Chapter 10 - Clara
WHEN he was twenty-three years old, Paul sent in a landscape to the winter exhibition at Nottingham Castle. Miss Jordan had taken a good deal of interest in him, and invited him to her house, where he met other artists. He was beginning to grow ambitious.
One morning the postman came just as he was washing in the scullery. Suddenly he heard a wild noise from his mother. Rushing into the kitchen, he found her standing on the hearthrug wildly waving a letter and crying "Hurrah!" as if she had gone mad. He was shocked and frightened.
"Why, mother!" he exclaimed.
She flew to him, flung her arms round him for a moment, then waved the letter, crying:
"Hurrah, my boy! I knew we should do it!"
He was afraid of her - the small, severe woman with graying hair suddenly bursting out in such frenzy. The postman came running back, afraid something had happened. They saw his tipped cap over the short curtains. Mrs. Morel rushed to the door.
"His picture's got first prize, Fred," she cried, "and is sold for twenty guineas."
"My word, that's something like!" said the young postman, whom they had known all his life.
"And Major Moreton has bought it!" she cried.
"It looks like meanin' something, that does, Mrs. Morel," said the postman, his blue eyes bright. He was glad to have brought such a lucky letter. Mrs. Morel went indoors and sat down, trembling. Paul was afraid lest she might have misread the letter, and might be disappointed after all. He scrutinised it once, twice. Yes, he became convinced it was true. Then he sat down, his heart beating with joy.
"Mother!" he exclaimed.
"Didn't I SAY we should do it!" she said, pretending she was not crying.
He took the kettle off the fire and mashed the tea.
"You didn't think, mother - " he began tentatively.
"No, my son - not so much - but I expected a good deal."
"But not so much," he said.
"No - no - but I knew we should do it."
And then she recovered her composure, apparently at least. He sat with his shirt turned back, showing his young throat almost like a girl's, and the towel in his hand, his hair sticking up wet.
"Twenty guineas, mother! That's just what you wanted to buy Arthur out. Now you needn't borrow any. It'll just do."
"Indeed, I shan't take it all," she said.
"Because I shan't."
"Well - you have twelve pounds, I'll have nine."
They cavilled about sharing the twenty guineas. She wanted to take only the five pounds she needed. He would not hear of it. So they got over the stress of emotion by quarrelling.
Morel came home at night from the pit, saying:
"They tell me Paul's got first prize for his picture, and sold it to Lord Henry Bentley for fifty pound."
"Oh, what stories people do tell!" she cried.
"Ha!" he answered. "I said I wor sure it wor a lie. But they said tha'd told Fred Hodgkisson."
"As if I would tell him such stuff!"
"Ha!" assented the miner.
But he was disappointed nevertheless.
"It's true he has got the first prize," said Mrs. Morel.
The miner sat heavily in his chair.
"Has he, beguy!" he exclaimed.
He stared across the room fixedly.
"But as for fifty pounds - such nonsense!" She was silent awhile. "Major Moreton bought it for twenty guineas, that's true."
"Twenty guineas! Tha niver says!" exclaimed Morel.
"Yes, and it was worth it."
"Ay!" he said. "I don't misdoubt it. But twenty guineas for a bit of a paintin' as he knocked off in an hour or two!"
He was silent with conceit of his son. Mrs. Morel sniffed, as if it were nothing.
"And when does he handle th' money?" asked the collier.
"That I couldn't tell you. When the picture is sent home, I suppose."
There was silence. Morel stared at the sugar-basin instead of eating his dinner. His black arm, with the hand all gnarled with work lay on the table. His wife pretended not to see him rub the back of his hand across his eyes, nor the smear in the coal-dust on his black face.
"Yes, an' that other lad 'ud 'a done as much if they hadna ha' killed 'im," he said quietly.
The thought of William went through Mrs. Morel like a cold blade. It left her feeling she was tired, and wanted rest.
Paul was invited to dinner at Mr. Jordan's. Afterwards he said:
"Mother, I want an evening suit."
"Yes, I was afraid you would," she said. She was glad. There was a moment or two of silence. "There's that one of William's," she continued, "that I know cost four pounds ten and which he'd only worn three times."
"Should you like me to wear it, mother?" he asked.
"Yes. I think it would fit you - at least the coat. The trousers would want shortening."
He went upstairs and put on the coat and vest. Coming down, he looked strange in a flannel collar and a flannel shirt-front, with an evening coat and vest. It was rather large.
"The tailor can make it right," she said, smoothing her hand over his shoulder. "It's beautiful stuff. I never could find in my heart to let your father wear the trousers, and very glad I am now."
And as she smoothed her hand over the silk collar she thought of her eldest son. But this son was living enough inside the clothes. She passed her hand down his back to feel him. He was alive and hers. The other was dead.
He went out to dinner several times in his evening suit that had been William's. Each time his mother's heart was firm with pride and joy. He was started now. The studs she and the children had bought for William were in his shirt-front; he wore one of William's dress shirts. But he had an elegant figure. His face was rough, but warm-looking and rather pleasing. He did not look particularly a gentleman, but she thought he looked quite a man.
He told her everything that took place, everything that was said. It was as if she had been there. And he was dying to introduce her to these new friends who had dinner at seven-thirty in the evening.
"Go along with you!" she said. "What do they want to know me for?"
"They do!" he cried indignantly. "If they want to know me - and they say they do - then they want to know you, because you are quite as clever as I am. "
"Go along with you, child! " she laughed.
But she began to spare her hands. They, too, were work-gnarled now. The skin was shiny with so much hot water, the knuckles rather swollen. But she began to be careful to keep them out of soda. She regretted what they had been - so small and exquisite. And when Annie insisted on her having more stylish blouses to suit her age, she submitted. She even went so far as to allow a black velvet bow to be placed on her hair. Then she sniffed in her sarcastic manner, and was sure she looked a sight. But she looked a lady, Paul declared, as much as Mrs. Major Moreton, and far, far nicer. The family was coming on. Only Morel remained unchanged, or rather, lapsed slowly.
Paul and his mother now had long discussions about life. Religion was fading into the background. He had shovelled away an the beliefs that would hamper him, had cleared the ground, and come more or less to the bedrock of belief that one should feel inside oneself for right and wrong, and should have the patience to gradually realise one's God. Now life interested him more.
"You know," he said to his mother, "I don't want to belong to the well-to-do middle class. I like my common people best. I belong to the common people."
"But if anyone else said so, my son, wouldn't you be in a tear. YOU know you consider yourself equal to any gentleman."
"In myself," he answered, "not in my class or my education or my manners. But in myself I am."
"Very well, then. Then why talk about the common people?"
"Because - the difference between people isn't in their class, but in themselves. Only from the middle classes one gets ideas, and from the common people - life itself, warmth. You feel their hates and loves."
"It's all very well, my boy. But, then, why don't you go and talk to your father's pals?"
"But they're rather different."
"Not at all. They're the common people. After all, whom do you mix with now - among the common people? Those that exchange ideas, like the middle classes. The rest don't interest you."
"But - there's the life - -"
"I don't believe there's a jot more life from Miriam than you could get from any educated girl - say Miss Moreton. It is YOU who are snobbish about class."
She frankly WANTED him to climb into the middle classes, a thing not very difficult, she knew. And she wanted him in the end to marry a lady.
Now she began to combat him in his restless fretting. He still kept up his connection with Miriam, could neither break free nor go the whole length of engagement. And this indecision seemed to bleed him of his energy. Moreover, his mother suspected him of an unrecognised leaning towards Clara, and, since the latter was a married woman, she wished he would fall in love with one of the girls in a better station of life. But he was stupid, and would refuse to love or even to admire a girl much, just because she was his social superior.
"My boy," said his mother to him, "all your cleverness, your breaking away from old things, and taking life in your own hands, doesn't seem to bring you much happiness."
"What is happiness!" he cried. "It's nothing to me! How AM I to be happy?"
The plump question disturbed her.
"That's for you to judge, my lad. But if you could meet some GOOD woman who would MAKE you happy - and you began to think of settling your life - when you have the means - so that you could work without all this fretting - it would be much better for you."
He frowned. His mother caught him on the raw of his wound of Miriam. He pushed the tumbled hair off his forehead, his eyes full of pain and fire.
"You mean easy, mother," he cried. "That's a woman's whole doctrine for life - ease of soul and physical comfort. And I do despise it."
"Oh, do you!" replied his mother. "And do you call yours a divine discontent?"
"Yes. I don't care about its divinity. But damn your happiness! So long as life's full, it doesn't matter whether it's happy or not. I'm afraid your happiness would bore me."
"You never give it a chance," she said. Then suddenly all her passion of grief over him broke out. "But it does matter!" she cried. "And you OUGHT to be happy, you ought to try to be happy, to live to be happy. How could I bear to think your life wouldn't be a happy one!"
"Your own's been bad enough, mater, but it hasn't left you so much worse off than the folk who've been happier. I reckon you've done well. And I am the same. Aren't I well enough off?"
"You're not, my son. Battle - battle - and suffer. It's about all you do, as far as I can see."
"But why not, my dear? I tell you it's the best - -"
"It isn't. And one OUGHT to be happy, one OUGHT."
By this time Mrs. Morel was trembling violently. Struggles of this kind often took place between her and her son, when she seemed to fight for his very life against his own will to die. He took her in his arms. She was ill and pitiful.
"Never mind, Little," he murmured. "So long as you don't feel life's paltry and a miserable business, the rest doesn't matter, happiness or unhappiness."
She pressed him to her.
"But I want you to be happy," she said pathetically.
"Eh, my dear - say rather you want me to live."
Mrs. Morel felt as if her heart would break for him. At this rate she knew he would not live. He had that poignant carelessness about himself, his own suffering, his own life, which is a form of slow suicide. It almost broke her heart. With all the passion of her strong nature she hated Miriam for having in this subtle way undermined his joy. It did not matter to her that Miriam could not help it. Miriam did it, and she hated her.
She wished so much he would fall in love with a girl equal to be his mate - educated and strong. But he would not look at anybody above him in station. He seemed to like Mrs. Dawes. At any rate that feeling was wholesome. His mother prayed and prayed for him, that he might not be wasted. That was all her prayer - not for his soul or his righteousness, but that he might not be wasted. And while he slept, for hours and hours she thought and prayed for him.
He drifted away from Miriam imperceptibly, without knowing he was going. Arthur only left the army to be married. The baby was born six months after his wedding. Mrs. Morel got him a job under the firm again, at twenty-one shillings a week. She furnished for him, with the help of Beatrice's mother, a little cottage of two rooms. He was caught now. It did not matter how he kicked and struggled, he was fast. For a time he chafed, was irritable with his young wife, who loved him; he went almost distracted when the baby, which was delicate, cried or gave trouble. He grumbled for hours to his mother. She only said: "Well, my lad, you did it yourself, now you must make the best of it." And then the grit came out in him. He buckled to work, undertook his responsibilities, acknowledged that he belonged to his wife and child, and did make a good best of it. He had never been very closely inbound into the family. Now he was gone altogether.
The months went slowly along. Paul had more or less got into connection with the Socialist, Suffragette, Unitarian people in Nottingham, owing to his acquaintance with Clara. One day a friend of his and of Clara's, in Bestwood, asked him to take a message to Mrs. Dawes. He went in the evening across Sneinton Market to Bluebell Hill. He found the house in a mean little street paved with granite cobbles and having causeways of dark blue, grooved bricks. The front door went up a step from off this rough pavement, where the feet of the passersby rasped and clattered. The brown paint on the door was so old that the naked wood showed between the rents. He stood on the street below and knocked. There came a heavy footstep; a large, stout woman of about sixty towered above him. He looked up at her from the pavement. She had a rather severe face.
She admitted him into the parlour, which opened on to the street. It was a small, stuffy, defunct room, of mahogany, and deathly enlargements of photographs of departed people done in carbon. Mrs. Radford left him. She was stately, almost martial. In a moment Clara appeared. She flushed deeply, and he was covered with confusion. It seemed as if she did not like being discovered in her home circumstances.
"I thought it couldn't be your voice," she said.
But she might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. She invited him out of the mausoleum of a parlour into the kitchen.
That was a little, darkish room too, but it was smothered in white lace. The mother had seated herself again by the cupboard, and was drawing thread from a vast web of lace. A clump of fluff and ravelled cotton was at her right hand, a heap of three-quarter-inch lace lay on her left, whilst in front of her was the mountain of lace web, piling the hearthrug. Threads of curly cotton, pulled out from between the lengths of lace, strewed over the fender and the fireplace. Paul dared not go forward, for fear of treading on piles of white stuff.
On the table was a jenny for carding the lace. There was a pack of brown cardboard squares, a pack of cards of lace, a little box of pins, and on the sofa lay a heap of drawn lace.
The room was all lace, and it was so dark and warm that the white, snowy stuff seemed the more distinct.
"If you're coming in you won't have to mind the work," said Mrs. Radford. "I know we're about blocked up. But sit you down."
Clara, much embarrassed, gave him a chair against the wall opposite the white heaps. Then she herself took her place on the sofa, shamedly.
"Will you drink a bottle of stout?" Mrs. Radford asked. "Clara, get him a bottle of stout."
He protested, but Mrs. Radford insisted.
"You look as if you could do with it," she said. "Haven't you never any more colour than that?"
"It's only a thick skin I've got that doesn't show the blood through," he answered.
Clara, ashamed and chagrined, brought him a bottle of stout and a glass. He poured out some of the black stuff.
"Well," he said, lifting the glass, "here's health!"
"And thank you," said Mrs. Radford.
He took a drink of stout.
"And light yourself a cigarette, so long as you don't set the house on fire," said Mrs. Radford.
"Thank you," he replied.
"Nay, you needn't thank me," she answered. "I s'll be glad to smell a bit of smoke in th' 'ouse again. A house o' women is as dead as a house wi' no fire, to my thinkin'. I'm not a spider as likes a corner to myself. I like a man about, if he's only something to snap at."
Clara began to work. Her jenny spun with a subdued buzz; the white lace hopped from between her fingers on to the card. It was filled; she snipped off the length, and pinned the end down to the banded lace. Then she put a new card in her jenny. Paul watched her. She sat square and magnificent. Her throat and arms were bare. The blood still mantled below her ears; she bent her head in shame of her humility. Her face was set on her work. Her arms were creamy and full of life beside the white lace; her large, well-kept hands worked with a balanced movement, as if nothing would hurry them. He, not knowing, watched her all the time. He saw the arch of her neck from the shoulder, as she bent her head; he saw the coil of dun hair; he watched her moving, gleaming arms.
"I've heard a bit about you from Clara," continued the mother. "You're in Jordan's, aren't you?" She drew her lace unceasing.
"Ay, well, and I can remember when Thomas Jordan used to ask ME for one of my toffies."
"Did he?" laughed Paul. "And did he get it?"
"Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't - which was latterly. For he's the sort that takes all and gives naught, he is - or used to be."
"I think he's very decent," said Paul.
"Yes; well, I'm glad to hear it."
Mrs. Radford looked across at him steadily. There was something determined about her that he liked. Her face was falling loose, but her eyes were calm, and there was something strong in her that made it seem she was not old; merely her wrinkles and loose cheeks were an anachronism. She had the strength and sang-froid of a woman in the prime of life. She continued drawing the lace with slow, dignified movements. The big web came up inevitably over her apron; the length of lace fell away at her side. Her arms were finely shapen, but glossy and yellow as old ivory. They had not the peculiar dull gleam that made Clara's so fascinating to him.
"And you've been going with Miriam Leivers?" the mother asked him.
"Well - " he answered.
"Yes, she's a nice girl," she continued. "She's very nice, but she's a bit too much above this world to suit my fancy."
"She is a bit like that," he agreed.
"She'll never be satisfied till she's got wings and can fly over everybody's head, she won't," she said.
Clara broke in, and he told her his message. She spoke humbly to him. He had surprised her in her drudgery. To have her humble made him feel as if he were lifting his head in expectation.
"Do you like jennying?" he asked.
"What can a woman do!" she replied bitterly.
"Is it sweated?"
"More or less. Isn't ALL woman's work? That's another trick the men have played, since we force ourselves into the labour market."
"Now then, you shut up about the men," said her mother. "If the women wasn't fools, the men wouldn't be bad uns, that's what I say. No man was ever that bad wi' me but what he got it back again. Not but what they're a lousy lot, there's no denying it."
"But they're all right really, aren't they?" he asked.
"Well, they're a bit different from women," she answered.
"Would you care to be back at Jordan's?" he asked Clara.
"I don't think so," she replied.
"Yes, she would!" cried her mother; "thank her stars if she could get back. Don't you listen to her. She's for ever on that 'igh horse of hers, an' it's back's that thin an' starved it'll cut her in two one of these days."
Clara suffered badly from her mother. Paul felt as if his eyes were coming very wide open. Wasn't he to take Clara's fulminations so seriously, after all? She spun steadily at her work. He experienced a thrill of joy, thinking she might need his help. She seemed denied and deprived of so much. And her arm moved mechanically, that should never have been subdued to a mechanism, and her head was bowed to the lace, that never should have been bowed. She seemed to be stranded there among the refuse that life has thrown away, doing her jennying. It was a bitter thing to her to be put aside by life, as if it had no use for her. No wonder she protested.
She came with him to the door. He stood below in the mean street, looking up at her. So fine she was in her stature and her bearing, she reminded him of Juno dethroned. As she stood in the doorway, she winced from the street, from her surroundings.
"And you will go with Mrs. Hodgkisson to Hucknall?"
He was talking quite meaninglessly, only watching her. Her grey eyes at last met his. They looked dumb with humiliation, pleading with a kind of captive misery. He was shaken and at a loss. He had thought her high and mighty.
When he left her, he wanted to run. He went to the station in a sort of dream, and was at home without realising he had moved out of her street.
He had an idea that Susan, the overseer of the Spiral girls, was about to be married. He asked her the next day.
"I say, Susan, I heard a whisper of your getting married. What about it?"
Susan flushed red.
"Who's been talking to you?" she replied.
"Nobody. I merely heard a whisper that you WERE thinking - -"
"Well, I am, though you needn't tell anybody. What's more, I wish I wasn't!"
"Nay, Susan, you won't make me believe that."
"Shan't I? You CAN believe it, though. I'd rather stop here a thousand times."
Paul was perturbed.
The girl's colour was high, and her eyes flashed.
"And must you?"
For answer, she looked at him. There was about him a candour and gentleness which made the women trust him. He understood.
"Ah, I'm sorry," he said.
Tears came to her eyes.
"But you'll see it'll turn out all right. You'll make the best of it," he continued rather wistfully.
"There's nothing else for it."
"Yea, there's making the worst of it. Try and make it all right."
He soon made occasion to call again on Clara.
"Would you," he said, "care to come back to Jordan's?"
She put down her work, laid her beautiful arms on the table, and looked at him for some moments without answering. Gradually the flush mounted her cheek.
"Why?" she asked.
Paul felt rather awkward.
"Well, because Susan is thinking of leaving," he said.
Clara went on with her jennying. The white lace leaped in little jumps and bounds on to the card. He waited for her. Without raising her head, she said at last, in a peculiar low voice:
"Have you said anything about it?"
"Except to you, not a word."
There was again a long silence.
"I will apply when the advertisement is out," she said.
"You will apply before that. I will let you know exactly when."
She went on spinning her little machine, and did not contradict him.
Clara came to Jordan's. Some of the older hands, Fanny among them, remembered her earlier rule, and cordially disliked the memory. Clara had always been "ikey", reserved, and superior. She had never mixed with the girls as one of themselves. If she had occasion to find fault, she did it coolly and with perfect politeness, which the defaulter felt to be a bigger insult than crassness. Towards Fanny, the poor, overstrung hunchback, Clara was unfailingly compassionate and gentle, as a result of which Fanny shed more bitter tears than ever the rough tongues of the other overseers had caused her.
There was something in Clara that Paul disliked, and much that piqued him. If she were about, he always watched her strong throat or her neck, upon which the blonde hair grew low and fluffy. There was a fine down, almost invisible, upon the skin of her face and arms, and when once he had perceived it, he saw it always.
When he was at his work, painting in the afternoon, she would come and stand near to him, perfectly motionless. Then he felt her, though she neither spoke nor touched him. Although she stood a yard away he felt as if he were in contact with her. Then he could paint no more. He flung down the brushes, and turned to talk to her.
Sometimes she praised his work; sometimes she was critical and cold.
"You are affected in that piece," she would say; and, as there was an element of truth in her condemnation, his blood boiled with anger.
Again: "What of this?" he would ask enthusiastically.
"H'm!" She made a small doubtful sound. "It doesn't interest me much."
"Because you don't understand it," he retorted.
"Then why ask me about it?"
"Because I thought you would understand."
She would shrug her shoulders in scorn of his work. She maddened him. He was furious. Then he abused her, and went into passionate exposition of his stuff. This amused and stimulated her. But she never owned that she had been wrong.
During the ten years that she had belonged to the women's movement she had acquired a fair amount of education, and, having had some of Miriam's passion to be instructed, had taught herself French, and could read in that language with a struggle. She considered herself as a woman apart, and particularly apart, from her class. The girls in the Spiral department were all of good homes. It was a small, special industry, and had a certain distinction. There was an air of refinement in both rooms. But Clara was aloof also from her fellow-workers.
None of these things, however, did she reveal to Paul. She was not the one to give herself away. There was a sense of mystery about her. She was so reserved, he felt she had much to reserve. Her history was open on the surface, but its inner meaning was hidden from everybody. It was exciting. And then sometimes he caught her looking at him from under her brows with an almost furtive, sullen scrutiny, which made him move quickly. Often she met his eyes. But then her own were, as it were, covered over, revealing nothing. She gave him a little, lenient smile. She was to him extraordinarily provocative, because of the knowledge she seemed to possess, and gathered fruit of experience he could not attain.
One day he picked up a copy of Lettres de mon Moulin from her work-bench.
"You read French, do you?" he cried.
Clara glanced round negligently. She was making an elastic stocking of heliotrope silk, turning the Spiral machine with slow, balanced regularity, occasionally bending down to see her work or to adjust the needles; then her magnificent neck, with its down and fine pencils of hair, shone white against the lavender, lustrous silk. She turned a few more rounds, and stopped.
"What did you say?" she asked, smiling sweetly.
Paul's eyes glittered at her insolent indifference to him.
"I did not know you read French," he said, very polite.
"Did you not?" she replied, with a faint, sarcastic smile.
"Rotten swank!" he said, but scarcely loud enough to be heard.
He shut his mouth angrily as he watched her. She seemed to scorn the work she mechanically produced; yet the hose she made were as nearly perfect as possible.
"You don't like Spiral work," he said.
"Oh, well, all work is work," she answered, as if she knew all about it.
He marvelled at her coldness. He had to do everything hotly. She must be something special.
"What would you prefer to do?" he asked.
She laughed at him indulgently, as she said:
"There is so little likelihood of my ever being given a choice, that I haven't wasted time considering."
"Pah!" he said, contemptuous on his side now. "You only say that because you're too proud to own up what you want and can't get."
"You know me very well," she replied coldly.
"I know you think you're terrific great shakes, and that you live under the eternal insult of working in a factory."
He was very angry and very rude. She merely turned away from him in disdain. He walked whistling down the room, flirted and laughed with Hilda.
Later on he said to himself:
"What was I so impudent to Clara for?" He was rather annoyed with himself, at the same time glad. "Serve her right; she stinks with silent pride," he said to himself angrily.
In the afternoon he came down. There was a certain weight on his heart which he wanted to remove. He thought to do it by offering her chocolates.
"Have one?" he said. "I bought a handful to sweeten me up."
To his great relief, she accepted. He sat on the work-bench beside her machine, twisting a piece of silk round his finger. She loved him for his quick, unexpected movements, like a young animal. His feet swung as he pondered. The sweets lay strewn on the bench. She bent over her machine, grinding rhythmically, then stooping to see the stocking that hung beneath, pulled down by the weight. He watched the handsome crouching of her back, and the apron-strings curling on the floor.
"There is always about you," he said, "a sort of waiting. Whatever I see you doing, you're not really there: you are waiting - like Penelope when she did her weaving." He could not help a spurt of wickedness. "I'll call you Penelope," he said.
"Would it make any difference?" she said, carefully removing one of her needles.
"That doesn't matter, so long as it pleases me. Here, I say, you seem to forget I'm your boss. It just occurs to me."
"And what does that mean?" she asked coolly.
"It means I've got a right to boss you."
"Is there anything you want to complain about?"
"Oh, I say, you needn't be nasty," he said angrily.
"I don't know what you want," she said, continuing her task.
"I want you to treat me nicely and respectfully."
"Call you 'sir', perhaps?" she asked quietly.
"Yes, call me 'sir'. I should love it."
"Then I wish you would go upstairs, sir."
His mouth closed, and a frown came on his face. He jumped suddenly down.
"You're too blessed superior for anything," he said.
And he went away to the other girls. He felt he was being angrier than he had any need to be. In fact, he doubted slightly that he was showing off. But if he were, then he would. Clara heard him laughing, in a way she hated, with the girls down the next room.
When at evening he went through the department after the girls had gone, he saw his chocolates lying untouched in front of Clara's machine. He left them. In the morning they were still there, and Clara was at work. Later on Minnie, a little brunette they called Pussy, called to him:
"Hey, haven't you got a chocolate for anybody?"
"Sorry, Pussy," he replied. "I meant to have offered them; then I went and forgot 'em."
"I think you did," she answered.
"I'll bring you some this afternoon. You don't want them after they've been lying about, do you?"
"Oh, I'm not particular," smiled Pussy.
"Oh no," he said. "They'll be dusty."
He went up to Clara's bench.
"Sorry I left these things littering about," he said.
She flushed scarlet. He gathered them together in his fist.
"They'll be dirty now," he said. "You should have taken them. I wonder why you didn't. I meant to have told you I wanted you to."
He flung them out of the window into the yard below. He just glanced at her. She winced from his eyes.
In the afternoon he brought another packet.
"Will you take some?" he said, offering them first to Clara. "These are fresh."
She accepted one, and put it on to the bench.
"Oh, take several - for luck," he said.
She took a couple more, and put them on the bench also. Then she turned in confusion to her work. He went on up the room.
"Here you are, Pussy," he said. "Don't be greedy!"
"Are they all for her?" cried the others, rushing up.
"Of course they're not," he said.
The girls clamoured round. Pussy drew back from her mates.
"Come out!" she cried. "I can have first pick, can't I, Paul?"
"Be nice with 'em," he said, and went away.
"You ARE a dear," the girls cried.
"Tenpence," he answered.
He went past Clara without speaking. She felt the three chocolate creams would burn her if she touched them. It needed all her courage to slip them into the pocket of her apron.
The girls loved him and were afraid of him. He was so nice while he was nice, but if he were offended, so distant, treating them as if they scarcely existed, or not more than the bobbins of thread. And then, if they were impudent, he said quietly: "Do you mind going on with your work," and stood and watched.
When he celebrated his twenty-third birthday, the house was in trouble. Arthur was just going to be married. His mother was not well. His father, getting an old man, and lame from his accidents, was given a paltry, poor job. Miriam was an eternal reproach. He felt he owed himself to her, yet could not give himself. The house, moreover, needed his support. He was pulled in all directions. He was not glad it was his birthday. It made him bitter.
He got to work at eight o'clock. Most of the clerks had not turned up. The girls were not due till 8.30. As he was changing his coat, he heard a voice behind him say:
"Paul, Paul, I want you."
It was Fanny, the hunchback, standing at the top of her stairs, her face radiant with a secret. Paul looked at her in astonishment.
"I want you," she said.
He stood, at a loss.
"Come on," she coaxed. "Come before you begin on the letters."
He went down the half-dozen steps into her dry, narrow, "finishing-off" room. Fanny walked before him: her black bodice was short - the waist was under her armpits - and her green-black cashmere skirt seemed very long, as she strode with big strides before the young man, himself so graceful. She went to her seat at the narrow end of the room, where the window opened on to chimney-pots. Paul watched her thin hands and her flat red wrists as she excitedly twitched her white apron, which was spread on the bench in front of her. She hesitated.
"You didn't think we'd forgot you?" she asked, reproachful.
"Why?" he asked. He had forgotten his birthday himself.
"'Why,' he says! 'Why!' Why, look here!" She pointed to the calendar, and he saw, surrounding the big black number "21", hundreds of little crosses in black-lead.
"Oh, kisses for my birthday," he laughed. "How did you know?"
"Yes, you want to know, don't you?" Fanny mocked, hugely delighted. "There's one from everybody - except Lady Clara - and two from some. But I shan't tell you how many I put."
"Oh, I know, you're spooney," he said.
"There you ARE mistaken!" she cried, indignant. "I could never be so soft." Her voice was strong and contralto.
"You always pretend to be such a hard-hearted hussy," he laughed. "And you know you're as sentimental - -"
"I'd rather be called sentimental than frozen meat," Fanny blurted. Paul knew she referred to Clara, and he smiled.
"Do you say such nasty things about me?" he laughed.
"No, my duck," the hunchback woman answered, lavishly tender. She was thirty-nine. "No, my duck, because you don't think yourself a fine figure in marble and us nothing but dirt. I'm as good as you, aren't I, Paul?" and the question delighted her.
"Why, we're not better than one another, are we?" he replied.
"But I'm as good as you, aren't I, Paul?" she persisted daringly.
"Of course you are. If it comes to goodness, you're better."
She was rather afraid of the situation. She might get hysterical.
"I thought I'd get here before the others - won't they say I'm deep! Now shut your eyes - -" she said.
"And open your mouth, and see what God sends you," he continued, suiting action to words, and expecting a piece of chocolate. He heard the rustle of the apron, and a faint clink of metal. "I'm going to look," he said.
He opened his eyes. Fanny, her long cheeks flushed, her blue eyes shining, was gazing at him. There was a little bundle of paint-tubes on the bench before him. He turned pale.
"No, Fanny," he said quickly.
"From us all," she answered hastily.
"No, but - -"
"Are they the right sort?" she asked, rocking herself with delight.
"Jove! they're the best in the catalogue."
"But they're the right sorts?" she cried.
"They're off the little list I'd made to get when my ship came in." He bit his lip.
Fanny was overcome with emotion. She must turn the conversation.
"They was all on thorns to do it; they all paid their shares, all except the Queen of Sheba."
The Queen of Sheba was Clara.
"And wouldn't she join?" Paul asked.
"She didn't get the chance; we never told her; we wasn't going to have HER bossing THIS show. We didn't WANT her to join."
Paul laughed at the woman. He was much moved. At last he must go. She was very close to him. Suddenly she flung her arms round his neck and kissed him vehemently.
"I can give you a kiss to-day," she said apologetically. "You've looked so white, it's made my heart ache."
Paul kissed her, and left her. Her arms were so pitifully thin that his heart ached also.
That day he met Clara as he ran downstairs to wash his hands at dinner-time.
"You have stayed to dinner!" he exclaimed. It was unusual for her.
"Yes; and I seem to have dined on old surgical-appliance stock. I MUST go out now, or I shall feel stale india-rubber right through."
She lingered. He instantly caught at her wish.
"You are going anywhere?" he asked.
They went together up to the Castle. Outdoors she dressed very plainly, down to ugliness; indoors she always looked nice. She walked with hesitating steps alongside Paul, bowing and turning away from him. Dowdy in dress, and drooping, she showed to great disadvantage. He could scarcely recognise her strong form, that seemed to slumber with power. She appeared almost insignificant, drowning her stature in her stoop, as she shrank from the public gaze.
The Castle grounds were very green and fresh. Climbing the precipitous ascent, he laughed and chattered, but she was silent, seeming to brood over something. There was scarcely time to go inside the squat, square building that crowns the bluff of rock. They leaned upon the wall where the cliff runs sheer down to the Park. Below them, in their holes in the sandstone, pigeons preened themselves and cooed softly. Away down upon the boulevard at the foot of the rock, tiny trees stood in their own pools of shadow, and tiny people went scurrying about in almost ludicrous importance.
"You feel as if you could scoop up the folk like tadpoles, and have a handful of them," he said.
She laughed, answering:
"Yes; it is not necessary to get far off in order to see us proportionately. The trees are much more significant."
"Bulk only," he said.
She laughed cynically.
Away beyond the boulevard the thin stripes of the metals showed upon the railway-track, whose margin was crowded with little stacks of timber, beside which smoking toy engines fussed. Then the silver string of the canal lay at random among the black heaps. Beyond, the dwellings, very dense on the river flat, looked like black, poisonous herbage, in thick rows and crowded beds, stretching right away, broken now and then by taller plants, right to where the river glistened in a hieroglyph across the country. The steep scarp cliffs across the river looked puny. Great stretches of country darkened with trees and faintly brightened with corn-land, spread towards the haze, where the hills rose blue beyond grey.
"It is comforting," said Mrs. Dawes, "to think the town goes no farther. It is only a LITTLE sore upon the country yet."
"A little scab," Paul said.
She shivered. She loathed the town. Looking drearily across at the country which was forbidden her, her impassive face, pale and hostile, she reminded Paul of one of the bitter, remorseful angels.
"But the town's all right," he said; "it's only temporary. This is the crude, clumsy make-shift we've practised on, till we find out what the idea is. The town will come all right."
The pigeons in the pockets of rock, among the perched bushes, cooed comfortably. To the left the large church of St. Mary rose into space, to keep close company with the Castle, above the heaped rubble of the town. Mrs. Dawes smiled brightly as she looked across the country.
"I feel better," she said.
"Thank you," he replied. "Great compliment!"
"Oh, my brother!" she laughed.
"H'm! that's snatching back with the left hand what you gave with the right, and no mistake," he said.
She laughed in amusement at him.
"But what was the matter with you?" he asked. "I know you were brooding something special. I can see the stamp of it on your face yet."
"I think I will not tell you," she said.
"All right, hug it," he answered.
She flushed and bit her lip.
"No," she said, "it was the girls."
"What about 'em?" Paul asked.
"They have been plotting something for a week now, and to-day they seem particularly full of it. All alike; they insult me with their secrecy."
"Do they?" he asked in concern.
"I should not mind," she went on, in the metallic, angry tone, "if they did not thrust it into my face - the fact that they have a secret."
"Just like women," said he.
"It is hateful, their mean gloating," she said intensely.
Paul was silent. He knew what the girls gloated over. He was sorry to be the cause of this new dissension.
"They can have all the secrets in the world," she went on, brooding bitterly; "but they might refrain from glorying in them, and making me feel more out of it than ever. It is - it is almost unbearable."
Paul thought for a few minutes. He was much perturbed.
"I will tell you what it's all about," he said, pale and nervous. "It's my birthday, and they've bought me a fine lot of paints, all the girls. They're jealous of you" - he felt her stiffen coldly at the word 'jealous' - "merely because I sometimes bring you a book," he added slowly. "But, you see, it's only a trifle. Don't bother about it, will you - because" - he laughed quickly - "well, what would they say if they saw us here now, in spite of their victory?"
She was angry with him for his clumsy reference to their present intimacy. It was almost insolent of him. Yet he was so quiet, she forgave him, although it cost her an effort.
Their two hands lay on the rough stone parapet of the Castle wall. He had inherited from his mother a fineness of mould, so that his hands were small and vigorous. Hers were large, to match her large limbs, but white and powerful looking. As Paul looked at them he knew her. "She is wanting somebody to take her hands - for all she is so contemptuous of us," he said to himself. And she saw nothing but his two hands, so warm and alive, which seemed to live for her. He was brooding now, staring out over the country from under sullen brows. The little, interesting diversity of shapes had vanished from the scene; all that remained was a vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy, the same in all the houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds; they were only shapen differently. And now that the forms seemed to have melted away, there remained the mass from which all the landscape was composed, a dark mass of struggle and pain. The factory, the girls, his mother, the large, uplifted church, the thicket of the town, merged into one atmosphere - dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit.
"Is that two o'clock striking?" Mrs. Dawes said in surprise.
Paul started, and everything sprang into form, regained its individuality, its forgetfulness, and its cheerfulness.
They hurried back to work.
When he was in the rush of preparing for the night's post, examining the work up from Fanny's room, which smelt of ironing, the evening postman came in.
"'Mr. Paul Morel,'" he said, smiling, handing Paul a package. "A lady's handwriting! Don't let the girls see it."
The postman, himself a favourite, was pleased to make fun of the girls' affection for Paul.
It was a volume of verse with a brief note: "You will allow me to send you this, and so spare me my isolation. I also sympathise and wish you well. - C.D." Paul flushed hot.
"Good Lord! Mrs. Dawes. She can't afford it. Good Lord, who ever'd have thought it!"
He was suddenly intensely moved. He was filled with the warmth of her. In the glow he could almost feel her as if she were present - her arms, her shoulders, her bosom, see them, feel them, almost contain them.
This move on the part of Clara brought them into closer intimacy. The other girls noticed that when Paul met Mrs. Dawes his eyes lifted and gave that peculiar bright greeting which they could interpret. Knowing he was unaware, Clara made no sign, save that occasionally she turned aside her face from him when he came upon her.
They walked out together very often at dinner-time; it was quite open, quite frank. Everybody seemed to feel that he was quite unaware of the state of his own feeling, and that nothing was wrong. He talked to her now with some of the old fervour with which he had talked to Miriam, but he cared less about the talk; he did not bother about his conclusions.
One day in October they went out to Lambley for tea. Suddenly they came to a halt on top of the hill. He climbed and sat on a gate, she sat on the stile. The afternoon was perfectly still, with a dim haze, and yellow sheaves glowing through. They were quiet.
"How old were you when you married?" he asked quietly.
Her voice was subdued, almost submissive. She would tell him now.
"It is eight years ago?"
"And when did you leave him?"
"Three years ago."
"Five years! Did you love him when you married him?"
She was silent for some time; then she said slowly:
"I thought I did - more or less. I didn't think much about it. And he wanted me. I was very prudish then."
"And you sort of walked into it without thinking?"
"Yes. I seemed to have been asleep nearly all my life."
"Somnambule? But - when did you wake up?"
"I don't know that I ever did, or ever have - since I was a child."
"You went to sleep as you grew to be a woman? How queer! And he didn't wake you?"
"No; he never got there," she replied, in a monotone.
The brown birds dashed over the hedges where the rose-hips stood naked and scarlet.
"Got where?" he asked.
"At me. He never really mattered to me."
The afternoon was so gently warm and dim. Red roofs of the cottages burned among the blue haze. He loved the day. He could feel, but he could not understand, what Clara was saying.
"But why did you leave him? Was he horrid to you?"
She shuddered lightly.
"He - he sort of degraded me. He wanted to bully me because he hadn't got me. And then I felt as if I wanted to run, as if I was fastened and bound up. And he seemed dirty."
He did not at all see.
"And was he always dirty?" he asked.
"A bit," she replied slowly. "And then he seemed as if he couldn't get AT me, really. And then he got brutal - he WAS brutal!"
"And why did you leave him finally?"
"Because - because he was unfaithful to me - -"
They were both silent for some time. Her hand lay on the gate-post as she balanced. He put his own over it. His heart beat quickly.
"But did you - were you ever - did you ever give him a chance?"
"To come near to you."
"I married him - and I was willing - -"
They both strove to keep their voices steady.
"I believe he loves you," he said.
"It looks like it," she replied.
He wanted to take his hand away, and could not. She saved him by removing her own. After a silence, he began again:
"Did you leave him out of count all along?"
"He left me," she said.
"And I suppose he couldn't MAKE himself mean everything to you?"
"He tried to bully me into it."
But the conversation had got them both out of their depth. Suddenly Paul jumped down.
"Come on," he said. "Let's go and get some tea."
They found a cottage, where they sat in the cold parlour. She poured out his tea. She was very quiet. He felt she had withdrawn again from him. After tea, she stared broodingly into her tea-cup, twisting her wedding ring all the time. In her abstraction she took the ring off her finger, stood it up, and spun it upon the table. The gold became a diaphanous, glittering globe. It fell, and the ring was quivering upon the table. She spun it again and again. Paul watched, fascinated.
But she was a married woman, and he believed in simple friendship. And he considered that he was perfectly honourable with regard to her. It was only a friendship between man and woman, such as any civilised persons might have.
He was like so many young men of his own age. Sex had become so complicated in him that he would have denied that he ever could want Clara or Miriam or any woman whom he knew. Sex desire was a sort of detached thing, that did not belong to a woman. He loved Miriam with his soul. He grew warm at the thought of Clara, he battled with her, he knew the curves of her breast and shoulders as if they had been moulded inside him; and yet he did not positively desire her. He would have denied it for ever. He believed himself really bound to Miriam. If ever he should marry, some time in the far future, it would be his duty to marry Miriam. That he gave Clara to understand, and she said nothing, but left him to his courses. He came to her, Mrs. Dawes, whenever he could. Then he wrote frequently to Miriam, and visited the girl occasionally. So he went on through the winter; but he seemed not so fretted. His mother was easier about him. She thought he was getting away from Miriam.
Miriam knew now how strong was the attraction of Clara for him; but still she was certain that the best in him would triumph. His feeling for Mrs. Dawes - who, moreover, was a married woman - was shallow and temporal, compared with his love for herself. He would come back to her, she was sure; with some of his young freshness gone, perhaps, but cured of his desire for the lesser things which other women than herself could give him. She could bear all if he were inwardly true to her and must come back.
He saw none of the anomaly of his position. Miriam was his old friend, lover, and she belonged to Bestwood and home and his youth. Clara was a newer friend, and she belonged to Nottingham, to life, to the world. It seemed to him quite plain.
Mrs. Dawes and he had many periods of coolness, when they saw little of each other; but they always came together again.
"Were you horrid with Baxter Dawes?" he asked her. It was a thing that seemed to trouble him.
"In what way?"
"Oh, I don't know. But weren't you horrid with him? Didn't you do something that knocked him to pieces?"
"Making him feel as if he were nothing - I know," Paul declared.
"You are so clever, my friend," she said coolly.
The conversation broke off there. But it made her cool with him for some time.
She very rarely saw Miriam now. The friendship between the two women was not broken off, but considerably weakened.
"Will you come in to the concert on Sunday afternoon?" Clara asked him just after Christmas.
"I promised to go up to Willey Farm," he replied.
"Oh, very well."
"You don't mind, do you?" he asked.
"Why should I?" she answered.
Which almost annoyed him.
"You know," he said, "Miriam and I have been a lot to each other ever since I was sixteen - that's seven years now."
"It's a long time," Clara replied.
"Yes; but somehow she - it doesn't go right - -"
"How?" asked Clara.
"She seems to draw me and draw me, and she wouldn't leave a single hair of me free to fall out and blow away - she'd keep it."
"But you like to be kept."
"No," he said, "I don't. I wish it could be normal, give and take - like me and you. I want a woman to keep me, but not in her pocket."
"But if you love her, it couldn't be normal, like me and you."
"Yes; I should love her better then. She sort of wants me so much that I can't give myself."
"Wants you how?"
"Wants the soul out of my body. I can't help shrinking back from her."
"And yet you love her!"
"No, I don't love her. I never even kiss her."
"Why not?" Clara asked.
"I don't know."
"I suppose you're afraid," she said.
"I'm not. Something in me shrinks from her like hell - she's so good, when I'm not good."
"How do you know what she is?"
"I do! I know she wants a sort of soul union."
"But how do you know what she wants?"
"I've been with her for seven years."
"And you haven't found out the very first thing about her."
"That she doesn't want any of your soul communion. That's your own imagination. She wants you."
He pondered over this. Perhaps he was wrong.
"But she seems - -" he began.
"You've never tried," she answered.