The realest thing was the thick darkness at night. That seemed to him whole and comprehensible and restful. He could leave himself to it. Suddenly a piece of paper started near his feet and blew along down the pavement. He stood still, rigid, with clenched fists, a flame of agony going over him. And he saw again the sick-room, his mother, her eyes. Unconsciously he had been with her, in her company. The swift hop of the paper reminded him she was gone. But he had been with her. He wanted everything to stand still, so that he could be with her again.
The days passed, the weeks. But everything seemed to have fused, gone into a conglomerated mass. He could not tell one day from another, one week from another, hardly one place from another. Nothing was distinct or distinguishable. Often he lost himself for an hour at a time, could not remember what he had done.
One evening he came home late to his lodging. The fire was burning low; everybody was in bed. He threw on some more coal, glanced at the table, and decided he wanted no supper. Then he sat down in the arm-chair. It was perfectly still. He did not know anything, yet he saw the dim smoke wavering up the chimney. Presently two mice came out, cautiously, nibbling the fallen crumbs. He watched them as it were from a long way off. The church clock struck two. Far away he could hear the sharp clinking of the trucks on the railway. No, it was not they that were far away. They were there in their places. But where was he himself?
The time passed. The two mice, careering wildly, scampered cheekily over his slippers. He had not moved a muscle. He did not want to move. He was not thinking of anything. It was easier so. There was no wrench of knowing anything. Then, from time to time, some other consciousness, working mechanically, flashed into sharp phrases.
"What am I doing?"
And out of the semi-intoxicated trance came the answer:
Then a dull, live feeling, gone in an instant, told him that it was wrong. After a while, suddenly came the question:
Again there was no answer, but a stroke of hot stubbornness inside his chest resisted his own annihilation.
There was a sound of a heavy cart clanking down the road. Suddenly the electric light went out; there was a bruising thud in the penny-in-the-slot meter. He did not stir, but sat gazing in front of him. Only the mice had scuttled, and the fire glowed red in the dark room.
Then, quite mechanically and more distinctly, the conversation began again inside him.
"She's dead. What was it all for--her struggle?"
That was his despair wanting to go after her.
"She is--in you."
Suddenly he felt tired with the burden of it.
"You've got to keep alive for her sake," said his will in him.
Something felt sulky, as if it would not rouse.
"You've got to carry forward her living, and what she had done, go on with it."
But he did not want to. He wanted to give up.
"But you can go on with your painting," said the will in him. "Or else you can beget children. They both carry on her effort."
"Painting is not living."
"Marry whom?" came the sulky question.
"As best you can."
But he did not trust that.
He rose suddenly, went straight to bed. When he got inside his bedroom and closed the door, he stood with clenched fist.
"Mater, my dear---" he began, with the whole force of his soul. Then he stopped. He would not say it. He would not admit that he wanted to die, to have done. He would not own that life had beaten him, or that death had beaten him. Going straight to bed, he slept at once, abandoning himself to the sleep.
So the weeks went on. Always alone, his soul oscillated, first on the side of death, then on the side of life, doggedly. The real agony was that he had nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to say, and WAS nothing himself. Sometimes he ran down the streets as if he were mad: sometimes he was mad; things weren't there, things were there. It made him pant. Sometimes he stood before the bar of the public-house where he called for a drink. Everything suddenly stood back away from him. He saw the face of the barmaid, the gobbling drinkers, his own glass on the slopped, mahogany board, in the distance. There was something between him and them. He could not get into touch. He did not want them; he did not want his drink. Turning abruptly, he went out. On the threshold he stood and looked at the lighted street. But he was not of it or in it. Something separated him. Everything went on there below those lamps, shut away from him. He could not get at them. He felt he couldn't touch the lamp-posts, not if he reached. Where could he go? There was nowhere to go, neither back into the inn, or forward anywhere. He felt stifled. There was nowhere for him. The stress grew inside him; he felt he should smash.
"I mustn't," he said; and, turning blindly, he went in and drank. Sometimes the drink did him good; sometimes it made him worse. He ran down the road. For ever restless, he went here, there, everywhere. He determined to work. But when he had made six strokes, he loathed the pencil violently, got up, and went away, hurried off to a club where he could play cards or billiards, to a place where he could flirt with a barmaid who was no more to him than the brass pump-handle she drew.
He was very thin and lantern-jawed. He dared not meet his own eyes in the mirror; he never looked at himself. He wanted to get away from himself, but there was nothing to get hold of. In despair he thought of Miriam. Perhaps--perhaps---?
Then, happening to go into the Unitarian Church one Sunday evening, when they stood up to sing the second hymn he saw her before him. The light glistened on her lower lip as she sang. She looked as if she had got something, at any rate: some hope in heaven, if not in earth. Her comfort and her life seemed in the after-world. A warm, strong feeling for her came up. She seemed to yearn, as she sang, for the mystery and comfort. He put his hope in her. He longed for the sermon to be over, to speak to her.
The throng carried her out just before him. He could nearly touch her. She did not know he was there. He saw the brown, humble nape of her neck under its black curls. He would leave himself to her. She was better and bigger than he. He would depend on her.
She went wandering, in her blind way, through the little throngs of people outside the church. She always looked so lost and out of place among people. He went forward and put his hand on her arm. She started violently. Her great brown eyes dilated in fear, then went questioning at the sight of him. He shrank slightly from her. "I didn't know---" she faltered.
"Nor I," he said.
He looked away. His sudden, flaring hope sank again.
"What are you doing in town?" he asked.
"I'm staying at Cousin Anne's."
"Ha! For long?"
"No; only till to-morrow."
"Must you go straight home?"
She looked at him, then hid her face under her hat-brim.
"No," she said--"no; it's not necessary."
He turned away, and she went with him. They threaded through the throng of church people. The organ was still sounding in St. Mary's. Dark figures came through the lighted doors; people were coming down the steps. The large coloured windows glowed up in the night. The church was like a great lantern suspended. They went down Hollow Stone, and he took the car for the Bridges.
"You will just have supper with me," he said: "then I'll bring you back."
"Very well," she replied, low and husky.
They scarcely spoke while they were on the car. The Trent ran dark and full under the bridge. Away towards Colwick all was black night. He lived down Holme Road, on the naked edge of the town, facing across the river meadows towards Sneinton Hermitage and the steep scrap of Colwick Wood. The floods were out. The silent water and the darkness spread away on their left. Almost afraid, they hurried along by the houses.
Supper was laid. He swung the curtain over the window. There was a bowl of freesias and scarlet anemones on the table. She bent to them. Still touching them with her finger-tips, she looked up at him, saying:
"Aren't they beautiful?"
"Yes," he said. "What will you drink--coffee?"
"I should like it," she said.
"Then excuse me a moment."
He went out to the kitchen.
Miriam took off her things and looked round. It was a bare, severe room. Her photo, Clara's, Annie's, were on the wall. She looked on the drawing-board to see what he was doing. There were only a few meaningless lines. She looked to see what books he was reading. Evidently just an ordinary novel. The letters in the rack she saw were from Annie, Arthur, and from some man or other she did not know. Everything he had touched, everything that was in the least personal to him, she examined with lingering absorption. He had been gone from her for so long, she wanted to rediscover him, his position, what he was now. But there was not much in the room to help her. It only made her feel rather sad, it was so hard and comfortless.
She was curiously examining a sketch-book when he returned with the coffee.
"There's nothing new in it," he said, "and nothing very interesting."
He put down the tray, and went to look over her shoulder. She turned the pages slowly, intent on examining everything.
"H'm!" he said, as she paused at a sketch. "I'd forgotten that. It's not bad, is it?"
"No," she said. "I don't quite understand it."
He took the book from her and went through it. Again he made a curious sound of surprise and pleasure.
"There's some not bad stuff in there," he said.
"Not at all bad," she answered gravely.
He felt again her interest in his work. Or was it for himself? Why was she always most interested in him as he appeared in his work?
They sat down to supper.
"By the way," he said, "didn't I hear something about your earning your own living?"
"Yes," she replied, bowing her dark head over her cup. "And what of it?"
"I'm merely going to the farming college at Broughton for three months, and I shall probably be kept on as a teacher there."
"I say--that sounds all right for you! You always wanted to be independent."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I only knew last week."
"But I heard a month ago," he said.
"Yes; but nothing was settled then."
"I should have thought," he said, "you'd have told me you were trying."
She ate her food in the deliberate, constrained way, almost as if she recoiled a little from doing anything so publicly, that he knew so well.
"I suppose you're glad," he said.
"Yes--it will be something."
He was rather disappointed.
"I think it will be a great deal," she said, almost haughtily, resentfully.
He laughed shortly.
"Why do you think it won't?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't think it won't be a great deal. Only you'll find earning your own living isn't everything."
"No," she said, swallowing with difficulty; "I don't suppose it is."
"I suppose work CAN be nearly everything to a man," he said, "though it isn't to me. But a woman only works with a part of herself. The real and vital part is covered up."
"But a man can give ALL himself to work?" she asked.
"And a woman only the unimportant part of herself?"
She looked up at him, and her eyes dilated with anger.
"Then," she said, "if it's true, it's a great shame."
"It is. But I don't know everything," he answered.
After supper they drew up to the fire. He swung her a chair facing him, and they sat down. She was wearing a dress of dark claret colour, that suited her dark complexion and her large features. Still, the curls were fine and free, but her face was much older, the brown throat much thinner. She seemed old to him, older than Clara. Her bloom of youth had quickly gone. A sort of stiffness, almost of woodenness, had come upon her. She meditated a little while, then looked at him.
"And how are things with you?" she asked.
"About all right," he answered.
She looked at him, waiting.
"Nay," she said, very low.
Her brown, nervous hands were clasped over her knee. They had still the lack of confidence or repose, the almost hysterical look. He winced as he saw them. Then he laughed mirthlessly. She put her fingers between her lips. His slim, black, tortured body lay quite still in the chair. She suddenly took her finger from her mouth and looked at him.
"And you have broken off with Clara?"
His body lay like an abandoned thing, strewn in the chair.
"You know," she said, "I think we ought to be married."
He opened his eyes for the first time since many months, and attended to her with respect.
"Why?" he said.
"See," she said, "how you waste yourself! You might be ill, you might die, and I never know--be no more then than if I had never known you."
"And if we married?" he asked.
"At any rate, I could prevent you wasting yourself and being a prey to other women--like--like Clara."
"A prey?" he repeated, smiling.
She bowed her head in silence. He lay feeling his despair come up again.
"I'm not sure," he said slowly, "that marriage would be much good."
"I only think of you," she replied.
"I know you do. But--you love me so much, you want to put me in your pocket. And I should die there smothered."
She bent her head, put her fingers between her lips, while the bitterness surged up in her heart.
"And what will you do otherwise?" she asked.
"I don't know--go on, I suppose. Perhaps I shall soon go abroad."
The despairing doggedness in his tone made her go on her knees on the rug before the fire, very near to him. There she crouched as if she were crushed by something, and could not raise her head. His hands lay quite inert on the arms of his chair. She was aware of them. She felt that now he lay at her mercy. If she could rise, take him, put her arms round him, and say, "You are mine," then he would leave himself to her. But dare she? She could easily sacrifice herself. But dare she assert herself? She was aware of his dark-clothed, slender body, that seemed one stroke of life, sprawled in the chair close to her. But no; she dared not put her arms round it, take it up, and say, "It is mine, this body. Leave it to me." And she wanted to. It called to all her woman's instinct. But she crouched, and dared not. She was afraid he would not let her. She was afraid it was too much. It lay there, his body, abandoned. She knew she ought to take it up and claim it, and claim every right to it. But--could she do it? Her impotence before him, before the strong demand of some unknown thing in him, was her extremity. Her hands fluttered; she half-lifted her head. Her eyes, shuddering, appealing, gone, almost distracted, pleaded to him suddenly. His heart caught with pity. He took her hands, drew her to him, and comforted her.
"Will you have me, to marry me?" he said very low.
Oh, why did not he take her? Her very soul belonged to him. Why would he not take what was his? She had borne so long the cruelty of belonging to him and not being claimed by him. Now he was straining her again. It was too much for her. She drew back her head, held his face between her hands, and looked him in the eyes. No, he was hard. He wanted something else. She pleaded to him with all her love not to make it her choice. She could not cope with it, with him, she knew not with what. But it strained her till she felt she would break.
"Do you want it?" she asked, very gravely.
"Not much," he replied, with pain.
She turned her face aside; then, raising herself with dignity, she took his head to her bosom, and rocked him softly. She was not to have him, then! So she could comfort him. She put her fingers through his hair. For her, the anguished sweetness of self-sacrifice. For him, the hate and misery of another failure. He could not bear it--that breast which was warm and which cradled him without taking the burden of him. So much he wanted to rest on her that the feint of rest only tortured him. He drew away.
"And without marriage we can do nothing?" he asked.
His mouth was lifted from his teeth with pain. She put her little finger between her lips.
"No," she said, low and like the toll of a bell. "No, I think not."
It was the end then between them. She could not take him and relieve him of the responsibility of himself. She could only sacrifice herself to him--sacrifice herself every day, gladly. And that he did not want. He wanted her to hold him and say, with joy and authority: "Stop all this restlessness and beating against death. You are mine for a mate." She had not the strength. Or was it a mate she wanted? or did she want a Christ in him?
He felt, in leaving her, he was defrauding her of life. But he knew that, in staying, stilling the inner, desperate man, he was denying his own life. And he did not hope to give life to her by denying his own.
She sat very quiet. He lit a cigarette. The smoke went up from it, wavering. He was thinking of his mother, and had forgotten Miriam. She suddenly looked at him. Her bitterness came surging up. Her sacrifice, then, was useless. He lay there aloof, careless about her. Suddenly she saw again his lack of religion, his restless instability. He would destroy himself like a perverse child. Well, then, he would!
"I think I must go," she said softly.
By her tone he knew she was despising him. He rose quietly.
"I'll come along with you," he answered.
She stood before the mirror pinning on her hat. How bitter, how unutterably bitter, it made her that he rejected her sacrifice! Life ahead looked dead, as if the glow were gone out. She bowed her face over the flowers--the freesias so sweet and spring-like, the scarlet anemones flaunting over the table. It was like him to have those flowers.
He moved about the room with a certain sureness of touch, swift and relentless and quiet. She knew she could not cope with him. He would escape like a weasel out of her hands. Yet without him her life would trail on lifeless. Brooding, she touched the flowers.
"Have them!" he said; and he took them out of the jar, dripping as they were, and went quickly into the kitchen. She waited for him, took the flowers, and they went out together, he talking, she feeling dead.
She was going from him now. In her misery she leaned against him as they sat on the car. He was unresponsive. Where would he go? What would be the end of him? She could not bear it, the vacant feeling where he should be. He was so foolish, so wasteful, never at peace with himself. And now where would he go? And what did he care that he wasted her? He had no religion; it was all for the moment's attraction that he cared, nothing else, nothing deeper. Well, she would wait and see how it turned out with him. When he had had enough he would give in and come to her.
He shook hands and left her at the door of her cousin's house. When he turned away he felt the last hold for him had gone. The town, as he sat upon the car, stretched away over the bay of railway, a level fume of lights. Beyond the town the country, little smouldering spots for more towns--the sea--the night--on and on! And he had no place in it! Whatever spot he stood on, there he stood alone. From his breast, from his mouth, sprang the endless space, and it was there behind him, everywhere. The people hurrying along the streets offered no obstruction to the void in which he found himself. They were small shadows whose footsteps and voices could be heard, but in each of them the same night, the same silence. He got off the car. In the country all was dead still. Little stars shone high up; little stars spread far away in the flood-waters, a firmament below. Everywhere the vastness and terror of the immense night which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom. There was no Time, only Space. Who could say his mother had lived and did not live? She had been in one place, and was in another; that was all. And his soul could not leave her, wherever she was. Now she was gone abroad into the night, and he was with her still. They were together. But yet there was his body, his chest, that leaned against the stile, his hands on the wooden bar. They seemed something. Where was he?--one tiny upright speck of flesh, less than an ear of wheat lost in the field. He could not bear it. On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.
"Mother!" he whispered--"mother!"
She was the only thing that held him up, himself, amid all this. And she was gone, intermingled herself. He wanted her to touch him, have him alongside with her.
But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city's gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.