“THE BOTTOMS” succeeded to “Hell Row”. Hell Row was a block of thatched, bulging cottages that stood by the brookside on Greenhill Lane. There lived the colliers who worked in the little gin-pits two fields away. The brook ran under the alder trees, scarcely soiled by these small mines, whose coal was drawn to the surface by donkeys that plodded wearily in a circle round a gin. And all over the countryside were these same pits, some of which had been worked in the time of Charles II, the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down like ants into the earth, making queer mounds and little black places among the corn-fields and the meadows. And the cottages of these coal-miners, in blocks and pairs here and there, together with odd farms and homes of the stockingers, straying over the parish, formed the village of Bestwood.
Then, some sixty years ago, a sudden change took place. The gin-pits were elbowed aside by the large mines of the financiers. The coal and iron field of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was discovered. Carston, Waite and Co. appeared. Amid tremendous excitement, Lord Palmerston formally opened the company’s first mine at Spinney Park, on the edge of Sherwood Forest.
About this time the notorious Hell Row, which through growing old had acquired an evil reputation, was burned down, and much dirt was cleansed away.
Carston, Waite & Co. found they had struck on a good thing, so, down the valleys of the brooks from Selby and Nuttall, new mines were sunk, until soon there were six pits working. From Nuttall, high up on the sandstone among the woods, the railway ran, past the ruined priory of the Carthusians and past Robin Hood’s Well, down to Spinney Park, then on to Minton, a large mine among corn-fields; from Minton across the farmlands of the valleyside to Bunker’s Hill, branching off there, and running north to Beggarlee and Selby, that looks over at Crich and the hills of Derbyshire: six mines like black studs on the countryside, linked by a loop of fine chain, the railway.
To accommodate the regiments of miners, Carston, Waite and Co. built the Squares, great quadrangles of dwellings on the hillside of Bestwood, and then, in the brook valley, on the site of Hell Row, they erected the Bottoms.
The Bottoms consisted of six blocks of miners’ dwellings, two rows of three, like the dots on a blank-six domino, and twelve houses in a block. This double row of dwellings sat at the foot of the rather sharp slope from Bestwood, and looked out, from the attic windows at least, on the slow climb of the valley towards Selby.
The houses themselves were substantial and very decent. One could walk all round, seeing little front gardens with auriculas and saxifrage in the shadow of the bottom block, sweet-williams and pinks in the sunny top block; seeing neat front windows, little porches, little privet hedges, and dormer windows for the attics. But that was outside; that was the view on to the uninhabited parlours of all the colliers’ wives. The dwelling-room, the kitchen, was at the back of the house, facing inward between the blocks, looking at a scrubby back garden, and then at the ash-pits. And between the rows, between the long lines of ash-pits, went the alley, where the children played and the women gossiped and the men smoked. So, the actual conditions of living in the Bottoms, that was so well built and that looked so nice, were quite unsavoury because people must live in the kitchen, and the kitchens opened on to that nasty alley of ash-pits.
Mrs. Morel was not anxious to move into the Bottoms, which was already twelve years old and on the downward path, when she descended to it from Bestwood. But it was the best she could do. Moreover, she had an end house in one of the top blocks, and thus had only one neighbour; on the other side an extra strip of garden. And, having an end house, she enjoyed a kind of aristocracy among the other women of the “between” houses, because her rent was five shillings and sixpence instead of five shillings a week. But this superiority in station was not much consolation to Mrs. Morel.
She was thirty-one years old, and had been married eight years. A rather small woman, of delicate mould but resolute bearing, she shrank a little from the first contact with the Bottoms women. She came down in the July, and in the September expected her third baby.
Her husband was a miner. They had only been in their new home three weeks when the wakes, or fair, began. Morel, she knew, was sure to make a holiday of it. He went off early on the Monday morning, the day of the fair. The two children were highly excited. William, a boy of seven, fled off immediately after breakfast, to prowl round the wakes ground, leaving Annie, who was only five, to whine all morning to go also. Mrs. Morel did her work. She scarcely knew her neighbours yet, and knew no one with whom to trust the little girl. So she promised to take her to the wakes after dinner.
William appeared at half-past twelve. He was a very active lad, fair-haired, freckled, with a touch of the Dane or Norwegian about him.
“Can I have my dinner, mother?” he cried, rushing in with his cap on. “‘Cause it begins at half-past one, the man says so.”
“You can have your dinner as soon as it’s done,” replied the mother.
“Isn’t it done?” he cried, his blue eyes staring at her in indignation. “Then I’m goin’ be-out it.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. It will be done in five minutes. It is only half-past twelve.”
“They’ll be beginnin’,” the boy half cried, half shouted.
“You won’t die if they do,” said the mother. “Besides, it’s only half-past twelve, so you’ve a full hour.”
The lad began hastily to lay the table, and directly the three sat down. They were eating batter-pudding and jam, when the boy jumped off his chair and stood perfectly stiff. Some distance away could be heard the first small braying of a merry-go-round, and the tooting of a horn. His face quivered as he looked at his mother.
“I told you!” he said, running to the dresser for his cap.
“Take your pudding in your hand–and it’s only five past one, so you were wrong–you haven’t got your twopence,” cried the mother in a breath.
The boy came back, bitterly disappointed, for his twopence, then went off without a word.
“I want to go, I want to go,” said Annie, beginning to cry.
“Well, and you shall go, whining, wizzening little stick!” said the mother. And later in the afternoon she trudged up the hill under the tall hedge with her child. The hay was gathered from the fields, and cattle were turned on to the eddish. It was warm, peaceful.
Mrs. Morel did not like the wakes. There were two sets of horses, one going by steam, one pulled round by a pony; three organs were grinding, and there came odd cracks of pistol-shots, fearful screeching of the cocoanut man’s rattle, shouts of the Aunt Sally man, screeches from the peep-show lady. The mother perceived her son gazing enraptured outside the Lion Wallace booth, at the pictures of this famous lion that had killed a negro and maimed for life two white men. She left him alone, and went to get Annie a spin of toffee. Presently the lad stood in front of her, wildly excited.
“You never said you was coming–isn’t the’ a lot of things?- that lion’s killed three men-l’ve spent my tuppence-an’ look here.”
He pulled from his pocket two egg-cups, with pink moss-roses on them.
“I got these from that stall where y’ave ter get them marbles in them holes. An’ I got these two in two goes-‘aepenny a go-they’ve got moss-roses on, look here. I wanted these.”
She knew he wanted them for her.
“H’m!” she said, pleased. “They ARE pretty!”
“Shall you carry ’em, ’cause I’m frightened o’ breakin’ ’em?”
He was tipful of excitement now she had come, led her about the ground, showed her everything. Then, at the peep-show, she explained the pictures, in a sort of story, to which he listened as if spellbound. He would not leave her. All the time he stuck close to her, bristling with a small boy’s pride of her. For no other woman looked such a lady as she did, in her little black bonnet and her cloak. She smiled when she saw women she knew. When she was tired she said to her son:
“Well, are you coming now, or later?”
“Are you goin’ a’ready?” he cried, his face full of reproach.
“Already? It is past four, I know.”
“What are you goin’ a’ready for?” he lamented.
“You needn’t come if you don’t want,” she said.
And she went slowly away with her little girl, whilst her son stood watching her, cut to the heart to let her go, and yet unable to leave the wakes. As she crossed the open ground in front of the Moon and Stars she heard men shouting, and smelled the beer, and hurried a little, thinking her husband was probably in the bar.
At about half-past six her son came home, tired now, rather pale, and somewhat wretched. He was miserable, though he did not know it, because he had let her go alone. Since she had gone, he had not enjoyed his wakes.
“Has my dad been?” he asked.
“No,” said the mother.
“He’s helping to wait at the Moon and Stars. I seed him through that black tin stuff wi’ holes in, on the window, wi’ his sleeves rolled up.”
“Ha!” exclaimed the mother shortly. “He’s got no money. An’ he’ll be satisfied if he gets his ‘lowance, whether they give him more or not.”
When the light was fading, and Mrs. Morel could see no more to sew, she rose and went to the door. Everywhere was the sound of excitement, the restlessness of the holiday, that at last infected her. She went out into the side garden. Women were coming home from the wakes, the children hugging a white lamb with green legs, or a wooden horse. Occasionally a man lurched past, almost as full as he could carry. Sometimes a good husband came along with his family, peacefully. But usually the women and children were alone. The stay-at-home mothers stood gossiping at the corners of the alley, as the twilight sank, folding their arms under their white aprons.
Mrs. Morel was alone, but she was used to it. Her son and her little girl slept upstairs; so, it seemed, her home was there behind her, fixed and stable. But she felt wretched with the coming child. The world seemed a dreary place, where nothing else would happen for her–at least until William grew up. But for herself, nothing but this dreary endurance–till the children grew up. And the children! She could not afford to have this third. She did not want it. The father was serving beer in a public house, swilling himself drunk. She despised him, and was tied to him. This coming child was too much for her. If it were not for William and Annie, she was sick of it, the struggle with poverty and ugliness and meanness.
She went into the front garden, feeling too heavy to take herself out, yet unable to stay indoors. The heat suffocated her. And looking ahead, the prospect of her life made her feel as if she were buried alive.
The front garden was a small square with a privet hedge. There she stood, trying to soothe herself with the scent of flowers and the fading, beautiful evening. Opposite her small gate was the stile that led uphill, under the tall hedge between the burning glow of the cut pastures. The sky overhead throbbed and pulsed with light. The glow sank quickly off the field; the earth and the hedges smoked dusk. As it grew dark, a ruddy glare came out on the hilltop, and out of the glare the diminished commotion of the fair.
Sometimes, down the trough of darkness formed by the path under the hedges, men came lurching home. One young man lapsed into a run down the steep bit that ended the hill, and went with a crash into the stile. Mrs. Morel shuddered. He picked himself up, swearing viciously, rather pathetically, as if he thought the stile had wanted to hurt him.
She went indoors, wondering if things were never going to alter. She was beginning by now to realise that they would not. She seemed so far away from her girlhood, she wondered if it were the same person walking heavily up the back garden at the Bottoms as had run so lightly up the breakwater at Sheerness ten years before.
“What have I to do with it?” she said to herself. “What have I to do with all this? Even the child I am going to have! It doesn’t seem as if I were taken into account.”
Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as it were slurred over.
“I wait,” Mrs. Morel said to herself–“I wait, and what I wait for can never come.”
Then she straightened the kitchen, lit the lamp, mended the fire, looked out the washing for the next day, and put it to soak. After which she sat down to her sewing. Through the long hours her needle flashed regularly through the stuff. Occasionally she sighed, moving to relieve herself. And all the time she was thinking how to make the most of what she had, for the children’s sakes.
At half-past eleven her husband came. His cheeks were very red and very shiny above his black moustache. His head nodded slightly. He was pleased with himself.
“Oh! Oh! waitin’ for me, lass? I’ve bin ‘elpin’ Anthony, an’ what’s think he’s gen me? Nowt b’r a lousy hae’f-crown, an’ that’s ivry penny—”
“He thinks you’ve made the rest up in beer,” she said shortly.
“An’ I ‘aven’t–that I ‘aven’t. You b’lieve me, I’ve ‘ad very little this day, I have an’ all.” His voice went tender. “Here, an’ I browt thee a bit o’ brandysnap, an’ a cocoanut for th’ children.” He laid the gingerbread and the cocoanut, a hairy object, on the table. “Nay, tha niver said thankyer for nowt i’ thy life, did ter?”
As a compromise, she picked up the cocoanut and shook it, to see if it had any milk.
“It’s a good ‘un, you may back yer life o’ that. I got it fra’ Bill Hodgkisson. ‘Bill,’ I says, ‘tha non wants them three nuts, does ter? Arena ter for gi’ein’ me one for my bit of a lad an’ wench?’ ‘I ham, Walter, my lad,’ ‘e says; ‘ta’e which on ’em ter’s a mind.’ An’ so I took one, an’ thanked ‘im. I didn’t like ter shake it afore ‘is eyes, but ‘e says, ‘Tha’d better ma’e sure it’s a good un, Walt.’ An’ so, yer see, I knowed it was. He’s a nice chap, is Bill Hodgkisson, e’s a nice chap!”
“A man will part with anything so long as he’s drunk, and you’re drunk along with him,” said Mrs. Morel.
“Eh, tha mucky little ‘ussy, who’s drunk, I sh’d like ter know?” said Morel. He was extraordinarily pleased with himself, because of his day’s helping to wait in the Moon and Stars. He chattered on.
Mrs. Morel, very tired, and sick of his babble, went to bed as quickly as possible, while he raked the fire.
Mrs. Morel came of a good old burgher family, famous independents who had fought with Colonel Hutchinson, and who remained stout Congregationalists. Her grandfather had gone bankrupt in the lace-market at a time when so many lace-manufacturers were ruined in Nottingham. Her father, George Coppard, was an engineer–a large, handsome, haughty man, proud of his fair skin and blue eyes, but more proud still of his integrity. Gertrude resembled her mother in her small build. But her temper, proud and unyielding, she had from the Coppards.
George Coppard was bitterly galled by his own poverty. He became foreman of the engineers in the dockyard at Sheerness. Mrs. Morel–Gertrude–was the second daughter. She favoured her mother, loved her mother best of all; but she had the Coppards’ clear, defiant blue eyes and their broad brow. She remembered to have hated her father’s overbearing manner towards her gentle, humorous, kindly-souled mother. She remembered running over the breakwater at Sheerness and finding the boat. She remembered to have been petted and flattered by all the men when she had gone to the dockyard, for she was a delicate, rather proud child. She remembered the funny old mistress, whose assistant she had become, whom she had loved to help in the private school. And she still had the Bible that John Field had given her. She used to walk home from chapel with John Field when she was nineteen. He was the son of a well-to-do tradesman, had been to college in London, and was to devote himself to business.
She could always recall in detail a September Sunday afternoon, when they had sat under the vine at the back of her father’s house. The sun came through the chinks of the vine-leaves and made beautiful patterns, like a lace scarf, falling on her and on him. Some of the leaves were clean yellow, like yellow flat flowers.
“Now sit still,” he had cried. “Now your hair, I don’t know what it IS like! It’s as bright as copper and gold, as red as burnt copper, and it has gold threads where the sun shines on it. Fancy their saying it’s brown. Your mother calls it mouse-colour.”
She had met his brilliant eyes, but her clear face scarcely showed the elation which rose within her.
“But you say you don’t like business,” she pursued.
“I don’t. I hate it!” he cried hotly.
“And you would like to go into the ministry,” she half implored.
“I should. I should love it, if I thought I could make a first-rate preacher.”
“Then why don’t you–why DON’T you?” Her voice rang with defiance. “If I were a man, nothing would stop me.”
She held her head erect. He was rather timid before her.
“But my father’s so stiff-necked. He means to put me into the business, and I know he’ll do it.”
“But if you’re a MAN?” she had cried.
“Being a man isn’t everything,” he replied, frowning with puzzled helplessness.
Now, as she moved about her work at the Bottoms, with some experience of what being a man meant, she knew that it was NOT everything.
At twenty, owing to her health, she had left Sheerness. Her father had retired home to Nottingham. John Field’s father had been ruined; the son had gone as a teacher in Norwood. She did not hear of him until, two years later, she made determined inquiry. He had married his landlady, a woman of forty, a widow with property.
And still Mrs. Morel preserved John Field’s Bible. She did not now believe him to be— Well, she understood pretty well what he might or might not have been. So she preserved his Bible, and kept his memory intact in her heart, for her own sake. To her dying day, for thirty-five years, she did not speak of him.
When she was twenty-three years old, she met, at a Christmas party, a young man from the Erewash Valley. Morel was then twenty-seven years old. He was well set-up, erect, and very smart. He had wavy black hair that shone again, and a vigorous black beard that had never been shaved. His cheeks were ruddy, and his red, moist mouth was noticeable because he laughed so often and so heartily. He had that rare thing, a rich, ringing laugh. Gertrude Coppard had watched him, fascinated. He was so full of colour and animation, his voice ran so easily into comic grotesque, he was so ready and so pleasant with everybody. Her own father had a rich fund of humour, but it was satiric. This man’s was different: soft, non-intellectual, warm, a kind of gambolling.
She herself was opposite. She had a curious, receptive mind which found much pleasure and amusement in listening to other folk. She was clever in leading folk to talk. She loved ideas, and was considered very intellectual. What she liked most of all was an argument on religion or philosophy or politics with some educated man. This she did not often enjoy. So she always had people tell her about themselves, finding her pleasure so.
In her person she was rather small and delicate, with a large brow, and dropping bunches of brown silk curls. Her blue eyes were very straight, honest, and searching. She had the beautiful hands of the Coppards. Her dress was always subdued. She wore dark blue silk, with a peculiar silver chain of silver scallops. This, and a heavy brooch of twisted gold, was her only ornament. She was still perfectly intact, deeply religious, and full of beautiful candour.
Walter Morel seemed melted away before her. She was to the miner that thing of mystery and fascination, a lady. When she spoke to him, it was with a southern pronunciation and a purity of English which thrilled him to hear. She watched him. He danced well, as if it were natural and joyous in him to dance. His grandfather was a French refugee who had married an English barmaid–if it had been a marriage. Gertrude Coppard watched the young miner as he danced, a certain subtle exultation like glamour in his movement, and his face the flower of his body, ruddy, with tumbled black hair, and laughing alike whatever partner he bowed above. She thought him rather wonderful, never having met anyone like him. Her father was to her the type of all men. And George Coppard, proud in his bearing, handsome, and rather bitter; who preferred theology in reading, and who drew near in sympathy only to one man, the Apostle Paul; who was harsh in government, and in familiarity ironic; who ignored all sensuous pleasure:–he was very different from the miner. Gertrude herself was rather contemptuous of dancing; she had not the slightest inclination towards that accomplishment, and had never learned even a Roger de Coverley. She was puritan, like her father, high-minded, and really stern. Therefore the dusky, golden softness of this man’s sensuous flame of life, that flowed off his flesh like the flame from a candle, not baffled and gripped into incandescence by thought and spirit as her life was, seemed to her something wonderful, beyond her.
He came and bowed above her. A warmth radiated through her as if she had drunk wine.
“Now do come and have this one wi’ me,” he said caressively. “It’s easy, you know. I’m pining to see you dance.”
She had told him before she could not dance. She glanced at his humility and smiled. Her smile was very beautiful. It moved the man so that he forgot everything.
“No, I won’t dance,” she said softly. Her words came clean and ringing.
Not knowing what he was doing–he often did the right thing by instinct–he sat beside her, inclining reverentially.
“But you mustn’t miss your dance,” she reproved.
“Nay, I don’t want to dance that–it’s not one as I care about.”
“Yet you invited me to it.”
He laughed very heartily at this.
“I never thought o’ that. Tha’rt not long in taking the curl out of me.”
It was her turn to laugh quickly.
“You don’t look as if you’d come much uncurled,” she said.
“I’m like a pig’s tail, I curl because I canna help it,” he laughed, rather boisterously.
“And you are a miner!” she exclaimed in surprise.
“Yes. I went down when I was ten.”
She looked at him in wondering dismay.
“When you were ten! And wasn’t it very hard?” she asked.
“You soon get used to it. You live like th’ mice, an’ you pop out at night to see what’s going on.”
“It makes me feel blind,” she frowned.
“Like a moudiwarp!” he laughed. “Yi, an’ there’s some chaps as does go round like moudiwarps.” He thrust his face forward in the blind, snout-like way of a mole, seeming to sniff and peer for direction. “They dun though!” he protested naively. “Tha niver seed such a way they get in. But tha mun let me ta’e thee down some time, an’ tha can see for thysen.”
She looked at him, startled. This was a new tract of life suddenly opened before her. She realised the life of the miners, hundreds of them toiling below earth and coming up at evening. He seemed to her noble. He risked his life daily, and with gaiety. She looked at him, with a touch of appeal in her pure humility.
“Shouldn’t ter like it?” he asked tenderly. “‘Appen not, it ‘ud dirty thee.”
She had never been “thee’d” and “thou’d” before.
The next Christmas they were married, and for three months she was perfectly happy: for six months she was very happy.
He had signed the pledge, and wore the blue ribbon of a tee-totaller: he was nothing if not showy. They lived, she thought, in his own house. It was small, but convenient enough, and quite nicely furnished, with solid, worthy stuff that suited her honest soul. The women, her neighbours, were rather foreign to her, and Morel’s mother and sisters were apt to sneer at her ladylike ways. But she could perfectly well live by herself, so long as she had her husband close.
Sometimes, when she herself wearied of love-talk, she tried to open her heart seriously to him. She saw him listen deferentially, but without understanding. This killed her efforts at a finer intimacy, and she had flashes of fear. Sometimes he was restless of an evening: it was not enough for him just to be near her, she realised. She was glad when he set himself to little jobs.
He was a remarkably handy man–could make or mend anything. So she would say:
“I do like that coal-rake of your mother’s–it is small and natty.”
“Does ter, my wench? Well, I made that, so I can make thee one! ”
“What! why, it’s a steel one!”
“An’ what if it is! Tha s’lt ha’e one very similar, if not exactly same.”
She did not mind the mess, nor the hammering and noise. He was busy and happy.
But in the seventh month, when she was brushing his Sunday coat, she felt papers in the breast pocket, and, seized with a sudden curiosity, took them out to read. He very rarely wore the frock-coat he was married in: and it had not occurred to her before to feel curious concerning the papers. They were the bills of the household furniture, still unpaid.
“Look here,” she said at night, after he was washed and had had his dinner. “I found these in the pocket of your wedding-coat. Haven’t you settled the bills yet?”
“No. I haven’t had a chance.”
“But you told me all was paid. I had better go into Nottingham on Saturday and settle them. I don’t like sitting on another man’s chairs and eating from an unpaid table.”
He did not answer.
“I can have your bank-book, can’t I?”
“Tha can ha’e it, for what good it’ll be to thee.”
“I thought—” she began. He had told her he had a good bit of money left over. But she realised it was no use asking questions. She sat rigid with bitterness and indignation.
The next day she went down to see his mother.
“Didn’t you buy the furniture for Walter?” she asked.
“Yes, I did,” tartly retorted the elder woman.
“And how much did he give you to pay for it?”
The elder woman was stung with fine indignation.
“Eighty pound, if you’re so keen on knowin’,” she replied.
“Eighty pounds! But there are forty-two pounds still owing!”
“I can’t help that.”
“But where has it all gone?”
“You’ll find all the papers, I think, if you look–beside ten pound as he owed me, an’ six pound as the wedding cost down here.”
“Six pounds!” echoed Gertrude Morel. It seemed to her monstrous that, after her own father had paid so heavily for her wedding, six pounds more should have been squandered in eating and drinking at Walter’s parents’ house, at his expense.
“And how much has he sunk in his houses?” she asked.
“His houses–which houses?”
Gertrude Morel went white to the lips. He had told her the house he lived in, and the next one, was his own.
“I thought the house we live in—” she began.
“They’re my houses, those two,” said the mother-in-law. “And not clear either. It’s as much as I can do to keep the mortgage interest paid.”
Gertrude sat white and silent. She was her father now.
“Then we ought to be paying you rent,” she said coldly.
“Walter is paying me rent,” replied the mother.
“And what rent?” asked Gertrude.
“Six and six a week,” retorted the mother.
It was more than the house was worth. Gertrude held her head erect, looked straight before her.
“It is lucky to be you,” said the elder woman, bitingly, “to have a husband as takes all the worry of the money, and leaves you a free hand.”
The young wife was silent.
She said very little to her husband, but her manner had changed towards him. Something in her proud, honourable soul had crystallised out hard as rock.
When October came in, she thought only of Christmas. Two years ago, at Christmas, she had met him. Last Christmas she had married him. This Christmas she would bear him a child.
“You don’t dance yourself, do you, missis?” asked her nearest neighbour, in October, when there was great talk of opening a dancing-class over the Brick and Tile Inn at Bestwood.
“No–I never had the least inclination to,” Mrs. Morel replied.
“Fancy! An’ how funny as you should ha’ married your Mester. You know he’s quite a famous one for dancing.”
“I didn’t know he was famous,” laughed Mrs. Morel.
“Yea, he is though! Why, he ran that dancing-class in the Miners’ Arms club-room for over five year.”
“Yes, he did.” The other woman was defiant. “An’ it was thronged every Tuesday, and Thursday, an’ Sat’day–an’ there WAS carryin’s-on, accordin’ to all accounts.”
This kind of thing was gall and bitterness to Mrs. Morel, and she had a fair share of it. The women did not spare her, at first; for she was superior, though she could not help it.
He began to be rather late in coming home.
“They’re working very late now, aren’t they?” she said to her washer-woman.
“No later than they allers do, I don’t think. But they stop to have their pint at Ellen’s, an’ they get talkin’, an’ there you are! Dinner stone cold–an’ it serves ’em right.”
“But Mr. Morel does not take any drink.”
The woman dropped the clothes, looked at Mrs. Morel, then went on with her work, saying nothing.
Gertrude Morel was very ill when the boy was born. Morel was good to her, as good as gold. But she felt very lonely, miles away from her own people. She felt lonely with him now, and his presence only made it more intense.
The boy was small and frail at first, but he came on quickly. He was a beautiful child, with dark gold ringlets, and dark-blue eyes which changed gradually to a clear grey. His mother loved him passionately. He came just when her own bitterness of disillusion was hardest to bear; when her faith in life was shaken, and her soul felt dreary and lonely. She made much of the child, and the father was jealous.
At last Mrs. Morel despised her husband. She turned to the child; she turned from the father. He had begun to neglect her; the novelty of his own home was gone. He had no grit, she said bitterly to herself. What he felt just at the minute, that was all to him. He could not abide by anything. There was nothing at the back of all his show.
There began a battle between the husband and wife–a fearful, bloody battle that ended only with the death of one. She fought to make him undertake his own responsibilities, to make him fulfil his obligations. But he was too different from her. His nature was purely sensuous, and she strove to make him moral, religious. She tried to force him to face things. He could not endure it–it drove him out of his mind.
While the baby was still tiny, the father’s temper had become so irritable that it was not to be trusted. The child had only to give a little trouble when the man began to bully. A little more, and the hard hands of the collier hit the baby. Then Mrs. Morel loathed her husband, loathed him for days; and he went out and drank; and she cared very little what he did. Only, on his return, she scathed him with her satire.
The estrangement between them caused him, knowingly or unknowingly, grossly to offend her where he would not have done.
William was only one year old, and his mother was proud of him, he was so pretty. She was not well off now, but her sisters kept the boy in clothes. Then, with his little white hat curled with an ostrich feather, and his white coat, he was a joy to her, the twining wisps of hair clustering round his head. Mrs. Morel lay listening, one Sunday morning, to the chatter of the father and child downstairs. Then she dozed off. When she came downstairs, a great fire glowed in the grate, the room was hot, the breakfast was roughly laid, and seated in his armchair, against the chimney-piece, sat Morel, rather timid; and standing between his legs, the child–cropped like a sheep, with such an odd round poll–looking wondering at her; and on a newspaper spread out upon the hearthrug, a myriad of crescent-shaped curls, like the petals of a marigold scattered in the reddening firelight.
Mrs. Morel stood still. It was her first baby. She went very white, and was unable to speak.
“What dost think o’ ‘im?” Morel laughed uneasily.
She gripped her two fists, lifted them, and came forward. Morel shrank back.
“I could kill you, I could!” she said. She choked with rage, her two fists uplifted.
“Yer non want ter make a wench on ‘im,” Morel said, in a frightened tone, bending his head to shield his eyes from hers. His attempt at laughter had vanished.
The mother looked down at the jagged, close-clipped head of her child. She put her hands on his hair, and stroked and fondled his head.
“Oh–my boy!” she faltered. Her lip trembled, her face broke, and, snatching up the child, she buried her face in his shoulder and cried painfully. She was one of those women who cannot cry; whom it hurts as it hurts a man. It was like ripping something out of her, her sobbing.
Morel sat with his elbows on his knees, his hands gripped together till the knuckles were white. He gazed in the fire, feeling almost stunned, as if he could not breathe.
Presently she came to an end, soothed the child and cleared away the breakfast-table. She left the newspaper, littered with curls, spread upon the hearthrug. At last her husband gathered it up and put it at the back of the fire. She went about her work with closed mouth and very quiet. Morel was subdued. He crept about wretchedly, and his meals were a misery that day. She spoke to him civilly, and never alluded to what he had done. But he felt something final had happened.
Afterwards she said she had been silly, that the boy’s hair would have had to be cut, sooner or later. In the end, she even brought herself to say to her husband it was just as well he had played barber when he did. But she knew, and Morel knew, that that act had caused something momentous to take place in her soul. She remembered the scene all her life, as one in which she had suffered the most intensely.
This act of masculine clumsiness was the spear through the side of her love for Morel. Before, while she had striven against him bitterly, she had fretted after him, as if he had gone astray from her. Now she ceased to fret for his love: he was an outsider to her. This made life much more bearable.
Nevertheless, she still continued to strive with him. She still had her high moral sense, inherited from generations of Puritans. It was now a religious instinct, and she was almost a fanatic with him, because she loved him, or had loved him. If he sinned, she tortured him. If he drank, and lied, was often a poltroon, sometimes a knave, she wielded the lash unmercifully.
The pity was, she was too much his opposite. She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him. She injured and hurt and scarred herself, but she lost none of her worth. She also had the children.
He drank rather heavily, though not more than many miners, and always beer, so that whilst his health was affected, it was never injured. The week-end was his chief carouse. He sat in the Miners’ Arms until turning-out time every Friday, every Saturday, and every Sunday evening. On Monday and Tuesday he had to get up and reluctantly leave towards ten o’clock. Sometimes he stayed at home on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, or was only out for an hour. He practically never had to miss work owing to his drinking.
But although he was very steady at work, his wages fell off. He was blab-mouthed, a tongue-wagger. Authority was hateful to him, therefore he could only abuse the pit-managers. He would say, in the Palmerston:
“Th’ gaffer come down to our stall this morning, an’ ‘e says, ‘You know, Walter, this ‘ere’ll not do. What about these props?’ An’ I says to him, ‘Why, what art talkin’ about? What d’st mean about th’ props?’ ‘It’ll never do, this ‘ere,’ ‘e says. ‘You’ll be havin’ th’ roof in, one o’ these days.’ An’ I says, ‘Tha’d better stan’ on a bit o’ clunch, then, an’ hold it up wi’ thy ‘ead.’ So ‘e wor that mad, ‘e cossed an’ ‘e swore, an’ t’other chaps they did laugh.” Morel was a good mimic. He imitated the manager’s fat, squeaky voice, with its attempt at good English.
“‘I shan’t have it, Walter. Who knows more about it, me or you?’ So I says, ‘I’ve niver fun out how much tha’ knows, Alfred. It’ll ‘appen carry thee ter bed an’ back.”‘
So Morel would go on to the amusement of his boon companions. And some of this would be true. The pit-manager was not an educated man. He had been a boy along with Morel, so that, while the two disliked each other, they more or less took each other for granted. But Alfred Charlesworth did not forgive the butty these public-house sayings. Consequently, although Morel was a good miner, sometimes earning as much as five pounds a week when he married, he came gradually to have worse and worse stalls, where the coal was thin, and hard to get, and unprofitable.
Also, in summer, the pits are slack. Often, on bright sunny mornings, the men are seen trooping home again at ten, eleven, or twelve o’clock. No empty trucks stand at the pit-mouth. The women on the hillside look across as they shake the hearthrug against the fence, and count the wagons the engine is taking along the line up the valley. And the children, as they come from school at dinner-time, looking down the fields and seeing the wheels on the headstocks standing, say:
“Minton’s knocked off. My dad’ll be at home.”
And there is a sort of shadow over all, women and children and men, because money will be short at the end of the week.
Morel was supposed to give his wife thirty shillings a week, to provide everything–rent, food, clothes, clubs, insurance, doctors. Occasionally, if he were flush, he gave her thirty-five. But these occasions by no means balanced those when he gave her twenty-five. In winter, with a decent stall, the miner might earn fifty or fifty-five shillings a week. Then he was happy. On Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, he spent royally, getting rid of his sovereign or thereabouts. And out of so much, he scarcely spared the children an extra penny or bought them a pound of apples. It all went in drink. In the bad times, matters were more worrying, but he was not so often drunk, so that Mrs. Morel used to say:
“I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather be short, for when he’s flush, there isn’t a minute of peace.”
If he earned forty shillings he kept ten; from thirty-five he kept five; from thirty-two he kept four; from twenty-eight he kept three; from twenty-four he kept two; from twenty he kept one-and-six; from eighteen he kept a shilling; from sixteen he kept sixpence. He never saved a penny, and he gave his wife no opportunity of saving; instead, she had occasionally to pay his debts; not public-house debts, for those never were passed on to the women, but debts when he had bought a canary, or a fancy walking-stick.
At the wakes time Morel was working badly, and Mrs. Morel was trying to save against her confinement. So it galled her bitterly to think he should be out taking his pleasure and spending money, whilst she remained at home, harassed. There were two days’ holiday. On the Tuesday morning Morel rose early. He was in good spirits. Quite early, before six o’clock, she heard him whistling away to himself downstairs. He had a pleasant way of whistling, lively and musical. He nearly always whistled hymns. He had been a choir-boy with a beautiful voice, and had taken solos in Southwell cathedral. His morning whistling alone betrayed it.
His wife lay listening to him tinkering away in the garden, his whistling ringing out as he sawed and hammered away. It always gave her a sense of warmth and peace to hear him thus as she lay in bed, the children not yet awake, in the bright early morning, happy in his man’s fashion.
At nine o’clock, while the children with bare legs and feet were sitting playing on the sofa, and the mother was washing up, he came in from his carpentry, his sleeves rolled up, his waistcoat hanging open. He was still a good-looking man, with black, wavy hair, and a large black moustache. His face was perhaps too much inflamed, and there was about him a look almost of peevishness. But now he was jolly. He went straight to the sink where his wife was washing up.
“What, are thee there!” he said boisterously. “Sluthe off an’ let me wesh mysen.”
“You may wait till I’ve finished,” said his wife.
“Oh, mun I? An’ what if I shonna?”
This good-humoured threat amused Mrs. Morel.
“Then you can go and wash yourself in the soft-water tub.”
“Ha! I can’ an’ a’, tha mucky little ‘ussy.”
With which he stood watching her a moment, then went away to wait for her.
When he chose he could still make himself again a real gallant. Usually he preferred to go out with a scarf round his neck. Now, however, he made a toilet. There seemed so much gusto in the way he puffed and swilled as he washed himself, so much alacrity with which he hurried to the mirror in the kitchen, and, bending because it was too low for him, scrupulously parted his wet black hair, that it irritated Mrs. Morel. He put on a turn-down collar, a black bow, and wore his Sunday tail-coat. As such, he looked spruce, and what his clothes would not do, his instinct for making the most of his good looks would.
At half-past nine Jerry Purdy came to call for his pal. Jerry was Morel’s bosom friend, and Mrs. Morel disliked him. He was a tall, thin man, with a rather foxy face, the kind of face that seems to lack eyelashes. He walked with a stiff, brittle dignity, as if his head were on a wooden spring. His nature was cold and shrewd. Generous where he intended to be generous, he seemed to be very fond of Morel, and more or less to take charge of him.
Mrs. Morel hated him. She had known his wife, who had died of consumption, and who had, at the end, conceived such a violent dislike of her husband, that if he came into her room it caused her haemorrhage. None of which Jerry had seemed to mind. And now his eldest daughter, a girl of fifteen, kept a poor house for him, and looked after the two younger children.
“A mean, wizzen-hearted stick!” Mrs. Morel said of him.
“I’ve never known Jerry mean in MY life,” protested Morel. “A opener-handed and more freer chap you couldn’t find anywhere, accordin’ to my knowledge.”
“Open-handed to you,” retorted Mrs. Morel. “But his fist is shut tight enough to his children, poor things.”
“Poor things! And what for are they poor things, I should like to know.”
But Mrs. Morel would not be appeased on Jerry’s score.
The subject of argument was seen, craning his thin neck over the scullery curtain. He caught Mrs. Morel’s eye.
“Mornin’, missis! Mester in?”
Jerry entered unasked, and stood by the kitchen doorway. He was not invited to sit down, but stood there, coolly asserting the rights of men and husbands.
“A nice day,” he said to Mrs. Morel.
“Grand out this morning–grand for a walk.”
“Do you mean YOU’RE going for a walk?” she asked.
“Yes. We mean walkin’ to Nottingham,” he replied.
The two men greeted each other, both glad: Jerry, however, full of assurance, Morel rather subdued, afraid to seem too jubilant in presence of his wife. But he laced his boots quickly, with spirit. They were going for a ten-mile walk across the fields to Nottingham. Climbing the hillside from the Bottoms, they mounted gaily into the morning. At the Moon and Stars they had their first drink, then on to the Old Spot. Then a long five miles of drought to carry them into Bulwell to a glorious pint of bitter. But they stayed in a field with some haymakers whose gallon bottle was full, so that, when they came in sight of the city, Morel was sleepy. The town spread upwards before them, smoking vaguely in the midday glare, fridging the crest away to the south with spires and factory bulks and chimneys. In the last field Morel lay down under an oak tree and slept soundly for over an hour. When he rose to go forward he felt queer.
The two had dinner in the Meadows, with Jerry’s sister, then repaired to the Punch Bowl, where they mixed in the excitement of pigeon-racing. Morel never in his life played cards, considering them as having some occult, malevolent power–“the devil’s pictures,” he called them! But he was a master of skittles and of dominoes. He took a challenge from a Newark man, on skittles. All the men in the old, long bar took sides, betting either one way or the other. Morel took off his coat. Jerry held the hat containing the money. The men at the tables watched. Some stood with their mugs in their hands. Morel felt his big wooden ball carefully, then launched it. He played havoc among the nine-pins, and won half a crown, which restored him to solvency.
By seven o’clock the two were in good condition. They caught the 7.30 train home.
In the afternoon the Bottoms was intolerable. Every inhabitant remaining was out of doors. The women, in twos and threes, bareheaded and in white aprons, gossiped in the alley between the blocks. Men, having a rest between drinks, sat on their heels and talked. The place smelled stale; the slate roofs glistered in the arid heat.
Mrs. Morel took the little girl down to the brook in the meadows, which were not more than two hundred yards away. The water ran quickly over stones and broken pots. Mother and child leaned on the rail of the old sheep-bridge, watching. Up at the dipping-hole, at the other end of the meadow, Mrs. Morel could see the naked forms of boys flashing round the deep yellow water, or an occasional bright figure dart glittering over the blackish stagnant meadow. She knew William was at the dipping-hole, and it was the dread of her life lest he should get drowned. Annie played under the tall old hedge, picking up alder cones, that she called currants. The child required much attention, and the flies were teasing.
The children were put to bed at seven o’clock. Then she worked awhile.
When Walter Morel and Jerry arrived at Bestwood they felt a load off their minds; a railway journey no longer impended, so they could put the finishing touches to a glorious day. They entered the Nelson with the satisfaction of returned travellers.
The next day was a work-day, and the thought of it put a damper on the men’s spirits. Most of them, moreover, had spent their money. Some were already rolling dismally home, to sleep in preparation for the morrow. Mrs. Morel, listening to their mournful singing, went indoors. Nine o’clock passed, and ten, and still “the pair” had not returned. On a doorstep somewhere a man was singing loudly, in a drawl: “Lead, kindly Light.” Mrs. Morel was always indignant with the drunken men that they must sing that hymn when they got maudlin.
“As if ‘Genevieve’ weren’t good enough,” she said.
The kitchen was full of the scent of boiled herbs and hops. On the hob a large black saucepan steamed slowly. Mrs. Morel took a panchion, a great bowl of thick red earth, streamed a heap of white sugar into the bottom, and then, straining herself to the weight, was pouring in the liquor.
Just then Morel came in. He had been very jolly in the Nelson, but coming home had grown irritable. He had not quite got over the feeling of irritability and pain, after having slept on the ground when he was so hot; and a bad conscience afflicted him as he neared the house. He did not know he was angry. But when the garden gate resisted his attempts to open it, he kicked it and broke the latch. He entered just as Mrs. Morel was pouring the infusion of herbs out of the saucepan. Swaying slightly, he lurched against the table. The boiling liquor pitched. Mrs. Morel started back.
“Good gracious,” she cried, “coming home in his drunkenness!”
“Comin’ home in his what?” he snarled, his hat over his eye.
Suddenly her blood rose in a jet.
“Say you’re NOT drunk!” she flashed.
She had put down her saucepan, and was stirring the sugar into the beer. He dropped his two hands heavily on the table, and thrust his face forwards at her.
“‘Say you’re not drunk,'” he repeated. “Why, nobody but a nasty little bitch like you ‘ud ‘ave such a thought.”
He thrust his face forward at her.
“There’s money to bezzle with, if there’s money for nothing else.”
“I’ve not spent a two-shillin’ bit this day,” he said.
“You don’t get as drunk as a lord on nothing,” she replied. “And,” she cried, flashing into sudden fury, “if you’ve been sponging on your beloved Jerry, why, let him look after his children, for they need it.”
“It’s a lie, it’s a lie. Shut your face, woman.”
They were now at battle-pitch. Each forgot everything save the hatred of the other and the battle between them. She was fiery and furious as he. They went on till he called her a liar.
“No,” she cried, starting up, scarce able to breathe. “Don’t call me that–you, the most despicable liar that ever walked in shoe-leather.” She forced the last words out of suffocated lungs.
“You’re a liar!” he yelled, banging the table with his fist. “You’re a liar, you’re a liar.”
She stiffened herself, with clenched fists.
“The house is filthy with you,” she cried.
“Then get out on it–it’s mine. Get out on it!” he shouted. “It’s me as brings th’ money whoam, not thee. It’s my house, not thine. Then ger out on’t–ger out on’t!”
“And I would,” she cried, suddenly shaken into tears of impotence. “Ah, wouldn’t I, wouldn’t I have gone long ago, but for those children. Ay, haven’t I repented not going years ago, when I’d only the one”–suddenly drying into rage. “Do you think it’s for YOU I stop–do you think I’d stop one minute for YOU?”
“Go, then,” he shouted, beside himself. “Go!”
“No!” She faced round. “No,” she cried loudly, “you shan’t have it ALL your own way; you shan’t do ALL you like. I’ve got those children to see to. My word,” she laughed, “I should look well to leave them to you.”
“Go,” he cried thickly, lifting his fist. He was afraid of her. “Go!”
“I should be only too glad. I should laugh, laugh, my lord, if I could get away from you,” she replied.
He came up to her, his red face, with its bloodshot eyes, thrust forward, and gripped her arms. She cried in fear of him, struggled to be free. Coming slightly to himself, panting, he pushed her roughly to the outer door, and thrust her forth, slotting the bolt behind her with a bang. Then he went back into the kitchen, dropped into his armchair, his head, bursting full of blood, sinking between his knees. Thus he dipped gradually into a stupor, from exhaustion and intoxication.
The moon was high and magnificent in the August night. Mrs. Morel, seared with passion, shivered to find herself out there in a great white light, that fell cold on her, and gave a shock to her inflamed soul. She stood for a few moments helplessly staring at the glistening great rhubarb leaves near the door. Then she got the air into her breast. She walked down the garden path, trembling in every limb, while the child boiled within her. For a while she could not control her consciousness; mechanically she went over the last scene, then over it again, certain phrases, certain moments coming each time like a brand red-hot down on her soul; and each time she enacted again the past hour, each time the brand came down at the same points, till the mark was burnt in, and the pain burnt out, and at last she came to herself. She must have been half an hour in this delirious condition. Then the presence of the night came again to her. She glanced round in fear. She had wandered to the side garden, where she was walking up and down the path beside the currant bushes under the long wall. The garden was a narrow strip, bounded from the road, that cut transversely between the blocks, by a thick thorn hedge.
She hurried out of the side garden to the front, where she could stand as if in an immense gulf of white light, the moon streaming high in face of her, the moonlight standing up from the hills in front, and filling the valley where the Bottoms crouched, almost blindingly. There, panting and half weeping in reaction from the stress, she murmured to herself over and over again: “The nuisance! the nuisance!”
She became aware of something about her. With an effort she roused herself to see what it was that penetrated her consciousness. The tall white lilies were reeling in the moonlight, and the air was charged with their perfume, as with a presence. Mrs. Morel gasped slightly in fear. She touched the big, pallid flowers on their petals, then shivered. They seemed to be stretching in the moonlight. She put her hand into one white bin: the gold scarcely showed on her fingers by moonlight. She bent down to look at the binful of yellow pollen; but it only appeared dusky. Then she drank a deep draught of the scent. It almost made her dizzy.
Mrs. Morel leaned on the garden gate, looking out, and she lost herself awhile. She did not know what she thought. Except for a slight feeling of sickness, and her consciousness in the child, herself melted out like scent into the shiny, pale air. After a time the child, too, melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon.
When she came to herself she was tired for sleep. Languidly she looked about her; the clumps of white phlox seemed like bushes spread with linen; a moth ricochetted over them, and right across the garden. Following it with her eye roused her. A few whiffs of the raw, strong scent of phlox invigorated her. She passed along the path, hesitating at the white rose-bush. It smelled sweet and simple. She touched the white ruffles of the roses. Their fresh scent and cool, soft leaves reminded her of the morning-time and sunshine. She was very fond of them. But she was tired, and wanted to sleep. In the mysterious out-of-doors she felt forlorn.
There was no noise anywhere. Evidently the children had not been wakened, or had gone to sleep again. A train, three miles away, roared across the valley. The night was very large, and very strange, stretching its hoary distances infinitely. And out of the silver-grey fog of darkness came sounds vague and hoarse: a corncrake not far off, sound of a train like a sigh, and distant shouts of men.
Her quietened heart beginning to beat quickly again, she hurried down the side garden to the back of the house. Softly she lifted the latch; the door was still bolted, and hard against her. She rapped gently, waited, then rapped again. She must not rouse the children, nor the neighbours. He must be asleep, and he would not wake easily. Her heart began to burn to be indoors. She clung to the door-handle. Now it was cold; she would take a chill, and in her present condition!
Putting her apron over her head and her arms, she hurried again to the side garden, to the window of the kitchen. Leaning on the sill, she could just see, under the blind, her husband’s arms spread out on the table, and his black head on the board. He was sleeping with his face lying on the table. Something in his attitude made her feel tired of things. The lamp was burning smokily; she could tell by the copper colour of the light. She tapped at the window more and more noisily. Almost it seemed as if the glass would break. Still he did not wake up.
After vain efforts, she began to shiver, partly from contact with the stone, and from exhaustion. Fearful always for the unborn child, she wondered what she could do for warmth. She went down to the coal-house, where there was an old hearthrug she had carried out for the rag-man the day before. This she wrapped over her shoulders. It was warm, if grimy. Then she walked up and down the garden path, peeping every now and then under the blind, knocking, and telling herself that in the end the very strain of his position must wake him.
At last, after about an hour, she rapped long and low at the window. Gradually the sound penetrated to him. When, in despair, she had ceased to tap, she saw him stir, then lift his face blindly. The labouring of his heart hurt him into consciousness. She rapped imperatively at the window. He started awake. Instantly she saw his fists set and his eyes glare. He had not a grain of physical fear. If it had been twenty burglars, he would have gone blindly for them. He glared round, bewildered, but prepared to fight.
“Open the door, Walter,” she said coldly.
His hands relaxed. It dawned on him what he had done. His head dropped, sullen and dogged. She saw him hurry to the door, heard the bolt chock. He tried the latch. It opened–and there stood the silver-grey night, fearful to him, after the tawny light of the lamp. He hurried back.
When Mrs. Morel entered, she saw him almost running through the door to the stairs. He had ripped his collar off his neck in his haste to be gone ere she came in, and there it lay with bursten button-holes. It made her angry.
She warmed and soothed herself. In her weariness forgetting everything, she moved about at the little tasks that remained to be done, set his breakfast, rinsed his pit-bottle, put his pit-clothes on the hearth to warm, set his pit-boots beside them, put him out a clean scarf and snap-bag and two apples, raked the fire, and went to bed. He was already dead asleep. His narrow black eyebrows were drawn up in a sort of peevish misery into his forehead while his cheeks’ down-strokes, and his sulky mouth, seemed to be saying: “I don’t care who you are nor what you are, I SHALL have my own way.”
Mrs. Morel knew him too well to look at him. As she unfastened her brooch at the mirror, she smiled faintly to see her face all smeared with the yellow dust of lilies. She brushed it off, and at last lay down. For some time her mind continued snapping and jetting sparks, but she was asleep before her husband awoke from the first sleep of his drunkenness.