Chapter XI: An Island
Meanwhile Ursula had wandered on from Willey Water along the course of the bright little stream. The afternoon was full of larks' singing. On the bright hill-sides was a subdued smoulder of gorse. A few forget-me-nots flowered by the water. There was a rousedness and a glancing everywhere.
She strayed absorbedly on, over the brooks. She wanted to go to the mill-pond above. The big mill-house was deserted, save for a labourer and his wife who lived in the kitchen. So she passed through the empty farm-yard and through the wilderness of a garden, and mounted the bank by the sluice. When she got to the top, to see the old, velvety surface of the pond before her, she noticed a man on the bank, tinkering with a punt. It was Birkin sawing and hammering away.
She stood at the head of the sluice, looking at him. He was unaware of anybody's presence. He looked very busy, like a wild animal, active and intent. She felt she ought to go away, he would not want her. He seemed to be so much occupied. But she did not want to go away. Therefore she moved along the bank till he would look up.
Which he soon did. The moment he saw her, he dropped his tools and came forward, saying:
'How do you do? I'm making the punt water-tight. Tell me if you think it is right.'
She went along with him.
'You are your father's daughter, so you can tell me if it will do,' he said.
She bent to look at the patched punt.
'I am sure I am my father's daughter,' she said, fearful of having to judge. 'But I don't know anything about carpentry. It LOOKS right, don't you think?'
'Yes, I think. I hope it won't let me to the bottom, that's all. Though even so, it isn't a great matter, I should come up again. Help me to get it into the water, will you?'
With combined efforts they turned over the heavy punt and set it afloat.
'Now,' he said, 'I'll try it and you can watch what happens. Then if it carries, I'll take you over to the island.'
'Do,' she cried, watching anxiously.
The pond was large, and had that perfect stillness and the dark lustre of very deep water. There were two small islands overgrown with bushes and a few trees, towards the middle. Birkin pushed himself off, and veered clumsily in the pond. Luckily the punt drifted so that he could catch hold of a willow bough, and pull it to the island.
'Rather overgrown,' he said, looking into the interior, 'but very nice. I'll come and fetch you. The boat leaks a little.'
In a moment he was with her again, and she stepped into the wet punt.
'It'll float us all right,' he said, and manoeuvred again to the island.
They landed under a willow tree. She shrank from the little jungle of rank plants before her, evil-smelling figwort and hemlock. But he explored into it.
'I shall mow this down,' he said, 'and then it will be romantic—like Paul et Virginie.'
'Yes, one could have lovely Watteau picnics here,' cried Ursula with enthusiasm.
His face darkened.
'I don't want Watteau picnics here,' he said.
'Only your Virginie,' she laughed.
'Virginie enough,' he smiled wryly. 'No, I don't want her either.'
Ursula looked at him closely. She had not seen him since Breadalby. He was very thin and hollow, with a ghastly look in his face.
'You have been ill; haven't you?' she asked, rather repulsed.
'Yes,' he replied coldly.
They had sat down under the willow tree, and were looking at the pond, from their retreat on the island.
'Has it made you frightened?' she asked.
'What of?' he asked, turning his eyes to look at her. Something in him, inhuman and unmitigated, disturbed her, and shook her out of her ordinary self.
'It IS frightening to be very ill, isn't it?' she said.
'It isn't pleasant,' he said. 'Whether one is really afraid of death, or not, I have never decided. In one mood, not a bit, in another, very much.'
'But doesn't it make you feel ashamed? I think it makes one so ashamed, to be ill—illness is so terribly humiliating, don't you think?'
He considered for some minutes.
'May-be,' he said. 'Though one knows all the time one's life isn't really right, at the source. That's the humiliation. I don't see that the illness counts so much, after that. One is ill because one doesn't live properly—can't. It's the failure to live that makes one ill, and humiliates one.'
'But do you fail to live?' she asked, almost jeering.
'Why yes—I don't make much of a success of my days. One seems always to be bumping one's nose against the blank wall ahead.'
Ursula laughed. She was frightened, and when she was frightened she always laughed and pretended to be jaunty.
'Your poor nose!' she said, looking at that feature of his face.
'No wonder it's ugly,' he replied.
She was silent for some minutes, struggling with her own self-deception. It was an instinct in her, to deceive herself.
'But I'M happy—I think life is AWFULLY jolly,' she said.
'Good,' he answered, with a certain cold indifference.
She reached for a bit of paper which had wrapped a small piece of chocolate she had found in her pocket, and began making a boat. He watched her without heeding her. There was something strangely pathetic and tender in her moving, unconscious finger-tips, that were agitated and hurt, really.
'I DO enjoy things—don't you?' she asked.
'Oh yes! But it infuriates me that I can't get right, at the really growing part of me. I feel all tangled and messed up, and I CAN'T get straight anyhow. I don't know what really to DO. One must do something somewhere.'
'Why should you always be DOING?' she retorted. 'It is so plebeian. I think it is much better to be really patrician, and to do nothing but just be oneself, like a walking flower.'
'I quite agree,' he said, 'if one has burst into blossom. But I can't get my flower to blossom anyhow. Either it is blighted in the bud, or has got the smother-fly, or it isn't nourished. Curse it, it isn't even a bud. It is a contravened knot.'
Again she laughed. He was so very fretful and exasperated. But she was anxious and puzzled. How was one to get out, anyhow. There must be a way out somewhere.
There was a silence, wherein she wanted to cry. She reached for another bit of chocolate paper, and began to fold another boat.
'And why is it,' she asked at length, 'that there is no flowering, no dignity of human life now?'
'The whole idea is dead. Humanity itself is dry-rotten, really. There are myriads of human beings hanging on the bush—and they look very nice and rosy, your healthy young men and women. But they are apples of Sodom, as a matter of fact, Dead Sea Fruit, gall-apples. It isn't true that they have any significance—their insides are full of bitter, corrupt ash.'
'But there ARE good people,' protested Ursula.
'Good enough for the life of today. But mankind is a dead tree, covered with fine brilliant galls of people.'
Ursula could not help stiffening herself against this, it was too picturesque and final. But neither could she help making him go on.
'And if it is so, WHY is it?' she asked, hostile. They were rousing each other to a fine passion of opposition.
'Why, why are people all balls of bitter dust? Because they won't fall off the tree when they're ripe. They hang on to their old positions when the position is over-past, till they become infested with little worms and dry-rot.'
There was a long pause. His voice had become hot and very sarcastic. Ursula was troubled and bewildered, they were both oblivious of everything but their own immersion.
'But even if everybody is wrong—where are you right?' she cried, 'where are you any better?'
'I?—I'm not right,' he cried back. 'At least my only rightness lies in the fact that I know it. I detest what I am, outwardly. I loathe myself as a human being. Humanity is a huge aggregate lie, and a huge lie is less than a small truth. Humanity is less, far less than the individual, because the individual may sometimes be capable of truth, and humanity is a tree of lies. And they say that love is the greatest thing; they persist in SAYING this, the foul liars, and just look at what they do! Look at all the millions of people who repeat every minute that love is the greatest, and charity is the greatest—and see what they are doing all the time. By their works ye shall know them, for dirty liars and cowards, who daren't stand by their own actions, much less by their own words.'
'But,' said Ursula sadly, 'that doesn't alter the fact that love is the greatest, does it? What they DO doesn't alter the truth of what they say, does it?'
'Completely, because if what they say WERE true, then they couldn't help fulfilling it. But they maintain a lie, and so they run amok at last. It's a lie to say that love is the greatest. You might as well say that hate is the greatest, since the opposite of everything balances. What people want is hate—hate and nothing but hate. And in the name of righteousness and love, they get it. They distil themselves with nitroglycerine, all the lot of them, out of very love. It's the lie that kills. If we want hate, let us have it—death, murder, torture, violent destruction—let us have it: but not in the name of love. But I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no ABSOLUTE loss, if every human being perished tomorrow. The reality would be untouched. Nay, it would be better. The real tree of life would then be rid of the most ghastly, heavy crop of Dead Sea Fruit, the intolerable burden of myriad simulacra of people, an infinite weight of mortal lies.'
'So you'd like everybody in the world destroyed?' said Ursula.
'I should indeed.'
'And the world empty of people?'
'Yes truly. You yourself, don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?'
The pleasant sincerity of his voice made Ursula pause to consider her own proposition. And really it WAS attractive: a clean, lovely, humanless world. It was the REALLY desirable. Her heart hesitated, and exulted. But still, she was dissatisfied with HIM.
'But,' she objected, 'you'd be dead yourself, so what good would it do you?'
'I would die like a shot, to know that the earth would really be cleaned of all the people. It is the most beautiful and freeing thought. Then there would NEVER be another foul humanity created, for a universal defilement.'
'No,' said Ursula, 'there would be nothing.'
'What! Nothing? Just because humanity was wiped out? You flatter yourself. There'd be everything.'
'But how, if there were no people?'
'Do you think that creation depends on MAN! It merely doesn't. There are the trees and the grass and birds. I much prefer to think of the lark rising up in the morning upon a human-less world. Man is a mistake, he must go. There is the grass, and hares and adders, and the unseen hosts, actual angels that go about freely when a dirty humanity doesn't interrupt them—and good pure-tissued demons: very nice.'
It pleased Ursula, what he said, pleased her very much, as a phantasy. Of course it was only a pleasant fancy. She herself knew too well the actuality of humanity, its hideous actuality. She knew it could not disappear so cleanly and conveniently. It had a long way to go yet, a long and hideous way. Her subtle, feminine, demoniacal soul knew it well.
'If only man was swept off the face of the earth, creation would go on so marvellously, with a new start, non-human. Man is one of the mistakes of creation—like the ichthyosauri. If only he were gone again, think what lovely things would come out of the liberated days;—things straight out of the fire.'
'But man will never be gone,' she said, with insidious, diabolical knowledge of the horrors of persistence. 'The world will go with him.'
'Ah no,' he answered, 'not so. I believe in the proud angels and the demons that are our fore-runners. They will destroy us, because we are not proud enough. The ichthyosauri were not proud: they crawled and floundered as we do. And besides, look at elder-flowers and bluebells—they are a sign that pure creation takes place—even the butterfly. But humanity never gets beyond the caterpillar stage—it rots in the chrysalis, it never will have wings. It is anti-creation, like monkeys and baboons.'
Ursula watched him as he talked. There seemed a certain impatient fury in him, all the while, and at the same time a great amusement in everything, and a final tolerance. And it was this tolerance she mistrusted, not the fury. She saw that, all the while, in spite of himself, he would have to be trying to save the world. And this knowledge, whilst it comforted her heart somewhere with a little self-satisfaction, stability, yet filled her with a certain sharp contempt and hate of him. She wanted him to herself, she hated the Salvator Mundi touch. It was something diffuse and generalised about him, which she could not stand. He would behave in the same way, say the same things, give himself as completely to anybody who came along, anybody and everybody who liked to appeal to him. It was despicable, a very insidious form of prostitution.
'But,' she said, 'you believe in individual love, even if you don't believe in loving humanity—?'
'I don't believe in love at all—that is, any more than I believe in hate, or in grief. Love is one of the emotions like all the others—and so it is all right whilst you feel it But I can't see how it becomes an absolute. It is just part of human relationships, no more. And it is only part of ANY human relationship. And why one should be required ALWAYS to feel it, any more than one always feels sorrow or distant joy, I cannot conceive. Love isn't a desideratum—it is an emotion you feel or you don't feel, according to circumstance.'
'Then why do you care about people at all?' she asked, 'if you don't believe in love? Why do you bother about humanity?'
'Why do I? Because I can't get away from it.'
'Because you love it,' she persisted.
It irritated him.
'If I do love it,' he said, 'it is my disease.'
'But it is a disease you don't want to be cured of,' she said, with some cold sneering.
He was silent now, feeling she wanted to insult him.
'And if you don't believe in love, what DO you believe in?' she asked mocking. 'Simply in the end of the world, and grass?'
He was beginning to feel a fool.
'I believe in the unseen hosts,' he said.
'And nothing else? You believe in nothing visible, except grass and birds? Your world is a poor show.'
'Perhaps it is,' he said, cool and superior now he was offended, assuming a certain insufferable aloof superiority, and withdrawing into his distance.
Ursula disliked him. But also she felt she had lost something. She looked at him as he sat crouched on the bank. There was a certain priggish Sunday-school stiffness over him, priggish and detestable. And yet, at the same time, the moulding of him was so quick and attractive, it gave such a great sense of freedom: the moulding of his brows, his chin, his whole physique, something so alive, somewhere, in spite of the look of sickness.
And it was this duality in feeling which he created in her, that made a fine hate of him quicken in her bowels. There was his wonderful, desirable life-rapidity, the rare quality of an utterly desirable man: and there was at the same time this ridiculous, mean effacement into a Salvator Mundi and a Sunday-school teacher, a prig of the stiffest type.
He looked up at her. He saw her face strangely enkindled, as if suffused from within by a powerful sweet fire. His soul was arrested in wonder. She was enkindled in her own living fire. Arrested in wonder and in pure, perfect attraction, he moved towards her. She sat like a strange queen, almost supernatural in her glowing smiling richness.
'The point about love,' he said, his consciousness quickly adjusting itself, 'is that we hate the word because we have vulgarised it. It ought to be prescribed, tabooed from utterance, for many years, till we get a new, better idea.'
There was a beam of understanding between them.
'But it always means the same thing,' she said.
'Ah God, no, let it not mean that any more,' he cried. 'Let the old meanings go.'
'But still it is love,' she persisted. A strange, wicked yellow light shone at him in her eyes.
He hesitated, baffled, withdrawing.
'No,' he said, 'it isn't. Spoken like that, never in the world. You've no business to utter the word.'
'I must leave it to you, to take it out of the Ark of the Covenant at the right moment,' she mocked.
Again they looked at each other. She suddenly sprang up, turned her back to him, and walked away. He too rose slowly and went to the water's edge, where, crouching, he began to amuse himself unconsciously. Picking a daisy he dropped it on the pond, so that the stem was a keel, the flower floated like a little water lily, staring with its open face up to the sky. It turned slowly round, in a slow, slow Dervish dance, as it veered away.
He watched it, then dropped another daisy into the water, and after that another, and sat watching them with bright, absolved eyes, crouching near on the bank. Ursula turned to look. A strange feeling possessed her, as if something were taking place. But it was all intangible. And some sort of control was being put on her. She could not know. She could only watch the brilliant little discs of the daisies veering slowly in travel on the dark, lustrous water. The little flotilla was drifting into the light, a company of white specks in the distance.
'Do let us go to the shore, to follow them,' she said, afraid of being any longer imprisoned on the island. And they pushed off in the punt.
She was glad to be on the free land again. She went along the bank towards the sluice. The daisies were scattered broadcast on the pond, tiny radiant things, like an exaltation, points of exaltation here and there. Why did they move her so strongly and mystically?
'Look,' he said, 'your boat of purple paper is escorting them, and they are a convoy of rafts.'
Some of the daisies came slowly towards her, hesitating, making a shy bright little cotillion on the dark clear water. Their gay bright candour moved her so much as they came near, that she was almost in tears.
'Why are they so lovely,' she cried. 'Why do I think them so lovely?'
'They are nice flowers,' he said, her emotional tones putting a constraint on him.
'You know that a daisy is a company of florets, a concourse, become individual. Don't the botanists put it highest in the line of development? I believe they do.'
'The compositae, yes, I think so,' said Ursula, who was never very sure of anything. Things she knew perfectly well, at one moment, seemed to become doubtful the next.
'Explain it so, then,' he said. 'The daisy is a perfect little democracy, so it's the highest of flowers, hence its charm.'
'No,' she cried, 'no—never. It isn't democratic.'
'No,' he admitted. 'It's the golden mob of the proletariat, surrounded by a showy white fence of the idle rich.'
'How hateful—your hateful social orders!' she cried.
'Quite! It's a daisy—we'll leave it alone.'
'Do. Let it be a dark horse for once,' she said: 'if anything can be a dark horse to you,' she added satirically.
They stood aside, forgetful. As if a little stunned, they both were motionless, barely conscious. The little conflict into which they had fallen had torn their consciousness and left them like two impersonal forces, there in contact.
He became aware of the lapse. He wanted to say something, to get on to a new more ordinary footing.
'You know,' he said, 'that I am having rooms here at the mill? Don't you think we can have some good times?'
'Oh are you?' she said, ignoring all his implication of admitted intimacy.
He adjusted himself at once, became normally distant.
'If I find I can live sufficiently by myself,' he continued, 'I shall give up my work altogether. It has become dead to me. I don't believe in the humanity I pretend to be part of, I don't care a straw for the social ideals I live by, I hate the dying organic form of social mankind—so it can't be anything but trumpery, to work at education. I shall drop it as soon as I am clear enough—tomorrow perhaps—and be by myself.'
'Have you enough to live on?' asked Ursula.
'Yes—I've about four hundred a year. That makes it easy for me.'
There was a pause.
'And what about Hermione?' asked Ursula.
'That's over, finally—a pure failure, and never could have been anything else.'
'But you still know each other?'
'We could hardly pretend to be strangers, could we?'
There was a stubborn pause.
'But isn't that a half-measure?' asked Ursula at length.
'I don't think so,' he said. 'You'll be able to tell me if it is.'
Again there was a pause of some minutes' duration. He was thinking.
'One must throw everything away, everything—let everything go, to get the one last thing one wants,' he said.
'What thing?' she asked in challenge.
'I don't know—freedom together,' he said.
She had wanted him to say 'love.'
There was heard a loud barking of the dogs below. He seemed disturbed by it. She did not notice. Only she thought he seemed uneasy.
'As a matter of fact,' he said, in rather a small voice, 'I believe that is Hermione come now, with Gerald Crich. She wanted to see the rooms before they are furnished.'
'I know,' said Ursula. 'She will superintend the furnishing for you.'
'Probably. Does it matter?'
'Oh no, I should think not,' said Ursula. 'Though personally, I can't bear her. I think she is a lie, if you like, you who are always talking about lies.' Then she ruminated for a moment, when she broke out: 'Yes, and I do mind if she furnishes your rooms—I do mind. I mind that you keep her hanging on at all.'
He was silent now, frowning.
'Perhaps,' he said. 'I don't WANT her to furnish the rooms here—and I don't keep her hanging on. Only, I needn't be churlish to her, need I? At any rate, I shall have to go down and see them now. You'll come, won't you?'
'I don't think so,' she said coldly and irresolutely.
'Won't you? Yes do. Come and see the rooms as well. Do come.'