Such an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make one’s eyes slide above the paper’s edge to the poor woman’s face — insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it. Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of — what? That life’s like that, it seems. Five faces opposite — five mature faces — and the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth — the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game — do, for all our sakes, conceal it!
As if she heard me, she looked up, shifted slightly in her seat and sighed. She seemed to apologise and at the same time to say to me, “If only you knew!” Then she looked at life again.
“But I do know,” I answered silently, glancing at the Times for manners’ sake. “I know the whole business. ‘Peace between Germany and the Allied Powers was yesterday officially ushered in at Paris — Signor Nitti, the Italian Prime Minister — a passenger train at Doncaster was in collision with a goods train …’ We all know — the Times knows — but we pretend we don’t.”
My eyes had once more crept over the paper’s rim. She shuddered, twitched her arm queerly to the middle of her back and shook her head.
Again I dipped into my great reservoir of life. “Take what you like,” I continued, “births, deaths, marriages, Court Circular, the habits of birds, Leonardo da Vinci, the Sandhills murder, high wages and the cost of living — oh, take what you like,” I repeated, “it’s all in the Times!" Again with infinite weariness she moved her head from side to side until, like a top exhausted with spinning, it settled on her neck. The Times was no protection against such sorrow as hers.
But other human beings forbade intercourse. The best thing to do against life was to fold the paper so that it made a perfect square, crisp, thick, impervious even to life. This done, I glanced up quickly, armed with a shield of my own.
She pierced through my shield; she gazed into my eyes as if searching any sediment of courage at the depths of them and damping it to clay. Her twitch alone denied all hope, discounted all illusion. So we rattled through Surrey and across the border into Sussex. But with my eyes upon life I did not see that the other travellers had left, one by one, till, save for the man who read, we were alone together. Here was Three Bridges station. We drew slowly down the platform and stopped. Was he going to leave us? I prayed both ways — I prayed last that he might stay. At that instant he roused himself, crumpled his paper contemptuously, like a thing done with, burst open the door, and left us alone.
The unhappy woman, leaning a little forward, palely and colourlessly addressed me — talked of stations and holidays, of brothers at Eastbourne, and the time of year, which was, I forget now, early or late. But at last looking from the window and seeing, I knew, only life, she breathed, “Staying away — that’s the drawback of it — ” Ah, now we approached the catastrophe, “My sister-in-law” — the bitterness of her tone was like lemon on cold steel, and speaking, not to me, but to herself, she muttered, “nonsense, she would say — that’s what they all say,” and while she spoke she fidgeted as though the skin on her back were as a plucked fowl’s in a poulterer’s shop-window.
“Oh, that cow!” she broke off nervously, as though the great wooden cow in the meadow had shocked her and saved her from some indiscretion. Then she shuddered, and then she made the awkward angular movement that I had seen before, as if, after the spasm, some spot between the shoulders burned or itched. Then again she looked the most unhappy woman in the world, and I once more reproached her, though not with the same conviction, for if there were a reason, and if I knew the reason, the stigma was removed from life.
“Sisters-in-law,” I said —
Her lips pursed as if to spit venom at the word; pursed they remained. All she did was to take her glove and rub hard at a spot on the window-pane. She rubbed as if she would rub something out for ever — some stain, some indelible contamination. Indeed, the spot remained for all her rubbing, and back she sank with the shudder and the clutch of the arm I had come to expect. Something impelled me to take my glove and rub my window. There, too, was a little speck in the glass. For all my rubbing it remained. And then the spasm went through me; I crooked my arm and plucked at the middle of my back. My skin, too, felt like the damp chicken’s skin in the poulterer’s shop-window; one spot between the shoulders itched and irritated, felt clammy, felt raw. Could I reach it? Surreptitiously I tried. She saw me. A smile of infinite irony, infinite sorrow, flitted and faded from her face. But she had communicated, shared her secret, passed her poison; she would speak no more. Leaning back in my corner, shielding my eyes from her eyes, seeing only the slopes and hollows, greys and purples, of the winter’s landscape, I read her message, deciphered her secret, reading it beneath her gaze.
Hilda’s the sister-in-law. Hilda? Hilda? Hilda Marsh — Hilda the blooming, the full bosomed, the matronly. Hilda stands at the door as the cab draws up, holding a coin.
“Poor Minnie, more of a grasshopper than ever — old cloak she had last year. Well, well, with two children these days one can’t do more. No, Minnie, I’ve got it; here you are, cabby — none of your ways with me. Come in, Minnie. Oh, I could carry you, let alone your basket!”
So they go into the dining-room.
“Aunt Minnie, children.”
Slowly the knives and forks sink from the upright. Down they get (Bob and Barbara), hold out hands stiffly; back again to their chairs, staring between the resumed mouthfuls. [But this we’ll skip; ornaments, curtains, trefoil china plate, yellow oblongs of cheese, white squares of biscuit — skip — oh, but wait! Halfway through luncheon one of those shivers; Bob stares at her, spoon in mouth.
“Get on with your pudding, Bob;” but Hilda disapproves. “Why should she twitch?”
Skip, skip, till we reach the landing on the upper floor; stairs brass-bound; linoleum worn; oh, yes! little bedroom looking out over the roofs of Eastbourne — zigzagging roofs like the spines of caterpillars, this way, that way, striped red and yellow, with blue-black slating]. Now, Minnie, the door’s shut; Hilda heavily descends to the basement; you unstrap the straps of your basket, lay on the bed a meagre nightgown, stand side by side furred felt slippers. The looking-glass — no, you avoid the looking-glass. Some methodical disposition of hat-pins. Perhaps the shell box has something in it? You shake it; it’s the pearl stud there was last year — that’s all. And then the sniff, the sigh, the sitting by the window. Three o’clock on a December afternoon; the rain drizzling; one light low in the skylight of a drapery emporium; another high in a servant’s bedroom — this one goes out. That gives her nothing to look at. A moment’s blankness — then, what are you thinking? (Let me peep across at her opposite; she’s asleep or pretending it; so what would she think about sitting at the window at three o’clock in the afternoon? Health, money, hills, her God?) Yes, sitting on the very edge of the chair looking over the roofs of Eastbourne, Minnie Marsh prays to God. That’s all very well; and she may rub the pane too, as though to see God better; but what God does she see? Who’s the God of Minnie Marsh, the God of the back streets of Eastbourne, the God of three o’clock in the afternoon? I, too, see roofs, I see sky; but, oh, dear — this seeing of Gods! More like President Kruger than Prince Albert — that’s the best I can do for him; and I see him on a chair, in a black frock-coat, not so very high up either; I can manage a cloud or two for him to sit on; and then his hand trailing in the cloud holds a rod, a truncheon is it? — black, thick, thorned — a brutal old bully — Minnie’s God! Did he send the itch and the patch and the twitch? Is that why she prays? What she rubs on the window is the stain of sin. Oh, she committed some crime!
I have my choice of crimes. The woods flit and fly — in summer there are bluebells; in the opening there, when Spring comes, primroses. A parting, was it, twenty years ago? Vows broken? Not Minnie’s! … She was faithful. How she nursed her mother! All her savings on the tombstone — wreaths under glass — daffodils in jars. But I’m off the track. A crime … They would say she kept her sorrow, suppressed her secret — her sex, they’d say — the scientific people. But what flummery to saddle her with sex! No — more like this. Passing down the streets of Croydon twenty years ago, the violet loops of ribbon in the draper’s window spangled in the electric light catch her eye. She lingers — past six. Still by running she can reach home. She pushes through the glass swing door. It’s sale-time. Shallow trays brim with ribbons. She pauses, pulls this, fingers that with the raised roses on it — no need to choose, no need to buy, and each tray with its surprises. “We don’t shut till seven,” and then it is seven. She runs, she rushes, home she reaches, but too late. Neighbours — the doctor — baby brother — the kettle — scalded — hospital — dead — or only the shock of it, the blame? Ah, but the detail matters nothing! It’s what she carries with her; the spot, the crime, the thing to expiate, always there between her shoulders.
“Yes,” she seems to nod to me, “it’s the thing I did.”
Whether you did, or what you did, I don’t mind; it’s not the thing I want. The draper’s window looped with violet — that’ll do; a little cheap perhaps, a little commonplace — since one has a choice of crimes, but then so many (let me peep across again — still sleeping, or pretending sleep! white, worn, the mouth closed — a touch of obstinacy, more than one would think — no hint of sex) — so many crimes aren’t your crime; your crime was cheap; only the retribution solemn; for now the church door opens, the hard wooden pew receives her; on the brown tiles she kneels; every day, winter, summer, dusk, dawn (here she’s at it) prays. All her sins fall, fall, for ever fall. The spot receives them. It’s raised, it’s red, it’s burning. Next she twitches. Small boys point. “Bob at lunch to-day” — But elderly women are the worst.
Indeed now you can’t sit praying any longer. Kruger’s sunk beneath the clouds — washed over as with a painter’s brush of liquid grey, to which he adds a tinge of black — even the tip of the truncheon gone now. That’s what always happens! Just as you’ve seen him, felt him, someone interrupts. It’s Hilda now. How you hate her! She’ll even lock the bathroom door overnight, too, though it’s only cold water you want, and sometimes when the night’s been bad it seems as if washing helped. And John at breakfast — the children — meals are worst, and sometimes there are friends — ferns don’t altogether hide ‘em — they guess, too; so out you go along the front, where the waves are grey, and the papers blow, and the glass shelters green and draughty, and the chairs cost tuppence — too much — for there must be preachers along the sands. Ah, that’s a nigger — that’s a funny man — that’s a man with parakeets — poor little creatures! Is there no one here who thinks of God? — just up there, over the pier, with his rod — but no — there’s nothing but grey in the sky or if it’s blue the white clouds hide him, and the music — it’s military music — and what are they fishing for? Do they catch them? How the children stare! Well, then home a back way — “Home a back way!” The words have meaning; might have been spoken by the old man with whiskers — no, no, he didn’t really speak; but everything has meaning — placards leaning against doorways — names above shop-windows — red fruit in baskets — women’s heads in the hairdresser’s — all say “Minnie Marsh!” But here’s a jerk. “Eggs are cheaper!” That’s what always happens! I was heading her over the waterfall, straight for madness, when, like a flock of dream sheep, she turns t’other way and runs between my fingers. Eggs are cheaper. Tethered to the shores of the world, none of the crimes, sorrows, rhapsodies, or insanities for poor Minnie Marsh; never late for luncheon; never caught in a storm without a mackintosh; never utterly unconscious of the cheapness of eggs.
So she reaches home — scrapes her boots.
Have I read you right? But the human face — the human face at the top of the fullest sheet of print holds more, withholds more. Now, eyes open, she looks out; and in the human eye — how d’you define it? — there’s a break — a division — so that when you’ve grasped the stem the butterfly’s off — the moth that hangs in the evening over the yellow flower — move, raise your hand, off, high, away. I won’t raise my hand. Hang still, then, quiver, life, soul, spirit, whatever you are of Minnie Marsh — I, too, on my flower — the hawk over the down — alone, or what were the worth of life? To rise; hang still in the evening, in the midday; hang still over the down. The flicker of a hand — off, up! then poised again. Alone, unseen; seeing all so still down there, all so lovely. None seeing, none caring. The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. Air above, air below. And the moon and immortality … Oh, but I drop to the turf! Are you down too, you in the corner, what’s your name — woman — Minnie Marsh; some such name as that? There she is, tight to her blossom; opening her hand-bag, from which she takes a hollow shell — an egg — who was saying that eggs were cheaper? You or I? Oh, it was you who said it on the way home, you remember, when the old gentleman, suddenly opening his umbrella — or sneezing was it? Anyhow, Kruger went, and you came “home a back way,” and scraped your boots. Yes. And now you lay across your knees a pocket-handkerchief into which drop little angular fragments of eggshell — fragments of a map — a puzzle. I wish I could piece them together! If you would only sit still. She’s moved her knees — the map’s in bits again. Down the slopes of the Andes the white blocks of marble go bounding and hurtling, crushing to death a whole troop of Spanish muleteers, with their convoy — Drake’s booty, gold and silver.
But to return — To what, to where? She opened the door, and, putting her umbrella in the stand — that goes without saying; so, too, the whiff of beef from the basement; dot, dot, dot. But what I cannot thus eliminate, what I must, head down, eyes shut, with the courage of a battalion and the blindness of a bull, charge and disperse are, indubitably, the figures behind the ferns, commercial travellers. There I’ve hidden them all this time in the hope that somehow they’d disappear, or better still emerge, as indeed they must, if the story’s to go on gathering richness and rotundity, destiny and tragedy, as stories should, rolling along with it two, if not three, commercial travellers and a whole grove of aspidistra.
“The fronds of the aspidistra only partly concealed the commercial traveller — ” Rhododendrons would conceal him utterly, and into the bargain give me my fling of red and white, for which I starve and strive; but rhododendrons in Eastbourne — in December — on the Marshes’ table — no, no, I dare not; it’s all a matter of crusts and cruets, frills and ferns. Perhaps there’ll be a moment later by the sea. Moreover, I feel, pleasantly pricking through the green fretwork and over the glacis of cut glass, a desire to peer and peep at the man opposite — one’s as much as I can manage. James Moggridge is it, whom the Marshes call Jimmy? [Minnie, you must promise not to twitch till I’ve got this straight]. James Moggridge travels in — shall we say buttons? — but the time’s not come for bringing them in — the big and the little on the long cards, some peacock-eyed, others dull gold; cairngorms some, and others coral sprays — but I say the time’s not come.
He travels, and on Thursdays, his Eastbourne day, takes his meals with the Marshes. His red face, his little steady eyes — by no means altogether commonplace — his enormous appetite (that’s safe; he won’t look at Minnie till the bread’s swamped the gravy dry), napkin tucked diamond-wise — but this is primitive, and, whatever it may do the reader, don’t take me in. Let’s dodge to the Moggridge household, set that in motion. Well, the family boots are mended on Sundays by James himself. He reads Truth. But his passion? Roses — and his wife a retired hospital nurse — interesting — for God’s sake let me have one woman with a name I like! But no; she’s of the unborn children of the mind, illicit, none the less loved, like my rhododendrons. How many die in every novel that’s written — the best, the dearest, while Moggridge lives. It’s life’s fault. Here’s Minnie eating her egg at the moment opposite and at t’other end of the line — are we past Lewes? — there must be Jimmy — or what’s her twitch for?