The old woman lay still another year, then she suddenly sank out of life. George ceased to write to me, but I learned his news elsewhere. He became more and more intimate with the Mayhews. After old Mayhew's bankruptcy, the two sons had remained on in the large dark house that stood off the Nottingham Road in Eberwich. This house had been bequeathed to the oldest daughter by the mother. Maud Mayhew, who was married and separated from her husband, kept house for her brothers. She was a tall, large woman with high cheek-bones and oily black hair looped over her ears. Tom Mayhew was also a handsome man, very dark and ruddy, with insolent bright eyes.
The Mayhews' house was called the "Hollies." It was a solid building, of old red brick, standing fifty yards back from the Eberwich highroad. Between it and the road was an unkempt lawn, surrounded by very high black holly trees. The house seemed to be imprisoned among the bristling hollies. Passing through the large gate, one came immediately upon the bare side of the house and upon the great range of stables. Old Mayhew had in his day stabled thirty or more horses there. Now grass was between the red bricks, and all the bleaching doors were shut, save perhaps two or three which were open for George's horses.
The "Hollies" became a kind of club for the disconsolate, "better-off" men of the district. The large dining-room was gloomily and sparsely furnished, the drawing-room was a desert, but the smaller morning-room was comfortable enough, with wicker arm-chairs, heavy curtains, and a large sideboard. In this room George and the Mayhews met with several men two or three times a week. There they discussed horses and made mock of the authority of women. George provided the whisky, and they all gambled timidly at cards. These bachelor parties were the source of great annoyance to the wives of the married men who attended them.
"He's quite unbearable when he's been at those Mayhews'," said Meg. "I'm sure they do nothing but cry us down."
Maud Mayhew kept apart from these meetings, watching over her two children. She had been very unhappily married, and now was reserved, silent. The women of Eberwich watched her as she went swiftly along the street in the morning with her basket, and they gloried a little in her overthrow, because she was too proud to accept consolation, yet they were sorry in their hearts for her, and she was never touched with calumny. George saw her frequently, but she treated him coldly as she treated the other men, so he was afraid of her.
He had more facilities now for his horse-dealing. When the grandmother died, in the October two years after the marriage of George she left him seven hundred pounds. To Meg she left the Inn, and the two houses she had built in Newerton, together with brewery shares to the value of nearly a thousand pounds. George and Meg felt themselves to be people of property. The result, however, was only a little further coldness between them. He was very careful that she had all that was hers. She said to him once when they were quarrelling, that he needn't go feeding the Mayhews on the money that came out of her business. Thenceforward he kept strict accounts of all his affairs, and she must audit them, receiving her exact dues. This was a mortification to her woman's capricious soul of generosity and cruelty.
The Christmas after the grandmother's death another son was born to them. For the time George and Meg became very good friends again.
When in the following March I heard he was coming down to London with Tom Mayhew on business, I wrote and asked him to stay with me. Meg replied, saying she was so glad I had asked him: she did not want him going off with that fellow again; he had been such a lot better lately, and she was sure it was only those men at Mayhew's made him what he was.
He consented to stay with me. I wrote and told him Lettie and Leslie were in London, and that we should dine with them one evening. I met him at King's Cross and we all three drove west. Mayhew was a remarkably handsome, well-built man; he and George made a notable couple. They were both in breeches and gaiters, but George still looked like a yeoman, while Mayhew had all the braggadocio of the stable. We made an impossible trio. Mayhew laughed and jested broadly for a short time, then he grew restless and fidgety. He felt restrained and awkward in my presence. Later, he told George I was a damned parson. On the other hand, I was content to look at his rather vulgar beauty—his teeth were blackened with smoking—and to listen to his ineffectual talk, but I could find absolutely no response. George was go-between. To me he was cautious and rather deferential, to Mayhew he was careless, and his attitude was tinged with contempt.
When the son of the horse-dealer at last left us to go to some of his father's old cronies, we were glad. Very uncertain, very sensitive and wavering, our old intimacy burned again like the fragile burning of alcohol. Closed together in the same blue flames, we discovered and watched the pageant of life in the town revealed wonderfully to us. We laughed at the tyranny of old romance. We scorned the faded procession of old years, and made mock of the vast pilgrimage of by-gone romances travelling farther into the dim distance. Were we not in the midst of the bewildering pageant of modern life, with all its confusion of bannerets and colours, with its infinite interweaving of sounds, the screech of the modern toys of haste striking like keen spray, the heavy boom of busy mankind gathering its bread, earnestly, forming the bed of all other sounds; and between these two the swiftness of songs, the triumphant tilt of the joy of life, the hoarse oboes of privation, the shuddering drums of tragedy, and the eternal scraping of the two deep-toned strings of despair?
We watched the taxicabs coursing with their noses down to the street, we watched the rocking hansoms, and the lumbering stateliness of buses. In the silent green cavern of the park we stood and listened to the surging of the ocean of life. We watched a girl with streaming hair go galloping down the Row, a dark man, laughing and showing his white teeth, galloping more heavily at her elbow. We saw a squad of life-guards enter the gates of the park, erect and glittering with silver and white and red. They came near to us, and we thrilled a little as we watched the muscles of their white smooth thighs answering the movement of the horses, and their cheeks and their chins bending with proud manliness to the rhythm of the march. We watched the exquisite rhythm of the body of men moving in scarlet and silver further down the leafless avenue, like a slightly wavering spark of red life blown along. At the Marble Arch Corner we listened to a little socialist who was flaring fiercely under a plane tree. The hot stream of his words flowed over the old wounds that the knowledge of the unending miseries of the poor had given me, and I winced. For him the world was all East-end, and all the East-End was as a pool from which the waters are drained off, leaving the water-things to wrestle in the wet mud under the sun, till the whole of the city seems a heaving, shuddering struggle of black-mudded objects deprived of the elements of life. I felt a great terror of the little man, lest he should make me see all mud, as I had seen before. Then I felt a breathless pity for him, that his eyes should be always filled with mud, and never brightened. George listened intently to the speaker, very much moved by him.
At night, after the theatre, we saw the outcasts sleep in a rank under the Waterloo bridge, their heads to the wall, their feet lying out on the pavement: a long, black, ruffled heap at the foot of the wall. All the faces were covered but two, that of a peaked, pale little man, and that of a brutal woman. Over these two faces, floating like uneasy pale dreams on their obscurity, swept now and again the trailing light of the tram cars. We picked our way past the line of abandoned feet, shrinking from the sight of the thin bare ankles of a young man, from the draggled edge of the skirts of a bunched-up woman, from the pitiable sight of the men who had wrapped their legs in newspaper for a little warmth, and lay like worthless parcels. It was raining. Some men stood at the edge of the causeway fixed in dreary misery, finding no room to sleep. Outside, on a seat in the blackness and the rain, a woman sat sleeping, while the water trickled and hung heavily at the ends of her loosened strands of hair. Her hands were pushed in the bosom of her jacket. She lurched forward in her sleep, started, and one of her hands fell out of her bosom. She sank again to sleep. George gripped my arm.
"Give her something," he whispered in panic. I was afraid. Then suddenly getting a florin from my pocket, I stiffened my nerves and slid it into her palm. Her hand was soft, and warm, and curled in sleep. She started violently, looking up at me, then down at her hand. I turned my face aside, terrified lest she should look in my eyes, and full of shame and grief I ran down the embankment to him. We hurried along under the plane trees in silence. The shining cars were drawing tall in the distance over Westminster Bridge, a fainter, yellow light running with them on the water below. The wet streets were spilled with golden liquor of light, and on the deep blackness of the river were the restless yellow slashes of the lamps.
Lettie and Leslie were staying up at Hampstead with a friend of the Tempests, one of the largest shareholders in the firm of Tempest, Wharton & Co. The Raphaels had a substantial house, and Lettie preferred to go to them rather than to an hotel, especially as she had brought with her her infant son, now ten months old, with his nurse. They invited George and me to dinner on the Friday evening. The party included Lettie's host and hostess, and also a Scottish poetess, and an Irish musician, composer of songs and pianoforte rhapsodies.
Lettie wore a black lace dress in mourning for one of Leslie's maternal aunts. This made her look older, otherwise there seemed to be no change in her. A subtle observer might have noticed a little hardness about her mouth, and disillusion hanging slightly on her eyes. She was, however, excited by the company in which she found herself, therefore she overflowed with clever speeches and rapid, brilliant observations. Certainly on such occasions she was admirable. The rest of the company formed, as it were, the orchestra which accompanied her.
George was exceedingly quiet. He spoke a few words now and then to Mrs Raphael, but on the whole he was altogether silent, listening.
"Really!" Lettie was saying, "I don't see that one thing is worth doing any more than another. It's like dessert: you are equally indifferent whether you have grapes, or pears, or pineapple."
"Have you already dined so far?" sang the Scottish poetess in her musical, plaintive manner.
"The only thing worth doing is producing," said Lettie.
"Alas, that is what all the young folk are saying nowadays!" sighed the Irish musician.
"That is the only thing one finds any pleasure in—that is to say, any satisfaction," continued Lettie, smiling, and turning to the two artists.
"Do you not think so?" she added.
"You do come to a point at last," said the Scottish poetess, "when your work is a real source of satisfaction."
"Do you write poetry then?" asked George of Lettie.
"I! Oh, dear no! I have tried strenuously to make up a Limerick for a competition, but in vain. So you see, I am a failure there. Did you know I have a son, though?—a marvellous little fellow, is he not, Leslie?—he is my work. I am a wonderful mother, am I not, Leslie?"
"Too devoted," he replied.
"There!" she exclaimed in triumph—"When I have to sign my name and occupation in a visitor's book, it will be '——Mother'. I hope my business will flourish," she concluded, smiling.
There was a touch of ironical brutality in her now. She was, at the bottom, quite sincere. Having reached that point in a woman's career when most, perhaps all of the things in life seem worthless and insipid, she had determined to put up with it, to ignore her own self, to empty her own potentialities into the vessel of another or others, and to live her life at second hand. This peculiar abnegation of self is the resource of a woman for the escaping of the responsibilities of her own development. Like a nun, she puts over her living face a veil, as a sign that the woman no longer exists for herself: she is the servant of God, of some man, of her children, or may be of some cause. As a servant, she is no longer responsible for her self, which would make her terrified and lonely. Service is light and easy. To be responsible for the good progress of one's life is terrifying. It is the most insufferable form of loneliness, and the heaviest of responsibilities. So Lettie indulged her husband, but did not yield her independence to him; rather it was she who took much of the responsibility of him into her hands, and therefore he was so devoted to her. She had, however, now determined to abandon the charge of herself to serve her children. When the children grew up, either they would unconsciously fling her away, back upon herself again in bitterness and loneliness, or they would tenderly cherish her, chafing at her love-bonds occasionally.
George looked and listened to all the flutter of conversation, and said nothing. It seemed to him like so much unreasonable rustling of pieces of paper, of leaves of books, and so on. Later in the evening Lettie sang, no longer Italian folk songs, but the fragmentary utterances of Debussy and Strauss. These also to George were quite meaningless, and rather wearisome. It made him impatient to see her wasting herself upon them.
"Do you like those songs?" she asked in the frank, careless manner she affected.
"Not much," he replied, ungraciously.
"Don't you?" she exclaimed, adding with a smile, "Those are the most wonderful things in the world, those little things"—she began to hum a Debussy idiom. He could not answer her on the point, so he sat with the arrow sticking in him, and did not speak.
She enquired of him concerning Meg and his children and the affairs of Eberwich, but the interest was flimsy, as she preserved a wide distance between them, although apparently she was so unaffected and friendly. We left before eleven.
When we were seated in the cab and rushing down hill, he said:
"You know, she makes me mad."
He was frowning, looking out of the window away from me.
"Who, Lettie? Why, what riles you?" I asked.
He was some time in replying.
"Why, she's so affected."
I sat still in the small, close space and waited.
"Do you know——?" he laughed, keeping his face averted from me. "She makes my blood boil. I could hate her."
"Why?" I said gently.
"I don't know. I feel as if she'd insulted me. She does lie, doesn't she?"
"I didn't notice it," I said, but I knew he meant her shirking, her shuffling of her life.
"And you think of those poor devils under the bridge—and then of her and them frittering away themselves and money in that idiocy——"
He spoke with passion.
"You are quoting Longfellow," I said.
"What?" he asked, looking at me suddenly.
"'Life is real, life is earnest——'"
He flushed slightly at my good-natured gibe.
"I don't know what it is," he replied. "But it's a pretty rotten business, when you think of her fooling about wasting herself, and all the waste that goes on up there, and the poor devils rotting on the embankment—and——"
"And you—and Mayhew—and me——" I continued.
He looked at me very intently to see if I were mocking. He laughed. I could see he was very much moved.
"Is the time quite out of joint?" I asked.
"Why!"—he laughed. "No. But she makes me feel so angry—as if I should burst—I don't know when I felt in such a rage. I wonder why. I'm sorry for him, poor devil. 'Lettie and Leslie'—they seemed christened for one another, didn't they?"
"What if you'd had her?" I asked.
"We should have been like a cat and dog; I'd rather be with Meg a thousand times—now!" he added significantly. He sat watching the lamps and the people and the dark buildings slipping past us.
"Shall we go and have a drink?" I asked him, thinking we would call in Frascati's to see the come-and-go.
"I could do with a brandy," he replied, looking at me slowly.
We sat in the restaurant listening to the jigging of the music, watching the changing flow of the people. I like to sit a long time by the hollyhocks watching the throng of varied bees which poise and hesitate outside the wild flowers, then swing in with a hum which sets everything aquiver. But still more fascinating it is to watch the come and go of people weaving and intermingling in the complex mesh of their intentions, with all the subtle grace and mystery of their moving, shapely bodies.
I sat still, looking out across the amphitheatre. George looked also, but he drank glass after glass of brandy.
"I like to watch the people," said I.
"Ay—and doesn't it seem an aimless, idiotic business—look at them!" he replied in tones of contempt. I looked instead at him, in some surprise and resentment His face was gloomy, stupid and unrelieved. The amount of brandy he had drunk had increased his ill humour.
"Shall we be going?" I said. I did not want him to get drunk in his present state of mind.
"Ay—in half a minute," he finished the brandy, and rose. Although he had drunk a good deal, he was quite steady, only there was a disagreeable look always on his face, and his eyes seemed smaller and more glittering than I had seen them. We took a bus to Victoria. He sat swaying on his seat in the dim, clumsy vehicle, saying not a word. In the vast cavern of the station the theatre-goers were hastening, crossing the pale grey strand, small creatures scurrying hither and thither in the space beneath the lonely lamps. As the train crawled over the river we watched the far-flung hoop of diamond lights curving slowly round and striping with bright threads the black water. He sat looking with heavy eyes, seeming to shrink from the enormous unintelligible lettering of the poem of London.
The town was too large for him, he could not take in its immense, its stupendous poetry. What did come home to him was its flagrant discords. The unintelligibility of the vast city made him apprehensive, and the crudity of its big, coarse contrasts wounded him unutterably.
"What is the matter?" I asked him as we went along the silent pavement at Norwood.
"Nothing," he replied. "Nothing!" and I did not trouble him further.
We occupied a large, two-bedded room—that looked down the hill and over to the far woods of Kent. He was morose and untalkative. I brought up a soda-syphon and whisky, and we proceeded to undress. When he stood in his pajamas he waited as if uncertain.
"Do you want a drink?" he asked.
I did not. He crossed to the table, and as I got into my bed I heard the brief fizzing of the syphon. He drank his glass at one draught, then switched off the light. In the sudden darkness I saw his pale shadow go across to the sofa in the window-space. The blinds were undrawn, and the stars looked in. He gazed out on the great bay of darkness wherein, far away and below, floated a few sparks of lamps like herring boats at sea.
"Aren't you coming to bed?" I asked.
"I'm not sleepy—you go to sleep," he answered, resenting having to speak at all.
"Then put on a dressing gown—there's one in that corner—turn the light on."
He did not answer, but fumbled for the garment in the darkness. When he had found it, he said:
"Do you mind if I smoke?"
I did not. He fumbled again in his pockets for cigarettes, always refusing to switch on the light. I watched his face bowed to the match as he lighted his cigarette. He was still handsome in the ruddy light, but his features were coarser. I felt very sorry for him, but I saw that I could get no nearer to him, to relieve him. For some time I lay in the darkness watching the end of his cigarette like a ruddy, malignant insect hovering near his lips, putting the timid stars immensely far away. He sat quite still, leaning on the sofa arm. Occasionally there was a little glow on his cheeks as the cigarette burned brighter, then again I could see nothing but the dull red bee.
I suppose I must have dropped asleep. Suddenly I started as something fell to the floor. I heard him cursing under his breath.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I've only knocked something down—cigarette case or something," he replied, apologetically.
"Aren't you coming to bed?" I asked.
"Yes, I'm coming," he answered quite docile.
He seemed to wander about and knock against things as he came. He dropped heavily into bed.
"Are you sleepy now?" I asked.
"I dunno—I shall be directly," he replied.
"What's up with you?" I asked.
"I dunno," he answered. "I am like this sometimes, when there's nothing I want to do, and nowhere I want to go, and nobody I want to be near. Then you feel so rottenly lonely, Cyril. You feel awful, like a vacuum, with a pressure on you, a sort of pressure of darkness, and you yourself—just nothing, a vacuum—that's what it's like—a little vacuum that's not dark, all loose in the middle of a space of darkness, that's pressing on you."
"Good gracious!" I exclaimed, rousing myself in bed. "That sounds bad!"
He laughed slightly.
"It's all right," he said, "it's only the excitement of London, and that little man in the park, and that woman on the seat—I wonder where she is to-night, poor devil—and then Lettie. I seem thrown off my balance.—I think really, I ought to have made something of myself——"
"What?" I asked, as he hesitated.
"I don't know," he replied slowly, "—a poet or something, like Burns—I don't know. I shall laugh at myself for thinking so, to-morrow. But I am born a generation too soon—I wasn't ripe enough when I came. I wanted something I hadn't got. I'm something short. I'm like corn in a wet harvest—full, but pappy, no good. Is'll rot. I came too soon; or I wanted something that would ha' made me grow fierce. That's why I wanted Lettie—I think. But am I talking damn rot? What am I saying? What are you making me talk for? What are you listening for?"
I rose and went across to him, saying: "I don't want you to talk! If you sleep till morning things will look different."
I sat on his bed and took his hand. He lay quite still.
"I'm only a kid after all, Cyril," he said, a few moments later.
"We all are," I answered, still holding his hand. Presently he fell asleep.
When I awoke the sunlight was laughing with the young morning in the room. The large blue sky shone against the window, and the birds were calling in the garden below, shouting to one another and making fun of life. I felt glad to have opened my eyes. I lay for a moment looking out on the morning as on a blue bright sea in which I was going to plunge.
Then my eyes wandered to the little table near the couch. I noticed the glitter of George's cigarette case, and then, with a start, the whisky decanter. It was nearly empty. He must have drunk three-quarters of a pint of liquor while I was dozing. I could not believe it. I thought I must have been mistaken as to the quantity the bottle contained. I leaned out to see what it was that had startled me by its fall the night before. It was the large, heavy drinking glass which he had knocked down but not broken. I could see no stain on the carpet.
George was still asleep. He lay half uncovered, and was breathing quietly. His face looked inert like a mask. The pallid, uninspired clay of his features seemed to have sunk a little out of shape, so that he appeared rather haggard, rather ugly, with grooves of ineffectual misery along his cheeks. I wanted him to wake, so that his inert, flaccid features might be inspired with life again. I could not believe his charm and his beauty could have forsaken him so, and left his features dreary, sunken clay.
As I looked he woke. His eyes opened slowly. He looked at me and turned away, unable to meet my eyes. He pulled the bedclothes up over his shoulders, as though to cover himself from me, and he lay with his back to me, quite still, as if he were asleep, although I knew he was quite awake; he was suffering the humiliation of lying waiting for his life to crawl back and inhabit his body. As it was, his vitality was not yet sufficient to inform the muscles of his face and give him an expression, much less to answer by challenge.