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In Aaron's Rod, literary master D.H. Lawrence spins an engaging picaresque tale of the talented English amateur flutist Aaron Sisson and his travels. Aaron escapes a life of drudgery and a loveless marriage and journeys to Italy, crossing paths with a writer who many critics regard as an autobiographical stand-in for Lawrence himself along the way. D.H. Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930) was an English novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic and painter. His collected works represent, among other things, an extended reflection upon the dehumanising effects of modernity and industrialisation. Some of the issues Lawrence explores are sexuality, emotional health, vitality, spontaneity, and instinct. Lawrence's opinions earned him many enemies and he endured official persecution, censorship, and misrepresentation of his creative work throughout the second half of his life, much of which he spent in a voluntary exile he called his "savage pilgrimage". At the time of his death, his public reputation was that of a pornographer who had wasted his considerable talents. E. M. Forster, in an obituary notice, challenged this widely held view, describing him as "the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation." The philosopher Bertrand Russell characterised Lawrence as a proto-German Fascist. Later, the literary critic F. R. Leavis championed both his artistic integrity and his moral seriousness.
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D. H. LAWRENCE
Copyright © 2018 by D.H. Lawrence.
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations em- bodied in critical articles or reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organiza- tions, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Sheba Blake Publishing
Book and Cover design by Sheba Blake Publishing
First Edition: April 2018
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE BLUE BALL
There was a large, brilliant evening star in the early twilight, and underfoot the earth was half frozen. It was Christmas Eve. Also the War was over, and there was a sense of relief that was almost a new menace. A man felt the violence of the nightmare released now into the general air. Also there had been another wrangle among the men on the pit-bank that evening.
Aaron Sisson was the last man on the little black railway-line climbing the hill home from work. He was late because he had attended a meeting of the men on the bank. He was secretary to the Miners Union for his colliery, and had heard a good deal of silly wrangling that left him nettled.
He strode over a stile, crossed two fields, strode another stile, and was in the long road of colliers' dwellings. Just across was his own house: he had built it himself. He went through the little gate, up past the side of the house to the back. There he hung a moment, glancing down the dark, wintry garden.
"My father--my father's come!" cried a child's excited voice, and two little girls in white pinafores ran out in front of his legs.
"Father, shall you set the Christmas Tree?" they cried. "We've got one!"
"Afore I have my dinner?" he answered amiably.
"Set it now. Set it now.--We got it through Fred Alton."
"Where is it?"
The little girls were dragging a rough, dark object out of a corner of the passage into the light of the kitchen door.
"It's a beauty!" exclaimed Millicent.
"Yes, it is," said Marjory.
"I should think so," he replied, striding over the dark bough. He went to the back kitchen to take off his coat.
"Set it now, Father. Set it now," clamoured the girls.
"You might as well. You've left your dinner so long, you might as well do it now before you have it," came a woman's plangent voice, out of the brilliant light of the middle room.
Aaron Sisson had taken off his coat and waistcoat and his cap. He stood bare-headed in his shirt and braces, contemplating the tree.
"What am I to put it in?" he queried. He picked up the tree, and held it erect by the topmost twig. He felt the cold as he stood in the yard coatless, and he twitched his shoulders.
"Isn't it a beauty!" repeated Millicent.
"Put something on, you two!" came the woman's high imperative voice, from the kitchen.
"We aren't cold," protested the girls from the yard.
"Come and put something on," insisted the voice. The man started off down the path, the little girls ran grumbling indoors. The sky was clear, there was still a crystalline, non-luminous light in the under air.
Aaron rummaged in his shed at the bottom of the garden, and found a spade and a box that was suitable. Then he came out to his neat, bare, wintry garden. The girls flew towards him, putting the elastic of their hats under their chins as they ran. The tree and the box lay on the frozen earth. The air breathed dark, frosty, electric.
"Hold it up straight," he said to Millicent, as he arranged the tree in the box. She stood silent and held the top bough, he filled in round the roots.
When it was done, and pressed in, he went for the wheelbarrow. The girls were hovering excited round the tree. He dropped the barrow and stooped to the box. The girls watched him hold back his face-- the boughs pricked him.
"Is it very heavy?" asked Millicent.
"Ay!" he replied, with a little grunt. Then the procession set off-- the trundling wheel-barrow, the swinging hissing tree, the two excited little girls. They arrived at the door. Down went the legs of the wheel-barrow on the yard. The man looked at the box.
"Where are you going to have it?" he called.
"Put it in the back kitchen," cried his wife.
"You'd better have it where it's going to stop. I don't want to hawk it about."
"Put it on the floor against the dresser, Father. Put it there," urged Millicent.
"You come and put some paper down, then," called the mother hastily.
The two children ran indoors, the man stood contemplative in the cold, shrugging his uncovered shoulders slightly. The open inner door showed a bright linoleum on the floor, and the end of a brown side-board on which stood an aspidistra.
Again with a wrench Aaron Sisson lifted the box. The tree pricked and stung. His wife watched him as he entered staggering, with his face averted.
"Mind where you make a lot of dirt," she said.
He lowered the box with a little jerk on to the spread-out newspaper on the floor. Soil scattered.
"Sweep it up," he said to Millicent.
His ear was lingering over the sudden, clutching hiss of the tree- boughs.
A stark white incandescent light filled the room and made everything sharp and hard. In the open fire-place a hot fire burned red. All was scrupulously clean and perfect. A baby was cooing in a rocker- less wicker cradle by the hearth. The mother, a slim, neat woman with dark hair, was sewing a child's frock. She put this aside, rose, and began to take her husband's dinner from the oven.
"You stopped confabbing long enough tonight," she said.
"Yes," he answered, going to the back kitchen to wash his hands.
In a few minutes he came and sat down to his dinner. The doors were shut close, but there was a draught, because the settling of the mines under the house made the doors not fit. Aaron moved his chair, to get out of the draught. But he still sat in his shirt and trousers.
He was a good-looking man, fair, and pleasant, about thirty-two years old. He did not talk much, but seemed to think about something. His wife resumed her sewing. She was acutely aware of her husband, but he seemed not very much aware of her.
"What were they on about today, then?" she said.
"About the throw-in."
"And did they settle anything?"
"They're going to try it--and they'll come out if it isn't satisfactory."
"The butties won't have it, I know," she said. He gave a short laugh, and went on with his meal.
The two children were squatted on the floor by the tree. They had a wooden box, from which they had taken many little newspaper packets, which they were spreading out like wares.
"Don't open any. We won't open any of them till we've taken them all out--and then we'll undo one in our turns. Then we s'll both undo equal," Millicent was saying.
"Yes, we'll take them ALL out first," re-echoed Marjory.
"And what are they going to do about Job Arthur Freer? Do they want him?" A faint smile came on her husband's face.
"Nay, I don't know what they want.--Some of 'em want him--whether they're a majority, I don't know."
She watched him closely.
"Majority! I'd give 'em majority. They want to get rid of you, and make a fool of you, and you want to break your heart over it. Strikes me you need something to break your heart over."
He laughed silently.
"Nay," he said. "I s'll never break my heart."
"You'll go nearer to it over that, than over anything else: just because a lot of ignorant monkeys want a monkey of their own sort to do the Union work, and jabber to them, they want to get rid of you, and you eat your heart out about it. More fool you, that's all I say--more fool you. If you cared for your wife and children half what you care about your Union, you'd be a lot better pleased in the end. But you care about nothing but a lot of ignorant colliers, who don't know what they want except it's more money just for themselves. Self, self, self--that's all it is with them--and ignorance."
"You'd rather have self without ignorance?" he said, smiling finely.
"I would, if I've got to have it. But what I should like to see is a man that has thought for others, and isn't all self and politics."
Her color had risen, her hand trembled with anger as she sewed. A blank look had come over the man's face, as if he did not hear or heed any more. He drank his tea in a long draught, wiped his moustache with two fingers, and sat looking abstractedly at the children.
They had laid all the little packets on the floor, and Millicent was saying:
"Now I'll undo the first, and you can have the second. I'll take this--"
She unwrapped the bit of newspaper and disclosed a silvery ornament for a Christmas tree: a frail thing like a silver plum, with deep rosy indentations on each side.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Isn't it LOVELY!" Her fingers cautiously held the long bubble of silver and glowing rose, cleaving to it with a curious, irritating possession. The man's eyes moved away from her. The lesser child was fumbling with one of the little packets.
"Oh!"--a wail went up from Millicent. "You've taken one!--You didn't wait." Then her voice changed to a motherly admonition, and she began to interfere. "This is the way to do it, look! Let me help you."
But Marjory drew back with resentment.
"Don't, Millicent!--Don't!" came the childish cry. But Millicent's fingers itched.
At length Marjory had got out her treasure--a little silvery bell with a glass top hanging inside. The bell was made of frail glassy substance, light as air.
"Oh, the bell!" rang out Millicent's clanging voice. "The bell! It's my bell. My bell! It's mine! Don't break it, Marjory. Don't break it, will you?"
Marjory was shaking the bell against her ear. But it was dumb, it made no sound.
"You'll break it, I know you will.--You'll break it. Give it ME--" cried Millicent, and she began to take away the bell. Marjory set up an expostulation.
"LET HER ALONE," said the father.
Millicent let go as if she had been stung, but still her brassy, impudent voice persisted:
"She'll break it. She'll break it. It's mine--"
"You undo another," said the mother, politic.
Millicent began with hasty, itching fingers to unclose another package.
"Aw--aw Mother, my peacock--aw, my peacock, my green peacock!" Lavishly she hovered over a sinuous greenish bird, with wings and tail of spun glass, pearly, and body of deep electric green.
"It's mine--my green peacock! It's mine, because Marjory's had one wing off, and mine hadn't. My green peacock that I love! I love it!" She swung it softly from the little ring on its back. Then she went to her mother.
"Look, Mother, isn't it a beauty?"
"Mind the ring doesn't come out," said her mother. "Yes, it's lovely!" The girl passed on to her father.
"Look, Father, don't you love it!"
"Love it?" he re-echoed, ironical over the word love.
She stood for some moments, trying to force his attention. Then she went back to her place.
Marjory had brought forth a golden apple, red on one cheek, rather garish.
"Oh!" exclaimed Millicent feverishly, instantly seized with desire for what she had not got, indifferent to what she had. Her eye ran quickly over the packages. She took one.
"Now!" she exclaimed loudly, to attract attention. "Now! What's this?--What's this? What will this beauty be?"
With finicky fingers she removed the newspaper. Marjory watched her wide-eyed. Millicent was self-important.
"The blue ball!" she cried in a climax of rapture. "I've GOT THE BLUE BALL."
She held it gloating in the cup of her hands. It was a little globe of hardened glass, of a magnificent full dark blue color. She rose and went to her father.
"It was your blue ball, wasn't it, father?"
"And you had it when you were a little boy, and now I have it when I'm a little girl."
"Ay," he replied drily.
"And it's never been broken all those years."
"No, not yet."
"And perhaps it never will be broken." To this she received no answer.
"Won't it break?" she persisted. "Can't you break it?"
"Yes, if you hit it with a hammer," he said.
"Aw!" she cried. "I don't mean that. I mean if you just drop it. It won't break if you drop it, will it?"
"I dare say it won't."
"But WILL it?"
"I sh'd think not."
"Should I try?"
She proceeded gingerly to let the blue ball drop, it bounced dully on the floor-covering.
"Oh-h-h!" she cried, catching it up. "I love it."
"Let ME drop it," cried Marjory, and there was a performance of admonition and demonstration from the elder sister.
But Millicent must go further. She became excited.
"It won't break," she said, "even if you toss it up in the air."
She flung it up, it fell safely. But her father's brow knitted slightly. She tossed it wildly: it fell with a little splashing explosion: it had smashed. It had fallen on the sharp edge of the tiles that protruded under the fender.
"NOW what have you done!" cried the mother.
The child stood with her lip between her teeth, a look, half, of pure misery and dismay, half of satisfaction, on her pretty sharp face.
"She wanted to break it," said the father.
"No, she didn't! What do you say that for!" said the mother. And Millicent burst into a flood of tears.
He rose to look at the fragments that lay splashed on the floor.
"You must mind the bits," he said, "and pick 'em all up."
He took one of the pieces to examine it. It was fine and thin and hard, lined with pure silver, brilliant. He looked at it closely. So--this was what it was. And this was the end of it. He felt the curious soft explosion of its breaking still in his ears. He threw his piece in the fire.
"Pick all the bits up," he said. "Give over! give over! Don't cry any more." The good-natured tone of his voice quieted the child, as he intended it should.
He went away into the back kitchen to wash himself. As he was bending his head over the sink before the little mirror, lathering to shave, there came from outside the dissonant voices of boys, pouring out the dregs of carol-singing.
"While Shep-ep-ep-ep-herds watched--"
He held his soapy brush suspended for a minute. They called this singing! His mind flitted back to early carol music. Then again he heard the vocal violence outside.
"Aren't you off there!" he called out, in masculine menace. The noise stopped, there was a scuffle. But the feet returned and the voices resumed. Almost immediately the door opened, boys were heard muttering among themselves. Millicent had given them a penny. Feet scraped on the yard, then went thudding along the side of the house, to the street.
To Aaron Sisson, this was home, this was Christmas: the unspeakably familiar. The war over, nothing was changed. Yet everything changed. The scullery in which he stood was painted green, quite fresh, very clean, the floor was red tiles. The wash-copper of red bricks was very red, the mangle with its put-up board was white-scrubbed, the American oil-cloth on the table had a gay pattern, there was a warm fire, the water in the boiler hissed faintly. And in front of him, beneath him as he leaned forward shaving, a drop of water fell with strange, incalculable rhythm from the bright brass tap into the white enamelled bowl, which was now half full of pure, quivering water. The war was over, and everything just the same. The acute familiarity of this house, which he had built for his marriage twelve years ago, the changeless pleasantness of it all seemed unthinkable. It prevented his thinking.
When he went into the middle room to comb his hair he found the Christmas tree sparkling, his wife was making pastry at the table, the baby was sitting up propped in cushions.
"Father," said Millicent, approaching him with a flat blue-and-white angel of cotton-wool, and two ends of cotton--"tie the angel at the top."
"Tie it at the top?" he said, looking down.
"Yes. At the very top--because it's just come down from the sky."
"Ay my word!" he laughed. And he tied the angel.
Coming downstairs after changing he went into the icy cold parlour, and took his music and a small handbag. With this he retreated again to the back kitchen. He was still in trousers and shirt and slippers: but now it was a clean white shirt, and his best black trousers, and new pink and white braces. He sat under the gas-jet of the back kitchen, looking through his music. Then he opened the bag, in which were sections of a flute and a piccolo. He took out the flute, and adjusted it. As he sat he was physically aware of the sounds of the night: the bubbling of water in the boiler, the faint sound of the gas, the sudden crying of the baby in the next room, then noises outside, distant boys shouting, distant rags of carols, fragments of voices of men. The whole country was roused and excited.
The little room was hot. Aaron rose and opened a square ventilator over the copper, letting in a stream of cold air, which was grateful to him. Then he cocked his eye over the sheet of music spread out on the table before him. He tried his flute. And then at last, with the odd gesture of a diver taking a plunge, he swung his head and began to play. A stream of music, soft and rich and fluid, came out of the flute. He played beautifully. He moved his head and his raised bare arms with slight, intense movements, as the delicate music poured out. It was sixteenth-century Christmas melody, very limpid and delicate.
The pure, mindless, exquisite motion and fluidity of the music delighted him with a strange exasperation. There was something tense, exasperated to the point of intolerable anger, in his good-humored breast, as he played the finely-spun peace-music. The more exquisite the music, the more perfectly he produced it, in sheer bliss; and at the same time, the more intense was the maddened exasperation within him.
Millicent appeared in the room. She fidgetted at the sink. The music was a bugbear to her, because it prevented her from saying what was on her own mind. At length it ended, her father was turning over the various books and sheets. She looked at him quickly, seizing her opportunity.
"Are you going out, Father?" she said.
"Are you going out?" She twisted nervously.
"What do you want to know for?"
He made no other answer, and turned again to the music. His eye went down a sheet--then over it again--then more closely over it again.
"Are you?" persisted the child, balancing on one foot.
He looked at her, and his eyes were angry under knitted brows.
"What are you bothering about?" he said.
"I'm not bothering--I only wanted to know if you were going out," she pouted, quivering to cry.
"I expect I am," he said quietly.
She recovered at once, but still with timidity asked:
"We haven't got any candles for the Christmas tree--shall you buy some, because mother isn't going out?"
"Candles!" he repeated, settling his music and taking up the piccolo.
"Yes--shall you buy us some, Father? Shall you?"
"Candles!" he repeated, putting the piccolo to his mouth and blowing a few piercing, preparatory notes.
"Yes, little Christmas-tree candles--blue ones and red ones, in boxes --Shall you, Father?"
"We'll see--if I see any--"
"But SHALL you?" she insisted desperately. She wisely mistrusted his vagueness.
But he was looking unheeding at the music. Then suddenly the piccolo broke forth, wild, shrill, brilliant. He was playing Mozart. The child's face went pale with anger at the sound. She turned, and went out, closing both doors behind her to shut out the noise.
The shrill, rapid movement of the piccolo music seemed to possess the air, it was useless to try to shut it out. The man went on playing to himself, measured and insistent. In the frosty evening the sound carried. People passing down the street hesitated, listening. The neighbours knew it was Aaron practising his piccolo. He was esteemed a good player: was in request at concerts and dances, also at swell balls. So the vivid piping sound tickled the darkness.
He played on till about seven o'clock; he did not want to go out too soon, in spite of the early closing of the public houses. He never went with the stream, but made a side current of his own. His wife said he was contrary. When he went into the middle room to put on his collar and tie, the two little girls were having their hair brushed, the baby was in bed, there was a hot smell of mince-pies baking in the oven.
"You won't forget our candles, will you, Father?" asked Millicent, with assurance now.
"I'll see," he answered.
His wife watched him as he put on his overcoat and hat. He was well- dressed, handsome-looking. She felt there was a curious glamour about him. It made her feel bitter. He had an unfair advantage--he was free to go off, while she must stay at home with the children.
"There's no knowing what time you'll be home," she said.
"I shan't be late," he answered.
"It's easy to say so," she retorted, with some contempt. He took his stick, and turned towards the door.
"Bring the children some candles for their tree, and don't be so selfish," she said.
"All right," he said, going out.
"Don't say ALL RIGHT if you never mean to do it," she cried, with sudden anger, following him to the door.
His figure stood large and shadowy in the darkness.
"How many do you want?" he said.
"A dozen," she said. "And holders too, if you can get them," she added, with barren bitterness.
"Yes--all right," he turned and melted into the darkness. She went indoors, worn with a strange and bitter flame.
He crossed the fields towards the little town, which once more fumed its lights under the night. The country ran away, rising on his right hand. It was no longer a great bank of darkness. Lights twinkled freely here and there, though forlornly, now that the war-time restrictions were removed. It was no glitter of pre-war nights, pit- heads glittering far-off with electricity. Neither was it the black gulf of the war darkness: instead, this forlorn sporadic twinkling.
Everybody seemed to be out of doors. The hollow dark countryside re-echoed like a shell with shouts and calls and excited voices. Restlessness and nervous excitement, nervous hilarity were in the air. There was a sense of electric surcharge everywhere, frictional, a neurasthenic haste for excitement.
Every moment Aaron Sisson was greeted with Good-night--Good-night, Aaron--Good-night, Mr. Sisson. People carrying parcels, children, women, thronged home on the dark paths. They were all talking loudly, declaiming loudly about what they could and could not get, and what this or the other had lost.
When he got into the main street, the only street of shops, it was crowded. There seemed to have been some violent but quiet contest, a subdued fight, going on all the afternoon and evening: people struggling to buy things, to get things. Money was spent like water, there was a frenzy of money-spending. Though the necessities of life were in abundance, still the people struggled in frenzy for cheese, sweets, raisins, pork-stuff, even for flowers and holly, all of which were scarce, and for toys and knick-knacks, which were sold out. There was a wild grumbling, but a deep satisfaction in the fight, the struggle. The same fight and the same satisfaction in the fight was witnessed whenever a tram-car stopped, or when it heaved its way into sight. Then the struggle to mount on board became desperate and savage, but stimulating. Souls surcharged with hostility found now some outlet for their feelings.
As he came near the little market-place he bethought himself of the Christmas-tree candles. He did not intend to trouble himself. And yet, when he glanced in passing into the sweet-shop window, and saw it bare as a board, the very fact that he probably could not buy the things made him hesitate, and try.
"Have you got any Christmas-tree candles?" he asked as he entered the shop.
"How many do you want?"
"Can't let you have a dozen. You can have two boxes--four in a box-- eight. Six-pence a box."
"Got any holders?"
"Holders? Don't ask. Haven't seen one this year."
"Got any toffee--?"
"Cough-drops--two-pence an ounce--nothing else left."
"Give me four ounces."
He watched her weighing them in the little brass scales.
"You've not got much of a Christmas show," he said.
"Don't talk about Christmas, as far as sweets is concerned. They ought to have allowed us six times the quantity--there's plenty of sugar, why didn't they? We s'll have to enjoy ourselves with what we've got. We mean to, anyhow."
"Ay," he said.
"Time we had a bit of enjoyment, THIS Christmas. They ought to have made things more plentiful."
"Yes," he said, stuffing his package in his pocket.
The war had killed the little market of the town. As he passed the market place on the brow, Aaron noticed that there were only two miserable stalls. But people crowded just the same. There was a loud sound of voices, men's voices. Men pressed round the doorways of the public-houses.
But he was going to a pub out of town. He descended the dark hill. A street-lamp here and there shed parsimonious light. In the bottoms, under the trees, it was very dark. But a lamp glimmered in front of the "Royal Oak." This was a low white house sunk three steps below the highway. It was darkened, but sounded crowded.
Opening the door, Sisson found himself in the stone passage. Old Bob, carrying three cans, stopped to see who had entered--then went on into the public bar on the left. The bar itself was a sort of little window-sill on the right: the pub was a small one. In this window- opening stood the landlady, drawing and serving to her husband. Behind the bar was a tiny parlour or den, the landlady's preserve.
"Oh, it's you," she said, bobbing down to look at the newcomer. None entered her bar-parlour unless invited.
"Come in," said the landlady. There was a peculiar intonation in her complacent voice, which showed she had been expecting him, a little irritably.
He went across into her bar-parlour. It would not hold more than eight or ten people, all told--just the benches along the walls, the fire between--and two little round tables.
"I began to think you weren't coming," said the landlady, bringing him a whiskey.
She was a large, stout, high-coloured woman, with a fine profile, probably Jewish. She had chestnut-coloured eyes, quick, intelligent. Her movements were large and slow, her voice laconic.
"I'm not so late, am I?" asked Aaron.
"Yes, you are late, I should think." She Looked up at the little clock. "Close on nine."
"I did some shopping," said Aaron, with a quick smile.
"Did you indeed? That's news, I'm sure. May we ask what you bought?"
This he did not like. But he had to answer.
"Christmas-tree candles, and toffee."
"For the little children? Well you've done well for once! I must say I recommend you. I didn't think you had so much in you."
She sat herself down in her seat at the end of the bench, and took up her knitting. Aaron sat next to her. He poured water into his glass, and drank.
It's warm in here," he said, when he had swallowed the liquor.
"Yes, it is. You won't want to keep that thick good overcoat on," replied the landlady.
"No," he said, "I think I'll take it off."
She watched him as he hung up his overcoat. He wore black clothes, as usual. As he reached up to the pegs, she could see the muscles of his shoulders, and the form of his legs. Her reddish-brown eyes seemed to burn, and her nose, that had a subtle, beautiful Hebraic curve, seemed to arch itself. She made a little place for him by herself, as he returned. She carried her head thrown back, with dauntless self- sufficiency.
There were several colliers in the room, talking quietly. They were the superior type all, favoured by the landlady, who loved intellectual discussion. Opposite, by the fire, sat a little, greenish man--evidently an oriental.
"You're very quiet all at once, Doctor," said the landlady in her slow, laconic voice.
"Yes.--May I have another whiskey, please?" She rose at once, powerfully energetic.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. And she went to the bar.
"Well," said the little Hindu doctor, "and how are things going now, with the men?"
"The same as ever," said Aaron.
"Yes," said the stately voice of the landlady. "And I'm afraid they will always be the same as ever. When will they learn wisdom?"
"But what do you call wisdom?" asked Sherardy, the Hindu. He spoke with a little, childish lisp.
"What do I call wisdom?" repeated the landlady. "Why all acting together for the common good. That is wisdom in my idea."
"Yes, very well, that is so. But what do you call the common good?" replied the little doctor, with childish pertinence.
"Ay," said Aaron, with a laugh, "that's it." The miners were all stirring now, to take part in the discussion.
"What do I call the common good?" repeated the landlady. "That all people should study the welfare of other people, and not only their own."
"They are not to study their own welfare?" said the doctor.
"Ah, that I did not say," replied the landlady. "Let them study their own welfare, and that of others also."
"Well then," said the doctor, "what is the welfare of a collier?"
"The welfare of a collier," said the landlady, "is that he shall earn sufficient wages to keep himself and his family comfortable, to educate his children, and to educate himself; for that is what he wants, education."
"Ay, happen so," put in Brewitt, a big, fine, good-humoured collier. "Happen so, Mrs. Houseley. But what if you haven't got much education, to speak of?"
"You can always get it," she said patronizing.
"Nay--I'm blest if you can. It's no use tryin' to educate a man over forty--not by book-learning. That isn't saying he's a fool, neither."
"And what better is them that's got education?" put in another man. "What better is the manager, or th' under-manager, than we are?-- Pender's yaller enough i' th' face."
"He is that," assented the men in chorus.
"But because he's yellow in the face, as you say, Mr. Kirk," said the landlady largely, "that doesn't mean he has no advantages higher than what you have got."
"Ay," said Kirk. "He can ma'e more money than I can--that's about a' as it comes to."
"He can make more money," said the landlady. "And when he's made it, he knows better how to use it."
"'Appen so, an' a'!--What does he do, more than eat and drink and work?--an' take it out of hisself a sight harder than I do, by th' looks of him.--What's it matter, if he eats a bit more or drinks a bit more--"
No," reiterated the landlady. "He not only eats and drinks. He can read, and he can converse."
"Me an' a'," said Tom Kirk, and the men burst into a laugh. "I can read--an' I've had many a talk an' conversation with you in this house, Mrs. Houseley--am havin' one at this minute, seemingly."
"SEEMINGLY, you are," said the landlady ironically. "But do you think there would be no difference between your conversation, and Mr. Pender's, if he were here so that I could enjoy his conversation?"
"An' what difference would there be?" asked Tom Kirk. "He'd go home to his bed just the same."
"There, you are mistaken. He would be the better, and so should I, a great deal better, for a little genuine conversation."
"If it's conversation as ma'es his behind drop--" said Tom Kirk. "An' puts th' bile in his face--" said Brewitt. There was a general laugh.
"I can see it's no use talking about it any further," said the landlady, lifting her head dangerously.
"But look here, Mrs. Houseley, do you really think it makes much difference to a man, whether he can hold a serious conversation or not?" asked the doctor.
"I do indeed, all the difference in the world--To me, there is no greater difference, than between an educated man and an uneducated man."
"And where does it come in?" asked Kirk.
"But wait a bit, now," said Aaron Sisson. "You take an educated man-- take Pender. What's his education for? What does he scheme for?--What does he contrive for? What does he talk for?--"
"For all the purposes of his life," replied the landlady.
"Ay, an' what's the purpose of his life?" insisted Aaron Sisson.
"The purpose of his life," repeated the landlady, at a loss. "I should think he knows that best himself."
"No better than I know it--and you know it," said Aaron.
"Well," said the landlady, "if you know, then speak out. What is it?"
"To make more money for the firm--and so make his own chance of a rise better."
The landlady was baffled for some moments. Then she said:
"Yes, and suppose that he does. Is there any harm in it? Isn't it his duty to do what he can for himself? Don't you try to earn all you can?"
"Ay," said Aaron. "But there's soon a limit to what I can earn.--It's like this. When you work it out, everything comes to money. Reckon it as you like, it's money on both sides. It's money we live for, and money is what our lives is worth--nothing else. Money we live for, and money we are when we're dead: that or nothing. An' it's money as is between the masters and us. There's a few educated ones got hold of one end of the rope, and all the lot of us hanging on to th' other end, an' we s'll go on pulling our guts out, time in, time out--"
"But they've got th' long end o' th' rope, th' masters has," said Brewitt.
"For as long as one holds, the other will pull," concluded Aaron Sisson philosophically.
"An' I'm almighty sure o' that," said Kirk. There was a little pause.
"Yes, that's all there is in the minds of you men," said the landlady. "But what can be done with the money, that you never think of--the education of the children, the improvement of conditions--"
"Educate the children, so that they can lay hold of the long end of the rope, instead of the short end," said the doctor, with a little giggle.
"Ay, that's it," said Brewitt. "I've pulled at th' short end, an' my lads may do th' same."
"A selfish policy," put in the landlady.
"Selfish or not, they may do it."
"Till the crack o' doom," said Aaron, with a glistening smile.
"Or the crack o' th' rope," said Brewitt.
"Yes, and THEN WHAT?" cried the landlady.
"Then we all drop on our backsides," said Kirk. There was a general laugh, and an uneasy silence.
"All I can say of you men," said the landlady, "is that you have a narrow, selfish policy.--Instead of thinking of the children, instead of thinking of improving the world you live in--"
"We hang on, British bulldog breed," said Brewitt. There was a general laugh.
"Yes, and little wiser than dogs, wrangling for a bone," said the landlady.
"Are we to let t' other side run off wi' th' bone, then, while we sit on our stunts an' yowl for it?" asked Brewitt.
"No indeed. There can be wisdom in everything.--It's what you DO with the money, when you've got it," said the landlady, "that's where the importance lies."
It's Missis as gets it," said Kirk. "It doesn't stop wi' us." "Ay, it's the wife as gets it, ninety per cent," they all concurred.
"And who SHOULD have the money, indeed, if not your wives? They have everything to do with the money. What idea have you, but to waste it!"
"Women waste nothing--they couldn't if they tried," said Aaron Sisson.
There was a lull for some minutes. The men were all stimulated by drink. The landlady kept them going. She herself sipped a glass of brandy--but slowly. She sat near to Sisson--and the great fierce warmth of her presence enveloped him particularly. He loved so to luxuriate, like a cat, in the presence of a violent woman. He knew that tonight she was feeling very nice to him--a female glow that came out of her to him. Sometimes when she put down her knitting, or took it up again from the bench beside him, her fingers just touched his thigh, and the fine electricity ran over his body, as if he were a cat tingling at a caress.
And yet he was not happy--nor comfortable. There was a hard, opposing core in him, that neither the whiskey nor the woman could dissolve or soothe, tonight. It remained hard, nay, became harder and more deeply antagonistic to his surroundings, every moment. He recognised it as a secret malady he suffered from: this strained, unacknowledged opposition to his surroundings, a hard core of irrational, exhausting withholding of himself. Irritating, because he still WANTED to give himself. A woman and whiskey, these were usually a remedy--and music. But lately these had begun to fail him. No, there was something in him that would not give in--neither to the whiskey, nor the woman, nor even the music. Even in the midst of his best music, it sat in the middle of him, this invisible black dog, and growled and waited, never to be cajoled. He knew of its presence--and was a little uneasy. For of course he wanted to let himself go, to feel rosy and loving and all that. But at the very thought, the black dog showed its teeth.
Still he kept the beast at bay--with all his will he kept himself as it were genial. He wanted to melt and be rosy, happy.
He sipped his whiskey with gratification, he luxuriated in the presence of the landlady, very confident of the strength of her liking for him. He glanced at her profile--that fine throw-back of her hostile head, wicked in the midst of her benevolence; that subtle, really very beautiful delicate curve of her nose, that moved him exactly like a piece of pure sound. But tonight it did not overcome him. There was a devilish little cold eye in his brain that was not taken in by what he saw.
A terrible obstinacy located itself in him. He saw the fine, rich- coloured, secretive face of the Hebrew woman, so loudly self- righteous, and so dangerous, so destructive, so lustful--and he waited for his blood to melt with passion for her. But not tonight. Tonight his innermost heart was hard and cold as ice. The very danger and lustfulness of her, which had so pricked his senses, now made him colder. He disliked her at her tricks. He saw her once too often. Her and all women. Bah, the love game! And the whiskey that was to help in the game! He had drowned himself once too often in whiskey and in love. Now he floated like a corpse in both, with a cold, hostile eye.
And at least half of his inward fume was anger because he could no longer drown. Nothing would have pleased him better than to feel his senses melting and swimming into oneness with the dark. But impossible! Cold, with a white fury inside him, he floated wide eyed and apart as a corpse. He thought of the gentle love of his first married years, and became only whiter and colder, set in more intense obstinacy. A wave of revulsion lifted him.
He became aware that he was deadly antagonistic to the landlady, that he disliked his whole circumstances. A cold, diabolical consciousness detached itself from his state of semi-intoxication.
"Is it pretty much the same out there in India?" he asked of the doctor, suddenly.
The doctor started, and attended to him on his own level.
"Probably," he answered. "It is worse."
"Worse!" exclaimed Aaron Sisson. "How's that?"
"Why, because, in a way the people of India have an easier time even than the people of England. Because they have no responsibility. The British Government takes the responsibility. And the people have nothing to do, except their bit of work--and talk perhaps about national rule, just for a pastime."
"They have to earn their living?" said Sisson.
"Yes," said the little doctor, who had lived for some years among the colliers, and become quite familiar with them. "Yes, they have to earn their living--and then no more. That's why the British Government is the worst thing possible for them. It is the worst thing possible. And not because it is a bad government. Really, it is not a bad government. It is a good one--and they know it--much better than they would make for themselves, probably. But for that reason it is so very bad."
The little oriental laughed a queer, sniggering laugh. His eyes were very bright, dilated, completely black. He was looking into the ice- blue, pointed eyes of Aaron Sisson. They were both intoxicated--but grimly so. They looked at each other in elemental difference.
The whole room was now attending to this new conversation: which they all accepted as serious. For Aaron was considered a special man, a man of peculiar understanding, even though as a rule he said little.
"If it is a good government, doctor, how can it be so bad for the people?" said the landlady.
The doctor's eyes quivered for the fraction of a second, as he watched the other man. He did not look at the landlady.
"It would not matter what kind of mess they made--and they would make a mess, if they governed themselves, the people of India. They would probably make the greatest muddle possible--and start killing one another. But it wouldn't matter if they exterminated half the population, so long as they did it themselves, and were responsible for it."
Again his eyes dilated, utterly black, to the eyes of the other man, and an arch little smile flickered on his face.
"I think it would matter very much indeed," said the landlady. "They had far better NOT govern themselves."
She was, for some reason, becoming angry. The little greenish doctor emptied his glass, and smiled again.
"But what difference does it make," said Aaron Sisson, "whether they govern themselves or not? They only live till they die, either way." And he smiled faintly. He had not really listened to the doctor. The terms "British Government," and "bad for the people--good for the people," made him malevolently angry.
The doctor was nonplussed for a moment. Then he gathered himself together.
"It matters," he said; "it matters.--People should always be responsible for themselves. How can any people be responsible for another race of people, and for a race much older than they are, and not at all children."
Aaron Sisson watched the other's dark face, with its utterly exposed eyes. He was in a state of semi-intoxicated anger and clairvoyance. He saw in the black, void, glistening eyes of the oriental only the same danger, the same menace that he saw in the landlady. Fair, wise, even benevolent words: always the human good speaking, and always underneath, something hateful, something detestable and murderous. Wise speech and good intentions--they were invariably maggoty with these secret inclinations to destroy the man in the man. Whenever he heard anyone holding forth: the landlady, this doctor, the spokesman on the pit bank: or when he read the all-righteous newspaper; his soul curdled with revulsion as from something foul. Even the infernal love and good-will of his wife. To hell with good-will! It was more hateful than ill-will. Self-righteous bullying, like poison gas!
The landlady looked at the clock.
"Ten minutes to, gentlemen," she said coldly. For she too knew that Aaron was spoiled for her for that night.
The men began to take their leave, shakily. The little doctor seemed to evaporate. The landlady helped Aaron on with his coat. She saw the curious whiteness round his nostrils and his eyes, the fixed hellish look on his face.
"You'll eat a mince-pie in the kitchen with us, for luck?" she said to him, detaining him till last.
But he turned laughing to her.
"Nay," he said, "I must be getting home."
He turned and went straight out of the house. Watching him, the landlady's face became yellow with passion and rage.
"That little poisonous Indian viper," she said aloud, attributing Aaron's mood to the doctor. Her husband was noisily bolting the door.
Outside it was dark and frosty. A gang of men lingered in the road near the closed door. Aaron found himself among them, his heart bitterer than steel.
The men were dispersing. He should take the road home. But the devil was in it, if he could take a stride in the homeward direction. There seemed a wall in front of him. He veered. But neither could he take a stride in the opposite direction. So he was destined to veer round, like some sort of weather-cock, there in the middle of the dark road outside the "Royal Oak."
But as he turned, he caught sight of a third exit. Almost opposite was the mouth of Shottle Lane, which led off under trees, at right angles to the highroad, up to New Brunswick Colliery. He veered towards the off-chance of this opening, in a delirium of icy fury, and plunged away into the dark lane, walking slowly, on firm legs.
"THE LIGHTED TREE"
It is remarkable how many odd or extraordinary people there are in England. We hear continual complaints of the stodgy dullness of the English. It would be quite as just to complain of their freakish, unusual characters. Only en masse the metal is all Britannia.
In an ugly little mining town we find the odd ones just as distinct as anywhere else. Only it happens that dull people invariably meet dull people, and odd individuals always come across odd individuals, no matter where they may be. So that to each kind society seems all of a piece.
At one end of the dark tree-covered Shottle Lane stood the "Royal Oak" public house; and Mrs. Houseley was certainly an odd woman. At the other end of the lane was Shottle House, where the Bricknells lived; the Bricknells were odd, also. Alfred Bricknell, the old man, was one of the partners in the Colliery firm. His English was incorrect, his accent, broad Derbyshire, and he was not a gentleman in the snobbish sense of the word. Yet he was well-to-do, and very stuck-up. His wife was dead.
Shottle House stood two hundred yards beyond New Brunswick Colliery. The colliery was imbedded in a plantation, whence its burning pit- hill glowed, fumed, and stank sulphur in the nostrils of the Bricknells. Even war-time efforts had not put out this refuse fire. Apart from this, Shottle House was a pleasant square house, rather old, with shrubberies and lawns. It ended the lane in a dead end. Only a field-path trekked away to the left.
On this particular Christmas Eve Alfred Bricknell had only two of his children at home. Of the others, one daughter was unhappily married, and away in India weeping herself thinner; another was nursing her babies in Streatham. Jim, the hope of the house, and Julia, now married to Robert Cunningham, had come home for Christmas.
The party was seated in the drawing-room, that the grown-up daughters had made very fine during their periods of courtship. Its walls were hung with fine grey canvas, it had a large, silvery grey, silky carpet, and the furniture was covered with dark green silky material. Into this reticence pieces of futurism, Omega cushions and Van-Gogh- like pictures exploded their colours. Such chic would certainly not have been looked for up Shottle Lane.
The old man sat in his high grey arm-chair very near an enormous coal fire. In this house there was no coal-rationing. The finest coal was arranged to obtain a gigantic glow such as a coal-owner may well enjoy, a great, intense mass of pure red fire. At this fire Alfred Bricknell toasted his tan, lambs-wool-lined slippers.
He was a large man, wearing a loose grey suit, and sprawling in the large grey arm-chair. The soft lamp-light fell on his clean, bald, Michael-Angelo head, across which a few pure hairs glittered. His chin was sunk on his breast, so that his sparse but strong-haired white beard, in which every strand stood distinct, like spun glass lithe and elastic, curved now upwards and inwards, in a curious curve returning upon him. He seemed to be sunk in stern, prophet-like meditation. As a matter of fact, he was asleep after a heavy meal.
Across, seated on a pouffe on the other side of the fire, was a cameo- like girl with neat black hair done tight and bright in the French mode. She had strangely-drawn eyebrows, and her colour was brilliant. She was hot, leaning back behind the shaft of old marble of the mantel-piece, to escape the fire. She wore a simple dress of apple- green satin, with full sleeves and ample skirt and a tiny bodice of green cloth. This was Josephine Ford, the girl Jim was engaged to.
Jim Bricknell himself was a tall big fellow of thirty-eight. He sat in a chair in front of the fire, some distance back, and stretched his long legs far in front of him. His chin too was sunk on his breast, his young forehead was bald, and raised in odd wrinkles, he had a silent half-grin on his face, a little tipsy, a little satyr-like. His small moustache was reddish.
Behind him a round table was covered with cigarettes, sweets, and bottles. It was evident Jim Bricknell drank beer for choice. He wanted to get fat--that was his idea. But he couldn't bring it off: he was thin, though not too thin, except to his own thinking.
His sister Julia was bunched up in a low chair between him and his father. She too was a tall stag of a thing, but she sat bunched up like a witch. She wore a wine-purple dress, her arms seemed to poke out of the sleeves, and she had dragged her brown hair into straight, untidy strands. Yet she had real beauty. She was talking to the young man who was not her husband: a fair, pale, fattish young fellow in pince-nez and dark clothes. This was Cyril Scott, a friend.
The only other person stood at the round table pouring out red wine. He was a fresh, stoutish young Englishman in khaki, Julia's husband, Robert Cunningham, a lieutenant about to be demobilised, when he would become a sculptor once more. He drank red wine in large throatfuls, and his eyes grew a little moist. The room was hot and subdued, everyone was silent.
"I say," said Robert suddenly, from the rear--"anybody have a drink? Don't you find it rather hot?"
"Is there another bottle of beer there?" said Jim, without moving, too settled even to stir an eye-lid.
"Yes--I think there is," said Robert.
"Thanks--don't open it yet," murmured Jim.
"Have a drink, Josephine?" said Robert.
"No thank you," said Josephine, bowing slightly.
Finding the drinks did not go, Robert went round with the cigarettes. Josephine Ford looked at the white rolls.
"Thank you," she said, and taking one, suddenly licked her rather full, dry red lips with the rapid tip of her tongue. It was an odd movement, suggesting a snake's flicker. She put her cigarette between her lips, and waited. Her movements were very quiet and well bred; but perhaps too quiet, they had the dangerous impassivity of the Bohemian, Parisian or American rather than English.
"Cigarette, Julia?" said Robert to his wife.
She seemed to start or twitch, as if dazed. Then she looked up at her husband with a queer smile, puckering the corners of her eyes. He looked at the cigarettes, not at her. His face had the blunt voluptuous gravity of a young lion, a great cat. She kept him standing for some moments impassively. Then suddenly she hung her long, delicate fingers over the box, in doubt, and spasmodically jabbed at the cigarettes, clumsily raking one out at last.
"Thank you, dear--thank you," she cried, rather high, looking up and smiling once more. He turned calmly aside, offering the cigarettes to Scott, who refused.
"Oh!" said Julia, sucking the end of her cigarette. "Robert is so happy with all the good things--aren't you dear?" she sang, breaking into a hurried laugh. "We aren't used to such luxurious living, we aren't--ARE WE DEAR--No, we're not such swells as this, we're not. Oh, ROBBIE, isn't it all right, isn't it just all right?" She tailed off into her hurried, wild, repeated laugh. "We're so happy in a land of plenty, AREN'T WE DEAR?"
"Do you mean I'm greedy, Julia?" said Robert.
"Greedy!--Oh, greedy!--he asks if he's greedy?--no you're not greedy, Robbie, you're not greedy. I want you to be happy."
"I'm quite happy," he returned.
"Oh, he's happy!--Really!--he's happy! Oh, what an accomplishment! Oh, my word!" Julia puckered her eyes and laughed herself into a nervous twitching silence.
Robert went round with the matches. Julia sucked her cigarette.
"Give us a light, Robbie, if you ARE happy!" she cried.
"It's coming," he answered.
Josephine smoked with short, sharp puffs. Julia sucked wildly at her light. Robert returned to his red wine. Jim Bricknell suddenly roused up, looked round on the company, smiling a little vacuously and showing his odd, pointed teeth.
"Where's the beer?" he asked, in deep tones, smiling full into Josephine's face, as if she were going to produce it by some sleight of hand. Then he wheeled round to the table, and was soon pouring beer down his throat as down a pipe. Then he dropped supine again. Cyril Scott was silently absorbing gin and water.
"I say," said Jim, from the remote depths of his sprawling. "Isn't there something we could do to while the time away?"
Everybody suddenly laughed--it sounded so remote and absurd.
"What, play bridge or poker or something conventional of that sort?" said Josephine in her distinct voice, speaking to him as if he were a child.
"Oh, damn bridge," said Jim in his sleep-voice. Then he began pulling his powerful length together. He sat on the edge of his chair-seat, leaning forward, peering into all the faces and grinning.
"Don't look at me like that--so long--" said Josephine, in her self- contained voice. "You make me uncomfortable." She gave an odd little grunt of a laugh, and the tip of her tongue went over her lips as she glanced sharply, half furtively round the room.
"I like looking at you," said Jim, his smile becoming more malicious.
"But you shouldn't, when I tell you not," she returned.
Jim twisted round to look at the state of the bottles. The father also came awake. He sat up.
"Isn't it time," he said, "that you all put away your glasses and cigarettes and thought of bed?"
Jim rolled slowly round towards his father, sprawling in the long chair.
"Ah, Dad," he said, "tonight's the night! Tonight's some night, Dad.-- You can sleep any time--" his grin widened--"but there aren't many nights to sit here--like this--Eh?"
He was looking up all the time into the face of his father, full and nakedly lifting his face to the face of his father, and smiling fixedly. The father, who was perfectly sober, except for the contagion from the young people, felt a wild tremor go through his heart as he gazed on the face of his boy. He rose stiffly.
"You want to stay?" he said. "You want to stay!--Well then--well then, I'll leave you. But don't be long." The old man rose to his full height, rather majestic. The four younger people also rose respectfully--only Jim lay still prostrate in his chair, twisting up his face towards his father.
"You won't stay long," said the old man, looking round a little bewildered. He was seeking a responsible eye. Josephine was the only one who had any feeling for him.
"No, we won't stay long, Mr. Bricknell," she said gravely.
"Good night, Dad," said Jim, as his father left the room.
Josephine went to the window. She had rather a stiff, poupee walk.
"How is the night?" she said, as if to change the whole feeling in the room. She pushed back the thick grey-silk curtains. "Why?" she exclaimed. "What is that light burning? A red light?"
"Oh, that's only the pit-bank on fire," said Robert, who had followed her.
"How strange!--Why is it burning now?"
"It always burns, unfortunately--it is most consistent at it. It is the refuse from the mines. It has been burning for years, in spite of all efforts to the contrary."
"How very curious! May we look at it?" Josephine now turned the handle of the French windows, and stepped out.
"Beautiful!" they heard her voice exclaim from outside.
In the room, Julia laid her hand gently, protectively over the hand of Cyril Scott.
"Josephine and Robert are admiring the night together!" she said, smiling with subtle tenderness to him.
"Naturally! Young people always do these romantic things," replied Cyril Scott. He was twenty-two years old, so he could afford to be cynical.
"Do they?--Don't you think it's nice of them?" she said, gently removing her hand from his. His eyes were shining with pleasure.
"I do. I envy them enormously. One only needs to be sufficiently naive," he said.
"One does, doesn't one!" cooed Julia.
"I say, do you hear the bells?" said Robert, poking his head into the room.
"No, dear! Do you?" replied Julia.
"Bells! Hear the bells! Bells!" exclaimed the half-tipsy and self- conscious Jim. And he rolled in his chair in an explosion of sudden, silent laughter, showing his mouthful of pointed teeth, like a dog. Then he gradually gathered himself together, found his feet, smiling fixedly.
"Pretty cool night!" he said aloud, when he felt the air on his almost bald head. The darkness smelt of sulphur.
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