I didn’t, as a matter of fact, marry her until a year after Tono-Bungay was thoroughly afloat, and then only after conflicts and discussions of a quite strenuous sort. By that time I was twenty-four. It seems the next thing to childhood now. We were both in certain directions unusually ignorant and simple; we were temperamentally antagonistic, and we hadn’t—I don’t think we were capable of—an idea in common. She was young and extraordinarily conventional—she seemed never to have an idea of her own but always the idea of her class—and I was young and sceptical, enterprising and passionate; the two links that held us together were the intense appeal her physical beauty had for me, and her appreciation of her importance in my thoughts. There can be no doubt of my passion for her. In her I had discovered woman desired. The nights I have lain awake on account of her, writhing, biting my wrists in a fever of longing! . . .
I have told how I got myself a silk hat and black coat to please her on Sunday—to the derision of some of my fellow-students who charged to meet me, and how we became engaged. But that was only the beginning of our difference. To her that meant the beginning of a not unpleasant little secrecy, an occasional use of verbal endearments, perhaps even kisses. It was something to go on indefinitely, interfering in no way with her gossiping spells of work at Smithie’s. To me it was a pledge to come together into the utmost intimacy of soul and body so soon as we could contrive it. . . .
I don’t know if it will strike the reader that I am setting out to discuss the queer, unwise love relationship and my bungle of a marriage with excessive solemnity. But to me it seems to reach out to vastly wider issues than our little personal affair. I’ve thought over my life. In these last few years I’ve tried to get at least a little wisdom out of it. And in particular I’ve thought over this part of my life. I’m enormously impressed by the ignorant, unguided way in which we two entangled ourselves with each other. It seems to me the queerest thing in all this network of misunderstandings and misstatements and faulty and ramshackle conventions which makes up our social order as the individual meets it, that we should have come together so accidentally and so blindly. Because we were no more than samples of the common fate. Love is not only the cardinal fact in the individual life, but the most important concern of the community; after all, the way in which the young people of this generation pair off determines the fate of the nation; all the other affairs of the State are subsidiary to that. And we leave it to flushed and blundering youth to stumble on its own significance, with nothing to guide in but shocked looks and sentimental twaddle and base whisperings and cant-smeared examples.
I have tried to indicate something of my own sexual development in the preceding chapter. Nobody was ever frank and decent with me in this relation; nobody, no book, ever came and said to me thus and thus is the world made, and so and so is necessary. Everything came obscurely, indefinitely, perplexingly; and all I knew of law or convention in the matter had the form of threatenings and prohibitions. Except through the furtive, shameful talk of my coevals at Goudhurst and Wimblehurst, I was not even warned against quite horrible dangers. My ideas were made partly of instinct, partly of a romantic imagination, partly woven out of a medley of scraps of suggestion that came to me haphazard. I had read widely and confusedly “Vathek,” Shelley, Tom Paine, Plutarch, Carlyle, Haeckel, William Morris, the Bible, the Freethinker, the Clarion, “The Woman Who Did,”—I mention the ingredients that come first to mind. All sorts of ideas were jumbled up in me and never a lucid explanation. But it was evident to me that the world regarded Shelley, for example, as a very heroic as well as beautiful person; and that to defy convention and succumb magnificently to passion was the proper thing to do to gain the respect and affection of all decent people.
And the make-up of Marion’s mind in the matter was an equally irrational affair. Her training had been one, not simply of silences, but suppressions. An enormous force of suggestion had so shaped her that the intense natural fastidiousness of girlhood had developed into an absolute perversion of instinct. For all that is cardinal in this essential business of life she had one inseparable epithet—“horrid.” Without any such training she would have been a shy lover, but now she was an impossible one. For the rest she had derived, I suppose, partly from the sort of fiction she got from the Public Library, and partly from the workroom talk at Smithie’s. So far as the former origin went, she had an idea of love as a state of worship and service on the part of the man and of condescension on the part of the woman. There was nothing “horrid” about it in any fiction she had read. The man gave presents, did services, sought to be in every way delightful. The woman “went out” with him, smiled at him, was kissed by him in decorous secrecy, and if he chanced to offend, denied her countenance and presence. Usually she did something “for his good” to him, made him go to church, made him give up smoking or gambling, smartened him up. Quite at the end of the story came a marriage, and after that the interest ceased.
That was the tenor of Marion’s fiction; but I think the work-table conversation at Smithie’s did something to modify that. At Smithie’s it was recognised, I think, that a “fellow” was a possession to be desired; that it was better to be engaged to a fellow than not; that fellows had to be kept—they might be mislaid, they might even be stolen. There was a case of stealing at Smithie’s, and many tears.
Smithie I met before we were married, and afterwards she became a frequent visitor to our house at Ealing. She was a thin, bright-eyed, hawk-nosed girl of thirtyodd, with prominent teeth, a high-pitched, eager voice and a disposition to be urgently smart in her dress. Her hats were startling and various, but invariably disconcerting, and she talked in a rapid, nervous flow that was hilarious rather than witty, and broken by little screams of “Oh, my dear!” and “you never did!” She was the first woman I ever met who used scent. Poor old Smithie! What a harmless, kindly soul she really was, and how heartily I detested her! Out of the profits on the Persian robes she supported a sister’s family of three children, she “helped” a worthless brother, and overflowed in help even to her workgirls, but that didn’t weigh with me in those youthfully-narrow times. It was one of the intense minor irritations of my married life that Smithie’s whirlwind chatter seemed to me to have far more influence with Marion than anything I had to say. Before all things I coveted her grip upon Marion’s inaccessible mind.
In the workroom at Smithie’s, I gathered, they always spoke of me demurely as “A Certain Person.” I was rumoured to be dreadfully “clever,” and there were doubts—not altogether without justification—of the sweetness of my temper.
Well, these general explanations will enable the reader to understand the distressful times we two had together when presently I began to feel on a footing with Marion and to fumble conversationally for the mind and the wonderful passion I felt, obstinately and stupidity, must be in her. I think she thought me the maddest of sane men; “clever,” in fact, which at Smithie’s was, I suppose, the next thing to insanity, a word intimating incomprehensible and incalculable motives. . . . She could be shocked at anything, she misunderstood everything, and her weapon was a sulky silence that knitted her brows, spoilt her mouth and robbed her face of beauty. “Well, if we can’t agree, I don’t see why you should go on talking,” she used to say. That would always enrage me beyond measure. Or, “I’m afraid I’m not clever enough to understand that.”
Silly little people! I see it all now, but then I was no older than she and I couldn’t see anything but that Marion, for some inexplicable reason, wouldn’t come alive.
We would contrive semi-surreptitious walks on Sunday, and part speechless with the anger of indefinable offences. Poor Marion! The things I tried to put before her, my fermenting ideas about theology, about Socialism, about aesthetics—the very words appalled her, gave her the faint chill of approaching impropriety, the terror of a very present intellectual impossibility. Then by an enormous effort I would suppress myself for a time and continue a talk that made her happy, about Smithie’s brother, about the new girl who had come to the workroom, about the house we would presently live in. But there we differed a little. I wanted to be accessible to St. Paul’s or Cannon Street Station, and she had set her mind quite resolutely upon Eating. . . . It wasn’t by any means quarreling all the time, you understand. She liked me to play the lover “nicely”; she liked the effect of going about—we had lunches, we went to Earl’s Court, to Kew, to theatres and concerts, but not often to concerts, because, though Marion “liked” music, she didn’t like “too much of it,” to picture shows—and there was a nonsensical sort of babytalk I picked up—I forget where now—that became a mighty peacemaker.
Her worst offence for me was an occasional excursion into the Smithie style of dressing, debased West Kensington. For she had no sense at all of her own beauty. She had no comprehension whatever of beauty of the body, and she could slash her beautiful lines to rags with hat-brims and trimmings. Thank Heaven! a natural refinement, a natural timidity, and her extremely slender purse kept her from the real Smithie efflorescence! Poor, simple, beautiful, kindly limited Marion! Now that I am forty-five, I can look back at her with all my old admiration and none of my old bitterness with a new affection and not a scrap of passion, and take her part against the equally stupid, drivingly-energetic, sensuous, intellectual sprawl I used to be. I was a young beast for her to have married—a hound beast. With her it was my business to understand and control—and I exacted fellowship, passion. . . .
We became engaged, as I have told; we broke it off and joined again. We went through a succession of such phases. We had no sort of idea what was wrong with us. Presently we were formally engaged. I had a wonderful interview with her father, in which he was stupendously grave and H—less, wanted to know about my origins and was tolerant (exasperatingly tolerant) because my mother was a servant, and afterwards her mother took to kissing me, and I bought a ring. But the speechless aunt, I gathered, didn’t approve—having doubts of my religiosity. Whenever we were estranged we could keep apart for days; and to begin with, every such separation was a relief. And then I would want her; a restless longing would come upon me. I would think of the flow of her arms, of the soft, gracious bend of her body. I would lie awake or dream of a transfigured Marion of light and fire. It was indeed Dame Nature driving me on to womankind in her stupid, inexorable way; but I thought it was the need of Marion that troubled me. So I always went back to Marion at last and made it up and more or less conceded or ignored whatever thing had parted us, and more and more I urged her to marry me. . . .
In the long run that became a fixed idea. It entangled my will and my pride; I told myself I was not going to be beaten. I hardened to the business. I think, as a matter of fact, my real passion for Marion had waned enormously long before we were married, that she had lived it down by sheer irresponsiveness. When I felt sure of my three hundred a year she stipulated for delay, twelve months’ delay, “to see how things would turn out.” There were times when she seemed simply an antagonist holding out irritatingly against something I had to settle. Moreover, I began to be greatly distracted by the interest and excitement of Tono-Bungay’s success, by the change and movement in things, the going to and fro. I would forget her for days together, and then desire her with an irritating intensity at last, one Saturday afternoon, after a brooding morning, I determined almost savagely that these delays must end.
I went off to the little home at Walham Green, and made Marion come with me to Putney Common. Marion wasn’t at home when I got there and I had to fret for a time and talk to her father, who was just back from his office, he explained, and enjoying himself in his own way in the greenhouse.
“I’m going to ask your daughter to marry me!” I said. “I think we’ve been waiting long enough.”
“I don’t approve of long engagements either,” said her father. “But Marion will have her own way about it, anyhow. Seen this new powdered fertiliser?”
I went in to talk to Mrs. Ramboat. “She’ll want time to get her things,” said Mrs. Ramboat. . . .
I and Marion sat down together on a little seat under some trees at the top of Putney Hill, and I came to my point abruptly.
“Look here, Marion,” I said, “are you going to marry me or are you not?”
She smiled at me. “Well,” she said, “we’re engaged—aren’t we?”
“That can’t go on for ever. Will you marry me next week?”
She looked me in the face. “We can’t,” she said.
“You promised to marry me when I had three hundred a year.”
She was silent for a space. “Can’t we go on for a time as we are? We could marry on three hundred a year. But it means a very little house. There’s Smithie’s brother. They manage on two hundred and fifty, but that’s very little. She says they have a semi-detached house almost on the road, and hardly a bit of garden. And the wall to next-door is so thin they hear everything. When her baby cries—they rap. And people stand against the railings and talk. . . . Can’t we wait? You’re doing so well.”
An extraordinary bitterness possessed me at this invasion of the stupendous beautiful business of love by sordid necessity. I answered her with immense restraint.
“If,” I said, “we could have a double-fronted, detached house—at Ealing, say—with a square patch of lawn in front and a garden behind—and—and a tiled bathroom”
“That would be sixty pounds a year at least.”
“Which means five hundred a year. . . . Yes, well, you see, I told my uncle I wanted that, and I’ve got it.”
“Five hundred pounds a year.”
“Five hundred pounds!”
I burst into laughter that had more than a taste of bitterness.
“Yes,” I said, “really! and now what do you think?”
“Yes,” she said, a little flushed; “but be sensible! Do you really mean you’ve got a Rise, all at once, of two hundred a year?”
“To marry on—yes.”
She scrutinised me a moment. “You’ve done this as a surprise!” she said, and laughed at my laughter. She had become radiant, and that made me radiant, too.
“Yes,” I said, “yes,” and laughed no longer bitterly.
She clasped her hands and looked me in the eyes.
She was so pleased that I forgot absolutely my disgust of a moment before. I forgot that she had raised her price two hundred pounds a year and that I had bought her at that.
“Come!” I said, standing up; “let’s go towards the sunset, dear, and talk about it all. Do you know—this is a most beautiful world, an amazingly beautiful world, and when the sunset falls upon you it makes you into shining gold. No, not gold—into golden glass. . . . Into something better than either glass or gold.” . . .
And for all that evening I wooed her and kept her glad. She made me repeat my assurances over again and still doubted a little.
We furnished that double-fronted house from attic—it ran to an attic—to cellar, and created a garden.
“Do you know Pampas Grass?” said Marion. “I love Pampas Grass . . . if there is room.”
“You shall have Pampas Grass,” I declared.
And there were moments as we went in imagination about that house together, when my whole being cried out to take her in my arms—now. But I refrained. On that aspect of life I touched very lightly in that talk, very lightly because I had had my lessons. She promised to marry me within two months’ time. Shyly, reluctantly, she named a day, and next afternoon, in heat and wrath, we “broke it off” again for the last time. We split upon procedure. I refused flatly to have a normal wedding with wedding cake, in white favours, carriages and the rest of it. It dawned upon me suddenly in conversation with her and her mother, that this was implied. I blurted out my objection forthwith, and this time it wasn’t any ordinary difference of opinion; it was a “row.” I don’t remember a quarter of the things we flung out in that dispute. I remember her mother reiterating in tones of gentle remonstrance: “But, George dear, you must have a cake—to send home.” I think we all reiterated things. I seem to remember a refrain of my own: “A marriage is too sacred a thing, too private a thing, for this display. Her father came in and stood behind me against the wall, and her aunt appeared beside the sideboard and stood with arms, looking from speaker to speaker, a sternly gratified prophetess. It didn’t occur to me then! How painful it was to Marion for these people to witness my rebellion.
“But, George,” said her father, “what sort of marriage do you want? You don’t want to go to one of those there registry offices?”
“That’s exactly what I’d like to do. Marriage is too private a thing—”
“I shouldn’t feel married,” said Mrs. Ramboat.
“Look here, Marion,” I said; “we are going to be married at a registry office. I don’t believe in all these fripperies and superstitions, and I won’t submit to them. I’ve agreed to all sorts of things to please you.”
“What’s he agreed to?” said her father—unheeded.
“I can’t marry at a registry office,” said Marion, sallow-white.
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll marry nowhere else.”
“I can’t marry at a registry office.”
“Very well,” I said, standing up, white and tense and it amazed me, but I was also exultant; “then we won’t marry at all.”
She leant forward over the table, staring blankly. But presently her half-averted face began to haunt me as she had sat at the table, and her arm and the long droop of her shoulder.
The next day I did an unexampled thing. I sent a telegram to my uncle, “Bad temper not coming to business,” and set off for Highgate and Ewart. He was actually at work—on a bust of Millie, and seemed very glad for any interruption.
“Ewart, you old Fool,” I said, “knock off and come for a day’s gossip. I’m rotten. There’s a sympathetic sort of lunacy about you. Let’s go to Staines and paddle up to Windsor.”
“Girl?” said Ewart, putting down a chisel.
That was all I told him of my affair.
“I’ve got no money,” he remarked, to clear up ambiguity in my invitation.
We got a jar of shandy-gaff, some food, and, on Ewart’s suggestion, two Japanese sunshades in Staines; we demanded extra cushions at the boathouse and we spent an enormously soothing day in discourse and meditation, our boat moored in a shady place this side of Windsor. I seem to remember Ewart with a cushion forward, only his heels and sunshade and some black ends of hair showing, a voice and no more, against the shining, smoothly-streaming mirror of the trees and bushes.
“It’s not worth it,” was the burthen of the voice. “You’d better get yourself a Millie, Ponderevo, and then you wouldn’t feel so upset.”
“No,” I said decidedly, “that’s not my way.”
A thread of smoke ascended from Ewart for a while, like smoke from an altar.
“Everything’s a muddle, and you think it isn’t. Nobody knows where we are—because, as a matter of fact we aren’t anywhere. Are women property—or are they fellow-creatures? Or a sort of proprietary goddesses? They’re so obviously fellow-creatures. You believe in the goddess?”
“No,” I said, “that’s not my idea.”
“What is your idea?”
“H’m,” said Ewart, in my pause.
“My idea,” I said, “is to meet one person who will belong to me—to whom I shall belong—body and soul. No half-gods! Wait till she comes. If she comes at all. . . . We must come to each other young and pure.”
“There’s no such thing as a pure person or an impure person. . . . Mixed to begin with.”
This was so manifestly true that it silenced me altogether.
“And if you belong to her and she to you, Ponderevo—which end’s the head?”
I made no answer except an impatient “oh!”
For a time we smoked in silence. . . .
“Did I tell you, Ponderevo, of a wonderful discovery I’ve made?” Ewart began presently.
“No,” I said, “what is it?”
“There’s no Mrs. Grundy.”
“No! Practically not. I’ve just thought all that business out. She’s merely an instrument, Ponderevo. She’s borne the blame. Grundy’s a man. Grundy unmasked. Rather lean and out of sorts. Early middle age. With bunchy black whiskers and a worried eye. Been good so far, and it’s fretting him! Moods! There’s Grundy in a state of sexual panic, for example,—‘For God’s sake cover it up! They get together—they get together! It’s too exciting! The most dreadful things are happening!’ Rushing about—long arms going like a windmill. ‘They must be kept apart!’ Starts out for an absolute obliteration of everything absolute separations. One side of the road for men, and the other for women, and a hoarding—without posters between them. Every boy and girl to be sewed up in a sack and sealed, just the head and hands and feet out until twenty-one. Music abolished, calico garments for the lower animals! Sparrows to be suppressed—ab-so-lutely.”
I laughed abruptly.
“Well, that’s Mr. Grundy in one mood—and it puts Mrs. Grundy—She’s a much-maligned person, Ponderevo—a rake at heart—and it puts her in a most painful state of fluster—most painful! She’s an amenable creature. When Grundy tells her things are shocking, she’s shocked—pink and breathless. She goes about trying to conceal her profound sense of guilt behind a haughty expression. . . .
“Grundy, meanwhile, is in a state of complete whirlabout. Long lean knuckly hands pointing and gesticulating! ‘They’re still thinking of things—thinking of things! It’s dreadful. They get it out of books. I can’t imagine where they get it! I must watch! There’re people over there whispering! Nobody ought to whisper!—There’s something suggestive in the mere act! Then, pictures! In the museum—things too dreadful for words. Why can’t we have pure art—with the anatomy all wrong and pure and nice—and pure fiction pure poetry, instead of all this stuff with allusions—allusions? . . . Excuse me! There’s something up behind that locked door! The keyhole! In the interests of public morality—yes, Sir, as a pure good man—I insist—I’ll look—it won’t hurt me—I insist on looking my duty—M’m’m—the keyhole!’”
He kicked his legs about extravagantly, and I laughed again.
“That’s Grundy in one mood, Ponderevo. It isn’t Mrs. Grundy. That’s one of the lies we tell about women. They’re too simple. Simple! Woman are simple! They take on just what men tell ’em.”
Ewart meditated for a space. “Just exactly as it’s put to them,” he said, and resumed the moods of Mr. Grundy.
“Then you get old Grundy in another mood. Ever caught him nosing, Ponderevo? Mad with the idea of mysterious, unknown, wicked, delicious things. Things that aren’t respectable. Wow! Things he mustn’t do! . . . Any one who knows about these things, knows there’s just as much mystery and deliciousness about Grundy’s forbidden things as there is about eating ham. Jolly nice if it’s a bright morning and you’re well and hungry and having breakfast in the open air. Jolly unattractive if you’re off colour. But Grundy’s covered it all up and hidden it and put mucky shades and covers over it until he’s forgotten it. Begins to fester round it in his mind. Has dreadful struggles—with himself about impure thoughts. . . . Then you set Grundy with hot ears,—curious in undertones. Grundy on the loose, Grundy in a hoarse whisper and with furtive eyes and convulsive movements—making things indecent. Evolving—in dense vapours—indecency!
“Grundy sins. Oh, yes, he’s a hypocrite. Sneaks round a corner and sins ugly. It’s Grundy and his dark corners that make vice, vice! We artists—we have no vices.
“And then he’s frantic with repentance. And wants to be cruel to fallen women and decent harmless sculptors of the simple nude—like me—and so back to his panic again.”
“Mrs. Grundy, I suppose, doesn’t know he sins,” I remarked.
“No? I’m not so sure. . . . But, bless her heart she’s a woman. . . . She’s a woman. Then again you get Grundy with a large greasy smile—like an accident to a butter tub—all over his face, being Liberal Minded—Grundy in his Anti-Puritan moments, ‘trying not to see Harm in it’—Grundy the friend of innocent pleasure. He makes you sick with the Harm he’s trying not to see in it . . .
“And that’s why everything’s wrong, Ponderevo. Grundy, damn him! stands in the light, and we young people can’t see. His moods affect us. We catch his gusts of panic, his disease of nosing, his greasiness. We don’t know what we may think, what we may say, he does his silly utmost to prevent our reading and seeing the one thing, the one sort of discussion we find—quite naturally and properly—supremely interesting. So we don’t adolescence; we blunder up to sex. Dare—dare to look—and he may dirt you for ever! The girls are terror-stricken to silence by his significant whiskers, by the bleary something in his eyes.”
Suddenly Ewart, with an almost Jack-in-the-box effect, sat up.
“He’s about us everywhere, Ponderevo,” he said, very solemnly. “Sometimes—sometimes I think he is—in our blood. In mine.”
He regarded me for my opinion very earnestly, with his pipe in the corner of his mouth.
“You’re the remotest cousin he ever had,” I said.
I reflected. “Look here, Ewart,” I asked, “how would you have things different?”
He wrinkled up his queer face, regarded the wait and made his pipe gurgle for a space, thinking deeply.
“There are complications, I admit. We’ve grown up under the terror of Grundy and that innocent but docile and—yes—formidable lady, his wife. I don’t know how far the complications aren’t a disease, a sort of bleaching under the Grundy shadow. . . . It is possible there are things I have still to learn about women. . . . Man has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. His innocence is gone. You can’t have your cake and eat it. We’re in for knowledge; let’s have it plain and straight. I should begin, I think, by abolishing the ideas of decency and indecency. . . . ”
“Grundy would have fits!” I injected.
“Grundy, Ponderevo, would have cold douches—publicly—if the sight was not too painful—three times a day. . . . But I don’t think, mind you, that I should let the sexes run about together. No. The fact behind the sexes—is sex. It’s no good humbugging. It trails about—even in the best mixed company. Tugs at your ankle. The men get showing off and quarrelling—and the women. Or they’re bored. I suppose the ancestral males have competed for the ancestral females ever since they were both some sort of grubby little reptile. You aren’t going to alter that in a thousand years or so. . . . Never should you have a mixed company, never—except with only one man or only one woman. How would that be? . . .
“Or duets only? . . .
“How to manage it? Some rule of etiquette, perhaps.” . . . He became portentously grave.
Then his long hand went out in weird gestures.
“I seem to see—I seem to see—a sort of City of Women, Ponderevo. Yes. . . . A walled enclosure—good stone-mason’s work—a city wall, high as the walls of Rome, going about a garden. Dozens of square miles of garden—trees—fountains—arbours—lakes. Lawns on which the women play, avenues in which they gossip, boats. . . . Women like that sort of thing. Any woman who’s been to a good eventful girls’ school lives on the memory of it for the rest of her life. It’s one of the pathetic things about women—the superiority of school and college—to anything they get afterwards. And this city-garden of women will have beautiful places for music, places for beautiful dresses, places for beautiful work. Everything a woman can want. Nurseries. Kindergartens. Schools. And no man—except to do rough work, perhaps—ever comes in. The men live in a world where they can hunt and engineer, invent and mine and manufacture, sail ships, drink deep and practice the arts, and fight—”
“Yes,” I said, “but—”
He stilled me with a gesture.
“I’m coming to that. The homes of the women, Ponderevo, will be set in the wall of their city; each woman will have her own particular house and home, furnished after her own heart in her own manner—with a little balcony on the outside wall. Built into the wall—and a little balcony. And there she will go and look out, when the mood takes her, and all round the city there will be a broad road and seats and great shady trees. And men will stroll up and down there when they feel the need of feminine company; when, for instance, they want to talk about their souls or their characters or any of the things that only women will stand. . . . The women will lean over and look at the men and smile and talk to them as they fancy. And each woman will have this; she will have a little silken ladder she can let down if she chooses—if she “wants to talk closer . . . ”
“The men would still be competing.”
“There perhaps—yes. But they’d have to abide by the women’s decisions.”
I raised one or two difficulties, and for a while we played with this idea.
“Ewart,” I said, “this is like Doll’s Island.
“Suppose,” I reflected, “an unsuccessful man laid siege to a balcony and wouldn’t let his rival come near it?”
“Move him on,” said Ewart, “by a special regulation. As one does organ-grinders. No difficulty about that. And you could forbid it—make it against the etiquette. No life is decent without etiquette. . . . And people obey etiquette sooner than laws . . . ”
“H’m,” I said, and was struck by an idea that is remote in the world of a young man. “How about children?” I asked; “in the City? Girls are all very well. But boys, for example—grow up.”
“Ah!” said Ewart. “Yes. I forgot. They mustn’t grow up inside. . . . They’d turn out the boys when they were seven. The father must come with a little pony and a little gun and manly wear, and take the boy away. Then one could come afterwards to one’s mother’s balcony. . . . It must be fine to have a mother. The father and the son . . . ”
“This is all very pretty in its way,” I said at last, “but it’s a dream. Let’s come back to reality. What I want to know is, what are you going to do in Brompton, let us say, or Walham Green now?”
“Oh! damn it!” he remarked, “Walham Green! What a chap you are, Ponderevo!” and he made an abrupt end to his discourse. He wouldn’t even reply to my tentatives for a time.
“While I was talking just now,” he remarked presently,
“I had a quite different idea.”
“For a masterpiece. A series. Like the busts of the Caesars. Only not heads, you know. We don’t see the people who do things to us nowadays . . . ”
“How will you do it, then?”
“Hands—a series of hands! The hands of the Twentieth Century. I’ll do it. Some day some one will discover it—go there—see what I have done, and what is meant by it.”
“See it where?”
“On the tombs. Why not? The Unknown Master of the Highgate Slope! All the little, soft feminine hands, the nervous ugly males, the hands of the flops, and the hands of the snatchers! And Grundy’s loose, lean, knuckly affair—Grundy the terror!—the little wrinkles and the thumb! Only it ought to hold all the others together—in a slightly disturbing squeeze. . . . Like Rodin’s great Hand—you know the thing!”
I forget how many days intervened between that last breaking off of our engagement and Marion’s surrender. But I recall now the sharpness of my emotion, the concentrated spirit of tears and laughter in my throat as I read the words of her unexpected letter—“I have thought over everything, and I was selfish. . . . ” I rushed off to Walham Green that evening to give back all she had given me, to beat her altogether at giving. She was extraordinarily gentle and generous that time, I remember, and when at last I left her, she kissed me very sweetly.
So we were married.
We were married with all the customary incongruity. I gave—perhaps after a while not altogether ungrudgingly—and what I gave, Marion took, with a manifest satisfaction. After all, I was being sensible. So that we had three livery carriages to the church (one of the pairs of horses matched) and coachmen—with improvised flavour and very shabby silk hats—bearing white favours on their whips, and my uncle intervened with splendour and insisted upon having a wedding breakfast sent in from a caterer’s in Hammersmith. The table had a great display of chrysanthemums, and there was orange blossom in the significant place and a wonderful cake. We also circulated upwards of a score of wedges of that accompanied by silver-printed cards in which Marion’s name of Ramboat was stricken out by an arrow in favour of Ponderevo. We had a little rally of Marion’s relations, and several friends and friends’ friends from Smithie’s appeared in the church and drifted vestry-ward. I produced my aunt and uncle a select group of two. The effect in that shabby little house was one of exhilarating congestion. The side-board, in which lived the table-cloth and the “Apartments” card, was used for a display of the presents, eked out by the unused balance of the silver-printed cards.
Marion wore the white raiment of a bride, white silk and satin, that did not suit her, that made her seem large and strange to me; she obtruded bows and unfamiliar contours. She went through all this strange ritual of an English wedding with a sacramental gravity that I was altogether too young and egotistical to comprehend. It was all extraordinarily central and important to her; it was no more than an offensive, complicated, and disconcerting intrusion of a world I was already beginning to criticise very bitterly, to me. What was all this fuss for? The mere indecent advertisement that I had been passionately in love with Marion! I think, however, that Marion was only very remotely aware of my smouldering exasperation at having in the end behaved “nicely.” I had played—up to the extent of dressing my part; I had an admirably cut frock—coat, a new silk hat, trousers as light as I could endure them—lighter, in fact—a white waistcoat, night tie, light gloves. Marion, seeing me despondent had the unusual enterprise to whisper to me that I looked lovely; I knew too well I didn’t look myself. I looked like a special coloured supplement to Men’s Wear, or The Tailor and Cutter, Full Dress For Ceremonial Occasions. I had even the disconcerting sensations of an unfamiliar collar. I felt lost—in a strange body, and when I glanced down myself for reassurance, the straight white abdomen, the alien legs confirmed that impression.
My uncle was my best man, and looked like a banker—a little banker—in flower. He wore a white rose in his buttonhole. He wasn’t, I think, particularly talkative. At least I recall very little from him.
“George” he said once or twice, “this is a great occasion for you—a very great occasion.” He spoke a little doubtfully.
You see I had told him nothing about Marion until about a week before the wedding; both he and my aunt had been taken altogether by surprise. They couldn’t, as people say, “make it out.” My aunt was intensely interested, much more than my uncle; it was then, I think, for the first time that I really saw that she cared for me. She got me alone, I remember, after I had made my announcement. “Now, George,” she said, “tell me everything about her. Why didn’t you tell—me at least—before?”
I was surprised to find how difficult it was to tell her about Marion. I perplexed her.
“Then is she beautiful?” she asked at last.
“I don’t know what you’ll think of her,” I parried. “I think—”
“I think she might be the most beautiful person in the world.”
“And isn’t she? To you?”
“Of course,” I said, nodding my head. “Yes. She is . . . ”
And while I don’t remember anything my uncle said or did at the wedding, I do remember very distinctly certain little things, scrutiny, solicitude, a curious rare flash of intimacy in my aunt’s eyes. It dawned on me that I wasn’t hiding anything from her at all. She was dressed very smartly, wearing a big-plumed hat that made her neck seem longer and slenderer than ever, and when she walked up the aisle with that rolling stride of hers and her eye all on Marion, perplexed into self-forgetfulness, it wasn’t somehow funny. She was, I do believe, giving my marriage more thought than I had done, she was concerned beyond measure at my black rage and Marion’s blindness, she was looking with eyes that knew what loving is—for love.
In the vestry she turned away as we signed, and I verily believe she was crying, though to this day I can’t say why she should have cried, and she was near crying too when she squeezed my hand at parting—and she never said a word or looked at me, but just squeezed my hand. . . .
If I had not been so grim in spirit, I think I should have found much of my wedding amusing. I remember a lot of ridiculous detail that still declines to be funny in my memory. The officiating clergyman had a cold, and turned his “n’s” to “d’s,” and he made the most mechanical compliment conceivable about the bride’s age when the register was signed. Every bride he had ever married had had it, one knew. And two middle-aged spinsters, cousins of Marion’s and dressmakers at Barking, stand out. They wore marvellously bright and gay blouses and dim old skirts, and had an immense respect for Mr. Ramboat. They threw rice; they brought a whole bag with them and gave handfuls away to unknown little boys at the church door and so created a Lilliputian riot; and one had meant to throw a slipper. It was a very warm old silk slipper, I know, because she dropped it out of a pocket in the aisle—there was a sort of jumble in the aisle—and I picked it up for her. I don’t think she actually threw it, for as we drove away from the church I saw her in a dreadful, and, it seemed to me, hopeless, struggle with her pocket; and afterwards my eye caught the missile of good fortune lying, it or its fellow, most obviously mislaid, behind the umbrella-stand in the hall. . . .
The whole business was much more absurd, more incoherent, more human than I had anticipated, but I was far too young and serious to let the latter quality atone for its shortcomings. I am so remote from this phase of my youth that I can look back at it all as dispassionately as one looks at a picture—at some wonderful, perfect sort of picture that is inexhaustible; but at the time these things filled me with unspeakable resentment. Now I go round it all, look into its details, generalise about its aspects. I’m interested, for example, to square it with my Bladesover theory of the British social scheme. Under stress of tradition we were all of us trying in the fermenting chaos of London to carry out the marriage ceremonies of a Bladesover tenant or one of the chubby middling sort of people in some dependent country town. There a marriage is a public function with a public significance. There the church is to a large extent the gathering-place of the community, and your going to be married a thing of importance to every one you pass on the road. It is a change of status that quite legitimately interests the whole neighbourhood. But in London there are no neighbours, nobody knows, nobody cares. An absolute stranger in an office took my notice, and our banns were proclaimed to ears that had never previously heard our names. The clergyman, even, who married us had never seen us before, and didn’t in any degree intimate that he wanted to see us again.
Neighbours in London! The Ramboats did not know the names of the people on either side of them. As I waited for Marion before we started off upon our honeymoon flight, Mr. Ramboat, I remember, came and stood beside me and stared out of the window.
“There was a funeral over there yesterday,” he said, by way of making conversation, and moved his head at the house opposite. “Quite a smart affair it was with a glass ’earse. . . . ”
And our little procession of three carriages with white-favour-adorned horses and drivers, went through all the huge, noisy, indifferent traffic like a lost china image in the coal-chute of an ironclad. Nobody made way for us, nobody cared for us; the driver of an omnibus jeered; for a long time we crawled behind an unamiable dust-cart. The irrelevant clatter and tumult gave a queer flavour of indecency to this public coming together of lovers. We seemed to have obtruded ourselves shamelessly. The crowd that gathered outside the church would have gathered in the same spirit and with greater alacrity for a street accident. . . .
At Charing Cross—we were going to Hastings—the experienced eye of the guard detected the significance of our unusual costume and he secured us a compartment.
“Well,” said I, as the train moved out of the station, “That’s all over!” And I turned to Marion—a little unfamiliar still, in her unfamiliar clothes—and smiled.
She regarded me gravely, timidly.
“You’re not cross?” she asked.
“At having it all proper.”
“My dear Marion!” said I, and by way of answer took and kissed her white-gloved, leather-scented hand. . . .
I don’t remember much else about the journey, an hour or so it was of undistinguished time—for we were both confused and a little fatigued and Marion had a slight headache and did not want caresses. I fell into a reverie about my aunt, and realised as if it were a new discovery, that I cared for her very greatly. I was acutely sorry I had not told her earlier of my marriage.
But you will not want to hear the history of my honeymoon. I have told all that was needed to serve my present purpose. Thus and thus it was the Will in things had its way with me. Driven by forces I did not understand, diverted altogether from the science, the curiosities and work to which I had once given myself, I fought my way through a tangle of traditions, customs, obstacles and absurdities, enraged myself, limited myself, gave myself to occupations I saw with the clearest vision were dishonourable and vain, and at last achieved the end of purblind Nature, the relentless immediacy of her desire, and held, far short of happiness, Marion weeping and reluctant in my arms.
Who can tell the story of the slow estrangement of two married people, the weakening of first this bond and then that of that complex contact? Least of all can one of the two participants. Even now, with an interval of fifteen years to clear it up for me, I still find a mass of impressions of Marion as confused, as discordant, as unsystematic and self-contradictory as life. I think of this thing and love her, of that and hate her—of a hundred aspects in which I can now see her with an unimpassioned sympathy. As I sit here trying to render some vision of this infinitely confused process, I recall moments of hard and fierce estrangement, moments of clouded intimacy, the passage of transition all forgotten. We talked a little language together whence were “friends,” and I was “Mutney” and she was “Ming,” and we kept up such an outward show that till the very end Smithie thought our household the most amiable in the world.
I cannot tell to the full how Marion thwarted me and failed in that life of intimate emotions which is the kernel of love. That life of intimate emotions is made up of little things. A beautiful face differs from an ugly one by a difference of surfaces and proportions that are sometimes almost infinitesimally small. I find myself setting down little things and little things; none of them do more than demonstrate those essential temperamental discords I have already sought to make clear. Some readers will understand—to others I shall seem no more than an unfeeling brute who couldn’t make allowances. . . . It’s easy to make allowances now; but to be young and ardent and to make allowances, to see one’s married life open before one, the life that seemed in its dawn a glory, a garden of roses, a place of deep sweet mysteries and heart throbs and wonderful silences, and to see it a vista of tolerations and baby-talk; a compromise, the least effectual thing in all one’s life.
Every love romance I read seemed to mock our dull intercourse, every poem, every beautiful picture reflected upon the uneventful succession of grey hours we had together. I think our real difference was one of aesthetic sensibility.
I do still recall as the worst and most disastrous aspect of all that time, her absolute disregard of her own beauty. It’s the pettiest thing to record, I know, but she could wear curl-papers in my presence. It was her idea, too, to “wear out” her old clothes and her failures at home when “no one was likely to see her”—“no one” being myself. She allowed me to accumulate a store of ungracious and slovenly memories. . . .
All our conceptions of life differed. I remember how we differed about furniture. We spent three or four days in Tottenham Court Road, and she chose the things she fancied with an inexorable resolution,—sweeping aside my suggestions with—”Oh, you want such queer things.” She pursued some limited, clearly seen and experienced ideal—that excluded all other possibilities. Over every mantel was a mirror that was draped, our sideboard was wonderfully good and splendid with beveled glass, we had lamps on long metal stalks and cozy corners and plants in grog-tubs. Smithie approved it all. There wasn’t a place where one could sit and read in the whole house. My books went upon shelves in the dining-room recess. And we had a piano though Marion’s playing was at an elementary level.
You know, it was the cruelest luck for Marion that I, with my restlessness, my scepticism, my constantly developing ideas, had insisted on marriage with her. She had no faculty of growth or change; she had taken her mould, she had set in the limited ideas of her peculiar class. She preserved her conception of what was right in drawing-room chairs and in marriage ceremonial and in every relation of life with a simple and luminous honesty and conviction, with an immense unimaginative inflexibility—as a tailor-bird builds its nest or a beaver makes its dam.
Let me hasten over this history of disappointments and separation. I might tell of waxings and waning of love between us, but the whole was waning. Sometimes she would do things for me, make me a tie or a pair of slippers, and fill me with none the less gratitude because the things were absurd. She ran our home and our one servant with a hard, bright efficiency. She was inordinately proud of house and garden. Always, by her lights, she did her duty by me.
Presently the rapid development of Tono-Bungay began to take me into the provinces, and I would be away sometimes for a week together. This she did not like; it left her “dull,” she said, but after a time she began to go to Smithie’s again and to develop an independence of me. At Smithie’s she was now a woman with a position; she had money to spend. She would take Smithie to theatres and out to lunch and talk interminably of the business, and Smithie became a sort of permanent weekender with us. Also Marion got a spaniel and began to dabble with the minor arts, with poker-work and a Kodak and hyacinths in glasses. She called once on a neighbour. Her parents left Walham Green—her father severed his connection with the gas-works—and came to live in a small house I took for them near us, and they were much with us.
Odd the littleness of the things that exasperate when the fountains of life are embittered! My father-in-law was perpetually catching me in moody moments and urging me to take to gardening. He irritated me beyond measure.
“You think too much,” he would say. “If you was to let in a bit with a spade, you might soon ’ave that garden of yours a Vision of Flowers. That’s better than thinking, George.”
Or in a torrent of exasperation, “I carn’t think, George, why you don’t get a bit of glass ’ere. This sunny corner you c’d do wonders with a bit of glass.”
And in the summer time he never came in without performing a sort of conjuring trick in the hall, and taking cucumbers and tomatoes from unexpected points of his person. “All out o’ my little bit,” he’d say in exemplary tones. He left a trail of vegetable produce in the most unusual places, on mantel boards, sideboards, the tops of pictures. Heavens! how the sudden unexpected tomato could annoy me! . . .
It did much to widen our estrangement that Marion and my aunt failed to make friends, became, by a sort of instinct, antagonistic.
My aunt, to begin with, called rather frequently, for she was really anxious to know Marion. At first she would arrive like a whirlwind and pervade the house with an atmosphere of hello! She dressed already with that cheerfully extravagant abandon that signalised her accession to fortune, and dressed her best for these visits.
She wanted to play the mother to me, I fancy, to tell Marion occult secrets about the way I wore out my boots and how I never could think to put on thicker things in cold weather. But Marion received her with that defensive suspiciousness of the shy person, thinking only of the possible criticism of herself; and my aunt, perceiving this, became nervous and slangy . . .
“She says such queer things,” said Marion once, discussing her. “But I suppose it’s witty.”
“Yes,” I said; “it is witty.”
“If I said things like she does—”
The queer things my aunt said were nothing to the queer things she didn’t say. I remember her in our drawing-room one day, and how she cocked her eye—it’s the only expression—at the India-rubber plant in a Doulton-ware pot which Marion had placed on the corner of the piano.
She was on the very verge of speech. Then suddenly she caught my expression, and shrank up like a cat that has been discovered looking at the milk.
Then a wicked impulse took her.
“Didn’t say an old word, George,” she insisted, looking me full in the eye.
I smiled. “You’re a dear,” I said, “not to,” as Marion came lowering into the room to welcome her. But I felt extraordinarily like a traitor—to the India-rubber plant, I suppose—for all that nothing had been said . . .
“Your aunt makes Game of people,” was Marion’s verdict, and, open-mindedly: “I suppose it’s all right . . . for her.”
Several times we went to the house in Beckenham for lunch, and once or twice to dinner. My aunt did her peculiar best to be friends, but Marion was implacable. She was also, I know, intensely uncomfortable, and she adopted as her social method, an exhausting silence, replying compactly and without giving openings to anything that was said to her.
The gaps between my aunt’s visits grew wider and wider.
My married existence became at last like a narrow deep groove in the broad expanse of interests in which I was living. I went about the world; I met a great number of varied personalities; I read endless books in trains as I went to and fro. I developed social relationships at my uncle’s house that Marion did not share. The seeds of new ideas poured in upon me and grew in me. Those early and middle years of one’s third decade are, I suppose, for a man the years of greatest mental growth. They are restless years and full of vague enterprise.
Each time I returned to Ealing, life there seemed more alien, narrow, and unattractive—and Marion less beautiful and more limited and difficult—until at last she was robbed of every particle of her magic. She gave me always a cooler welcome, I think, until she seemed entirely apathetic. I never asked myself then what heartaches she might hide or what her discontents might be.
I would come home hoping nothing, expecting nothing.
This was my fated life, and I had chosen it. I became more sensitive to the defects I had once disregarded altogether; I began to associate her sallow complexion with her temperamental insufficiency, and the heavier lines of her mouth and nostril with her moods of discontent. We drifted apart; wider and wider the gap opened. I tired of baby-talk and stereotyped little fondlings; I tired of the latest intelligence from those wonderful workrooms, and showed it all too plainly; we hardly spoke when we were alone together. The mere unreciprocated physical residue of my passion remained—an exasperation between us.
No children came to save us. Marion had acquired at Smithie’s a disgust and dread of maternity. All that was the fruition and quintessence of the “horrid” elements in life, a disgusting thing, a last indignity that overtook unwary women. I doubt indeed a little if children would have saved us; we should have differed so fatally about their upbringing.
Altogether, I remember my life with Marion as a long distress, now hard, now tender. It was in those days that I first became critical of my life and burdened with a sense of error and maladjustment. I would lie awake in the night, asking myself the purpose of things, reviewing my unsatisfying, ungainly home-life, my days spent in rascal enterprise and rubbish-selling, contrasting all I was being and doing with my adolescent ambitions, my Wimblehurst dreams. My circumstances had an air of finality, and I asked myself in vain why I had forced myself into them.
The end of our intolerable situation came suddenly and unexpectedly, but in a way that I suppose was almost inevitable.
My alienated affections wandered, and I was unfaithful to Marion.
I won’t pretend to extenuate the quality of my conduct. I was a young and fairly vigorous male; all my appetite for love had been roused and whetted and none of it had been satisfied by my love affair and my marriage. I had pursued an elusive gleam of beauty to the disregard of all else, and it had failed me. It had faded when I had hoped it would grow brighter. I despaired of life and was embittered. And things happened as I am telling. I don’t draw any moral at all in the matter, and as for social remedies, I leave them to the social reformer. I’ve got to a time of life when the only theories that interest me are generalisations about realities.
To go to our inner office in Raggett Street I had to walk through a room in which the typists worked. They were the correspondence typists; our books and invoicing had long since overflowed into the premises we had had the luck to secure on either side of us. I was, I must confess, always in a faintly cloudily-emotional way aware of that collection of for the most part round-shouldered femininity, but presently one of the girls detached herself from the others and got a real hold upon my attention. I appreciated her at first as a straight little back, a neater back than any of the others; as a softly rounded neck with a smiling necklace of sham pearls; as chestnut hair very neatly done—and as a side-long glance; presently as a quickly turned face that looked for me.
My eye would seek her as I went through on business things—I dictated some letters to her and so discovered she had pretty, soft-looking hands with pink nails. Once or twice, meeting casually, we looked one another for the flash of a second in the eyes.
That was all. But it was enough in the mysterious free-masonry of sex to say essential things. We had a secret between us.
One day I came into Raggett Street at lunch time and she was alone, sitting at her desk. She glanced up as I entered, and then became very still, with a downcast face and her hands clenched on the table. I walked right by her to the door of the inner office, stopped, came back and stood over her.
We neither of us spoke for quite a perceptible time. I was trembling violently.
“Is that one of the new typewriters?” I asked at last for the sake of speaking.
She looked up at me without a word, with her face flushed and her eyes alight, and I bent down and kissed her lips. She leant back to put an arm about me, drew my face to her and kissed me again and again. I lifted her and held her in my arms. She gave a little smothered cry to feel herself so held.
Never before had I known the quality of passionate kisses.
Somebody became audible in the shop outside.
We started back from one another with flushed faces and bright and burning eyes.
“We can’t talk here,” I whispered with a confident intimacy. “Where do you go at five?”
“Along the Embankment to Charing Cross,” she answered as intimately. “None of the others go that way . . . ”
“About half-past five?”
“Yes, half-past five . . . ”
The door from the shop opened, and she sat down very quickly.
“I’m glad,” I said in a commonplace voice, “that these new typewriters are all right.”
I went into the inner office and routed out the paysheet in order to find her name—Effie Rink. And did no work at all that afternoon. I fretted about that dingy little den like a beast in a cage.
When presently I went out, Effie was working with an extraordinary appearance of calm—and there was no look for me at all. . . .
We met and had our talk that evening, a talk in whispers when there was none to overhear; we came to an understanding. It was strangely unlike any dream of romance I had ever entertained.
I came back after a week’s absence to my home again—a changed man. I had lived out my first rush of passion for Effie, had come to a contemplation of my position. I had gauged Effie’s place in the scheme of things, and parted from her for a time. She was back in her place at Raggett Street after a temporary indisposition. I did not feel in any way penitent or ashamed, I know, as I opened the little cast-iron gate that kept Marion’s front grader and Pampas Grass from the wandering dog. Indeed, if anything, I felt as if I had vindicated some right that had been in question. I came back to Marion with no sense of wrong-doing at all with, indeed, a new friendliness towards her. I don’t know how it may be proper to feel on such occasions; that is how I felt.
I followed her in our drawing-room, standing beside the tall lamp-stand that half filled the bay as though she had just turned from watching for me at the window. There was something in her pale face that arrested me. She looked as if she had not been sleeping. She did not come forward to greet me.
“You’ve come home,” she said.
“As I wrote to you.”
She stood very still, a dusky figure against the bright window.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“East Coast,” I said easily.
She paused for a moment. “I know,” she said.
I stared at her. It was the most amazing moment in any life. . . .
“By Jove!” I said at last, “I believe you do!”
“And then you come home to me!”
I walked to the hearthrug and stood quite still there regarding this new situation.
“I didn’t dream,” she began. “How could you do such a thing?”
It seemed a long interval before either of us spoke another word.
“Who knows about it?” I asked at last.
“Smithie’s brother. They were at Cromer.”
“Confound Cromer! Yes!”
“How could you bring yourself”
I felt a spasm of petulant annoyance at this unexpected catastrophe.
“I should like to wring Smithie’s brother’s neck,” I said. . . .
Marion spoke in dry, broken fragments of sentences. “You . . . I’d always thought that anyhow you couldn’t deceive me . . . I suppose all men are horrid—about this.”
“It doesn’t strike me as horrid. It seems to me the most necessary consequence—and natural thing in the world.”
I became aware of some one moving about in the passage, and went and shut the door of the room, then I walked back to the hearthrug and turned.
“It’s rough on you,” I said. “But I didn’t mean you to know. You’ve never cared for me. I’ve had the devil of a time. Why should you mind?”
She sat down in a draped armchair. “I have cared for you,” she said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I suppose,” she said, “She cares for you?”
I had no answer.
“Where is she now?”
“Oh! does it matter to you? . . . Look here, Marion! This—this I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t mean this thing to smash down on you like this. But, you know, something had to happen. I’m sorry—sorry to the bottom of my heart that things have come to this between us. But indeed, I’m taken by surprise. I don’t know where I am—I don’t know how we got here. Things took me by surprise. I found myself alone with her one day. I kissed her. I went on. It seemed stupid to go back. And besides—why should I have gone back? Why should I? From first to last, I’ve hardly thought of it as touching you. . . . Damn!”
She scrutinised my face, and pulled at the ball-fringe of the little table beside her.
“To think of it,” she said. “I don’t believe I can ever touch you again.”
We kept a long silence. I was only beginning to realise in the most superficial way the immense catastrophe that had happened between us. Enormous issues had rushed upon us. I felt unprepared and altogether inadequate. I was unreasonably angry. There came a rush of stupid expressions to my mind that my rising sense of the supreme importance of the moment saved me from saying. The gap of silence widened until it threatened to become the vast memorable margin of some one among a thousand trivial possibilities of speech that would vex our relations for ever.
Our little general servant tapped at the door—Marion always liked the servant to tap—and appeared.
“Tea, M’m,” she said—and vanished, leaving the door open.
“I will go upstairs,” said I, and stopped. “I will go upstairs” I repeated, “and put my bag in the spare room.”
We remained motionless and silent for a few seconds.
“Mother is having tea with us to-day,” Marion remarked at last, and dropped the worried end of ball-fringe and stood up slowly. . . .
And so, with this immense discussion of our changed relations hanging over us, we presently had tea with the unsuspecting Mrs. Ramboat and the spaniel. Mrs. Ramboat was too well trained in her position to remark upon our somber preoccupation. She kept a thin trickle of talk going, and told us, I remember, that Mr. Ramboat was “troubled” about his cannas.
“They don’t come up and they won’t come up. He’s been round and had an explanation with the man who sold him the bulbs—and he’s very heated and upset.”
The spaniel was a great bore, begging and doing small tricks first at one and then at the other of us. Neither of us used his name. You see we had called him Miggles, and made a sort of trio in the baby-talk of Mutney and Miggles and Ming.
Then presently we resumed our monstrous, momentous dialogue. I can’t now make out how long that dialogue went on. It spread itself, I know, in heavy fragments over either three days or four. I remember myself grouped with Marion, talking sitting on our bed in her room, talking standing in our dining-room, saving this thing or that. Twice we went for long walks. And we had a long evening alone together, with jaded nerves and hearts that fluctuated between a hard and dreary recognition of facts and, on my part at least, a strange unwonted tenderness; because in some extraordinary way this crisis had destroyed our mutual apathy and made us feel one another again.
It was a dialogue that had discrepant parts that fell into lumps of talk that failed to join on to their predecessors, that began again at a different level, higher or lower, that assumed new aspects in the intervals and assimilated new considerations. We discussed the fact that we two were no longer lovers; never before had we faced that. It seems a strange thing to write, but as I look back, I see clearly that those several days were the time when Marion and I were closest together, looked for the first and last time faithfully and steadfastly into each other’s soul. For those days only, there were no pretences, I made no concessions to her nor she to me; we concealed nothing, exaggerated nothing. We had done with pretending. We had it out plainly and soberly with each other. Mood followed mood and got its stark expression.
Of course there was quarreling between us, bitter quarreling, and we said things to one another—long pent-up things that bruised and crushed and cut. But over it all in my memory now is an effect of deliberate confrontation, and the figure of Marion stands up, pale, melancholy, tear-stained, injured, implacable and dignified.
“You love her?” she asked once, and jerked that doubt into my mind.
I struggled with tangled ideas and emotions. “I don’t know what love is. It’s all sorts of things—it’s made of a dozen strands twisted in a thousand ways.”
“But you want her? You want her now—when you think of her?”
“Yes,” I reflected. “I want her—right enough.”
“And me? Where do I come in?”
“I suppose you come in here.”
“Well, but what are you going to do?”
“Do!” I said with the exasperation of the situation growing upon me. “What do you want me to do?”
As I look back upon all that time—across a gulf of fifteen active years—I find I see it with an understanding judgment. I see it as if it were the business of some one else—indeed of two other people—intimately known yet judged without passion. I see now that this shock, this sudden immense disillusionment, did in real fact bring out a mind and soul in Marion; that for the first time she emerged from habits, timidities, imitations, phrases and a certain narrow will-impulse, and became a personality.
Her ruling motive at first was, I think, an indignant and outraged pride. This situation must end. She asked me categorically to give up Effie, and I, full of fresh and glowing memories, absolutely refused.
“It’s too late, Marion,” I said. “It can’t be done like that.”
“Then we can’t very well go on living together,” she said. “Can we?”
“Very well,” I deliberated “if you must have it so.”
“Well, can we?”
“Can you stay in this house? I mean—if I go away?”
“I don’t know. . . . I don’t think I could.”
“Then—what do you want?”
Slowly we worked our way from point to point, until at last the word “divorce” was before us.
“If we can’t live together we ought to be free,” said Marion.
“I don’t know anything of divorce,” I said—“if you mean that. I don’t know how it is done. I shall have to ask somebody—or look it up. . . . Perhaps, after all, it is the thing to do. We may as well face it.”
We began to talk ourselves into a realisation of what our divergent futures might be. I came back on the evening of that day with my questions answered by a solicitor.
“We can’t as a matter of fact,” I said, “get divorced as things are. Apparently, so far as the law goes you’ve got to stand this sort of thing. It’s silly but that is the law. However, it’s easy to arrange a divorce. In addition to adultery there must be desertion or cruelty. To establish cruelty I should have to strike you, or something of that sort, before witnesses. That’s impossible—but it’s simple to desert you legally. I have to go away from you; that’s all. I can go on sending you money—and you bring a suit, what is it?—for Restitution of Conjugal Rights. The Court orders me to return. I disobey. Then you can go on to divorce me. You get a Decree Nisi, and once more the Court tries to make me come back. If we don’t make it up within six months and if you don’t behave scandalously the Decree is made absolute. That’s the end of the fuss. That’s how one gets unmarried. It’s easier, you see, to marry than unmarry.”
“And then—how do I live? What becomes of me?”
“You’ll have an income. They call it alimony. From a third to a half of my present income—more if you like—I don’t mind—three hundred a year, say. You’ve got your old people to keep and you’ll need all that.”
“And then—then you’ll be free?”
“Both of us.”
“And all this life you’ve hated”
I looked up at her wrung and bitter face. “I haven’t hated it,” I lied, my voice near breaking with the pain of it all. “Have you?”
The perplexing thing about life is the irresolvable complexity of reality, of things and relations alike. Nothing is simple. Every wrong done has a certain justice in it, and every good deed has dregs of evil. As for us, young still, and still without self-knowledge, resounded a hundred discordant notes in the harsh angle of that shock. We were furiously angry with each other, tender with each other, callously selfish, generously self-sacrificing.
I remember Marion saying innumerable detached things that didn’t hang together one with another, that contradicted one another, that were, nevertheless, all in their places profoundly true and sincere. I see them now as so many vain experiments in her effort to apprehend the crumpled confusions of our complex moral landslide. Some I found irritating beyond measure. I answered her—sometimes quite abominably.
“Of course,” she would say again and again, “my life has been a failure.”
“I’ve besieged you for three years,” I would retort “asking it not to be. You’ve done as you pleased. If I’ve turned away at last—”
Or again she would revive all the stresses before our marriage.
“How you must hate me! I made you wait. Well now—I suppose you have your revenge.”
“Revenge!” I echoed.
Then she would try over the aspects of our new separated lives.
“I ought to earn my own living,” she would insist.
“I want to be quite independent. I’ve always hated London. Perhaps I shall try a poultry farm and bees. You won’t mind at first my being a burden. Afterwards—”
“We’ve settled all that,” I said.
“I suppose you will hate me anyhow . . . ”
There were times when she seemed to regard our separation with absolute complacency, when she would plan all sorts of freedoms and characteristic interests.
“I shall go out a lot with Smithie,” she said.
And once she said an ugly thing that I did indeed hate her for, that I cannot even now quite forgive her.
“Your aunt will rejoice at all this. She never cared for me . . . ”
Into my memory of these pains and stresses comes the figure of Smithie, full-charged with emotion, so breathless in the presence of the horrid villain of the piece that she could make no articulate sounds. She had long tearful confidences with Marion, I know, sympathetic close clingings. There were moments when only absolute speechlessness prevented her giving me a stupendous “talking-to”—I could see it in her eye. The wrong things she would have said! And I recall, too, Mrs. Ramboat’s slow awakening to something in, the air, the growing expression of solicitude in her eye, only her well-trained fear of Marion keeping her from speech.
And at last through all this welter, like a thing fated and altogether beyond our control, parting came to Marion and me.
I hardened my heart, or I could not have gone. For at the last it came to Marion that she was parting from me for ever. That overbore all other things, had turned our last hour to anguish. She forgot for a time the prospect of moving into a new house, she forgot the outrage on her proprietorship and pride. For the first time in her life she really showed strong emotions in regard to me, for the first time, perhaps, they really came to her. She began to weep slow, reluctant tears. I came into her room, and found her asprawl on the bed, weeping.
“I didn’t know,” she cried. “Oh! I didn’t understand!”
“I’ve been a fool. All my life is a wreck!
“I shall be alone! . . . Mutney! Mutney, don’t leave me! Oh! Mutney! I didn’t understand.”
I had to harden my heart indeed, for it seemed to me at moments in those last hours together that at last, too late, the longed-for thing had happened and Marion had come alive. A new-born hunger for me lit her eyes.
“Don’t leave me!” she said, “don’t leave me!” She clung to me; she kissed me with tear-salt lips.
I was promised now and pledged, and I hardened my heart against this impossible dawn. Yet it seems to me that there were moments when it needed but a cry, but one word to have united us again for all our lives. Could we have united again? Would that passage have enlightened us for ever or should we have fallen back in a week or so into the old estrangement, the old temperamental opposition?
Of that there is now no telling. Our own resolve carried us on our predestined way. We behaved more and more like separating lovers, parting inexorably, but all the preparations we had set going worked on like a machine, and we made no attempt to stop them. My trunks and boxes went to the station. I packed my bag with Marion standing before me. We were like children who had hurt each other horribly in sheer stupidity, who didn’t know now how to remedy it. We belonged to each other immensely—immensely. The cab came to the little iron gate.
“Good-bye!” I said.
For a moment we held one another in each other’s arms and kissed—incredibly without malice. We heard our little servant in the passage going to open the door. For the last time we pressed ourselves to one another. We were not lovers nor enemies, but two human souls in a frank community of pain. I tore myself from her.
“Go away,” I said to the servant, seeing that Marion had followed me down.
I felt her standing behind me as I spoke to the cab man.
I got into the cab, resolutely not looking back, and then as it started jumped up, craned out and looked at the door.
It was wide open, but she had disappeared. . . .
I wonder—I suppose she ran upstairs.
So I parted from Marion at an extremity of perturbation and regret, and went, as I had promised and arranged, to Effie, who was waiting for me in apartments near Orpington. I remember her upon the station platform, a bright, flitting figure looking along the train for me, and our walk over the fields in the twilight. I had expected an immense sense of relief where at last the stresses of separation were over, but now I found I was beyond measure wretched and perplexed, full of the profoundest persuasion of irreparable error. The dusk and somber Marion were so alike, her sorrow seemed to be all about me. I had to hold myself to my own plans, to remember that I must keep faith with Effie, with Effie who had made no terms, exacted no guarantees, but flung herself into my hands.
We went across the evening fields in silence, towards a sky of deepening gold and purple, and Effie was close beside me always, very close, glancing up ever and again at my face.
Certainly she knew I grieved for Marion, that ours was now no joyful reunion. But she showed no resentment and no jealousy. Extraordinarily, she did not compete against Marion. Never once in all our time together did she say an adverse word of Marion. . . .
She set herself presently to dispel the shadow that brooded over me with the same instinctive skill that some women will show with the trouble of a child. She made herself my glad and pretty slave and handmaid; she forced me at last to rejoice in her. Yet at the back of it all Marion remained, stupid and tearful and infinitely distressful, so that I was almost intolerably unhappy for her—for her and the dead body of my married love.
It is all, as I tell it now, unaccountable to me. I go back into these remote parts, these rarely visited uplands and lonely tares of memory, and it seems to me still a strange country. I had thought I might be going to some sensuous paradise with Effie, but desire which fills the universe before its satisfaction, vanishes utterly like the going of daylight—with achievement. All the facts and forms of life remain darkling and cold. It was an upland of melancholy questionings, a region from which I saw all the world at new angles and in new aspects; I had outflanked passion and romance.
I had come into a condition of vast perplexities. For the first time in my life, at least so it seems to me now in this retrospect, I looked at my existence as a whole.
Since this was nothing, what was I doing? What was I for?
I was going to and fro about Tono-Bungay—the business I had taken up to secure Marion and which held me now in spite of our intimate separation—and snatching odd week-ends and nights for Orpington, and all the while I struggled with these obstinate interrogations. I used to fall into musing in the trains, I became even a little inaccurate and forgetful about business things. I have the clearest memory of myself sitting thoughtful in the evening sunlight on a grassy hillside that looked toward Seven Oaks and commanded a wide sweep of country, and that I was thinking out my destiny. I could almost write my thought down now, I believe, as they came to me that afternoon. Effie, restless little cockney that she was, rustled and struggled in a hedgerow below, gathering flowers, discovering flowers she had never seen before. I had. I remember, a letter from Marion in my pocket. I had even made some tentatives for return, for a reconciliation; Heaven knows now how I had put it! but her cold, ill-written letter repelled me. I perceived I could never face that old inconclusive dullness of life again, that stagnant disappointment. That, anyhow, wasn’t possible. But what was possible? I could see no way of honour or fine living before me at all.
“What am I to do with life?” that was the question that besieged me.
I wondered if all the world was even as I, urged to this by one motive and to that by another, creatures of chance and impulse and unmeaning traditions. Had I indeed to abide by what I had said and done and chosen? Was there nothing for me in honour but to provide for Effie, go back penitent to Marion and keep to my trade in rubbish—or find some fresh one—and so work out the residue of my days? I didn’t accept that for a moment. But what else was I to do? I wondered if my case was the case of many men, whether in former ages, too, men had been so guideless, so uncharted, so haphazard in their journey into life. In the Middle Ages, in the old Catholic days, one went to a priest, and he said with all the finality of natural law, this you are and this you must do. I wondered whether even in the Middle Ages I should have accepted that ruling without question.
I remember too very distinctly how Effie came and sat beside me on a little box: that was before the casement window of our room.
“Gloomkins,” said she.
I smiled and remained head on hand, looking out of the window forgetful of her.
“Did you love your wife so well?” she whispered softly.
“Oh!” I cried, recalled again; “I don’t know. I don’t understand these things. Life is a thing that hurts, my dear! It hurts without logic or reason. I’ve blundered! I didn’t understand. Anyhow—there is no need to go hurting you, is there?”
And I turned about and drew her to me, and kissed her ear. . . .
Yes, I had a very bad time—I still recall. I suffered, I suppose, from a sort of ennui of the imagination. I found myself without an object to hold my will together. I sought. I read restlessly and discursively. I tried Ewart and got no help from him. As I regard it all now in this retrospect, it seems to me as if in those days of disgust and abandoned aims I discovered myself for the first time. Before that I had seen only the world and things in it, had sought them self-forgetful of all but my impulse. Now I found myself grouped with a system of appetites and satisfactions, with much work to do—and no desire, it seemed, left in me.
There were moments when I thought of suicide. At times my life appeared before me in bleak, relentless light, a series of ignorances, crude blunderings, degradation and cruelty. I had what the old theologians call a “conviction of sin.” I sought salvation—not perhaps in the formula a Methodist preacher would recognise but salvation nevertheless.
Men find their salvation nowadays in many ways. Names and forms don’t, I think, matter very much; the real need is something that we can hold and that holds one. I have known a man find that determining factor in a dry-plate factory, and another in writing a history of the Manor. So long as it holds one, it does not matter. Many men and women nowadays take up some concrete aspect of Socialism or social reform. But Socialism for me has always been a little bit too human, too set about with personalities and foolishness. It isn’t my line. I don’t like things so human. I don’t think I’m blind to the fun, the surprises, the jolly little coarsenesses and insufficiency of life, to the “humour of it,” as people say, and to adventure, but that isn’t the root of the matter with me. There’s no humour in my blood. I’m in earnest in warp and woof. I stumble and flounder, but I know that over all these merry immediate things, there are other things that are great and serene, very high, beautiful things—the reality. I haven’t got it, but it’s there nevertheless. I’m a spiritual guttersnipe in love with unimaginable goddesses. I’ve never seen the goddesses nor ever shall—but it takes all the fun out of the mud—and at times I fear it takes all the kindliness, too.
But I’m talking of things I can’t expect the reader to understand, because I don’t half understand them myself. There is something links things for me, a sunset or so, a mood or so, the high air, something there was in Marion’s form and colour, something I find and lose in Mantegna’s pictures, something in the lines of these boats I make. (You should see X2, my last and best!)
I can’t explain myself, I perceive. Perhaps it all comes to this, that I am a hard and morally limited cad with a mind beyond my merits. Naturally I resist that as a complete solution. Anyhow, I had a sense of inexorable need, of distress and insufficiency that was unendurable, and for a time this aeronautical engineering allayed it. . . .
In the end of this particular crisis of which I tell so badly, I idealised Science. I decided that in power and knowledge lay the salvation of my life, the secret that would fill my need; that to these things I would give myself.
I emerged at last like a man who has been diving in darkness, clutching at a new resolve for which he had groped desperately and long.
I came into the inner office suddenly one day—it must have been just before the time of Marion’s suit for restitution—and sat down before my uncle.
“Look here,” I said, “I’m sick of this.”
“Hullo!” he answered, and put some papers aside.
“What’s up, George?”
“Things are wrong.”
“My life,” I said, “it’s a mess, an infinite mess.”
“She’s been a stupid girl, George,” he said; “I partly understand. But you’re quit of her now, practically, and there’s just as good fish in the sea—”
“Oh! it’s not that!” I cried. “That’s only the part that shows. I’m sick—I’m sick of all this damned rascality.”
“Eh? Eh?” said my uncle. “What—rascality?”
“Oh, you know. I want some stuff, man. I want something to hold on to. I shall go amok if I don’t get it. I’m a different sort of beast from you. You float in all this bunkum. I feel like a man floundering in a universe of soapsuds, up and downs, east and west. I can’t stand it. I must get my foot on something solid or—I don’t know what.”
I laughed at the consternation in his face.
“I mean it,” I said. “I’ve been thinking it over. I’ve made up my mind. It’s no good arguing. I shall go in for work—real work. No! this isn’t work; it’s only laborious cheating. But I’ve got an idea! It’s an old idea—I thought of years ago, but it came back to me. Look here! Why should I fence about with you? I believe the time has come for flying to be possible. Real flying!”
I stuck to that, and it helped me through the worst time in my life. My uncle, after some half-hearted resistance and a talk with my aunt, behaved like the father of a spoilt son. He fixed up an arrangement that gave me capital to play with, released me from too constant a solicitude for the newer business developments—this was in what I may call the later Moggs period of our enterprises—and I went to work at once with grim intensity.
But I will tell of my soaring and flying machines in the proper place. I’ve been leaving the story of my uncle altogether too long. I wanted merely to tell how it was I took to this work. I took to these experiments after I had sought something that Marion in some indefinable way had seemed to promise. I toiled and forgot myself for a time, and did many things. Science too has been something of an irresponsive mistress since, though I’ve served her better than I served Marion. But at the time Science, with her order, her inhuman distance, yet steely certainties, saved me from despair.
Well, I have still to fly; but incidentally I have invented the lightest engines in the world.
I am trying to tell of all the things that happened to me. It’s hard enough simply to get it put down in the remotest degree right. But this is a novel, not a treatise. Don’t imagine that I am coming presently to any sort of solution of my difficulties. Here among my drawings and hammerings now, I still question unanswering problems. All my life has been at bottom, seeking, disbelieving always, dissatisfied always with the thing seen and the thing believed, seeking something in toil, in force, in danger, something whose name and nature I do not clearly understand, something beautiful, worshipful, enduring, mine profoundly and fundamentally, and the utter redemption of myself; I don’t know—all I can tell is that it is something I have ever failed to find.
But before I finish this chapter and book altogether and go on with the great adventure of my uncle’s career. I may perhaps tell what else remains to tell of Marion and Effie, and then for a time set my private life behind me.
For a time Marion and I corresponded with some regularity, writing friendly but rather uninforming letters about small business things. The clumsy process of divorce completed itself.
She left the house at Ealing and went into the country with her aunt and parents, taking a small farm near Lewes in Sussex. She put up glass, she put in heat for her father, happy man! and spoke of figs and peaches. The thing seemed to promise well throughout a spring and summer, but the Sussex winter after London was too much for the Ramboats. They got very muddy and dull; Mr. Ramboat killed a cow by improper feeding, and that disheartened them all. A twelvemonth saw the enterprise in difficulties. I had to help her out of this, and then they returned to London and she went into partnership with Smithie at Streatham, and ran a business that was intimated on the firm’s stationery as “Robes.” The parents and aunt were stowed away in a cottage somewhere. After that the letters became infrequent. But in one I remember a postscript that had a little stab of our old intimacy: “Poor old Miggles is dead.”
Nearly eight years slipped by. I grew up. I grew in experience, in capacity, until I was fully a man, but with many new interests, living on a larger scale in a wider world than I could have dreamt of in my Marion days. Her letters become rare and insignificant. At last came a gap of silence that made me curious. For eighteen months or more I had nothing from Marion save her quarterly receipts through the bank. Then I damned at Smithie, and wrote a card to Marion.
“Dear Marion,” I said, “how goes it?”
She astonished me tremendously by telling me she had married again—“a Mr. Wachorn, a leading agent in the paper-pattern trade.” But she still wrote on the Ponderevo and Smith (Robes) notepaper, from the Ponderevo and Smith address.
And that, except for a little difference of opinion about the continuance of alimony which gave me some passages of anger, and the use of my name by the firm, which also annoyed me, is the end of Marion’s history for me, and she vanishes out of this story. I do not know where she is or what she is doing. I do not know whether she is alive or dead. It seems to me utterly grotesque that two people who have stood so close to one another as she and I should be so separated, but so it is between us.
Effie, too, I have parted from, though I still see her at times. Between us there was never any intention of marriage nor intimacy of soul. She had a sudden, fierce, hot-blooded passion for me and I for her, but I was not her first lover nor her last. She was in another world from Marion. She had a queer, delightful nature; I’ve no memory of ever seeing her sullen or malicious. She was—indeed she was magnificently—eupeptic. That, I think, was the central secret of her agreeableness, and, moreover, that she was infinitely kind-hearted. I helped her at last into an opening she coveted, and she amazed me by a sudden display of business capacity. She has now a typewriting bureau in Riffle’s Inn, and she runs it with a brisk vigour and considerable success, albeit a certain plumpness has overtaken her. And she still loves her kind. She married a year or so ago a boy half her age—a wretch of a poet, a wretched poet, and given to drugs, a thing with lank fair hair always getting into his blue eyes, and limp legs. She did it, she said, because he needed nursing. . . .
But enough of this disaster of my marriage and of my early love affairs; I have told all that is needed for my picture to explain how I came to take up aeroplane experiments and engineering science; let me get back to my essential story, to Tono-Bungay and my uncle’s promotions and to the vision of the world these things have given me.