- CHAPTER XII
|<< chapter 11||< prologue||chapter 13 >|
JOHN-ANDREW lay for weeks in the Nursing Home, seeing no one but the doctor and the nurses; hearing nothing, caring nothing. The outside world had become trivial; he only knew that he was tired and comfortable. He never wished to leave this place. Contact—with things or with other bodies—was too painful a speculation.
He was content to lie in the bed; without a book, or a letter, or a paper, or the littlest whisper from outside. He did not even care to assert himself as the author of Cackle Street. Probably the nurses considered him quite an obscure person! What did that matter so long as he had his milk, his beef juices and his beaten eggs! He approached his many little meals in the spirit of the true ritualist.
His active life—as it had been—receded. It went far out and he half-forgot everything. He was dull over his torture during Jane's life and dull over his freedom since she died. His life that was past lay as a grey line—thin, uniform: it was as the sea—on a flat shore at low tide. He could not believe that the tide would come in again, that waves would be big.
He wished to stay idle here for the rest of his life, just being soothed and fed and tended; just weakly, warmly sleeping, just hearing, but only | | 283 as a silky muffle, the traffic of the London streets. How good of Buttifant to get him here!
"This is a quiet situation," he said in a complimentary voice to his nurse one day," but why do they ring the church bell so often? A funeral bell isn't it? It might depress some patients, but I have nothing to feel afraid of."
The nurse smiled. Presently she gave him something warm, in a fine thin cup, to drink. Then he went to sleep.
The bell annoyed him for a week or two—then they left off ringing it. (There had been no bellringing—except to his ears.) He was glad not to hear it any more; since bells reminded him of Jane's typewriter. But he was not inordinately glad; for he torpidly accepted things as they came or went. He took them for granted. Nothing could hurt him here.
After a week or two more he began to think; he was vaguely alive to facts and vaguely uneasy. He had made a fool of himself at the police station, for of course he didn't cut Jane's throat. He had meant to; he was there with the knife, but Jane was awake instead of being asleep. That made all the difference.
He did not bother about it again that day or the next. Then he began to think faster. Yet thought did not worry him; for there was a great deal of time in which to think and, also, he was perfectly safe. He had got out of the police station by the skin of his teeth. What a fool he was to go! What a fool of a policeman to let him go! His brain worked smoothly; it was clear, clean, regular and well oiled: it was like Jane's typewriter!| | 284
Later on, he thought of Cackle Street; which Jane had written and for which he had the money and the fame. Poor old Jane!
Then he thought of all those things which he had written for Mr. Branch, while Jane was alive, and of the play he started on after she died, and when Cackle Street boomed.
In writing, he had merely been delivering himself of dreary small emotions. The form of delivery was transient; it did not represent his life. So far, he had not begun to live. He had been gambolling about and getting into mischief. He did not wish to live; he was in no mood to experiment further.
One day—with a ridiculous sense of wonder—he supposed that if he got better he had better marry his nurse. She would jump at the author of Cackle Street. Marrying a nurse was not like marrying an ordinary woman. A nurse was cool; she had her profession. He might do worse. Next time she came to the side of his bed, he regarded her smiling starchy plumpness. If he married her she would always be ready to put him to bed and feed him.
Nurses were wonderful women and the only sort he wanted. He went on wondering what else he could do if he got better. The doctor and the nurse knew that he would be better and before very long; but he hoped he was going to die. To die would be dramatic, to get better would be feeble—and just the sort of thing he usually did. He could not even cut Jane's throat; she, killed herself with sleeping powders.
If he got better he might commit suicide. He could go down to Cornwall and jump off the rocks as his | | 285 grandfather did. No! His grandfather pushed the other man over.
Cornwall was a long way off and so was Becca. The thought of Becca made his eyes ache; that girl was like a blazing garden. If he went to Cornwall and tried to jump off a rock, Becca would come behind and tug him in by the coat tail. She would make of him an absurd salvage instead of a strong suicide.
He chuckled feebly, he slipped down in the nice warm bed. Then again—as to drowning—the splash in the water was not the only splash he wanted to hear. He would like to see what the newspapers said about it. As he got stronger, he wondered if Cackle Street was still running. He had some interest in the matter, yet not enough to ask the nurse if she knew. What was the good of asking? She would not tell him the truth. She would tell him one of those soothing lies at which they are so adept with the invalid.
The day came when they got him out of bed for an hour or so. He sat by a sunny window in his dressing-gown. There was not much movement in the street below, but the little there was turned him giddy. He implored them, nearly sobbing, to put him back to bed. But he had to get up the next day and the day after. Suddenly, he came to realise that he was going to live, not die. His body got stronger and his brain began to suffer. His acts passed in a steady pageant before his abashed, his anguished glance.
He knew himself for what he was—a murderer! Just that!| | 286
Men might believe him or refuse to believe, men might punish him or refrain, but he was certainly Jane's murderer. He had murdered Jane.
She never would have taken an overdose of sleeping powder if he had not stood by her bed with that open knife. She would have been alive now; rich with Cackle Street and riotous. How she would have bragged! And spent money like water. Generous, vulgar Jane! Always overdoing it.
He must get better. He must make Buttifant believe him; and Branch and that heavy-looking, rosy oaf of a policeman at the station near Verulam Buildings. He would be tried for his life and perhaps hanged. Oh but they would never hang him! The law was so non-subtle, the English mind was so exact when it came to crime.
Perhaps nobody would even believe him; but he would try hard. He would also say that Jane had written Cackle Street. This they certainly would not believe; for he had no proof. He had burned her notebooks and the MS. of the play.
He sat by the window in his dressing-gown; a little yellow-faced man, with a skull of satin brightness. The nurse looked at him with interest; he was outside the usual run of patients. He had written Cackle Street!
He did not look like it. She supposed that these clever people never did look like it. As to talking brilliantly—as the play talked—she had seldom met a duller young man.
He sat looking down at the clean bright street and the summer people.
"If this weather lasts, Mr. Vaguener," she said, | | 287 still watching him, "you'll be able to get out for a little while. We could drive in the Park."
John-Andrew shrank back; he looked wistfully at his bed.
In the bed he had ignored and half forgotten. Sitting in the chair—stronger, clearer—he was guilty and afraid. He would tell the whole truth but he dreaded it.
He would, once get out of this place, force the proof of his guilt down every throat; yet one and all, they might refuse to swallow!
What should he do with his life then? Oh what should he do?
They would not believe him. He had no proof. He had been so crafty, so immensely clever, that night in Gray's Inn when he slipped out of Buttifant's set into Jane's. And he had been clever over Cackle Street.
They would not believe. They would run him into a Nursing Home again. Or perhaps a Lunatic Asylum. They would consider him permanently unhinged. He must bear the burden of it all his life. And that would be a worse punishment than just the swift rope about a man's neck.
When he got to bed again he turned in it, with a fatigue that was swift and slow. He had been happy in this bed. Why did they take him out? In strict Justice, there were only two places for him: the bed upon which he lay, the scaffold upon which to face Death. He was constrained—logically—to die and soon; in one place or the other. But they would not let him. They insisted that he should go on living: the ignoble course always came his way.| | 288
He kept turning about. The nurse watched. She came and shook his pillow up, in the soothing manner they had.
"Try and go to sleep," she said.
He did try but he thought sullenly as he dropped off, that the attitude of people here—the nurses and the doctor—was rather an insult to his intelligence. For his brain was better than theirs.
The nurse said brightly next morning:
"If you go on as you are going, Doctor says you can see visitors."
"For God's sake—don't! " said John-Andrew.
He clung to her.
"I want to stay with you," he said. For he felt (he a guilty man—as his grandfather had been guilty in 1854) the need of a kind good woman to whom he might cling. He wanted mothering.
She patted his shoulder and gave him his tonic. He went to sleep. Yet, uneasily, he knew that these people in the Nursing Home meant to get him well; they meant to get rid of him. His recovery helped their reputation.
They had cured the author of Cackle Street, he grinned within himself malignantly. For he had sardonic humour—of a sort. He reflected that he had more than the usual conceit of the imaginative creator. People who did things, good or bad—writing, painting; anything—they were always chock full of conceit: they called it 'personality.' But he, who had done nothing, could beat them all at bragging.
It was Jane who had done the beautiful work; noisy, coarse Jane. Within her, there must have | | 289 been a sprout of something lovely. Yet who would have suspected it? As to his own work, as to those still-born essays and poems he had done while Jane lived, and as to the play he had started on since she died, he thought nothing of any of it. He felt that to write one more line of that play would turn him sick. Branch and the public must do without him.
He came to the conclusion that he was no more a genius at writing than he had been a devotee in religion. Jane and Kenneth had the gifts; he had nothing. There was one other big thing left; the tiling called Love. He did not want that, for if, in the end, he married his nurse it would merely be that she might put him nicely to bed and feed him up.
As to Becca! That girl, just the thought of her, took his breath away. She was so rampant and gaudy, so wonderful—say a man wanted love. He was beset by the uneasy feeling that he would not keep free of Becca.
He had failed at religion, he had failed at art, he was chill with love.
What was there then? Why go out in the world again? He wished, with all his soul, that these people at the Nursing Home would let him stay. If they turned him out, he would come back and whimper on the doorstep like a dog.
He could not go back to the world and just eat and drink and wash himself. This routine contented ninety-nine men out of a hundred. They kept on doing this to a green old age and when the time came to die, they considered that they had | | 290 lived. He wanted something real. Discontent, ambition and grief had been born with him. There must surely be something to keep a man quiet and make him full. What was it? Why could not he get it?
Above all this ruminating, two emotions rose high; they battled in him. He knew that, really, truly, he had murdered Jane, if ever a man murdered a woman; therefore, he must give himself up, he must make people believe him guilty, he must take whatever punishment came. This sense of remorse about Jane grew strong as he grew strong; it coincided with recovery and for every pound of flesh that he put on, he carried triple that weight of penitence. He must convince the world; he must be hanged or go to penal servitude.
This was one emotion. The other was a consuming desire for womanly pity, for beautiful mothering. It made him want to lay his racked head on the nurse's starchy bosom and implore her to marry him. If she married him she would always be there; he would carry a Nursing Home wherever he went.
Suppose Buttifant, Branch, Graham the doctor, the policeman whose name he did not know and Kenneth his cousin, who was a priest,—suppose they all refused to believe that he was criminally responsible for Jane's death and that he stole her play? Suppose they refused to hang him or give him a good stiff sentence? Suppose they threatened him with a Lunatic Asylum? In that case, say he married the nurse, she would look after him, stand between him and them, keep him quiet and give him stuff to drink!| | 291
He turned it all over, this way, that way, in his mind; sitting, yellow-skinned and little-eyed, by the window, or lying in his bed.
He might confess to Kenneth. Suppose he did; Kenneth's lips were sealed. To say nothing of the fact that, in the confessional or out of it, Kenneth would hold fast to the idea that he was the victim of a delusion, that his brain was overwrought. His brain! What had it ever done?
He was sitting by the window, looking idly out one afternoon, when he saw a taxi stop. He supposed that they had brought to the house some other patient. If so, then he was a lucky devil—for his time was only just beginning in this soporific place. Then he heard steps on the stairs and stopping outside and the door opening. It opened in a healthy, warm, whirlwind sort of way and like a warm whirlwind Becca swooped in.
She came to the chair where he sat and dropped on her knees and put her arms round him.
"Johnny," she said, in one lovely gasp, "Johnny!"
She hid her face in the brown, fleecy folds of his dressing-gown. Her red head lay across his breast and her summer hat was crooked—anyhow. Becca did not care.
"They left me in the waiting-room while they went off to see if you could be seen," she whispered, "but I'd heard them say what number your room was and I just skedaddled up. Johnny! I thought you might die. I've been afraid."
She dropped her head and kissed his hands; that were queerly coloured and patchy—with their natural brown and their acquired invalidism.| | 292
The quick whispering of kisses on his hands made John-Andrew think of dog's kisses. Becca's whole entry had been like the passionate rush of a beautiful pet animal, wild in its devotion, glorying in it, making of it a religion. Becca loved that way.
John-Andrew's illness had broken down the slight barriers she had kept up. Kneeling there, rapturously kissing his unresponsive hands, she would have horrified not only her chill mother but all the other mothers. Maidenly modesty, as matrons construe it, Becca knew nothing of. She had merely her own modesty; of extreme and delicate passion. Her face was crimson as she kissed John-Andrew's hands, the blood rose up to the ridge of her red hair.
John-Andrew's face relaxed.
"Becca," his voice was new and weak, it made her lift her head and stare, "will you take care of me? Will you marry me, Becca?" He had asked her instead of asking the nurse.
He had never seen such a blush; it stained her neck.
He kissed her gratefully on the mouth. She was going to take care of him.
Her lips clung at his; as the other Rebecca's had clung to his grandfather's. He retreated into the padded shoulders of the chair; feeling breathless and coy.
Soon after that he was well enough to go to Cornwall. One of the first things his aunt said to him on arrival was:
"So Becca's got you! I knew she would."| | 293
Mrs. Marshall spoke in her sage sensible manner of high cheek-bones; she added quite candidly,
"I'm sorry, Johnny; because you didn't want to marry. You're not made for it."
John-Andrew answered quickly: as if he rapped a table,
"I want to marry. It's the only thing I do want."
His aunt here implied in her manner a certain gawky disdain. He was not true to type. She had regarded her nephew as she regarded her son. In her mind they stood for the perfect celibate. John-Andrew was a pervert.
She had to make the best of him as a lover—and such an enraptured one!
John-Andrew did nothing by halves.
In the Nursing Home he had wanted to marry Becca, because he wanted mothering. Becca was better than the nurse—she loved him more.
In Cornwall, with the champagne air of the place and the drunken lovely spread of colour, over sea and over land—that was different. The embers of manhood reddened.
Becca communicated to him by the sheer force of her devotion, the lovely thing that love is and the gift that it gives.
He thought—and this was the third time—that he had found the thing which was good for a man: he was going to express himself at last.
He grew stronger every day; and more imaginative. He could—once he accepted the idea—be even more absorbed by love than Becca was.
He brought his passion, his remorse, his vague | | 294 desires, his very guilt, to bear. Every emotion was concentrated into each kiss that he gave Becca; and each fiery thing that he said.
She was so adorably shy: as he advanced so she receded. She plagued, indulged, led him on, eluded him. She knew it all. They fluttered in the mesh of their great desire. They hardly knew they trod the earth, they looked at people vaguely, they answered at random.
Very often they went off for the whole day; sitting upon the hills inland, or sitting upon the violet edges of the cliffs and staring down at the vivid sea: not speaking much, exchanging quick, strange glances.
"If we never have anything else—we have had this," said Becca one day. She threw up her strong, clear chin.
They were walking along the tops of the hills above Towednack. It was getting sunset and they were travelling home.
John-Andrew stopped, he snatched her in his arms.
"Darling! Anything else! Why we haven't rung up the curtain yet, Becca. And we are going to have a long, long run."
Her head was in the nook of his arm, so she missed the sudden spasm of his face: he was thinking of Cackle Street, he was remembering Jane. And he remembered that he had made up his mind to confess. Now he would not. For Becca's sake he dared not.
This burden he must carry all his life for Becca's sake. She believed him to be both good and clever.
They descended by little jogging stages to the high road. An invalid chair was being drawn along it.| | 295
"Old Mrs. Polmeor," said Becca. "What's she doing out so late? But she does go out late if the mood takes her. She's so eccentric. And she's horrid to look at, Johnny. Turn your head away as we pass; for I shall be like that when I am old."
John-Andrew picked up her hand as it swung at her side. "Old," he said incredulously.
He kissed her hand; with a frantic dog-like ardour; just as she had kissed his in the Nursing Home.
"Yes—old! Doesn't it seem as if—it can't be?"
Becca laughed, saying this. She looked away across the sea, and then across the great hills with their fronds of green bracken. Old age could never come. It was years off and years. Each moment was delight—and eternal. They made their own Time, she and John-Andrew. She stood still; enslaved and quivering while he flung kisses on her hand.
When they got to the road they met the chair. Mrs. Polmeor had contrived this.
"She's sure to want to stop," whispered Becca, "she always does, and then she says nothing. When she comes to the Rectory we have quite a business to get rid of her, although she only sits and stares."
The chair stopped.
Rebecca Polmeor looked out at them. She looked out from a thicket of wrinkles, from the fusty wrappings of chilly old age. Her mouth dropped open. She did not speak. She only looked at the two with a terrible eloquence which they would never translate.
They were lovers—and the grandchildren of her lover. A breath of their rapture blew to her.| | 296
"Hasn't it been a lovely day, Mrs. Polmeor?" said Becca.
She drew near to John Andrew. There was something repellent about old women—and about this old woman more than most.
Rebecca Polmeor saw the disgust on their two faces: youth's intolerance of age. Yet she did not feel old to-night and looking at them. She could not speak, she could only stare; that dull look from old eyes that have sunk in the head. When she had looked up from the winding road and seen them coming—airy, jaunty—from the top of the hill—she had stopped her chair, she had meant to speak. She could have said everything. Now she said nothing that mattered.
"A lovely day," she repeated mechanically and nodded her head once or twice and made a sign to her servant to pull the chair on.
John-Andrew and Becca proceeded. They flung the old woman a smile.
"There is a garden in her face," he quoted almost before they were out of earshot. "She wouldn't be so ugly if she washed her face."
"She does. But it's no good washing that sort of skin, Johnny. And it's going to be mine."
"And mine, Becca."
"Yes; but men's looks don't matter. When I am old——"
"Oh, love!" he stopped her in the middle of the winding road, "you'll never be old. That you should look like that! It's impossible."
"Not a bit. I expect Mr. Polmeor said the very same thing to her upon this road a hundred years ago."| | 297
"Your golden tinge!" John-Andrew's palm ran down her cheek." And those brown flaps of skin on her face!"
Night was coming. The light grew looming; scents came from the earth and from little scuttling field beasts and nervous, humming insects. Here and there was a light upon the sea, here and there a star in the sky or a lamp in the town. His arm went round her, they walked on slowly; in a little panic of sorrow because each step brought them nearer the Rectory and ended their day.
After a few paces, Mrs. Polmeor made the man stop the chair. There was a farmhouse standing off the road.
"Draw my chair to the side and leave me. Go and ask Mrs. Peter Noall if she's got any ducks' eggs to sell. And don't," her old laugh was harsh," hurry back, William-Henry."
"You'll be laid up with the bronchitis if you stays out after dark, missus," the man protested. "You'll give trouble at home."
He was an old servant and had drawn her chair and worked in her garden for years.
"If I do, I can pay for trouble, William-Henry. You get along and ask for the ducks' eggs."
He went off grumbling. So Rebecca Polmeor was alone; alone on this wonderful road, in this wonderful land; with her own wonderful heart beat: it beat the years back.
She knew this land so well. Her eyes had looked on this when they were young and bright, when they could weep. They were still bright, deeply sunk in her head and wickedly shining, but they | | 298 hardly ever wept. She was old. Cynicism had dried her tears at the spring.
She sat in the chair alone, she heard the servant's steps descend to the farm; then the door opened and he went in.
The sea was breaking by Clodgy. Another sound came back; it was Becca's laugh; arrogant and happy as she walked with John-Andrew.
Rebecca Polmeor sat stiff, her limbs cold with rheumatism; clogged by the shawls and the bundly wrappings of an old woman.
How long she had lived! It was marvellous. When as a young woman, she came crying along this road, or when she moaned out loud down there at Clodgy, or when she walked to Zennor and sat at the Window Rock, looking through and shrieking, "Johnny, Johnny "—above the shriek of the gulls; then she had not only wished to die but had felt that she must die before dawn.
She laughed again; with savage brevity.
It was terrible to be an old woman. Those two—his grandchildren—had shrunk from her. She could have struck them for that instinctive flinching. Yet she understood it.
She sat alone, looking back at her long life. Her husband, her children! What were they to her heart? They were nothing; not as she sat here now, thinking of her dead lover. He was a murderer and he had not even cared for her. Yet she gave to him the wealth of her soul. Never had she changed. Never a day that she had not longed for him and secretly said his name.
Down all the years, she had said his name: in | | 299 her garden, or sitting by her fire at night, when the children were put to bed and her husband was out in the parish.
Since she was a widow she had said it; and since she had heard that her lover was dead; and since—by a ruse—he had got his son back to Cornwall; giving him—under another name—the living from which he, the murderer of Curnow, had fled.
He had married, as she had married. But what was that—oh what was that?
She laughed again; desolately, brokenly, out here upon the high road, on the way to Zennor in the dusk. After long ceasing—tears splashed down her face. She welcomed them: with the rapture that the old do welcome a recurrence of youth. For years she had not cried.
She made no attempt to dry her face.
"Plenty of furrows for you to fill," she said strongly to her tears.
Her voice was younger and warmer; she relaxed beneath her weight of wrappings.
She sat in her chair, crying—after stiff cessation. She started trying with all her violent soul, to draw the man she loved from the mysterious place of spirits where he dwelt, to her side again. Let him come here and stand by the chair. Let him put his mouth on hers as he had done at the Rectory that one night, just that one night, sixty years ago.
The next day he was a murderer.
She sat in her chair, dusk thickening round her, salt water drenching her old face—and she remembered. She looked towards the sea and she listened. | | 300 She saw afresh and breathed afresh the warm colour of that morning in 1854. She could see Curnow big and limp—inefficient and good-humoured—at the edge of the rock: she saw her little lover, strong and small and brown, push that unresisting giant over. He did it so easily; he just tipped him.
She could sicken now—after all these years—at the sound of the splash, at the sight of big Curnow wrapped about by green and purple waves. Didn't they gobble him!
She shivered. She was afraid: yes, afraid of the road that she had known all her life. She called out sharply as William-Henry emerged from the farm with his basket of ducks' eggs:
"You stayed gadding too long. I'm chilled to the bone."
"But you can pay for nursing, missus," chuckled the old man, tugging at her chair and taking her carefully downhill to Towednack.
She was wiping her eyes.
It was over—her pageant of agony, her revival of youth, her tears that she had welcomed.
She had succeeded in beckoning suffering back. She was alive—still. She could hurt still. She could desire: a dead man—a dead old grandfather. Throughout her married life, she had always cast off her married ties in imagination, whenever she chose. She had taken them off as she would have thrown aside a domino.
To-night she had cast off the domino again—the masquerade of her great years.
Through the sight of those lovers she had cast it off.
Upon the crest of the hill, alone in the dusk, while | | 301 William-Henry bought ducks' eggs, she had been young.
She muffled her throat and chest, she cuddled her lower limbs into the shawls and rugs as William-Henry jogged her down the hill. She had grown mortal cold since she left off crying.
|<< chapter 11||< prologue||chapter 13 >|