Chapter 20 - Gladiatorial
After the fiasco of the proposal, Birkin had hurried blindly away from Beldover, in a whirl of fury. He felt he had been a complete fool, that the whole scene had been a farce of the first water. But that did not trouble him at all. He was deeply, mockingly angry that Ursula persisted always in this old cry: 'Why do you want to bully me?' and in her bright, insolent abstraction.
He went straight to Shortlands. There he found Gerald standing with his back to the fire, in the library, as motionless as a man is, who is completely and emptily restless, utterly hollow. He had done all the work he wanted to do - and now there was nothing. He could go out in the car, he could run to town. But he did not want to go out in the car, he did not want to run to town, he did not want to call on the Thirlbys. He was suspended motionless, in an agony of inertia, like a machine that is without power.
This was very bitter to Gerald, who had never known what boredom was, who had gone from activity to activity, never at a loss. Now, gradually, everything seemed to be stopping in him. He did not want any more to do the things that offered. Something dead within him just refused to respond to any suggestion. He cast over in his mind, what it would be possible to do, to save himself from this misery of nothingness, relieve the stress of this hollowness. And there were only three things left, that would rouse him, make him live. One was to drink or smoke hashish, the other was to be soothed by Birkin, and the third was women. And there was no-one for the moment to drink with. Nor was there a woman. And he knew Birkin was out. So there was nothing to do but to bear the stress of his own emptiness.
When he saw Birkin his face lit up in a sudden, wonderful smile.
'By God, Rupert,' he said, 'I'd just come to the conclusion that nothing in the world mattered except somebody to take the edge off one's being alone: the right somebody.'
The smile in his eyes was very astonishing, as he looked at the other man. It was the pure gleam of relief. His face was pallid and even haggard.
'The right woman, I suppose you mean,' said Birkin spitefully.
'Of course, for choice. Failing that, an amusing man.'
He laughed as he said it. Birkin sat down near the fire.
'What were you doing?' he asked.
'I? Nothing. I'm in a bad way just now, everything's on edge, and I can neither work nor play. I don't know whether it's a sign of old age, I'm sure.'
'You mean you are bored?'
'Bored, I don't know. I can't apply myself. And I feel the devil is either very present inside me, or dead.'
Birkin glanced up and looked in his eyes.
'You should try hitting something,' he said.
'Perhaps,' he said. 'So long as it was something worth hitting.'
'Quite!' said Birkin, in his soft voice. There was a long pause during which each could feel the presence of the other.
'One has to wait,' said Birkin.
'Ah God! Waiting! What are we waiting for?'
'Some old Johnny says there are three cures for ENNUI, sleep, drink, and travel,' said Birkin.
'All cold eggs,' said Gerald. 'In sleep, you dream, in drink you curse, and in travel you yell at a porter. No, work and love are the two. When you're not at work you should be in love.'
'Be it then,' said Birkin.
'Give me the object,' said Gerald. 'The possibilities of love exhaust themselves.'
'Do they? And then what?'
'Then you die,' said Gerald.
'So you ought,' said Birkin.
'I don't see it,' replied Gerald. He took his hands out of his trousers pockets, and reached for a cigarette. He was tense and nervous. He lit the cigarette over a lamp, reaching forward and drawing steadily. He was dressed for dinner, as usual in the evening, although he was alone.
'There's a third one even to your two,' said Birkin. 'Work, love, and fighting. You forget the fight.'
'I suppose I do,' said Gerald. 'Did you ever do any boxing - ?'
'No, I don't think I did,' said Birkin.
'Ay - ' Gerald lifted his head and blew the smoke slowly into the air.
'Why?' said Birkin.
'Nothing. I thought we might have a round. It is perhaps true, that I want something to hit. It's a suggestion.'
'So you think you might as well hit me?' said Birkin.
'You? Well! Perhaps - ! In a friendly kind of way, of course.'
'Quite!' said Birkin, bitingly.
Gerald stood leaning back against the mantel-piece. He looked down at Birkin, and his eyes flashed with a sort of terror like the eyes of a stallion, that are bloodshot and overwrought, turned glancing backwards in a stiff terror.
'I fell that if I don't watch myself, I shall find myself doing something silly,' he said.
'Why not do it?' said Birkin coldly.
Gerald listened with quick impatience. He kept glancing down at Birkin, as if looking for something from the other man.
'I used to do some Japanese wrestling,' said Birkin. 'A Jap lived in the same house with me in Heidelberg, and he taught me a little. But I was never much good at it.'
'You did!' exclaimed Gerald. 'That's one of the things I've never ever seen done. You mean jiu-jitsu, I suppose?'
'Yes. But I am no good at those things - they don't interest me.'
'They don't? They do me. What's the start?'
'I'll show you what I can, if you like,' said Birkin.
'You will?' A queer, smiling look tightened Gerald's face for a moment, as he said, 'Well, I'd like it very much.'
'Then we'll try jiu-jitsu. Only you can't do much in a starched shirt.'
'Then let us strip, and do it properly. Hold a minute - ' He rang the bell, and waited for the butler.
'Bring a couple of sandwiches and a syphon,' he said to the man, 'and then don't trouble me any more tonight - or let anybody else.'
The man went. Gerald turned to Birkin with his eyes lighted.
'And you used to wrestle with a Jap?' he said. 'Did you strip?'
'You did! What was he like then, as a wrestler?'
'Good, I believe. I am no judge. He was very quick and slippery and full of electric fire. It is a remarkable thing, what a curious sort of fluid force they seem to have in them, those people not like a human grip - like a polyp - '
'I should imagine so,' he said, 'to look at them. They repel me, rather.'
'Repel and attract, both. They are very repulsive when they are cold, and they look grey. But when they are hot and roused, there is a definite attraction - a curious kind of full electric fluid - like eels.'
'Well - yes - probably.'
The man brought in the tray and set it down.
'Don't come in any more,' said Gerald.
The door closed.
'Well then,' said Gerald; 'shall we strip and begin? Will you have a drink first?'
'No, I don't want one.'
'Neither do I.'
Gerald fastened the door and pushed the furniture aside. The room was large, there was plenty of space, it was thickly carpeted. Then he quickly threw off his clothes, and waited for Birkin. The latter, white and thin, came over to him. Birkin was more a presence than a visible object, Gerald was aware of him completely, but not really visually. Whereas Gerald himself was concrete and noticeable, a piece of pure final substance.
'Now,' said Birkin, 'I will show you what I learned, and what I remember. You let me take you so - ' And his hands closed on the naked body of the other man. In another moment, he had Gerald swung over lightly and balanced against his knee, head downwards. Relaxed, Gerald sprang to his feet with eyes glittering.
'That's smart,' he said. 'Now try again.'
So the two men began to struggle together. They were very dissimilar. Birkin was tall and narrow, his bones were very thin and fine. Gerald was much heavier and more plastic. His bones were strong and round, his limbs were rounded, all his contours were beautifully and fully moulded. He seemed to stand with a proper, rich weight on the face of the earth, whilst Birkin seemed to have the centre of gravitation in his own middle. And Gerald had a rich, frictional kind of strength, rather mechanical, but sudden and invincible, whereas Birkin was abstract as to be almost intangible. He impinged invisibly upon the other man, scarcely seeming to touch him, like a garment, and then suddenly piercing in a tense fine grip that seemed to penetrate into the very quick of Gerald's being.
They stopped, they discussed methods, they practised grips and throws, they became accustomed to each other, to each other's rhythm, they got a kind of mutual physical understanding. And then again they had a real struggle. They seemed to drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness. Birkin had a great subtle energy, that would press upon the other man with an uncanny force, weigh him like a spell put upon him. Then it would pass, and Gerald would heave free, with white, heaving, dazzling movements.
So the two men entwined and wrestled with each other, working nearer and nearer. Both were white and clear, but Gerald flushed smart red where he was touched, and Birkin remained white and tense. He seemed to penetrate into Gerald's more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to bring it subtly into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic fore-knowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting and counteracting it, playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind. It was as if Birkin's whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald's body, as if his fine, sublimated energy entered into the flesh of the fuller man, like some potency, casting a fine net, a prison, through the muscles into the very depths of Gerald's physical being.
So they wrestled swiftly, rapturously, intent and mindless at last, two essential white figures working into a tighter closer oneness of struggle, with a strange, octopus-like knotting and flashing of limbs in the subdued light of the room; a tense white knot of flesh gripped in silence between the walls of old brown books. Now and again came a sharp gasp of breath, or a sound like a sigh, then the rapid thudding of movement on the thickly-carpeted floor, then the strange sound of flesh escaping under flesh. Often, in the white interlaced knot of violent living being that swayed silently, there was no head to be seen, only the swift, tight limbs, the solid white backs, the physical junction of two bodies clinched into oneness. Then would appear the gleaming, ruffled head of Gerald, as the struggle changed, then for a moment the dun-coloured, shadow-like head of the other man would lift up from the conflict, the eyes wide and dreadful and sightless.
At length Gerald lay back inert on the carpet, his breast rising in great slow panting, whilst Birkin kneeled over him, almost unconscious. Birkin was much more exhausted. He caught little, short breaths, he could scarcely breathe any more. The earth seemed to tilt and sway, and a complete darkness was coming over his mind. He did not know what happened. He slid forward quite unconscious, over Gerald, and Gerald did not notice. Then he was half-conscious again, aware only of the strange tilting and sliding of the world. The world was sliding, everything was sliding off into the darkness. And he was sliding, endlessly, endlessly away.
He came to consciousness again, hearing an immense knocking outside. What could be happening, what was it, the great hammer-stroke resounding through the house? He did not know. And then it came to him that it was his own heart beating. But that seemed impossible, the noise was outside. No, it was inside himself, it was his own heart. And the beating was painful, so strained, surcharged. He wondered if Gerald heard it. He did not know whether he were standing or lying or falling.
When he realised that he had fallen prostrate upon Gerald's body he wondered, he was surprised. But he sat up, steadying himself with his hand and waiting for his heart to become stiller and less painful. It hurt very much, and took away his consciousness.
Gerald however was still less conscious than Birkin. They waited dimly, in a sort of not-being, for many uncounted, unknown minutes.
'Of course - ' panted Gerald, 'I didn't have to be rough - with you - I had to keep back - my force - '
Birkin heard the sound as if his own spirit stood behind him, outside him, and listened to it. His body was in a trance of exhaustion, his spirit heard thinly. His body could not answer. Only he knew his heart was getting quieter. He was divided entirely between his spirit, which stood outside, and knew, and his body, that was a plunging, unconscious stroke of blood.
'I could have thrown you - using violence - ' panted Gerald. 'But you beat me right enough.'
'Yes,' said Birkin, hardening his throat and producing the words in the tension there, 'you're much stronger than I - you could beat me - easily.'
Then he relaxed again to the terrible plunging of his heart and his blood.
'It surprised me,' panted Gerald, 'what strength you've got. Almost supernatural.'
'For a moment,' said Birkin.
He still heard as if it were his own disembodied spirit hearing, standing at some distance behind him. It drew nearer however, his spirit. And the violent striking of blood in his chest was sinking quieter, allowing his mind to come back. He realised that he was leaning with all his weight on the soft body of the other man. It startled him, because he thought he had withdrawn. He recovered himself, and sat up. But he was still vague and unestablished. He put out his hand to steady himself. It touched the hand of Gerald, that was lying out on the floor. And Gerald's hand closed warm and sudden over Birkin's, they remained exhausted and breathless, the one hand clasped closely over the other. It was Birkin whose hand, in swift response, had closed in a strong, warm clasp over the hand of the other. Gerald's clasp had been sudden and momentaneous.
The normal consciousness however was returning, ebbing back. Birkin could breathe almost naturally again. Gerald's hand slowly withdrew, Birkin slowly, dazedly rose to his feet and went towards the table. He poured out a whiskey and soda. Gerald also came for a drink.
'It was a real set-to, wasn't it?' said Birkin, looking at Gerald with darkened eyes.
'God, yes,' said Gerald. He looked at the delicate body of the other man, and added: 'It wasn't too much for you, was it?'
'No. One ought to wrestle and strive and be physically close. It makes one sane.'
'You do think so?'
'I do. Don't you?'
'Yes,' said Gerald.
There were long spaces of silence between their words. The wrestling had some deep meaning to them - an unfinished meaning.
'We are mentally, spiritually intimate, therefore we should be more or less physically intimate too - it is more whole.'
'Certainly it is,' said Gerald. Then he laughed pleasantly, adding: 'It's rather wonderful to me.' He stretched out his arms handsomely.
'Yes,' said Birkin. 'I don't know why one should have to justify oneself.'
The two men began to dress.
'I think also that you are beautiful,' said Birkin to Gerald, 'and that is enjoyable too. One should enjoy what is given.'
'You think I am beautiful - how do you mean, physically?' asked Gerald, his eyes glistening.
'Yes. You have a northern kind of beauty, like light refracted from snow - and a beautiful, plastic form. Yes, that is there to enjoy as well. We should enjoy everything.'
Gerald laughed in his throat, and said:
'That's certainly one way of looking at it. I can say this much, I feel better. It has certainly helped me. Is this the Bruderschaft you wanted?'
'Perhaps. Do you think this pledges anything?'
'I don't know,' laughed Gerald.
'At any rate, one feels freer and more open now - and that is what we want.'
'Certainly,' said Gerald.
They drew to the fire, with the decanters and the glasses and the food.
'I always eat a little before I go to bed,' said Gerald. 'I sleep better.'
'I should not sleep so well,' said Birkin.
'No? There you are, we are not alike. I'll put a dressing-gown on.' Birkin remained alone, looking at the fire. His mind had reverted to Ursula. She seemed to return again into his consciousness. Gerald came down wearing a gown of broad-barred, thick black-and-green silk, brilliant and striking.
'You are very fine,' said Birkin, looking at the full robe.
'It was a caftan in Bokhara,' said Gerald. 'I like it.'
'I like it too.'
Birkin was silent, thinking how scrupulous Gerald was in his attire, how expensive too. He wore silk socks, and studs of fine workmanship, and silk underclothing, and silk braces. Curious! This was another of the differences between them. Birkin was careless and unimaginative about his own appearance.
'Of course you,' said Gerald, as if he had been thinking; 'there's something curious about you. You're curiously strong. One doesn't expect it, it is rather surprising.'
Birkin laughed. He was looking at the handsome figure of the other man, blond and comely in the rich robe, and he was half thinking of the difference between it and himself - so different; as far, perhaps, apart as man from woman, yet in another direction. But really it was Ursula, it was the woman who was gaining ascendance over Birkin's being, at this moment. Gerald was becoming dim again, lapsing out of him.
'Do you know,' he said suddenly, 'I went and proposed to Ursula Brangwen tonight, that she should marry me.'
He saw the blank shining wonder come over Gerald's face.
'Yes. Almost formally - speaking first to her father, as it should be, in the world - though that was accident - or mischief.'
Gerald only stared in wonder, as if he did not grasp.
'You don't mean to say that you seriously went and asked her father to let you marry her?'
'Yes,' said Birkin, 'I did.'
'What, had you spoken to her before about it, then?'
'No, not a word. I suddenly thought I would go there and ask her - and her father happened to come instead of her - so I asked him first.'
'If you could have her?' concluded Gerald.
'And you didn't speak to her?'
'Yes. She came in afterwards. So it was put to her as well.'
'It was! And what did she say then? You're an engaged man?'
'No, - she only said she didn't want to be bullied into answering.'
'Said she didn't want to be bullied into answering.'
'"Said she didn't want to be bullied into answering!" Why, what did she mean by that?'
Birkin raised his shoulders. 'Can't say,' he answered. 'Didn't want to be bothered just then, I suppose.'
'But is this really so? And what did you do then?'
'I walked out of the house and came here.'
'You came straight here?'
Gerald stared in amazement and amusement. He could not take it in.
'But is this really true, as you say it now?'
'Word for word.'
He leaned back in his chair, filled with delight and amusement.
'Well, that's good,' he said. 'And so you came here to wrestle with your good angel, did you?'
'Did I?' said Birkin.
'Well, it looks like it. Isn't that what you did?'
Now Birkin could not follow Gerald's meaning.
'And what's going to happen?' said Gerald. 'You're going to keep open the proposition, so to speak?'
'I suppose so. I vowed to myself I would see them all to the devil. But I suppose I shall ask her again, in a little while.'
Gerald watched him steadily.
'So you're fond of her then?' he asked.
'I think - I love her,' said Birkin, his face going very still and fixed.
Gerald glistened for a moment with pleasure, as if it were something done specially to please him. Then his face assumed a fitting gravity, and he nodded his head slowly.
'You know,' he said, 'I always believed in love - true love. But where does one find it nowadays?'
'I don't know,' said Birkin.
'Very rarely,' said Gerald. Then, after a pause, 'I've never felt it myself - not what I should call love. I've gone after women - and been keen enough over some of them. But I've never felt LOVE. I don't believe I've ever felt as much LOVE for a woman, as I have for you - not LOVE. You understand what I mean?'
'Yes. I'm sure you've never loved a woman.'
'You feel that, do you? And do you think I ever shall? You understand what I mean?' He put his hand to his breast, closing his fist there, as if he would draw something out. 'I mean that - that I can't express what it is, but I know it.'
'What is it, then?' asked Birkin.
'You see, I can't put it into words. I mean, at any rate, something abiding, something that can't change - '
His eyes were bright and puzzled.
'Now do you think I shall ever feel that for a woman?' he said, anxiously.
Birkin looked at him, and shook his head.
'I don't know,' he said. 'I could not say.'
Gerald had been on the QUI VIVE, as awaiting his fate. Now he drew back in his chair.
'No,' he said, 'and neither do I, and neither do I.'
'We are different, you and I,' said Birkin. 'I can't tell your life.'
'No,' said Gerald, 'no more can I. But I tell you - I begin to doubt it!'
'That you will ever love a woman?'
'Well - yes - what you would truly call love - '
'You doubt it?'
'Well - I begin to.'
There was a long pause.
'Life has all kinds of things,' said Birkin. 'There isn't only one road.'
'Yes, I believe that too. I believe it. And mind you, I don't care how it is with me - I don't care how it is - so long as I don't feel - ' he paused, and a blank, barren look passed over his face, to express his feeling - 'so long as I feel I've LIVED, somehow - and I don't care how it is - but I want to feel that - '
'Fulfilled,' said Birkin.
'We-ell, perhaps it is fulfilled; I don't use the same words as you.'
'It is the same.'