FEBRUARY 4, 1916
I sat on a stepladder in the orchard shaking down the last orange pippins, while at the farmhouse door stood the two women who, by the curious exigencies of wartime, were living with me in close companionship although I had never seen them before. The billeting of a Lancashire regiment had already meant that I housed a little trumpeter who had one morning attempted, with all the recklessness and ambition of fifteen, to shave himself, with such results that when they had brought him round with brandy and pinned up the bandage they had looked for someone to feed him up for a week or two. And when two wives came casually from Manchester for a surprise visit, unable to believe that there are large tracts of England without great grey blocks where one was welcomed at reduced terms if one washed at the sink, they also fell to me. They were not happy guests. It was not, as one might have expected, that they found country life too tame, but rather that it was too wild. They feared the interplay of little lives that is concealed like a net in long grass under every country scene. They were afraid to walk by the stream because of the bright-eyed voles; they would not go through the woods because of the little foxes that cried softly among the roots. And when one opened the door at night, so immense a blackness pressed in against the human lamplight!
Upon the eastern hilltop of the valley the rising October moon was caught in a bare-branched hawthorn thicket; on the western hills there glowed rosily the ashes of the sunset, and between them arched a sky clear as glass, whose high calm was a delusion. For a wind ran here and there in the valley. Sometimes it set the elms roaring down their ivied bodies to their deep old roots. Sometimes it swung southward so that I could not hear the little trumpeter practicing his calls among the orange osiers by the stream. Sometimes it whirled about the apple-tree so that I was covered and beaten with a confusion of dark leaves and bright fruit. Now it veered down the valley and came back, broke on the elmtops, poured down on me like a rush of water, and spilled away like a shallow stream through the long grass and violets at the apple-tree’s foot. I stretched up my arms to it so that it ran down my sleeves and clothed my body with a layer of cold, such cold that it must have blown the silver chill from the shipwrecked moon on the hill, which seemed to turn my blood to a quick ethereal force and my flesh to some brilliant and crystalline substance. It was such an exultation as seizes one on mountain snow and makes the nerves sing like a harp.
“Come out!” I called to the pale women at the door. Here was the something that I had longed for ever since they came into the house, something that would blow away their invalidish white inertness. The girl who made baby millinery for what she proclaimed the most refined emporium in Manchester put out that golden head which up till noon had been a barbed wire entanglement of curlers and was now an exquisite and involved piece of industry. The wind struck the lovely white mask of her face to color and she smiled willingly, but downward at the remarkable pink silk stockings which had inspired the simple villagers to name her the Daisy. The only piece of morality which women seem to have worked out for themselves is that one should preserve the integrity of one’s silk stockings. She stood there, beautiful but utterly unlordly in her sickliness; and at her side the cotton operative from Bolton, a grey-haired woman of thirty-five, shivered into her shawl with that unnatural anguish at the cold which comes to people with raw nerves, and continued to knit a stocking with irascible speed. They were missing the last day of the year’s liveliness, the last day when the land would show herself green and kindly and dancing before it sank into the solemn pregnancy of winter. They had been moved to avoid it by the contempt for the unprogressive processes of nature which they revealed more frankly when they peered down on my basket of apples as we carried them into the kitchen, and they asked with a kindly derision if I thought that jelly made from these could be as good as “shop jam.”
The coming of the men who belonged to these women, the men of the newest army in the world, had raised all the ghosts of the old armies which lay thick as leaves in this quiet valley. In the grove beside the farmhouse gold coins of Caracalla lay among the bramble-roots, and in the wood on the east hill’s brow was an altar raised by a Roman legion of Spaniards. Stephen with his sheepskinned men had come to this steading and driven its herds before him along the highroad on the western hills, by which there traveled later the tattered banner of the Red Rose. Cromwell, great because he handled only fine causes, but low among leaders of men because he handled them harshly and without style, passed northward to bring freedom to England and to dismantle a cathedral. And in every later war poor lads fuddled by the recruiting sergeant at the alehouse, and rich lads from the great house that lie mellow among the hornbeams, went away and died because of the bad dreams of the dynasts. Now all these soldiers lived again. The legionary peered down through the brush on the wood’s edge at the brown men on horses who dragged strange shining instruments of war crashing down the lanes, and hollowed his hands round his mouth and cried down two thousand years, “Build a good Empire of your fighting, friends!” The sheepskinned man and the Lancastrian and the Roundhead who died under the same May-tree by the stream and in the many nights since then have grown good friends, hailed them: “Thank God you fight your enemies and not your brothers!” And the palest of all ghosts, the English ghosts who did not die in England, cried thinly and bitterly, as those who knew best the hatefulness of war, “Pray God you triumph over all but peace!” These thousand men, tempered by the hardship and discipline of their six months’ training like sword-blades dipped in an icy river, advancing undismayed upon the worst of wars, must have evoked the praise and wonder of the dead.
The golden-haired girl in my cottage was made in the mould of an angel, but her substance was corrupt with anaemia; her lips were bluish, and her flesh was grey-white like the driftwood on a beach. In time one became used to her deathliness of color and considered her exquisite features, but as one looked on the bow of her lips parted and showed that, delightful as she would be to a lover, she would be even more profitable to a dentist. And from this sepulchre of beauty she sent no more hearty greeting to the world she lived in than an occasional remark in a voice as thin as smoke to the effect that it is a mercy pink suits nearly every girl. To this she had been brought by spending her days from the time she was fourteen in an ill-ventilated sitting-room, stitching at such little caps as the one she now carried in her hand with the pride of an artist, a convoluted mass of ribbons as involved and lacking in artistic dignity as a sprig of parsley.
And the woman from Bolton, who was now preparing with her usual nervous agony of haste another brew of the rank tea they drank all day long, had as beggarly a body. The wet heat and the ceaseless speeding-up of the cotton mill had dried up the plumpness and the fun of her so that she was nothing but a pair of fevered eyes that looked at the sky suspiciously, as though it was concealing a bobbin which needed adjusting, and a nervous system laid as bare as the veins of a leaf in a hortus siccus. She was doubtless the dear discomfort of some good man’s home in which she played a part between a perpetual draught and a convulsive cuckoo-clock. One could imagine her rushing home from her ten hours’ day at the mill in a frenzy to apply to her children and her house certain high standards of cleanliness and good feeding: scrubbing the skin off her son’s face and plaiting her daughter’s hair till there was hardly a hair left and indulging in much evil-tempered skirmishing with brooms and saucepans. The coming of her children must have been heralded by an increasing acidity of her temper, and all tenderness would be distorted by the twist of her into forcible tidyings and irritating prohibitions. All the sweetness that makes a fine woman a dearer thing than a fine man, that made the housewife in the dairy a serener ghost than any of the helmeted dead in the fields, had been sucked out of her by industry.
It was certainly necessary for the freedom of women that they should enter into modern industry, because that was the only way by which they could get the wage they earned instead of getting what share of the collective income of the family the men thought fit. So a woman can now leave her father or her husband without leaving her means of livelihood as well. But these women were paying too heavy a price for this simple victory of justice, for they were giving their blood and the pleasures that rich-blooded people find in the world, and a deeper thing beside. For they never bear healthy children that are certain to live and themselves bear children; and motherhood is neither a duty nor a privilege, but simply the way that humanity can satisfy its desire for physical immortality and triumph over its fear of death. There was nothing these women could do to regain their ancient noble peace, that serenity which comes of valuable work done leisurely and in clean places, except to rebel.
I perceived that just as there had been no hope for the peace of nations till the men in the fields had gone out to war against Germany the aggressor, so there could be no hope for the peace of womanhood until these women went out to war against the capitalist. It must no longer be the case that just because a woman is not a parasite, just because she plays an honorable part in the world and is a producer, she is robbed by her employer of her health, the natural harmony of her nerves, her pleasantness, her highest hope. Perhaps these two women, so pitifully victims of the industrial system, were as gallantly rebels against it.
The Daisy stirred her spoon round and round her teacup and said she did not belong to no union, and kept herself to herself, and she sipped her tea with a peculiarly refined hissing noise. It appeared that one of the chief reasons which had made Ma put her to the millinery was that she need never go out and need never meet no one; and she appealed to me for confirmation of her opinion that a girl had, above all, to keep herself select. The woman from Bolton, bright for a minute after her black draught of tea, owned to a trade union with the same unenthusiastic approval with which she had mentioned that there was a good cooperative store near her house, but said that she took no part in its management. “’Tisna becoming to a woman to do the clacking—’tis t’man’s job,” she said, with a peculiar bridling of the head which made me fear that by my question I had perhaps roused some painful memory of an attempted speech which had been a failure, and declared she found the local union institutes and reading-rooms not a bit of use. “To go in there, like wi’ all t’ men gapin’ at you!” and her shrivelled head repeated that bridling movement which suddenly and bitterly I understood. I laughed, because I had again made the discovery that woman is the world’s worst failure.
Here again was the instinct for elegance. The girl sat in the mean living-room and worked long hours at an unorganized trade because, although her body rotted daily in the darkness and poverty, she could yet retain that film of disuse which is known as her virginal bloom. The woman who had been made such a jarring nuisance by overwork that a man could no more love her than he could nourish a passion for a creaking gate, would not rebel against her spoilers because she had heard that self-assertion made a woman unlovable. So as they starved and strained they would, year by year, become more deeply undesirable because they cared only for desirability.
The dairy door dashed open then, and the little trumpeter, rosy with joy at the lusty autumn afternoon, slashing his muddy boots with a stem of rust-red bracken, and very hungry for his tea, showed them the true beauty they had lost. It is from selflessness and an amazed passion for the wonders of the world that there comes the perfect beauty which we see in the faces of saints and men of science, in boys loose in good fields, in young calves racing in the sunlight; and elegance is its enemy.