In the Days of the Comet
H. G. Wells
Part 5 out of 5
"And a man, too, is taught that of some woman," said Verrall.
"Only men don't believe it! They have more obstinate minds. . .
. Men have never behaved as though they believed it. One need not
be old to know that. By nature they don't believe it. But a woman
believes nothing by nature. She goes into a mold hiding her secret
thoughts almost from herself."
"She used to," I said.
"You haven't," said Verrall, "anyhow."
"I've come out. It's this comet. And Willie. And because I never
really believed in the mold at all--even if I thought I did. It's
stupid to send Willie off--shamed, cast out, never to see him
again--when I like him as much as I do. It is cruel, it is wicked
and ugly, to prance over him as if he was a defeated enemy, and
pretend I'm going to be happy just the same. There's no sense in
a rule of life that prescribes that. It's selfish. It's brutish.
It's like something that has no sense. I------" there was a sob in
her voice: "Willie! I WON'T."
I sat lowering, I mused with my eyes upon her quick fingers.
"It is brutish," I said at last, with a careful unemotional
deliberation. "Nevertheless--it is in the nature of things. . .
. No! . . . You see, after all, we are still half brutes, Nettie.
And men, as you say, are more obstinate than women. The comet
hasn't altered that; it's only made it clearer. We have come into
being through a tumult of blind forces. . . . I come back to what
I said just now; we have found our poor reasonable minds, our wills
to live well, ourselves, adrift on a wash of instincts, passions,
instinctive prejudices, half animal stupidities. . . . Here we
are like people clinging to something--like people awakening--upon
"We come back at last to my question," said Verrall, softly; "what
are we to do?"
"Part," I said. "You see, Nettie, these bodies of ours are not
the bodies of angels. They are the same bodies------ I have read
somewhere that in our bodies you can find evidence of the lowliest
ancestry; that about our inward ears--I think it is--and about our
teeth, there remains still something of the fish, that there are
bones that recall little--what is it?--marsupial forebears--and
a hundred traces of the ape. Even your beautiful body, Nettie,
carries this taint. No! Hear me out." I leant forward earnestly.
"Our emotions, our passions, our desires, the substance of them,
like the substance of our bodies, is an animal, a competing thing, as
well as a desiring thing. You speak to us now a mind to minds--one
can do that when one has had exercise and when one has eaten, when
one is not doing anything--but when one turns to live, one turns
again to matter."
"Yes," said Nettie, slowly following me, "but you control it."
"Only through a measure of obedience. There is no magic in the
business--to conquer matter, we must divide the enemy, and take
matter as an ally. Nowadays it is indeed true, by faith a man can
remove mountains; he can say to a mountain, Be thou removed and be
thou cast into the sea; but he does it because he helps and trusts
his brother men, because he has the wit and patience and courage
to win over to his side iron, steel, obedience, dynamite, cranes,
trucks, the money of other people. . . . To conquer my desire for
you, I must not perpetually thwart it by your presence; I must go
away so that I may not see you, I must take up other interests,
thrust myself into struggles and discussions------"
"And forget?" said Nettie.
"Not forget," I said; "but anyhow--cease to brood upon you."
She hung on that for some moments.
"No," she said, demolished her last pattern and looked up at Verrall
as he stirred.
Verrall leant forward on the table, elbows upon it, and the fingers
of his two hands intertwined.
"You know," he said, "I haven't thought much of these things. At
school and the university, one doesn't. . . . It was part of the
system to prevent it. They'll alter all that, no doubt. We seem"--he
thought--"to be skating about over questions that one came to at
last in Greek--with variorum readings--in Plato, but which it never
occurred to any one to translate out of a dead language into living
realities. . . ." He halted and answered some unspoken question
from his own mind with, "No. I think with Leadford, Nettie, that,
as he put it, it is in the nature of things for men to be exclusive.
. . . Minds are free things and go about the world, but only one
man can possess a woman. You must dismiss rivals. We are made for
the struggle for existence--we ARE the struggle for existence; the
things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate--and that
works out that the men struggle for their mates; for each woman
one prevails. The others go away."
"Like animals," said Nettie.
"Yes. . . ."
"There are many things in life," I said, "but that is the rough
"But," said Nettie, "you don't struggle. That has been altered
because men have minds."
"You choose," I said.
"If I don't choose to choose?"
"You have chosen."
She gave a little impatient "Oh! Why are women always the slaves of
sex? Is this great age of Reason and Light that has come to alter
nothing of that? And men too! I think it is all--stupid. I do not
believe this is the right solution of the thing, or anything but
the bad habits of the time that was. . . Instinct! You don't let
your instincts rule you in a lot of other things. Here am I between
you. Here is Edward. I--love him because he is gay and pleasant,
and because--because I LIKE him! Here is Willie--a part of me--my
first secret, my oldest friend! Why must I not have both? Am I not
a mind that you must think of me as nothing but a woman? imagine
me always as a thing to struggle for?" She paused; then she made
her distressful proposition to me. "Let us three keep together,"
she said. "Let us not part. To part is hate, Willie. Why should we
not anyhow keep friends? Meet and talk?"
"Talk?" I said. "About this sort of thing?"
I looked across at Verrall and met his eyes, and we studied one
another. It was the clean, straight scrutiny of honest antagonism.
"No," I decided. "Between us, nothing of that sort can be."
"Ever?" said Nettie.
"Never," I said, convinced.
I made an effort within myself. "We cannot tamper with the law and
customs of these things," I said; "these passions are too close
to one's essential self. Better surgery than a lingering disease!
From Nettie my love--asks all. A man's love is not devotion--it is
a demand, a challenge. And besides"--and here I forced my theme--"I
have given myself now to a new mistress--and it is I, Nettie, who
am unfaithful. Behind you and above you rises the coming City
of the World, and I am in that building. Dear heart! you are only
happiness--and that------Indeed that calls! If it is only that my
life blood shall christen the foundation stones--I could almost
hope that should be my part, Nettie --I will join myself in that."
I threw all the conviction I could into these words. . . . "No
conflict of passion." I added a little lamely, "must distract me."
There was a pause.
"Then we must part," said Nettie, with the eyes of a woman one
strikes in the face
I nodded assent. . . .
There was a little pause, and then I stood up. We stood up, all
three. We parted almost sullenly, with no more memorable words,
and I was left presently in the arbor alone.
I do not think I watched them go. I only remember myself left there
somehow--horribly empty and alone. I sat down again and fell into
a deep shapeless musing.
Suddenly I looked up. Nettie had come back and stood looking down
"Since we talked I have been thinking," she said. "Edward has let
me come to you alone. And I feel perhaps I can talk better to you
I said nothing and that embarrassed her.
"I don't think we ought to part," she said.
"No--I don't think we ought to part," she repeated.
"One lives," she said, "in different ways. I wonder if you will
understand what I am saying, Willie. It is hard to say what I feel.
But I want it said. If we are to part for ever I want it said--very
plainly. Always before I have had the woman's instinct and the
woman's training which makes one hide. But------ Edward is not all
of me. Think of what I am saying--Edward is not all of me. . . . I
wish I could tell you better how I see it. I am not all of myself.
You, at any rate, are a part of me and I cannot bear to leave you.
And I cannot see why I should leave you. There is a sort of blood
link between us, Willie. We grew together. We are in one another's
bones. I understand you. Now indeed I understand. In some way
I have come to an understanding at a stride. Indeed I understand
you and your dream. I want to help you. Edward--Edward has no dreams.
. . . It is dreadful to me, Willie, to think we two are to part."
"But we have settled that--part we must."
"I love you."
"Well, and why should I hide it Willie?--I love you. . . ." Our
eyes met. She flushed, she went on resolutely: "You are stupid.
The whole thing is stupid. I love you both."
I said, "You do not understand what you say. No!"
"You mean that I must go."
"Yes, yes. Go!"
For a moment we looked at one another, mute, as though deep down
in the unfathomable darkness below the surface and present reality
of things dumb meanings strove to be. She made to speak and desisted.
"But MUST I go?" she said at last, with quivering lips, and the
tears in her eyes were stars. Then she began, "Willie------"
"Go!" I interrupted her. . . . "Yes."
Then again we were still.
She stood there, a tearful figure of pity, longing for me, pitying
me. Something of that wider love, that will carry our descendants
at last out of all the limits, the hard, clear obligations of our
personal life, moved us, like the first breath of a coming wind
out of heaven that stirs and passes away. I had an impulse to take
her hand and kiss it, and then a trembling came to me, and I knew
that if I touched her, my strength would all pass from me. . . .
And so, standing at a distance one from the other, we parted, and
Nettie went, reluctant and looking back, with the man she had chosen,
to the lot she had chosen, out of my life--like the sunlight
out of my life. . . .
Then, you know, I suppose I folded up this newspaper and put it
in my pocket. But my memory of that meeting ends with the face of
Nettie turning to go.
I remember all that very distinctly to this day. I could almost
vouch for the words I have put into our several mouths. Then comes
a blank. I have a dim memory of being back in the house near the
Links and the bustle of Melmount's departure, of finding Parker's
energy distasteful, and of going away down the road with a strong
desire to say good-bye to Melmount alone.
Perhaps I was already doubting my decision to part for ever from
Nettie, for I think I had it in mind to tell him all that
had been said and done. . . .
I don't think I had a word with him or anything but a hurried hand
clasp. I am not sure. It has gone out of my mind. But I have a
very clear and certain memory of my phase of bleak desolation as
I watched his car recede and climb and vanish over Mapleborough
Hill, and that I got there my first full and definite intimation
that, after all, this great Change and my new wide aims in life,
were not to mean indiscriminate happiness for me. I had a sense of
protest, as against extreme unfairness, as I saw him go. "It is
too soon," I said to myself, "to leave me alone."
I felt I had sacrificed too much, that after I had said good-bye to
the hot immediate life of passion, to Nettie and desire, to physical
and personal rivalry, to all that was most intensely myself, it was
wrong to leave me alone and sore hearted, to go on at once with
these steely cold duties of the wider life. I felt new born, and
naked, and at a loss.
"Work!" I said with an effort at the heroic, and turned about with
a sigh, and I was glad that the way I had to go would at
least take me to my mother. . . .
But, curiously enough, I remember myself as being fairly cheerful
in the town of Birmingham that night, I recall an active and
interested mood. I spent the night in Birmingham because the train
service on was disarranged, and I could not get on. I went to listen
to a band that was playing its brassy old-world music in the public
park, and I fell into conversation with a man who said he had been
a reporter upon one of their minor local papers. He was full and
keen upon all the plans of reconstruction that were now shaping
over the lives of humanity, and I know that something of that
noble dream came back to me with his words and phrases. We walked
up to a place called Bourneville by moonlight, and talked of the
new social groupings that must replace the old isolated homes, and
how the people would be housed.
This Bourneville was germane to that matter. It had been an
attempt on the part of a private firm of manufacturers to improve
the housing of their workers. To our ideas to-day it would seem the
feeblest of benevolent efforts, but at the time it was extraordinary
and famous, and people came long journeys to see its trim cottages
with baths sunk under the kitchen floors (of all conceivable
places), and other brilliant inventions. No one seemed to see the
danger to liberty in that aggressive age, that might arise through
making workpeople tenants and debtors of their employer, though an
Act called the Truck Act had long ago intervened to prevent minor
developments in the same direction. . . . But I and my chance
acquaintance seemed that night always to have been aware of that
possibility, and we had no doubt in our minds of the public nature
of the housing duty. Our interest lay rather in the possibility of
common nurseries and kitchens and public rooms that should economize
toil and give people space and freedom.
It was very interesting, but still a little cheerless, and when I
lay in bed that night I thought of Nettie and the queer modifications
of preference she had made, and among other things and in a way, I
prayed. I prayed that night, let me confess it, to an image I had
set up in my heart, an image that still serves with me as a symbol
for things inconceivable, to a Master Artificer, the unseen captain
of all who go about the building of the world, the making of mankind.
But before and after I prayed I imagined I was talking and reasoning
and meeting again with Nettie. . . . She never came into the temple
of that worshiping with me.
CHAPTER THE SECOND
MY MOTHER'S LAST DAYS
NEXT day I came home to Clayton.
The new strange brightness of the world was all the brighter there,
for the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood,
toilsome youth, embittered adolescence that wove about the place
for me. It seemed to me that I saw morning there for the first time.
No chimneys smoked that day, no furnaces were burning, the people
were busy with other things. The clear strong sun, the sparkle in
the dustless air, made a strange gaiety in the narrow streets. I
passed a number of smiling people coming home from the public
breakfasts that were given in the Town Hall until better things
could be arranged, and happened on Parload among them. "You were
right about that comet," I sang out at the sight of him; and he
came toward me and clasped my hand.
"What are people doing here?" said I.
"They're sending us food from outside," he said, "and we're going
to level all these slums--and shift into tents on to the moors;"
and he began to tell me of many things that were being arranged,
the Midland land committees had got to work with remarkable celerity
and directness of purpose, and the redistribution of population
was already in its broad outlines planned. He was working at
an improvised college of engineering. Until schemes of work were
made out, almost every one was going to school again to get as much
technical training as they could against the demands of the huge
enterprise of reconstruction that was now beginning.
He walked with me to my door, and there I met old Pettigrew coming
down the steps. He looked dusty and tired, but his eye was brighter
than it used to be, and he carried in a rather unaccustomed manner,
a workman's tool basket.
"How's the rheumatism, Mr. Pettigrew?" I asked.
"Dietary," said old Pettigrew, "can work wonders. . . ." He looked
me in the eye. "These houses," he said, "will have to come down,
I suppose, and our notions of property must undergo very considerable
revision--in the light of reason; but meanwhile I've been doing
something to patch that disgraceful roof of mine! To think that
I could have dodged and evaded------"
He raised a deprecatory hand, drew down the loose corners of his
ample mouth, and shook his old head.
"The past is past, Mr. Pettigrew."
"Your poor dear mother! So good and honest a woman! So simple and
kind and forgiving! To think of it! My dear young man!"--he said
it manfully--"I'm ashamed."
"The whole world blushed at dawn the other day, Mr. Pettigrew," I
said, "and did it very prettily. That's over now. God knows, who
is NOT ashamed of all that came before last Tuesday."
I held out a forgiving hand, naively forgetful that in this place
I was a thief, and he took it and went his way, shaking his head
and repeating he was ashamed, but I think a little comforted.
The door opened and my poor old mother's face, marvelously cleaned,
appeared. "Ah, Willie, boy! YOU. You!"
I ran up the steps to her, for I feared she might fall.
How she clung to me in the passage, the dear woman!. . .
But first she shut the front door. The old habit of respect for my
unaccountable temper still swayed her. "Ah deary!" she said, "ah
deary! But you were sorely tried," and kept her face close to my
shoulder, lest she should offend me by the sight of the tears that
welled within her.
She made a sort of gulping noise and was quiet for a while, holding
me very tightly to her heart with her worn, long hands . . .
She thanked me presently for my telegram, and I put my arm about
her and drew her into the living room.
"It's all well with me, mother dear," I said, "and the dark times
are over--are done with for ever, mother."
Whereupon she had courage and gave way and sobbed aloud, none
She had not let me know she could still weep for five grimy years. . . .
Dear heart! There remained for her but a very brief while in this
world that had been renewed. I did not know how short that time
would be, but the little I could do--perhaps after all it was not
little to her--to atone for the harshness of my days of wrath and
rebellion, I did. I took care to be constantly with her, for I
perceived now her curious need of me. It was not that we had ideas
to exchange or pleasures to share, but she liked to see me at table,
to watch me working, to have me go to and fro. There was no toil
for her any more in the world, but only such light services as
are easy and pleasant for a worn and weary old woman to do, and I
think she was happy even at her end.
She kept to her queer old eighteenth century version of religion,
too, without a change. She had worn this particular amulet so
long it was a part of her. Yet the Change was evident even in that
persistence. I said to her one day, "But do you still believe in
that hell of flame, dear mother? You--with your tender heart!"
She vowed she did.
Some theological intricacy made it necessary to her, but still------
She looked thoughtfully at a bank of primulas before her for a time,
and then laid her tremulous hand impressively on my arm. "You know,
Willie, dear," she said, as though she was clearing up a childish
misunderstanding of mine, "I don't think any one will GO there. I
never DID think that. . . ."
That talk stands out in my memory because of that agreeable theological
decision of hers, but it was only one of a great number of talks.
It used to be pleasant in the afternoon, after the day's work was
done and before one went on with the evening's study--how odd it
would have seemed in the old time for a young man of the industrial
class to be doing post-graduate work in sociology, and how much
a matter of course it seems now!--to walk out into the gardens
of Lowchester House, and smoke a cigarette or so and let her talk
ramblingly of the things that interested her. . . . Physically
the Great Change did not do so very much to reinvigorate her--she
had lived in that dismal underground kitchen in Clayton too long
for any material rejuvenescence--she glowed out indeed as a dying
spark among the ashes might glow under a draught of fresh air--and
assuredly it hastened her end. But those closing days were very
tranquil, full of an effortless contentment. With her, life was like
a rainy, windy day that clears only to show the sunset afterglow.
The light has passed. She acquired no new habits amid the comforts
of the new life, did no new things, but only found a happier light
upon the old.
She lived with a number of other old ladies belonging to our commune
in the upper rooms of Lowchester House. Those upper apartments
were simple and ample, fine and well done in the Georgian style,
and they had been organized to give the maximum of comfort and
conveniences and to economize the need of skilled attendance. We
had taken over the various "great houses," as they used to be
called, to make communal dining-rooms and so forth--their kitchens
were conveniently large--and pleasant places for the old people
of over sixty whose time of ease had come, and for suchlike public
uses. We had done this not only with Lord Redcar's house, but also
with Checkshill House--where old Mrs. Verrall made a dignified
and capable hostess,--and indeed with most of the fine residences
in the beautiful wide country between the Four Towns district and
the Welsh mountains. About these great houses there had usually
been good outbuildings, laundries, married servants' quarters,
stabling, dairies, and the like, suitably masked by trees, we
turned these into homes, and to them we added first tents and wood
chalets and afterward quadrangular residential buildings. In order
to be near my mother I had two small rooms in the new collegiate
buildings which our commune was almost the first to possess, and they
were very convenient for the station of the high-speed electric
railway that took me down to our daily conferences and my secretarial
and statistical work in Clayton.
Ours had been one of the first modern communes to get in order; we
were greatly helped by the energy of Lord Redcar, who had a fine
feeling for the picturesque associations of his ancestral home--the
detour that took our line through the beeches and bracken and
bluebells of the West Wood and saved the pleasant open wildness
of the park was one of his suggestions; and we had many reasons to
be proud of our surroundings. Nearly all the other communes that
sprang up all over the pleasant parkland round the industrial
valley of the Four Towns, as the workers moved out, came to us to
study the architecture of the residential squares and quadrangles
with which we had replaced the back streets between the great
houses and the ecclesiastical residences about the cathedral, and
the way in which we had adapted all these buildings to our new
social needs. Some claimed to have improved on us. But they could
not emulate the rhododendron garden out beyond our shrubberies; that
was a thing altogether our own in our part of England, because of
its ripeness and of the rarity of good peat free from lime.
These gardens had been planned under the third Lord Redcar, fifty
years ago and more; they abounded in rhododendra and azaleas, and
were in places so well sheltered and sunny that great magnolias
flourished and flowered. There were tall trees smothered in crimson
and yellow climbing roses, and an endless variety of flowering
shrubs and fine conifers, and such pampas grass as no other garden
can show. And barred by the broad shadows of these, were glades and
broad spaces of emerald turf, and here and there banks of pegged
roses, and flower-beds, and banks given over some to spring bulbs,
and some to primroses and primulas and polyanthuses. My mother
loved these latter banks and the little round staring eyes of their
innumerable yellow, ruddy brown, and purple corollas, more than
anything else the gardens could show, and in the spring of the Year
of Scaffolding she would go with me day after day to the seat that
showed them in the greatest multitude.
It gave her, I think, among other agreeable impressions, a sense
of gentle opulence. In the old time she had never known what it was
to have more than enough of anything agreeable in the world at all.
We would sit and think, or talk--there was a curious effect of
complete understanding between us whether we talked or were still.
"Heaven," she said to me one day, "Heaven is a garden."
I was moved to tease her a little. "There's jewels, you know, walls
and gates of jewels--and singing."
"For such as like them," said my mother firmly, and thought for
a while. "There'll be things for all of us, o' course. But for me
it couldn't be Heaven, dear, unless it was a garden --a nice sunny
garden. . . . And feeling such as we're fond of, are close and
You of your happier generation cannot realize the wonderfulness
of those early days in the new epoch, the sense of security, the
extraordinary effects of contrast. In the morning, except in high
summer, I was up before dawn, and breakfasted upon the swift, smooth
train, and perhaps saw the sunrise as I rushed out of the little
tunnel that pierced Clayton Crest, and so to work like a man. Now
that we had got all the homes and schools and all the softness of
life away from our coal and iron ore and clay, now that a thousand
obstructive "rights" and timidities had been swept aside, we could
let ourselves go, we merged this enterprise with that, cut across
this or that anciently obstructive piece of private land, joined and
separated, effected gigantic consolidations and gigantic economies,
and the valley, no longer a pit of squalid human tragedies and
meanly conflicting industries, grew into a sort of beauty of its
own, a savage inhuman beauty of force and machinery and flames.
One was a Titan in that Etna. Then back one came at midday to bath
and change in the train, and so to the leisurely gossiping lunch
in the club dining-room in Lowchester House, and the refreshment
of these green and sunlit afternoon tranquillities.
Sometimes in her profounder moments my mother doubted whether all
this last phase of her life was not a dream.
"A dream," I used to say, "a dream indeed--but a dream that is one
step nearer awakening than that nightmare of the former days."
She found great comfort and assurance in my altered clothes--she
liked the new fashions of dress, she alleged. It was not simply
altered clothes. I did grow two inches, broaden some inches
round my chest, and increase in weight three stones before I was
twenty-three. I wore a soft brown cloth and she would caress my
sleeve and admire it greatly--she had the woman's sense of texture
very strong in her.
Sometimes she would muse upon the past, rubbing together her poor
rough hands--they never got softened--one over the other. She told
me much I had not heard before about my father, and her own early
life. It was like finding flat and faded flowers in a book still
faintly sweet, to realize that once my mother had been loved with
passion; that my remote father had once shed hot tears of tenderness in
her arms. And she would sometimes even speak tentatively in those
narrow, old-world phrases that her lips could rob of all their
bitter narrowness, of Nettie.
"She wasn't worthy of you, dear," she would say abruptly, leaving
me to guess the person she intended.
"No man is worthy of a woman's love," I answered. "No woman is
worthy of a man's. I love her, dear mother, and that you cannot
"There's others," she would muse.
"Not for me," I said. "No! I didn't fire a shot that time; I burnt
my magazine. I can't begin again, mother, not from the beginning."
She sighed and said no more then.
At another time she said--I think her words were: "You'll be lonely
when I'm gone dear."
"You'll not think of going, then," I said.
"Eh, dear! but man and maid should come together."
I said nothing to that.
"You brood overmuch on Nettie, dear. If I could see you married to
some sweet girl of a woman, some good, KIND girl------"
"Dear mother, I'm married enough. Perhaps some day------ Who knows?
I can wait."
"But to have nothing to do with women!"
"I have my friends. Don't you trouble, mother. There's plentiful
work for a man in this world though the heart of love is cast out
from him. Nettie was life and beauty for me--is--will be. Don't
think I've lost too much, mother."
(Because in my heart I told myself the end had still to come.)
And once she sprang a question on me suddenly that surprised me.
"Where are they now?" she asked.
She had pierced to the marrow of my thoughts. "I don't know," I
Her shriveled hand just fluttered into touch of mine.
"It's better so," she said, as if pleading. "Indeed , , , it is
There was something in her quivering old voice that for a moment
took me back across an epoch, to the protests of the former time,
to those counsels of submission, those appeals not to offend It,
that had always stirred an angry spirit of rebellion within me.
"That is the thing I doubt," I said, and abruptly I felt I could
talk no more to her of Nettie. I got up and walked away from her,
and came back after a while, to speak of other things, with a bunch
of daffodils for her in my hand.
But I did not always spend my afternoons with her. There were days
when my crushed hunger for Nettie rose again, and then I had to be
alone; I walked, or bicycled, and presently I found a new interest
and relief in learning to ride. For the horse was already very
swiftly reaping the benefit to the Change. Hardly anywhere was the
inhumanity of horse traction to be found after the first year of
the new epoch, everywhere lugging and dragging and straining was
done by machines, and the horse had become a beautiful instrument
for the pleasure and carriage of youth. I rode both in the saddle
and, what is finer, naked and barebacked. I found violent exercises
were good for the states of enormous melancholy that came upon me,
and when at last horse riding palled, I went and joined the aviators
who practised soaring upon aeroplanes beyond Horsemarden Hill. .
. . But at least every alternate day I spent with my mother, and
altogether I think I gave her two-thirds of my afternoons.
When presently that illness, that fading weakness that made an euthanasia
for so many of the older people in the beginning of the new time,
took hold upon my mother, there came Anna Reeves to daughter
her--after our new custom. She chose to come. She was already
known to us a little from chance meetings and chance services she
had done my mother in the garden; she sought to give her help. She
seemed then just one of those plainly good girls the world at its
worst has never failed to produce, who were indeed in the dark old
times the hidden antiseptic of all our hustling, hating, faithless
lives. They made their secret voiceless worship, they did their
steadfast, uninspired, unthanked, unselfish work as helpful daughters,
as nurses, as faithful servants, as the humble providences of homes.
She was almost exactly three years older than I. At first I found
no beauty in her, she was short but rather sturdy and ruddy, with
red-tinged hair, and fair hairy brows and red-brown eyes. But her
freckled hands I found, were full of apt help, her voice
carried good cheer. . . .
At first she was no more than a blue-clad, white-aproned benevolence,
that moved in the shadows behind the bed on which my old mother lay
and sank restfully to death. She would come forward to anticipate
some little need, to proffer some simple comfort, and always then
my mother smiled on her. In a little while I discovered the beauty
of that helpful poise of her woman's body, I discovered the grace
of untiring goodness, the sweetness of a tender pity, and the
great riches of her voice, of her few reassuring words and phrases.
I noted and remembered very clearly how once my mother's lean old
hand patted the firm gold-flecked strength of hers, as it went by
upon its duties with the coverlet.
"She is a good girl to me," said my mother one day. "A good girl.
Like a daughter should be. . . . I never had a daughter--really."
She mused peacefully for a space. "Your little sister died," she
I had never heard of that little sister.
"November the tenth," said my mother. "Twenty-nine months and three
days. . . . I cried. I cried. That was before you came, dear. So
long ago--and I can see it now. I was a young wife then, and your
father was very kind. But I can see its hands, its dear little
quiet hands. . . . Dear, they say that now--now they will not let
the little children die."
"No, dear mother," I said. "We shall do better now."
"The club doctor could not come. Your father went twice. There
was some one else, some one who paid. So your father went on into
Swathinglea, and that man wouldn't come unless he had his fee. And
your father had changed his clothes to look more respectful and he
hadn't any money, not even his tram fare home. It seemed cruel to
be waiting there with my baby thing in pain. . . . And I can't help
thinking perhaps we might have saved her. . . . But it was like
that with the poor always in the bad old times--always. When the
doctor came at last he was angry. 'Why wasn't I called before?'
he said, and he took no pains. He was angry because some one hadn't
explained. I begged him--but it was too late."
She said these things very quietly with drooping eyelids, like one
who describes a dream. "We are going to manage all these things
better now," I said, feeling a strange resentment at this pitiful
little story her faded, matter-of-fact voice was telling me.
"She talked," my mother went on. "She talked for her age wonderfully.
. . . Hippopotamus."
"Eh?" I said.
"Hippopotamus, dear--quite plainly one day, when her father was
showing her pictures. . . And her little prayers. 'Now I lay me.
. . . down to sleep.' . . . I made her little socks. Knitted they
was, dear, and the heel most difficult."
Her eyes were closed now. She spoke no longer to me but to herself.
She whispered other vague things, little sentences, ghosts of long
dead moments. . . . Her words grew less distinct.
Presently she was asleep and I got up and went out of the room,
but my mind was queerly obsessed by the thought of that little life
that had been glad and hopeful only to pass so inexplicably out of
hope again into nonentity, this sister of whom I had never
heard before. . . .
And presently I was in a black rage at all the irrecoverable sorrows
of the past, of that great ocean of avoidable suffering of which
this was but one luminous and quivering red drop. I walked in the
garden and the garden was too small for me; I went out to wander
on the moors. "The past is past," I cried, and all the while across
the gulf of five and twenty years I could hear my poor mother's
heart-wrung weeping for that daughter baby who had suffered and
died. Indeed that old spirit of rebellion has not altogether died
in me, for all the transformation of the new time. . . . I quieted
down at last to a thin and austere comfort in thinking that the
whole is not told to us, that it cannot perhaps be told to such
minds as ours; and anyhow, and what was far more sustaining, that
now we have strength and courage and this new gift of wise love,
whatever cruel and sad things marred the past, none of these sorrowful
things that made the very warp and woof of the old life, need now
go on happening. We could foresee, we could prevent and save. "The
past is past," I said, between sighing and resolve, as I came into
view again on my homeward way of the hundred sunset-lit windows of
old Lowchester House. "Those sorrows are sorrows no more."
But I could not altogether cheat that common sadness of the new
time, that memory, and insoluble riddle of the countless lives that
had stumbled and failed in pain and darkness before our air grew
CHAPTER THE THIRD
BELTANE AND NEW YEAR'S EVE
IN the end my mother died rather suddenly, and her death came as
a shock to me. Diagnosis was still very inadequate at that time.
The doctors were, of course, fully alive to the incredible defects
of their common training and were doing all they could to supply
its deficiencies, but they were still extraordinarily ignorant.
Some unintelligently observed factor of her illness came into play
with her, and she became feverish and sank and died very quickly.
I do not know what remedial measures were attempted. I hardly knew
what was happening until the whole thing was over.
At that time my attention was much engaged by the stir of the great
Beltane festival that was held on May-day in the Year of Scaffolding.
It was the first of the ten great rubbish burnings that opened the
new age. Young people nowadays can scarcely hope to imagine the
enormous quantities of pure litter and useless accumulation with
which we had to deal; had we not set aside a special day and season,
the whole world would have been an incessant reek of small fires;
and it was, I think, a happy idea to revive this ancient festival of
the May and November burnings. It was inevitable that the old idea
of purification should revive with the name, it was felt to be a
burning of other than material encumbrances, innumerable quasi-spiritual
things, deeds, documents, debts, vindictive records, went up on
those great flares. People passed praying between the fires, and
it was a fine symbol of the new and wiser tolerance that had come
to men, that those who still found their comfort in the orthodox
faiths came hither unpersuaded, to pray that all hate might be burnt
out of their professions. For even in the fires of Baal, now that
men have done with base hatred, one may find the living God.
Endless were the things we had to destroy in those great purgings.
First, there were nearly all the houses and buildings of the old
time. In the end we did not save in England one building in five
thousand that was standing when the comet came. Year by year, as
we made our homes afresh in accordance with the saner needs of our
new social families, we swept away more and more of those horrible
structures, the ancient residential houses, hastily built, without
imagination, without beauty, without common honesty, without even
comfort or convenience, in which the early twentieth century had
sheltered until scarcely one remained; we saved nothing but what
was beautiful or interesting out of all their gaunt and melancholy
abundance. The actual houses, of course, we could not drag to
our fires, but we brought all their ill-fitting deal doors, their
dreadful window sashes, their servant-tormenting staircases, their
dank, dark cupboards, the verminous papers from their scaly walls,
their dust and dirt-sodden carpets, their ill-designed and yet
pretentious tables and chairs, sideboards and chests of drawers,
the old dirt-saturated books, their ornaments--their dirty, decayed,
and altogether painful ornaments--amidst which I remember there
were sometimes even STUFFED DEAD BIRDS!--we burnt them all. The
paint-plastered woodwork, with coat above coat of nasty paint, that
in particular blazed finely. I have already tried to give you an
impression of old-world furniture, of Parload's bedroom, my mother's
room, Mr. Gabbitas's sitting-room, but, thank Heaven! there is
nothing in life now to convey the peculiar dinginess of it all. For
one thing, there is no more imperfect combustion of coal going on
everywhere, and no roadways like grassless open scars along the
earth from which dust pours out perpetually. We burnt and destroyed
most of our private buildings and all the woodwork, all our furniture,
except a few score thousand pieces of distinct and intentional
beauty, from which our present forms have developed, nearly all
our hangings and carpets, and also we destroyed almost every scrap
of old-world clothing. Only a few carefully disinfected types and
vestiges of that remain now in our museums.
One writes now with a peculiar horror of the dress of the old world.
The men's clothes were worn without any cleansing process at all,
except an occasional superficial brushing, for periods of a year
or so; they were made of dark obscurely mixed patterns to conceal
the stage of defilement they had reached, and they were of a felted
and porous texture admirably calculated to accumulate drifting
matter. Many women wore skirts of similar substances, and of so
long and inconvenient a form that they inevitably trailed among
all the abomination of our horse-frequented roads. It was our boast
in England that the whole of our population was booted--their feet
were for the most part ugly enough to need it,--but it becomes
now inconceivable how they could have imprisoned their feet in the
amazing cases of leather and imitations of leather they used. I
have heard it said that a large part of the physical decline that
was apparent in our people during the closing years of the nineteenth
century, though no doubt due in part to the miscellaneous badness
of the food they ate, was in the main attributable to the vileness
of the common footwear. They shirked open-air exercise altogether
because their boots wore out ruinously and pinched and hurt them
if they took it. I have mentioned, I think, the part my own boots
played in the squalid drama of my adolescence. I had a sense
of unholy triumph over a fallen enemy when at last I found myself
steering truck after truck of cheap boots and shoes (unsold stock
from Swathinglea) to the run-off by the top of the Glanville blast
"Plup!" they would drop into the cone when Beltane came, and the
roar of their burning would fill the air. Never a cold would come
from the saturation of their brown paper soles, never a corn from
their foolish shapes, never a nail in them get home at
last in suffering flesh. . . .
Most of our public buildings we destroyed and burnt as we reshaped
our plan of habitation, our theater sheds, our banks, and inconvenient
business warrens, our factories (these in the first year of all),
and all the "unmeaning repetition" of silly little sham Gothic
churches and meeting-houses, mean looking shells of stone and
mortar without love, invention, or any beauty at all in them, that
men had thrust into the face of their sweated God, even as they
thrust cheap food into the mouths of their sweated workers; all
these we also swept away in the course of that first decade. Then
we had the whole of the superseded steam-railway system to scrap
and get rid of, stations, signals, fences, rolling stock; a plant
of ill-planned, smoke-distributing nuisance apparatus, that would,
under former conditions, have maintained an offensive dwindling
obstructive life for perhaps half a century. Then also there was a
great harvest of fences, notice boards, hoardings, ugly sheds, all
the corrugated iron in the world, and everything that was smeared
with tar, all our gas works and petroleum stores, all our horse
vehicles and vans and lorries had to be erased. . . . But I have
said enough now perhaps to give some idea of the bulk and quality
of our great bonfires, our burnings up, our meltings down, our
toil of sheer wreckage, over and above the constructive effort, in
those early years.
But these were the coarse material bases of the Phoenix fires
of the world. These were but the outward and visible signs of the
innumerable claims, rights, adhesions, debts, bills, deeds, and
charters that were cast upon the fires; a vast accumulation of
insignia and uniforms neither curious enough nor beautiful enough
to preserve, went to swell the blaze, and all (saving a few truly
glorious trophies and memories) of our symbols, our apparatus and
material of war. Then innumerable triumphs of our old, bastard,
half-commercial, fine-art were presently condemned, great oil
paintings, done to please the half-educated middle-class, glared
for a moment and were gone, Academy marbles crumbled to useful lime,
a gross multitude of silly statuettes and decorative crockery, and
hangings, and embroideries, and bad music, and musical instruments
shared this fate. And books, countless books, too, and bales
of newspapers went also to these pyres. From the private houses
in Swathinglea alone--which I had deemed, perhaps not unjustly,
altogether illiterate--we gathered a whole dust-cart full of cheap
ill-printed editions of the minor English classics--for the most
part very dull stuff indeed and still clean--and about a truckload
of thumbed and dog-eared penny fiction, watery base stuff, the
dropsy of our nation's mind. . . . And it seemed to me that when
we gathered those books and papers together, we gathered together
something more than print and paper, we gathered warped and
crippled ideas and contagious base suggestions, the formulae of dull
tolerances and stupid impatiences, the mean defensive ingenuities
of sluggish habits of thinking and timid and indolent evasions.
There was more than a touch of malignant satisfaction for me in
helping gather it all together.
I was so busy, I say, with my share in this dustman's work that
I did not notice, as I should otherwise have done, the little
indications of change in my mother's state. Indeed, I thought her
a little stronger; she was slightly flushed, slightly more talkative. . . .
On Beltane Eve, and our Lowchester rummage being finished, I went
along the valley to the far end of Swathinglea to help sort the
stock of the detached group of potbanks there--their chief output
had been mantel ornaments in imitation of marble, and there was
very little sorting, I found, to be done--and there it was nurse
Anna found me at last by telephone, and told me my mother had died
in the morning suddenly and very shortly after my departure.
For a while I did not seem to believe it; this obviously imminent
event stunned me when it came, as though I had never had an
anticipatory moment. For a while I went on working, and then almost
apathetically, in a mood of half-reluctant curiosity, I started
When I got there the last offices were over, and I was shown my
old mother's peaceful white face, very still, but a little cold
and stern to me, a little unfamiliar, lying among white flowers.
I went in alone to her, into that quiet room, and stood for
a long time by her bedside. I sat down then and thought. . . .
Then at last, strangely hushed, and with the deeps of my loneliness
opening beneath me, I came out of that room and down into the world
again, a bright-eyed, active world, very noisy, happy, and busy
with its last preparations for the mighty cremation of past and
I remember that first Beltane festival as the most terribly lonely
night in my life. It stands in my mind in fragments, fragments of
intense feeling with forgotten gaps between.
I recall very distinctly being upon the great staircase of Lowchester
House (though I don't remember getting there from the room in which
my mother lay), and how upon the landing I met Anna ascending as I
came down. She had but just heard of my return, and she was hurrying
upstairs to me. She stopped and so did I, and we stood and clasped
hands, and she scrutinized my face in the way women sometimes do.
So we remained for a second or so. I could say nothing to her at
all, but I could feel the wave of her emotion. I halted, answered
the earnest pressure of her hand, relinquished it, and after
a queer second of hesitation went on down, returning to my own
preoccupations. It did not occur to me at all then to ask myself
what she might be thinking or feeling.
I remember the corridor full of mellow evening light, and how I
went mechanically some paces toward the dining-room. Then at the
sight of the little tables, and a gusty outburst of talking voices
as some one in front of me swung the door open and to, I remembered
that I did not want to eat. . . . After that comes an impression
of myself walking across the open grass in front of the house, and
the purpose I had of getting alone upon the moors, and how somebody
passing me said something about a hat. I had come out without my
A fragment of thought has linked itself with an effect of long
shadows upon turf golden with the light of the sinking sun. The
world was singularly empty, I thought, without either Nettie or my
mother. There wasn't any sense in it any more. Nettie was
already back in my mind then. . . .
Then I am out on the moors. I avoided the crests where the
bonfires were being piled, and sought the lonely places. . . .
I remember very clearly sitting on a gate beyond the park, in a
fold just below the crest, that hid the Beacon Hill bonfire and its
crowd, and I was looking at and admiring the sunset. The golden
earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe
of human futility. . . . Then in the twilight I walked along an
unknown, bat-haunted road between high hedges.
I did not sleep under a roof that night. But I hungered and ate.
I ate near midnight at a little inn over toward Birmingham, and
miles away from my home. Instinctively I had avoided the crests
where the bonfire crowds gathered, but here there were many people,
and I had to share a table with a man who had some useless mortgage
deeds to burn. I talked to him about them--but my soul
stood at a great distance behind my lips. . . .
Soon each hilltop bore a little tulip-shaped flame flower. Little
black figures clustered round and dotted the base of its petals,
and as for the rest of the multitude abroad, the kindly night
swallowed them up. By leaving the roads and clear paths and wandering
in the fields I contrived to keep alone, though the confused noise
of voices and the roaring and crackling of great fires was always
I wandered into a lonely meadow, and presently in a hollow of
deep shadows I lay down to stare at the stars. I lay hidden in the
darkness, and ever and again the sough and uproar of the Beltane
fires that were burning up the sere follies of a vanished age, and
the shouting of the people passing through the fires and praying to
be delivered from the prison of themselves, reached my ears. . . .
And I thought of my mother, and then of my new loneliness and the
hunger of my heart for Nettie.
I thought of many things that night, but chiefly of the overflowing
personal love and tenderness that had come to me in the wake of
the Change, of the greater need, the unsatisfied need in which I
stood, for this one person who could fulfil all my desires. So long
as my mother had lived, she had in a measure held my heart, given
me a food these emotions could live upon, and mitigated that emptiness
of spirit, but now suddenly that one possible comfort had left me.
There had been many at the season of the Change who had thought that
this great enlargement of mankind would abolish personal love; but
indeed it had only made it finer, fuller, more vitally necessary.
They had thought that, seeing men now were all full of the joyful
passion to make and do, and glad and loving and of willing service
to all their fellows, there would be no need of the one intimate
trusting communion that had been the finest thing of the former
life. And indeed, so far as this was a matter of advantage and
the struggle for existence, they were right. But so far as it was
a matter of the spirit and the fine perceptions of life, it was
We had indeed not eliminated personal love, we had but stripped it
of its base wrappings, of its pride, its suspicions, its mercenary
and competitive elements, until at last it stood up in our minds
stark, shining and invincible. Through all the fine, divaricating
ways of the new life, it grew ever more evident, there were for
every one certain persons, mysteriously and indescribably in the
key of one's self, whose mere presence gave pleasure, whose mere
existence was interest, whose idiosyncrasy blended with accident
to make a completing and predominant harmony for their predestined
lovers. They were the essential thing in life. Without them the
fine brave show of the rejuvenated world was a caparisoned steed
without a rider, a bowl without a flower, a theater without a play.
. . . And to me that night of Beltane, it was as clear as white
flames that Nettie, and Nettie alone, roused those harmonies in
me. And she had gone! I had sent her from me; I knew not whither
she had gone. I had in my first virtuous foolishness cut her out
of my life for ever!
So I saw it then, and I lay unseen in the darkness and called upon
Nettie, and wept for her, lay upon my face and wept for her, while
the glad people went to and fro, and the smoke streamed thick
across the distant stars, and the red reflections, the shadows and
the fluctuating glares, danced over the face of the world.
No! the Change had freed us from our baser passions indeed, from
habitual and mechanical concupiscence and mean issues and coarse
imaginings, but from the passions of love it had not freed us. It
had but brought the lord of life, Eros, to his own. All through the
long sorrow of that night I, who had rejected him, confessed
his sway with tears and inappeasable regrets. . . .
I cannot give the remotest guess of when I rose up, nor of
my tortuous wanderings in the valleys between the midnight fires,
nor how I evaded the laughing and rejoicing multitudes who went
streaming home between three and four, to resume their lives, swept
and garnished, stripped and clean. But at dawn, when the ashes of
the world's gladness were ceasing to glow--it was a bleak dawn that
made me shiver in my thin summer clothes--I came across a field
to a little copse full of dim blue hyacinths. A queer sense
of familiarity arrested my steps, and I stood puzzled. Then I was
moved to go a dozen paces from the path, and at once a singularly
misshapen tree hitched itself into a notch in my memory. This was
the place! Here I had stood, there I had placed my old kite, and
shot with my revolver, learning to use it, against the day when I
should encounter Verrall.
Kite and revolver had gone now, and all my hot and narrow past, its
last vestiges had shriveled and vanished in the whirling gusts of
the Beltane fires. So I walked through a world of gray ashes at
last, back to the great house in which the dead, deserted image of
my dear lost mother lay.
I came back to Lowchester House very tired, very wretched; exhausted
by my fruitless longing for Nettie. I had no thought of what lay
A miserable attraction drew me into the great house to look again
on the stillness that had been my mother's face, and as I came into
that room, Anna, who had been sitting by the open window, rose to
meet me. She had the air of one who waits. She, too, was pale with
watching; all night she had watched between the dead within and
the Beltane fires abroad, and longed for my coming. I stood
mute between her and the bedside. . . .
"Willie," she whispered, and eyes and body seemed incarnate pity.
An unseen presence drew us together. My mother's face became resolute,
commanding. I turned to Anna as a child may turn to its nurse. I
put my hands about her strong shoulders, she folded me to her, and
my heart gave way. I buried my face in her breast and clung
to her weakly, and burst into a passion of weeping. . . .
She held me with hungry arms. She whispered to me, "There, there!"
as one whispers comfort to a child. . . . Suddenly she was kissing
me. She kissed me with a hungry intensity of passion, on my cheeks,
on my lips. She kissed me on my lips with lips that were
salt with tears. And I returned her kisses. . . .
Then abruptly we desisted and stood apart--looking at one another.
It seems to me as if the intense memory of Nettie vanished utterly
out of my mind at the touch of Anna's lips. I loved Anna.
We went to the council of our group--commune it was then called--and
she was given me in marriage, and within a year she had borne me
a son. We saw much of one another, and talked ourselves very close
together. My faithful friend she became and has been always, and
for a time we were passionate lovers. Always she has loved me and
kept my soul full of tender gratitude and love for her; always
when we met our hands and eyes clasped in friendly greeting, all
through our lives from that hour we have been each other's secure
help and refuge, each other's ungrudging fastness of help and sweetly
frank and open speech. . . . And after a little while my love and
desire for Nettie returned as though it had never faded away.
No one will have a difficulty now in understanding how that could
be, but in the evil days of the world malaria, that would have been
held to be the most impossible thing. I should have had to crush
that second love out of my thoughts, to have kept it secret from
Anna, to have lied about it to all the world. The old-world theory
was there was only one love--we who float upon a sea of love find
that hard to understand. The whole nature of a man was supposed to
go out to the one girl or woman who possessed him, her whole nature
to go out to him. Nothing was left over--it was a discreditable
thing to have any overplus at all. They formed a secret secluded
system of two, two and such children as she bore him. All other
women he was held bound to find no beauty in, no sweetness, no
interest; and she likewise, in no other man. The old-time men and
women went apart in couples, into defensive little houses, like
beasts into little pits, and in these "homes" they sat down purposing
to love, but really coming very soon to jealous watching of this
extravagant mutual proprietorship. All freshness passed very
speedily out of their love, out of their conversation, all pride
out of their common life. To permit each other freedom was blank
dishonor. That I and Anna should love, and after our love-journey
together, go about our separate lives and dine at the public tables,
until the advent of her motherhood, would have seemed a terrible
strain upon our unmitigable loyalty. And that I should have it
in me to go on loving Nettie--who loved in different manner both
Verrall and me--would have outraged the very quintessence of the
In the old days love was a cruel proprietary thing. But now Anna
could let Nettie live in the world of my mind, as freely as a rose
will suffer the presence of white lilies. If I could hear notes that
were not in her compass, she was glad, because she loved me, that
I should listen to other music than hers. And she, too, could see
the beauty of Nettie. Life is so rich and generous now, giving
friendship, and a thousand tender interests and helps and comforts, that
no one stints another of the full realization of all possibilities
of beauty. For me from the beginning Nettie was the figure of beauty,
the shape and color of the divine principle that lights the world.
For every one there are certain types, certain faces and forms,
gestures, voices and intonations that have that inexplicable
unanalyzable quality. These come through the crowd of kindly friendly
fellow-men and women--one's own. These touch one mysteriously, stir
deeps that must otherwise slumber, pierce and interpret the world.
To refuse this interpretation is to refuse the sun, to darken and
deaden all life. . . . I loved Nettie, I loved all who were like
her, in the measure that they were like her, in voice, or eyes, or
form, or smile. And between my wife and me there was no bitterness
that the great goddess, the life-giver, Aphrodite, Queen of the
living Seas, came to my imagination so. It qualified our mutual
love not at all, since now in our changed world love is unstinted;
it is a golden net about our globe that nets all humanity together.
I thought of Nettie much, and always movingly beautiful things
restored me to her, all fine music, all pure deep color, all
tender and solemn things. The stars were hers, and the mystery of
moonlight; the sun she wore in her hair, powdered finely, beaten
into gleams and threads of sunlight in the wisps and strands of her
hair. . . . Then suddenly one day a letter came to me from her, in
her unaltered clear handwriting, but in a new language of expression,
telling me many things. She had learnt of my mother's death, and
the thought of me had grown so strong as to pierce the silence I
had imposed on her. We wrote to one another --like common friends
with a certain restraint between us at first, and with a great
longing to see her once more arising in my heart. For a time I left
that hunger unexpressed, and then I was moved to tell it to her. And
so on New Year's Day in the Year Four, she came to Lowchester and
me. How I remember that coming, across the gulf of fifty years! I
went out across the park to meet her, so that we should meet alone.
The windless morning was clear and cold, the ground new carpeted
with snow, and all the trees motionless lace and glitter of frosty
crystals. The rising sun had touched the white with a spirit
of gold, and my heart beat and sang within me. I remember now the
snowy shoulder of the down, sunlit against the bright blue sky. And
presently I saw the woman I loved coming through the white
still trees. . . .
I had made a goddess of Nettie, and behold she was a fellow-creature!
She came, warm-wrapped and tremulous, to me, with the tender promise
of tears in her eyes, with her hands outstretched and that dear
smile quivering upon her lips. She stepped out of the dream I had
made of her, a thing of needs and regrets and human kindliness. Her
hands as I took them were a little cold. The goddess shone through
her indeed, glowed in all her body, she was a worshipful temple of
love for me--yes. But I could feel, like a thing new discovered,
the texture and sinews of her living, her dear personal
and mortal hands. . . .
THE WINDOW OF THE TOWER
THE WINDOW OF THE TOWER
This was as much as this pleasant-looking, gray-haired man
had written. I had been lost in his story throughout the earlier
portions of it, forgetful of the writer and his gracious room, and
the high tower in which he was sitting. But gradually, as I drew
near the end, the sense of strangeness returned to me. It was more
and more evident to me that this was a different humanity from any
I had known, unreal, having different customs, different beliefs,
different interpretations, different emotions. It was no mere change
in conditions and institutions the comet had wrought. It had made
a change of heart and mind. In a manner it had dehumanized the
world, robbed it of its spites, its little intense jealousies, its
inconsistencies, its humor. At the end, and particularly after
the death of his mother, I felt his story had slipped away from my
sympathies altogether. Those Beltane fires had burnt something in
him that worked living still and unsubdued in me, that rebelled in
particular at that return of Nettie. I became a little inattentive.
I no longer felt with him, nor gathered a sense of complete
understanding from his phrases. His Lord Eros indeed! He and these
transfigured people--they were beautiful and noble people, like the
people one sees in great pictures, like the gods of noble sculpture,
but they had no nearer fellowship than these to men. As the change
was realized, with every stage of realization the gulf widened and
it was harder to follow his words.
I put down the last fascicle of all, and met his friendly eyes. It
was hard to dislike him.
I felt a subtle embarrassment in putting the question that perplexed
me. And yet it seemed so material to me I had to put it. "And did
you--?" I asked. "Were you--lovers?"
His eyebrows rose. "Of course."
"But your wife--?"
It was manifest he did not understand me.
I hesitated still more. I was perplexed by a conviction of baseness.
"But--" I began. "You remained lovers?"
"Yes." I had grave doubts if I understood him. Or he me.
I made a still more courageous attempt. "And had Nettie no other
"A beautiful woman like that! I know not how many loved beauty in
her, nor what she found in others. But we four from that time were
very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal
lovers in a world of lovers."
"There was Verrall."
Then suddenly it came to me that the thoughts that stirred in my mind
were sinister and base, that the queer suspicions, the coarseness
and coarse jealousies of my old world were over and done for these
more finely living souls. "You made," I said, trying to be liberal
minded, "a home together."
"A home!" He looked at me, and, I know not why, I glanced down at
my feet. What a clumsy, ill-made thing a boot is, and how hard and
colorless seemed my clothing! How harshly I stood out amidst these
fine, perfected things. I had a moment of rebellious detestation.
I wanted to get out of all this. After all, it wasn't my style. I
wanted intensely to say something that would bring him down a peg,
make sure, as it were, of my suspicions by launching an offensive
accusation. I looked up and he was standing.
"I forgot," he said. "You are pretending the old world is still
going on. A home!"
He put out his hand, and quite noiselessly the great window widened
down to us, and the splendid nearer prospect of that dreamland city
was before me. There for one clear moment I saw it; its galleries
and open spaces, its trees of golden fruit and crystal waters,
its music and rejoicing, love and beauty without ceasing flowing
through its varied and intricate streets. And the nearer people I
saw now directly and plainly, and no longer in the distorted mirror
that hung overhead. They really did not justify my suspicions, and
yet--! They were such people as one sees on earth--save that they
were changed. How can I express that change? As a woman is changed
in the eyes of her lover, as a woman is changed by the
love of a lover. They were exalted. . . .
I stood up beside him and looked out. I was a little flushed, my
ears a little reddened, by the inconvenience of my curiosities,
and by my uneasy sense of profound moral differences. He
was taller than I. . . .
"This is our home," he said smiling, and with thoughtful eyes on me.
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