For Hubert Lapell this first love-affair was extremely important. “Important” was the word he had used himself when he was writing about it in his diary. It was an event in his life, a real event for a change. It marked, he felt, a genuine turning-point in his spiritual development.
“Voltaire,” he wrote in his diary—and he wrote it a second time in one of his letters to Minnie—“Voltaire said that one died twice: once with the death of the whole body and once before, with the death of one’s capacity to love. And in the same way one is born twice, the second time being on the occasion when one first falls in love. One is born, then, into a new world—a world of intenser feelings, heightened values, more penetrating insights.” And so on.
In point of actual fact Hubert found this new world a little disappointing. The intenser feelings proved to be rather mild; not by any means up to literary standards.
“I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid’s love. Thou answer’st: she is fair;
Pour’st in the open ulcer of my heart
Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice….”
No, it certainly wasn’t quite that. In his diary, in his letters to Minnie, he painted, it is true, a series of brilliant and romantic landscapes of the new world. But they were composite imaginary landscapes in the manner of Salvator Rosa—richer, wilder, more picturesquely clear-obscure than the real thing. Hubert would seize with avidity on the least velleity of an unhappiness, a physical desire, a spiritual yearning, to work it up in his letters and journals into something substantially romantic. There were times, generally very late at night, when he succeeded in persuading himself that he was indeed the wildest, unhappiest, most passionate of lovers. But in the daytime he went about his business nourishing something like a grievance against love. The thing was a bit of a fraud; yes, really, he decided, rather a fraud. All the same, he supposed it was important.
For Minnie, however, love was no fraud at all. Almost from the first moment she had adored him. A common friend had brought him to one of her Wednesday evenings. “This is Mr. Lapell; but he’s too young to be called anything but Hubert.” That was how he had been introduced. And, laughing, she had taken his hand and called him Hubert at once. He too had laughed, rather nervously. “My name’s Minnie,” she said. But he had been too shy to call her anything at all that evening. His brown hair was tufty and untidy, like a little boy’s, and he had shy grey eyes that never looked at you for more than a glimpse at a time, but turned away almost at once, as though they were afraid. Quickly he glanced at you, eagerly—then away again; and his musical voice, with its sudden emphases, its quick modulations from high to low, seemed always to address itself to a ghost floating low down and a little to one side of the person to whom he was talking. Above the brows was a forehead beautifully domed, with a pensive wrinkle running up from between the eyes. In repose his full-lipped mouth pouted a little, as though he were expressing some chronic discontent with the world. And, of course, thought Minnie, the world wasn’t beautiful enough for his idealism.
“But after all,” he had said earnestly that first evening, “one has the world of thought to live in. That, at any rate, is simple and clear and beautiful. One can always live apart from the brutal scramble.”
And from the depths of the arm-chair in which, fragile, tired, and in these rather “artistic” surroundings almost incongruously elegant, she was sitting, Helen Glamber laughed her clear little laugh. “I think, on the contrary,” she said (Minnie remembered every incident of that first evening), “I think one ought to rush about and know thousands of people, and eat and drink enormously, and make love incessantly, and shout and laugh and knock people over the head.” And having vented these Rabelaisian sentiments, Mrs. Glamber dropped back with a sigh of fatigue, covering her eyes with a thin white hand; for she had a splitting headache, and the light hurt her.
“Really!” Minnie protested, laughing. She would have felt rather shocked if any one else had said that; but Helen Glamber was allowed to say anything.
Hubert reaffirmed his quietism. Elegant, weary, infinitely fragile, Mrs. Glamber lay back in her arm-chair, listening. Or perhaps, under her covering hand, she was trying to go to sleep.
She had adored him at first sight. Now that she looked back she could see that it had been at first sight. Adored him protectively, maternally—for he was only twenty and very young, in spite of the wrinkle between his brows, and the long words, and the undergraduate’s newly discovered knowledge; only twenty, and she was nearly twenty-nine. And she had fallen in love with his beauty, too. Ah, passionately.
Hubert, perceiving it later, was surprised and exceedingly flattered. This had never happened to him before. He enjoyed being worshipped, and since Minnie had fallen so violently in love with him, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to be in love with Minnie. True, if she had not started by adoring him, it would never have occurred to Hubert to fall in love with her. At their first meeting he had found her certainly very nice, but not particularly exciting. Afterwards, the manifest expression of her adoration had made him find her more interesting, and in the end he had fallen in love himself. But perhaps it was not to be wondered at if he found the process a little disappointing.
But still, he reflected on those secret occasions when he had to admit to himself that something was wrong with this passion, love without possession could never, surely, in the nature of things, be quite the genuine article. In his diary he recorded aptly those two quatrains of John Donne:
“So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.”
At their next meeting he recited them to Minnie. The conversation which followed, compounded as it was of philosophy and personal confidences, was exquisite. It really, Hubert felt, came up to literary standards.
The next morning Minnie rang up her friend Helen Glamber and asked if she might come to tea that afternoon. She had several things to talk to her about. Mrs. Glamber sighed as she hung up the receiver. “Minnie’s coming to tea,” she called, turning towards the open door.
From across the passage her husband’s voice came back to her. “Good Lord!” it said in a tone of far-away horror, of absent-minded resignation; for John Glamber was deep in his work and there was only a little of him left, so to speak, above the surface to react to the bad news.
Helen Glamber sighed again, and propping herself more comfortably against her pillows she reached for her book. She knew that far-away voice and what it meant. It meant that he wouldn’t answer if she went on with the conversation; only say “h’m” or “m’yes.” And if she persisted after that, it meant that he’d say, plaintively, heart-breakingly, “Darling, you must let me get on with my work.” And at that moment she would so much have liked to talk a little. Instead, she went on reading at the point where she had broken off to answer Minnie’s telephone call.
“By this time the flames had enveloped the gynecæum. Nineteen times did the heroic Patriarch of Alexandria venture into the blazing fabric, from which he succeeded in rescuing all but two of its lovely occupants, twenty-seven in number, all of whom he caused to be transported at once to his own private apartments….”
It was one of those instructive books John liked her to read. History, mystery, lesson, and law. But at the moment she didn’t feel much like history. She felt like talking. And that was out of the question; absolutely out of it.
She put down her book and began to file her nails and think of poor Minnie. Yes, poor Minnie. Why was it that one couldn’t help saying Good Lord! heartfeltly, when one heard she was coming to tea? And why did one never have the heart to refuse to let her come to tea? She was pathetic, but pathetic in such a boring way. There are some people you like being kind to, people you want to help and befriend. People that look at you with the eyes of sick monkeys. Your heart breaks when you see them. But poor Minnie had none of the charms of a sick monkey. She was just a great big healthy young woman of twenty-eight who ought to have been married and the mother of children, and who wasn’t. She would have made such a good wife, such an admirably solicitous and careful mother. But it just happened that none of the men she knew had ever wanted to marry her. And why should they want to? When she came into a room, the light seemed to grow perceptibly dimmer, the electric tension slackened off. She brought no life with her; she absorbed what there was, she was like so much blotting-paper. No wonder nobody wanted to marry her. And yet, of course, it was the only thing. Particularly as she was always falling in love herself. The only thing.
“John!” Mrs. Glamber suddenly called. “Is it really true about ferrets?”
“Ferrets?” the voice from across the passage repeated with a remote irritation. “Is what true about ferrets?”
“That the females die if they’re not mated.”
“How on earth should I know?”
“But you generally know everything.”
“But, my darling, really….” The voice was plaintive, full of reproach.
Mrs. Glamber clapped her hand over her mouth and only took it off again to blow a kiss. “All right,” she said very quickly. “All right. Really. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Really.” She blew another kiss towards the door.
“But ferrets….” repeated the voice.
“Darling,” said Mrs. Glamber almost sternly, “you really must go on with your work.”
Minnie came to tea. She put the case—hypothetically at first, as though it were the case of a third person; then, gaining courage, she put it personally. It was her own case. Out of the depths of her untroubled, pagan innocence, Helen Glamber brutally advised her. “If you want to go to bed with the young man,” she said, “go to bed with him. The thing has no importance in itself. At least not much. It’s only important because it makes possible more secret confidences, because it strengthens affection, makes the man in a way dependent on you. And then, of course, it’s the natural thing. I’m all for nature except when it comes to painting one’s face. They say that ferrets….” But Minnie noticed that she never finished the sentence. Appalled and fascinated, shocked and yet convinced, she listened.
“My darling,” said Mrs. Glamber that evening when her husband came home—for he hadn’t been able to face Minnie; he had gone to the Club for tea—“who was it that invented religion, and sin, and all that? And why?”
John laughed. “It was invented by Adam,” he said, “for various little transcendental reasons which you would probably find it difficult to appreciate. But also for the very practical purpose of keeping Eve in order.”
“Well, if you call complicating people’s lives keeping them in order, then I dare say you’re right.” Mrs. Glamber shook her head. “I find it all too obscure. At sixteen, yes. But one really ought to have grown out of that sort of thing by twenty. And at thirty—the woman’s nearly thirty, you know—well, really….”
In the end, Minnie wrote to Hubert telling him that she had made up her mind. Hubert was staying in Hertfordshire with his friend Watchett. It was a big house, the food was good, one was very comfortable; and old Mr. Watchett, moreover, had a very sound library. In the impenetrable shade of the Wellingtonias Hubert and Ted Watchett played croquet and discussed the best methods of cultivating the Me. You could do a good deal, they decided, with art—books, you know, and pictures and music. “Listen to Stravinsky’s Sacre,” said Ted Watchett, “and you’re for ever excused from going to Tibet or the Gold Coast or any of those awful places. And then there’s Dostoievsky instead of murder, and D. H. Lawrence as a substitute for sex.”
“All the same,” said Hubert, “one must have a certain amount of actual non-imaginative experience.” He spoke earnestly, abstractedly; but Minnie’s letter was in his pocket. “Gnosce teipsum. You can’t really know yourself without coming into collision with events, can you?”
Next day, Ted’s cousin, Phœbe, arrived. She had red hair and a milky skin, and was more or less on the musical comedy stage. “One foot on and one foot off,” she explained. “The splits.” And there and then she did them, the splits, on the drawing-room carpet. “It’s quite easy,” she said, laughing, and jumped up again with an easy grace that fairly took one’s breath away. Ted didn’t like her. “Tiresome girl,” he said. “So silly, too. Consciously silly, silly on purpose, which makes it worse.” And, it was true, she did like boasting about the amount of champagne she could put away without getting buffy, and the number of times she had exceeded the generous allowance and been “blind to the world.” She liked talking about her admirers in terms which might make you suppose that they were all her accepted lovers. But then she had the justification of her vitality and her shining red hair.
“Vitality,” Hubert wrote in his diary (he contemplated a distant date, after, or preferably before, his death, when these confessions and aphorisms would be published), “vitality can make claims on the world almost as imperiously as can beauty. Sometimes beauty and vitality meet in one person.”
It was Hubert who arranged that they should stay at the mill. One of his friends had once been there with a reading party, and found the place comfortable, secluded, and admirably quiet. Quiet, that is to say, with the special quietness peculiar to mills. For the silence there was not the silence of night on a mountain; it was a silence made of continuous thunder. At nine o’clock every morning the mill-wheel began to turn, and its roaring never stopped all day. For the first moments the noise was terrifying, was almost unbearable. Then, after a little, one grew accustomed to it. The thunder became, by reason of its very unintermittence, a perfect silence, wonderfully rich and profound.
At the back of the mill was a little garden hemmed in on three sides by the house, the outhouses, and a high brick wall, and open on the fourth towards the water. Looking over the parapet, Minnie watched it sliding past. It was like a brown snake with arrowy markings on its back; and it crawled, it glided, it slid along for ever. She sat there, waiting: her train, from London, had brought her here soon after lunch; Hubert, coming across country from the Watchetts, would hardly arrive before six. The water flowed beneath her eyes like time, like destiny, smoothly towards some new and violent event.
The immense noise that in this garden was silence enveloped her. Inured, her mind moved in it as though in its native element. From beyond the parapet came the coolness and the weedy smell of water. But if she turned back towards the garden, she breathed at once the hot perfume of sunlight beating on flowers and ripening fruit. In the afternoon sunlight all the world was ripe. The old red house lay there, ripe, like a dropped plum; the walls were riper than the fruits of the nectarine trees so tenderly and neatly crucified on their warm bricks. And that richer silence of unremitting thunder seemed, as it were, the powdery bloom on a day that had come to exquisite maturity and was hanging, round as a peach and juicy with life and happiness, waiting in the sunshine for the bite of eager teeth.
At the heart of this fruit-ripe world Minnie waited. The water flowed towards the wheel; smoothly, smoothly—then it fell, it broke itself to pieces on the turning wheel. And time was sliding onwards, quietly towards an event that would shatter all the smoothness of her life.
“If you really want to go to bed with the young man, go to bed with him.” She could hear Helen’s clear, shrill voice saying impossible, brutal things. If any one else had said them, she would have run out of the room. But in Helen’s mouth they seemed, somehow, so simple, so innocuous, and so true. And yet all that other people had said or implied—at home, at school, among the people she was used to meeting—seemed equally true.
But then, of course, there was love. Hubert had written a Shakespearean sonnet which began:
“Love hallows all whereon ’tis truly placed,
Turns dross to gold with one touch of his dart,
Makes matter mind, extremest passion chaste,
And builds a temple in the lustful heart.”
She thought that very beautiful. And very true. It seemed to throw a bridge between Helen and the other people. Love, true love, made all the difference. It justified. Love—how much, how much she loved!
Time passed and the light grew richer as the sun declined out of the height of the sky. The day grew more and more deliciously ripe, swelling with unheard-of sweetness. Over its sun-flushed cheeks the thundery silence of the mill-wheel spread the softest, peachiest of blooms. Minnie sat on the parapet, waiting. Sometimes she looked down at the sliding water, sometimes she turned her eyes towards the garden. Time flowed, but she was now no more afraid of that shattering event that thundered there, in the future. The ripe sweetness of the afternoon seemed to enter into her spirit, filling it to the brim. There was no more room for doubts, or fearful anticipations, or regrets. She was happy. Tenderly, with a tenderness she could not have expressed in words, only with the gentlest of light kisses, with fingers caressingly drawn through the ruffled hair, she thought of Hubert, her Hubert.
Hubert, Hubert…. And suddenly, startlingly, he was standing there at her side.
“Oh,” she said, and for a moment she stared at him with round brown eyes, in which there was nothing but astonishment. Then the expression changed. “Hubert,” she said softly.
Hubert took her hand and dropped it again; looked at her for an instant, then turned away. Leaning on the parapet, he stared down into the sliding water; his face was unsmiling. For a long time both were silent. Minnie remained where she was, sitting quite still, her eyes fixed on the young man’s averted face. She was happy, happy, happy. The long day ripened and ripened, perfection after perfection.
“Minnie,” said the young man suddenly, and with a loud abruptness, as though he had been a long time deciding himself to speak and had at last succeeded in bringing out the prepared and pent-up words, “I feel I’ve behaved very badly towards you. I never ought to have asked you to come here. It was wrong. I’m sorry.”
“But I came because I wanted to,” Minnie exclaimed.
Hubert glanced at her, then turned away his eyes and went on addressing a ghost that floated, it seemed, just above the face of the sliding water. “It was too much to ask. I shouldn’t have done it. For a man it’s different. But for a woman….”
“But, I tell you, I wanted to.”
“It’s too much.”
“It’s nothing,” said Minnie, “because I love you.” And leaning forward, she ran her fingers through his hair. Ah, tenderness that no words could express! “You silly boy,” she whispered. “Did you think I didn’t love you enough for that?”
Hubert did not look up. The water slid and slid away before his eyes; Minnie’s fingers played in his hair, ran caressingly over the nape of his neck. He felt suddenly a positive hatred for this woman. Idiot! Why couldn’t she take a hint? He didn’t want her. And why on earth had he ever imagined that he did? All the way in the train he had been asking himself that question. Why? Why? And the question had asked itself still more urgently just now as, standing at the garden door, he had looked out between the apple tree and watched her, unobserved, through a long minute—watched her sitting there on the parapet, turning her vague brown eyes now at the water, now towards the garden, and smiling to herself with an expression that had seemed to him so dim and vacuous that he could almost have fancied her an imbecile.
And with Phœbe yesterday he had stood on the crest of the bare chalk down. Like a sea at their feet stretched the plain, and above the dim horizon towered heroic clouds. Fingers of the wind lifted the red locks of her hair. She stood as though poised, ready to leap off into the boisterous air. “How I should like to fly!” she said. “There’s something particularly attractive about airmen, I always think.” And she had gone running down the hill.
But Minnie, with her dull hair, her apple-red cheeks, and big, slow body, was like a peasant girl. How had he ever persuaded himself that he wanted her? And what made it much worse, of course, was that she adored him, embarrassingly, tiresomely, like a too affectionate spaniel that insists on tumbling about at your feet and licking your hand just when you want to sit quietly and concentrate on serious things.
Hubert moved away, out of reach of her caressing hand. He lifted towards her for a moment a pair of eyes that had become, as it were, opaque with a cold anger; then dropped them again.
“The sacrifice is too great,” he said in a voice that sounded to him like somebody else’s voice. He found it very difficult to say this sort of thing convincingly. “I can’t ask it of you,” the actor pursued. “I won’t.”
“But it isn’t a sacrifice,” Minnie protested. “It’s a joy, it’s happiness. Oh, can’t you understand?”
Hubert did not answer. Motionless, his elbows on the parapet, he stared down into the water. Minnie looked at him, perplexed only, at first; but all at once she was seized with a nameless agonising doubt that grew and grew within her, as the silence prolonged itself, like some dreadful cancer of the spirit, until it had eaten away all her happiness, until there was nothing left in her mind but doubt and apprehension.
“What is it?” she said at last. “Why are you so strange? What is it, Hubert? What is it?”
Leaning anxiously forward, she laid her two hands on either side of his averted face and turned it towards her. Blank and opaque with anger were the eyes. “What is it?” she repeated. “Hubert, what is it?”
Hubert disengaged himself. “It’s no good,” he said in a smothered voice. “No good at all. It was a mistake. I’m sorry. I think I’d better go away. The trap’s still at the door.”
And without waiting for her to say anything, without explaining himself any further, he turned and walked quickly away, almost ran, towards the house. Well, thank goodness, he said to himself, he was out of that. He hadn’t done it very well, or handsomely, or courageously; but, at any rate, he was out of it. Poor Minnie! He felt sorry for her; but after all, what could he do about it? Poor Minnie! Still, it rather flattered his vanity to think that she would be mourning over him. And in any case, he reassured his conscience, she couldn’t really mind very much. But on the other hand, his vanity reminded him, she did adore him. Oh, she absolutely worshipped….
The door closed behind him. Minnie was alone again in the garden. Ripe, ripe it lay there in the late sunshine. Half of it was in shadow now; but the rest of it, in the coloured evening light, seemed to have come to the final and absolute perfection of maturity. Bloomy with thundery silence, the choicest fruit of all time hung there, deliciously sweet, sweet to the core; hung flushed and beautiful on the brink of darkness.
Minnie sat there quite still, wondering what had happened. Had he gone, had he really gone? The door closed behind him with a bang, and almost as though the sound were a signal prearranged, a man walked out from the mill on to the dam and closed the sluice. And all at once the wheel was still. Apocalyptically there was silence; the silence of soundlessness took the place of that other silence that was uninterrupted sound. Gulfs opened endlessly out around her; she was alone. Across the void of soundlessness a belated bee trailed its thin buzzing; the sparrows chirped, and from across the water came the sound of voices and far-away laughter. And as though woken from a sleep, Minnie looked up and listened, fearfully, turning her head from side to side.