CHAPTER I. THE BLUE BALL
There was a large, brilliant evening star in the early twilight, and underfoot the earth was half frozen. It was Christmas Eve. Also the War was over, and there was a sense of relief that was almost a new menace. A man felt the violence of the nightmare released now into the general air. Also there had been another wrangle among the men on the pit-bank that evening.
Aaron Sisson was the last man on the little black railway-line climbing the hill home from work. He was late because he had attended a meeting of the men on the bank. He was secretary to the Miners Union for his colliery, and had heard a good deal of silly wrangling that left him nettled.
He strode over a stile, crossed two fields, strode another stile, and was in the long road of colliers' dwellings. Just across was his own house: he had built it himself. He went through the little gate, up past the side of the house to the back. There he hung a moment, glancing down the dark, wintry garden.
"My father—my father's come!" cried a child's excited voice, and two little girls in white pinafores ran out in front of his legs.
"Father, shall you set the Christmas Tree?" they cried. "We've got one!"
"Afore I have my dinner?" he answered amiably.
"Set it now. Set it now.—We got it through Fred Alton."
"Where is it?"
The little girls were dragging a rough, dark object out of a corner of the passage into the light of the kitchen door.
"It's a beauty!" exclaimed Millicent.
"Yes, it is," said Marjory.
"I should think so," he replied, striding over the dark bough. He went to the back kitchen to take off his coat.
"Set it now, Father. Set it now," clamoured the girls.
"You might as well. You've left your dinner so long, you might as well do it now before you have it," came a woman's plangent voice, out of the brilliant light of the middle room.
Aaron Sisson had taken off his coat and waistcoat and his cap. He stood bare-headed in his shirt and braces, contemplating the tree.
"What am I to put it in?" he queried. He picked up the tree, and held it erect by the topmost twig. He felt the cold as he stood in the yard coatless, and he twitched his shoulders.
"Isn't it a beauty!" repeated Millicent.
"Put something on, you two!" came the woman's high imperative voice, from the kitchen.
"We aren't cold," protested the girls from the yard.
"Come and put something on," insisted the voice. The man started off down the path, the little girls ran grumbling indoors. The sky was clear, there was still a crystalline, non-luminous light in the under air.
Aaron rummaged in his shed at the bottom of the garden, and found a spade and a box that was suitable. Then he came out to his neat, bare, wintry garden. The girls flew towards him, putting the elastic of their hats under their chins as they ran. The tree and the box lay on the frozen earth. The air breathed dark, frosty, electric.
"Hold it up straight," he said to Millicent, as he arranged the tree in the box. She stood silent and held the top bough, he filled in round the roots.
When it was done, and pressed in, he went for the wheelbarrow. The girls were hovering excited round the tree. He dropped the barrow and stooped to the box. The girls watched him hold back his face—the boughs pricked him.
"Is it very heavy?" asked Millicent.
"Ay!" he replied, with a little grunt. Then the procession set off—the trundling wheel-barrow, the swinging hissing tree, the two excited little girls. They arrived at the door. Down went the legs of the wheel-barrow on the yard. The man looked at the box.
"Where are you going to have it?" he called.
"Put it in the back kitchen," cried his wife.
"You'd better have it where it's going to stop. I don't want to hawk it about."
"Put it on the floor against the dresser, Father. Put it there," urged Millicent.
"You come and put some paper down, then," called the mother hastily.
The two children ran indoors, the man stood contemplative in the cold, shrugging his uncovered shoulders slightly. The open inner door showed a bright linoleum on the floor, and the end of a brown side-board on which stood an aspidistra.
Again with a wrench Aaron Sisson lifted the box. The tree pricked and stung. His wife watched him as he entered staggering, with his face averted.
"Mind where you make a lot of dirt," she said.
He lowered the box with a little jerk on to the spread-out newspaper on the floor. Soil scattered.
"Sweep it up," he said to Millicent.
His ear was lingering over the sudden, clutching hiss of the tree-boughs.
A stark white incandescent light filled the room and made everything sharp and hard. In the open fire-place a hot fire burned red. All was scrupulously clean and perfect. A baby was cooing in a rocker-less wicker cradle by the hearth. The mother, a slim, neat woman with dark hair, was sewing a child's frock. She put this aside, rose, and began to take her husband's dinner from the oven.
"You stopped confabbing long enough tonight," she said.
"Yes," he answered, going to the back kitchen to wash his hands.
In a few minutes he came and sat down to his dinner. The doors were shut close, but there was a draught, because the settling of the mines under the house made the doors not fit. Aaron moved his chair, to get out of the draught. But he still sat in his shirt and trousers.
He was a good-looking man, fair, and pleasant, about thirty-two years old. He did not talk much, but seemed to think about something. His wife resumed her sewing. She was acutely aware of her husband, but he seemed not very much aware of her.
"What were they on about today, then?" she said.
"About the throw-in."
"And did they settle anything?"
"They're going to try it—and they'll come out if it isn't satisfactory."
"The butties won't have it, I know," she said. He gave a short laugh, and went on with his meal.
The two children were squatted on the floor by the tree. They had a wooden box, from which they had taken many little newspaper packets, which they were spreading out like wares.
"Don't open any. We won't open any of them till we've taken them all out—and then we'll undo one in our turns. Then we s'll both undo equal," Millicent was saying.
"Yes, we'll take them ALL out first," re-echoed Marjory.
"And what are they going to do about Job Arthur Freer? Do they want him?" A faint smile came on her husband's face.
"Nay, I don't know what they want.—Some of 'em want him—whether they're a majority, I don't know."
She watched him closely.
"Majority! I'd give 'em majority. They want to get rid of you, and make a fool of you, and you want to break your heart over it. Strikes me you need something to break your heart over."
He laughed silently.
"Nay," he said. "I s'll never break my heart."
"You'll go nearer to it over that, than over anything else: just because a lot of ignorant monkeys want a monkey of their own sort to do the Union work, and jabber to them, they want to get rid of you, and you eat your heart out about it. More fool you, that's all I say—more fool you. If you cared for your wife and children half what you care about your Union, you'd be a lot better pleased in the end. But you care about nothing but a lot of ignorant colliers, who don't know what they want except it's more money just for themselves. Self, self, self—that's all it is with them—and ignorance."
"You'd rather have self without ignorance?" he said, smiling finely.
"I would, if I've got to have it. But what I should like to see is a man that has thought for others, and isn't all self and politics."
Her color had risen, her hand trembled with anger as she sewed. A blank look had come over the man's face, as if he did not hear or heed any more. He drank his tea in a long draught, wiped his moustache with two fingers, and sat looking abstractedly at the children.
They had laid all the little packets on the floor, and Millicent was saying:
"Now I'll undo the first, and you can have the second. I'll take this—"
She unwrapped the bit of newspaper and disclosed a silvery ornament for a Christmas tree: a frail thing like a silver plum, with deep rosy indentations on each side.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Isn't it LOVELY!" Her fingers cautiously held the long bubble of silver and glowing rose, cleaving to it with a curious, irritating possession. The man's eyes moved away from her. The lesser child was fumbling with one of the little packets.
"Oh!"—a wail went up from Millicent. "You've taken one!—You didn't wait." Then her voice changed to a motherly admonition, and she began to interfere. "This is the way to do it, look! Let me help you."
But Marjory drew back with resentment.
"Don't, Millicent!—Don't!" came the childish cry. But Millicent's fingers itched.
At length Marjory had got out her treasure—a little silvery bell with a glass top hanging inside. The bell was made of frail glassy substance, light as air.
"Oh, the bell!" rang out Millicent's clanging voice. "The bell! It's my bell. My bell! It's mine! Don't break it, Marjory. Don't break it, will you?"
Marjory was shaking the bell against her ear. But it was dumb, it made no sound.
"You'll break it, I know you will.—You'll break it. Give it ME—" cried Millicent, and she began to take away the bell. Marjory set up an expostulation.
"LET HER ALONE," said the father.
Millicent let go as if she had been stung, but still her brassy, impudent voice persisted:
"She'll break it. She'll break it. It's mine—"
"You undo another," said the mother, politic.
Millicent began with hasty, itching fingers to unclose another package.
"Aw—aw Mother, my peacock—aw, my peacock, my green peacock!" Lavishly she hovered over a sinuous greenish bird, with wings and tail of spun glass, pearly, and body of deep electric green.
"It's mine—my green peacock! It's mine, because Marjory's had one wing off, and mine hadn't. My green peacock that I love! I love it!" She swung it softly from the little ring on its back. Then she went to her mother.
"Look, Mother, isn't it a beauty?"
"Mind the ring doesn't come out," said her mother. "Yes, it's lovely!" The girl passed on to her father.
"Look, Father, don't you love it!"
"Love it?" he re-echoed, ironical over the word love.
She stood for some moments, trying to force his attention. Then she went back to her place.
Marjory had brought forth a golden apple, red on one cheek, rather garish.
"Oh!" exclaimed Millicent feverishly, instantly seized with desire for what she had not got, indifferent to what she had. Her eye ran quickly over the packages. She took one.
"Now!" she exclaimed loudly, to attract attention. "Now! What's this?—What's this? What will this beauty be?"
With finicky fingers she removed the newspaper. Marjory watched her wide-eyed. Millicent was self-important.
"The blue ball!" she cried in a climax of rapture. "I've got THE BLUE BALL."
She held it gloating in the cup of her hands. It was a little globe of hardened glass, of a magnificent full dark blue color. She rose and went to her father.
"It was your blue ball, wasn't it, father?"
"And you had it when you were a little boy, and now I have it when I'm a little girl."
"Ay," he replied drily.
"And it's never been broken all those years."
"No, not yet."
"And perhaps it never will be broken." To this she received no answer.
"Won't it break?" she persisted. "Can't you break it?"
"Yes, if you hit it with a hammer," he said.
"Aw!" she cried. "I don't mean that. I mean if you just drop it. It won't break if you drop it, will it?"
"I dare say it won't."
"But WILL it?"
"I sh'd think not."
"Should I try?"
She proceeded gingerly to let the blue ball drop, it bounced dully on the floor-covering.
"Oh-h-h!" she cried, catching it up. "I love it."
"Let ME drop it," cried Marjory, and there was a performance of admonition and demonstration from the elder sister.
But Millicent must go further. She became excited.
"It won't break," she said, "even if you toss it up in the air."
She flung it up, it fell safely. But her father's brow knitted slightly. She tossed it wildly: it fell with a little splashing explosion: it had smashed. It had fallen on the sharp edge of the tiles that protruded under the fender.
"NOW what have you done!" cried the mother.
The child stood with her lip between her teeth, a look, half, of pure misery and dismay, half of satisfaction, on her pretty sharp face.
"She wanted to break it," said the father.
"No, she didn't! What do you say that for!" said the mother. And Millicent burst into a flood of tears.
He rose to look at the fragments that lay splashed on the floor.
"You must mind the bits," he said, "and pick 'em all up."
He took one of the pieces to examine it. It was fine and thin and hard, lined with pure silver, brilliant. He looked at it closely. So—this was what it was. And this was the end of it. He felt the curious soft explosion of its breaking still in his ears. He threw his piece in the fire.
"Pick all the bits up," he said. "Give over! give over! Don't cry any more." The good-natured tone of his voice quieted the child, as he intended it should.
He went away into the back kitchen to wash himself. As he was bending his head over the sink before the little mirror, lathering to shave, there came from outside the dissonant voices of boys, pouring out the dregs of carol-singing.
"While Shep-ep-ep-ep-herds watched—"
He held his soapy brush suspended for a minute. They called this singing! His mind flitted back to early carol music. Then again he heard the vocal violence outside.
"Aren't you off there!" he called out, in masculine menace. The noise stopped, there was a scuffle. But the feet returned and the voices resumed. Almost immediately the door opened, boys were heard muttering among themselves. Millicent had given them a penny. Feet scraped on the yard, then went thudding along the side of the house, to the street.
To Aaron Sisson, this was home, this was Christmas: the unspeakably familiar. The war over, nothing was changed. Yet everything changed. The scullery in which he stood was painted green, quite fresh, very clean, the floor was red tiles. The wash-copper of red bricks was very red, the mangle with its put-up board was white-scrubbed, the American oil-cloth on the table had a gay pattern, there was a warm fire, the water in the boiler hissed faintly. And in front of him, beneath him as he leaned forward shaving, a drop of water fell with strange, incalculable rhythm from the bright brass tap into the white enamelled bowl, which was now half full of pure, quivering water. The war was over, and everything just the same. The acute familiarity of this house, which he had built for his marriage twelve years ago, the changeless pleasantness of it all seemed unthinkable. It prevented his thinking.
When he went into the middle room to comb his hair he found the Christmas tree sparkling, his wife was making pastry at the table, the baby was sitting up propped in cushions.
"Father," said Millicent, approaching him with a flat blue-and-white angel of cotton-wool, and two ends of cotton—"tie the angel at the top."
"Tie it at the top?" he said, looking down.
"Yes. At the very top—because it's just come down from the sky."
"Ay my word!" he laughed. And he tied the angel.
Coming downstairs after changing he went into the icy cold parlour, and took his music and a small handbag. With this he retreated again to the back kitchen. He was still in trousers and shirt and slippers: but now it was a clean white shirt, and his best black trousers, and new pink and white braces. He sat under the gas-jet of the back kitchen, looking through his music. Then he opened the bag, in which were sections of a flute and a piccolo. He took out the flute, and adjusted it. As he sat he was physically aware of the sounds of the night: the bubbling of water in the boiler, the faint sound of the gas, the sudden crying of the baby in the next room, then noises outside, distant boys shouting, distant rags of carols, fragments of voices of men. The whole country was roused and excited.
The little room was hot. Aaron rose and opened a square ventilator over the copper, letting in a stream of cold air, which was grateful to him. Then he cocked his eye over the sheet of music spread out on the table before him. He tried his flute. And then at last, with the odd gesture of a diver taking a plunge, he swung his head and began to play. A stream of music, soft and rich and fluid, came out of the flute. He played beautifully. He moved his head and his raised bare arms with slight, intense movements, as the delicate music poured out. It was sixteenth-century Christmas melody, very limpid and delicate.
The pure, mindless, exquisite motion and fluidity of the music delighted him with a strange exasperation. There was something tense, exasperated to the point of intolerable anger, in his good-humored breast, as he played the finely-spun peace-music. The more exquisite the music, the more perfectly he produced it, in sheer bliss; and at the same time, the more intense was the maddened exasperation within him.
Millicent appeared in the room. She fidgetted at the sink. The music was a bugbear to her, because it prevented her from saying what was on her own mind. At length it ended, her father was turning over the various books and sheets. She looked at him quickly, seizing her opportunity.
"Are you going out, Father?" she said.
"Are you going out?" She twisted nervously.
"What do you want to know for?"
He made no other answer, and turned again to the music. His eye went down a sheet—then over it again—then more closely over it again.
"Are you?" persisted the child, balancing on one foot.
He looked at her, and his eyes were angry under knitted brows.
"What are you bothering about?" he said.
"I'm not bothering—I only wanted to know if you were going out," she pouted, quivering to cry.
"I expect I am," he said quietly.
She recovered at once, but still with timidity asked:
"We haven't got any candles for the Christmas tree—shall you buy some, because mother isn't going out?"
"Candles!" he repeated, settling his music and taking up the piccolo.
"Yes—shall you buy us some, Father? Shall you?"
"Candles!" he repeated, putting the piccolo to his mouth and blowing a few piercing, preparatory notes.
"Yes, little Christmas-tree candles—blue ones and red ones, in boxes—Shall you, Father?"
"We'll see—if I see any—"
"But SHALL you?" she insisted desperately. She wisely mistrusted his vagueness.
But he was looking unheeding at the music. Then suddenly the piccolo broke forth, wild, shrill, brilliant. He was playing Mozart. The child's face went pale with anger at the sound. She turned, and went out, closing both doors behind her to shut out the noise.
The shrill, rapid movement of the piccolo music seemed to possess the air, it was useless to try to shut it out. The man went on playing to himself, measured and insistent. In the frosty evening the sound carried. People passing down the street hesitated, listening. The neighbours knew it was Aaron practising his piccolo. He was esteemed a good player: was in request at concerts and dances, also at swell balls. So the vivid piping sound tickled the darkness.
He played on till about seven o'clock; he did not want to go out too soon, in spite of the early closing of the public houses. He never went with the stream, but made a side current of his own. His wife said he was contrary. When he went into the middle room to put on his collar and tie, the two little girls were having their hair brushed, the baby was in bed, there was a hot smell of mince-pies baking in the oven.
"You won't forget our candles, will you, Father?" asked Millicent, with assurance now.
"I'll see," he answered.
His wife watched him as he put on his overcoat and hat. He was well-dressed, handsome-looking. She felt there was a curious glamour about him. It made her feel bitter. He had an unfair advantage—he was free to go off, while she must stay at home with the children.
"There's no knowing what time you'll be home," she said.
"I shan't be late," he answered.
"It's easy to say so," she retorted, with some contempt. He took his stick, and turned towards the door.
"Bring the children some candles for their tree, and don't be so selfish," she said.
"All right," he said, going out.
"Don't say ALL RIGHT if you never mean to do it," she cried, with sudden anger, following him to the door.
His figure stood large and shadowy in the darkness.
"How many do you want?" he said.
"A dozen," she said. "And holders too, if you can get them," she added, with barren bitterness.
"Yes—all right," he turned and melted into the darkness. She went indoors, worn with a strange and bitter flame.
He crossed the fields towards the little town, which once more fumed its lights under the night. The country ran away, rising on his right hand. It was no longer a great bank of darkness. Lights twinkled freely here and there, though forlornly, now that the war-time restrictions were removed. It was no glitter of pre-war nights, pit-heads glittering far-off with electricity. Neither was it the black gulf of the war darkness: instead, this forlorn sporadic twinkling.
Everybody seemed to be out of doors. The hollow dark countryside re-echoed like a shell with shouts and calls and excited voices. Restlessness and nervous excitement, nervous hilarity were in the air. There was a sense of electric surcharge everywhere, frictional, a neurasthenic haste for excitement.
Every moment Aaron Sisson was greeted with Good-night—Good-night, Aaron—Good-night, Mr. Sisson. People carrying parcels, children, women, thronged home on the dark paths. They were all talking loudly, declaiming loudly about what they could and could not get, and what this or the other had lost.
When he got into the main street, the only street of shops, it was crowded. There seemed to have been some violent but quiet contest, a subdued fight, going on all the afternoon and evening: people struggling to buy things, to get things. Money was spent like water, there was a frenzy of money-spending. Though the necessities of life were in abundance, still the people struggled in frenzy for cheese, sweets, raisins, pork-stuff, even for flowers and holly, all of which were scarce, and for toys and knick-knacks, which were sold out. There was a wild grumbling, but a deep satisfaction in the fight, the struggle. The same fight and the same satisfaction in the fight was witnessed whenever a tram-car stopped, or when it heaved its way into sight. Then the struggle to mount on board became desperate and savage, but stimulating. Souls surcharged with hostility found now some outlet for their feelings.
As he came near the little market-place he bethought himself of the Christmas-tree candles. He did not intend to trouble himself. And yet, when he glanced in passing into the sweet-shop window, and saw it bare as a board, the very fact that he probably could not buy the things made him hesitate, and try.
"Have you got any Christmas-tree candles?" he asked as he entered the shop.
"How many do you want?"
"Can't let you have a dozen. You can have two boxes—four in a box—eight. Six-pence a box."
"Got any holders?"
"Holders? Don't ask. Haven't seen one this year."
"Got any toffee—?"
"Cough-drops—two-pence an ounce—nothing else left."
"Give me four ounces."
He watched her weighing them in the little brass scales.
"You've not got much of a Christmas show," he said.
"Don't talk about Christmas, as far as sweets is concerned. They ought to have allowed us six times the quantity—there's plenty of sugar, why didn't they? We s'll have to enjoy ourselves with what we've got. We mean to, anyhow."
"Ay," he said.
"Time we had a bit of enjoyment, THIS Christmas. They ought to have made things more plentiful."
"Yes," he said, stuffing his package in his pocket.
CHAPTER II. ROYAL OAK
The war had killed the little market of the town. As he passed the market place on the brow, Aaron noticed that there were only two miserable stalls. But people crowded just the same. There was a loud sound of voices, men's voices. Men pressed round the doorways of the public-houses.
But he was going to a pub out of town. He descended the dark hill. A street-lamp here and there shed parsimonious light. In the bottoms, under the trees, it was very dark. But a lamp glimmered in front of the "Royal Oak." This was a low white house sunk three steps below the highway. It was darkened, but sounded crowded.
Opening the door, Sisson found himself in the stone passage. Old Bob, carrying three cans, stopped to see who had entered—then went on into the public bar on the left. The bar itself was a sort of little window-sill on the right: the pub was a small one. In this window-opening stood the landlady, drawing and serving to her husband. Behind the bar was a tiny parlour or den, the landlady's preserve.
"Oh, it's you," she said, bobbing down to look at the newcomer. None entered her bar-parlour unless invited.
"Come in," said the landlady. There was a peculiar intonation in her complacent voice, which showed she had been expecting him, a little irritably.
He went across into her bar-parlour. It would not hold more than eight or ten people, all told—just the benches along the walls, the fire between—and two little round tables.
"I began to think you weren't coming," said the landlady, bringing him a whiskey.
She was a large, stout, high-coloured woman, with a fine profile, probably Jewish. She had chestnut-coloured eyes, quick, intelligent. Her movements were large and slow, her voice laconic.
"I'm not so late, am I?" asked Aaron.
"Yes, you are late, I should think." She Looked up at the little clock. "Close on nine."
"I did some shopping," said Aaron, with a quick smile.
"Did you indeed? That's news, I'm sure. May we ask what you bought?"
This he did not like. But he had to answer.
"Christmas-tree candles, and toffee."
"For the little children? Well you've done well for once! I must say I recommend you. I didn't think you had so much in you."
She sat herself down in her seat at the end of the bench, and took up her knitting. Aaron sat next to her. He poured water into his glass, and drank.
"It's warm in here," he said, when he had swallowed the liquor.
"Yes, it is. You won't want to keep that thick good overcoat on," replied the landlady.
"No," he said, "I think I'll take it off."
She watched him as he hung up his overcoat. He wore black clothes, as usual. As he reached up to the pegs, she could see the muscles of his shoulders, and the form of his legs. Her reddish-brown eyes seemed to burn, and her nose, that had a subtle, beautiful Hebraic curve, seemed to arch itself. She made a little place for him by herself, as he returned. She carried her head thrown back, with dauntless self-sufficiency.
There were several colliers in the room, talking quietly. They were the superior type all, favoured by the landlady, who loved intellectual discussion. Opposite, by the fire, sat a little, greenish man—evidently an oriental.
"You're very quiet all at once, Doctor," said the landlady in her slow, laconic voice.
"Yes.—May I have another whiskey, please?" She rose at once, powerfully energetic.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. And she went to the bar.
"Well," said the little Hindu doctor, "and how are things going now, with the men?"
"The same as ever," said Aaron.
"Yes," said the stately voice of the landlady. "And I'm afraid they will always be the same as ever. When will they learn wisdom?"
"But what do you call wisdom?" asked Sherardy, the Hindu. He spoke with a little, childish lisp.
"What do I call wisdom?" repeated the landlady. "Why all acting together for the common good. That is wisdom in my idea."
"Yes, very well, that is so. But what do you call the common good?" replied the little doctor, with childish pertinence.
"Ay," said Aaron, with a laugh, "that's it." The miners were all stirring now, to take part in the discussion.
"What do I call the common good?" repeated the landlady. "That all people should study the welfare of other people, and not only their own."
"They are not to study their own welfare?" said the doctor.
"Ah, that I did not say," replied the landlady. "Let them study their own welfare, and that of others also."
"Well then," said the doctor, "what is the welfare of a collier?"
"The welfare of a collier," said the landlady, "is that he shall earn sufficient wages to keep himself and his family comfortable, to educate his children, and to educate himself; for that is what he wants, education."
"Ay, happen so," put in Brewitt, a big, fine, good-humoured collier. "Happen so, Mrs. Houseley. But what if you haven't got much education, to speak of?"
"You can always get it," she said patronizing.
"Nay—I'm blest if you can. It's no use tryin' to educate a man over forty—not by book-learning. That isn't saying he's a fool, neither."
"And what better is them that's got education?" put in another man. "What better is the manager, or th' under-manager, than we are?—Pender's yaller enough i' th' face."
"He is that," assented the men in chorus.
"But because he's yellow in the face, as you say, Mr. Kirk," said the landlady largely, "that doesn't mean he has no advantages higher than what you have got."
"Ay," said Kirk. "He can ma'e more money than I can—that's about a' as it comes to."
"He can make more money," said the landlady. "And when he's made it, he knows better how to use it."
"'Appen so, an' a'!—What does he do, more than eat and drink and work?—an' take it out of hisself a sight harder than I do, by th' looks of him.—What's it matter, if he eats a bit more or drinks a bit more—"
"No," reiterated the landlady. "He not only eats and drinks. He can read, and he can converse."
"Me an' a'," said Tom Kirk, and the men burst into a laugh. "I can read—an' I've had many a talk an' conversation with you in this house, Mrs. Houseley—am havin' one at this minute, seemingly."
"SEEMINGLY, you are," said the landlady ironically. "But do you think there would be no difference between your conversation, and Mr. Pender's, if he were here so that I could enjoy his conversation?"
"An' what difference would there be?" asked Tom Kirk. "He'd go home to his bed just the same."
"There, you are mistaken. He would be the better, and so should I, a great deal better, for a little genuine conversation."
"If it's conversation as ma'es his behind drop—" said Tom Kirk. "An' puts th' bile in his face—" said Brewitt. There was a general laugh.
"I can see it's no use talking about it any further," said the landlady, lifting her head dangerously.
"But look here, Mrs. Houseley, do you really think it makes much difference to a man, whether he can hold a serious conversation or not?" asked the doctor.
"I do indeed, all the difference in the world—To me, there is no greater difference, than between an educated man and an uneducated man."
"And where does it come in?" asked Kirk.
"But wait a bit, now," said Aaron Sisson. "You take an educated man—take Pender. What's his education for? What does he scheme for?—What does he contrive for? What does he talk for?—"
"For all the purposes of his life," replied the landlady.
"Ay, an' what's the purpose of his life?" insisted Aaron Sisson.
"The purpose of his life," repeated the landlady, at a loss. "I should think he knows that best himself."
"No better than I know it—and you know it," said Aaron.
"Well," said the landlady, "if you know, then speak out. What is it?"
"To make more money for the firm—and so make his own chance of a rise better."
The landlady was baffled for some moments. Then she said:
"Yes, and suppose that he does. Is there any harm in it? Isn't it his duty to do what he can for himself? Don't you try to earn all you can?"
"Ay," said Aaron. "But there's soon a limit to what I can earn.—It's like this. When you work it out, everything comes to money. Reckon it as you like, it's money on both sides. It's money we live for, and money is what our lives is worth—nothing else. Money we live for, and money we are when we're dead: that or nothing. An' it's money as is between the masters and us. There's a few educated ones got hold of one end of the rope, and all the lot of us hanging on to th' other end, an' we s'll go on pulling our guts out, time in, time out—"
"But they've got th' long end o' th' rope, th' masters has," said Brewitt.
"For as long as one holds, the other will pull," concluded Aaron Sisson philosophically.
"An' I'm almighty sure o' that," said Kirk. There was a little pause.
"Yes, that's all there is in the minds of you men," said the landlady. "But what can be done with the money, that you never think of—the education of the children, the improvement of conditions—"
"Educate the children, so that they can lay hold of the long end of the rope, instead of the short end," said the doctor, with a little giggle.
"Ay, that's it," said Brewitt. "I've pulled at th' short end, an' my lads may do th' same."
"A selfish policy," put in the landlady.
"Selfish or not, they may do it."
"Till the crack o' doom," said Aaron, with a glistening smile.
"Or the crack o' th' rope," said Brewitt.
"Yes, and THEN WHAT?" cried the landlady.
"Then we all drop on our backsides," said Kirk. There was a general laugh, and an uneasy silence.
"All I can say of you men," said the landlady, "is that you have a narrow, selfish policy.—Instead of thinking of the children, instead of thinking of improving the world you live in—"
"We hang on, British bulldog breed," said Brewitt. There was a general laugh.
"Yes, and little wiser than dogs, wrangling for a bone," said the landlady.
"Are we to let t' other side run off wi' th' bone, then, while we sit on our stunts an' yowl for it?" asked Brewitt.
"No indeed. There can be wisdom in everything.—It's what you DO with the money, when you've got it," said the landlady, "that's where the importance lies."
"It's Missis as gets it," said Kirk. "It doesn't stop wi' us." "Ay, it's the wife as gets it, ninety per cent," they all concurred.
"And who SHOULD have the money, indeed, if not your wives? They have everything to do with the money. What idea have you, but to waste it!"
"Women waste nothing—they couldn't if they tried," said Aaron Sisson.
There was a lull for some minutes. The men were all stimulated by drink. The landlady kept them going. She herself sipped a glass of brandy—but slowly. She sat near to Sisson—and the great fierce warmth of her presence enveloped him particularly. He loved so to luxuriate, like a cat, in the presence of a violent woman. He knew that tonight she was feeling very nice to him—a female glow that came out of her to him. Sometimes when she put down her knitting, or took it up again from the bench beside him, her fingers just touched his thigh, and the fine electricity ran over his body, as if he were a cat tingling at a caress.
And yet he was not happy—nor comfortable. There was a hard, opposing core in him, that neither the whiskey nor the woman could dissolve or soothe, tonight. It remained hard, nay, became harder and more deeply antagonistic to his surroundings, every moment. He recognised it as a secret malady he suffered from: this strained, unacknowledged opposition to his surroundings, a hard core of irrational, exhausting withholding of himself. Irritating, because he still WANTED to give himself. A woman and whiskey, these were usually a remedy—and music. But lately these had begun to fail him. No, there was something in him that would not give in—neither to the whiskey, nor the woman, nor even the music. Even in the midst of his best music, it sat in the middle of him, this invisible black dog, and growled and waited, never to be cajoled. He knew of its presence—and was a little uneasy. For of course he wanted to let himself go, to feel rosy and loving and all that. But at the very thought, the black dog showed its teeth.
Still he kept the beast at bay—with all his will he kept himself as it were genial. He wanted to melt and be rosy, happy.
He sipped his whiskey with gratification, he luxuriated in the presence of the landlady, very confident of the strength of her liking for him. He glanced at her profile—that fine throw-back of her hostile head, wicked in the midst of her benevolence; that subtle, really very beautiful delicate curve of her nose, that moved him exactly like a piece of pure sound. But tonight it did not overcome him. There was a devilish little cold eye in his brain that was not taken in by what he saw.
A terrible obstinacy located itself in him. He saw the fine, rich-coloured, secretive face of the Hebrew woman, so loudly self-righteous, and so dangerous, so destructive, so lustful—and he waited for his blood to melt with passion for her. But not tonight. Tonight his innermost heart was hard and cold as ice. The very danger and lustfulness of her, which had so pricked his senses, now made him colder. He disliked her at her tricks. He saw her once too often. Her and all women. Bah, the love game! And the whiskey that was to help in the game! He had drowned himself once too often in whiskey and in love. Now he floated like a corpse in both, with a cold, hostile eye.
And at least half of his inward fume was anger because he could no longer drown. Nothing would have pleased him better than to feel his senses melting and swimming into oneness with the dark. But impossible! Cold, with a white fury inside him, he floated wide eyed and apart as a corpse. He thought of the gentle love of his first married years, and became only whiter and colder, set in more intense obstinacy. A wave of revulsion lifted him.
He became aware that he was deadly antagonistic to the landlady, that he disliked his whole circumstances. A cold, diabolical consciousness detached itself from his state of semi-intoxication.
"Is it pretty much the same out there in India?" he asked of the doctor, suddenly.
The doctor started, and attended to him on his own level.
"Probably," he answered. "It is worse."
"Worse!" exclaimed Aaron Sisson. "How's that?"
"Why, because, in a way the people of India have an easier time even than the people of England. Because they have no responsibility. The British Government takes the responsibility. And the people have nothing to do, except their bit of work—and talk perhaps about national rule, just for a pastime."
"They have to earn their living?" said Sisson.
"Yes," said the little doctor, who had lived for some years among the colliers, and become quite familiar with them. "Yes, they have to earn their living—and then no more. That's why the British Government is the worst thing possible for them. It is the worst thing possible. And not because it is a bad government. Really, it is not a bad government. It is a good one—and they know it—much better than they would make for themselves, probably. But for that reason it is so very bad."
The little oriental laughed a queer, sniggering laugh. His eyes were very bright, dilated, completely black. He was looking into the ice-blue, pointed eyes of Aaron Sisson. They were both intoxicated—but grimly so. They looked at each other in elemental difference.
The whole room was now attending to this new conversation: which they all accepted as serious. For Aaron was considered a special man, a man of peculiar understanding, even though as a rule he said little.
"If it is a good government, doctor, how can it be so bad for the people?" said the landlady.
The doctor's eyes quivered for the fraction of a second, as he watched the other man. He did not look at the landlady.
"It would not matter what kind of mess they made—and they would make a mess, if they governed themselves, the people of India. They would probably make the greatest muddle possible—and start killing one another. But it wouldn't matter if they exterminated half the population, so long as they did it themselves, and were responsible for it."
Again his eyes dilated, utterly black, to the eyes of the other man, and an arch little smile flickered on his face.
"I think it would matter very much indeed," said the landlady. "They had far better NOT govern themselves."
She was, for some reason, becoming angry. The little greenish doctor emptied his glass, and smiled again.
"But what difference does it make," said Aaron Sisson, "whether they govern themselves or not? They only live till they die, either way." And he smiled faintly. He had not really listened to the doctor. The terms "British Government," and "bad for the people—good for the people," made him malevolently angry.
The doctor was nonplussed for a moment. Then he gathered himself together.
"It matters," he said; "it matters.—People should always be responsible for themselves. How can any people be responsible for another race of people, and for a race much older than they are, and not at all children."
Aaron Sisson watched the other's dark face, with its utterly exposed eyes. He was in a state of semi-intoxicated anger and clairvoyance. He saw in the black, void, glistening eyes of the oriental only the same danger, the same menace that he saw in the landlady. Fair, wise, even benevolent words: always the human good speaking, and always underneath, something hateful, something detestable and murderous. Wise speech and good intentions—they were invariably maggoty with these secret inclinations to destroy the man in the man. Whenever he heard anyone holding forth: the landlady, this doctor, the spokesman on the pit bank: or when he read the all-righteous newspaper; his soul curdled with revulsion as from something foul. Even the infernal love and good-will of his wife. To hell with good-will! It was more hateful than ill-will. Self-righteous bullying, like poison gas!
The landlady looked at the clock.
"Ten minutes to, gentlemen," she said coldly. For she too knew that Aaron was spoiled for her for that night.
The men began to take their leave, shakily. The little doctor seemed to evaporate. The landlady helped Aaron on with his coat. She saw the curious whiteness round his nostrils and his eyes, the fixed hellish look on his face.
"You'll eat a mince-pie in the kitchen with us, for luck?" she said to him, detaining him till last.
But he turned laughing to her.
"Nay," he said, "I must be getting home."
He turned and went straight out of the house. Watching him, the landlady's face became yellow with passion and rage.
"That little poisonous Indian viper," she said aloud, attributing Aaron's mood to the doctor. Her husband was noisily bolting the door.
Outside it was dark and frosty. A gang of men lingered in the road near the closed door. Aaron found himself among them, his heart bitterer than steel.
The men were dispersing. He should take the road home. But the devil was in it, if he could take a stride in the homeward direction. There seemed a wall in front of him. He veered. But neither could he take a stride in the opposite direction. So he was destined to veer round, like some sort of weather-cock, there in the middle of the dark road outside the "Royal Oak."
But as he turned, he caught sight of a third exit. Almost opposite was the mouth of Shottle Lane, which led off under trees, at right angles to the highroad, up to New Brunswick Colliery. He veered towards the off-chance of this opening, in a delirium of icy fury, and plunged away into the dark lane, walking slowly, on firm legs.
CHAPTER III. "THE LIGHTED TREE"
It is remarkable how many odd or extraordinary people there are in England. We hear continual complaints of the stodgy dullness of the English. It would be quite as just to complain of their freakish, unusual characters. Only en masse the metal is all Britannia.
In an ugly little mining town we find the odd ones just as distinct as anywhere else. Only it happens that dull people invariably meet dull people, and odd individuals always come across odd individuals, no matter where they may be. So that to each kind society seems all of a piece.
At one end of the dark tree-covered Shottle Lane stood the "Royal Oak" public house; and Mrs. Houseley was certainly an odd woman. At the other end of the lane was Shottle House, where the Bricknells lived; the Bricknells were odd, also. Alfred Bricknell, the old man, was one of the partners in the Colliery firm. His English was incorrect, his accent, broad Derbyshire, and he was not a gentleman in the snobbish sense of the word. Yet he was well-to-do, and very stuck-up. His wife was dead.
Shottle House stood two hundred yards beyond New Brunswick Colliery. The colliery was imbedded in a plantation, whence its burning pit-hill glowed, fumed, and stank sulphur in the nostrils of the Bricknells. Even war-time efforts had not put out this refuse fire. Apart from this, Shottle House was a pleasant square house, rather old, with shrubberies and lawns. It ended the lane in a dead end. Only a field-path trekked away to the left.
On this particular Christmas Eve Alfred Bricknell had only two of his children at home. Of the others, one daughter was unhappily married, and away in India weeping herself thinner; another was nursing her babies in Streatham. Jim, the hope of the house, and Julia, now married to Robert Cunningham, had come home for Christmas.
The party was seated in the drawing-room, that the grown-up daughters had made very fine during their periods of courtship. Its walls were hung with fine grey canvas, it had a large, silvery grey, silky carpet, and the furniture was covered with dark green silky material. Into this reticence pieces of futurism, Omega cushions and Van-Gogh-like pictures exploded their colours. Such chic would certainly not have been looked for up Shottle Lane.
The old man sat in his high grey arm-chair very near an enormous coal fire. In this house there was no coal-rationing. The finest coal was arranged to obtain a gigantic glow such as a coal-owner may well enjoy, a great, intense mass of pure red fire. At this fire Alfred Bricknell toasted his tan, lambs-wool-lined slippers.
He was a large man, wearing a loose grey suit, and sprawling in the large grey arm-chair. The soft lamp-light fell on his clean, bald, Michael-Angelo head, across which a few pure hairs glittered. His chin was sunk on his breast, so that his sparse but strong-haired white beard, in which every strand stood distinct, like spun glass lithe and elastic, curved now upwards and inwards, in a curious curve returning upon him. He seemed to be sunk in stern, prophet-like meditation. As a matter of fact, he was asleep after a heavy meal.
Across, seated on a pouffe on the other side of the fire, was a cameo-like girl with neat black hair done tight and bright in the French mode. She had strangely-drawn eyebrows, and her colour was brilliant. She was hot, leaning back behind the shaft of old marble of the mantel-piece, to escape the fire. She wore a simple dress of apple-green satin, with full sleeves and ample skirt and a tiny bodice of green cloth. This was Josephine Ford, the girl Jim was engaged to.
Jim Bricknell himself was a tall big fellow of thirty-eight. He sat in a chair in front of the fire, some distance back, and stretched his long legs far in front of him. His chin too was sunk on his breast, his young forehead was bald, and raised in odd wrinkles, he had a silent half-grin on his face, a little tipsy, a little satyr-like. His small moustache was reddish.
Behind him a round table was covered with cigarettes, sweets, and bottles. It was evident Jim Bricknell drank beer for choice. He wanted to get fat—that was his idea. But he couldn't bring it off: he was thin, though not too thin, except to his own thinking.
His sister Julia was bunched up in a low chair between him and his father. She too was a tall stag of a thing, but she sat bunched up like a witch. She wore a wine-purple dress, her arms seemed to poke out of the sleeves, and she had dragged her brown hair into straight, untidy strands. Yet she had real beauty. She was talking to the young man who was not her husband: a fair, pale, fattish young fellow in pince-nez and dark clothes. This was Cyril Scott, a friend.
The only other person stood at the round table pouring out red wine. He was a fresh, stoutish young Englishman in khaki, Julia's husband, Robert Cunningham, a lieutenant about to be demobilised, when he would become a sculptor once more. He drank red wine in large throatfuls, and his eyes grew a little moist. The room was hot and subdued, everyone was silent.
"I say," said Robert suddenly, from the rear—"anybody have a drink? Don't you find it rather hot?"
"Is there another bottle of beer there?" said Jim, without moving, too settled even to stir an eye-lid.
"Yes—I think there is," said Robert.
"Thanks—don't open it yet," murmured Jim.
"Have a drink, Josephine?" said Robert.
"No thank you," said Josephine, bowing slightly.
Finding the drinks did not go, Robert went round with the cigarettes. Josephine Ford looked at the white rolls.
"Thank you," she said, and taking one, suddenly licked her rather full, dry red lips with the rapid tip of her tongue. It was an odd movement, suggesting a snake's flicker. She put her cigarette between her lips, and waited. Her movements were very quiet and well bred; but perhaps too quiet, they had the dangerous impassivity of the Bohemian, Parisian or American rather than English.
"Cigarette, Julia?" said Robert to his wife.
She seemed to start or twitch, as if dazed. Then she looked up at her husband with a queer smile, puckering the corners of her eyes. He looked at the cigarettes, not at her. His face had the blunt voluptuous gravity of a young lion, a great cat. She kept him standing for some moments impassively. Then suddenly she hung her long, delicate fingers over the box, in doubt, and spasmodically jabbed at the cigarettes, clumsily raking one out at last.
"Thank you, dear—thank you," she cried, rather high, looking up and smiling once more. He turned calmly aside, offering the cigarettes to Scott, who refused.
"Oh!" said Julia, sucking the end of her cigarette. "Robert is so happy with all the good things—aren't you dear?" she sang, breaking into a hurried laugh. "We aren't used to such luxurious living, we aren't—ARE WE DEAR—No, we're not such swells as this, we're not. Oh, ROBBIE, isn't it all right, isn't it just all right?" She tailed off into her hurried, wild, repeated laugh. "We're so happy in a land of plenty, AREN'T WE DEAR?"
"Do you mean I'm greedy, Julia?" said Robert.
"Greedy!—Oh, greedy!—he asks if he's greedy?—no you're not greedy, Robbie, you're not greedy. I want you to be happy."
"I'm quite happy," he returned.
"Oh, he's happy!—Really!—he's happy! Oh, what an accomplishment! Oh, my word!" Julia puckered her eyes and laughed herself into a nervous twitching silence.
Robert went round with the matches. Julia sucked her cigarette.
"Give us a light, Robbie, if you ARE happy!" she cried.
"It's coming," he answered.
Josephine smoked with short, sharp puffs. Julia sucked wildly at her light. Robert returned to his red wine. Jim Bricknell suddenly roused up, looked round on the company, smiling a little vacuously and showing his odd, pointed teeth.
"Where's the beer?" he asked, in deep tones, smiling full into Josephine's face, as if she were going to produce it by some sleight of hand. Then he wheeled round to the table, and was soon pouring beer down his throat as down a pipe. Then he dropped supine again. Cyril Scott was silently absorbing gin and water.
"I say," said Jim, from the remote depths of his sprawling. "Isn't there something we could do to while the time away?"
Everybody suddenly laughed—it sounded so remote and absurd.
"What, play bridge or poker or something conventional of that sort?" said Josephine in her distinct voice, speaking to him as if he were a child.
"Oh, damn bridge," said Jim in his sleep-voice. Then he began pulling his powerful length together. He sat on the edge of his chair-seat, leaning forward, peering into all the faces and grinning.
"Don't look at me like that—so long—" said Josephine, in her self-contained voice. "You make me uncomfortable." She gave an odd little grunt of a laugh, and the tip of her tongue went over her lips as she glanced sharply, half furtively round the room.
"I like looking at you," said Jim, his smile becoming more malicious.
"But you shouldn't, when I tell you not," she returned.
Jim twisted round to look at the state of the bottles. The father also came awake. He sat up.
"Isn't it time," he said, "that you all put away your glasses and cigarettes and thought of bed?"
Jim rolled slowly round towards his father, sprawling in the long chair.
"Ah, Dad," he said, "tonight's the night! Tonight's some night, Dad.—You can sleep any time—" his grin widened—"but there aren't many nights to sit here—like this—Eh?"
He was looking up all the time into the face of his father, full and nakedly lifting his face to the face of his father, and smiling fixedly. The father, who was perfectly sober, except for the contagion from the young people, felt a wild tremor go through his heart as he gazed on the face of his boy. He rose stiffly.
"You want to stay?" he said. "You want to stay!—Well then—well then, I'll leave you. But don't be long." The old man rose to his full height, rather majestic. The four younger people also rose respectfully—only Jim lay still prostrate in his chair, twisting up his face towards his father.
"You won't stay long," said the old man, looking round a little bewildered. He was seeking a responsible eye. Josephine was the only one who had any feeling for him.
"No, we won't stay long, Mr. Bricknell," she said gravely.
"Good night, Dad," said Jim, as his father left the room.
Josephine went to the window. She had rather a stiff, poupee walk.
"How is the night?" she said, as if to change the whole feeling in the room. She pushed back the thick grey-silk curtains. "Why?" she exclaimed. "What is that light burning? A red light?"
"Oh, that's only the pit-bank on fire," said Robert, who had followed her.
"How strange!—Why is it burning now?"
"It always burns, unfortunately—it is most consistent at it. It is the refuse from the mines. It has been burning for years, in spite of all efforts to the contrary."
"How very curious! May we look at it?" Josephine now turned the handle of the French windows, and stepped out.
"Beautiful!" they heard her voice exclaim from outside.
In the room, Julia laid her hand gently, protectively over the hand of Cyril Scott.
"Josephine and Robert are admiring the night together!" she said, smiling with subtle tenderness to him.
"Naturally! Young people always do these romantic things," replied Cyril Scott. He was twenty-two years old, so he could afford to be cynical.
"Do they?—Don't you think it's nice of them?" she said, gently removing her hand from his. His eyes were shining with pleasure.
"I do. I envy them enormously. One only needs to be sufficiently naive," he said.
"One does, doesn't one!" cooed Julia.
"I say, do you hear the bells?" said Robert, poking his head into the room.
"No, dear! Do you?" replied Julia.
"Bells! Hear the bells! Bells!" exclaimed the half-tipsy and self-conscious Jim. And he rolled in his chair in an explosion of sudden, silent laughter, showing his mouthful of pointed teeth, like a dog. Then he gradually gathered himself together, found his feet, smiling fixedly.
"Pretty cool night!" he said aloud, when he felt the air on his almost bald head. The darkness smelt of sulphur.
Josephine and Robert had moved out of sight. Julia was abstracted, following them with her eyes. With almost supernatural keenness she seemed to catch their voices from the distance.
"Yes, Josephine, WOULDN'T that be AWFULLY ROMANTIC!"—she suddenly called shrilly.
The pair in the distance started.
"What—!" they heard Josephine's sharp exclamation.
"What's that?—What would be romantic?" said Jim as he lurched up and caught hold of Cyril Scott's arm.
"Josephine wants to make a great illumination of the grounds of the estate," said Julia, magniloquent.
"No—no—I didn't say it," remonstrated Josephine.
"What Josephine said," explained Robert, "was simply that it would be pretty to put candles on one of the growing trees, instead of having a Christmas-tree indoors."
"Oh, Josephine, how sweet of you!" cried Julia.
Cyril Scott giggled.
"Good egg! Champion idea, Josey, my lass. Eh? What—!" cried Jim. "Why not carry it out—eh? Why not? Most attractive." He leaned forward over Josephine, and grinned.
"Oh, no!" expostulated Josephine. "It all sounds so silly now. No. Let us go indoors and go to bed."
"NO, Josephine dear—No! It's a LOVELY IDEA!" cried Julia. "Let's get candles and lanterns and things—"
"Let's!" grinned Jim. "Let's, everybody—let's."
"Shall we really?" asked Robert. "Shall we illuminate one of the fir-trees by the lawn?"
"Yes! How lovely!" cried Julia. "I'll fetch the candles."
"The women must put on warm cloaks," said Robert.
They trooped indoors for coats and wraps and candles and lanterns. Then, lighted by a bicycle lamp, they trooped off to the shed to twist wire round the candles for holders. They clustered round the bench.
"I say," said Julia, "doesn't Cyril look like a pilot on a stormy night! Oh, I say—!" and she went into one of her hurried laughs.
They all looked at Cyril Scott, who was standing sheepishly in the background, in a very large overcoat, smoking a large pipe. The young man was uncomfortable, but assumed a stoic air of philosophic indifference.
Soon they were busy round a prickly fir-tree at the end of the lawn. Jim stood in the background vaguely staring. The bicycle lamp sent a beam of strong white light deep into the uncanny foliage, heads clustered and hands worked. The night above was silent, dim. There was no wind. In the near distance they could hear the panting of some engine at the colliery.
"Shall we light them as we fix them," asked Robert, "or save them for one grand rocket at the end?"
"Oh, as we do them," said Cyril Scott, who had lacerated his fingers and wanted to see some reward.
A match spluttered. One naked little flame sprang alight among the dark foliage. The candle burned tremulously, naked. They all were silent.
"We ought to do a ritual dance! We ought to worship the tree," sang Julia, in her high voice.
"Hold on a minute. We'll have a little more illumination," said Robert.
"Why yes. We want more than one candle," said Josephine.
But Julia had dropped the cloak in which she was huddled, and with arms slung asunder was sliding, waving, crouching in a pas seul before the tree, looking like an animated bough herself.
Jim, who was hugging his pipe in the background, broke into a short, harsh, cackling laugh.
"Aren't we fools!" he cried. "What? Oh, God's love, aren't we fools!"
"No—why?" cried Josephine, amused but resentful.
But Jim vouchsafed nothing further, only stood like a Red Indian gripping his pipe.
The beam of the bicycle-lamp moved and fell upon the hands and faces of the young people, and penetrated the recesses of the secret trees. Several little tongues of flame clipped sensitive and ruddy on the naked air, sending a faint glow over the needle foliage. They gave a strange, perpendicular aspiration in the night. Julia waved slowly in her tree dance. Jim stood apart, with his legs straddled, a motionless figure.
The party round the tree became absorbed and excited as more ruddy tongues of flame pricked upward from the dark tree. Pale candles became evident, the air was luminous. The illumination was becoming complete, harmonious.
Josephine suddenly looked round.
"Why-y-y!" came her long note of alarm.
A man in a bowler hat and a black overcoat stood on the edge of the twilight.
"What is it?" cried Julia.
"Homo sapiens!" said Robert, the lieutenant. "Hand the light, Cyril." He played the beam of light full on the intruder; a man in a bowler hat, with a black overcoat buttoned to his throat, a pale, dazed, blinking face. The hat was tilted at a slightly jaunty angle over the left eye, the man was well-featured. He did not speak.
"Did you want anything?" asked Robert, from behind the light.
Aaron Sisson blinked, trying to see who addressed him. To him, they were all illusory. He did not answer.
"Anything you wanted?" repeated Robert, military, rather peremptory.
Jim suddenly doubled himself up and burst into a loud harsh cackle of laughter. Whoop! he went, and doubled himself up with laughter. Whoop! Whoop! he went, and fell on the ground and writhed with laughter. He was in that state of intoxication when he could find no release from maddening self-consciousness. He knew what he was doing, he did it deliberately. And yet he was also beside himself, in a sort of hysterics. He could not help himself in exasperated self-consciousness.
The others all began to laugh, unavoidably. It was a contagion. They laughed helplessly and foolishly. Only Robert was anxious.
"I'm afraid he'll wake the house," he said, looking at the doubled up figure of Jim writhing on the grass and whooping loudly.
"Or not enough," put in Cyril Scott. He twigged Jim's condition.
"No—no!" cried Josephine, weak with laughing in spite of herself. "No—it's too long—I'm like to die laughing—"
Jim embraced the earth in his convulsions. Even Robert shook quite weakly with laughter. His face was red, his eyes full of dancing water. Yet he managed to articulate.
"I say, you know, you'll bring the old man down." Then he went off again into spasms.
"Hu! Hu!" whooped Jim, subsiding. "Hu!"
He rolled over on to his back, and lay silent. The others also became weakly silent.
"What's amiss?" said Aaron Sisson, breaking this spell.
They all began to laugh again, except Jim, who lay on his back looking up at the strange sky.
"What're you laughing at?" repeated Aaron.
"We're laughing at the man on the ground," replied Josephine. "I think he's drunk a little too much."
"Ay," said Aaron, standing mute and obstinate.
"Did you want anything?" Robert enquired once more.
"Eh?" Aaron looked up. "Me? No, not me." A sort of inertia kept him rooted. The young people looked at one another and began to laugh, rather embarrassed.
"Another!" said Cyril Scott cynically.
They wished he would go away. There was a pause.
"What do you reckon stars are?" asked the sepulchral voice of Jim. He still lay flat on his back on the grass.
Josephine went to him and pulled at his coat.
"Get up," she said. "You'll take cold. Get up now, we're going indoors."
"What do you reckon stars are?" he persisted.
Aaron Sisson stood on the edge of the light, smilingly staring at the scene, like a boy out of his place, but stubbornly keeping his ground.
"Get up now," said Josephine. "We've had enough." But Jim would not move.
Robert went with the bicycle lamp and stood at Aaron's side.
"Shall I show you a light to the road—you're off your track," he said. "You're in the grounds of Shottle House."
"I can find my road," said Aaron. "Thank you."
Jim suddenly got up and went to peer at the stranger, poking his face close to Aaron's face.
"Right-o," he replied. "You're not half a bad sort of chap—Cheery-o! What's your drink?"
"Mine—whiskey," said Aaron.
"Come in and have one. We're the only sober couple in the bunch—what?" cried Jim.
Aaron stood unmoving, static in everything. Jim took him by the arm affectionately. The stranger looked at the flickering tree, with its tiers of lights.
"A Christmas tree," he said, jerking his head and smiling.
"That's right, old man," said Jim, seeming thoroughly sober now. "Come indoors and have a drink."
Aaron Sisson negatively allowed himself to be led off. The others followed in silence, leaving the tree to flicker the night through. The stranger stumbled at the open window-door.
"Mind the step," said Jim affectionately.
They crowded to the fire, which was still hot. The newcomer looked round vaguely. Jim took his bowler hat and gave him a chair. He sat without looking round, a remote, abstract look on his face. He was very pale, and seemed-inwardly absorbed.
The party threw off their wraps and sat around. Josephine turned to Aaron Sisson, who sat with a glass of whiskey in his hand, rather slack in his chair, in his thickish overcoat. He did not want to drink. His hair was blond, quite tidy, his mouth and chin handsome but a little obstinate, his eyes inscrutable. His pallor was not natural to him. Though he kept the appearance of a smile, underneath he was hard and opposed. He did not wish to be with these people, and yet, mechanically, he stayed.
"Do you feel quite well?" Josephine asked him.
He looked at her quickly.
"Me?" he said. He smiled faintly. "Yes, I'm all right." Then he dropped his head again and seemed oblivious.
"Tell us your name," said Jim affectionately.
The stranger looked up.
"My name's Aaron Sisson, if it's anything to you," he said.
Jim began to grin.
"It's a name I don't know," he said. Then he named all the party present. But the stranger hardly heeded, though his eyes looked curiously from one to the other, slow, shrewd, clairvoyant.
"Were you on your way home?" asked Robert, huffy.
The stranger lifted his head and looked at him.
"Home!" he repeated. "No. The other road—" He indicated the direction with his head, and smiled faintly.
"Beldover?" inquired Robert.
He had dropped his head again, as if he did not want to look at them.
To Josephine, the pale, impassive, blank-seeming face, the blue eyes with the smile which wasn't a smile, and the continual dropping of the well-shaped head was curiously affecting. She wanted to cry.
"Are you a miner?" Robert asked, de haute en bas.
"No," cried Josephine. She had looked at his hands.
"Men's checkweighman," replied Aaron. He had emptied his glass. He put it on the table.
"Have another?" said Jim, who was attending fixedly, with curious absorption, to the stranger.
"No," cried Josephine, "no more."
Aaron looked at Jim, then at her, and smiled slowly, with remote bitterness. Then he lowered his head again. His hands were loosely clasped between his knees.
"What about the wife?" said Robert—the young lieutenant.
"What about the wife and kiddies? You're a married man, aren't you?"
The sardonic look of the stranger rested on the subaltern.
"Yes," he said.
"Won't they be expecting you?" said Robert, trying to keep his temper and his tone of authority.
"I expect they will—"
"Then you'd better be getting along, hadn't you?"
The eyes of the intruder rested all the time on the flushed subaltern. The look on Aaron's face became slowly satirical.
"Oh, dry up the army touch," said Jim contemptuously, to Robert. "We're all civvies here. We're all right, aren't we?" he said loudly, turning to the stranger with a grin that showed his pointed teeth.
Aaron gave a brief laugh of acknowledgement.
"How many children have you?" sang Julia from her distance.
"Girls or boys?"
"All girls? Dear little things! How old?"
"Oldest eight—youngest nine months—"
"So small!" sang Julia, with real tenderness now—Aaron dropped his head. "But you're going home to them, aren't you?" said Josephine, in whose eyes the tears had already risen. He looked up at her, at her tears. His face had the same pale perverse smile.
"Not tonight," he said.
"But why? You're wrong!" cried Josephine.
He dropped his head and became oblivious.
"Well!" said Cyril Scott, rising at last with a bored exclamation. "I think I'll retire."
"Will you?" said Julia, also rising. "You'll find your candle outside."
She went out. Scott bade good night, and followed her. The four people remained in the room, quite silent. Then Robert rose and began to walk about, agitated.
"Don't you go back to 'em. Have a night out. You stop here tonight," Jim said suddenly, in a quiet intimate tone.
The stranger turned his head and looked at him, considering.
"Yes?" he said. He seemed to be smiling coldly.
"Oh, but!" cried Josephine. "Your wife and your children! Won't they be awfully bothered? Isn't it awfully unkind to them?"
She rose in her eagerness. He sat turning up his face to her. She could not understand his expression.
"Won't you go home to them?" she said, hysterical.
"Not tonight," he replied quietly, again smiling.
"You're wrong!" she cried. "You're wrong!" And so she hurried out of the room in tears.
"Er—what bed do you propose to put him in?" asked Robert rather officer-like.
"Don't propose at all, my lad," replied Jim, ironically—he did not like Robert. Then to the stranger he said:
"You'll be all right on the couch in my room?—it's a good couch, big enough, plenty of rugs—" His voice was easy and intimate.
Aaron looked at him, and nodded.
They had another drink each, and at last the two set off, rather stumbling, upstairs. Aaron carried his bowler hat with him.
Robert remained pacing in the drawing-room for some time. Then he went out, to return in a little while. He extinguished the lamps and saw that the fire was safe. Then he went to fasten the window-doors securely. Outside he saw the uncanny glimmer of candles across the lawn. He had half a mind to go out and extinguish them—but he did not. So he went upstairs and the house was quiet. Faint crumbs of snow were falling outside.
When Jim woke in the morning Aaron had gone. Only on the floor were two packets of Christmas-tree candles, fallen from the stranger's pockets. He had gone through the drawing-room door, as he had come. The housemaid said that while she was cleaning the grate in the dining-room she heard someone go into the drawing-room: a parlour-maid had even seen someone come out of Jim's bedroom. But they had both thought it was Jim himself, for he was an unsettled house mate.
There was a thin film of snow, a lovely Christmas morning.
CHAPTER IV. "THE PILLAR OF SALT"
Our story will not yet see daylight. A few days after Christmas, Aaron sat in the open shed at the bottom of his own garden, looking out on the rainy darkness. No one knew he was there. It was some time after six in the evening.
From where he sat, he looked straight up the garden to the house. The blind was not drawn in the middle kitchen, he could see the figures of his wife and one child. There was a light also in the upstairs window. His wife was gone upstairs again. He wondered if she had the baby ill. He could see her figure vaguely behind the lace curtains of the bedroom. It was like looking at his home through the wrong end of a telescope. Now the little girls had gone from the middle room: only to return in a moment.
His attention strayed. He watched the light falling from the window of the next-door house. Uneasily, he looked along the whole range of houses. The street sloped down-hill, and the backs were open to the fields. So he saw a curious succession of lighted windows, between which jutted the intermediary back premises, scullery and outhouse, in dark little blocks. It was something like the keyboard of a piano: more still, like a succession of musical notes. For the rectangular planes of light were of different intensities, some bright and keen, some soft, warm, like candle-light, and there was one surface of pure red light, one or two were almost invisible, dark green. So the long scale of lights seemed to trill across the darkness, now bright, now dim, swelling and sinking. The effect was strange.
And thus the whole private life of the street was threaded in lights. There was a sense of indecent exposure, from so many backs. He felt himself almost in physical contact with this contiguous stretch of back premises. He heard the familiar sound of water gushing from the sink in to the grate, the dropping of a pail outside the door, the clink of a coal shovel, the banging of a door, the sound of voices. So many houses cheek by jowl, so many squirming lives, so many back yards, back doors giving on to the night. It was revolting.
Away in the street itself, a boy was calling the newspaper: "—'NING POST! —'NING PO-O-ST!" It was a long, melancholy howl, and seemed to epitomise the whole of the dark, wet, secretive, thickly-inhabited night. A figure passed the window of Aaron's own house, entered, and stood inside the room talking to Mrs. Sisson. It was a young woman in a brown mackintosh and a black hat. She stood under the incandescent light, and her hat nearly knocked the globe. Next door a man had run out in his shirt sleeves: this time a young, dark-headed collier running to the gate for a newspaper, running bare-headed, coatless, slippered in the rain. He had got his news-sheet, and was returning. And just at that moment the young man's wife came out, shading her candle with a lading tin. She was going to the coal-house for some coal. Her husband passed her on the threshold. She could be heard breaking the bits of coal and placing them on the dustpan. The light from her candle fell faintly behind her. Then she went back, blown by a swirl of wind. But again she was at the door, hastily standing her iron shovel against the wall. Then she shut the back door with a bang. These noises seemed to scrape and strike the night.
In Aaron's own house, the young person was still talking to Mrs. Sisson. Millicent came out, sheltering a candle with her hand. The candle blew out. She ran indoors, and emerged again, her white pinafore fluttering. This time she performed her little journey safely. He could see the faint glimmer of her candle emerging secretly from the closet.
The young person was taking her leave. He could hear her sympathetic—"Well—good night! I hope she'll be no worse. Good night Mrs. Sisson!" She was gone—he heard the windy bang of the street-gate. Presently Millicent emerged again, flitting indoors.
So he rose to his feet, balancing, swaying a little before he started into motion, as so many colliers do. Then he moved along the path towards the house, in the rain and darkness, very slowly edging forwards.
Suddenly the door opened. His wife emerged with a pail. He stepped quietly aside, on to his side garden, among the sweet herbs. He could smell rosemary and sage and hyssop. A low wall divided his garden from his neighbour's. He put his hand on it, on its wetness, ready to drop over should his wife come forward. But she only threw the contents of her pail on the garden and retired again. She might have seen him had she looked. He remained standing where he was, listening to the trickle of rain in the water-butt. The hollow countryside lay beyond him. Sometimes in the windy darkness he could see the red burn of New Brunswick bank, or the brilliant jewels of light clustered at Bestwood Colliery. Away in the dark hollow, nearer, the glare of the electric power-station disturbed the night. So again the wind swirled the rain across all these hieroglyphs of the countryside, familiar to him as his own breast.
A motor-car was labouring up the hill. His trained ear attended to it unconsciously. It stopped with a jar. There was a bang of the yard-gate. A shortish dark figure in a bowler hat passed the window. Millicent was drawing down the blind. It was the doctor. The blind was drawn, he could see no more.
Stealthily he began to approach the house. He stood by the climbing rose of the porch, listening. He heard voices upstairs. Perhaps the children would be downstairs. He listened intently. Voices were upstairs only. He quietly opened the door. The room was empty, save for the baby, who was cooing in her cradle. He crossed to the hall. At the foot of the stairs he could hear the voice of the Indian doctor: "Now little girl, you must just keep still and warm in bed, and not cry for the moon." He said "de moon," just as ever.—Marjory must be ill.
So Aaron quietly entered the parlour. It was a cold, clammy room, dark. He could hear footsteps passing outside on the asphalt pavement below the window, and the wind howling with familiar cadence. He began feeling for something in the darkness of the music-rack beside the piano. He touched and felt—he could not find what he wanted. Perplexed, he turned and looked out of the window. Through the iron railing of the front wall he could see the little motorcar sending its straight beams of light in front of it, up the street.
He sat down on the sofa by the window. The energy had suddenly left all his limbs. He sat with his head sunk, listening. The familiar room, the familiar voice of his wife and his children—he felt weak as if he were dying. He felt weak like a drowning man who acquiesces in the waters. His strength was gone, he was sinking back. He would sink back to it all, float henceforth like a drowned man.
So he heard voices coming nearer from upstairs, feet moving. They were coming down.
"No, Mrs. Sisson, you needn't worry," he heard the voice of the doctor on the stairs. "If she goes on as she is, she'll be all right. Only she must be kept warm and quiet—warm and quiet—that's the chief thing."
"Oh, when she has those bouts I can't bear it," Aaron heard his wife's voice.
They were downstairs. Their feet click-clicked on the tiled passage. They had gone into the middle room. Aaron sat and listened.
"She won't have any more bouts. If she does, give her a few drops from the little bottle, and raise her up. But she won't have any more," the doctor said.
"If she does, I s'll go off my head, I know I shall."
"No, you won't. No, you won't do anything of the sort. You won't go off your head. You'll keep your head on your shoulders, where it ought to be," protested the doctor.
"But it nearly drives me mad."
"Then don't let it. The child won't die, I tell you. She will be all right, with care. Who have you got sitting up with her? You're not to sit up with her tonight, I tell you. Do you hear me?"
"Miss Smitham's coming in. But it's no good—I shall have to sit up. I shall HAVE to."
"I tell you you won't. You obey ME. I know what's good for you as well as for her. I am thinking of you as much as of her."
"But I can't bear it—all alone." This was the beginning of tears. There was a dead silence—then a sound of Millicent weeping with her mother. As a matter of fact, the doctor was weeping too, for he was an emotional sympathetic soul, over forty.
"Never mind—never mind—you aren't alone," came the doctor's matter-of-fact voice, after a loud nose-blowing. "I am here to help you. I will do whatever I can—whatever I can."
"I can't bear it. I can't bear it," wept the woman.
Another silence, another nose-blowing, and again the doctor:
"You'll HAVE to bear it—I tell you there's nothing else for it. You'll have to bear it—but we'll do our best for you. I will do my best for you—always—ALWAYS—in sickness or out of sickness—There!" He pronounced there oddly, not quite dhere.
"You haven't heard from your husband?" he added.
"I had a letter—"—sobs—"from the bank this morning."
"FROM DE BANK?"
"Telling me they were sending me so much per month, from him, as an allowance, and that he was quite well, but he was travelling."
"Well then, why not let him travel? You can live."
"But to leave me alone," there was burning indignation in her voice. "To go off and leave me with every responsibility, to leave me with all the burden."
"Well I wouldn't trouble about him. Aren't you better off without him?"
"I am. I am," she cried fiercely. "When I got that letter this morning, I said MAY EVIL BEFALL YOU, YOU SELFISH DEMON. And I hope it may."
"Well-well, well-well, don't fret. Don't be angry, it won't make it any better, I tell you."
"Angry! I AM angry. I'm worse than angry. A week ago I hadn't a grey hair in my head. Now look here—" There was a pause.
"Well-well, well-well, never mind. You will be all right, don't you bother. Your hair is beautiful anyhow."
"What makes me so mad is that he should go off like that—never a word—coolly takes his hook. I could kill him for it."
"Were you ever happy together?"
"We were all right at first. I know I was fond of him. But he'd kill anything.—He kept himself back, always kept himself back, couldn't give himself—"
There was a pause.
"Ah well," sighed the doctor. "Marriage is a mystery. I'm glad I'm not entangled in it."
"Yes, to make some woman's life a misery.—I'm sure it was death to live with him, he seemed to kill everything off inside you. He was a man you couldn't quarrel with, and get it over. Quiet—quiet in his tempers, and selfish through and through. I've lived with him twelve years—I know what it is. Killing! You don't know what he was—"
"I think I knew him. A fair man? Yes?" said the doctor.
"Fair to look at.—There's a photograph of him in the parlour—taken when he was married—and one of me.—Yes, he's fairhaired."
Aaron guessed that she was getting a candle to come into the parlour. He was tempted to wait and meet them—and accept it all again. Devilishly tempted, he was. Then he thought of her voice, and his heart went cold. Quick as thought, he obeyed his first impulse. He felt behind the couch, on the floor where the curtains fell. Yes—the bag was there. He took it at once. In the next breath he stepped out of the room and tip-toed into the passage. He retreated to the far end, near the street door, and stood behind the coats that hung on the hall-stand.
At that moment his wife came into the passage, holding a candle. She was red-eyed with weeping, and looked frail.
"Did YOU leave the parlour door open?" she asked of Millicent, suspiciously.
"No," said Millicent from the kitchen.
The doctor, with his soft, Oriental tread followed Mrs. Sisson into the parlour. Aaron saw his wife hold up the candle before his portrait and begin to weep. But he knew her. The doctor laid his hand softly on her arm, and left it there, sympathetically. Nor did he remove it when Millicent stole into the room, looking very woe-begone and important. The wife wept silently, and the child joined in.
"Yes, I know him," said the doctor. "If he thinks he will be happier when he's gone away, you must be happier too, Mrs. Sisson. That's all. Don't let him triumph over you by making you miserable. You enjoy yourself as well. You're only a girl—-"
But a tear came from his eye, and he blew his nose vigorously on a large white silk handkerchief, and began to polish his pince nez. Then he turned, and they all bundled out of the room.
The doctor took his departure. Mrs. Sisson went almost immediately upstairs, and Millicent shortly crept after her. Then Aaron, who had stood motionless as if turned to a pillar of salt, went quietly down the passage and into the living room. His face was very pale, ghastly-looking. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over the mantel, as he passed, and felt weak, as if he were really a criminal. But his heart did not relax, nevertheless. So he hurried into the night, down the garden, climbed the fence into the field, and went away across the field in the rain, towards the highroad.
He felt sick in every fibre. He almost hated the little handbag he carried, which held his flute and piccolo. It seemed a burden just then—a millstone round his neck. He hated the scene he had left—and he hated the hard, inviolable heart that stuck unchanging in his own breast.
Coming to the high-road, he saw a tall, luminous tram-car roving along through the rain. The trams ran across country from town to town. He dared not board, because people knew him. So he took a side road, and walked in a detour for two miles. Then he came out on the high-road again and waited for a tram-car. The rain blew on his face. He waited a long time for the last car.
CHAPTER V. AT THE OPERA
A friend had given Josephine Ford a box at the opera for one evening; our story continues by night. The box was large and important, near the stage. Josephine and Julia were there, with Robert and Jim—also two more men. The women sat in the front of the box, conspicuously. They were both poor, they were rather excited. But they belonged to a set which looked on social triumphs as a downfall that one allows oneself. The two men, Lilly and Struthers, were artists, the former literary, the latter a painter. Lilly sat by Josephine in the front of the box: he was her little lion of the evening.
Few women can sit in the front of a big box, on a crowded and full-swing opera night, without thrilling and dilating. There is an intoxication in being thus thrust forward, conspicuous and enhanced, right in the eye of the vast crowd that lines the hollow shell of the auditorium. Thus even Josephine and Julia leaned their elbows and poised their heads regally, looking condescendingly down upon the watchful world. They were two poor women, having nothing to do with society. Half bohemians.
Josephine was an artist. In Paris she was a friend of a very fashionable dressmaker and decorator, master of modern elegance. Sometimes she designed dresses for him, and sometimes she accepted from him a commission to decorate a room. Usually at her last sou, it gave her pleasure to dispose of costly and exquisite things for other people, and then be rid of them.
This evening her dress was a simple, but a marvellously poised thing of black and silver: in the words of the correct journal. With her tight, black, bright hair, her arched brows, her dusky-ruddy face and her bare shoulders; her strange equanimity, her long, slow, slanting looks; she looked foreign and frightening, clear as a cameo, but dark, far off. Julia was the English beauty, in a lovely blue dress. Her hair was becomingly untidy on her low brow, her dark blue eyes wandered and got excited, her nervous mouth twitched. Her high-pitched, sing-song voice and her hurried laugh could be heard in the theatre. She twisted a beautiful little fan that a dead artist had given her.
Not being fashionable, they were in the box when the overture began. The opera was Verdi—Aida. If it is impossible to be in an important box at the opera without experiencing the strange intoxication of social pre-eminence, it is just as impossible to be there without some feeling of horror at the sight the stage presents.
Josephine leaned her elbow and looked down: she knew how arresting that proud, rather stiff bend of her head was. She had some aboriginal American in her blood. But as she looked, she pursed her mouth. The artist in her forgot everything, she was filled with disgust. The sham Egypt of Aida hid from her nothing of its shame. The singers were all colour-washed, deliberately colour-washed to a bright orange tint. The men had oblong dabs of black wool under their lower lip; the beard of the mighty Pharaohs. This oblong dab shook and wagged to the singing.
The vulgar bodies of the fleshy women were unendurable. They all looked such good meat. Why were their haunches so prominent? It was a question Josephine could not solve. She scanned their really expensive, brilliant clothing. It was nearly right—nearly splendid. It only lacked that last subtlety which the world always lacks, the last final clinching which puts calm into a sea of fabric, and yet is the opposite pole to machine fixity.
But the leading tenor was the chief pain. He was large, stout, swathed in a cummerbund, and looked like a eunuch. This fattish, emasculated look seems common in stage heroes—even the extremely popular. The tenor sang bravely, his mouth made a large, coffin-shaped, yawning gap in his orange face, his little beard fluttered oddly, like a tail. He turned up his eyes to Josephine's box as he sang—that being the regulation direction. Meanwhile his abdomen shook as he caught his breath, the flesh of his fat, naked arms swayed.
Josephine looked down with the fixed gravity of a Red Indian, immovable, inscrutable. It was not till the scene was ended that she lifted her head as if breaking a spell, sent the point of her tongue rapidly over her dried lips, and looked round into the box. Her brown eyes expressed shame, fear, and disgust. A curious grimace went over her face—a grimace only to be expressed by the exclamation Merde! But she was mortally afraid of society, and its fixed institutions. Rapidly she scanned the eyes of her friends in the box. She rested on the eyes of Lilly, a dark, ugly man.
"Isn't it nasty?" she said.
"You shouldn't look so closely," he said. But he took it calmly, easily, whilst she felt floods of burning disgust, a longing to destroy it all.
"Oh-ho-ho!" laughed Julia. "It's so fu-nny—so funny!"
"Of course we are too near," said Robert.
"Say you admire that pink fondant over there," said Struthers, indicating with his eyebrows a blond large woman in white satin with pink edging, who sat in a box opposite, on the upper tier.
"Oh, the fondant—exactly—the fondant! Yes, I admire her immensely! Isn't she exactly IT!" sang Julia.
Josephine was scanning the auditorium. So many myriads of faces—like beads on a bead-work pattern—all bead-work, in different layers. She bowed to various acquaintances—mostly Americans in uniform, whom she had known in Paris. She smiled to Lady Cochrane, two boxes off—Lady Cochrane had given her the box. But she felt rather coldly towards her.
The curtain rose, the opera wound its slow length along. The audience loved it. They cheered with mad enthusiasm. Josephine looked down on the choppy sea of applause, white gloves clapping, heads shaking. The noise was strange and rattling. What a curious multiple object a theatre-audience was! It seemed to have a million heads, a million hands, and one monstrous, unnatural consciousness. The singers appeared before the curtain—the applause rose up like clouds of dust.
"Oh, isn't it too wonderful!" cried Julia. "I am wild with excitement. Are you all of you?"
"Absolutely wild," said Lilly laconically.
"Where is Scott to-night?" asked Struthers.
Julia turned to him and gave him a long, queer look from her dark blue eyes.
"He's in the country," she said, rather enigmatic.
"Don't you know, he's got a house down in Dorset," said Robert, verbally rushing in. "He wants Julia to go down and stay."
"Is she going?" said Lilly.
"She hasn't decided," replied Robert.
"Oh! What's the objection?" asked Struthers.
"Well, none whatsoever, as far as can be seen, except that she can't make up her mind," replied Robert.
"Julia's got no mind," said Jim rudely.
"Oh! Hear the brotherly verdict!" laughed Julia hurriedly.
"You mean to go down to Dorset alone!" said Struthers.
"Why not?" replied Robert, answering for her.
"And stay how long?"
"Oh—as long as it lasts," said Robert again.
"Starting with eternity," said Lilly, "and working back to a fortnight."
"And what's the matter?—looks bad in the eyes of the world?"
"Yes—about that. Afraid of compromising herself—"
Lilly looked at them.
"Depends what you take the world to mean. Do you mean us in this box, or the crew outside there?" he jerked his head towards the auditorium.
"Do you think, Lilly, that we're the world?" said Robert ironically.
"Oh, yes, I guess we're shipwrecked in this box, like Robinson Crusoes. And what we do on our own little island matters to us alone. As for the infinite crowds of howling savages outside there in the unspeakable, all you've got to do is mind they don't scrap you."
"But WON'T they?" said Struthers.
"Not unless you put your head in their hands," said Lilly.
"I don't know—" said Jim.
But the curtain had risen, they hushed him into silence.
All through the next scene, Julia puzzled herself, as to whether she should go down to the country and live with Scott. She had carried on a nervous kind of amour with him, based on soul sympathy and emotional excitement. But whether to go and live with him? She didn't know if she wanted to or not: and she couldn't for her life find out. She was in that nervous state when desire seems to evaporate the moment fulfilment is offered.
When the curtain dropped she turned.
"You see," she said, screwing up her eyes, "I have to think of Robert." She cut the word in two, with an odd little hitch in her voice—"ROB-ert."
"My dear Julia, can't you believe that I'm tired of being thought of," cried Robert, flushing.
Julia screwed up her eyes in a slow smile, oddly cogitating.
"Well, who AM I to think of?" she asked.
"Yourself," said Lilly.
"Oh, yes! Why, yes! I never thought of that!" She gave a hurried little laugh. "But then it's no FUN to think about oneself," she cried flatly. "I think about ROB-ert, and SCOTT." She screwed up her eyes and peered oddly at the company.
"Which of them will find you the greatest treat," said Lilly sarcastically.
"Anyhow," interjected Robert nervously, "it will be something new for Scott."
"Stale buns for you, old boy," said Jim drily.
"I don't say so. But—" exclaimed the flushed, full-blooded Robert, who was nothing if not courteous to women.
"How long ha' you been married? Eh?" asked Jim.
"Six years!" sang Julia sweetly.
"You see," said Robert, "Julia can't decide anything for herself. She waits for someone else to decide, then she puts her spoke in."
"Put it plainly—" began Struthers.
"But don't you know, it's no USE putting it plainly," cried Julia.
"But DO you want to be with Scott, out and out, or DON'T you?" said Lilly.
"Exactly!" chimed Robert. "That's the question for you to answer Julia."
"I WON'T answer it," she cried. "Why should I?" And she looked away into the restless hive of the theatre. She spoke so wildly that she attracted attention. But it half pleased her. She stared abstractedly down at the pit.
The men looked at one another in some comic consternation.
"Oh, damn it all!" said the long Jim, rising and stretching himself. "She's dead nuts on Scott. She's all over him. She'd have eloped with him weeks ago if it hadn't been so easy. She can't stand it that Robert offers to hand her into the taxi."
He gave his malevolent grin round the company, then went out. He did not reappear for the next scene.
"Of course, if she loves Scott—" began Struthers.
Julia suddenly turned with wild desperation, and cried:
"I like him tremendously—tre-men-dous-ly! He DOES understand."
"Which we don't," said Robert.
Julia smiled her long, odd smile in their faces: one might almost say she smiled in their teeth.
"What do YOU think, Josephine?" asked Lilly.
Josephine was leaning froward. She started. Her tongue went rapidly over her lips. "Who—? I—?" she exclaimed.
"I think Julia should go with Scott," said Josephine. "She'll bother with the idea till she's done it. She loves him, really."
"Of course she does," cried Robert.
Julia, with her chin resting on her arms, in a position which irritated the neighbouring Lady Cochrane sincerely, was gazing with unseeing eyes down upon the stalls.
"Well then—" began Struthers. But the music struck up softly. They were all rather bored. Struthers kept on making small, half audible remarks—which was bad form, and displeased Josephine, the hostess of the evening.
When the curtain came down for the end of the act, the men got up. Lilly's wife, Tanny, suddenly appeared. She had come on after a dinner engagement.
"Would you like tea or anything?" Lilly asked.
The women refused. The men filtered out on to the crimson and white, curving corridor. Julia, Josephine and Tanny remained in the box. Tanny was soon hitched on to the conversation in hand.
"Of course," she replied, "one can't decide such a thing like drinking a cup of tea."
"Of course, one can't, dear Tanny," said Julia.
"After all, one doesn't leave one's husband every day, to go and live with another man. Even if one looks on it as an experiment—."
"It's difficult!" cried Julia. "It's difficult! I feel they all want to FORCE me to decide. It's cruel."
"Oh, men with their beastly logic, their either-this-or-that stunt, they are an awful bore.—But of course, Robert can't love you REALLY, or he'd want to keep you. I can see Lilly discussing such a thing for ME. But then you don't love Robert either," said Tanny.
"I do! Oh, I do, Tanny! I DO love him, I love him dearly. I think he's beautiful. Robert's beautiful. And he NEEDS me. And I need him too. I need his support. Yes, I do love him."
"But you like Scott better," said Tanny.
"Only because he—he's different," sang Julia, in long tones. "You see Scott has his art. His art matters. And ROB-ert—Robert is a dilettante, don't you think—he's dilettante—" She screwed up her eyes at Tanny. Tanny cogitated.
"Of course I don't think that matters," she replied.
"But it does, it matters tremendously, dear Tanny, tremendously."
"Of course," Tanny sheered off. "I can see Scott has great attractions—a great warmth somewhere—"
"Exactly!" cried Julia. "He UNDERSTANDS!"
"And I believe he's a real artist. You might even work together. You might write his librettos."
"Yes!—Yes!—" Julia spoke with a long, pondering hiss.
"It might be AWFULLY nice," said Tanny rapturously.
"Yes!—It might!—It might—!" pondered Julia. Suddenly she gave herself a shake. Then she laughed hurriedly, as if breaking from her line of thought.
"And wouldn't Robert be an AWFULLY nice lover for Josephine! Oh, wouldn't that be splendid!" she cried, with her high laugh.
Josephine, who had been gazing down into the orchestra, turned now, flushing darkly.
"But I don't want a lover, Julia," she said, hurt.
"Josephine dear! Dear old Josephine! Don't you really! Oh, yes, you do.—I want one so BADLY," cried Julia, with her shaking laugh. "Robert's awfully good to me. But we've been married six years. And it does make a difference, doesn't it, Tanny dear?"
"A great difference," said Tanny.
"Yes, it makes a difference, it makes a difference," mused Julia. "Dear old Rob-ert—I wouldn't hurt him for worlds. I wouldn't. Do you think it would hurt Robert?"
She screwed up her eyes, looking at Tanny.
"Perhaps it would do Robert good to be hurt a little," said Tanny. "He's so well-nourished."
"Yes!—Yes!—I see what you mean, Tanny!—Poor old ROB-ert! Oh, poor old Rob-ert, he's so young!"
"He DOES seem young," said Tanny. "One doesn't forgive it."
"He is young," said Julia. "I'm five years older than he. He's only twenty-seven. Poor Old Robert."
"Robert is young, and inexperienced," said Josephine, suddenly turning with anger. "But I don't know why you talk about him."
"Is he inexperienced, Josephine dear? IS he?" sang Julia. Josephine flushed darkly, and turned away.
"Ah, he's not so innocent as all that," said Tanny roughly. "Those young young men, who seem so fresh, they're deep enough, really. They're far less innocent really than men who are experienced."
"They are, aren't they, Tanny," repeated Julia softly. "They're old—older than the Old Man of the Seas, sometimes, aren't they? Incredibly old, like little boys who know too much—aren't they? Yes!" She spoke quietly, seriously, as if it had struck her.
Below, the orchestra was coming in. Josephine was watching closely. Julia became aware of this.
"Do you see anybody we know, Josephine?" she asked.
"No," she said, looking at her friends quickly and furtively.
"Dear old Josephine, she knows all sorts of people," sang Julia.
At that moment the men returned.
"Have you actually come back!" exclaimed Tanny to them. They sat down without answering. Jim spread himself as far as he could, in the narrow space. He stared upwards, wrinkling his ugly, queer face. It was evident he was in one of his moods.
"If only somebody loved me!" he complained. "If only somebody loved me I should be all right. I'm going to pieces." He sat up and peered into the faces of the women.
"But we ALL love you," said Josephine, laughing uneasily. "Why aren't you satisfied?"
"I'm not satisfied. I'm not satisfied," murmured Jim.
"Would you like to be wrapped in swaddling bands and laid at the breast?" asked Lilly, disagreeably.
Jim opened his mouth in a grin, and gazed long and malevolently at his questioner.
"Yes," he said. Then he sprawled his long six foot of limb and body across the box again.
"You should try loving somebody, for a change," said Tanny. "You've been loved too often. Why not try and love somebody?"
Jim eyed her narrowly.
"I couldn't love YOU," he said, in vicious tones.
"A la bonne heure!" said Tanny.
But Jim sank his chin on his chest, and repeated obstinately:
"I want to be loved."
"How many times have you been loved?" Robert asked him. "It would be rather interesting to know."
Jim looked at Robert long and slow, but did not answer.
"Did you ever keep count?" Tanny persisted.
Jim looked up at her, malevolent.
"I believe I did," he replied.
"Forty is the age when a man should begin to reckon up," said Lilly.
Jim suddenly sprang to his feet, and brandished his fists.
"I'll pitch the lot of you over the bloody rail," he said.
He glared at them, from under his bald, wrinkled forehead. Josephine glanced round. She had become a dusky white colour. She was afraid of him, and she disliked him intensely nowadays.
"Do you recognise anyone in the orchestra?" she asked.
The party in the box had become dead silent. They looked down. The conductor was at his stand. The music began. They all remained silent and motionless during the next scene, each thinking his own thoughts. Jim was uncomfortable. He wanted to make good. He sat with his elbows on his knees, grinning slightly, looking down. At the next interval he stood up suddenly.
"It IS the chap—What?" he exclaimed excitedly, looking round at his friends.
"Who?" said Tanny.
"It IS he?" said Josephine quietly, meeting Jim's eye.
"Sure!" he barked.
He was leaning forward over the ledge, rattling a programme in his hand, as if trying to attract attention. Then he made signals.
"There you are!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "That's the chap."
"Who? Who?" they cried.
But neither Jim nor Josephine would vouchsafe an answer.
The next was the long interval. Jim and Josephine gazed down at the orchestra. The musicians were laying aside their instruments and rising. The ugly fire-curtain began slowly to descend. Jim suddenly bolted out.
"Is it that man Aaron Sisson?" asked Robert.
"Where? Where?" cried Julia. "It can't be."
But Josephine's face was closed and silent. She did not answer.
The whole party moved out on to the crimson-carpeted gangway. Groups of people stood about chatting, men and women were passing along, to pay visits or to find drinks. Josephine's party stared around, talking desultorily. And at length they perceived Jim stalking along, leading Aaron Sisson by the arm. Jim was grinning, the flautist looked unwilling. He had a comely appearance, in his white shirt—a certain comely blondness and repose. And as much a gentleman as anybody.
"Well!" cried Josephine to him. "How do you come here?"
"I play the flute," he answered, as he shook hands.
The little crowd stood in the gangway and talked.
"How wonderful of you to be here!" cried Julia.
"Do you think so?" he answered.
"Yes, I do.—It seems so FAR from Shottle House and Christmas Eve.—Oh, wasn't it exciting!" cried Julia.
Aaron looked at her, but did not answer.
"We've heard all about you," said Tanny playfully.
"Oh, yes," he replied.
"Come!" said Josephine, rather irritated. "We crowd up the gangway." And she led the way inside the box.
Aaron stood and looked down at the dishevelled theatre.
"You get all the view," he said.
"We do, don't we!" cried Julia.
"More than's good for us," said Lilly.
"Tell us what you are doing. You've got a permanent job?" asked Josephine.
"Ah! It's more interesting for you than at Beldover."
She had taken her seat. He looked down at her dusky young face. Her voice was always clear and measured.
"It's a change," he said, smiling.
"Oh, it must be more than that," she said. "Why, you must feel a whole difference. It's a whole new life."
He smiled, as if he were laughing at her silently. She flushed.
"But isn't it?" she persisted.
"Yes. It can be," he replied.
He looked as if he were quietly amused, but dissociated. None of the people in the box were quite real to him. He was not really amused. Julia found him dull, stupid. Tanny also was offended that he could not perceive her. The men remained practically silent.
"You're a chap I always hoped would turn up again," said Jim.
"Oh, yes!" replied Aaron, smiling as if amused.
"But perhaps he doesn't like us! Perhaps he's not glad that we turned up," said Julia, leaving her sting.
The flautist turned and looked at her.
"You can't REMEMBER us, can you?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "I can remember you."
"Oh," she laughed. "You are unflattering."
He was annoyed. He did not know what she was getting at.
"How are your wife and children?" she asked spitefully.
"All right, I think."
"But you've been back to them?" cried Josephine in dismay.
He looked at her, a slow, half smiling look, but did not speak.
"Come and have a drink. Damn the women," said Jim uncouthly, seizing Aaron by the arm and dragging him off.
Aaron's Rod by D. H. Lawrence - Full Text (Chapters 6-10)