CHAPTER VI. TALK
The party stayed to the end of the interminable opera. They had agreed to wait for Aaron. He was to come around to the vestibule for them, after the show. They trooped slowly down-stairs into the crush of the entrance hall. Chattering, swirling people, red carpet, palms green against cream-and-gilt walls, small whirlpools of life at the open, dark doorways, men in opera hats steering decisively about-it was the old scene. But there were no taxis—absolutely no taxis. And it was raining. Fortunately the women had brought shoes. They slipped these on. Jim rocked through the crowd, in his tall hat, looking for the flautist.
At last Aaron was found—wearing a bowler hat. Julia groaned in spirit. Josephine's brow knitted. Not that anybody cared, really. But as one must frown at something, why not at the bowler hat? Acquaintances and elegant young men in uniforms insisted on rushing up and bowing and exchanging a few words, either with Josephine, or Jim, or Julia, or Lilly. They were coldly received. The party veered out into the night.
The women hugged their wraps about them, and set off sharply, feeling some repugnance for the wet pavements and the crowd. They had not far to go—only to Jim's rooms in Adelphi. Jim was leading Aaron, holding him by the arm and slightly pinching his muscles. It gave him great satisfaction to have between his fingers the arm-muscles of a working-man, one of the common people, the fons et origo of modern life. Jim was talking rather vaguely about Labour and Robert Smillie, and Bolshevism. He was all for revolution and the triumph of labour.
So they arrived, mounted a dark stair, and entered a large, handsome room, one of the Adams rooms. Jim had furnished it from Heale's with striped hangings, green and white and yellow and dark purple, and with a green-and-black checked carpet, and great stripe-covered chairs and Chesterfield. A big gas-fire was soon glowing in the handsome old fire-place, the panelled room seemed cosy.
While Jim was handing round drinks and sandwiches, and Josephine was making tea, Robert played Bach on the piano—the pianola, rather. The chairs and lounge were in a half-circle round the fire. The party threw off their wraps and sank deep into this expensive comfort of modern bohemia. They needed the Bach to take away the bad taste that Aida had left in their mouths. They needed the whiskey and curacao to rouse their spirits. They needed the profound comfort in which to sink away from the world. All the men, except Aaron, had been through the war in some way or other. But here they were, in the old setting exactly, the old bohemian routine.
The bell rang, Jim went downstairs. He returned shortly with a frail, elegant woman—fashionable rather than bohemian. She was cream and auburn, Irish, with a slightly-lifted upper lip that gave her a pathetic look. She dropped her wrap and sat down by Julia, taking her hand delicately.
"How are you, darling?" she asked.
"Yes—I'm happy," said Julia, giving her odd, screwed-up smile.
The pianola stopped, they all chatted indiscriminately. Jim was watching the new-comer—Mrs. Browning—with a concentrated wolfish grin.
"I like her," he said at last. "I've seen her before, haven't I?—I like her awfully."
"Yes," said Josephine, with a slight grunt of a laugh. "He wants to be loved."
"Oh," cried Clariss. "So do I!"
"Then there you are!" cried Tanny.
"Alas, no, there we aren't," cried Clariss. She was beautiful too, with her lifted upper-lip. "We both want to be loved, and so we miss each other entirely. We run on in two parallel lines, that can never meet." She laughed low and half sad.
"Doesn't SHE love you?" said Aaron to Jim amused, indicating Josephine. "I thought you were engaged."
"HER!" leered Jim vindictively, glancing at Josephine. "She doesn't love me."
"Is that true?" asked Robert hastily, of Josephine.
"Why," she said, "yes. Why should he make me say out here that I don't love him!"
"Got you my girl," said Jim.
"Then it's no engagement?" said Robert.
"Listen to the row fools make, rushing in," said Jim maliciously.
"No, the engagement is broken," said Josephine.
"World coming to pieces bit by bit," said Lilly. Jim was twisting in his chair, and looking like a Chinese dragon, diabolical. The room was uneasy.
"What gives you such a belly-ache for love, Jim?" said Lilly, "or for being loved? Why do you want so badly to be loved?"
"Because I like it, damn you," barked Jim. "Because I'm in need of it."
None of them quite knew whether they ought to take it as a joke. It was just a bit too real to be quite pleasant.
"Why are you such a baby?" said Lilly. "There you are, six foot in length, have been a cavalry officer and fought in two wars, and you spend your time crying for somebody to love you. You're a comic."
"Am I though?" said Jim. "I'm losing life. I'm getting thin."
"You don't look as if you were losing life," said Lilly.
"Don't I? I am, though. I'm dying."
"What of? Lack of life?"
"That's about it, my young cock. Life's leaving me."
"Better sing Tosti's Farewell to it."
Jim who had been sprawling full length in his arm-chair, the centre of interest of all the company, suddenly sprang forward and pushed his face, grinning, in the face of Lilly.
"You're a funny customer, you are," he said.
Then he turned round in his chair, and saw Clariss sitting at the feet of Julia, with one white arm over her friend's knee. Jim immediately stuck forward his muzzle and gazed at her. Clariss had loosened her masses of thick, auburn hair, so that it hung half free. Her face was creamy pale, her upper lip lifted with odd pathos! She had rose-rubies in her ears.
"I like HER," said Jim. "What's her name?"
"Mrs. Browning. Don't be so rude," said Josephine.
"Browning for gravies. Any relation of Robert?"
"Oh, yes! You ask my husband," came the slow, plangent voice of Clariss.
"You've got a husband, have you?"
"Rather! Haven't I, Juley?"
"Yes," said Julia, vaguely and wispily. "Yes, dear, you have."
"And two fine children," put in Robert.
"No! You don't mean it!" said Jim. "Who's your husband? Anybody?"
"Rather!" came the deep voice of Clariss. "He sees to that."
Jim stared, grinning, showing his pointed teeth, reaching nearer and nearer to Clariss who, in her frail scrap of an evening dress, amethyst and silver, was sitting still in the deep black hearth-rug, her arm over Julia's knee, taking very little notice of Jim, although he amused her.
"I like you awfully, I say," he repeated.
"Thanks, I'm sure," she said.
The others were laughing, sprawling in their chairs, and sipping curacao and taking a sandwich or a cigarette. Aaron Sisson alone sat upright, smiling flickeringly. Josephine watched him, and her pointed tongue went from time to time over her lips.
"But I'm sure," she broke in, "this isn't very interesting for the others. Awfully boring! Don't be silly all the time, Jim, or we must go home."
Jim looked at her with narrowed eyes. He hated her voice. She let her eye rest on his for a moment. Then she put her cigarette to her lips. Robert was watching them both.
Josephine took her cigarette from her lips again.
"Tell us about yourself, Mr. Sisson," she said. "How do you like being in London?"
"I like London," said Aaron.
Where did he live? Bloomsbury. Did he know many people? No—nobody except a man in the orchestra. How had he got his job? Through an agent. Etc. Etc.
"What do you make of the miners?" said Jim, suddenly taking a new line.
"Me?" said Sisson. "I don't make anything of them."
"Do you think they'll make a stand against the government?"
"They might, one day."
"Think they'd fight?"
Aaron sat laughing.
"What have they to fight for?"
"Why, everything! What haven't they to fight for?" cried Josephine fiercely. "Freedom, liberty, and escape from this vile system. Won't they fight for that?"
Aaron sat smiling, slowly shaking his head.
"Nay," he said, "you mustn't ask me what they'll do—I've only just left them, for good. They'll do a lot of cavilling."
"But won't they ACT?" cried Josephine.
"Act?" said Aaron. "How, act?"
"Why, defy the government, and take things in their own hands," said Josephine.
"They might, some time," said Aaron, rather indifferent.
"I wish they would!" cried Josephine. "My, wouldn't I love it if they'd make a bloody revolution!"
They were all looking now at her. Her black brows were twitching, in her black and silver dress she looked like a symbol of young disaster.
"Must it be bloody, Josephine?" said Robert.
"Why, yes. I don't believe in revolutions that aren't bloody," said Josephine. "Wouldn't I love it! I'd go in front with a red flag."
"It would be rather fun," said Tanny.
"Wouldn't it!" cried Josephine.
"Oh, Josey, dear!" cried Julia hysterically. "Isn't she a red-hot Bolsher! I should be frightened."
"No!" cried Josephine. "I should love it."
"So should I," said Jim, in a luscious sort of voice. "What price machine-guns at the end of the Strand! That's a day to live for, what?"
"Ha! Ha!" laughed Clariss, with her deep laugh. "We'd all Bolsh together. I'd give the cheers."
"I wouldn't mind getting killed. I'd love it, in a real fight," said Josephine.
"But, Josephine," said Robert, "don't you think we've had enough of that sort of thing in the war? Don't you think it all works out rather stupid and unsatisfying?"
"Ah, but a civil war would be different. I've no interest in fighting Germans. But a civil war would be different."
"That's a fact, it would," said Jim.
"Only rather worse," said Robert.
"No, I don't agree," cried Josephine. "You'd feel you were doing something, in a civil war."
"Pulling the house down," said Lilly.
"Yes," she cried. "Don't you hate it, the house we live in—London—England—America! Don't you hate them?"
"I don't like them. But I can't get much fire in my hatred. They pall on me rather," said Lilly.
"Ay!" said Aaron, suddenly stirring in his chair.
Lilly and he glanced at one another with a look of recognition.
"Still," said Tanny, "there's got to be a clearance some day or other."
"Oh," drawled Clariss. "I'm all for a clearance. I'm all for pulling the house down. Only while it stands I do want central heating and a good cook."
"May I come to dinner?" said Jim.
"Oh, yes. You'd find it rather domestic."
"Where do you live?"
"Rather far out now—Amersham."
"Amersham? Where's that—?"
"Oh, it's on the map."
There was a little lull. Jim gulped down a drink, standing at the sideboard. He was a tall, fine, soldierly figure, and his face, with its little sandy moustache and bald forehead, was odd. Aaron Sisson sat watching him, unconsciously.
"Hello you!" said Jim. "Have one?"
Aaron shook his head, and Jim did not press him. It saved the drinks.
"You believe in love, don't you?" said Jim, sitting down near Aaron, and grinning at him.
"Love!" said Aaron.
"LOVE! he says," mocked Jim, grinning at the company.
"What about it, then?" asked Aaron.
"It's life! Love is life," said Jim fiercely.
"It's a vice, like drink," said Lilly.
"Eh? A vice!" said Jim. "May be for you, old bird."
"More so still for you," said Lilly.
"It's life. It's life!" reiterated Jim. "Don't you agree?" He turned wolfishly to Clariss.
"Oh, yes—every time—" she drawled, nonchalant.
"Here, let's write it down," said Lilly. He found a blue pencil and printed in large letters on the old creamy marble of the mantel-piece panel:—LOVE IS LIFE.
Julia suddenly rose and flung her arms asunder wildly.
"Oh, I hate love. I hate it," she protested.
Jim watched her sardonically.
"Look at her!" he said. "Look at Lesbia who hates love."
"No, but perhaps it is a disease. Perhaps we are all wrong, and we can't love properly," put in Josephine.
"Have another try," said Jim,—"I know what love is. I've thought about it. Love is the soul's respiration."
"Let's have that down," said Lilly.
LOVE IS THE SOUL'S RESPIRATION. He printed it on the old mantel-piece.
Jim eyed the letters.
"It's right," he said. "Quite right. When you love, your soul breathes in. If you don't breathe in, you suffocate."
"What about breathing out?" said Robert. "If you don't breathe out, you asphyxiate."
"Right you are, Mock Turtle—" said Jim maliciously.
"Breathing out is a bloody revolution," said Lilly.
"You've hit the nail on the head," said Jim solemnly.
"Let's record it then," said Lilly. And with the blue pencil he printed:
WHEN YOU LOVE, YOUR SOUL BREATHES IN—
WHEN YOUR SOUL BREATHES OUT, IT'S A BLOODY REVOLUTION.
"I say Jim," he said. "You must be busting yourself, trying to breathe in."
"Don't you be too clever. I've thought about it," said Jim. "When I'm in love, I get a great inrush of energy. I actually feel it rush in—here!" He poked his finger on the pit of his stomach. "It's the soul's expansion. And if I can't get these rushes of energy, I'M DYING, AND I KNOW I AM."
He spoke the last words with sudden ferocity and desperation.
"All I know is," said Tanny, "you don't look it."
"I AM. I am." Jim protested. "I'm dying. Life's leaving me."
"Maybe you're choking with love," said Robert. "Perhaps you have breathed in so much, you don't know how to let it go again. Perhaps your soul's got a crick in it, with expanding so much."
"You're a bloody young sucking pig, you are," said Jim.
"Even at that age, I've learned my manners," replied Robert.
Jim looked round the party. Then he turned to Aaron Sisson.
"What do you make of 'em, eh?" he said.
Aaron shook his head, and laughed.
"Me?" he said.
But Jim did not wait for an answer.
"I've had enough," said Tanny suddenly rising. "I think you're all silly. Besides, it's getting late."
"She!" said Jim, rising and pointing luridly to Clariss. "She's Love. And HE's the Working People. The hope is these two—" He jerked a thumb at Aaron Sisson, after having indicated Mrs. Browning.
"Oh, how awfully interesting. It's quite a long time since I've been a personification.—I suppose you've never been one before?" said Clariss, turning to Aaron in conclusion.
"No, I don't think I have," he answered.
"I hope personification is right.—Ought to be allegory or something else?" This from Clariss to Robert.
"Or a parable, Clariss," laughed the young lieutenant.
"Goodbye," said Tanny. "I've been awfully bored."
"Have you?" grinned Jim. "Goodbye! Better luck next time."
"We'd better look sharp," said Robert, "if we want to get the tube."
The party hurried through the rainy narrow streets down to the Embankment station. Robert and Julia and Clariss were going west, Lilly and his wife were going to Hampstead, Josephine and Aaron Sisson were going both to Bloomsbury.
"I suppose," said Robert, on the stairs—"Mr. Sisson will see you to your door, Josephine. He lives your way."
"There's no need at all," said Josephine.
The four who were going north went down to the low tube level. It was nearly the last train. The station was half deserted, half rowdy, several fellows were drunk, shouting and crowing. Down there in the bowels of London, after midnight, everything seemed horrible and unnatural.
"How I hate this London," said Tanny. She was half Norwegian, and had spent a large part of her life in Norway, before she married Lilly.
"Yes, so do I," said Josephine. "But if one must earn one's living one must stay here. I wish I could get back to Paris. But there's nothing doing for me in France.—When do you go back into the country, both of you?"
"Friday," said Lilly.
"How lovely for you!—And when will you go to Norway, Tanny?"
"In about a month," said Tanny.
"You must be awfully pleased."
"Oh—thankful—THANKFUL to get out of England—"
"I know. That's how I feel. Everything is so awful—so dismal and dreary, I find it—"
They crowded into the train. Men were still yelling like wild beasts—others were asleep—soldiers were singing.
"Have you really broken your engagement with Jim?" shrilled Tanny in a high voice, as the train roared.
"Yes, he's impossible," said Josephine. "Perfectly hysterical and impossible."
"And SELFISH—" cried Tanny.
"Oh terribly—" cried Josephine.
"Come up to Hampstead to lunch with us," said Lilly to Aaron.
"Ay—thank you," said Aaron.
Lilly scribbled directions on a card. The hot, jaded midnight underground rattled on. Aaron and Josephine got down to change trains.
CHAPTER VII. THE DARK SQUARE GARDEN
Josephine had invited Aaron Sisson to dinner at a restaurant in Soho, one Sunday evening. They had a corner to themselves, and with a bottle of Burgundy she was getting his history from him.
His father had been a shaft-sinker, earning good money, but had been killed by a fall down the shaft when Aaron was only four years old. The widow had opened a shop: Aaron was her only child. She had done well in her shop. She had wanted Aaron to be a schoolteacher. He had served three years apprenticeship, then suddenly thrown it up and gone to the pit.
"But why?" said Josephine.
"I couldn't tell you. I felt more like it."
He had a curious quality of an intelligent, almost sophisticated mind, which had repudiated education. On purpose he kept the midland accent in his speech. He understood perfectly what a personification was—and an allegory. But he preferred to be illiterate.
Josephine found out what a miner's checkweighman was. She tried to find out what sort of wife Aaron had—but, except that she was the daughter of a publican and was delicate in health, she could learn nothing.
"And do you send her money?" she asked.
"Ay," said Aaron. "The house is mine. And I allow her so much a week out of the money in the bank. My mother left me a bit over a thousand when she died."
"You don't mind what I say, do you?" said Josephine.
"No I don't mind," he laughed.
He had this pleasant-seeming courteous manner. But he really kept her at a distance. In some things he reminded her of Robert: blond, erect, nicely built, fresh and English-seeming. But there was a curious cold distance to him, which she could not get across. An inward indifference to her—perhaps to everything. Yet his laugh was so handsome.
"Will you tell me why you left your wife and children?—Didn't you love them?"
Aaron looked at the odd, round, dark muzzle of the girl. She had had her hair bobbed, and it hung in odd dark folds, very black, over her ears.
"Why I left her?" he said. "For no particular reason. They're all right without me."
Josephine watched his face. She saw a pallor of suffering under its freshness, and a strange tension in his eyes.
"But you couldn't leave your little girls for no reason at all—"
"Yes, I did. For no reason—except I wanted to have some free room round me—to loose myself—"
"You mean you wanted love?" flashed Josephine, thinking he said lose.
"No, I wanted fresh air. I don't know what I wanted. Why should I know?"
"But we must know: especially when other people will be hurt," said she.
"Ah, well! A breath of fresh air, by myself. I felt forced to feel—I feel if I go back home now, I shall be FORCED—forced to love—or care—or something."
"Perhaps you wanted more than your wife could give you," she said.
"Perhaps less. She's made up her mind she loves me, and she's not going to let me off."
"Did you never love her?" said Josephine.
"Oh, yes. I shall never love anybody else. But I'm damned if I want to be a lover any more. To her or to anybody. That's the top and bottom of it. I don't want to CARE, when care isn't in me. And I'm not going to be forced to it."
The fat, aproned French waiter was hovering near. Josephine let him remove the plates and the empty bottle.
"Have more wine," she said to Aaron.
But he refused. She liked him because of his dead-level indifference to his surroundings. French waiters and foreign food—he noticed them in his quick, amiable-looking fashion—but he was indifferent. Josephine was piqued. She wanted to pierce this amiable aloofness of his.
She ordered coffee and brandies.
"But you don't want to get away from EVERYTHING, do you? I myself feel so LOST sometimes—so dreadfully alone: not in a silly sentimental fashion, because men keep telling me they love me, don't you know. But my LIFE seems alone, for some reason—"
"Haven't you got relations?" he said.
"No one, now mother is dead. Nothing nearer than aunts and cousins in America. I suppose I shall see them all again one day. But they hardly count over here."
"Why don't you get married?" he said. "How old are you?"
"I'm twenty-five. How old are you?"
"You might almost be any age.—I don't know why I don't get married. In a way, I hate earning my own living—yet I go on—and I like my work—"
"What are you doing now?"
"I'm painting scenery for a new play—rather fun—I enjoy it. But I often wonder what will become of me."
"In what way?"
She was almost affronted.
"What becomes of me? Oh, I don't know. And it doesn't matter, not to anybody but myself."
"What becomes of anybody, anyhow? We live till we die. What do you want?"
"Why, I keep saying I want to get married and feel sure of something. But I don't know—I feel dreadful sometimes—as if every minute would be the last. I keep going on and on—I don't know what for—and IT keeps going on and on—goodness knows what it's all for."
"You shouldn't bother yourself," he said. "You should just let it go on and on—"
"But I MUST bother," she said. "I must think and feel—"
"You've no occasion," he said.
"How—?" she said, with a sudden grunting, unhappy laugh. Then she lit a cigarette.
"No," she said. "What I should really like more than anything would be an end of the world. I wish the world would come to an end."
He laughed, and poured his drops of brandy down his throat.
"It won't, for wishing," he said.
"No, that's the awful part of it. It'll just go on and on— Doesn't it make you feel you'd go mad?"
He looked at her and shook his head.
"You see it doesn't concern me," he said. "So long as I can float by myself."
"But ARE you SATISFIED!" she cried.
"I like being by myself—I hate feeling and caring, and being forced into it. I want to be left alone—"
"You aren't very polite to your hostess of the evening," she said, laughing a bit miserably.
"Oh, we're all right," he said. "You know what I mean—"
"You like your own company? Do you?—Sometimes I think I'm nothing when I'm alone. Sometimes I think I surely must be nothing—nothingness."
He shook his head.
"No," he said. "No. I only want to be left alone."
"Not to have anything to do with anybody?" she queried ironically.
"Not to any extent."
She watched him—and then she bubbled with a laugh.
"I think you're funny," she said. "You don't mind?"
"No—why—It's just as you see it.—Jim Bricknell's a rare comic, to my eye."
"Oh, him!—no, not actually. He's self-conscious and selfish and hysterical. It isn't a bit funny after a while."
"I only know what I've seen," said Aaron. "You'd both of you like a bloody revolution, though."
"Yes. Only when it came he wouldn't be there."
"Yes, indeed I would. I would give everything to be in it. I'd give heaven and earth for a great big upheaval—and then darkness."
"Perhaps you'll get it, when you die," said Aaron.
"Oh, but I don't want to die and leave all this standing. I hate it so."
"Why do you?"
"But don't you?"
"No, it doesn't really bother me."
"It makes me feel I can't live."
"I can't see that."
"But you always disagree with one!" said Josephine. "How do you like Lilly? What do you think of him?"
"He seems sharp," said Aaron.
"But he's more than sharp."
"Oh, yes! He's got his finger in most pies."
"And doesn't like the plums in any of them," said Josephine tartly.
"What does he do?"
"Writes—stories and plays."
"And makes it pay?"
"Hardly at all.—They want us to go. Shall we?" She rose from the table. The waiter handed her her cloak, and they went out into the blowy dark night. She folded her wrap round her, and hurried forward with short, sharp steps. There was a certain Parisian chic and mincingness about her, even in her walk: but underneath, a striding, savage suggestion as if she could leg it in great strides, like some savage squaw.
Aaron pressed his bowler hat down on his brow.
"Would you rather take a bus?" she said in a high voice, because of the wind.
"I'd rather walk."
"So would I."
They hurried across the Charing Cross Road, where great buses rolled and rocked, crammed with people. Her heels clicked sharply on the pavement, as they walked east. They crossed Holborn, and passed the Museum. And neither of them said anything.
When they came to the corner, she held out her hand.
"Look!" she said. "Don't come any further: don't trouble."
"I'll walk round with you: unless you'd rather not."
"No—But do you want to bother?"
"It's no bother."
So they pursued their way through the high wind, and turned at last into the old, beautiful square. It seemed dark and deserted, dark like a savage wilderness in the heart of London. The wind was roaring in the great bare trees of the centre, as if it were some wild dark grove deep in a forgotten land.
Josephine opened the gate of the square garden with her key, and let it slam to behind him.
"How wonderful the wind is!" she shrilled. "Shall we listen to it for a minute?"
She led him across the grass past the shrubs to the big tree in the centre. There she climbed up to a seat. He sat beside her. They sat in silence, looking at the darkness. Rain was blowing in the wind. They huddled against the big tree-trunk, for shelter, and watched the scene.
Beyond the tall shrubs and the high, heavy railings the wet street gleamed silently. The houses of the Square rose like a cliff on this inner dark sea, dimly lighted at occasional windows. Boughs swayed and sang. A taxi-cab swirled round a corner like a cat, and purred to a standstill. There was a light of an open hall door. But all far away, it seemed, unthinkably far away. Aaron sat still and watched. He was frightened, it all seemed so sinister, this dark, bristling heart of London. Wind boomed and tore like waves ripping a shingle beach. The two white lights of the taxi stared round and departed, leaving the coast at the foot of the cliffs deserted, faintly spilled with light from the high lamp. Beyond there, on the outer rim, a policeman passed solidly.
Josephine was weeping steadily all the time, but inaudibly. Occasionally she blew her nose and wiped her face. But he had not realized. She hardly realized herself. She sat near the strange man. He seemed so still and remote—so fascinating.
"Give me your hand," she said to him, subduedly.
He took her cold hand in his warm, living grasp. She wept more bitterly. He noticed at last.
"Why are you crying?" he said.
"I don't know," she replied, rather matter-of-fact, through her tears.
So he let her cry, and said no more, but sat with her cold hand in his warm, easy clasp.
"You'll think me a fool," she said. "I don't know why I cry."
"You can cry for nothing, can't you?" he said.
"Why, yes, but it's not very sensible."
He laughed shortly.
"Sensible!" he said.
"You are a strange man," she said.
But he took no notice.
"Did you ever intend to marry Jim Bricknell?" he asked.
"Yes, of course."
"I can't imagine it," he said.
Both were watching blankly the roaring night of mid-London, the phantasmagoric old Bloomsbury Square. They were still hand in hand.
"Such as you shouldn't marry," he said.
"But why not? I want to."
"You think you do."
"Yes indeed I do."
He did not say any more.
"Why shouldn't I?" she persisted. "I don't know—"
And again he was silent.
"You've known some life, haven't you?" he asked.
"You seem to."
"Do I? I'm sorry. Do I seem vicious?—No, I'm not vicious.—I've seen some life, perhaps—in Paris mostly. But not much. Why do you ask?"
"I wasn't thinking."
"But what do you mean? What are you thinking?"
"Don't be so irritating," said she.
But he did not answer, and she became silent also. They sat hand in hand.
"Won't you kiss me?" came her voice out of the darkness.
He waited some moments, then his voice sounded gently, half mocking, half reproachful.
"Nay!" he said.
"I don't want to."
"Why not?" she asked.
He laughed, but did not reply.
She sat perfectly still for some time. She had ceased to cry. In the darkness her face was set and sullen. Sometimes a spray of rain blew across it. She drew her hand from his, and rose to her feet.
"Ill go in now," she said.
"You're not offended, are you?" he asked.
They stepped down in the darkness from their perch.
She strode off for some little way. Then she turned and said:
"Yes, I think it is rather insulting."
"Nay," he said. "Not it! Not it!"
And he followed her to the gate.
She opened with her key, and they crossed the road to her door.
"Good-night," she said, turning and giving him her hand.
"You'll come and have dinner with me—or lunch—will you? When shall we make it?" he asked.
"Well, I can't say for certain—I'm very busy just now. I'll let you know."
A policeman shed his light on the pair of them as they stood on the step.
"All right," said Aaron, dropping back, and she hastily opened the big door, and entered.
CHAPTER VIII. A PUNCH IN THE WIND
The Lillys had a labourer's cottage in Hampshire—pleasant enough. They were poor. Lilly was a little, dark, thin, quick fellow, his wife was strong and fair. They had known Robert and Julia for some years, but Josephine and Jim were new acquaintances,—fairly new.
One day in early spring Lilly had a telegram, "Coming to see you arrive 4:30—Bricknell." He was surprised, but he and his wife got the spare room ready. And at four o'clock Lilly went off to the station. He was a few minutes late, and saw Jim's tall, rather elegant figure stalking down the station path. Jim had been an officer in the regular army, and still spent hours with his tailor. But instead of being a soldier he was a sort of socialist, and a red-hot revolutionary of a very ineffectual sort.
"Good lad!" he exclaimed, as Lilly came up. "Thought you wouldn't mind."
"Not at all. Let me carry your bag." Jim had a bag and a knapsack.
"I had an inspiration this morning," said Jim. "I suddenly saw that if there was a man in England who could save me, it was you."
"Save you from what?" asked Lilly, rather abashed.
"Eh—?" and Jim stooped, grinning at the smaller man.
Lilly was somewhat puzzled, but he had a certain belief in himself as a saviour. The two men tramped rather incongruously through the lanes to the cottage.
Tanny was in the doorway as they came up the garden path.
"So nice to see you! Are you all right?" she said.
"A-one!" said Jim, grinning. "Nice of you to have me."
"Oh, we're awfully pleased."
Jim dropped his knapsack on the broad sofa.
"I've brought some food," he said.
"Have you! That's sensible of you. We can't get a great deal here, except just at week-ends," said Tanny.
Jim fished out a pound of sausages and a pot of fish paste.
"How lovely the sausages," said Tanny. "We'll have them for dinner tonight—and we'll have the other for tea now. You'd like a wash?"
But Jim had already opened his bag, taken off his coat, and put on an old one.
"Thanks," he said.
Lilly made the tea, and at length all sat down.
"Well how unexpected this is—and how nice," said Tanny.
"Jolly—eh?" said Jim.
He ate rapidly, stuffing his mouth too full.
"How is everybody?" asked Tanny.
"All right. Julia's gone with Cyril Scott. Can't stand that fellow, can you? What?"
"Yes, I think he's rather nice," said Tanny. "What will Robert do?"
"Have a shot at Josephine, apparently."
"Really? Is he in love with her? I thought so. And she likes him too, doesn't she?" said Tanny.
"Very likely," said Jim.
"I suppose you're jealous," laughed Tanny.
"Me!" Jim shook his head. "Not a bit. Like to see the ball kept rolling."
"What have you been doing lately?"
"Been staying a few days with my wife."
"No, really! I can't believe it."
Jim had a French wife, who had divorced him, and two children. Now he was paying visits to this wife again: purely friendly. Tanny did most of the talking. Jim excited her, with his way of looking in her face and grinning wolfishly, and at the same time asking to be saved.
After tea, he wanted to send telegrams, so Lilly took him round to the village post-office. Telegrams were a necessary part of his life. He had to be suddenly starting off to keep sudden appointments, or he felt he was a void in the atmosphere. He talked to Lilly about social reform, and so on. Jim's work in town was merely nominal. He spent his time wavering about and going to various meetings, philandering and weeping.
Lilly kept in the back of his mind the Saving which James had come to look for. He intended to do his best. After dinner the three sat cosily round the kitchen fire.
"But what do you really think will happen to the world?" Lilly asked Jim, amid much talk.
"What? There's something big coming," said Jim.
"Watch Ireland, and watch Japan—they're the two poles of the world," said Jim.
"I thought Russia and America," said Lilly.
"Eh? What? Russia and America! They'll depend on Ireland and Japan. I know it. I've had a vision of it. Ireland on this side and Japan on the other—they'll settle it."
"I don't see how," said Lilly.
"I don't see HOW—But I had a vision of it."
"What sort of vision?"
"Couldn't describe it."
"But you don't think much of the Japanese, do you?" asked Lilly.
"Don't I! Don't I!" said Jim. "What, don't you think they're wonderful?"
"No. I think they're rather unpleasant."
"I think the salvation of the world lies with them."
"Funny salvation," said Lilly. "I think they're anything but angels."
"Do you though? Now that's funny. Why?"
"Looking at them even. I knew a Russian doctor who'd been through the Russo-Japanese war, and who had gone a bit cracked. He said he saw the Japs rush a trench. They threw everything away and flung themselves through the Russian fire and simply dropped in masses. But those that reached the trenches jumped in with bare hands on the Russians and tore their faces apart and bit their throats out—fairly ripped the faces off the bone.—It had sent the doctor a bit cracked. He said the wounded were awful,—their faces torn off and their throats mangled—and dead Japs with flesh between the teeth—God knows if it's true. But that's the impression the Japanese had made on this man. It had affected his mind really."
Jim watched Lilly, and smiled as if he were pleased.
"No—really—!" he said.
"Anyhow they're more demon than angel, I believe," said Lilly.
"Oh, no, Rawdon, but you always exaggerate," said Tanny.
"Maybe," said Lilly.
"I think Japanese are fascinating—fascinating—so quick, and such FORCE in them—"
"Rather!—eh?" said Jim, looking with a quick smile at Tanny.
"I think a Japanese lover would be marvellous," she laughed riskily.
"I s'd think he would," said Jim, screwing up his eyes.
"Do you hate the normal British as much as I do?" she asked him.
"Hate them! Hate them!" he said, with an intimate grin.
"Their beastly virtue," said she. "And I believe there's nobody more vicious underneath."
"Nobody!" said Jim.
"But you're British yourself," said Lilly to Jim.
"No, I'm Irish. Family's Irish—my mother was a Fitz-patrick."
"Anyhow you live in England."
"Because they won't let me go to Ireland."
The talk drifted. Jim finished up all the beer, and they prepared to go to bed. Jim was a bit tipsy, grinning. He asked for bread and cheese to take upstairs.
"Will you have supper?" said Lilly. He was surprised, because Jim had eaten strangely much at dinner.
"No—where's the loaf?" And he cut himself about half of it. There was no cheese.
"Bread'll do," said Jim.
"Sit down and eat it. Have cocoa with it," said Tanny.
"No, I like to have it in my bedroom."
"You don't eat bread in the night?" said Lilly.
"What a funny thing to do."
The cottage was in darkness. The Lillys slept soundly. Jim woke up and chewed bread and slept again. In the morning at dawn he rose and went downstairs. Lilly heard him roaming about—heard the woman come in to clean—heard them talking. So he got up to look after his visitor, though it was not seven o'clock, and the woman was busy.—But before he went down, he heard Jim come upstairs again.
Mrs. Short was busy in the kitchen when Lilly went down.
"The other gentleman have been down, Sir," said Mrs. Short. "He asked me where the bread and butter were, so I said should I cut him a piece. But he wouldn't let me do it. I gave him a knife and he took it for himself, in the pantry."
"I say, Bricknell," said Lilly at breakfast time, "why do you eat so much bread?"
"I've got to feed up. I've been starved during this damned war."
"But hunks of bread won't feed you up."
"Gives the stomach something to work at, and prevents it grinding on the nerves," said Jim.
"But surely you don't want to keep your stomach always full and heavy."
"I do, my boy. I do. It needs keeping solid. I'm losing life, if I don't. I tell you I'm losing life. Let me put something inside me."
"I don't believe bread's any use."
During breakfast Jim talked about the future of the world.
"I reckon Christ's the finest thing time has ever produced," said he; "and will remain it."
"But you don't want crucifixions ad infinitum," said Lilly.
"What? Why not?"
"Once is enough—and have done."
"Don't you think love and sacrifice are the finest things in life?" said Jim, over his bacon.
"Depends WHAT love, and what sacrifice," said Lilly. "If I really believe in an Almighty God, I am willing to sacrifice for Him. That is, I'm willing to yield my own personal interest to the bigger creative interest.—But it's obvious Almighty God isn't mere Love."
"I think it is. Love and only love," said Jim. "I think the greatest joy is sacrificing oneself to love."
"To SOMEONE you love, you mean," said Tanny.
"No I don't. I don't mean someone at all. I mean love—love—love. I sacrifice myself to love. I reckon that's the highest man is capable of."
"But you can't sacrifice yourself to an abstract principle," said Tanny.
"That's just what you can do. And that's the beauty of it. Who represents the principle doesn't matter. Christ is the principle of love," said Jim.
"But no!" said Tanny. "It MUST be more individual. It must be SOMEBODY you love, not abstract love in itself. How can you sacrifice yourself to an abstraction."
"Ha, I think Love and your Christ detestable," said Lilly—"a sheer ignominy."
"Finest thing the world has produced," said Jim.
"No. A thing which sets itself up to be betrayed! No, it's foul. Don't you see it's the Judas principle you really worship. Judas is the real hero. But for Judas the whole show would have been manque."
"Oh yes," said Jim. "Judas was inevitable. I'm not sure that Judas wasn't the greatest of the disciples—and Jesus knew it. I'm not sure Judas wasn't the disciple Jesus loved."
"Jesus certainly encouraged him in his Judas tricks," said Tanny.
Jim grinned knowingly at Lilly.
"Then it was a nasty combination. And anything which turns on a Judas climax is a dirty show, to my thinking. I think your Judas is a rotten, dirty worm, just a dirty little self-conscious sentimental twister. And out of all Christianity he is the hero today. When people say Christ they mean Judas. They find him luscious on the palate. And Jesus fostered him—" said Lilly.
"He's a profound figure, is Judas. It's taken two thousand years to begin to understand him," said Jim, pushing the bread and marmalade into his mouth.
"A traitor is a traitor—no need to understand any further. And a system which rests all its weight on a piece of treachery makes that treachery not only inevitable but sacred. That's why I'm sick of Christianity.—At any rate this modern Christ-mongery."
"The finest thing the world has produced, or ever will produce—Christ and Judas—" said Jim.
"Not to me," said Lilly. "Foul combination."
It was a lovely morning in early March. Violets were out, and the first wild anemones. The sun was quite warm. The three were about to take out a picnic lunch. Lilly however was suffering from Jim's presence.
"Jolly nice here," said Jim. "Mind if I stay till Saturday?"
There was a pause. Lilly felt he was being bullied, almost obscenely bullied. Was he going to agree? Suddenly he looked up at Jim.
"I'd rather you went tomorrow," he said.
Tanny, who was sitting opposite Jim, dropped her head in confusion.
"What's tomorrow?" said Jim.
"Thursday," said Lilly.
"Thursday," repeated Jim. And he looked up and got Lilly's eye. He wanted to say "Friday then?"
"Yes, I'd rather you went Thursday," repeated Lilly.
"But Rawdon—!" broke in Tanny, who was suffering. She stopped, however.
"We can walk across country with you some way if you like," said Lilly to Jim. It was a sort of compromise.
"Fine!" said Jim. "We'll do that, then."
It was lovely sunshine, and they wandered through the woods. Between Jim and Tanny was a sort of growing rapprochement, which got on Lilly's nerves.
"What the hell do you take that beastly personal tone for?" cried Lilly at Tanny, as the three sat under a leafless great beech-tree.
"But I'm not personal at all, am I, Mr. Bricknell?" said Tanny.
Jim watched Lilly, and grinned pleasedly.
"Why shouldn't you be, anyhow?" he said.
"Yes!" she retorted. "Why not!"
"Not while I'm here. I loathe the slimy creepy personal intimacy.—'Don't you think, Mr. Bricknell, that it's lovely to be able to talk quite simply to somebody? Oh, it's such a relief, after most people—-'" Lilly mimicked his wife's last speech savagely.
"But I MEAN it," cried Tanny. "It is lovely."
"Dirty messing," said Lilly angrily.
Jim watched the dark, irascible little man with amusement. They rose, and went to look for an inn, and beer. Tanny still clung rather stickily to Jim's side.
But it was a lovely day, the first of all the days of spring, with crocuses and wall-flowers in the cottage gardens, and white cocks crowing in the quiet hamlet.
When they got back in the afternoon to the cottage, they found a telegram for Jim. He let the Lillys see it—"Meet you for a walk on your return journey Lois." At once Tanny wanted to know all about Lois. Lois was a nice girl, well-to-do middle-class, but also an actress, and she would do anything Jim wanted.
"I must get a wire to her to meet me tomorrow," he said. "Where shall I say?"
Lilly produced the map, and they decided on time and station at which Lois coming out of London, should meet Jim. Then the happy pair could walk along the Thames valley, spending a night perhaps at Marlowe, or some such place.
Off went Jim and Lilly once more to the postoffice. They were quite good friends. Having so inhospitably fixed the hour of departure, Lilly wanted to be nice. Arrived at the postoffice, they found it shut: half-day closing for the little shop.
"Well," said Lilly. "We'll go to the station."
They proceeded to the station—found the station-master—were conducted down to the signal-box. Lilly naturally hung back from people, but Jim was hob-nob with the station-master and the signal man, quite officer-and-my-men kind of thing. Lilly sat out on the steps of the signal-box, rather ashamed, while the long telegram was shouted over the telephone to the junction town—first the young lady and her address, then the message "Meet me X. station 3:40 tomorrow walk back great pleasure Jim."
Anyhow that was done. They went home to tea. After tea, as the evening fell, Lilly suggested a little stroll in the woods, while Tanny prepared the dinner. Jim agreed, and they set out. The two men wandered through the trees in the dusk, till they came to a bank on the farther edge of the wood. There they sat down.
And there Lilly said what he had to say. "As a matter of fact," he said, "it's nothing but love and self-sacrifice which makes you feel yourself losing life."
"You're wrong. Only love brings it back—and wine. If I drink a bottle of Burgundy I feel myself restored at the middle—right here! I feel the energy back again. And if I can fall in love—But it's becoming so damned hard—"
"What, to fall in love?" asked Lilly.
"Then why not leave off trying! What do you want to poke yourself and prod yourself into love, for?"
"Because I'm DEAD without it. I'm dead. I'm dying."
"Only because you force yourself. If you drop working yourself up—"
"I shall die. I only live when I can fall in love. Otherwise I'm dying by inches. Why, man, you don't know what it was like. I used to get the most grand feelings—like a great rush of force, or light—a great rush—right here, as I've said, at the solar plexus. And it would come any time—anywhere—no matter where I was. And then I was all right.
"All right for what?—for making love?"
"Yes, man, I was."
"And now you aren't?—Oh, well, leave love alone, as any twopenny doctor would tell you."
"No, you're off it there. It's nothing technical. Technically I can make love as much as you like. It's nothing a doctor has any say in. It's what I feel inside me. I feel the life going. I know it's going. I never get those inrushes now, unless I drink a jolly lot, or if I possibly could fall in love. Technically, I'm potent all right—oh, yes!"
"You should leave yourself and your inrushes alone."
"But you can't. It's a sort of ache."
"Then you should stiffen your backbone. It's your backbone that matters. You shouldn't want to abandon yourself. You shouldn't want to fling yourself all loose into a woman's lap. You should stand by yourself and learn to be by yourself. Why don't you be more like the Japanese you talk about? Quiet, aloof little devils. They don't bother about being loved. They keep themselves taut in their own selves—there, at the bottom of the spine—the devil's own power they've got there."
Jim mused a bit.
"Think they have?" he laughed. It seemed comic to him.
"Sure! Look at them. Why can't you gather yourself there?"
"At the tail?"
"Yes. Hold yourself firm there."
Jim broke into a cackle of a laugh, and rose. The two went through the dark woods back to the cottage. Jim staggered and stumbled like a drunken man: or worse, like a man with locomotor ataxia: as if he had no power in his lower limbs.
"Walk there—!" said Lilly, finding him the smoothest bit of the dark path. But Jim stumbled and shambled, in a state of nauseous weak relaxation. However, they reached the cottage: and food and beer—and Tanny, piqued with curiosity to know what the men had been saying privately to each other.
After dinner they sat once more talking round the fire.
Lilly sat in a small chair facing the fire, the other two in the armchairs on either side the hearth.
"How nice it will be for you, walking with Lois towards London tomorrow," gushed Tanny sentimentally.
"Good God!" said Lilly. "Why the dickens doesn't he walk by himself, without wanting a woman always there, to hold his hand."
"Don't be so spiteful," said Tanny. "YOU see that you have a woman always there, to hold YOUR hand."
"My hand doesn't need holding," snapped Lilly.
"Doesn't it! More than most men's! But you're so beastly ungrateful and mannish. Because I hold you safe enough all the time you like to pretend you're doing it all yourself."
"All right. Don't drag yourself in," said Lilly, detesting his wife at that moment. "Anyhow," and he turned to Jim, "it's time you'd done slobbering yourself over a lot of little women, one after the other."
"Why shouldn't I, if I like it?" said Jim.
"Yes, why not?" said Tanny.
"Because it makes a fool of you. Look at you, stumbling and staggering with no use in your legs. I'd be ashamed if I were you."
"Would you?" said Jim.
"I would. And it's nothing but your wanting to be loved which does it. A maudlin crying to be loved, which makes your knees all go rickety."
"Think that's it?" said Jim.
"What else is it. You haven't been here a day, but you must telegraph for some female to be ready to hold your hand the moment you go away. And before she lets go, you'll be wiring for another. YOU WANT TO BE LOVED, you want to be loved—a man of your years. It's disgusting—"
"I don't see it. I believe in love—" said Jim, watching and grinning oddly.
"Bah, love! Messing, that's what it is. It wouldn't matter if it did you no harm. But when you stagger and stumble down a road, out of sheer sloppy relaxation of your will—-"
At this point Jim suddenly sprang from his chair at Lilly, and gave him two or three hard blows with his fists, upon the front of the body. Then he sat down in his own chair again, saying sheepishly:
"I knew I should have to do it, if he said any more."
Lilly sat motionless as a statue, his face like paper. One of the blows had caught him rather low, so that he was almost winded and could not breathe. He sat rigid, paralysed as a winded man is. But he wouldn't let it be seen. With all his will he prevented himself from gasping. Only through his parted lips he drew tiny gasps, controlled, nothing revealed to the other two. He hated them both far too much.
For some minutes there was dead silence, whilst Lilly silently and viciously fought for his breath. Tanny opened her eyes wide in a sort of pleased bewilderment, and Jim turned his face aside, and hung his clasped hands between his knees.
"There's a great silence, suddenly!" said Tanny.
"What is there to say?" ejaculated Lilly rapidly, with a spoonful of breath which he managed to compress and control into speech. Then he sat motionless again, concerned with the business of getting back his wind, and not letting the other two see.
Jim jerked in his chair, and looked round.
"It isn't that I don't like the man," he said, in a rather small voice. "But I knew if he went on I should have to do it."
To Lilly, rigid and physically preoccupied, there sounded a sort of self-consciousness in Jim's voice, as if the whole thing had been semi-deliberate. He detected the sort of maudlin deliberateness which goes with hysterics, and he was colder, more icy than ever.
Tanny looked at Lilly, puzzled, bewildered, but still rather pleased, as if she demanded an answer. None being forthcoming, she said:
"Of course, you mustn't expect to say all those things without rousing a man."
Still Lilly did not answer. Jim glanced at him, then looked at Tanny.
"It isn't that I don't like him," he said, slowly. "I like him better than any man I've ever known, I believe." He clasped his hands and turned aside his face.
"Judas!" flashed through Lilly's mind.
Again Tanny looked for her husband's answer.
"Yes, Rawdon," she said. "You can't say the things you do without their having an effect. You really ask for it, you know."
"It's no matter." Lilly squeezed the words out coldly. "He wanted to do it, and he did it."
A dead silence ensued now. Tanny looked from man to man.
"I could feel it coming on me," said Jim.
"Of course!" said Tanny. "Rawdon doesn't know the things he says." She was pleased that he had had to pay for them, for once.
It takes a man a long time to get his breath back, after a sharp blow in the wind. Lilly was managing by degrees. The others no doubt attributed his silence to deep or fierce thoughts. It was nothing of the kind, merely a cold struggle to get his wind back, without letting them know he was struggling: and a sheer, stock-stiff hatred of the pair of them.
"I like the man," said Jim. "Never liked a man more than I like him." He spoke as if with difficulty.
"The man" stuck safely in Lilly's ears.
"Oh, well," he managed to say. "It's nothing. I've done my talking and had an answer, for once."
"Yes, Rawdy, you've had an answer, for once. Usually you don't get an answer, you know—and that's why you go so far—in the things you say. Now you'll know how you make people feel."
"Quite!" said Lilly.
"I don't feel anything. I don't mind what he says," said Jim.
"Yes, but he ought to know the things he DOES say," said Tanny. "He goes on, without considering the person he's talking to. This time it's come back on him. He mustn't say such personal things, if he's not going to risk an answer."
"I don't mind what he says. I don't mind a bit," said Jim.
"Nor do I mind," said Lilly indifferently. "I say what I feel—You do as you feel—There's an end of it."
A sheepish sort of silence followed this speech. It was broken by a sudden laugh from Tanny.
"The things that happen to us!" she said, laughing rather shrilly. "Suddenly, like a thunderbolt, we're all struck into silence!"
"Rum game, eh!" said Jim, grinning.
"Isn't it funny! Isn't life too funny!" She looked again at her husband. "But, Rawdy, you must admit it was your own fault."
Lilly's stiff face did not change.
"Why FAULT!" he said, looking at her coldly. "What is there to talk about?"
"Usually there's so much," she said sarcastically.
A few phrases dribbled out of the silence. In vain Jim, tried to get Lilly to thaw, and in vain Tanny gave her digs at her husband. Lilly's stiff, inscrutable face did not change, he was polite and aloof. So they all went to bed.
In the morning, the walk was to take place, as arranged, Lilly and Tanny accompanying Jim to the third station across country. The morning was lovely, the country beautiful. Lilly liked the countryside and enjoyed the walk. But a hardness inside himself never relaxed. Jim talked a little again about the future of the world, and a higher state of Christlikeness in man. But Lilly only laughed. Then Tanny managed to get ahead with Jim, sticking to his side and talking sympathetic personalities. But Lilly, feeling it from afar, ran after them and caught them up. They were silent.
"What was the interesting topic?" he said cuttingly.
"Nothing at all!" said Tanny, nettled. "Why must you interfere?"
"Because I intend to," said Lilly.
And the two others fell apart, as if severed with a knife. Jim walked rather sheepishly, as if cut out.
So they came at last past the canals to the wayside station: and at last Jim's train came. They all said goodbye. Jim and Tanny were both waiting for Lilly to show some sign of real reconciliation. But none came. He was cheerful and aloof.
"Goodbye," he said to Jim. "Hope Lois will be there all right. Third station on. Goodbye! Goodbye!"
"You'll come to Rackham?" said Jim, leaning out of the train.
"We should love to," called Tanny, after the receding train.
"All right," said Lilly, non-committal.
But he and his wife never saw Jim again. Lilly never intended to see him: a devil sat in the little man's breast.
"You shouldn't play at little Jesus, coming so near to people, wanting to help them," was Tanny's last word.
CHAPTER IX. LOW-WATER MARK
Tanny went away to Norway to visit her people, for the first time for three years. Lilly did not go: he did not want to. He came to London and settled in a room over Covent Garden market. The room was high up, a fair size, and stood at the corner of one of the streets and the market itself, looking down on the stalls and the carts and the arcade. Lilly would climb out of the window and sit for hours watching the behaviour of the great draught-horses which brought the mountains of boxes and vegetables. Funny half-human creatures they seemed, so massive and fleshy, yet so Cockney. There was one which could not bear donkeys, and which used to stretch out its great teeth like some massive serpent after every poor diminutive ass that came with a coster's barrow. Another great horse could not endure standing. It would shake itself and give little starts, and back into the heaps of carrots and broccoli, whilst the driver went into a frenzy of rage.
There was always something to watch. One minute it was two great loads of empty crates, which in passing had got entangled, and reeled, leaning to fall disastrously. Then the drivers cursed and swore and dismounted and stared at their jeopardised loads: till a thin fellow was persuaded to scramble up the airy mountains of cages, like a monkey. And he actually managed to put them to rights. Great sigh of relief when the vans rocked out of the market.
Again there was a particular page-boy in buttons, with a round and perky behind, who nimbly carried a tea-tray from somewhere to somewhere, under the arches beside the market. The great brawny porters would tease him, and he would stop to give them cheek. One afternoon a giant lunged after him: the boy darted gracefully among the heaps of vegetables, still bearing aloft his tea-tray, like some young blue-buttoned acolyte fleeing before a false god. The giant rolled after him—when alas, the acolyte of the tea-tray slipped among the vegetables, and down came the tray. Then tears, and a roar of unfeeling mirth from the giants. Lilly felt they were going to make it up to him.
Another afternoon a young swell sauntered persistently among the vegetables, and Lilly, seated in his high little balcony, wondered why. But at last, a taxi, and a very expensive female, in a sort of silver brocade gown and a great fur shawl and ospreys in her bonnet. Evidently an assignation. Yet what could be more conspicuous than this elegant pair, picking their way through the cabbage-leaves?
And then, one cold grey afternoon in early April, a man in a black overcoat and a bowler hat, walking uncertainly. Lilly had risen and was just retiring out of the chill, damp air. For some reason he lingered to watch the figure. The man was walking east. He stepped rather insecurely off the pavement, and wavered across the setts between the wheels of the standing vans. And suddenly he went down. Lilly could not see him on the ground, but he saw some van-men go forward, and he saw one of them pick up the man's hat.
"I'd better go down," said Lilly to himself.
So he began running down the four long flights of stone stairs, past the many doors of the multifarious business premises, and out into the market. A little crowd had gathered, and a large policeman was just rowing into the centre of the interest. Lilly, always a hoverer on the edge of public commotions, hung now hesitating on the outskirts of the crowd.
"What is it?" he said, to a rather sniffy messenger boy.
"Drunk," said the messenger boy: except that, in unblushing cockney, he pronounced it "Drank."
Lilly hung further back on the edge of the little crowd.
"Come on here. Where d' you want to go?" he heard the hearty tones of the policeman.
"I'm all right. I'm all right," came the testy drunken answer.
"All right, are yer! All right, and then some,—come on, get on your pins."
"I'm all right! I'm all right."
The voice made Lilly peer between the people. And sitting on the granite setts, being hauled up by a burly policeman, he saw our acquaintance Aaron, very pale in the face and a little dishevelled.
"Like me to tuck the sheets round you, shouldn't you? Fancy yourself snug in bed, don't you? You won't believe you're right in the way of traffic, will you now, in Covent Garden Market? Come on, we'll see to you." And the policeman hoisted the bitter and unwilling Aaron.
Lilly was quickly at the centre of the affair, unobtrusive like a shadow, different from the other people.
"Help him up to my room, will you?" he said to the constable. "Friend of mine."
The large constable looked down on the bare-headed wispy, unobtrusive Lilly with good-humoured suspicion and incredulity. Lilly could not have borne it if the policeman had uttered any of this cockney suspicion, so he watched him. There was a great gulf between the public official and the odd, quiet little individual—yet Lilly had his way.
"Which room?" said the policeman, dubious.
Lilly pointed quickly round. Then he said to Aaron:
"Were you coming to see me, Sisson? You'll come in, won't you?"
Aaron nodded rather stupidly and testily. His eyes looked angry. Somebody stuck his hat on his head for him, and made him look a fool. Lilly took it off again, and carried it for him. He turned and the crowd eased. He watched Aaron sharply, and saw that it was with difficulty he could walk. So he caught him by the arm on the other side from the policeman, and they crossed the road to the pavement.
"Not so much of this sort of thing these days," said the policeman.
"Not so much opportunity," said Lilly.
"More than there was, though. Coming back to the old days, like. Working round, bit by bit."
They had arrived at the stairs. Aaron stumbled up.
"Steady now! Steady does it!" said the policeman, steering his charge. There was a curious breach of distance between Lilly and the constable.
At last Lilly opened his own door. The room was pleasant. The fire burned warm, the piano stood open, the sofa was untidy with cushions and papers. Books and papers covered the big writing desk. Beyond the screen made by the bookshelves and the piano were two beds, with washstand by one of the large windows, the one through which Lilly had climbed.
The policeman looked round curiously.
"More cosy here than in the lock-up, sir!" he said.
Lilly laughed. He was hastily clearing the sofa.
"Sit on the sofa, Sisson," he said.
The policeman lowered his charge, with a—
"Right we are, then!"
Lilly felt in his pocket, and gave the policeman half a crown. But he was watching Aaron, who sat stupidly on the sofa, very pale and semi-conscious.
"Do you feel ill, Sisson?" he said sharply.
Aaron looked back at him with heavy eyes, and shook his head slightly.
"I believe you are," said Lilly, taking his hand.
"Might be a bit o' this flu, you know," said the policeman.
"Yes," said Lilly. "Where is there a doctor?" he added, on reflection.
"The nearest?" said the policeman. And he told him. "Leave a message for you, Sir?"
Lilly wrote his address on a card, then changed his mind.
"No, I'll run round myself if necessary," he said.
And the policeman departed.
"You'll go to bed, won't you?" said Lilly to Aaron, when the door was shut. Aaron shook his head sulkily.
"I would if I were you. You can stay here till you're all right. I'm alone, so it doesn't matter."
But Aaron had relapsed into semi-consciousness. Lilly put the big kettle on the gas stove, the little kettle on the fire. Then he hovered in front of the stupefied man. He felt uneasy. Again he took Aaron's hand and felt the pulse.
"I'm sure you aren't well. You must go to bed," he said. And he kneeled and unfastened his visitor's boots. Meanwhile the kettle began to boil, he put a hot-water bottle into the bed.
"Let us get your overcoat off," he said to the stupefied man. "Come along." And with coaxing and pulling and pushing he got off the overcoat and coat and waistcoat.
At last Aaron was undressed and in bed. Lilly brought him tea. With a dim kind of obedience he took the cup and would drink. He looked at Lilly with heavy eyes.
"I gave in, I gave in to her, else I should ha' been all right," he said.
"To whom?" said Lilly.
"I gave in to her—and afterwards I cried, thinking of Lottie and the children. I felt my heart break, you know. And that's what did it. I should have been all right if I hadn't given in to her—"
"To whom?" said Lilly.
"Josephine. I felt, the minute I was loving her, I'd done myself. And I had. Everything came back on me. If I hadn't given in to her, I should ha' kept all right."
"Don't bother now. Get warm and still—"
"I felt it—I felt it go, inside me, the minute I gave in to her. It's perhaps killed me."
"No, not it. Never mind, be still. Be still, and you'll be all right in the morning."
"It's my own fault, for giving in to her. If I'd kept myself back, my liver wouldn't have broken inside me, and I shouldn't have been sick. And I knew—"
"Never mind now. Have you drunk your tea? Lie down. Lie down, and go to sleep."
Lilly pushed Aaron down in the bed, and covered him over. Then he thrust his hands under the bedclothes and felt his feet—still cold. He arranged the water bottle. Then he put another cover on the bed.
Aaron lay still, rather grey and peaked-looking, in a stillness that was not healthy. For some time Lilly went about stealthily, glancing at his patient from time to time. Then he sat down to read.
He was roused after a time by a moaning of troubled breathing and a fretful stirring in the bed. He went across. Aaron's eyes were open, and dark looking.
"Have a little hot milk," said Lilly.
Aaron shook his head faintly, not noticing.
"A little Bovril?"
The same faint shake.
Then Lilly wrote a note for the doctor, went into the office on the same landing, and got a clerk, who would be leaving in a few minutes, to call with the note. When he came back he found Aaron still watching.
"Are you here by yourself?" asked the sick man.
"Yes. My wife's gone to Norway."
"No," laughed Lilly. "For a couple of months or so. She'll come back here: unless she joins me in Switzerland or somewhere."
Aaron was still for a while.
"You've not gone with her," he said at length.
"To see her people? No, I don't think they want me very badly—and I didn't want very badly to go. Why should I? It's better for married people to be separated sometimes."
"Ay!" said Aaron, watching the other man with fever-darkened eyes.
"I hate married people who are two in one—stuck together like two jujube lozenges," said Lilly.
"Me an' all. I hate 'em myself," said Aaron.
"Everybody ought to stand by themselves, in the first place—men and women as well. They can come together, in the second place, if they like. But nothing is any good unless each one stands alone, intrinsically."
"I'm with you there," said Aaron. "If I'd kep' myself to myself I shouldn't be bad now—though I'm not very bad. I s'll be all right in the morning. But I did myself in when I went with another woman. I felt myself go—as if the bile broke inside me, and I was sick."
"Josephine seduced you?" laughed Lilly.
"Ay, right enough," replied Aaron grimly. "She won't be coming here, will she?"
"Not unless I ask her."
"You won't ask her, though?"
"No, not if you don't want her."
The fever made Aaron naive and communicative, unlike himself. And he knew he was being unlike himself, he knew that he was not in proper control of himself, so he was unhappy, uneasy.
"I'll stop here the night then, if you don't mind," he said.
"You'll have to," said Lilly. "I've sent for the doctor. I believe you've got the flu."
"Think I have?" said Aaron frightened.
"Don't be scared," laughed Lilly.
There was a long pause. Lilly stood at the window looking at the darkening market, beneath the street-lamps.
"I s'll have to go to the hospital, if I have," came Aaron's voice.
"No, if it's only going to be a week or a fortnight's business, you can stop here. I've nothing to do," said Lilly.
"There's no occasion for you to saddle yourself with me," said Aaron dejectedly.
"You can go to your hospital if you like—or back to your lodging—if you wish to," said Lilly. "You can make up your mind when you see how you are in the morning."
"No use going back to my lodgings," said Aaron.
"I'll send a telegram to your wife if you like," said Lilly.
Aaron was silent, dead silent, for some time.
"Nay," he said at length, in a decided voice. "Not if I die for it."
Lilly remained still, and the other man lapsed into a sort of semi-sleep, motionless and abandoned. The darkness had fallen over London, and away below the lamps were white.
Lilly lit the green-shaded reading lamp over the desk. Then he stood and looked at Aaron, who lay still, looking sick. Rather beautiful the bones of the countenance: but the skull too small for such a heavy jaw and rather coarse mouth. Aaron half-opened his eyes, and writhed feverishly, as if his limbs could not be in the right place. Lilly mended the fire, and sat down to write. Then he got up and went downstairs to unfasten the street door, so that the doctor could walk up. The business people had gone from their various holes, all the lower part of the tall house was in darkness.
Lilly waited and waited. He boiled an egg and made himself toast. Aaron said he might eat the same. Lilly cooked another egg and took it to the sick man. Aaron looked at it and pushed it away with nausea. He would have some tea. So Lilly gave him tea.
"Not much fun for you, doing this for somebody who is nothing to you," said Aaron.
"I shouldn't if you were unsympathetic to me," said Lilly. "As it is, it's happened so, and so we'll let be."
"What time is it?"
"Nearly eight o'clock."
"Oh, my Lord, the opera."
And Aaron got half out of bed. But as he sat on the bedside he knew he could not safely get to his feet. He remained a picture of dejection.
"Perhaps we ought to let them know," said Lilly.
But Aaron, blank with stupid misery, sat huddled there on the bedside without answering.
"Ill run round with a note," said Lilly. "I suppose others have had flu, besides you. Lie down!"
But Aaron stupidly and dejectedly sat huddled on the side of the bed, wearing old flannel pyjamas of Lilly's, rather small for him. He felt too sick to move.
"Lie down! Lie down!" said Lilly. "And keep still while I'm gone. I shan't be more than ten minutes."
"I don't care if I die," said Aaron.
"You're a long way from dying," said he, "or you wouldn't say it."
But Aaron only looked up at him with queer, far-off, haggard eyes, something like a criminal who is just being executed.
"Lie down!" said Lilly, pushing him gently into the bed. "You won't improve yourself sitting there, anyhow."
Aaron lay down, turned away, and was quite still. Lilly quietly left the room on his errand.
The doctor did not come until ten o'clock: and worn out with work when he did come.
"Isn't there a lift in this establishment?" he said, as he groped his way up the stone stairs. Lilly had heard him, and run down to meet him.
The doctor poked the thermometer under Aaron's tongue and felt the pulse. Then he asked a few questions: listened to the heart and breathing.
"Yes, it's the flu," he said curtly. "Nothing to do but to keep warm in bed and not move, and take plenty of milk and liquid nourishment. I'll come round in the morning and give you an injection. Lungs are all right so far."
"How long shall I have to be in bed?" said Aaron.
"Oh—depends. A week at least."
Aaron watched him sullenly—and hated him. Lilly laughed to himself. The sick man was like a dog that is ill but which growls from a deep corner, and will bite if you put your hand in. He was in a state of black depression.
Lilly settled him down for the night, and himself went to bed. Aaron squirmed with heavy, pained limbs, the night through, and slept and had bad dreams. Lilly got up to give him drinks. The din in the market was terrific before dawn, and Aaron suffered bitterly.
In the morning he was worse. The doctor gave him injections against pneumonia.
"You wouldn't like me to wire to your wife?" said Lilly.
"No," said Aaron abruptly. "You can send me to the hospital. I'm nothing but a piece of carrion."
"Carrion!" said Lilly. "Why?"
"I know it. I feel like it."
"Oh, that's only the sort of nauseated feeling you get with flu."
"I'm only fit to be thrown underground, and made an end of. I can't stand myself—"
He had a ghastly, grey look of self-repulsion.
"It's the germ that makes you feel like that," said Lilly. "It poisons the system for a time. But you'll work it off."
At evening he was no better, the fever was still high. Yet there were no complications—except that the heart was irregular.
"The one thing I wonder," said Lilly, "is whether you hadn't better be moved out of the noise of the market. It's fearful for you in the early morning."
"It makes no difference to me," said Aaron.
The next day he was a little worse, if anything. The doctor knew there was nothing to be done. At evening he gave the patient a calomel pill. It was rather strong, and Aaron had a bad time. His burning, parched, poisoned inside was twisted and torn. Meanwhile carts banged, porters shouted, all the hell of the market went on outside, away down on the cobble setts. But this time the two men did not hear.
"You'll feel better now," said Lilly, "after the operation."
"It's done me harm," cried Aaron fretfully. "Send me to the hospital, or you'll repent it. Get rid of me in time."
"Nay," said Lilly. "You get better. Damn it, you're only one among a million."
Again over Aaron's face went the ghastly grimace of self-repulsion.
"My soul's gone rotten," he said.
"No," said Lilly. "Only toxin in the blood."
Next day the patient seemed worse, and the heart more irregular. He rested badly. So far, Lilly had got a fair night's rest. Now Aaron was not sleeping, and he seemed to struggle in the bed.
"Keep your courage up, man," said the doctor sharply. "You give way."
Aaron looked at him blackly, and did not answer.
In the night Lilly was up time after time. Aaron would slip down on his back, and go semi-conscious. And then he would awake, as if drowning, struggling to move, mentally shouting aloud, yet making no sound for some moments, mentally shouting in frenzy, but unable to stir or make a sound. When at last he got some sort of physical control he cried: "Lift me up! Lift me up!"
Lilly hurried and lifted him up, and he sat panting with a sobbing motion, his eyes gloomy and terrified, more than ever like a criminal who is just being executed. He drank brandy, and was laid down on his side.
"Don't let me lie on my back," he said, terrified. "No, I won't," said Lilly. Aaron frowned curiously on his nurse. "Mind you don't let me," he said, exacting and really terrified.
"No, I won't let you."
And now Lilly was continually crossing over and pulling Aaron on to his side, whenever he found him slipped down on his back.
In the morning the doctor was puzzled. Probably it was the toxin in the blood which poisoned the heart. There was no pneumonia. And yet Aaron was clearly growing worse. The doctor agreed to send in a nurse for the coming night.
"What's the matter with you, man!" he said sharply to his patient. "You give way! You give way! Can't you pull yourself together?"
But Aaron only became more gloomily withheld, retracting from life. And Lilly began to be really troubled. He got a friend to sit with the patient in the afternoon, whilst he himself went out and arranged to sleep in Aaron's room, at his lodging.
The next morning, when he came in, he found the patient lying as ever, in a sort of heap in the bed. Nurse had had to lift him up and hold him up again. And now Aaron lay in a sort of semi-stupor of fear, frustrated anger, misery and self-repulsion: a sort of interlocked depression.
The doctor frowned when he came. He talked with the nurse, and wrote another prescription. Then he drew Lilly away to the door.
"What's the matter with the fellow?" he said. "Can't you rouse his spirit? He seems to be sulking himself out of life. He'll drop out quite suddenly, you know, if he goes on like this. Can't you rouse him up?"
"I think it depresses him partly that his bowels won't work. It frightens him. He's never been ill in his life before," said Lilly.
"His bowels won't work if he lets all his spirit go, like an animal dying of the sulks," said the doctor impatiently. "He might go off quite suddenly—dead before you can turn round—"
Lilly was properly troubled. Yet he did not quite know what to do. It was early afternoon, and the sun was shining into the room. There were daffodils and anemones in a jar, and freezias and violets. Down below in the market were two stalls of golden and blue flowers, gay.
"The flowers are lovely in the spring sunshine," said Lilly. "I wish I were in the country, don't you? As soon as you are better we'll go. It's been a terrible cold, wet spring. But now it's going to be nice. Do you like being in the country?"
"Yes," said Aaron.
He was thinking of his garden. He loved it. Never in his life had he been away from a garden before.
"Make haste and get better, and we'll go."
"Where?" said Aaron.
"Hampshire. Or Berkshire. Or perhaps you'd like to go home? Would you?"
Aaron lay still, and did not answer.
"Perhaps you want to, and you don't want to," said Lilly. "You can please yourself, anyhow."
There was no getting anything definite out of the sick man—his soul seemed stuck, as if it would not move.
Suddenly Lilly rose and went to the dressing-table.
"I'm going to rub you with oil," he said. "I'm going to rub you as mothers do their babies whose bowels don't work."
Aaron frowned slightly as he glanced at the dark, self-possessed face of the little man.
"What's the good of that?" he said irritably. "I'd rather be left alone."
"Then you won't be."
Quickly he uncovered the blond lower body of his patient, and began to rub the abdomen with oil, using a slow, rhythmic, circulating motion, a sort of massage. For a long time he rubbed finely and steadily, then went over the whole of the lower body, mindless, as if in a sort of incantation. He rubbed every speck of the man's lower body—the abdomen, the buttocks, the thighs and knees, down to the feet, rubbed it all warm and glowing with camphorated oil, every bit of it, chafing the toes swiftly, till he was almost exhausted. Then Aaron was covered up again, and Lilly sat down in fatigue to look at his patient.
He saw a change. The spark had come back into the sick eyes, and the faint trace of a smile, faintly luminous, into the face. Aaron was regaining himself. But Lilly said nothing. He watched his patient fall into a proper sleep.
And he sat and watched him sleep. And he thought to himself: "I wonder why I do it. I wonder why I bother with him.... Jim ought to have taught me my lesson. As soon as this man's really better he'll punch me in the wind, metaphorically if not actually, for having interfered with him. And Tanny would say, he was quite right to do it. She says I want power over them. What if I do? They don't care how much power the mob has over them, the nation, Lloyd George and Northcliffe and the police and money. They'll yield themselves up to that sort of power quickly enough, and immolate themselves pro bono publico by the million. And what's the bonum publicum but a mob power? Why can't they submit to a bit of healthy individual authority? The fool would die, without me: just as that fool Jim will die in hysterics one day. Why does he last so long!
"Tanny's the same. She does nothing really but resist me: my authority, or my influence, or just ME. At the bottom of her heart she just blindly and persistently opposes me. God knows what it is she opposes: just me myself. She thinks I want her to submit to me. So I do, in a measure natural to our two selves. Somewhere, she ought to submit to me. But they all prefer to kick against the pricks. Not that THEY get many pricks. I get them. Damn them all, why don't I leave them alone? They only grin and feel triumphant when they've insulted one and punched one in the wind.
"This Aaron will do just the same. I like him, and he ought to like me. And he'll be another Jim: he WILL like me, if he can knock the wind out of me. A lot of little Stavrogins coming up to whisper affectionately, and biting one's ear.
"But anyhow I can soon see the last of this chap: and him the last of all the rest. I'll be damned for ever if I see their Jims and Roberts and Julias and Scotts any more. Let them dance round their insipid hell-broth. Thin tack it is.
"There's a whole world besides this little gang of Europeans. Except, dear God, that they've exterminated all the peoples worth knowing. I can't do with folk who teem by the billion, like the Chinese and Japs and orientals altogether. Only vermin teem by the billion. Higher types breed slower. I would have loved the Aztecs and the Red Indians. I KNOW they hold the element in life which I am looking for—they had living pride. Not like the flea-bitten Asiatics—even niggers are better than Asiatics, though they are wallowers—the American races—and the South Sea Islanders—the Marquesans, the Maori blood. That was the true blood. It wasn't frightened. All the rest are craven—Europeans, Asiatics, Africans—everyone at his own individual quick craven and cringing: only conceited in the mass, the mob. How I hate them: the mass-bullies, the individual Judases.
"Well, if one will be a Jesus he must expect his Judas. That's why Abraham Lincoln gets shot. A Jesus makes a Judas inevitable. A man should remain himself, not try to spread himself over humanity. He should pivot himself on his own pride.
"I suppose really I ought to have packed this Aaron off to the hospital. Instead of which here am I rubbing him with oil to rub the life into him. And I KNOW he'll bite me, like a warmed snake, the moment he recovers. And Tanny will say 'Quite right, too,' I shouldn't have been so intimate. No, I should have left it to mechanical doctors and nurses.
"So I should. Everything to its own. And Aaron belongs to this little system, and Jim is waiting to be psychoanalysed, and Tanny is waiting for her own glorification.
"All right, Aaron. Last time I break my bread for anybody, this is. So get better, my flautist, so that I can go away.
"It was easy for the Red Indians and the Others to take their hook into death. They might have stayed a bit longer to help one to defy the white masses.
"I'll make some tea—"
Lilly rose softly and went across to the fire. He had to cross a landing to a sort of little lavatory, with a sink and a tap, for water. The clerks peeped out at him from an adjoining office and nodded. He nodded, and disappeared from their sight as quickly as possible, with his kettle. His dark eyes were quick, his dark hair was untidy, there was something silent and withheld about him. People could never approach him quite ordinarily.
He put on the kettle, and quietly set cups and plates on a tray. The room was clean and cosy and pleasant. He did the cleaning himself, and was as efficient and inobtrusive a housewife as any woman. While the kettle boiled, he sat darning the socks which he had taken off Aaron's feet when the flautist arrived, and which he had washed. He preferred that no outsider should see him doing these things. Yet he preferred also to do them himself, so that he should be independent of outside aid.
His face was dark and hollow, he seemed frail, sitting there in the London afternoon darning the black woollen socks. His full brow was knitted slightly, there was a tension. At the same time, there was an indomitable stillness about him, as it were in the atmosphere about him. His hands, though small, were not very thin. He bit off the wool as he finished his darn.
As he was making the tea he saw Aaron rouse up in bed.
"I've been to sleep. I feel better," said the patient, turning round to look what the other man was doing. And the sight of the water steaming in a jet from the teapot seemed attractive.
"Yes," said Lilly. "You've slept for a good two hours."
"I believe I have," said Aaron.
"Would you like a little tea?"
"Ay—and a bit of toast."
"You're not supposed to have solid food. Let me take your temperature."
The temperature was down to a hundred, and Lilly, in spite of the doctor, gave Aaron a piece of toast with his tea, enjoining him not to mention it to the nurse.
In the evening the two men talked.
"You do everything for yourself, then?" said Aaron.
"Yes, I prefer it."
"You like living all alone?"
"I don't know about that. I never have lived alone. Tanny and I have been very much alone in various countries: but that's two, not one."
"You miss her then?"
"Yes, of course. I missed her horribly in the cottage, when she'd first gone. I felt my heart was broken. But here, where we've never been together, I don't notice it so much."
"She'll come back," said Aaron.
"Yes, she'll come back. But I'd rather meet her abroad than here—and get on a different footing."
"Oh, I don't know. There's something with marriage altogether, I think. Egoisme a deux—"
"What's that mean?"
"Egoisme a deux? Two people, one egoism. Marriage is a self-conscious egoistic state, it seems to me."
"You've got no children?" said Aaron.
"No. Tanny wants children badly. I don't. I'm thankful we have none."
"I can't quite say. I think of them as a burden. Besides, there ARE such millions and billions of children in the world. And we know well enough what sort of millions and billions of people they'll grow up into. I don't want to add my quota to the mass—it's against my instinct—"
"Ay!" laughed Aaron, with a curt acquiescence.
"Tanny's furious. But then, when a woman has got children, she thinks the world wags only for them and her. Nothing else. The whole world wags for the sake of the children—and their sacred mother."
"Ay, that's DAMNED true," said Aaron.
"And myself, I'm sick of the children stunt. Children are all right, so long as you just take them for what they are: young immature things like kittens and half-grown dogs, nuisances, sometimes very charming. But I'll be hanged if I can see anything high and holy about children. I should be sorry, too, it would be so bad for the children. Young brats, tiresome and amusing in turns."
"When they don't give themselves airs," said Aaron.
"Yes, indeed. Which they do half the time. Sacred children, and sacred motherhood, I'm absolutely fed stiff by it. That's why I'm thankful I have no children. Tanny can't come it over me there."
"It's a fact. When a woman's got her children, by God, she's a bitch in the manger. You can starve while she sits on the hay. It's useful to keep her pups warm."
"Why, you know," Aaron turned excitedly in the bed, "they look on a man as if he was nothing but an instrument to get and rear children. If you have anything to do with a woman, she thinks it's because you want to get children by her. And I'm damned if it is. I want my own pleasure, or nothing: and children be damned."
"Ah, women—THEY must be loved, at any price!" said Lilly. "And if you just don't want to love them—and tell them so—what a crime."
"A crime!" said Aaron. "They make a criminal of you. Them and their children be cursed. Is my life given me for nothing but to get children, and work to bring them up? See them all in hell first. They'd better die while they're children, if childhood's all that important."
"I quite agree," said Lilly. "If childhood is more important than manhood, then why live to be a man at all? Why not remain an infant?"
"Be damned and blasted to women and all their importances," cried Aaron. "They want to get you under, and children is their chief weapon."
"Men have got to stand up to the fact that manhood is more than childhood—and then force women to admit it," said Lilly. "But the rotten whiners, they're all grovelling before a baby's napkin and a woman's petticoat."
"It's a fact," said Aaron. But he glanced at Lilly oddly, as if suspiciously. And Lilly caught the look. But he continued:
"And if they think you try to stand on your legs and walk with the feet of manhood, why, there isn't a blooming father and lover among them but will do his best to get you down and suffocate you—either with a baby's napkin or a woman's petticoat."
Lilly's lips were curling; he was dark and bitter.
"Ay, it is like that," said Aaron, rather subduedly.
"The man's spirit has gone out of the world. Men can't move an inch unless they can grovel humbly at the end of the journey."
"No," said Aaron, watching with keen, half-amused eyes.
"That's why marriage wants readjusting—or extending—to get men on to their own legs once more, and to give them the adventure again. But men won't stick together and fight for it. Because once a woman has climbed up with her children, she'll find plenty of grovellers ready to support her and suffocate any defiant spirit. And women will sacrifice eleven men, fathers, husbands, brothers and lovers, for one baby—or for her own female self-conceit—"
"She will that," said Aaron.
"And can you find two men to stick together, without feeling criminal, and without cringing, and without betraying one another? You can't. One is sure to go fawning round some female, then they both enjoy giving each other away, and doing a new grovel before a woman again."
"Ay," said Aaron.
After which Lilly was silent.
CHAPTER X. THE WAR AGAIN
"One is a fool," said Lilly, "to be lachrymose. The thing to do is to get a move on."
Aaron looked up with a glimpse of a smile. The two men were sitting before the fire at the end of a cold, wet April day: Aaron convalescent, somewhat chastened in appearance.
"Ay," he said rather sourly. "A move back to Guilford Street."
"Oh, I meant to tell you," said Lilly. "I was reading an old Baden history. They made a law in 1528—not a law, but a regulation—that: if a man forsakes his wife and children, as now so often happens, the said wife and children are at once to be dispatched after him. I thought that would please you. Does it?"
"Yes," said Aaron briefly.
"They would have arrived the next day, like a forwarded letter."
"I should have had to get a considerable move on, at that rate," grinned Aaron.
"Oh, no. You might quite like them here." But Lilly saw the white frown of determined revulsion on the convalescent's face.
"Wouldn't you?" he asked.
Aaron shook his head.
"No," he said. And it was obvious he objected to the topic. "What are you going to do about your move on?"
"Me!" said Lilly. "I'm going to sail away next week—or steam dirtily away on a tramp called the Maud Allen Wing."
"London Dock. I fixed up my passage this morning for ten pounds. I am cook's assistant, signed on."
Aaron looked at him with a little admiration.
"You can take a sudden jump, can't you?" he said.
"The difficulty is to refrain from jumping: overboard or anywhere."
Aaron smoked his pipe slowly.
"And what good will Malta do you?" he asked, envious.
"Heaven knows. I shall cross to Syracuse, and move up Italy."
"Sounds as if you were a millionaire."
"I've got thirty-five pounds in all the world. But something will come along."
"I've got more than that," said Aaron.
"Good for you," replied Lilly.
He rose and went to the cupboard, taking out a bowl and a basket of potatoes. He sat down again, paring the potatoes. His busy activity annoyed Aaron.
"But what's the good of going to Malta? Shall YOU be any different in yourself, in another place? You'll be the same there as you are here."
"How am I here?"
"Why, you're all the time grinding yourself against something inside you. You're never free. You're never content. You never stop chafing."
Lilly dipped his potato into the water, and cut out the eyes carefully. Then he cut it in two, and dropped it in the clean water of the second bowl. He had not expected this criticism.
"Perhaps I don't," said he.
"Then what's the use of going somewhere else? You won't change yourself."
"I may in the end," said Lilly.
"You'll be yourself, whether it's Malta or London," said Aaron.
"There's a doom for me," laughed Lilly. The water on the fire was boiling. He rose and threw in salt, then dropped in the potatoes with little plops. "There there are lots of mes. I'm not only just one proposition. A new place brings out a new thing in a man. Otherwise you'd have stayed in your old place with your family."
"The man in the middle of you doesn't change," said Aaron.
"Do you find it so?" said Lilly.
"Ay. Every time."
"Then what's to be done?"
"Nothing, as far as I can see. You get as much amusement out of life as possible, and there's the end of it."
"All right then, I'll get the amusement."
"Ay, all right then," said Aaron. "But there isn't anything wonderful about it. You talk as if you were doing something special. You aren't. You're no more than a man who drops into a pub for a drink, to liven himself up a bit. Only you give it a lot of names, and make out as if you were looking for the philosopher's stone, or something like that. When you're only killing time like the rest of folks, before time kills you."
Lilly did not answer. It was not yet seven o'clock, but the sky was dark. Aaron sat in the firelight. Even the saucepan on the fire was silent. Darkness, silence, the firelight in the upper room, and the two men together.
"It isn't quite true," said Lilly, leaning on the mantelpiece and staring down into the fire.
"Where isn't it? You talk, and you make a man believe you've got something he hasn't got? But where is it, when it comes to? What have you got, more than me or Jim Bricknell! Only a bigger choice of words, it seems to me."
Lilly was motionless and inscrutable like a shadow.
"Does it, Aaron!" he said, in a colorless voice.
"Yes. What else is there to it?" Aaron sounded testy.
"Why," said Lilly at last, "there's something. I agree, it's true what you say about me. But there's a bit of something else. There's just a bit of something in me, I think, which ISN'T a man running into a pub for a drink—"
The question fell into the twilight like a drop of water falling down a deep shaft into a well.
"I think a man may come into possession of his own soul at last—as the Buddhists teach—but without ceasing to love, or even to hate. One loves, one hates—but somewhere beyond it all, one understands, and possesses one's soul in patience and in peace—"
"Yes," said Aaron slowly, "while you only stand and talk about it. But when you've got no chance to talk about it—and when you've got to live—you don't possess your soul, neither in patience nor in peace, but any devil that likes possesses you and does what it likes with you, while you fridge yourself and fray yourself out like a worn rag."
"I don't care," said Lilly, "I'm learning to possess my soul in patience and in peace, and I know it. And it isn't a negative Nirvana either. And if Tanny possesses her own soul in patience and peace as well—and if in this we understand each other at last—then there we are, together and apart at the same time, and free of each other, and eternally inseparable. I have my Nirvana—and I have it all to myself. But more than that. It coincides with her Nirvana."
"Ah, yes," said Aaron. "But I don't understand all that word-splitting."
"I do, though. You learn to be quite alone, and possess your own soul in isolation—and at the same time, to be perfectly WITH someone else—that's all I ask."
"Sort of sit on a mountain top, back to back with somebody else, like a couple of idols."
"No—because it isn't a case of sitting—or a case of back to back. It's what you get to after a lot of fighting and a lot of sensual fulfilment. And it never does away with the fighting and with the sensual passion. It flowers on top of them, and it would never flower save on top of them."
"The possessing one's own soul—and the being together with someone else in silence, beyond speech."
"And you've got them?"
"I've got a BIT of the real quietness inside me."
"So has a dog on a mat."
"So I believe, too."
"Or a man in a pub."
"Which I don't believe."
"You prefer the dog?"
There was silence for a few moments.
"And I'm the man in the pub," said Aaron.
"You aren't the dog on the mat, anyhow."
"And you're the idol on the mountain top, worshipping yourself."
"You talk to me like a woman, Aaron."
"How do you talk to ME, do you think?"
"How do I?"
"Are the potatoes done?"
Lilly turned quickly aside, and switched on the electric light. Everything changed. Aaron sat still before the fire, irritated. Lilly went about preparing the supper.
The room was pleasant at night. Two tall, dark screens hid the two beds. In front, the piano was littered with music, the desk littered with papers. Lilly went out on to the landing, and set the chops to grill on the gas stove. Hastily he put a small table on the hearth-rug, spread it with a blue-and-white cloth, set plates and glasses. Aaron did not move. It was not his nature to concern himself with domestic matters—and Lilly did it best alone.
The two men had an almost uncanny understanding of one another—like brothers. They came from the same district, from the same class. Each might have been born into the other's circumstance. Like brothers, there was a profound hostility between them. But hostility is not antipathy.
Lilly's skilful housewifery always irritated Aaron: it was so self-sufficient. But most irritating of all was the little man's unconscious assumption of priority. Lilly was actually unaware that he assumed this quiet predominance over others. He mashed the potatoes, he heated the plates, he warmed the red wine, he whisked eggs into the milk pudding, and served his visitor like a housemaid. But none of this detracted from the silent assurance with which he bore himself, and with which he seemed to domineer over his acquaintance.
At last the meal was ready. Lilly drew the curtains, switched off the central light, put the green-shaded electric lamp on the table, and the two men drew up to the meal. It was good food, well cooked and hot. Certainly Lilly's hands were no longer clean: but it was clean dirt, as he said.
Aaron sat in the low arm-chair at table. So his face was below, in the full light. Lilly sat high on a small chair, so that his face was in the green shadow. Aaron was handsome, and always had that peculiar well-dressed look of his type. Lilly was indifferent to his own appearance, and his collar was a rag.
So the two men ate in silence. They had been together alone for a fortnight only: but it was like a small eternity. Aaron was well now—only he suffered from the depression and the sort of fear that follows influenza.
"When are you going?" he asked irritably, looking up at Lilly, whose face hovered in that green shadow above, and worried him.
"One day next week. They'll send me a telegram. Not later than Thursday."
"You're looking forward to going?" The question was half bitter.
"Yes. I want to get a new tune out of myself."
"Had enough of this?"
A flush of anger came on Aaron's face.
"You're easily on, and easily off," he said, rather insulting.
"Am I?" said Lilly. "What makes you think so?"
"Circumstances," replied Aaron sourly.
To which there was no answer. The host cleared away the plates, and put the pudding on the table. He pushed the bowl to Aaron.
"I suppose I shall never see you again, once you've gone," said Aaron.
"It's your choice. I will leave you an address."
After this, the pudding was eaten in silence.
"Besides, Aaron," said Lilly, drinking his last sip of wine, "what do you care whether you see me again or not? What do you care whether you see anybody again or not? You want to be amused. And now you're irritated because you think I am not going to amuse you any more: and you don't know who is going to amuse you. I admit it's a dilemma. But it's a hedonistic dilemma of the commonest sort."
"I don't know hedonistic. And supposing I am as you say—are you any different?"
"No, I'm not very different. But I always persuade myself there's a bit of difference. Do you know what Josephine Ford confessed to me? She's had her lovers enough. 'There isn't any such thing as love, Lilly,' she said. 'Men are simply afraid to be alone. That is absolutely all there is in it: fear of being alone.'"
"What by that?" said Aaron.
"Yes, on the whole."
"So do I—on the whole. And then I asked her what about woman. And then she said with a woman it wasn't fear, it was just boredom. A woman is like a violinist: any fiddle, any instrument rather than empty hands and no tune going."
"Yes—what I said before: getting as much amusement out of life as possible," said Aaron.
"You amuse me—and I'll amuse you."
"Yes—just about that."
"All right, Aaron," said Lilly. "I'm not going to amuse you, or try to amuse you any more."
"Going to try somebody else; and Malta."
"Oh, and somebody else—in the next five minutes."
"Goodbye and good luck to you."
"Goodbye and good luck to you, Aaron."
With which Lilly went aside to wash the dishes. Aaron sat alone under the zone of light, turning over a score of Pelleas. Though the noise of London was around them, it was far below, and in the room was a deep silence. Each of the men seemed invested in his own silence.
Aaron suddenly took his flute, and began trying little passages from the opera on his knee. He had not played since his illness. The noise came out a little tremulous, but low and sweet. Lilly came forward with a plate and a cloth in his hand.
"Aaron's rod is putting forth again," he said, smiling.
"What?" said Aaron, looking up.
"I said Aaron's rod is putting forth again."
"Your flute, for the moment."
"It's got to put forth my bread and butter."
"Is that all the buds it's going to have?"
"Nay—that's for you to show. What flowers do you imagine came out of the rod of Moses's brother?"
"Scarlet runners, I should think if he'd got to live on them."
"Scarlet enough, I'll bet."
Aaron turned unnoticing back to his music. Lilly finished the wiping of the dishes, then took a book and sat on the other side of the table.
"It's all one to you, then," said Aaron suddenly, "whether we ever see one another again?"
"Not a bit," said Lilly, looking up over his spectacles. "I very much wish there might be something that held us together."
"Then if you wish it, why isn't there?"
"You might wish your flute to put out scarlet-runner flowers at the joints."
"Ay—I might. And it would be all the same."
The moment of silence that followed was extraordinary in its hostility.
"Oh, we shall run across one another again some time," said Aaron.
"Sure," said Lilly. "More than that: I'll write you an address that will always find me. And when you write I will answer you."
He took a bit of paper and scribbled an address. Aaron folded it and put it into his waistcoat pocket. It was an Italian address.
"But how can I live in Italy?" he said. "You can shift about. I'm tied to a job."
"You—with your budding rod, your flute—and your charm—you can always do as you like."
"Your flute and your charm."
"Just your own. Don't pretend you don't know you've got it. I don't really like charm myself; too much of a trick about it. But whether or not, you've got it."
"It's news to me."
"Fact, it is."
"Ha! Somebody will always take a fancy to you. And you can live on that, as well as on anything else."
"Why do you always speak so despisingly?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Have you any right to despise another man?"
"When did it go by rights?"
"No, not with you."
"You answer me like a woman, Aaron."
Again there was a space of silence. And again it was Aaron who at last broke it.
"We're in different positions, you and me," he said.
"You can live by your writing—but I've got to have a job."
"Is that all?" said Lilly.
"Ay. And plenty. You've got the advantage of me."
"Quite," said Lilly. "But why? I was a dirty-nosed little boy when you were a clean-nosed little boy. And I always had more patches on my breeches than you: neat patches, too, my poor mother! So what's the good of talking about advantages? You had the start. And at this very moment you could buy me up, lock, stock, and barrel. So don't feel hard done by. It's a lie."
"You've got your freedom."
"I make it and I take it."
"Circumstances make it for you."
"As you like."
"You don't do a man justice," said Aaron.
"Does a man care?"
"Then he's no man."
"Thanks again, old fellow."
"Welcome," said Lilly, grimacing.
Again Aaron looked at him, baffled, almost with hatred. Lilly grimaced at the blank wall opposite, and seemed to ruminate. Then he went back to his book. And no sooner had he forgotten Aaron, reading the fantasies of a certain Leo Frobenius, than Aaron must stride in again.
"You can't say there isn't a difference between your position and mine," he said pertinently.
Lilly looked darkly over his spectacles.
"No, by God," he said. "I should be in a poor way otherwise."
"You can't say you haven't the advantage—your JOB gives you the advantage."
"All right. Then leave it out with my job, and leave me alone."
"That's your way of dodging it."
"My dear Aaron, I agree with you perfectly. There is no difference between us, save the fictitious advantage given to me by my job. Save for my job—which is to write lies—Aaron and I are two identical little men in one and the same little boat. Shall we leave it at that, now?"
"Yes," said Aaron. "That's about it."
"Let us shake hands on it—and go to bed, my dear chap. You are just recovering from influenza, and look paler than I like."
"You mean you want to be rid of me," said Aaron.
"Yes, I do mean that," said Lilly.
"Ay," said Aaron.
And after a few minutes more staring at the score of Pelleas, he rose, put the score away on the piano, laid his flute beside it, and retired behind the screen. In silence, the strange dim noise of London sounding from below, Lilly read on about the Kabyles. His soul had the faculty of divesting itself of the moment, and seeking further, deeper interests. These old Africans! And Atlantis! Strange, strange wisdom of the Kabyles! Old, old dark Africa, and the world before the flood! How jealous Aaron seemed! The child of a jealous God. A jealous God! Could any race be anything but despicable, with such an antecedent?
But no, persistent as a jealous God himself, Aaron reappeared in his pyjamas, and seated himself in his chair.
"What is the difference then between you and me, Lilly?" he said.
"Haven't we shaken hands on it—a difference of jobs."
"You don't believe that, though, do you?"
"Nay, now I reckon you're trespassing."
"Why am I? I know you don't believe it."
"What do I believe then?" said Lilly.
"You believe you know something better than me—and that you are something better than me. Don't you?"
"Do YOU believe it?"
"That I AM something better than you, and that I KNOW something better?"
"No, because I don't see it," said Aaron.
"Then if you don't see it, it isn't there. So go to bed and sleep the sleep of the just and the convalescent. I am not to be badgered any more."
"Am I badgering you?" said Aaron.
"Indeed you are."
"So I'm in the wrong again?"
"Once more, my dear."
"You're a God-Almighty in your way, you know."
"So long as I'm not in anybody else's way—Anyhow, you'd be much better sleeping the sleep of the just. And I'm going out for a minute or two. Don't catch cold there with nothing on—
"I want to catch the post," he added, rising.
Aaron looked up at him quickly. But almost before there was time to speak, Lilly had slipped into his hat and coat, seized his letters, and gone.
It was a rainy night. Lilly turned down King Street to walk to Charing Cross. He liked being out of doors. He liked to post his letters at Charing Cross post office. He did not want to talk to Aaron any more. He was glad to be alone.
He walked quickly down Villiers Street to the river, to see it flowing blackly towards the sea. It had an endless fascination for him: never failed to soothe him and give him a sense of liberty. He liked the night, the dark rain, the river, and even the traffic. He enjoyed the sense of friction he got from the streaming of people who meant nothing to him. It was like a fox slipping alert among unsuspecting cattle.
When he got back, he saw in the distance the lights of a taxi standing outside the building where he lived, and heard a thumping and hallooing. He hurried forward.
It was a man called Herbertson.
"Oh, why, there you are!" exclaimed Herbertson, as Lilly drew near. "Can I come up and have a chat?"
"I've got that man who's had flu. I should think he is gone to bed."
"Oh!" The disappointment was plain. "Well, look here I'll just come up for a couple of minutes." He laid his hand on Lilly's arm. "I heard you were going away. Where are you going?"
"Malta! Oh, I know Malta very well. Well now, it'll be all right if I come up for a minute? I'm not going to see much more of you, apparently." He turned quickly to the taxi. "What is it on the clock?"
The taxi was paid, the two men went upstairs. Aaron was in bed, but he called as Lilly entered the room.
"Hullo!" said Lilly. "Not asleep? Captain Herbertson has come in for a minute."
"Hope I shan't disturb you," said Captain Herbertson, laying down his stick and gloves, and his cap. He was in uniform. He was one of the few surviving officers of the Guards, a man of about forty-five, good-looking, getting rather stout. He settled himself in the chair where Aaron had sat, hitching up his trousers. The gold identity plate, with its gold chain, fell conspicuously over his wrist.
"Been to 'Rosemary,'" he said. "Rotten play, you know—but passes the time awfully well. Oh, I quite enjoyed it."
Lilly offered him Sauterne—the only thing in the house.
"Oh, yes! How awfully nice! Yes, thanks, I shall love it. Can I have it with soda? Thanks! Do you know, I think that's the very best drink in the tropics: sweet white wine, with soda? Yes—well!— Well—now, why are you going away?"
"For a change," said Lilly.
"You're quite right, one needs a change now the damned thing is all over. As soon as I get out of khaki I shall be off. Malta! Yes! I've been in Malta several times. I think Valletta is quite enjoyable, particularly in winter, with the opera. Oh—er—how's your wife? All right? Yes!—glad to see her people again. Bound to be— Oh, by the way, I met Jim Bricknell. Sends you a message hoping you'll go down and stay—down at Captain Bingham's place in Surrey, you know. Awfully queer lot down there. Not my sort, no. You won't go down? No, I shouldn't. Not the right sort of people."
Herbertson rattled away, rather spasmodic. He had been through the very front hell of the war—and like every man who had, he had the war at the back of his mind, like an obsession. But in the meantime, he skirmished.
"Yes. I was on guard one day when the Queen gave one of her tea-parties to the blind. Awful affair. But the children are awfully nice children. Prince of Wales awfully nice, almost too nice. Prince Henry smart boy, too—oh, a smart boy. Queen Mary poured the tea, and I handed round bread and butter. She told me I made a very good waiter. I said, Thank you, Madam. But I like the children. Very different from the Battenbergs. Oh!—" he wrinkled his nose. "I can't stand the Battenbergs."
"Mount Battens," said Lilly.
"Yes! Awful mistake, changing the royal name. They were Guelfs, why not remain it? Why, I'll tell you what Battenberg did. He was in the Guards, too—"
The talk flowed on: about royalty and the Guards, Buckingham Palace and St. James.
"Rather a nice story about Queen Victoria. Man named Joyce, something or other, often used to dine at the Palace. And he was an awfully good imitator—really clever, you know. Used to imitate the Queen. 'Mr. Joyce,' she said, 'I hear your imitation is very amusing. Will you do it for us now, and let us see what it is like?' 'Oh, no, Madam! I'm afraid I couldn't do it now. I'm afraid I'm not in the humour.' But she would have him do it. And it was really awfully funny. He had to do it. You know what he did. He used to take a table-napkin, and put it on with one corner over his forehead, and the rest hanging down behind, like her veil thing. And then he sent for the kettle-lid. He always had the kettle-lid, for that little crown of hers. And then he impersonated her. But he was awfully good—so clever. 'Mr. Joyce,' she said. 'We are not amused. Please leave the room.' Yes, that is exactly what she said: 'WE are not amused—please leave the room.' I like the WE, don't you? And he a man of sixty or so. However, he left the room and for a fortnight or so he wasn't invited—Wasn't she wonderful—Queen Victoria?"
And so, by light transitions, to the Prince of Wales at the front, and thus into the trenches. And then Herbertson was on the subject he was obsessed by. He had come, unconsciously, for this and this only, to talk war to Lilly: or at Lilly. For the latter listened and watched, and said nothing. As a man at night helplessly takes a taxi to find some woman, some prostitute, Herbertson had almost unthinkingly got into a taxi and come battering at the door in Covent Garden, only to talk war to Lilly, whom he knew very little. But it was a driving instinct—to come and get it off his chest.
And on and on he talked, over his wine and soda. He was not conceited—he was not showing off—far from it. It was the same thing here in this officer as it was with the privates, and the same with this Englishman as with a Frenchman or a German or an Italian. Lilly had sat in a cowshed listening to a youth in the north country: he had sat on the corn-straw that the oxen had been treading out, in Calabria, under the moon: he had sat in a farm-kitchen with a German prisoner: and every time it was the same thing, the same hot, blind, anguished voice of a man who has seen too much, experienced too much, and doesn't know where to turn. None of the glamour of returned heroes, none of the romance of war: only a hot, blind, mesmerised voice, going on and on, mesmerised by a vision that the soul cannot bear.
In this officer, of course, there was a lightness and an appearance of bright diffidence and humour. But underneath it all was the same as in the common men of all the combatant nations: the hot, seared burn of unbearable experience, which did not heal nor cool, and whose irritation was not to be relieved. The experience gradually cooled on top: but only with a surface crust. The soul did not heal, did not recover.
"I used to be awfully frightened," laughed Herbertson. "Now you say, Lilly, you'd never have stood it. But you would. You're nervous—and it was just the nervous ones that did stand it. When nearly all our officers were gone, we had a man come out—a man called Margeritson, from India—big merchant people out there. They all said he was no good—not a bit of good—nervous chap. No good at all. But when you had to get out of the trench and go for the Germans he was perfect—perfect—It all came to him then, at the crisis, and he was perfect.
"Some things frighten one man, and some another. Now shells would never frighten me. But I couldn't stand bombs. You could tell the difference between our machines and the Germans. Ours was a steady noise—drrrrrrrr!—but their's was heavy, drrrrRURUrrrrRURU!— My word, that got on my nerves....
"No I was never hit. The nearest thing was when I was knocked down by an exploding shell—several times that—you know. When you shout like mad for the men to come and dig you out, under all the earth. And my word, you do feel frightened then." Herbertson laughed with a twinkling motion to Lilly. But between his brows there was a tension like madness.
"And a funny thing you know—how you don't notice things. In—let me see—1916, the German guns were a lot better than ours. Ours were old, and when they're old you can't tell where they'll hit: whether they'll go beyond the mark, or whether they'll fall short. Well, this day our guns were firing short, and killing our own men. We'd had the order to charge, and were running forward, and I suddenly felt hot water spurting on my neck—" He put his hand to the back of his neck and glanced round apprehensively. "It was a chap called Innes—Oh, an awfully decent sort—people were in the Argentine. He'd been calling out to me as we were running, and I was just answering. When I felt this hot water on my neck and saw him running past me with no head—he'd got no head, and he went running past me. I don't know how far, but a long way.... Blood, you know—Yes—well—
"Oh, I hated Chelsea—I loathed Chelsea—Chelsea was purgatory to me. I had a corporal called Wallace—he was a fine chap—oh, he was a fine chap—six foot two—and about twenty-four years old. He was my stand-back. Oh, I hated Chelsea, and parades, and drills. You know, when it's drill, and you're giving orders, you forget what order you've just given—in front of the Palace there the crowd don't notice—but it's AWFUL for you. And you know you daren't look round to see what the men are doing. But Wallace was splendid. He was just behind me, and I'd hear him, quite quiet you know, 'It's right wheel, sir.' Always perfect, always perfect—yes—well....
"You know you don't get killed if you don't think you will. Now I never thought I should get killed. And I never knew a man get killed if he hadn't been thinking he would. I said to Wallace I'd rather be out here, at the front, than at Chelsea. I hated Chelsea—I can't tell you how much. 'Oh no, sir!' he said. 'I'd rather be at Chelsea than here. I'd rather be at Chelsea. There isn't hell like this at Chelsea.' We'd had orders that we were to go back to the real camp the next day. 'Never mind, Wallace,' I said. 'We shall be out of this hell-on-earth tomorrow.' And he took my hand. We weren't much for showing feeling or anything in the guards. But he took my hand. And we climbed out to charge—Poor fellow, he was killed—" Herbertson dropped his head, and for some moments seemed to go unconscious, as if struck. Then he lifted his face, and went on in the same animated chatty fashion: "You see, he had a presentiment. I'm sure he had a presentiment. None of the men got killed unless they had a presentiment—like that, you know...."
Herbertson nodded keenly at Lilly, with his sharp, twinkling, yet obsessed eyes. Lilly wondered why he made the presentiment responsible for the death—which he obviously did—and not vice versa. Herbertson implied every time, that you'd never get killed if you could keep yourself from having a presentiment. Perhaps there was something in it. Perhaps the soul issues its own ticket of death, when it can stand no more. Surely life controls life: and not accident.
"It's a funny thing what shock will do. We had a sergeant and he shouted to me. Both his feet were off—both his feet, clean at the ankle. I gave him morphia. You know officers aren't allowed to use the needle—might give the man blood poisoning. You give those tabloids. They say they act in a few minutes, but they DON'T. It's a quarter of an hour. And nothing is more demoralising than when you have a man, wounded, you know, and crying out. Well, this man I gave him the morphia before he got over the stunning, you know. So he didn't feel the pain. Well, they carried him in. I always used to like to look after my men. So I went next morning and I found he hadn't been removed to the Clearing Station. I got hold of the doctor and I said, 'Look here! Why hasn't this man been taken to the Clearing Station?' I used to get excited. But after some years they'd got used to me. 'Don't get excited, Herbertson, the man's dying.' 'But,' I said, 'he's just been talking to me as strong as you are.' And he had—he'd talk as strong and well as you or me, then go quiet for a bit. I said I gave him the morphia before he came round from the stunning. So he'd felt nothing. But in two hours he was dead. The doctor says that the shock does it like that sometimes. You can do nothing for them. Nothing vital is injured—and yet the life is broken in them. Nothing can be done—funny thing—Must be something in the brain—"
"It's obviously not the brain," said Lilly. "It's deeper than the brain."
"Deeper," said Herbertson, nodding.
"Funny thing where life is. We had a lieutenant. You know we all buried our own dead. Well, he looked as if he was asleep. Most of the chaps looked like that." Herbertson closed his eyes and laid his face aside, like a man asleep and dead peacefully. "You very rarely see a man dead with any other look on his face—you know the other look.—" And he clenched his teeth with a sudden, momentaneous, ghastly distortion.—"Well, you'd never have known this chap was dead. He had a wound here—in the back of the head—and a bit of blood on his hand—and nothing else, nothing. Well, I said we'd give him a decent burial. He lay there waiting—and they'd wrapped him in a filthy blanket—you know. Well, I said he should have a proper blanket. He'd been dead lying there a day and a half you know. So I went and got a blanket, a beautiful blanket, out of his private kit—his people were Scotch, well-known family—and I got the pins, you know, ready to pin him up properly, for the Scots Guards to bury him. And I thought he'd be stiff, you see. But when I took him by the arms, to lift him on, he sat up. It gave me an awful shock. 'Why he's alive!' I said. But they said he was dead. I couldn't believe it. It gave me an awful shock. He was as flexible as you or me, and looked as if he was asleep. You couldn't believe he was dead. But we pinned him up in his blanket. It was an awful shock to me. I couldn't believe a man could be like that after he'd been dead two days....
"The Germans were wonderful with the machine guns—it's a wicked thing, a machine gun. But they couldn't touch us with the bayonet. Every time the men came back they had bayonet practice, and they got awfully good. You know when you thrust at the Germans—so—if you miss him, you bring your rifle back sharp, with a round swing, so that the butt comes up and hits up under the jaw. It's one movement, following on with the stab, you see, if you miss him. It was too quick for them—But bayonet charge was worst, you know. Because your man cries out when you catch him, when you get him, you know. That's what does you....
"No, oh no, this was no war like other wars. All the machinery of it. No, you couldn't stand it, but for the men. The men are wonderful, you know. They'll be wiped out.... No, it's your men who keep you going, if you're an officer.... But there'll never be another war like this. Because the Germans are the only people who could make a war like this—and I don't think they'll ever do it again, do you?
"Oh, they were wonderful, the Germans. They were amazing. It was incredible, what they invented and did. We had to learn from them, in the first two years. But they were too methodical. That's why they lost the war. They were too methodical. They'd fire their guns every ten minutes—regular. Think of it. Of course we knew when to run, and when to lie down. You got so that you knew almost exactly what they'd do—if you'd been out long enough. And then you could time what you wanted to do yourselves.
"They were a lot more nervous than we were, at the last. They sent up enough light at night from their trenches—you know, those things that burst in the air like electric light—we had none of that to do—they did it all for us—lit up everything. They were more nervous than we were...."
It was nearly two o'clock when Herbertson left. Lilly, depressed, remained before the fire. Aaron got out of bed and came uneasily to the fire.
"It gives me the bellyache, that damned war," he said.
"So it does me," said Lilly. "All unreal."
"Real enough for those that had to go through it."
"No, least of all for them," said Lilly sullenly. "Not as real as a bad dream. Why the hell don't they wake up and realise it!"
"That's a fact," said Aaron. "They're hypnotised by it."
"And they want to hypnotise me. And I won't be hypnotised. The war was a lie and is a lie and will go on being a lie till somebody busts it."
"It was a fact—you can't bust that. You can't bust the fact that it happened."
"Yes you can. It never happened. It never happened to me. No more than my dreams happen. My dreams don't happen: they only seem."
"But the war did happen, right enough," smiled Aaron palely.
"No, it didn't. Not to me or to any man, in his own self. It took place in the automatic sphere, like dreams do. But the ACTUAL MAN in every man was just absent—asleep—or drugged—inert—dream-logged. That's it."
"You tell 'em so," said Aaron.
"I do. But it's no good. Because they won't wake up now even—perhaps never. They'll all kill themselves in their sleep."
"They wouldn't be any better if they did wake up and be themselves—that is, supposing they are asleep, which I can't see. They are what they are—and they're all alike—and never very different from what they are now."
Lilly stared at Aaron with black eyes.
"Do you believe in them less than I do, Aaron?" he asked slowly.
"I don't even want to believe in them."
"But in yourself?" Lilly was almost wistful—and Aaron uneasy.
"I don't know that I've any more right to believe in myself than in them," he replied. Lilly watched and pondered.
"No," he said. "That's not true—I KNEW the war was false: humanly quite false. I always knew it was false. The Germans were false, we were false, everybody was false."
"And not you?" asked Aaron shrewishly.
"There was a wakeful, self-possessed bit of me which knew that the war and all that horrible movement was false for me. And so I wasn't going to be dragged in. The Germans could have shot my mother or me or what they liked: I wouldn't have joined the WAR. I would like to kill my enemy. But become a bit of that huge obscene machine they called the war, that I never would, no, not if I died ten deaths and had eleven mothers violated. But I would like to kill my enemy: Oh, yes, more than one enemy. But not as a unit in a vast obscene mechanism. That never: no, never."
Poor Lilly was too earnest and vehement. Aaron made a fine nose. It seemed to him like a lot of words and a bit of wriggling out of a hole.
"Well," he said, "you've got men and nations, and you've got the machines of war—so how are you going to get out of it? League of Nations?"
"Damn all leagues. Damn all masses and groups, anyhow. All I want is to get MYSELF out of their horrible heap: to get out of the swarm. The swarm to me is nightmare and nullity—horrible helpless writhing in a dream. I want to get myself awake, out of it all—all that mass-consciousness, all that mass-activity—it's the most horrible nightmare to me. No man is awake and himself. No man who was awake and in possession of himself would use poison gases: no man. His own awake self would scorn such a thing. It's only when the ghastly mob-sleep, the dream helplessness of the mass-psyche overcomes him, that he becomes completely base and obscene."
"Ha—well," said Aaron. "It's the wide-awake ones that invent the poison gas, and use it. Where should we be without it?"
Lilly started, went stiff and hostile.
"Do you mean that, Aaron?" he said, looking into Aaron's face with a hard, inflexible look.
Aaron turned aside half sheepishly.
"That's how it looks on the face of it, isn't it?" he said.
"Look here, my friend, it's too late for you to be talking to me about the face of things. If that's how you feel, put your things on and follow Herbertson. Yes—go out of my room. I don't put up with the face of things here."
Aaron looked at him in cold amazement.
"It'll do tomorrow morning, won't it?" he asked rather mocking.
"Yes," said Lilly coldly. "But please go tomorrow morning."
"Oh, I'll go all right," said Aaron. "Everybody's got to agree with you—that's your price."
But Lilly did not answer. Aaron turned into bed, his satirical smile under his nose. Somewhat surprised, however, at this sudden turn of affairs.
As he was just going to sleep, dismissing the matter, Lilly came once more to his bedside, and said, in a hard voice:
"I'm NOT going to pretend to have friends on the face of things. No, and I don't have friends who don't fundamentally agree with me. A friend means one who is at one with me in matters of life and death. And if you're at one with all the rest, then you're THEIR friend, not mine. So be their friend. And please leave me in the morning. You owe me nothing, you have nothing more to do with me. I have had enough of these friendships where I pay the piper and the mob calls the tune.
"Let me tell you, moreover, your heroic Herbertsons lost us more than ever they won. A brave ant is a damned cowardly individual. Your heroic officers are a sad sight AFTERWARDS, when they come home. Bah, your Herbertson! The only justification for war is what we learn from it. And what have they learnt?—Why did so many of them have presentiments, as he called it? Because they could feel inside them, there was nothing to come after. There was no life-courage: only death-courage. Nothing beyond this hell—only death or love—languishing—"
"What could they have seen, anyhow?" said Aaron.
"It's not what you see, actually. It's the kind of spirit you keep inside you: the life spirit. When Wallace had presentiments, Herbertson, being officer, should have said: 'None of that, Wallace. You and I, we've got to live and make life smoke.'—Instead of which he let Wallace be killed and his own heart be broken. Always the death-choice— And we won't, we simply will not face the world as we've made it, and our own souls as we find them, and take the responsibility. We'll never get anywhere till we stand up man to man and face EVERYTHING out, and break the old forms, but never let our own pride and courage of life be broken."
Lilly broke off, and went silently to bed. Aaron turned over to sleep, rather resenting the sound of so many words. What difference did it make, anyhow? In the morning, however, when he saw the other man's pale, closed, rather haughty face, he realised that something had happened. Lilly was courteous and even affable: but with a curious cold space between him and Aaron. Breakfast passed, and Aaron knew that he must leave. There was something in Lilly's bearing which just showed him the door. In some surprise and confusion, and in some anger, not unmingled with humorous irony, he put his things in his bag. He put on his hat and coat. Lilly was seated rather stiffly writing.
"Well," said Aaron. "I suppose we shall meet again."
"Oh, sure to," said Lilly, rising from his chair. "We are sure to run across one another."
"When are you going?" asked Aaron.
"In a few days' time."
"Oh, well, I'll run in and see you before you go, shall I?"
Lilly escorted his guest to the top of the stairs, shook hands, and then returned into his own room, closing the door on himself.
Aaron did not find his friend at home when he called. He took it rather as a slap in the face. But then he knew quite well that Lilly had made a certain call on his, Aaron's soul: a call which he, Aaron, did not at all intend to obey. If in return the soul-caller chose to shut his street-door in the face of the world-friend—well, let it be quits. He was not sure whether he felt superior to his unworldly enemy or not. He rather thought he did.
Aaron's Rod by D. H. Lawrence - Full Text (Chapters 11-15)