp of the carriage shone alone down the black road.
"Now then!" said Morel.
The coffin swayed, the men began to mount the three steps with their load. Annie's candle flickered, and she whimpered as the first men appeared, and the limbs and bowed heads of six men struggled to climb into the room, bearing the coffin that rode like sorrow on their living flesh.
"Oh, my son—my son!" Mrs. Morel sang softly, and each time the coffin swung to the unequal climbing of the men: "Oh, my son—my son—my son!"
"Mother!" Paul whimpered, his hand round her waist.
She did not hear.
"Oh, my son—my son!" she repeated.
Paul saw drops of sweat fall from his father's brow. Six men were in the room—six coatless men, with yielding, struggling limbs, filling the room and knocking against the furniture. The coffin veered, and was gently lowered on to the chairs. The sweat fell from Morel's face on its boards.
"My word, he's a weight!" said a man, and the five miners sighed, bowed, and, trembling with the struggle, descended the steps again, closing the door behind them.
The family was alone in the parlour with the great polished box. William, when laid out, was six feet four inches long. Like a monument lay the bright brown, ponderous coffin. Paul thought it would never be got out of the room again. His mother was stroking the polished wood.
They buried him on the Monday in the little cemetery on the hillside that looks over the fields at the big church and the houses. It was sunny, and the white chrysanthemums frilled themselves in the warmth.
Mrs. Morel could not be persuaded, after this, to talk and take her old bright interest in life. She remained shut off. All the way home in the train she had said to herself : "If only it could have been me!"
When Paul came home at night he found his mother sitting, her day's work done, with hands folded in her lap upon her coarse apron. She always used to have changed her dress and put on a black apron, before. Now Annie set his supper, and his mother sat looking blankly in front of her, her mouth shut tight. Then he beat his brains for news to tell her.
"Mother, Miss Jordan was down to-day, and she said my sketch of a colliery at work was beautiful."
But Mrs. Morel took no notice. Night after night he forced himself to tell her things, although she did not listen. It drove him almost insane to have her thus. At last:
"What's a-matter, mother?" he asked.
She did not hear.
"What's a-matter?" he persisted. "Mother, what's a-matter?"
"You know what's the matter," she said irritably, turning away.
The lad—he was sixteen years old—went to bed drearily. He was cut off and wretched through October, November and December. His mother tried, but she could not rouse herself. She could only brood on her dead son; he had been let to die so cruelly.
At last, on December 23, with his five shillings Christmas-box in his pocket, Paul wandered blindly home. His mother looked at him, and her heart stood still.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"I'm badly, mother!" he replied. "Mr. Jordan gave me five shillings for a Christmas-box!"
He handed it to her with trembling hands. She put it on the table.
"You aren't glad!" he reproached her; but he trembled violently.
"Where hurts you?" she said, unbuttoning his overcoat.
It was the old question.
"I feel badly, mother."
She undressed him and put him to bed. He had pneumonia dangerously, the doctor said.
"Might he never have had it if I'd kept him at home, not let him go to Nottingham?" was one of the first things she asked.
"He might not have been so bad," said the doctor.
Mrs. Morel stood condemned on her own ground.
"I should have watched the living, not the dead," she told herself.
Paul was very ill. His mother lay in bed at nights with him; they could not afford a nurse. He grew worse, and the crisis approached. One night he tossed into consciousness in the ghastly, sickly feeling of dissolution, when all the cells in the body seem in intense irritability to be breaking down, and consciousness makes a last flare of struggle, like madness.
"I s'll die, mother!" he cried, heaving for breath on the pillow.
She lifted him up, crying in a small voice:
"Oh, my son—my son!"
That brought him to. He realised her. His whole will rose up and arrested him. He put his head on her breast, and took ease of her for love.
"For some things," said his aunt, "it was a good thing Paul was ill that Christmas. I believe it saved his mother."
Paul was in bed for seven weeks. He got up white and fragile. His father had bought him a pot of scarlet and gold tulips. They used to flame in the window in the March sunshine as he sat on the sofa chattering to his mother. The two knitted together in perfect intimacy. Mrs. Morel's life now rooted itself in Paul.
William had been a prophet. Mrs. Morel had a little present and a letter from Lily at Christmas. Mrs. Morel's sister had a letter at the New Year.
"I was at a ball last night. Some delightful people were there, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly," said the letter. "I had every dance—did not sit out one."
Mrs. Morel never heard any more of her.
Morel and his wife were gentle with each other for some time after the death of their son. He would go into a kind of daze, staring wide-eyed and blank across the room. Then he got up suddenly and hurried out to the Three Spots, returning in his normal state. But never in his life would he go for a walk up Shepstone, past the office where his son had worked, and he always avoided the cemetery.