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Aaron's Rod by D. H. Lawrence

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Produced by Doug Levy

AARON'S ROD

by D. H. Lawrence

CONTENTS

I. THE BLUE BALL
II. ROYAL OAK
III. "THE LIGHTED TREE"
IV. "THE PILLAR OF SALT"
V. AT THE OPERA
VI. TALK
VII. THE DARK SQUARE GARDEN
VIII. A PUNCH IN THE WIND
IX. LOW-WATER MARK
X. THE WAR AGAIN
XI. MORE PILLAR OF SALT
XII. NOVARA
XIII. WIE ES IHNEN GEFAELLT
XIV. XX SETTEMBRE
XV. A RAILWAY JOURNEY
XVI. FLORENCE
XVII. HIGH UP OVER THE CATHEDRAL SQUARE
XVIII. THE MARCHESA
XIX. CLEOPATRA, BUT NOT ANTHONY
XX. THE BROKEN ROD
XXI. WORDS

CHAPTER I

THE BLUE BALL

There was a large, brilliant evening star in the early twilight, and
underfoot the earth was half frozen. It was Christmas Eve. Also the
War was over, and there was a sense of relief that was almost a new
menace. A man felt the violence of the nightmare released now into the
general air. Also there had been another wrangle among the men on the
pit-bank that evening.

Aaron Sisson was the last man on the little black railway-line
climbing the hill home from work. He was late because he had attended
a meeting of the men on the bank. He was secretary to the Miners Union
for his colliery, and had heard a good deal of silly wrangling that
left him nettled.

He strode over a stile, crossed two fields, strode another stile, and
was in the long road of colliers' dwellings. Just across was his own
house: he had built it himself. He went through the little gate, up
past the side of the house to the back. There he hung a moment,
glancing down the dark, wintry garden.

"My father--my father's come!" cried a child's excited voice, and two
little girls in white pinafores ran out in front of his legs.

"Father, shall you set the Christmas Tree?" they cried. "We've
got one!"

"Afore I have my dinner?" he answered amiably.

"Set it now. Set it now.--We got it through Fred Alton."

"Where is it?"

The little girls were dragging a rough, dark object out of a corner of
the passage into the light of the kitchen door.

"It's a beauty!" exclaimed Millicent.

"Yes, it is," said Marjory.

"I should think so," he replied, striding over the dark bough. He went
to the back kitchen to take off his coat.

"Set it now, Father. Set it now," clamoured the girls.

"You might as well. You've left your dinner so long, you might as well
do it now before you have it," came a woman's plangent voice, out of
the brilliant light of the middle room.

Aaron Sisson had taken off his coat and waistcoat and his cap. He
stood bare-headed in his shirt and braces, contemplating the tree.

"What am I to put it in?" he queried. He picked up the tree, and held
it erect by the topmost twig. He felt the cold as he stood in the yard
coatless, and he twitched his shoulders.

"Isn't it a beauty!" repeated Millicent.

"Ay!--lop-sided though."

"Put something on, you two!" came the woman's high imperative voice,
from the kitchen.

"We aren't cold," protested the girls from the yard.

"Come and put something on," insisted the voice. The man started off
down the path, the little girls ran grumbling indoors. The sky was
clear, there was still a crystalline, non-luminous light in the under
air.

Aaron rummaged in his shed at the bottom of the garden, and found a
spade and a box that was suitable. Then he came out to his neat, bare,
wintry garden. The girls flew towards him, putting the elastic of
their hats under their chins as they ran. The tree and the box lay
on the frozen earth. The air breathed dark, frosty, electric.

"Hold it up straight," he said to Millicent, as he arranged the tree
in the box. She stood silent and held the top bough, he filled in
round the roots.

When it was done, and pressed in, he went for the wheelbarrow. The
girls were hovering excited round the tree. He dropped the barrow
and stooped to the box. The girls watched him hold back his face--
the boughs pricked him.

"Is it very heavy?" asked Millicent.

"Ay!" he replied, with a little grunt. Then the procession set off--
the trundling wheel-barrow, the swinging hissing tree, the two excited
little girls. They arrived at the door. Down went the legs of the
wheel-barrow on the yard. The man looked at the box.

"Where are you going to have it?" he called.

"Put it in the back kitchen," cried his wife.

"You'd better have it where it's going to stop. I don't want to hawk
it about."

"Put it on the floor against the dresser, Father. Put it there,"
urged Millicent.

"You come and put some paper down, then," called the mother hastily.

The two children ran indoors, the man stood contemplative in the cold,
shrugging his uncovered shoulders slightly. The open inner door showed
a bright linoleum on the floor, and the end of a brown side-board on
which stood an aspidistra.

Again with a wrench Aaron Sisson lifted the box. The tree pricked
and stung. His wife watched him as he entered staggering, with his
face averted.

"Mind where you make a lot of dirt," she said.

He lowered the box with a little jerk on to the spread-out newspaper
on the floor. Soil scattered.

"Sweep it up," he said to Millicent.

His ear was lingering over the sudden, clutching hiss of the tree-
boughs.

A stark white incandescent light filled the room and made everything
sharp and hard. In the open fire-place a hot fire burned red. All
was scrupulously clean and perfect. A baby was cooing in a rocker-
less wicker cradle by the hearth. The mother, a slim, neat woman with
dark hair, was sewing a child's frock. She put this aside, rose, and
began to take her husband's dinner from the oven.

"You stopped confabbing long enough tonight," she said.

"Yes," he answered, going to the back kitchen to wash his hands.

In a few minutes he came and sat down to his dinner. The doors were
shut close, but there was a draught, because the settling of the mines
under the house made the doors not fit. Aaron moved his chair, to get
out of the draught. But he still sat in his shirt and trousers.

He was a good-looking man, fair, and pleasant, about thirty-two years
old. He did not talk much, but seemed to think about something. His
wife resumed her sewing. She was acutely aware of her husband, but he
seemed not very much aware of her.

"What were they on about today, then?" she said.

"About the throw-in."

"And did they settle anything?"

"They're going to try it--and they'll come out if it isn't
satisfactory."

"The butties won't have it, I know," she said. He gave a short laugh,
and went on with his meal.

The two children were squatted on the floor by the tree. They had a
wooden box, from which they had taken many little newspaper packets,
which they were spreading out like wares.

"Don't open any. We won't open any of them till we've taken them
all out--and then we'll undo one in our turns. Then we s'll both
undo equal," Millicent was saying.

"Yes, we'll take them ALL out first," re-echoed Marjory.

"And what are they going to do about Job Arthur Freer? Do they want
him?" A faint smile came on her husband's face.

"Nay, I don't know what they want.--Some of 'em want him--whether
they're a majority, I don't know."

She watched him closely.

"Majority! I'd give 'em majority. They want to get rid of you, and
make a fool of you, and you want to break your heart over it. Strikes
me you need something to break your heart over."

He laughed silently.

"Nay," he said. "I s'll never break my heart."

"You'll go nearer to it over that, than over anything else: just
because a lot of ignorant monkeys want a monkey of their own sort to
do the Union work, and jabber to them, they want to get rid of you,
and you eat your heart out about it. More fool you, that's all I
say--more fool you. If you cared for your wife and children half
what you care about your Union, you'd be a lot better pleased in the
end. But you care about nothing but a lot of ignorant colliers, who
don't know what they want except it's more money just for themselves.
Self, self, self--that's all it is with them--and ignorance."

"You'd rather have self without ignorance?" he said, smiling finely.

"I would, if I've got to have it. But what I should like to see is
a man that has thought for others, and isn't all self and politics."

Her color had risen, her hand trembled with anger as she sewed. A
blank look had come over the man's face, as if he did not hear or heed
any more. He drank his tea in a long draught, wiped his moustache with
two fingers, and sat looking abstractedly at the children.

They had laid all the little packets on the floor, and Millicent was
saying:

"Now I'll undo the first, and you can have the second. I'll take
this--"

She unwrapped the bit of newspaper and disclosed a silvery ornament
for a Christmas tree: a frail thing like a silver plum, with deep rosy
indentations on each side.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Isn't it LOVELY!" Her fingers cautiously
held the long bubble of silver and glowing rose, cleaving to it with
a curious, irritating possession. The man's eyes moved away from her.
The lesser child was fumbling with one of the little packets.

"Oh!"--a wail went up from Millicent. "You've taken one!--You didn't
wait." Then her voice changed to a motherly admonition, and she began
to interfere. "This is the way to do it, look! Let me help you."

But Marjory drew back with resentment.

"Don't, Millicent!--Don't!" came the childish cry. But Millicent's
fingers itched.

At length Marjory had got out her treasure--a little silvery bell
with a glass top hanging inside. The bell was made of frail glassy
substance, light as air.

"Oh, the bell!" rang out Millicent's clanging voice. "The bell! It's
my bell. My bell! It's mine! Don't break it, Marjory. Don't break
it, will you?"

Marjory was shaking the bell against her ear. But it was dumb, it made
no sound.

"You'll break it, I know you will.--You'll break it. Give it ME--"
cried Millicent, and she began to take away the bell. Marjory set up
an expostulation.

"LET HER ALONE," said the father.

Millicent let go as if she had been stung, but still her brassy,
impudent voice persisted:

"She'll break it. She'll break it. It's mine--"

"You undo another," said the mother, politic.

Millicent began with hasty, itching fingers to unclose another package.

"Aw--aw Mother, my peacock--aw, my peacock, my green peacock!"
Lavishly she hovered over a sinuous greenish bird, with wings and tail
of spun glass, pearly, and body of deep electric green.

"It's mine--my green peacock! It's mine, because Marjory's had one
wing off, and mine hadn't. My green peacock that I love! I love it!"
She swung it softly from the little ring on its back. Then she went
to her mother.

"Look, Mother, isn't it a beauty?"

"Mind the ring doesn't come out," said her mother. "Yes, it's lovely!"
The girl passed on to her father.

"Look, Father, don't you love it!"

"Love it?" he re-echoed, ironical over the word love.

She stood for some moments, trying to force his attention. Then she
went back to her place.

Marjory had brought forth a golden apple, red on one cheek, rather
garish.

"Oh!" exclaimed Millicent feverishly, instantly seized with desire for
what she had not got, indifferent to what she had. Her eye ran quickly
over the packages. She took one.

"Now!" she exclaimed loudly, to attract attention. "Now! What's
this?--What's this? What will this beauty be?"

With finicky fingers she removed the newspaper. Marjory watched her
wide-eyed. Millicent was self-important.

"The blue ball!" she cried in a climax of rapture. "I've got THE BLUE
BALL."

She held it gloating in the cup of her hands. It was a little globe
of hardened glass, of a magnificent full dark blue color. She rose
and went to her father.

"It was your blue ball, wasn't it, father?"

"Yes."

"And you had it when you were a little boy, and now I have it when I'm
a little girl."

"Ay," he replied drily.

"And it's never been broken all those years."

"No, not yet."

"And perhaps it never will be broken." To this she received no answer.

"Won't it break?" she persisted. "Can't you break it?"

"Yes, if you hit it with a hammer," he said.

"Aw!" she cried. "I don't mean that. I mean if you just drop it. It
won't break if you drop it, will it?"

"I dare say it won't."

"But WILL it?"

"I sh'd think not."

"Should I try?"

She proceeded gingerly to let the blue ball drop, it bounced dully on
the floor-covering.

"Oh-h-h!" she cried, catching it up. "I love it."

"Let ME drop it," cried Marjory, and there was a performance of
admonition and demonstration from the elder sister.

But Millicent must go further. She became excited.

"It won't break," she said, "even if you toss it up in the air."

She flung it up, it fell safely. But her father's brow knitted
slightly. She tossed it wildly: it fell with a little splashing
explosion: it had smashed. It had fallen on the sharp edge of the
tiles that protruded under the fender.

"NOW what have you done!" cried the mother.

The child stood with her lip between her teeth, a look, half, of pure
misery and dismay, half of satisfaction, on her pretty sharp face.

"She wanted to break it," said the father.

"No, she didn't! What do you say that for!" said the mother. And
Millicent burst into a flood of tears.

He rose to look at the fragments that lay splashed on the floor.

"You must mind the bits," he said, "and pick 'em all up."

He took one of the pieces to examine it. It was fine and thin and
hard, lined with pure silver, brilliant. He looked at it closely.
So--this was what it was. And this was the end of it. He felt the
curious soft explosion of its breaking still in his ears. He threw
his piece in the fire.

"Pick all the bits up," he said. "Give over! give over! Don't cry
any more." The good-natured tone of his voice quieted the child, as
he intended it should.

He went away into the back kitchen to wash himself. As he was bending
his head over the sink before the little mirror, lathering to shave,
there came from outside the dissonant voices of boys, pouring out the
dregs of carol-singing.

"While Shep-ep-ep-ep-herds watched--"

He held his soapy brush suspended for a minute. They called this
singing! His mind flitted back to early carol music. Then again
he heard the vocal violence outside.

"Aren't you off there!" he called out, in masculine menace. The noise
stopped, there was a scuffle. But the feet returned and the voices
resumed. Almost immediately the door opened, boys were heard muttering
among themselves. Millicent had given them a penny. Feet scraped
on the yard, then went thudding along the side of the house, to the
street.

To Aaron Sisson, this was home, this was Christmas: the unspeakably
familiar. The war over, nothing was changed. Yet everything changed.
The scullery in which he stood was painted green, quite fresh, very
clean, the floor was red tiles. The wash-copper of red bricks was very
red, the mangle with its put-up board was white-scrubbed, the American
oil-cloth on the table had a gay pattern, there was a warm fire, the
water in the boiler hissed faintly. And in front of him, beneath him
as he leaned forward shaving, a drop of water fell with strange,
incalculable rhythm from the bright brass tap into the white enamelled
bowl, which was now half full of pure, quivering water. The war was
over, and everything just the same. The acute familiarity of this
house, which he had built for his marriage twelve years ago, the
changeless pleasantness of it all seemed unthinkable. It prevented
his thinking.

When he went into the middle room to comb his hair he found the
Christmas tree sparkling, his wife was making pastry at the table,
the baby was sitting up propped in cushions.

"Father," said Millicent, approaching him with a flat blue-and-white
angel of cotton-wool, and two ends of cotton--"tie the angel at the
top."

"Tie it at the top?" he said, looking down.

"Yes. At the very top--because it's just come down from the sky."

"Ay my word!" he laughed. And he tied the angel.

Coming downstairs after changing he went into the icy cold parlour,
and took his music and a small handbag. With this he retreated again
to the back kitchen. He was still in trousers and shirt and slippers:
but now it was a clean white shirt, and his best black trousers, and
new pink and white braces. He sat under the gas-jet of the back
kitchen, looking through his music. Then he opened the bag, in which
were sections of a flute and a piccolo. He took out the flute, and
adjusted it. As he sat he was physically aware of the sounds of the
night: the bubbling of water in the boiler, the faint sound of the
gas, the sudden crying of the baby in the next room, then noises
outside, distant boys shouting, distant rags of carols, fragments
of voices of men. The whole country was roused and excited.

The little room was hot. Aaron rose and opened a square ventilator
over the copper, letting in a stream of cold air, which was grateful
to him. Then he cocked his eye over the sheet of music spread out on
the table before him. He tried his flute. And then at last, with the
odd gesture of a diver taking a plunge, he swung his head and began
to play. A stream of music, soft and rich and fluid, came out of the
flute. He played beautifully. He moved his head and his raised bare
arms with slight, intense movements, as the delicate music poured out.
It was sixteenth-century Christmas melody, very limpid and delicate.

The pure, mindless, exquisite motion and fluidity of the music
delighted him with a strange exasperation. There was something tense,
exasperated to the point of intolerable anger, in his good-humored
breast, as he played the finely-spun peace-music. The more exquisite
the music, the more perfectly he produced it, in sheer bliss; and at
the same time, the more intense was the maddened exasperation within
him.

Millicent appeared in the room. She fidgetted at the sink. The music
was a bugbear to her, because it prevented her from saying what was
on her own mind. At length it ended, her father was turning over the
various books and sheets. She looked at him quickly, seizing her
opportunity.

"Are you going out, Father?" she said.

"Eh?"

"Are you going out?" She twisted nervously.

"What do you want to know for?"

He made no other answer, and turned again to the music. His eye went
down a sheet--then over it again--then more closely over it again.

"Are you?" persisted the child, balancing on one foot.

He looked at her, and his eyes were angry under knitted brows.

"What are you bothering about?" he said.

"I'm not bothering--I only wanted to know if you were going out," she
pouted, quivering to cry.

"I expect I am," he said quietly.

She recovered at once, but still with timidity asked:

"We haven't got any candles for the Christmas tree--shall you buy some,
because mother isn't going out?"

"Candles!" he repeated, settling his music and taking up the piccolo.

"Yes--shall you buy us some, Father? Shall you?"

"Candles!" he repeated, putting the piccolo to his mouth and blowing a
few piercing, preparatory notes.

"Yes, little Christmas-tree candles--blue ones and red ones, in boxes
--Shall you, Father?"

"We'll see--if I see any--"

"But SHALL you?" she insisted desperately. She wisely mistrusted his
vagueness.

But he was looking unheeding at the music. Then suddenly the piccolo
broke forth, wild, shrill, brilliant. He was playing Mozart. The
child's face went pale with anger at the sound. She turned, and went
out, closing both doors behind her to shut out the noise.

The shrill, rapid movement of the piccolo music seemed to possess the
air, it was useless to try to shut it out. The man went on playing
to himself, measured and insistent. In the frosty evening the sound
carried. People passing down the street hesitated, listening. The
neighbours knew it was Aaron practising his piccolo. He was esteemed
a good player: was in request at concerts and dances, also at swell
balls. So the vivid piping sound tickled the darkness.

He played on till about seven o'clock; he did not want to go out too
soon, in spite of the early closing of the public houses. He never
went with the stream, but made a side current of his own. His wife
said he was contrary. When he went into the middle room to put on his
collar and tie, the two little girls were having their hair brushed,
the baby was in bed, there was a hot smell of mince-pies baking in
the oven.

"You won't forget our candles, will you, Father?" asked Millicent,
with assurance now.

"I'll see," he answered.

His wife watched him as he put on his overcoat and hat. He was well-
dressed, handsome-looking. She felt there was a curious glamour about
him. It made her feel bitter. He had an unfair advantage--he was free
to go off, while she must stay at home with the children.

"There's no knowing what time you'll be home," she said.

"I shan't be late," he answered.

"It's easy to say so," she retorted, with some contempt. He took his
stick, and turned towards the door.

"Bring the children some candles for their tree, and don't be so
selfish," she said.

"All right," he said, going out.

"Don't say ALL RIGHT if you never mean to do it," she cried, with
sudden anger, following him to the door.

His figure stood large and shadowy in the darkness.

"How many do you want?" he said.

"A dozen," she said. "And holders too, if you can get them," she
added, with barren bitterness.

"Yes--all right," he turned and melted into the darkness. She went
indoors, worn with a strange and bitter flame.

He crossed the fields towards the little town, which once more fumed
its lights under the night. The country ran away, rising on his right
hand. It was no longer a great bank of darkness. Lights twinkled
freely here and there, though forlornly, now that the war-time
restrictions were removed. It was no glitter of pre-war nights, pit-
heads glittering far-off with electricity. Neither was it the black
gulf of the war darkness: instead, this forlorn sporadic twinkling.

Everybody seemed to be out of doors. The hollow dark countryside
re-echoed like a shell with shouts and calls and excited voices.
Restlessness and nervous excitement, nervous hilarity were in the
air. There was a sense of electric surcharge everywhere, frictional,
a neurasthenic haste for excitement.

Every moment Aaron Sisson was greeted with Good-night--Good-night,
Aaron--Good-night, Mr. Sisson. People carrying parcels, children,
women, thronged home on the dark paths. They were all talking loudly,
declaiming loudly about what they could and could not get, and what
this or the other had lost.

When he got into the main street, the only street of shops, it was
crowded. There seemed to have been some violent but quiet contest,
a subdued fight, going on all the afternoon and evening: people
struggling to buy things, to get things. Money was spent like water,
there was a frenzy of money-spending. Though the necessities of life
were in abundance, still the people struggled in frenzy for cheese,
sweets, raisins, pork-stuff, even for flowers and holly, all of which
were scarce, and for toys and knick-knacks, which were sold out. There
was a wild grumbling, but a deep satisfaction in the fight, the
struggle. The same fight and the same satisfaction in the fight was
witnessed whenever a tram-car stopped, or when it heaved its way into
sight. Then the struggle to mount on board became desperate and savage,
but stimulating. Souls surcharged with hostility found now some outlet
for their feelings.

As he came near the little market-place he bethought himself of the
Christmas-tree candles. He did not intend to trouble himself. And
yet, when he glanced in passing into the sweet-shop window, and saw
it bare as a board, the very fact that he probably _could not_ buy
the things made him hesitate, and try.

"Have you got any Christmas-tree candles?" he asked as he entered
the shop.

"How many do you want?"

"A dozen."

"Can't let you have a dozen. You can have two boxes--four in a box--
eight. Six-pence a box."

"Got any holders?"

"Holders? Don't ask. Haven't seen one this year."

"Got any toffee--?"

"Cough-drops--two-pence an ounce--nothing else left."

"Give me four ounces."

He watched her weighing them in the little brass scales.

"You've not got much of a Christmas show," he said.

"Don't talk about Christmas, as far as sweets is concerned. They ought
to have allowed us six times the quantity--there's plenty of sugar, why
didn't they? We s'll have to enjoy ourselves with what we've got. We
mean to, anyhow."

"Ay," he said.

"Time we had a bit of enjoyment, THIS Christmas. They ought to have
made things more plentiful."

"Yes," he said, stuffing his package in his pocket.

CHAPTER II

ROYAL OAK

The war had killed the little market of the town. As he passed the
market place on the brow, Aaron noticed that there were only two
miserable stalls. But people crowded just the same. There was a loud
sound of voices, men's voices. Men pressed round the doorways of the
public-houses.

But he was going to a pub out of town. He descended the dark hill.
A street-lamp here and there shed parsimonious light. In the bottoms,
under the trees, it was very dark. But a lamp glimmered in front of
the "Royal Oak." This was a low white house sunk three steps below
the highway. It was darkened, but sounded crowded.

Opening the door, Sisson found himself in the stone passage. Old Bob,
carrying three cans, stopped to see who had entered--then went on into
the public bar on the left. The bar itself was a sort of little
window-sill on the right: the pub was a small one. In this window-
opening stood the landlady, drawing and serving to her husband. Behind
the bar was a tiny parlour or den, the landlady's preserve.

"Oh, it's you," she said, bobbing down to look at the newcomer. None
entered her bar-parlour unless invited.

"Come in," said the landlady. There was a peculiar intonation in her
complacent voice, which showed she had been expecting him, a little
irritably.

He went across into her bar-parlour. It would not hold more than eight
or ten people, all told--just the benches along the walls, the fire
between--and two little round tables.

"I began to think you weren't coming," said the landlady, bringing him
a whiskey.

She was a large, stout, high-coloured woman, with a fine profile,
probably Jewish. She had chestnut-coloured eyes, quick, intelligent.
Her movements were large and slow, her voice laconic.

"I'm not so late, am I?" asked Aaron.

"Yes, you are late, I should think." She Looked up at the little
clock. "Close on nine."

"I did some shopping," said Aaron, with a quick smile.

"Did you indeed? That's news, I'm sure. May we ask what you bought?"

This he did not like. But he had to answer.

"Christmas-tree candles, and toffee."

"For the little children? Well you've done well for once! I must say
I recommend you. I didn't think you had so much in you."

She sat herself down in her seat at the end of the bench, and took up
her knitting. Aaron sat next to her. He poured water into his glass,
and drank.

"It's warm in here," he said, when he had swallowed the liquor.

"Yes, it is. You won't want to keep that thick good overcoat on,"
replied the landlady.

"No," he said, "I think I'll take it off."

She watched him as he hung up his overcoat. He wore black clothes, as
usual. As he reached up to the pegs, she could see the muscles of his
shoulders, and the form of his legs. Her reddish-brown eyes seemed to
burn, and her nose, that had a subtle, beautiful Hebraic curve, seemed
to arch itself. She made a little place for him by herself, as he
returned. She carried her head thrown back, with dauntless self-
sufficiency.

There were several colliers in the room, talking quietly. They
were the superior type all, favoured by the landlady, who loved
intellectual discussion. Opposite, by the fire, sat a little,
greenish man--evidently an oriental.

"You're very quiet all at once, Doctor," said the landlady in her
slow, laconic voice.

"Yes.--May I have another whiskey, please?" She rose at once,
powerfully energetic.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. And she went to the bar.

"Well," said the little Hindu doctor, "and how are things going now,
with the men?"

"The same as ever," said Aaron.

"Yes," said the stately voice of the landlady. "And I'm afraid they
will always be the same as ever. When will they learn wisdom?"

"But what do you call wisdom?" asked Sherardy, the Hindu. He spoke
with a little, childish lisp.

"What do I call wisdom?" repeated the landlady. "Why all acting
together for the common good. That is wisdom in my idea."

"Yes, very well, that is so. But what do you call the common good?"
replied the little doctor, with childish pertinence.

"Ay," said Aaron, with a laugh, "that's it." The miners were all
stirring now, to take part in the discussion.

"What do I call the common good?" repeated the landlady. "That all
people should study the welfare of other people, and not only their
own."

"They are not to study their own welfare?" said the doctor.

"Ah, that I did not say," replied the landlady. "Let them study their
own welfare, and that of others also."

"Well then," said the doctor, "what is the welfare of a collier?"

"The welfare of a collier," said the landlady, "is that he shall earn
sufficient wages to keep himself and his family comfortable, to
educate his children, and to educate himself; for that is what he
wants, education."

"Ay, happen so," put in Brewitt, a big, fine, good-humoured collier.
"Happen so, Mrs. Houseley. But what if you haven't got much education,
to speak of?"

"You can always get it," she said patronizing.

"Nay--I'm blest if you can. It's no use tryin' to educate a man over
forty--not by book-learning. That isn't saying he's a fool, neither."

"And what better is them that's got education?" put in another man.
"What better is the manager, or th' under-manager, than we are?--
Pender's yaller enough i' th' face."

"He is that," assented the men in chorus.

"But because he's yellow in the face, as you say, Mr. Kirk," said the
landlady largely, "that doesn't mean he has no advantages higher than
what you have got."

"Ay," said Kirk. "He can ma'e more money than I can--that's about a'
as it comes to."

"He can make more money," said the landlady. "And when he's made it,
he knows better how to use it."

"'Appen so, an' a'!--What does he do, more than eat and drink and
work?--an' take it out of hisself a sight harder than I do, by th'
looks of him.--What's it matter, if he eats a bit more or drinks a
bit more--"

"No," reiterated the landlady. "He not only eats and drinks. He can
read, and he can converse."

"Me an' a'," said Tom Kirk, and the men burst into a laugh. "I can
read--an' I've had many a talk an' conversation with you in this
house, Mrs. Houseley--am havin' one at this minute, seemingly."

"SEEMINGLY, you are," said the landlady ironically. "But do you
think there would be no difference between your conversation, and Mr.
Pender's, if he were here so that I could enjoy his conversation?"

"An' what difference would there be?" asked Tom Kirk. "He'd go home
to his bed just the same."

"There, you are mistaken. He would be the better, and so should I, a
great deal better, for a little genuine conversation."

"If it's conversation as ma'es his behind drop--" said Tom Kirk. "An'
puts th' bile in his face--" said Brewitt. There was a general laugh.

"I can see it's no use talking about it any further," said the
landlady, lifting her head dangerously.

"But look here, Mrs. Houseley, do you really think it makes much
difference to a man, whether he can hold a serious conversation or
not?" asked the doctor.

"I do indeed, all the difference in the world--To me, there is no
greater difference, than between an educated man and an uneducated
man."

"And where does it come in?" asked Kirk.

"But wait a bit, now," said Aaron Sisson. "You take an educated man--
take Pender. What's his education for? What does he scheme for?--What
does he contrive for? What does he talk for?--"

"For all the purposes of his life," replied the landlady.

"Ay, an' what's the purpose of his life?" insisted Aaron Sisson.

"The purpose of his life," repeated the landlady, at a loss. "I should
think he knows that best himself."

"No better than I know it--and you know it," said Aaron.

"Well," said the landlady, "if you know, then speak out. What is it?"

"To make more money for the firm--and so make his own chance of a
rise better."

The landlady was baffled for some moments. Then she said:

"Yes, and suppose that he does. Is there any harm in it? Isn't it
his duty to do what he can for himself? Don't you try to earn all
you can?"

"Ay," said Aaron. "But there's soon a limit to what I can earn.--It's
like this. When you work it out, everything comes to money. Reckon
it as you like, it's money on both sides. It's money we live for, and
money is what our lives is worth--nothing else. Money we live for,
and money we are when we're dead: that or nothing. An' it's money as
is between the masters and us. There's a few educated ones got hold
of one end of the rope, and all the lot of us hanging on to th' other
end, an' we s'll go on pulling our guts out, time in, time out--"

"But they've got th' long end o' th' rope, th' masters has," said
Brewitt.

"For as long as one holds, the other will pull," concluded Aaron
Sisson philosophically.

"An' I'm almighty sure o' that," said Kirk. There was a little pause.

"Yes, that's all there is in the minds of you men," said the landlady.
"But what can be done with the money, that you never think of--the
education of the children, the improvement of conditions--"

"Educate the children, so that they can lay hold of the long end of
the rope, instead of the short end," said the doctor, with a little
giggle.

"Ay, that's it," said Brewitt. "I've pulled at th' short end, an' my
lads may do th' same."

"A selfish policy," put in the landlady.

"Selfish or not, they may do it."

"Till the crack o' doom," said Aaron, with a glistening smile.

"Or the crack o' th' rope," said Brewitt.

"Yes, and THEN WHAT?" cried the landlady.

"Then we all drop on our backsides," said Kirk. There was a general
laugh, and an uneasy silence.

"All I can say of you men," said the landlady, "is that you have a
narrow, selfish policy.--Instead of thinking of the children, instead
of thinking of improving the world you live in--"

"We hang on, British bulldog breed," said Brewitt. There was a general
laugh.

"Yes, and little wiser than dogs, wrangling for a bone," said the
landlady.

"Are we to let t' other side run off wi' th' bone, then, while we sit
on our stunts an' yowl for it?" asked Brewitt.

"No indeed. There can be wisdom in everything.--It's what you DO
with the money, when you've got it," said the landlady, "that's where
the importance lies."

"It's Missis as gets it," said Kirk. "It doesn't stop wi' us." "Ay,
it's the wife as gets it, ninety per cent," they all concurred.

"And who SHOULD have the money, indeed, if not your wives? They have
everything to do with the money. What idea have you, but to waste it!"

"Women waste nothing--they couldn't if they tried," said Aaron Sisson.

There was a lull for some minutes. The men were all stimulated by
drink. The landlady kept them going. She herself sipped a glass of
brandy--but slowly. She sat near to Sisson--and the great fierce
warmth of her presence enveloped him particularly. He loved so to
luxuriate, like a cat, in the presence of a violent woman. He knew
that tonight she was feeling very nice to him--a female glow that
came out of her to him. Sometimes when she put down her knitting, or
took it up again from the bench beside him, her fingers just touched
his thigh, and the fine electricity ran over his body, as if he were
a cat tingling at a caress.

And yet he was not happy--nor comfortable. There was a hard, opposing
core in him, that neither the whiskey nor the woman could dissolve or
soothe, tonight. It remained hard, nay, became harder and more deeply
antagonistic to his surroundings, every moment. He recognised it
as a secret malady he suffered from: this strained, unacknowledged
opposition to his surroundings, a hard core of irrational, exhausting
withholding of himself. Irritating, because he still WANTED to give
himself. A woman and whiskey, these were usually a remedy--and music.
But lately these had begun to fail him. No, there was something in
him that would not give in--neither to the whiskey, nor the woman, nor
even the music. Even in the midst of his best music, it sat in the
middle of him, this invisible black dog, and growled and waited, never
to be cajoled. He knew of its presence--and was a little uneasy. For
of course he _wanted_ to let himself go, to feel rosy and loving and
all that. But at the very thought, the black dog showed its teeth.

Still he kept the beast at bay--with all his will he kept himself as
it were genial. He wanted to melt and be rosy, happy.

He sipped his whiskey with gratification, he luxuriated in the presence
of the landlady, very confident of the strength of her liking for him.
He glanced at her profile--that fine throw-back of her hostile head,
wicked in the midst of her benevolence; that subtle, really very
beautiful delicate curve of her nose, that moved him exactly like a
piece of pure sound. But tonight it did not overcome him. There was
a devilish little cold eye in his brain that was not taken in by what
he saw.

A terrible obstinacy located itself in him. He saw the fine, rich-
coloured, secretive face of the Hebrew woman, so loudly self-
righteous, and so dangerous, so destructive, so lustful--and he waited
for his blood to melt with passion for her. But not tonight. Tonight
his innermost heart was hard and cold as ice. The very danger and
lustfulness of her, which had so pricked his senses, now made him
colder. He disliked her at her tricks. He saw her once too often.
Her and all women. Bah, the love game! And the whiskey that was to
help in the game! He had drowned himself once too often in whiskey
and in love. Now he floated like a corpse in both, with a cold,
hostile eye.

And at least half of his inward fume was anger because he could no
longer drown. Nothing would have pleased him better than to feel
his senses melting and swimming into oneness with the dark. But
impossible! Cold, with a white fury inside him, he floated wide eyed
and apart as a corpse. He thought of the gentle love of his first
married years, and became only whiter and colder, set in more intense
obstinacy. A wave of revulsion lifted him.

He became aware that he was deadly antagonistic to the landlady, that
he disliked his whole circumstances. A cold, diabolical consciousness
detached itself from his state of semi-intoxication.

"Is it pretty much the same out there in India?" he asked of the
doctor, suddenly.

The doctor started, and attended to him on his own level.

"Probably," he answered. "It is worse."

"Worse!" exclaimed Aaron Sisson. "How's that?"

"Why, because, in a way the people of India have an easier time even
than the people of England. Because they have no responsibility.
The British Government takes the responsibility. And the people
have nothing to do, except their bit of work--and talk perhaps about
national rule, just for a pastime."

"They have to earn their living?" said Sisson.

"Yes," said the little doctor, who had lived for some years among the
colliers, and become quite familiar with them. "Yes, they have to earn
their living--and then no more. That's why the British Government is
the worst thing possible for them. It is the worst thing possible.
And not because it is a bad government. Really, it is not a bad
government. It is a good one--and they know it--much better than
they would make for themselves, probably. But for that reason it is
so very bad."

The little oriental laughed a queer, sniggering laugh. His eyes were
very bright, dilated, completely black. He was looking into the ice-
blue, pointed eyes of Aaron Sisson. They were both intoxicated--but
grimly so. They looked at each other in elemental difference.

The whole room was now attending to this new conversation: which they
all accepted as serious. For Aaron was considered a special man, a
man of peculiar understanding, even though as a rule he said little.

"If it is a good government, doctor, how can it be so bad for the
people?" said the landlady.

The doctor's eyes quivered for the fraction of a second, as he watched
the other man. He did not look at the landlady.

"It would not matter what kind of mess they made--and they would make
a mess, if they governed themselves, the people of India. They would
probably make the greatest muddle possible--and start killing one
another. But it wouldn't matter if they exterminated half the
population, so long as they did it themselves, and were responsible
for it."

Again his eyes dilated, utterly black, to the eyes of the other man,
and an arch little smile flickered on his face.

"I think it would matter very much indeed," said the landlady. "They
had far better NOT govern themselves."

She was, for some reason, becoming angry. The little greenish doctor
emptied his glass, and smiled again.

"But what difference does it make," said Aaron Sisson, "whether they
govern themselves or not? They only live till they die, either way."
And he smiled faintly. He had not really listened to the doctor.
The terms "British Government," and "bad for the people--good for
the people," made him malevolently angry.

The doctor was nonplussed for a moment. Then he gathered himself
together.

"It matters," he said; "it matters.--People should always be
responsible for themselves. How can any people be responsible for
another race of people, and for a race much older than they are,
and not at all children."

Aaron Sisson watched the other's dark face, with its utterly exposed
eyes. He was in a state of semi-intoxicated anger and clairvoyance.
He saw in the black, void, glistening eyes of the oriental only the
same danger, the same menace that he saw in the landlady. Fair, wise,
even benevolent words: always the human good speaking, and always
underneath, something hateful, something detestable and murderous.
Wise speech and good intentions--they were invariably maggoty with
these secret inclinations to destroy the man in the man. Whenever he
heard anyone holding forth: the landlady, this doctor, the spokesman
on the pit bank: or when he read the all-righteous newspaper; his soul
curdled with revulsion as from something foul. Even the infernal
love and good-will of his wife. To hell with good-will! It was more
hateful than ill-will. Self-righteous bullying, like poison gas!

The landlady looked at the clock.

"Ten minutes to, gentlemen," she said coldly. For she too knew that
Aaron was spoiled for her for that night.

The men began to take their leave, shakily. The little doctor seemed
to evaporate. The landlady helped Aaron on with his coat. She saw the
curious whiteness round his nostrils and his eyes, the fixed hellish
look on his face.

"You'll eat a mince-pie in the kitchen with us, for luck?" she said to
him, detaining him till last.

But he turned laughing to her.

"Nay," he said, "I must be getting home."

He turned and went straight out of the house. Watching him, the
landlady's face became yellow with passion and rage.

"That little poisonous Indian viper," she said aloud, attributing
Aaron's mood to the doctor. Her husband was noisily bolting the door.

Outside it was dark and frosty. A gang of men lingered in the road
near the closed door. Aaron found himself among them, his heart
bitterer than steel.

The men were dispersing. He should take the road home. But the devil
was in it, if he could take a stride in the homeward direction. There
seemed a wall in front of him. He veered. But neither could he take
a stride in the opposite direction. So he was destined to veer round,
like some sort of weather-cock, there in the middle of the dark road
outside the "Royal Oak."

But as he turned, he caught sight of a third exit. Almost opposite was
the mouth of Shottle Lane, which led off under trees, at right angles
to the highroad, up to New Brunswick Colliery. He veered towards the
off-chance of this opening, in a delirium of icy fury, and plunged
away into the dark lane, walking slowly, on firm legs.

CHAPTER III

"THE LIGHTED TREE"

It is remarkable how many odd or extraordinary people there are in
England. We hear continual complaints of the stodgy dullness of the
English. It would be quite as just to complain of their freakish,
unusual characters. Only _en masse_ the metal is all Britannia.

In an ugly little mining town we find the odd ones just as distinct as
anywhere else. Only it happens that dull people invariably meet dull
people, and odd individuals always come across odd individuals, no
matter where they may be. So that to each kind society seems all of
a piece.

At one end of the dark tree-covered Shottle Lane stood the "Royal Oak"
public house; and Mrs. Houseley was certainly an odd woman. At the
other end of the lane was Shottle House, where the Bricknells lived;
the Bricknells were odd, also. Alfred Bricknell, the old man, was one
of the partners in the Colliery firm. His English was incorrect, his
accent, broad Derbyshire, and he was not a gentleman in the snobbish
sense of the word. Yet he was well-to-do, and very stuck-up. His wife
was dead.

Shottle House stood two hundred yards beyond New Brunswick Colliery.
The colliery was imbedded in a plantation, whence its burning pit-
hill glowed, fumed, and stank sulphur in the nostrils of the
Bricknells. Even war-time efforts had not put out this refuse fire.
Apart from this, Shottle House was a pleasant square house, rather
old, with shrubberies and lawns. It ended the lane in a dead end.
Only a field-path trekked away to the left.

On this particular Christmas Eve Alfred Bricknell had only two of his
children at home. Of the others, one daughter was unhappily married,
and away in India weeping herself thinner; another was nursing her
babies in Streatham. Jim, the hope of the house, and Julia, now
married to Robert Cunningham, had come home for Christmas.

The party was seated in the drawing-room, that the grown-up daughters
had made very fine during their periods of courtship. Its walls were
hung with fine grey canvas, it had a large, silvery grey, silky
carpet, and the furniture was covered with dark green silky material.
Into this reticence pieces of futurism, Omega cushions and Van-Gogh-
like pictures exploded their colours. Such _chic_ would certainly not
have been looked for up Shottle Lane.

The old man sat in his high grey arm-chair very near an enormous coal
fire. In this house there was no coal-rationing. The finest coal was
arranged to obtain a gigantic glow such as a coal-owner may well
enjoy, a great, intense mass of pure red fire. At this fire Alfred
Bricknell toasted his tan, lambs-wool-lined slippers.

He was a large man, wearing a loose grey suit, and sprawling in the
large grey arm-chair. The soft lamp-light fell on his clean, bald,
Michael-Angelo head, across which a few pure hairs glittered. His
chin was sunk on his breast, so that his sparse but strong-haired
white beard, in which every strand stood distinct, like spun glass
lithe and elastic, curved now upwards and inwards, in a curious curve
returning upon him. He seemed to be sunk in stern, prophet-like
meditation. As a matter of fact, he was asleep after a heavy meal.

Across, seated on a pouffe on the other side of the fire, was a cameo-
like girl with neat black hair done tight and bright in the French
mode. She had strangely-drawn eyebrows, and her colour was brilliant.
She was hot, leaning back behind the shaft of old marble of the
mantel-piece, to escape the fire. She wore a simple dress of apple-
green satin, with full sleeves and ample skirt and a tiny bodice of
green cloth. This was Josephine Ford, the girl Jim was engaged to.

Jim Bricknell himself was a tall big fellow of thirty-eight. He sat
in a chair in front of the fire, some distance back, and stretched
his long legs far in front of him. His chin too was sunk on his
breast, his young forehead was bald, and raised in odd wrinkles,
he had a silent half-grin on his face, a little tipsy, a little
satyr-like. His small moustache was reddish.

Behind him a round table was covered with cigarettes, sweets, and
bottles. It was evident Jim Bricknell drank beer for choice. He
wanted to get fat--that was his idea. But he couldn't bring it off:
he was thin, though not too thin, except to his own thinking.

His sister Julia was bunched up in a low chair between him and his
father. She too was a tall stag of a thing, but she sat bunched up
like a witch. She wore a wine-purple dress, her arms seemed to poke
out of the sleeves, and she had dragged her brown hair into straight,
untidy strands. Yet she had real beauty. She was talking to the
young man who was not her husband: a fair, pale, fattish young fellow
in pince-nez and dark clothes. This was Cyril Scott, a friend.

The only other person stood at the round table pouring out red wine.
He was a fresh, stoutish young Englishman in khaki, Julia's husband,
Robert Cunningham, a lieutenant about to be demobilised, when he would
become a sculptor once more. He drank red wine in large throatfuls,
and his eyes grew a little moist. The room was hot and subdued,
everyone was silent.

"I say," said Robert suddenly, from the rear--"anybody have a drink?
Don't you find it rather hot?"

"Is there another bottle of beer there?" said Jim, without moving, too
settled even to stir an eye-lid.

"Yes--I think there is," said Robert.

"Thanks--don't open it yet," murmured Jim.

"Have a drink, Josephine?" said Robert.

"No thank you," said Josephine, bowing slightly.

Finding the drinks did not go, Robert went round with the cigarettes.
Josephine Ford looked at the white rolls.

"Thank you," she said, and taking one, suddenly licked her rather
full, dry red lips with the rapid tip of her tongue. It was an odd
movement, suggesting a snake's flicker. She put her cigarette between
her lips, and waited. Her movements were very quiet and well bred; but
perhaps too quiet, they had the dangerous impassivity of the Bohemian,
Parisian or American rather than English.

"Cigarette, Julia?" said Robert to his wife.

She seemed to start or twitch, as if dazed. Then she looked up at
her husband with a queer smile, puckering the corners of her eyes.
He looked at the cigarettes, not at her. His face had the blunt
voluptuous gravity of a young lion, a great cat. She kept him
standing for some moments impassively. Then suddenly she hung her
long, delicate fingers over the box, in doubt, and spasmodically
jabbed at the cigarettes, clumsily raking one out at last.

"Thank you, dear--thank you," she cried, rather high, looking up and
smiling once more. He turned calmly aside, offering the cigarettes
to Scott, who refused.

"Oh!" said Julia, sucking the end of her cigarette. "Robert is so
happy with all the good things--aren't you dear?" she sang, breaking
into a hurried laugh. "We aren't used to such luxurious living, we
aren't--ARE WE DEAR--No, we're not such swells as this, we're not.
Oh, ROBBIE, isn't it all right, isn't it just all right?" She tailed
off into her hurried, wild, repeated laugh. "We're so happy in a land
of plenty, AREN'T WE DEAR?"

"Do you mean I'm greedy, Julia?" said Robert.

"Greedy!--Oh, greedy!--he asks if he's greedy?--no you're not greedy,
Robbie, you're not greedy. I want you to be happy."

"I'm quite happy," he returned.

"Oh, he's happy!--Really!--he's happy! Oh, what an accomplishment!
Oh, my word!" Julia puckered her eyes and laughed herself into a
nervous twitching silence.

Robert went round with the matches. Julia sucked her cigarette.

"Give us a light, Robbie, if you ARE happy!" she cried.

"It's coming," he answered.

Josephine smoked with short, sharp puffs. Julia sucked wildly at her
light. Robert returned to his red wine. Jim Bricknell suddenly roused
up, looked round on the company, smiling a little vacuously and
showing his odd, pointed teeth.

"Where's the beer?" he asked, in deep tones, smiling full into
Josephine's face, as if she were going to produce it by some sleight
of hand. Then he wheeled round to the table, and was soon pouring
beer down his throat as down a pipe. Then he dropped supine again.
Cyril Scott was silently absorbing gin and water.

"I say," said Jim, from the remote depths of his sprawling. "Isn't
there something we could do to while the time away?"

Everybody suddenly laughed--it sounded so remote and absurd.

"What, play bridge or poker or something conventional of that sort?"
said Josephine in her distinct voice, speaking to him as if he were
a child.

"Oh, damn bridge," said Jim in his sleep-voice. Then he began pulling
his powerful length together. He sat on the edge of his chair-seat,
leaning forward, peering into all the faces and grinning.

"Don't look at me like that--so long--" said Josephine, in her self-
contained voice. "You make me uncomfortable." She gave an odd little
grunt of a laugh, and the tip of her tongue went over her lips as she
glanced sharply, half furtively round the room.

"I like looking at you," said Jim, his smile becoming more malicious.

"But you shouldn't, when I tell you not," she returned.

Jim twisted round to look at the state of the bottles. The father also
came awake. He sat up.

"Isn't it time," he said, "that you all put away your glasses and
cigarettes and thought of bed?"

Jim rolled slowly round towards his father, sprawling in the long
chair.

"Ah, Dad," he said, "tonight's the night! Tonight's some night, Dad.--
You can sleep any time--" his grin widened--"but there aren't many
nights to sit here--like this--Eh?"

He was looking up all the time into the face of his father, full and
nakedly lifting his face to the face of his father, and smiling
fixedly. The father, who was perfectly sober, except for the contagion
from the young people, felt a wild tremor go through his heart as he
gazed on the face of his boy. He rose stiffly.

"You want to stay?" he said. "You want to stay!--Well then--well
then, I'll leave you. But don't be long." The old man rose to his
full height, rather majestic. The four younger people also rose
respectfully--only Jim lay still prostrate in his chair, twisting
up his face towards his father.

"You won't stay long," said the old man, looking round a little
bewildered. He was seeking a responsible eye. Josephine was the
only one who had any feeling for him.

"No, we won't stay long, Mr. Bricknell," she said gravely.

"Good night, Dad," said Jim, as his father left the room.

Josephine went to the window. She had rather a stiff, _poupee_ walk.

"How is the night?" she said, as if to change the whole feeling in
the room. She pushed back the thick grey-silk curtains. "Why?" she
exclaimed. "What is that light burning? A red light?"

"Oh, that's only the pit-bank on fire," said Robert, who had followed
her.

"How strange!--Why is it burning now?"

"It always burns, unfortunately--it is most consistent at it. It is
the refuse from the mines. It has been burning for years, in spite
of all efforts to the contrary."

"How very curious! May we look at it?" Josephine now turned the handle
of the French windows, and stepped out.

"Beautiful!" they heard her voice exclaim from outside.

In the room, Julia laid her hand gently, protectively over the hand of
Cyril Scott.

"Josephine and Robert are admiring the night together!" she said,
smiling with subtle tenderness to him.

"Naturally! Young people always do these romantic things," replied
Cyril Scott. He was twenty-two years old, so he could afford to be
cynical.

"Do they?--Don't you think it's nice of them?" she said, gently
removing her hand from his. His eyes were shining with pleasure.

"I do. I envy them enormously. One only needs to be sufficiently
naive," he said.

"One does, doesn't one!" cooed Julia.

"I say, do you hear the bells?" said Robert, poking his head into
the room.

"No, dear! Do you?" replied Julia.

"Bells! Hear the bells! Bells!" exclaimed the half-tipsy and self-
conscious Jim. And he rolled in his chair in an explosion of sudden,
silent laughter, showing his mouthful of pointed teeth, like a dog.
Then he gradually gathered himself together, found his feet, smiling
fixedly.

"Pretty cool night!" he said aloud, when he felt the air on his almost
bald head. The darkness smelt of sulphur.

Josephine and Robert had moved out of sight. Julia was abstracted,
following them with her eyes. With almost supernatural keenness she
seemed to catch their voices from the distance.

"Yes, Josephine, WOULDN'T that be AWFULLY ROMANTIC!"--she suddenly
called shrilly.

The pair in the distance started.

"What--!" they heard Josephine's sharp exclamation.

"What's that?--What would be romantic?" said Jim as he lurched up and
caught hold of Cyril Scott's arm.

"Josephine wants to make a great illumination of the grounds of the
estate," said Julia, magniloquent.

"No--no--I didn't say it," remonstrated Josephine.

"What Josephine said," explained Robert, "was simply that it would be
pretty to put candles on one of the growing trees, instead of having a
Christmas-tree indoors."

"Oh, Josephine, how sweet of you!" cried Julia.

Cyril Scott giggled.

"Good egg! Champion idea, Josey, my lass. Eh? What--!" cried Jim.
"Why not carry it out--eh? Why not? Most attractive." He leaned
forward over Josephine, and grinned.

"Oh, no!" expostulated Josephine. "It all sounds so silly now. No.
Let us go indoors and go to bed."

"NO, Josephine dear--No! It's a LOVELY IDEA!" cried Julia. "Let's
get candles and lanterns and things--"

"Let's!" grinned Jim. "Let's, everybody--let's."

"Shall we really?" asked Robert. "Shall we illuminate one of the fir-
trees by the lawn?"

"Yes! How lovely!" cried Julia. "I'll fetch the candles."

"The women must put on warm cloaks," said Robert.

They trooped indoors for coats and wraps and candles and lanterns.
Then, lighted by a bicycle lamp, they trooped off to the shed to
twist wire round the candles for holders. They clustered round
the bench.

"I say," said Julia, "doesn't Cyril look like a pilot on a stormy
night! Oh, I say--!" and she went into one of her hurried laughs.

They all looked at Cyril Scott, who was standing sheepishly in the
background, in a very large overcoat, smoking a large pipe. The
young man was uncomfortable, but assumed a stoic air of philosophic
indifference.

Soon they were busy round a prickly fir-tree at the end of the lawn.
Jim stood in the background vaguely staring. The bicycle lamp sent
a beam of strong white light deep into the uncanny foliage, heads
clustered and hands worked. The night above was silent, dim. There
was no wind. In the near distance they could hear the panting of
some engine at the colliery.

"Shall we light them as we fix them," asked Robert, "or save them for
one grand rocket at the end?"

"Oh, as we do them," said Cyril Scott, who had lacerated his fingers
and wanted to see some reward.

A match spluttered. One naked little flame sprang alight among the
dark foliage. The candle burned tremulously, naked. They all were
silent.

"We ought to do a ritual dance! We ought to worship the tree," sang
Julia, in her high voice.

"Hold on a minute. We'll have a little more illumination," said
Robert.

"Why yes. We want more than one candle," said Josephine.

But Julia had dropped the cloak in which she was huddled, and with
arms slung asunder was sliding, waving, crouching in a _pas seul_
before the tree, looking like an animated bough herself.

Jim, who was hugging his pipe in the background, broke into a short,
harsh, cackling laugh.

"Aren't we fools!" he cried. "What? Oh, God's love, aren't we fools!"

"No--why?" cried Josephine, amused but resentful.

But Jim vouchsafed nothing further, only stood like a Red Indian
gripping his pipe.

The beam of the bicycle-lamp moved and fell upon the hands and faces
of the young people, and penetrated the recesses of the secret trees.
Several little tongues of flame clipped sensitive and ruddy on the
naked air, sending a faint glow over the needle foliage. They gave a
strange, perpendicular aspiration in the night. Julia waved slowly in
her tree dance. Jim stood apart, with his legs straddled, a motionless
figure.

The party round the tree became absorbed and excited as more ruddy
tongues of flame pricked upward from the dark tree. Pale candles
became evident, the air was luminous. The illumination was becoming
complete, harmonious.

Josephine suddenly looked round.

"Why-y-y!" came her long note of alarm.

A man in a bowler hat and a black overcoat stood on the edge of the
twilight.

"What is it?" cried Julia.

"_Homo sapiens_!" said Robert, the lieutenant. "Hand the light,
Cyril." He played the beam of light full on the intruder; a man in
a bowler hat, with a black overcoat buttoned to his throat, a pale,
dazed, blinking face. The hat was tilted at a slightly jaunty angle
over the left eye, the man was well-featured. He did not speak.

"Did you want anything?" asked Robert, from behind the light.

Aaron Sisson blinked, trying to see who addressed him. To him, they
were all illusory. He did not answer.

"Anything you wanted?" repeated Robert, military, rather peremptory.

Jim suddenly doubled himself up and burst into a loud harsh cackle
of laughter. Whoop! he went, and doubled himself up with laughter.
Whoop! Whoop! he went, and fell on the ground and writhed with
laughter. He was in that state of intoxication when he could find
no release from maddening self-consciousness. He knew what he was
doing, he did it deliberately. And yet he was also beside himself,
in a sort of hysterics. He could not help himself in exasperated
self-consciousness.

The others all began to laugh, unavoidably. It was a contagion. They
laughed helplessly and foolishly. Only Robert was anxious.

"I'm afraid he'll wake the house," he said, looking at the doubled up
figure of Jim writhing on the grass and whooping loudly.

"Or not enough," put in Cyril Scott. He twigged Jim's condition.

"No--no!" cried Josephine, weak with laughing in spite of herself.
"No--it's too long--I'm like to die laughing--"

Jim embraced the earth in his convulsions. Even Robert shook quite
weakly with laughter. His face was red, his eyes full of dancing
water. Yet he managed to articulate.

"I say, you know, you'll bring the old man down." Then he went off
again into spasms.

"Hu! Hu!" whooped Jim, subsiding. "Hu!"

He rolled over on to his back, and lay silent. The others also became
weakly silent.

"What's amiss?" said Aaron Sisson, breaking this spell.

They all began to laugh again, except Jim, who lay on his back looking
up at the strange sky.

"What're you laughing at?" repeated Aaron.

"We're laughing at the man on the ground," replied Josephine. "I think
he's drunk a little too much."

"Ay," said Aaron, standing mute and obstinate.

"Did you want anything?" Robert enquired once more.

"Eh?" Aaron looked up. "Me? No, not me." A sort of inertia kept
him rooted. The young people looked at one another and began to
laugh, rather embarrassed.

"Another!" said Cyril Scott cynically.

They wished he would go away. There was a pause.

"What do you reckon stars are?" asked the sepulchral voice of Jim.
He still lay flat on his back on the grass.

Josephine went to him and pulled at his coat.

"Get up," she said. "You'll take cold. Get up now, we're going
indoors."

"What do you reckon stars are?" he persisted.

Aaron Sisson stood on the edge of the light, smilingly staring at the
scene, like a boy out of his place, but stubbornly keeping his ground.

"Get up now," said Josephine. "We've had enough." But Jim would not
move.

Robert went with the bicycle lamp and stood at Aaron's side.

"Shall I show you a light to the road--you're off your track," he said.
"You're in the grounds of Shottle House."

"I can find my road," said Aaron. "Thank you."

Jim suddenly got up and went to peer at the stranger, poking his face
close to Aaron's face.

"Right-o," he replied. "You're not half a bad sort of chap--Cheery-o!
What's your drink?"

"Mine--whiskey," said Aaron.

"Come in and have one. We're the only sober couple in the bunch--
what?" cried Jim.

Aaron stood unmoving, static in everything. Jim took him by the arm
affectionately. The stranger looked at the flickering tree, with its
tiers of lights.

"A Christmas tree," he said, jerking his head and smiling.

"That's right, old man," said Jim, seeming thoroughly sober now. "Come
indoors and have a drink."

Aaron Sisson negatively allowed himself to be led off. The others
followed in silence, leaving the tree to flicker the night through.
The stranger stumbled at the open window-door.

"Mind the step," said Jim affectionately.

They crowded to the fire, which was still hot. The newcomer looked
round vaguely. Jim took his bowler hat and gave him a chair. He
sat without looking round, a remote, abstract look on his face. He
was very pale, and seemed-inwardly absorbed.

The party threw off their wraps and sat around. Josephine turned to
Aaron Sisson, who sat with a glass of whiskey in his hand, rather
slack in his chair, in his thickish overcoat. He did not want to
drink. His hair was blond, quite tidy, his mouth and chin handsome
but a little obstinate, his eyes inscrutable. His pallor was not
natural to him. Though he kept the appearance of a smile, underneath
he was hard and opposed. He did not wish to be with these people, and
yet, mechanically, he stayed.

"Do you feel quite well?" Josephine asked him.

He looked at her quickly.

"Me?" he said. He smiled faintly. "Yes, I'm all right." Then he
dropped his head again and seemed oblivious.

"Tell us your name," said Jim affectionately.

The stranger looked up.

"My name's Aaron Sisson, if it's anything to you," he said.

Jim began to grin.

"It's a name I don't know," he said. Then he named all the party
present. But the stranger hardly heeded, though his eyes looked
curiously from one to the other, slow, shrewd, clairvoyant.

"Were you on your way home?" asked Robert, huffy.

The stranger lifted his head and looked at him.

"Home!" he repeated. "No. The other road--" He indicated the
direction with his head, and smiled faintly.

"Beldover?" inquired Robert.

"Yes."

He had dropped his head again, as if he did not want to look at them.

To Josephine, the pale, impassive, blank-seeming face, the blue eyes
with the smile which wasn't a smile, and the continual dropping of the
well-shaped head was curiously affecting. She wanted to cry.

"Are you a miner?" Robert asked, _de haute en bas_.

"No," cried Josephine. She had looked at his hands.

"Men's checkweighman," replied Aaron. He had emptied his glass. He
put it on the table.

"Have another?" said Jim, who was attending fixedly, with curious
absorption, to the stranger.

"No," cried Josephine, "no more."

Aaron looked at Jim, then at her, and smiled slowly, with remote
bitterness. Then he lowered his head again. His hands were loosely
clasped between his knees.

"What about the wife?" said Robert--the young lieutenant.

"What about the wife and kiddies? You're a married man, aren't you?"

The sardonic look of the stranger rested on the subaltern.

"Yes," he said.

"Won't they be expecting you?" said Robert, trying to keep his temper
and his tone of authority.

"I expect they will--"

"Then you'd better be getting along, hadn't you?"

The eyes of the intruder rested all the time on the flushed subaltern.
The look on Aaron's face became slowly satirical.

"Oh, dry up the army touch," said Jim contemptuously, to Robert.
"We're all civvies here. We're all right, aren't we?" he said loudly,
turning to the stranger with a grin that showed his pointed teeth.

Aaron gave a brief laugh of acknowledgement.

"How many children have you?" sang Julia from her distance.

"Three."

"Girls or boys?"

"Girls."

"All girls? Dear little things! How old?"

"Oldest eight--youngest nine months--"

"So small!" sang Julia, with real tenderness now--Aaron dropped his
head. "But you're going home to them, aren't you?" said Josephine,
in whose eyes the tears had already risen. He looked up at her, at
her tears. His face had the same pale perverse smile.

"Not tonight," he said.

"But why? You're wrong!" cried Josephine.

He dropped his head and became oblivious.

"Well!" said Cyril Scott, rising at last with a bored exclamation.
"I think I'll retire."

"Will you?" said Julia, also rising. "You'll find your candle
outside."

She went out. Scott bade good night, and followed her. The four
people remained in the room, quite silent. Then Robert rose and
began to walk about, agitated.

"Don't you go back to 'em. Have a night out. You stop here tonight,"
Jim said suddenly, in a quiet intimate tone.

The stranger turned his head and looked at him, considering.

"Yes?" he said. He seemed to be smiling coldly.

"Oh, but!" cried Josephine. "Your wife and your children! Won't they
be awfully bothered? Isn't it awfully unkind to them?"

She rose in her eagerness. He sat turning up his face to her. She
could not understand his expression.

"Won't you go home to them?" she said, hysterical.

"Not tonight," he replied quietly, again smiling.

"You're wrong!" she cried. "You're wrong!" And so she hurried out of
the room in tears.

"Er--what bed do you propose to put him in?" asked Robert rather
officer-like.

"Don't propose at all, my lad," replied Jim, ironically--he did not
like Robert. Then to the stranger he said:

"You'll be all right on the couch in my room?--it's a good couch, big
enough, plenty of rugs--" His voice was easy and intimate.

Aaron looked at him, and nodded.

They had another drink each, and at last the two set off, rather
stumbling, upstairs. Aaron carried his bowler hat with him.

Robert remained pacing in the drawing-room for some time. Then he
went out, to return in a little while. He extinguished the lamps and
saw that the fire was safe. Then he went to fasten the window-doors
securely. Outside he saw the uncanny glimmer of candles across the
lawn. He had half a mind to go out and extinguish them--but he did
not. So he went upstairs and the house was quiet. Faint crumbs of
snow were falling outside.

When Jim woke in the morning Aaron had gone. Only on the floor were
two packets of Christmas-tree candles, fallen from the stranger's
pockets. He had gone through the drawing-room door, as he had come.
The housemaid said that while she was cleaning the grate in the
dining-room she heard someone go into the drawing-room: a parlour-
maid had even seen someone come out of Jim's bedroom. But they had
both thought it was Jim himself, for he was an unsettled house mate.

There was a thin film of snow, a lovely Christmas morning.

CHAPTER IV

"THE PILLAR OF SALT"

Our story will not yet see daylight. A few days after Christmas,
Aaron sat in the open shed at the bottom of his own garden, looking
out on the rainy darkness. No one knew he was there. It was some
time after six in the evening.

From where he sat, he looked straight up the garden to the house.
The blind was not drawn in the middle kitchen, he could see the
figures of his wife and one child. There was a light also in the
upstairs window. His wife was gone upstairs again. He wondered if
she had the baby ill. He could see her figure vaguely behind the lace
curtains of the bedroom. It was like looking at his home through the
wrong end of a telescope. Now the little girls had gone from the
middle room: only to return in a moment.

His attention strayed. He watched the light falling from the window
of the next-door house. Uneasily, he looked along the whole range of
houses. The street sloped down-hill, and the backs were open to the
fields. So he saw a curious succession of lighted windows, between
which jutted the intermediary back premises, scullery and outhouse, in
dark little blocks. It was something like the keyboard of a piano:
more still, like a succession of musical notes. For the rectangular
planes of light were of different intensities, some bright and keen,
some soft, warm, like candle-light, and there was one surface of pure
red light, one or two were almost invisible, dark green. So the long
scale of lights seemed to trill across the darkness, now bright, now
dim, swelling and sinking. The effect was strange.

And thus the whole private life of the street was threaded in lights.
There was a sense of indecent exposure, from so many backs. He felt
himself almost in physical contact with this contiguous stretch of
back premises. He heard the familiar sound of water gushing from the
sink in to the grate, the dropping of a pail outside the door, the
clink of a coal shovel, the banging of a door, the sound of voices.
So many houses cheek by jowl, so many squirming lives, so many back
yards, back doors giving on to the night. It was revolting.

Away in the street itself, a boy was calling the newspaper: "-'NING
POST! -'NING PO-O-ST!" It was a long, melancholy howl, and seemed to
epitomise the whole of the dark, wet, secretive, thickly-inhabited
night. A figure passed the window of Aaron's own house, entered, and
stood inside the room talking to Mrs. Sisson. It was a young woman in
a brown mackintosh and a black hat. She stood under the incandescent
light, and her hat nearly knocked the globe. Next door a man had run
out in his shirt sleeves: this time a young, dark-headed collier
running to the gate for a newspaper, running bare-headed, coatless,
slippered in the rain. He had got his news-sheet, and was returning.
And just at that moment the young man's wife came out, shading her
candle with a lading tin. She was going to the coal-house for some
coal. Her husband passed her on the threshold. She could be heard
breaking the bits of coal and placing them on the dustpan. The light
from her candle fell faintly behind her. Then she went back, blown by
a swirl of wind. But again she was at the door, hastily standing her
iron shovel against the wall. Then she shut the back door with a bang.
These noises seemed to scrape and strike the night.

In Aaron's own house, the young person was still talking to Mrs.
Sisson. Millicent came out, sheltering a candle with her hand.
The candle blew out. She ran indoors, and emerged again, her white
pinafore fluttering. This time she performed her little journey
safely. He could see the faint glimmer of her candle emerging
secretly from the closet.

The young person was taking her leave. He could hear her sympathetic
--"Well--good night! I hope she'll be no worse. Good night Mrs.
Sisson!" She was gone--he heard the windy bang of the street-gate.
Presently Millicent emerged again, flitting indoors.

So he rose to his feet, balancing, swaying a little before he started
into motion, as so many colliers do. Then he moved along the path
towards the house, in the rain and darkness, very slowly edging
forwards.

Suddenly the door opened. His wife emerged with a pail. He stepped
quietly aside, on to his side garden, among the sweet herbs. He could
smell rosemary and sage and hyssop. A low wall divided his garden
from his neighbour's. He put his hand on it, on its wetness, ready
to drop over should his wife come forward. But she only threw the
contents of her pail on the garden and retired again. She might have
seen him had she looked. He remained standing where he was, listening
to the trickle of rain in the water-butt. The hollow countryside lay
beyond him. Sometimes in the windy darkness he could see the red burn
of New Brunswick bank, or the brilliant jewels of light clustered at
Bestwood Colliery. Away in the dark hollow, nearer, the glare of the
electric power-station disturbed the night. So again the wind swirled
the rain across all these hieroglyphs of the countryside, familiar to
him as his own breast.

A motor-car was labouring up the hill. His trained ear attended to it
unconsciously. It stopped with a jar. There was a bang of the yard-
gate. A shortish dark figure in a bowler hat passed the window.
Millicent was drawing down the blind. It was the doctor. The blind
was drawn, he could see no more.

Stealthily he began to approach the house. He stood by the climbing
rose of the porch, listening. He heard voices upstairs. Perhaps the
children would be downstairs. He listened intently. Voices were
upstairs only. He quietly opened the door. The room was empty, save
for the baby, who was cooing in her cradle. He crossed to the hall.
At the foot of the stairs he could hear the voice of the Indian
doctor: "Now little girl, you must just keep still and warm in bed,
and not cry for the moon." He said "_de_ moon," just as ever.--Marjory
must be ill.

So Aaron quietly entered the parlour. It was a cold, clammy room,
dark. He could hear footsteps passing outside on the asphalt pavement
below the window, and the wind howling with familiar cadence. He
began feeling for something in the darkness of the music-rack beside
the piano. He touched and felt--he could not find what he wanted.
Perplexed, he turned and looked out of the window. Through the iron
railing of the front wall he could see the little motorcar sending its
straight beams of light in front of it, up the street.

He sat down on the sofa by the window. The energy had suddenly left
all his limbs. He sat with his head sunk, listening. The familiar
room, the familiar voice of his wife and his children--he felt weak as
if he were dying. He felt weak like a drowning man who acquiesces in
the waters. His strength was gone, he was sinking back. He would
sink back to it all, float henceforth like a drowned man.

So he heard voices coming nearer from upstairs, feet moving. They
were coming down.

"No, Mrs. Sisson, you needn't worry," he heard the voice of the doctor
on the stairs. "If she goes on as she is, she'll be all right. Only
she must be kept warm and quiet--warm and quiet--that's the chief
thing."

"Oh, when she has those bouts I can't bear it," Aaron heard his wife's
voice.

They were downstairs. Their feet click-clicked on the tiled passage.
They had gone into the middle room. Aaron sat and listened.

"She won't have any more bouts. If she does, give her a few drops
from the little bottle, and raise her up. But she won't have any
more," the doctor said.

"If she does, I s'll go off my head, I know I shall."

"No, you won't. No, you won't do anything of the sort. You won't go
off your head. You'll keep your head on your shoulders, where it ought
to be," protested the doctor.

"But it nearly drives me mad."

"Then don't let it. The child won't die, I tell you. She will be all
right, with care. Who have you got sitting up with her? You're not
to sit up with her tonight, I tell you. Do you hear me?"

"Miss Smitham's coming in. But it's no good--I shall have to sit up.
I shall HAVE to."

"I tell you you won't. You obey ME. I know what's good for you as
well as for her. I am thinking of you as much as of her."

"But I can't bear it--all alone." This was the beginning of tears.
There was a dead silence--then a sound of Millicent weeping with her
mother. As a matter of fact, the doctor was weeping too, for he was
an emotional sympathetic soul, over forty.

"Never mind--never mind--you aren't alone," came the doctor's matter-

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