H.G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet (1906)
Book I: The Comet
Chapter 2 - Nettie
I cannot now remember (the story resumed) what interval separated that evening on which Parload first showed me the comet -- I think I only pretended to see it then -- and the Sunday afternoon I spent at Checkshill.
Between those two there was time enough for me to give notice and leave Rawdon's, to seek for some other situations very strenuously in vain, to think and say many hard and violent things to my mother and to Parload, and to pass through some phases of very profound wretchedness. There must have been a passionate correspondence with Nettie but all the froth and fury of that has faded now out of my memory. All I have clear now is that I wrote one magnificent farewell to her, casting her off for ever, and that I got in reply a prim little note to say that even if there was to be an end to everything, that was no excuse for writing such things as I had done, and then I think I wrote again in a vein I considered satirical. To that she did not reply. That interval was at least three weeks, and probably four, because the comet which had been on the first occasion only a dubious speck in the sky, certainly visible only when it was magnified, was now a great white presence, brighter than Jupiter, and casting a shadow on its own account. It was now actively present in the world of human thought, everyone was talking about it, everyone was looking for its waxing splendour as the sun went down -- the papers, the music-halls, the hoardings, echoed it.
Yes; the comet was already dominant before I went over to make everything clear to Nettie. And Parload had spent two hoarded pounds in buying himself a spectroscope, so that he could see for himself, night after night, that mysterious, that stimulating line -- the unknown line in the green. How many times I wonder did I look at the smudgy quivering symbol of the unknown things that were rushing upon us out of the inhuman void, before I rebelled? But at last I could stand it no longer, and I reproached Parload very bitterly for wasting his time in "astronomical dilettantism."
"Here," said I, "we're on the verge of the biggest lockout in the history of this countryside; here's distress and hunger coming, here's all the capitalistic competitive system like a wound inflamed, and you spend your time gaping at the damned silly streak of nothing in the sky!"
Parload stared at me. "Yes, I do," he said slowly, as though it was a new idea. "Don't I? . . . I wonder why."
"I want to start meetings of an evening on Howden's Waste."
"You think they'd listen?"
"They'd listen fast enough now."
"They didn't before," said Parload, looking at his pet instrument.
"There was a demonstratin of unemployed at Swathinglea on Sunday. They got to stone throwing."
Parload said nothing for a little while and I said several things. He seemed to be considering something.
"But after all," he said at last, with an awkward movement towards his spectroscope, "that does signify something."
"What can it signify? You don't want me to believe in astrology. What does in matter what flames in the heavens -- when men are starving on earth?"
"It's -- it's science."
"Science! What we want now is socialism -- not science."
He still seemed reluctant to give up his comet.
"Socialism's all right," he said, "but if that thing up there was to hit the earth it mightn't matter."
"Nothing matters but human beings."
"Suppose it killed them all."
"Oh," said I, "that's Rot."
"I wonder," said Parload, dreadfully divided in his allegiance.
He looked at the comet. He seemed on the verge of repeating his growing information about the nearness of the paths of the earth and comet, and all that might ensue from that. So I cut in with something I had got out of a now forgotten writer called Ruskin, a volcano of beautiful language and nonsensical suggestions, who prevailed very greatly with eloquent excitable young men in those days. Something it was about the insignificance of science and the supreme importance of Life. Parload stood listening, half turned towards the sky with the tips of his fingers on his spectroscope. He seemed to come to a sudden decision.
"No. I don't agree with you, Leadford," he said. "You don't understand about science."
Parload rarely argued with that bluntness of opposition. I was so used to entire possession of our talk that his brief contradiction struck me like a blow. "Don't agree with me!" I repeated.
"No," said Parload.
"I believe science is of more importance than socialism," he said. "Socialism's a theory. Science -- science is something more."
And that was really all he seemed to be able to say.
We embarked upon one of those queer arguments illiterate young men used always to find so heating. Science or Socialism? It was, of course, like arguing which is right, left-handedness or a taste for onions, it was altogether impossible opposition. But the range of my rhetoric enabled me at last to exasperate Parload, and his mere repudiation of my conclusions sufficed to exasperate me, and we ended in the key of a positive quarrel. "Oh, very well!" said I. "So long as I know where we are!"
I slammed his door as though I dynamited his house, and went raging down the street, but I felt that he was already back at the window worshipping his blessed line in the green, before I got round the corner.
I had to walk for an hour or so before I was cool enough to go home.
And it was Parload who had first introduced me to socialism!
The most extraordinary things used to run through my head in those days. I will confess that my mind ran persistently that evening upon revolutions after the last French pattern, and I sat on a Committee of Safety and tried backsliders. Parload was there, among the prisoners, backsliderissimus, aware too late of the error of his ways. His hands were tied behind his back ready for the shambles; through the open door one heard the voice of justice, the rude justice of the people. I was sorry, but I had to do my duty.
"If we punish those who would betray us to Kings," said I, with a sorrowful deliberation, "how much the more must we punish those who would give over the State to the pursuit of useless knowledge;" and so with a gloomy satisfaction sent him off to the guillotine.
"Ah, Parload! Parload! If only you'd listened to me earlier, Parload!" . . .
None the less that quarrel made me extremely unhappy. Parload was my only gossip, and it cost me much to keep away from him and think evil of him with no one to listen to me, evening after evening.
That was a very miserable time for me, even before my last visit to Checkshill. My long unemployed hours hung heavily upon my hands. I kept away from home all day, partly to support a fiction that I was sedulously seeking another situation, and partly to escape the persistent question in my mother's eyes. "Why did you quarrel with Mr. Rawdon? Why did you? Why do you keep on going about with a sullen face and risk offending it more?" I spent most of the morning in the newspaper-room of the public library, writing impossible applications for impossible posts -- I remember that among other things of the sort I offered my services to a firm of private detectives, a sinister breed of traders upon base jealousies now happily vanished from the world, and wrote apropos of an advertisement for "stevedores" that I did not know what the duties of a stevedore might be, but that I was apt and willing to learn -- and in the afternoons and evenings I wandered through all the strange lights and shadows of my native valley and hated all created things. Until my wanderings were checked by the discovery that I was wearing out my boots.
The stagnant inconclusive malaria of that time!
I perceive that I was an evil-tempered, ill-disposed youth with a great capacity for hatred, but ----
There was an excuse for hate.
It was wrong of me to hate individuals, to be rude, harsh, and vindictive to this person or that, but indeed it would have been equally wrong to have taken the manifest offer life made me, without resentment. I see now clearly and calmly, what I then felt obscurely and with an unbalanced intensity, that my conditions were intolerable. My work was tedious and laborious and it took up an unreasonable proportion of my time; I was ill clothed, ill fed, ill housed, ill educated, and ill trained; my will was suppressed and cramped to the pitch of torture; I had no reasonable pride in myself and no reasonable chance of putting anything right. It was a life hardly worth living. That a large proportion of the people about me had no better a lot, that many had a worse, does not affect these facts. It was a life in which contentment would have been disgraceful. If some of them were contented or resigned, so much the worse for everyone. No doubt it was hasty and foolish of me to throw up my situation, but everything was so obviously aimless and foolish in our social organisation that I do not feel disposed to blame myself even for that, except in so far as it pained my mother and caused her anxiety.
Think of the one comprehensive fact of the lock-out!
That year was a bad year, a year of world-wide economic disorganisation. Through their want of intelligent direction the great "Trust" of American ironmasters, a gang of energetic, narrow-minded furnace owners, had smelted far more iron than the whole world had any demand for. (In those days there existed no means of estimating any need of that sort beforehand.) They had done this without even consulting the ironmasters of any other country. During their period of activity they had drawn into their employment a great number of workers, and had erected a huge productive plant. It is manifestly just that people who do headlong stupid things of this sort should suffer, but in the old days it was quite possible, it was customary, for the real blunderers in such disasters to shift nearly all the consequences of their incapacity. No one thought it wrong for a light-witted "captain of industry" who had led his work-people into overproduction, into the disproportionate manufacture, that is to say, of some particular article, to abandon and dismiss them, nor was there anything to prevent the sudden frantic underselling of some trade rival in order to surprise and destroy his trade, secure his customers for one's own destined needs, and shift a portion of one's punishment upon him. This operation of spasmodic underselling was known as "dumping." The American ironmasters were now dumping on the British market. The British employers were, of course, taking their loss out of their work-people as much as possible, but in addition they were agitating for some legislation that would prevent -- not stupid relative excess in production, but "dumping" -- not the disease, but the consequences of the disease. The necessary knowledge to prevent either dumping or its cause, the uncorrelated production of commodities, did not exist, but this hardly weighed with them at all; and in answer to their demands there had arisen a curious party of retaliatory-protectionists who combined vague proposals for spasmodic responses to these convulsive attacks from foreign manufacturers, with the very evident intention of achieving financial adventures. The dishonest and reckless elements were indeed so evident in this movement as to add very greatly to the general atmosphere of distrust and insecurity, and in the recoil from the prospect of fiscal power in the hands of the class of men known as the "New Financiers," one heard frightened old-fashioned statesmen asserting with passion that "dumping" didn't occur, or that it was a very charming sort of thing to happen. Nobody would face and handle the rather intricate truth of the business. The whole effect upon the mind of a cool observer was a covey of unsubstantiated jabbering minds drifting over a series of irrational economic cataclysms, prices and employment tumbled about like towers in an earthquake, and amidst the shifting masses were the common work-people going on with their lives as well as they could, suffering perplexed, unorganised, and for anything but violent, fruitless protests, impotent. You cannot hope now to understand the infinite want of adjustment in the old order of things. At one time there were people dying of actual starvation in India, while men were burning unsaleable wheat in America. It sounds like the account of a particularly mad dream, does it not? It was a dream, a dream from which no one on earth expected an awakening.
To us youngsters with the positiveness, the rationalism of youth, it seemed that the strikes and lock-outs, the over-production and misery could not possibly result simply from ignorance and want of thought and feeling. We needed more dramatic factors that these mental fogs, these mere atmospheric devils. We fled therefore to that common refuge of the unhappy ignorant, a belief in callous insensate plots -- we called them "plots" -- against the poor.
You can still see how we figured it in any museum by looking up the caricatures of capital and labour that adorned the German and American socialistic papers of the old time.
I had cast Nettie off in an eloquent epistle, had really imagined the affair was over for ever -- "I've done with women," I said to Parload -- and then there was silence for more than a week.
Before that week was over I was wondering with a growing emotion what next would happen between us. I found myself thinking constantly of Nettie, picturing her -- sometimes with stern satisfaction, sometimes with sympathetic remorse -- mourning, regretting, realising the absolute end that had come between us. At the bottom of my heart I no more believed that there was an end between us, than that an end would come to the world. Had we not kissed one another, had we not achieved an atmosphere of whispering nearness, breached our virgin shyness with one another? Of course she was mine, of course I was hers, and separations and final quarrels and harshness and distance were no more than flourishes upon that eternal fact. So at least I felt the thing, however I shaped my thoughts.
Whenever my imagination got to work as that week drew to its close, she came in as a matter of course. I thought of her recurrently all day and dreamt of her at night. On Saturday night I dreamt of her very vividly. Her face was flushed and wet with tears, her hair a little disordered, and when I spoke to her she turned away. In some manner this dream left in my mind a feeling of distress and anxiety. In the morning I had a raging thirst to see her.
That Sunday my mother wanted me to go to church very particularly. She had a double reason for that; she thought that it would certainly exercise a favourable influence upon my search for a situation throughout the next week, and in addition Mr. Gabbitas, with a certain mystery behind his glasses, had promised to see what he could do for me, and she wanted to keep him up to that promise. I half consented, and then my desire for Nettie took hold of me. I told my mother I wasn't going to church, and set off about eleven to walk the seventeen miles to Checkshill.
It greatly intensified the fatigue of that long tramp that the sole of my boot presently split at the toe, and after I had cut the flapping portion off, a nail worked through and began to torment me. However, the boot looked all right after that operation and gave no audible hint of my discomfort. I got some bread and cheese at a little inn on the way, and was in Checkshill park about four. I did not go by the road past the house and so round to the gardens, but cut over the crest beyond the second keeper's cottage, along a path Nettie used to call her own. It was a mere deer track. It led up a miniature valley and through a pretty dell in which we had been accustomed to meet, and so through the hollies and along a narrow path close by the wall of the shrubbery to the gardens. In my memory that walk through the park before I came upon Nettie stands out very vividly. The long tramp before it is foreshortened to a mere effect of dusty road and painful boot, but the bracken valley and sudden tumult of doubts and unwonted expectations that came to me, stands out now as something significant, as something unforgettable, something essential to the meaning of all that followed. Where should I meet her? What should she say? I had asked these questions before and found an answer. Now they came again with a trail of fresh implications and I had no answer for them at all. As I approached Nettie she ceased to be the mere butt of my egotistical self-projection, the custodian of my sexual pride, and drew together and became over and above this a personality of her own, a personality and a mystery, a sphinx I had evaded only to meet again.
I find a little difficulty in describing the quality of the old world love-making so that it may be understandable now.
We young people had practically no preparation at all for the stir and emotions of adolescence. Towards the young the world maintained a conspiracy of stimulating silences. There came no initiation. There were books, stories of a curiously conventional kind that insisted on certain qualities in every love-affair and greatly intensified one's natural desires for them, perfect trust, perfect loyalty, live-long devotion. Much of the complex essentials of love were altogether hidden. One read these things, got accidental glimpses of this and that, wondered and forgot and so one grew. Then strange emotions, novel alarming desires, dreams strangely charged with feeling; an inexplicable impulse of self-abandonment began to trickle queerly amongst the familiar purely egotistical and materialistic things of boyhood and girlhood. We were like misguided travellers who had camped in the dry bed of a tropical river. Presently we were knee deep and neck deep in the flood. Our beings were suddenly going out from ourselves seeking other beings -- we knew not why. This novel craving for abandonment to someone of the other sex, bore us away. We were ashamed and full of desire. We kept the thing a guilty secret, and were resolved to satisfy it against all the world. In this state it was we drifted in the most accidental way against some other blindly seeking creature, and linked like nascent atoms.
We were obsessed by the books we read, by all the talk about us that once we had linked ourselves we were linked for life. Then afterwards we discovered that other was also an egotism, a thing of ideas and impulses, that failed to correspond with ours.
So it was, I say, with the young of my class and most of the young people in our world. So it came about that I sought Nettie on the Sunday afternoon and suddenly came upon her, light bodied, slenderly feminine, hazel eyed. with her soft sweet young face under the shady brim of her hat of straw, the pretty venus I had resolved should be wholly and exclusively mine.
There, all unaware of me still, she stood, my essential feminine, the embodiment of the inner thing in life for me -- and moreover an unknown other, a person like myself.
She held a little book in her hand, open as if she were walking along and reading it. That chanced to be her pose, but indeed she was standing quite still, looking away towards the grey and lichenous shrubbery wall and, as I think now, listening. Her lips were a little apart, curved to that faint, sweet shadow of a smile.
I recall with a vivid precision her queer start when she heard the rustle of my approaching feet, her surprise, her eyes almost of dismay for me. I could recollect, I believe, every significant word she spoke during our meeting, and most of what I said to her. At least it seems I could, though indeed I may deceive myself. But I will not make the attempt. We were both to ill educated to speak our full meanings, we stamped out our feelings with clumsy stereotyped phrases; you who are better taught would fail to catch our intention. The effect would be inanity. But our first words I may give you, because though they conveyed nothing to me at the time, afterwards they meant much.
"You, Willie!" she said.
"I have come," I said -- forgetting in the instant all the elaborate things I had intended to say. "I thought I would surprise you ---- "
She stared at me for a moment. I can see her pretty face now as it looked at me -- her impenetrable dear face. She laughed a queer little laugh and her colour went for a moment, and then so soon as she had spoken, came back again.
"Surprise me at what?" she said with a rising note.
I was too intent to explain myself to think of what might lie in that.
"I wanted to tell you," I said, "that I didn't mean quite . . . the things I put in my letter.
When I and Nettie had been sixteen we had been just of an age and contemporaries altogether. Now we were a year and three-quarters older, and she -- her metamorphosis was almost complete, and I was still only at the beginning of a man's long adolescence.
In an instant she grasped the situation. The hidden motives of her quick-ripened little mind flashed out their intuitive scheme of action. She treated me with that neat perfection of understanding a young woman has for a boy.
"But how did you come?" she asked.
I told her I had walked.
"Walked!" In an instant she was leading me towards the gardens. I must be tired. I must come home with her at once and sit down. Indeed it was near tea-time (the Stuarts had tea at the old-fashioned hour of five). Everyone would be so surprised to see me. Fancy walking! Fancy! But she supposed a man thought nothing of seventeen miles. When could I have started!
All the while, keeping me at a distance, without even the touch of her hand.
"But Nettie! I came over to talk to you!"
"My dear boy! Tea first, if you please! And besides - aren't we talking?"
The "dear boy" was a new note, that sounded oddly to me.
She quickened her pace a little.
"I wanted to explain -- " I began.
Whatever I wanted to explain I had no chance to do so. I said a few discrepant things that she answered rather by her intonations than her words.
When we were well past the shrubbery, she slackened a little in her urgency, and so we came along the slope under the beeches to the garden. She kept her bright, straightforward-looking girlish eyes on me as we went; it seemed she did so all the time, but now I know, better than I did then, that every now and then she glanced over me and behind me towards the shrubbery. And all the while, behind her quick breathless inconsecutive talk, she was thinking.
Her dress marked the end of her transition.
Can I recall it?
Not, I am afraid, in the terms a woman would use. But her bright brown hair, which had once flowed down her neck in a jolly pig-tail tied with a bit of scarlet ribbon, was now caught up into an intricacy of pretty curves above her little ear and cheek, and the soft long lines of her neck; her white dress had descended to her feet; her slender waist, which had once been a mere geographical expression, an imaginary line like the equator, was now a thing of flexible beauty. A year ago she had been a pretty girl's face sticking out from a little unimportant frock that was carried upon an extremely active and efficient pair of brown-stockinged legs. Now there was coming a strange new body that flowed beneath her clothes with a sinuous insistence. Every movement, and particularly the novel droop of her hand and arm to the unaccustomed skirts she gathered about her, and a graceful forward inclination that had come to her, called softly to my eyes. A very fine scarf -- I suppose you would call it a scarf -- of green gossamer, that some new-wakened instinct had told her to fling about her shoulders, clung now closely to the young undulations of her body, and now streamed fluttering out for a moment in a breath of wind, and like some shy independent tentacle with a secret to impart, came into momentary contact with my arm.
She caught it back and reproved it.
We went through the green gate in the high garden wall. I held it open for her to pass through, for this was one of my restricted stock of stiff politenesses, and then for a second she was near touching me. So we came to the trim array of flower-beds near the head gardener's cottage and the vistas of "glass" on our left. We walked between the box edgings and beds of begonias, and into the shadow of a yew hedge within twenty yards of that very pond with the gold-fish at whose brim we had plighted our vows, and so we came to the wistaria-smothered porch.
The door was wide open, and she walked in before me. "Guess who has come to see us!" she cried.
Her father answered indistinctly from the parlour, and a chair creaked. I judged he was disturbed in his nap.
"Mother!" she called in her clear young voice. "Puss!"
Puss was her sister.
She told them in a marvelling key that I had walked all the way from Clayton, and they gathered about me and echoed her notes of surprise.
"You'd better sit down, Willie," said her father, "now you have got here. How's your mother?"
He looked at me curiously as he spoke.
He was dressed in his Sunday clothes, a sort of brownish tweeds, but the waistcoat was unbuttoned for greater comfort in his slumbers. He was a brown-eyed ruddy man, and I still have now in my mind the bright effect of the red-golden hairs that started out from his cheek to flow down into his beard. He was short but strongly built, and his beard and moustache were the biggest things about him. She had taken all the possibility of beauty he possessed, his clear skin, his bright, hazel-brown eyes, and wedded them to a certain quickness she got from her mother. Her mother I remember as a sharp-eyed woman of great activity; she seems to me now to have been perpetually bringing in or taking out meals or doing some such service, and to me--for my mother's sake and my own--she was always welcoming and kind. Puss was a youngster of fourteen perhaps, of whom a hard bright stare, and a pale skin like her mother's, are the chief traces on my memory. All these people were very kind to me, and among them there was a common recognition, sometimes very agreeably finding expression, that I was--"clever." They all stood about me as if they were a little at a loss.
"Sit down!" said her father. "Give him a chair, puss."
We talked a little stiffly--they were evidently surprised by my sudden apparition, dusty, fatigued, and white-faced; but Nettie did not remain to keep the conversation going.
"There!" she cried suddenly, as if she were vexed. "I declare!" and she darted out of the room.
"Lord! what a girl it is!" said Mrs. Stuart. "I don't know what's come to her."
It was half an hour before Nettie came back. It seemed a long time to me, and yet she had been running, for when she came in again she was out of breath. In the meantime, I had thrown out casually that I had given up my place at Rawdon's. "I can do better than that," I said.
"I left my book in the dell," she said, panting. "Is tea ready?" and that was her apology. . . .
We didn't shake down into comfort even with the coming of the tea-things. Tea at the gardener's cottage was a serious meal, with a big cake and little cakes, and preserves and fruit, a fine spread upon the table. You must imagine me, sullen, awkward, and preoccupied, perplexed by the something that was inexplicably unexpected in Nettie, saying little, and glowering across the cake at her, and all the eloquence I had been concentrating for the previous twenty-four hours, miserably lost somewhere in the back of my mind. Nettie's father tried to set me talking; he had a liking for my gift of ready speech, for his own ideas came with difficulty, and it pleased and astonished him to hear me pouring out my views. Indeed, over there I was, I think, even more talkative that with Parload, though to the world at large I was a shy young lout. "You ought to write it out for the newspapers," he used to say. "That's what you ought to do. I never heard such nonsense."
Or, "You've got the gift of gab, young man. We ought to have made a lawyer of you."
But that afternoon, even in his eyes, I didn't shine. Failing any other stimulus, he reverted to my search for a situation, but even that did not engage me.
For a long time I feared I should have to go back to Clayton without another word to Nettie, she seemed insensible to the need I felt for a talk with her, and I was thinking even of a sudden demand for that before them all. It was a transparent manœuvre of her mother's, who had been watching my face, that sent us out at last together to do something--I forget now what--in one of the greenhouses. Whatever that little mission may have been it was the merest, most barefaced excuse, a door to shut, or a window to close, and I don't think it got done.
Nettie hesitated and obeyed. She led the way through one of the hot- houses. It was a low, steamy, brick-floored alley between staging that bore a close crowd of pots and ferns, and behind big branching plants that were spread and nailed overhead so as to make an impervious cover of leaves, and in that close green privacy she stopped and turned on me suddenly like a creature at bay.
"Isn't the maidenhair fern lovely?" she said, and looked at me with eyes that said, "Now."
"Nettie," I began, "I was a fool to write you as I did."
She startled me by the assent that flashed out upon her face. But she said nothing, and stood waiting.
"Nettie," I plunged, "I can't do without you. I--love you." "If you loved me," she said trimly, watching the white fingers she plunged among the green branches of a selaginella, "could you write the things you do to me?"
"I don't mean them," I said. "At least, not always."
I thought really they were very good letters, and that Nettie was stupid to think otherwise, but I was for the moment clearly aware of the impossibility of conveying that to her.
"You wrote them."
"But then I tramp seventeen miles to say I don't mean them."
"Yes. But perhaps you do."
I think I was at a loss; then I said, not very clearly, "I don't."
"You think you--you love me, Willie. But you don't."
"I do. Nettie! You know I do."
For answer she shook her head.
I made what I thought was a most heroic plunge. "Nettie," I said, "I'd rather have you than--than my own opinions."
The selaginella still engaged her. "You think so now," she said.
I broke out into protestations.
"No," she said shortly. "It's different now."
"But why should two letters make so much difference?" I said.
"It isn't only the letters. But it is different. It's different for good."
She halted a little with that sentence, seeking expression. She looked up abruptly into my eyes and moved, indeed slightly, but with the intimation that she thought our talk might end.
But I did not mean it to end like that.
"For good?" said I. "No! . . . Nettie! Nettie! You don't mean that!"
"I do," she said deliberately, still looking at me, and with all her pose conveying her finality. She seemed to brace herself for the outbreak that must follow.
Of course I became wordy. But I did not submerge her. She stood intrenched, firing her contradictions like guns into my scattered discussive attack. I remember that our talk took the absurd form of disputing whether I could be in love with her or not. And there was I, present in evidence, in a deepening and widening distress of soul because she could stand there, defensive, brighter and prettier than ever, and in some inexplicable way cut off from me and inaccessible.
You know, we had never been together before without little enterprises of endearment, without a faintly guilty, quite delightful excitement.
I pleaded, I argued. I tried to show that even my harsh and difficult letters came from my desire to come wholly into contact with her. I made exaggerated fine statements of the longing I felt for her when I was away, of the shock and misery of finding her estranged and cool. She looked at me feeling the emotion of my speech and impervious to its ideas. I had no doubt--whatever poverty in my words, coolly written down now, might convey--that I was eloquent then. I meant most intensely what I said, indeed I was wholly concentrated upon it. I was set upon conveying to her with absolute sincerity my sense of distance, and the greatness of my desire. I toiled towards her painfully and obstinately through a jungle of words.
Her face changed very slowly--by such imperceptible degrees as when at dawn light comes into a clear day. I could feel that I touched her, that her hardness was in some manner melting, her determination softening towards hesitations. The habit of an old familiarity lurked somewhere within her. But she would not let me reach her.
"No," she cried abruptly, starting into motion.
She laid a hand on my arm. A wonderful new friendliness came into her voice. "It's impossible, Willie. Everything is different now--everything. We made a mistake. We two young sillies made a mistake and everything is different for ever. Yes, yes."
She turned about.
"Nettie!" cried I, and, still protesting, pursued her along the narrow alley between the staging towards the hothouse door. I pursued her like an accusation, and she went before me like one who is guilty and ashamed. So I recall it now.
She would not let me talk to her again.
Yet I could see that my talk to her had altogether abolished the clear-cut distance of our meeting in the park. Ever and again, I found her hazel eyes upon me. They expressed something novel--a surprise, as though she realised an unwonted relationship, and a sympathetic pity. And still--something defensive.
When we got back to the cottage, I fell talking rather more freely with her father about the nationalisation of railways, and my spirits and temper had so far mended at the realisation that I could still produce an effect upon Nettie, that I was even playful with Puss. Mrs. Stuart judged from that that things were better with me than they were, and began to beam mightily.
But Nettie remained thoughtful and said very little. She was lost in perplexities I could not fathom, and presently she slipped away from us and went upstairs.
I was, of course, too footsore to walk back to Clayton, but I had a shilling and a penny in my pocket for the train between Checkshill and Two-Mile Stone, and that much of the distance I proposed to do in the train. And when I got ready to go, Nettie amazed me by waking up to the most remarkable solicitude for me. I must, she said, go by the road. It was altogether too dark for the short way to the lodge gates.
I pointed out that it was moonlight. "With the comet thrown in," said old Stuart.
"No," she insisted, "you must go by the road."
I still disputed.
She was standing near me. "To please me," she urged, in a quick undertone, and with a persuasive look that puzzled me. Even in the moment I asked myself why should this please her.
I might have agreed had she not followed that up with, "The hollies by the shrubbery are as dark as pitch. And there's the deer-hounds."
"I'm not afraid of the dark," said I. "Nor f the deer-hounds, either."
"But those dogs! Supposing one was loose!"
That was a girl's argument, a girl who still had to understand that fear is an overt argument only for her own sex. I thought too of those grisly lank brutes straining at their chains and the chorus they could make of a night when they heard belated footsteps along the edge of the Killing Wood, and the thought banished by wish to lease her. Like most imaginative natures I was acutely capable of dreads and retreats, and constantly occupied with their suppression and concealment, and to refuse the short cut when it might appear that I did it on account of half a dozen almost certainly chained dogs was impossible.
So I set off in spite of her, feeling valiant and glad to be so easily brave, but a little sorry that she should think herself crossed by me.
A thin cloud veiled the moon, and the way under the beeches was dark and indistinct. I was not so preoccupied with my love-affairs as to neglect what I will confess was always my custom at night across that wild and lonely park. I made myself a club by fastening a big flint to one end of my twisted handkerchief and tying the other about my wrist, and with this in my pocket, went on comforted.
And it chanced that as I emerged from the hollies by the corner of the shrubbery I was startled to come unexpectedly upon a young man in evening dress smoking a cigar.
I was walking on turf, so that the sound I made was slight. He stood clear in the moonlight, his cigar glowed like a blood-red star, and it did not occur to me at the time that I advanced towards him almost invisibly in an impenetrable shadow.
"Hullo," he cried, with a sort of amiable challenge. "I'm here first!"
I came out into the light. "Who cares if you are?" said I.
I had jumped at once to an interpretation of his words. I knew that there was an intermittent dispute between the House people and the villager public about the use of this track, and it is needless to say where my sympathies fell in that dispute.
"Eh!" he cried in surprise.
"Thought I would run away, I suppose," said I, and came close up to him.
All my enormous hatred of his class had flared up at the sight of his costume, at the fancied challenge of his words. I knew him. He was Edward Verrall, son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon's pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns. He was a gallant youngster, people said, and very clever. Young as he was there was talk of parliament for him; he had been a great success at the university, and he was being sedulously popularised among us. He took with a light confidence, as a matter of course, advantages that I would have faced the rack to get, and I firmly believed myself a better man than he. He was, as he stood there, a concentrated figure of all that filled me with bitterness. One day he had stopped in a motor outside our house, and I remember the thrill of rage with which I had noted the dutiful admiration in my mother's eyes as she peered through her blind at him.
"That's young Mr. Verrall," she said. "They say he's very clever."
"They would," I answered. "Damn them and him!"
But that is by the way.
He was clearly astonished to find himself face to face with a man. His note changed.
"Who the devil are you?" he asked.
My retort was the cheap expedient of re-echoing, "Who the devil are you?"
"Well," he said.
"I'm coming along this path if I like," I said. "See? It's a public path--just as this used to be public land. You've stolen the land--you and yours, and now you want to steal the right of way. You'll ask us to get off the face of the earth next. I shan't oblige. See?"
I was shorter and I suppose a couple of years younger than he, but I had the improvised club in my pocket gripped ready, and I would have fought with him very cheerfully. But he fell a step backward as I came towards him.
"Socialist, I presume?" he said, alert and quiet and with the faintest note of badinage.
"One of many."
"We're all socialists nowadays," he remarked philosophically, "and I haven't the faintest intention of disputing your right of way."
"You'd better not," I said.
He replaced his cigar, and there was a brief pause. "Catching a train?" he threw out.
It seemed absurd not to answer. "Yes," I said shortly.
He said it was a pleasant evening for a walk.
I hovered for a moment and there was my path before me, and he stood aside. There seemed nothing to do but go on. "Good night," said he, as that intention took effect.
I growled a surly good night.
I felt like a bombshell of swearing that must presently burst with some violence as I went on my silent way. He had so completely got the best in our encounter.
There comes a memory, an odd intermixture of two entirely divergent things, that stands out with the intensest vividness.
As I went across the last open meadow, following the short cut to Checkshill station, I perceived I had two shadows.
The thing jumped into my mind and stopped its tumid flow for a moment. I remember the intelligent detachment of my sudden interest. I turned sharply, and stood looking at the moon and the great white comet, that the drift of the clouds had now rather suddenly unveiled.
The comet was perhaps twenty degrees from the moon. What a wonderful thing it looked floating there, a greenish-white apparition in the dark blue deeps! It looked brighter than the moon because it was smaller, but the shadow it cast, though clearer cut, was much fainter than the moon's shadow. . . . I went on noting these facts, watching my two shadows precede me.
I am totally unable to account for the sequence of my thoughts on this occasion. But suddenly, as if I had come on this new fact round a corner, the comet was out of my mind again, and I was face to face with an absolutely new idea. I wonder sometimes if the two shadows I cast, one with a sort of feminine faintness with regard to the other and not quite so tall, may not have suggested the word or the thought of an assignation to my mind. All that I have clear is that with the certitude of intuition I knew what it was that had brought the youth in the evening dress outside the shrubbery. Of course! He had come to meet Nettie!
Once the mental process was started it took no time at all. The day which had been full of perplexities for me, the mysterious invisible thing that had held Nettie and myself apart, that unaccountable strange something in her manner, was revealed and explained.
I knew now why she had looked guilty at my appearance, what had brought her out that afternoon, why she had hurried me in, the nature of the "book" she had run back to fetch, the reason why she had wanted me to go back by the high-road, and why she had pitied me. It was all in the instant clear to me.
You must imagine me a black little creature, suddenly stricken still--for a moment standing rigid--and then again suddenly becoming active with an impotent gesture, becoming audible with an inarticulate cry, with two little shadows mocking my dismay, and about this figure you must conceive a great wide space of moonlit grass, rimmed by the looming suggestion of distant trees--trees very low and faint and dim, and over it all the domed serenity of that wonderful luminous night.
For a little while this realisation stunned my mind. My thoughts came to a pause, staring at my discovery. Meanwhile my feet and my previous direction carried me through the warm darkness to Checkshill station with its little lights, to the ticket-office window, and so to the train.
I remember myself as it were waking up to the thing--I was alone in one of the dingy "third-class" compartments of that time--and the sudden nearly frantic insurgence of my rage. I stood up with the cry of an angry animal, and smote my fist with all my strength against the panel of wood before me. . . .
Curiously enough I have completely forgotten my mood after that for a little while, but I know that later, for a minute perhaps, I hung for a time out of the carriage with the door open, contemplating a leap from the train. It was to be a dramatic leap, and then I would go storming back to her, denounce her, overwhelm her; and I hung, urging myself to do it. I don't remember how it was I decided not to do this, at last, but in the end I didn't.
When the train stopped at the next station I had given up all thoughts of boing back. I was sitting in the corner of the carriage with my bruised and wounded hand pressed under my arm, and still insensible to its pain, trying to think out clearly a scheme of action--action that should express the monstrous indignation that possessed me.