The beginning of the quarrel was trivial enough. But by the end they got to generalities. Lewisham had begun the day in a bad temper and under the cloud of an overnight passage of arms—and a little incident that had nothing to do with their ostensible difference lent it a warmth of emotion quite beyond its merits. As he emerged through the folding doors he saw a letter lying among the sketchily laid breakfast things, and Ethel’s attitude suggested the recoil of a quick movement; the letter suddenly dropped. Her eyes met his and she flushed. He sat down and took the letter—a trifle awkwardly perhaps. It was from Miss Heydinger. He hesitated with it halfway to his pocket, then decided to open it. It displayed an ample amount of reading, and he read. On the whole he thought it rather a dull sort of letter, but he did not allow this to appear. When it was read he put it carefully in his pocket.
That formally had nothing to do with the quarrel. The breakfast was already over when the quarrel began. Lewisham’s morning was vacant, and be proposed to occupy it in the revision of certain notes bearing upon “Sandhurst Science.” Unhappily the search for his note-book brought him into collision with the accumulation of Ethel’s novelettes.
“These things are everywhere,” he said after a gust of vehement handling, “I wish you’d tidy them up sometimes.”
“They were tidy enough till you began to throw them about,” Ethel pointed out.
“Confounded muck! it’s only fit to be burnt,” Lewisham remarked to the universe, and pitched one viciously into the corner.
“Well, you tried to write one, anyhow,” said Ethel, recalling a certain “Mammoth” packet of note-paper that had come on an evil end before Lewisham found his industrial level. This reminiscence always irritated him exceedingly.
“Eh?” he said sharply.
“You tried to write one,” repeated Ethel—a little unwillingly.
“You don’t mean me to forget that.”
“It’s you reminded me.”
He stared hostility for a space.
“Well, the things make a beastly litter anyhow; there isn’t a tidy corner anywhere in the room. There never is.”
“That’s just the sort of thing you always say.”
“Yes, there is.”
Ethel professed not to hear. But a devil had possession of Lewisham for a time. “It isn’t as though you had anything else to do,” he remarked, wounding dishonourably.
Ethel turned. “If I put those things away,” she said with tremendous emphasis on the “put,” “you’d only say I’d hidden them. What is the good of trying to please you?”
The spirit of perversity suggested to Lewisham, “None apparently.”
Ethel’s cheeks glowed and her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Abruptly she abandoned the defensive and blurted out the thing that had been latent so long between them. Her voice took a note of passion. “Nothing I can do ever does please you, since that Miss Heydinger began to write to you.”
There was a pause, a gap. Something like astonishment took them both. Hitherto it had been a convention that she knew nothing of the existence of Miss Heydinger. He saw a light. “How did you know?” he began, and perceived that line was impossible. He took the way of the natural man; he ejaculated an “Ugh!” of vast disgust, he raised his voice. “You are unreasonable!” he cried in angry remonstrance. “Fancy saying that! As though you ever tried to please me! Just as though it wasn’t all the other way about!” He stopped—struck by a momentary perception of injustice. He plunged at the point he had shirked, “How did you know it was Miss Heydinger—?”
Ethel’s voice took upon itself the quality of tears. “I wasn’t meant to know, was I?” she said.
“I suppose you think it doesn’t concern me? I suppose you think I’m made of stone?”
“You mean—you think—?”
For a brief interval Lewisham stared at the issue she had laid bare. He sought some crashing proposition, some line of convincing reasoning, with which to overwhelm and hide this new aspect of things. It would not come. He found himself fenced in on every side. A surging, irrational rage seized upon him.
“Jealousy!” he cried. “Jealousy! Just as though—Can’t I have letters about things you don’t understand—that you won’t understand? If I asked you to read them you wouldn’t—It’s just because—“
“You never give me a chance to understand.”
“Why!—At first I was always trying. Socialism, religion—all those things. But you don’t care—you won’t care. You won’t have that I’ve thought over these things at all, that I care for these things! It wasn’t any good to argue. You just care for me in a way—and all the rest of me—doesn’t matter! And because I’ve got a friend . . . ”
“Why!—you hide her letters!”
“Because I tell you you wouldn’t understand what they are about. But, pah! I won’t argue. I won’t! You’re jealous, and there’s the end of the matter!”
“Well, who wouldn’t be jealous?”
He stared at her as if he found the question hard to see. The theme was difficult—invincibly difficult. He surveyed the room for a diversion. The note-book he had disinterred from her novelettes lay upon the table and reminded him of his grievance of rained hours. His rage exploded. He struck out abruptly towards fundamental things. He gesticulated forcibly. “This can’t go on!” he cried, “this can’t go on! How can I work? How can I do anything?”
He made three steps and stood in a clear space.
“I won’t stand, it—I won’t go on at this! Quarrels—bickerings—discomfort. Look there! I meant to work this morning. I meant to look up notes! Instead of which you start a quarrel—“
The gross injustice raised Ethel’s voice to an outcry. “I didn’t start the quarrel—“
The only response to this was to shout, and Lewisham shouted. “You start a quarrel!” he repeated. “You make a shindy! You spring a dispute—jealousy!—on me! How can I do anything? How can one stop in a house like this? I shall go out. Look here!—I shall go out. I shall go to Kensington and work there!”
He perceived himself wordless, and Ethel was about to speak. He glared about him, seeking a prompt climax. Instant action was necessary. He perceived Huxley’s Vertebrata upon the side-table. He clutched it, swayed it through a momentous arc, hurled it violently into the empty fireplace.
For a second he seemed to be seeking some other missile. He perceived his hat on the chest of drawers, seized it, and strode tragically from the room.
He hesitated with the door half closed, then opened it wide and slammed it vehemently. Thereby the world was warned of the justice of his rage, and so he passed with credit into the street.
He went striding heedless of his direction through the streets dotted with intent people hurrying to work, and presently habit turned his feet towards the Brompton Road. The eastward trend of the morning traffic caught him. For a time, save for a rebellious ingredient of wonder at the back of his mind, he kept his anger white and pure. Why had he married her? was the text to which he clung. Why in the name of destiny had he married her? But anyhow he had said the decisive thing. He would not stand it! It must end. Things were intolerable and they must end. He meditated devastating things that he might presently say to her in pursuance of this resolution. He contemplated acts of cruelty. In such ways he would demonstrate clearly that he would not stand it. He was very careful to avoid inquiring what it was he would not stand.
How in the name of destiny had he come to marry her? The quality of his surroundings mingled in some way with the quality of his thoughts. The huge distended buildings of corrugated iron in which the Art Museum (of all places!) culminates, the truncated Oratory all askew to the street, seemed to have a similar quarrel with fate. How in the name of destiny? After such high prolusions!
He found that his thoughts had carried him past the lodge of the museum. He turned back irritably and went through the turnstile. He entered the museum and passed beneath the gallery of Old Iron on his way to the Education Library. The vacant array of tables, the bays of attendant books had a quality of refuge. . . .
So much for Lewisham in the morning. Long before midday all the vigour of his wrath was gone, all his passionate conviction of Ethel’s unworthiness. Over a pile of neglected geological works he presented a face of gloom. His memory presented a picture of himself as noisy, overbearing, and unfair. What on earth had it all been about?
By two o’clock he was on his way to Vigours’, and his mood was acute remorse. Of the transition there can be no telling in words, for thoughts are more subtle than words and emotions infinitely vaguer. But one thing at least is definite, that a memory returned.
It drifted in to him, through the glass roof of the Library far above. He did not perceive it as a memory at first, but as an irritating obstacle to attention. He struck the open pages of the book before him with his flat hand. “Damn that infernal hurdy-gurdy!” he whispered.
Presently he made a fretful movement and put his hands over his ears.
Then he thrust his books from him, got up, and wandered about the Library. The organ came to an abrupt end in the middle of a bar, and vanished in the circumambient silence of space.
Lewisham standing in a bay closed a book with a snap and returned to his seat.
Presently he found himself humming a languid tune, and thinking again of the quarrel that he had imagined banished from his mind. What in the name of destiny had it all been about? He had a curious sense that something had got loose, was sliding about in his mind. And as if by way of answer emerged a vision of Whortley—a singularly vivid vision. It was moonlight and a hillside, the little town lay lit and warm below, and the scene was set to music, a lugubriously sentimental air. For some reason this music had the quality of a barrel organ—though he knew that properly it came from a band—and it associated with itself a mystical formula of words, drawing words:—
“Sweet dreamland fa—ces, passing to and fro,|
Bring back to mem’ry days of long ago—oh!”
This air not only reproduced the picture with graphic vividness, but it trailed after it an enormous cloud of irrational emotion, emotion that had but a moment before seemed gone for ever from his being.
He recalled it all! He had come down that hillside and Ethel had been with him. . . .
Had he really felt like that about her?
“Pah!” he said suddenly, and reverted to his books.
But the tune and the memory had won their footing, they were with him through his meagre lunch of milk and scones—he had resolved at the outset he would not go back to her for the midday meal—and on his way to Vigours’ they insisted on attention. It may be that lunching on scone and milk does in itself make for milder ways of thinking. A sense of extraordinary contradiction, of infinite perplexity, came to him.
“But then,” he asked, “how the devil did we get to this?”
Which is indeed one of the fundamental questions of matrimony.
The morning tumults had given place to an almost scientific calm. Very soon he was grappling manfully with the question. There was no disputing it, they had quarrelled. Not once but several times lately they had quarrelled. It was real quarrelling;—they had stood up against one another, striking, watching to strike, seeking to wound. He tried to recall just how things had gone—what he had said and what she had replied. He could not do it. He had forgotten phrases and connexions. It stood in his memory not as a sequence of events but as a collection of disconnected static sayings; each saying blunt, permanent, inconsecutive like a graven inscription. And of the scene there came only one picture—Ethel with a burning face and her eyes shining with tears.
The traffic of a cross street engaged him for a space. He emerged on the further side full of the vivid contrast of their changed relations. He made a last effort to indict her, to show that for the transition she was entirely to blame. She had quarrelled with him, she had quarrelled deliberately because she was jealous. She was jealous of Miss Heydinger because she was stupid. But now these accusations faded like smoke as he put them forth. But the picture of two little figures back there in the moonlit past did not fade. It was in the narrows of Kensington High Street that he abandoned her arraignment. It was beyond the Town Hall that he made the new step. Was it, after all, just possible that in some degree he himself rather was the chief person to blame?
It was instantly as if he had been aware of that all the time.
Once he had made that step, he moved swiftly. Not a hundred paces before the struggle was over, and he had plunged headlong into the blue abyss of remorse. And all these things that had been so dramatic and forcible, all the vivid brutal things he had said, stood no longer graven inscriptions but in letters of accusing flame. He tried to imagine he had not said them, that his memory played him a trick; tried to suppose he had said something similar perhaps, but much less forcible. He attempted with almost equal futility to minimise his own wounds. His endeavour served only to measure the magnitude of his fall.
He had recovered everything now, he saw it all. He recalled Ethel, sunlit in the avenue, Ethel, white in the moonlight before they parted outside the Frobisher house, Ethel as she would come out of Lagune’s house greeting him for their nightly walk, Ethel new wedded, as she came to him through the folding doors radiant in the splendour his emotions threw about her. And at last, Ethel angry, dishevelled and tear-stained in that ill-lit, untidy little room. All to the cadence of a hurdy-gurdy tune! From that to this! How had it been possible to get from such an opalescent dawning to such a dismal day? What was it had gone? He and she were the same two persons who walked so brightly in his awakened memory; he and she who had lived so bitterly through the last few weeks of misery!
His mood sank for a space to the quality of groaning. He implicated her now at most as his partner in their failure—“What a mess we have made of things!” was his new motif. “What a mess!”
He knew love now for what it was, knew it for something more ancient and more imperative than reason. He knew now that he loved her, and his recent rage, his hostility, his condemnation of her seemed to him the reign of some exterior influence in his mind. He thought incredulously of the long decline in tenderness that had followed the first days of their delight in each other, the diminution of endearment, the first yielding to irritability, the evenings he had spent doggedly working, resisting all his sense of her presence. “One cannot always be love-making,” he had said, and so they were slipping apart. Then in countless little things he had not been patient, he had not been fair. He had wounded her by harshness, by unsympathetic criticism, above all by his absurd secrecy about Miss Heydinger’s letters. Why on earth had he kept those letters from her? as though there was something to hide! What was there to hide? What possible antagonism could there be? Yet it was by such little things that their love was now like some once valued possession that had been in brutal hands, it was scratched and chipped and tarnished, it was on its way to being altogether destroyed. Her manner had changed towards him, a gulf was opening that he might never be able to close again.
“No, it shall not be!” he said, “it shall not be!”
But how to get back to the old footing? how to efface the things he had said, the things that had been done?
Could they get back?
For a moment he faced a new possibility. Suppose they could not get back! Suppose the mischief was done! Suppose that when he slammed the door behind him it locked, and was locked against him for ever!
“But we must!” said Lewisham, “we must!”
He perceived clearly that this was no business of reasoned apologies. He must begin again, he must get back to emotion, he must thrust back the overwhelming pressure of everyday stresses and necessities that was crushing all the warmth and colour from their lives. But how? How?
He must make love to her again. But how to begin—how to mark the change? There had been making-up before, sullen concessions and treaties. But this was different. He tried to imagine something he might say, some appeal that he might make. Everything he thought of was cold and hard, or pitiful and undignified, or theatrical and foolish. Suppose the door was closed! If already it was too late! In every direction he was confronted by the bristling memories of harsh things. He had a glimpse of how he must have changed in her eyes, and things became intolerable for him. For now he was assured he loved her still with all his heart.
And suddenly came a florist’s window, and in the centre of it a glorious heap of roses.
They caught his eye before they caught his mind. He saw white roses, virginal white, roses of cream and pink and crimson, the tints of flesh and pearl, rich, a mass of scented colour, visible odours, and in the midst of them a note of sullen red. It was as it were the very colour of his emotion. He stopped abruptly. He turned back to the window and stared frankly. It was gorgeous, he saw, but why so particularly did it appeal to him?
Then he perceived as though it was altogether self-evident what he had to do. This was what he wanted. This was the note he had to strike. Among other things because it would repudiate the accursed worship of pinching self-restraint that was one of the incessant stresses between them. They would come to her with a pure unexpectedness, they would flame upon her.
Then, after the roses, he would return.
Suddenly the grey trouble passed from his mind; he saw the world full of colour again. He saw the scene he desired bright and clear, saw Ethel no longer bitter and weeping, but glad as once she had always seemed glad. His heart-beats quickened. It was giving had been needed, and he would give.
Some weak voice of indiscreet discretion squeaked and vanished. He had, he knew, a sovereign in his pocket. He went in.
He found himself in front of a formidable young lady in black, and unprepared with any formula. He had never bought flowers before. He looked about him for an inspiration. He pointed at the roses. “I want those roses,” he said. . . .
He emerged again with only a few small silver coins remaining out of the sovereign he had changed. The roses were to go to Ethel, properly packed; they were to be delivered according to his express direction at six o’clock.
“Six o’clock,” Lewisham had reiterated very earnestly.
“We quite understand,” the young lady in black had said, and had pretended to be unable to conceal a smile. “We’re quite accustomed to sending out flowers.”