Chapter 2 - Shortlands
The Brangwens went home to Beldover, the wedding-party gathered at Shortlands, the Criches' home. It was a long, low old house, a sort of manor farm, that spread along the top of a slope just beyond the narrow little lake of Willey Water. Shortlands looked across a sloping meadow that might be a park, because of the large, solitary trees that stood here and there, across the water of the narrow lake, at the wooded hill that successfully hid the colliery valley beyond, but did not quite hide the rising smoke. Nevertheless, the scene was rural and picturesque, very peaceful, and the house had a charm of its own.
It was crowded now with the family and the wedding guests. The father, who was not well, withdrew to rest. Gerald was host. He stood in the homely entrance hall, friendly and easy, attending to the men. He seemed to take pleasure in his social functions, he smiled, and was abundant in hospitality.
The women wandered about in a little confusion, chased hither and thither by the three married daughters of the house. All the while there could be heard the characteristic, imperious voice of one Crich woman or another calling 'Helen, come here a minute,' 'Marjory, I want you - here.' 'Oh, I say, Mrs Witham - .' There was a great rustling of skirts, swift glimpses of smartly-dressed women, a child danced through the hall and back again, a maidservant came and went hurriedly.
Meanwhile the men stood in calm little groups, chatting, smoking, pretending to pay no heed to the rustling animation of the women's world. But they could not really talk, because of the glassy ravel of women's excited, cold laughter and running voices. They waited, uneasy, suspended, rather bored. But Gerald remained as if genial and happy, unaware that he was waiting or unoccupied, knowing himself the very pivot of the occasion.
Suddenly Mrs Crich came noiselessly into the room, peering about with her strong, clear face. She was still wearing her hat, and her sac coat of blue silk.
'What is it, mother?' said Gerald.
'Nothing, nothing!' she answered vaguely. And she went straight towards Birkin, who was talking to a Crich brother-in-law.
'How do you do, Mr Birkin,' she said, in her low voice, that seemed to take no count of her guests. She held out her hand to him.
'Oh Mrs Crich,' replied Birkin, in his readily-changing voice, 'I couldn't come to you before.'
'I don't know half the people here,' she said, in her low voice. Her son-in-law moved uneasily away.
'And you don't like strangers?' laughed Birkin. 'I myself can never see why one should take account of people, just because they happen to be in the room with one: why SHOULD I know they are there?'
'Why indeed, why indeed!' said Mrs Crich, in her low, tense voice. 'Except that they ARE there. I don't know people whom I find in the house. The children introduce them to me - "Mother, this is Mr So-and-so." I am no further. What has Mr So-and-so to do with his own name? - and what have I to do with either him or his name?'
She looked up at Birkin. She startled him. He was flattered too that she came to talk to him, for she took hardly any notice of anybody. He looked down at her tense clear face, with its heavy features, but he was afraid to look into her heavy-seeing blue eyes. He noticed instead how her hair looped in slack, slovenly strands over her rather beautiful ears, which were not quite clean. Neither was her neck perfectly clean. Even in that he seemed to belong to her, rather than to the rest of the company; though, he thought to himself, he was always well washed, at any rate at the neck and ears.
He smiled faintly, thinking these things. Yet he was tense, feeling that he and the elderly, estranged woman were conferring together like traitors, like enemies within the camp of the other people. He resembled a deer, that throws one ear back upon the trail behind, and one ear forward, to know what is ahead.
'People don't really matter,' he said, rather unwilling to continue.
The mother looked up at him with sudden, dark interrogation, as if doubting his sincerity.
'How do you mean, MATTER?' she asked sharply.
'Not many people are anything at all,' he answered, forced to go deeper than he wanted to. 'They jingle and giggle. It would be much better if they were just wiped out. Essentially, they don't exist, they aren't there.'
She watched him steadily while he spoke.
'But we didn't imagine them,' she said sharply.
'There's nothing to imagine, that's why they don't exist.'
'Well,' she said, 'I would hardly go as far as that. There they are, whether they exist or no. It doesn't rest with me to decide on their existence. I only know that I can't be expected to take count of them all. You can't expect me to know them, just because they happen to be there. As far as I go they might as well not be there.'
'Exactly,' he replied.
'Mightn't they?' she asked again.
'Just as well,' he repeated. And there was a little pause.
'Except that they ARE there, and that's a nuisance,' she said. 'There are my sons-in-law,' she went on, in a sort of monologue. 'Now Laura's got married, there's another. And I really don't know John from James yet. They come up to me and call me mother. I know what they will say - "how are you, mother?" I ought to say, "I am not your mother, in any sense." But what is the use? There they are. I have had children of my own. I suppose I know them from another woman's children.'
'One would suppose so,' he said.
She looked at him, somewhat surprised, forgetting perhaps that she was talking to him. And she lost her thread.
She looked round the room, vaguely. Birkin could not guess what she was looking for, nor what she was thinking. Evidently she noticed her sons.
'Are my children all there?' she asked him abruptly.
He laughed, startled, afraid perhaps.
'I scarcely know them, except Gerald,' he replied.
'Gerald!' she exclaimed. 'He's the most wanting of them all. You'd never think it, to look at him now, would you?'
'No,' said Birkin.
The mother looked across at her eldest son, stared at him heavily for some time.
'Ay,' she said, in an incomprehensible monosyllable, that sounded profoundly cynical. Birkin felt afraid, as if he dared not realise. And Mrs Crich moved away, forgetting him. But she returned on her traces.
'I should like him to have a friend,' she said. 'He has never had a friend.'
Birkin looked down into her eyes, which were blue, and watching heavily. He could not understand them. 'Am I my brother's keeper?' he said to himself, almost flippantly.
Then he remembered, with a slight shock, that that was Cain's cry. And Gerald was Cain, if anybody. Not that he was Cain, either, although he had slain his brother. There was such a thing as pure accident, and the consequences did not attach to one, even though one had killed one's brother in such wise. Gerald as a boy had accidentally killed his brother. What then? Why seek to draw a brand and a curse across the life that had caused the accident? A man can live by accident, and die by accident. Or can he not? Is every man's life subject to pure accident, is it only the race, the genus, the species, that has a universal reference? Or is this not true, is there no such thing as pure accident? Has EVERYTHING that happens a universal significance? Has it? Birkin, pondering as he stood there, had forgotten Mrs Crich, as she had forgotten him.
He did not believe that there was any such thing as accident. It all hung together, in the deepest sense.
Just as he had decided this, one of the Crich daughters came up, saying:
'Won't you come and take your hat off, mother dear? We shall be sitting down to eat in a minute, and it's a formal occasion, darling, isn't it?' She drew her arm through her mother's, and they went away. Birkin immediately went to talk to the nearest man.
The gong sounded for the luncheon. The men looked up, but no move was made to the dining-room. The women of the house seemed not to feel that the sound had meaning for them. Five minutes passed by. The elderly manservant, Crowther, appeared in the doorway exasperatedly. He looked with appeal at Gerald. The latter took up a large, curved conch shell, that lay on a shelf, and without reference to anybody, blew a shattering blast. It was a strange rousing noise, that made the heart beat. The summons was almost magical. Everybody came running, as if at a signal. And then the crowd in one impulse moved to the dining-room.
Gerald waited a moment, for his sister to play hostess. He knew his mother would pay no attention to her duties. But his sister merely crowded to her seat. Therefore the young man, slightly too dictatorial, directed the guests to their places.
There was a moment's lull, as everybody looked at the BORS D'OEUVRES that were being handed round. And out of this lull, a girl of thirteen or fourteen, with her long hair down her back, said in a calm, self-possessed voice:
'Gerald, you forget father, when you make that unearthly noise.'
'Do I?' he answered. And then, to the company, 'Father is lying down, he is not quite well.'
'How is he, really?' called one of the married daughters, peeping round the immense wedding cake that towered up in the middle of the table shedding its artificial flowers.
'He has no pain, but he feels tired,' replied Winifred, the girl with the hair down her back.
The wine was filled, and everybody was talking boisterously. At the far end of the table sat the mother, with her loosely-looped hair. She had Birkin for a neighbour. Sometimes she glanced fiercely down the rows of faces, bending forwards and staring unceremoniously. And she would say in a low voice to Birkin:
'Who is that young man?'
'I don't know,' Birkin answered discreetly.
'Have I seen him before?' she asked.
'I don't think so. I haven't,' he replied. And she was satisfied. Her eyes closed wearily, a peace came over her face, she looked like a queen in repose. Then she started, a little social smile came on her face, for a moment she looked the pleasant hostess. For a moment she bent graciously, as if everyone were welcome and delightful. And then immediately the shadow came back, a sullen, eagle look was on her face, she glanced from under her brows like a sinister creature at bay, hating them all.
'Mother,' called Diana, a handsome girl a little older than Winifred, 'I may have wine, mayn't I?'
'Yes, you may have wine,' replied the mother automatically, for she was perfectly indifferent to the question.
And Diana beckoned to the footman to fill her glass.
'Gerald shouldn't forbid me,' she said calmly, to the company at large.
'All right, Di,' said her brother amiably. And she glanced challenge at him as she drank from her glass.
There was a strange freedom, that almost amounted to anarchy, in the house. It was rather a resistance to authority, than liberty. Gerald had some command, by mere force of personality, not because of any granted position. There was a quality in his voice, amiable but dominant, that cowed the others, who were all younger than he.
Hermione was having a discussion with the bridegroom about nationality.
'No,' she said, 'I think that the appeal to patriotism is a mistake. It is like one house of business rivalling another house of business.'
'Well you can hardly say that, can you?' exclaimed Gerald, who had a real PASSION for discussion. 'You couldn't call a race a business concern, could you? - and nationality roughly corresponds to race, I think. I think it is MEANT to.'
There was a moment's pause. Gerald and Hermione were always strangely but politely and evenly inimical.
'DO you think race corresponds with nationality?' she asked musingly, with expressionless indecision.
Birkin knew she was waiting for him to participate. And dutifully he spoke up.
'I think Gerald is right - race is the essential element in nationality, in Europe at least,' he said.
Again Hermione paused, as if to allow this statement to cool. Then she said with strange assumption of authority:
'Yes, but even so, is the patriotic appeal an appeal to the racial instinct? Is it not rather an appeal to the proprietory instinct, the COMMERCIAL instinct? And isn't this what we mean by nationality?'
'Probably,' said Birkin, who felt that such a discussion was out of place and out of time.
But Gerald was now on the scent of argument.
'A race may have its commercial aspect,' he said. 'In fact it must. It is like a family. You MUST make provision. And to make provision you have got to strive against other families, other nations. I don't see why you shouldn't.'
Again Hermione made a pause, domineering and cold, before she replied: 'Yes, I think it is always wrong to provoke a spirit of rivalry. It makes bad blood. And bad blood accumulates.'
'But you can't do away with the spirit of emulation altogether?' said Gerald. 'It is one of the necessary incentives to production and improvement.'
'Yes,' came Hermione's sauntering response. 'I think you can do away with it.'
'I must say,' said Birkin, 'I detest the spirit of emulation.' Hermione was biting a piece of bread, pulling it from between her teeth with her fingers, in a slow, slightly derisive movement. She turned to Birkin.
'You do hate it, yes,' she said, intimate and gratified.
'Detest it,' he repeated.
'Yes,' she murmured, assured and satisfied.
'But,' Gerald insisted, 'you don't allow one man to take away his neighbour's living, so why should you allow one nation to take away the living from another nation?'
There was a long slow murmur from Hermione before she broke into speech, saying with a laconic indifference:
'It is not always a question of possessions, is it? It is not all a question of goods?'
Gerald was nettled by this implication of vulgar materialism.
'Yes, more or less,' he retorted. 'If I go and take a man's hat from off his head, that hat becomes a symbol of that man's liberty. When he fights me for his hat, he is fighting me for his liberty.'
Hermione was nonplussed.
'Yes,' she said, irritated. 'But that way of arguing by imaginary instances is not supposed to be genuine, is it? A man does NOT come and take my hat from off my head, does he?'
'Only because the law prevents him,' said Gerald.
'Not only,' said Birkin. 'Ninety-nine men out of a hundred don't want my hat.'
'That's a matter of opinion,' said Gerald.
'Or the hat,' laughed the bridegroom.
'And if he does want my hat, such as it is,' said Birkin, 'why, surely it is open to me to decide, which is a greater loss to me, my hat, or my liberty as a free and indifferent man. If I am compelled to offer fight, I lose the latter. It is a question which is worth more to me, my pleasant liberty of conduct, or my hat.'
'Yes,' said Hermione, watching Birkin strangely. 'Yes.'
'But would you let somebody come and snatch your hat off your head?' the bride asked of Hermione.
The face of the tall straight woman turned slowly and as if drugged to this new speaker.
'No,' she replied, in a low inhuman tone, that seemed to contain a chuckle. 'No, I shouldn't let anybody take my hat off my head.'
'How would you prevent it?' asked Gerald.
'I don't know,' replied Hermione slowly. 'Probably I should kill him.'
There was a strange chuckle in her tone, a dangerous and convincing humour in her bearing.
'Of course,' said Gerald, 'I can see Rupert's point. It is a question to him whether his hat or his peace of mind is more important.'
'Peace of body,' said Birkin.
'Well, as you like there,' replied Gerald. 'But how are you going to decide this for a nation?'
'Heaven preserve me,' laughed Birkin.
'Yes, but suppose you have to?' Gerald persisted.
'Then it is the same. If the national crown-piece is an old hat, then the thieving gent may have it.'
'But CAN the national or racial hat be an old hat?' insisted Gerald.
'Pretty well bound to be, I believe,' said Birkin.
'I'm not so sure,' said Gerald.
'I don't agree, Rupert,' said Hermione.
'All right,' said Birkin.
'I'm all for the old national hat,' laughed Gerald.
'And a fool you look in it,' cried Diana, his pert sister who was just in her teens.
'Oh, we're quite out of our depths with these old hats,' cried Laura Crich. 'Dry up now, Gerald. We're going to drink toasts. Let us drink toasts. Toasts - glasses, glasses - now then, toasts! Speech! Speech!'
Birkin, thinking about race or national death, watched his glass being filled with champagne. The bubbles broke at the rim, the man withdrew, and feeling a sudden thirst at the sight of the fresh wine, Birkin drank up his glass. A queer little tension in the room roused him. He felt a sharp constraint.
'Did I do it by accident, or on purpose?' he asked himself. And he decided that, according to the vulgar phrase, he had done it 'accidentally on purpose.' He looked round at the hired footman. And the hired footman came, with a silent step of cold servant-like disapprobation. Birkin decided that he detested toasts, and footmen, and assemblies, and mankind altogether, in most of its aspects. Then he rose to make a speech. But he was somehow disgusted.
At length it was over, the meal. Several men strolled out into the garden. There was a lawn, and flower-beds, and at the boundary an iron fence shutting off the little field or park. The view was pleasant; a highroad curving round the edge of a low lake, under the trees. In the spring air, the water gleamed and the opposite woods were purplish with new life. Charming Jersey cattle came to the fence, breathing hoarsely from their velvet muzzles at the human beings, expecting perhaps a crust.
Birkin leaned on the fence. A cow was breathing wet hotness on his hand.
'Pretty cattle, very pretty,' said Marshall, one of the brothers-in-law. 'They give the best milk you can have.'
'Yes,' said Birkin.
'Eh, my little beauty, eh, my beauty!' said Marshall, in a queer high falsetto voice, that caused the other man to have convulsions of laughter in his stomach.
'Who won the race, Lupton?' he called to the bridegroom, to hide the fact that he was laughing.
The bridegroom took his cigar from his mouth.
'The race?' he exclaimed. Then a rather thin smile came over his face. He did not want to say anything about the flight to the church door. 'We got there together. At least she touched first, but I had my hand on her shoulder.'
'What's this?' asked Gerald.
Birkin told him about the race of the bride and the bridegroom.
'H'm!' said Gerald, in disapproval. 'What made you late then?'
'Lupton would talk about the immortality of the soul,' said Birkin, 'and then he hadn't got a button-hook.'
'Oh God!' cried Marshall. 'The immortality of the soul on your wedding day! Hadn't you got anything better to occupy your mind?'
'What's wrong with it?' asked the bridegroom, a clean-shaven naval man, flushing sensitively.
'Sounds as if you were going to be executed instead of married. THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL!' repeated the brother-in-law, with most killing emphasis.
But he fell quite flat.
'And what did you decide?' asked Gerald, at once pricking up his ears at the thought of a metaphysical discussion.
'You don't want a soul today, my boy,' said Marshall. 'It'd be in your road.'
'Christ! Marshall, go and talk to somebody else,' cried Gerald, with sudden impatience.
'By God, I'm willing,' said Marshall, in a temper. 'Too much bloody soul and talk altogether - '
He withdrew in a dudgeon, Gerald staring after him with angry eyes, that grew gradually calm and amiable as the stoutly-built form of the other man passed into the distance.
'There's one thing, Lupton,' said Gerald, turning suddenly to the bridegroom. 'Laura won't have brought such a fool into the family as Lottie did.'
'Comfort yourself with that,' laughed Birkin.
'I take no notice of them,' laughed the bridegroom.
'What about this race then - who began it?' Gerald asked.
'We were late. Laura was at the top of the churchyard steps when our cab came up. She saw Lupton bolting towards her. And she fled. But why do you look so cross? Does it hurt your sense of the family dignity?'
'It does, rather,' said Gerald. 'If you're doing a thing, do it properly, and if you're not going to do it properly, leave it alone.'
'Very nice aphorism,' said Birkin.
'Don't you agree?' asked Gerald.
'Quite,' said Birkin. 'Only it bores me rather, when you become aphoristic.'
'Damn you, Rupert, you want all the aphorisms your own way,' said Gerald.
'No. I want them out of the way, and you're always shoving them in it.'
Gerald smiled grimly at this humorism. Then he made a little gesture of dismissal, with his eyebrows.
'You don't believe in having any standard of behaviour at all, do you?' he challenged Birkin, censoriously.
'Standard - no. I hate standards. But they're necessary for the common ruck. Anybody who is anything can just be himself and do as he likes.'
'But what do you mean by being himself?' said Gerald. 'Is that an aphorism or a cliche?'
'I mean just doing what you want to do. I think it was perfect good form in Laura to bolt from Lupton to the church door. It was almost a masterpiece in good form. It's the hardest thing in the world to act spontaneously on one's impulses - and it's the only really gentlemanly thing to do - provided you're fit to do it.'
'You don't expect me to take you seriously, do you?' asked Gerald.
'Yes, Gerald, you're one of the very few people I do expect that of.'
'Then I'm afraid I can't come up to your expectations here, at any rate. You think people should just do as they like.'
'I think they always do. But I should like them to like the purely individual thing in themselves, which makes them act in singleness. And they only like to do the collective thing.'
'And I,' said Gerald grimly, 'shouldn't like to be in a world of people who acted individually and spontaneously, as you call it. We should have everybody cutting everybody else's throat in five minutes.'
'That means YOU would like to be cutting everybody's throat,' said Birkin.
'How does that follow?' asked Gerald crossly.
'No man,' said Birkin, 'cuts another man's throat unless he wants to cut it, and unless the other man wants it cutting. This is a complete truth. It takes two people to make a murder: a murderer and a murderee. And a murderee is a man who is murderable. And a man who is murderable is a man who in a profound if hidden lust desires to be murdered.'
'Sometimes you talk pure nonsense,' said Gerald to Birkin. 'As a matter of fact, none of us wants our throat cut, and most other people would like to cut it for us - some time or other - '
'It's a nasty view of things, Gerald,' said Birkin, 'and no wonder you are afraid of yourself and your own unhappiness.'
'How am I afraid of myself?' said Gerald; 'and I don't think I am unhappy.'
'You seem to have a lurking desire to have your gizzard slit, and imagine every man has his knife up his sleeve for you,' Birkin said.
'How do you make that out?' said Gerald.
'From you,' said Birkin.
There was a pause of strange enmity between the two men, that was very near to love. It was always the same between them; always their talk brought them into a deadly nearness of contact, a strange, perilous intimacy which was either hate or love, or both. They parted with apparent unconcern, as if their going apart were a trivial occurrence. And they really kept it to the level of trivial occurrence. Yet the heart of each burned from the other. They burned with each other, inwardly. This they would never admit. They intended to keep their relationship a casual free-and-easy friendship, they were not going to be so unmanly and unnatural as to allow any heart-burning between them. They had not the faintest belief in deep relationship between men and men, and their disbelief prevented any development of their powerful but suppressed friendliness.