A school-day was drawing to a close. In the class-room the last lesson was in progress, peaceful and still. It was elementary botany. The desks were littered with catkins, hazel and willow, which the children had been sketching. But the sky had come overdark, as the end of the afternoon approached: there was scarcely light to draw any more. Ursula stood in front of the class, leading the children by questions to understand the structure and the meaning of the catkins.
A heavy, copper-coloured beam of light came in at the west window, gilding the outlines of the children's heads with red gold, and falling on the wall opposite in a rich, ruddy illumination. Ursula, however, was scarcely conscious of it. She was busy, the end of the day was here, the work went on as a peaceful tide that is at flood, hushed to retire.
This day had gone by like so many more, in an activity that was like a trance. At the end there was a little haste, to finish what was in hand. She was pressing the children with questions, so that they should know all they were to know, by the time the gong went. She stood in shadow in front of the class, with catkins in her hand, and she leaned towards the children, absorbed in the passion of instruction.
She heard, but did not notice the click of the door. Suddenly she started. She saw, in the shaft of ruddy, copper-coloured light near her, the face of a man. It was gleaming like fire, watching her, waiting for her to be aware. It startled her terribly. She thought she was going to faint. All her suppressed, subconscious fear sprang into being, with anguish.
'Did I startle you?' said Birkin, shaking hands with her. 'I thought you had heard me come in.'
'No,' she faltered, scarcely able to speak. He laughed, saying he was sorry. She wondered why it amused him.
'It is so dark,' he said. 'Shall we have the light?'
And moving aside, he switched on the strong electric lights. The class-room was distinct and hard, a strange place after the soft dim magic that filled it before he came. Birkin turned curiously to look at Ursula. Her eyes were round and wondering, bewildered, her mouth quivered slightly. She looked like one who is suddenly wakened. There was a living, tender beauty, like a tender light of dawn shining from her face. He looked at her with a new pleasure, feeling gay in his heart, irresponsible.
'You are doing catkins?' he asked, picking up a piece of hazel from a scholar's desk in front of him. 'Are they as far out as this? I hadn't noticed them this year.'
He looked absorbedly at the tassel of hazel in his hand.
'The red ones too!' he said, looking at the flickers of crimson that came from the female bud.
Then he went in among the desks, to see the scholars' books. Ursula watched his intent progress. There was a stillness in his motion that hushed the activities of her heart. She seemed to be standing aside in arrested silence, watching him move in another, concentrated world. His presence was so quiet, almost like a vacancy in the corporate air.
Suddenly he lifted his face to her, and her heart quickened at the flicker of his voice.
'Give them some crayons, won't you?' he said, 'so that they can make the gynaecious flowers red, and the androgynous yellow. I'd chalk them in plain, chalk in nothing else, merely the red and the yellow. Outline scarcely matters in this case. There is just the one fact to emphasise.'
'I haven't any crayons,' said Ursula.
'There will be some somewhere—red and yellow, that's all you want.'
Ursula sent out a boy on a quest.
'It will make the books untidy,' she said to Birkin, flushing deeply.
'Not very,' he said. 'You must mark in these things obviously. It's the fact you want to emphasise, not the subjective impression to record. What's the fact?—red little spiky stigmas of the female flower, dangling yellow male catkin, yellow pollen flying from one to the other. Make a pictorial record of the fact, as a child does when drawing a face—two eyes, one nose, mouth with teeth—so—' And he drew a figure on the blackboard.
At that moment another vision was seen through the glass panels of the door. It was Hermione Roddice. Birkin went and opened to her.
'I saw your car,' she said to him. 'Do you mind my coming to find you? I wanted to see you when you were on duty.'
She looked at him for a long time, intimate and playful, then she gave a short little laugh. And then only she turned to Ursula, who, with all the class, had been watching the little scene between the lovers.
'How do you do, Miss Brangwen,' sang Hermione, in her low, odd, singing fashion, that sounded almost as if she were poking fun. 'Do you mind my coming in?'
Her grey, almost sardonic eyes rested all the while on Ursula, as if summing her up.
'Oh no,' said Ursula.
'Are you SURE?' repeated Hermione, with complete sang froid, and an odd, half-bullying effrontery.
'Oh no, I like it awfully,' laughed Ursula, a little bit excited and bewildered, because Hermione seemed to be compelling her, coming very close to her, as if intimate with her; and yet, how could she be intimate?
This was the answer Hermione wanted. She turned satisfied to Birkin.
'What are you doing?' she sang, in her casual, inquisitive fashion.
'Catkins,' he replied.
'Really!' she said. 'And what do you learn about them?' She spoke all the while in a mocking, half teasing fashion, as if making game of the whole business. She picked up a twig of the catkin, piqued by Birkin's attention to it.
She was a strange figure in the class-room, wearing a large, old cloak of greenish cloth, on which was a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar, and the inside of the cloak, was lined with dark fur. Beneath she had a dress of fine lavender-coloured cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull, green-and-gold figured stuff. She was tall and strange, she looked as if she had come out of some new, bizarre picture.
'Do you know the little red ovary flowers, that produce the nuts? Have you ever noticed them?' he asked her. And he came close and pointed them out to her, on the sprig she held.
'No,' she replied. 'What are they?'
'Those are the little seed-producing flowers, and the long catkins, they only produce pollen, to fertilise them.'
'Do they, do they!' repeated Hermione, looking closely.
'From those little red bits, the nuts come; if they receive pollen from the long danglers.'
'Little red flames, little red flames,' murmured Hermione to herself. And she remained for some moments looking only at the small buds out of which the red flickers of the stigma issued.
'Aren't they beautiful? I think they're so beautiful,' she said, moving close to Birkin, and pointing to the red filaments with her long, white finger.
'Had you never noticed them before?' he asked.
'No, never before,' she replied.
'And now you will always see them,' he said.
'Now I shall always see them,' she repeated. 'Thank you so much for showing me. I think they're so beautiful—little red flames—'
Her absorption was strange, almost rhapsodic. Both Birkin and Ursula were suspended. The little red pistillate flowers had some strange, almost mystic-passionate attraction for her.
The lesson was finished, the books were put away, at last the class was dismissed. And still Hermione sat at the table, with her chin in her hand, her elbow on the table, her long white face pushed up, not attending to anything. Birkin had gone to the window, and was looking from the brilliantly-lighted room on to the grey, colourless outside, where rain was noiselessly falling. Ursula put away her things in the cupboard.
At length Hermione rose and came near to her.
'Your sister has come home?' she said.
'Yes,' said Ursula.
'And does she like being back in Beldover?'
'No,' said Ursula.
'No, I wonder she can bear it. It takes all my strength, to bear the ugliness of this district, when I stay here. Won't you come and see me? Won't you come with your sister to stay at Breadalby for a few days?—do—'
'Thank you very much,' said Ursula.
'Then I will write to you,' said Hermione. 'You think your sister will come? I should be so glad. I think she is wonderful. I think some of her work is really wonderful. I have two water-wagtails, carved in wood, and painted—perhaps you have seen it?'
'No,' said Ursula.
'I think it is perfectly wonderful—like a flash of instinct.'
'Her little carvings ARE strange,' said Ursula.
'Perfectly beautiful—full of primitive passion—'
'Isn't it queer that she always likes little things?—she must always work small things, that one can put between one's hands, birds and tiny animals. She likes to look through the wrong end of the opera glasses, and see the world that way—why is it, do you think?'
Hermione looked down at Ursula with that long, detached scrutinising gaze that excited the younger woman.
'Yes,' said Hermione at length. 'It is curious. The little things seem to be more subtle to her—'
'But they aren't, are they? A mouse isn't any more subtle than a lion, is it?'
Again Hermione looked down at Ursula with that long scrutiny, as if she were following some train of thought of her own, and barely attending to the other's speech.
'I don't know,' she replied.
'Rupert, Rupert,' she sang mildly, calling him to her. He approached in silence.
'Are little things more subtle than big things?' she asked, with the odd grunt of laughter in her voice, as if she were making game of him in the question.
'Dunno,' he said.
'I hate subtleties,' said Ursula.
Hermione looked at her slowly.
'Do you?' she said.
'I always think they are a sign of weakness,' said Ursula, up in arms, as if her prestige were threatened.
Hermione took no notice. Suddenly her face puckered, her brow was knit with thought, she seemed twisted in troublesome effort for utterance.
'Do you really think, Rupert,' she asked, as if Ursula were not present, 'do you really think it is worth while? Do you really think the children are better for being roused to consciousness?'
A dark flash went over his face, a silent fury. He was hollow-cheeked and pale, almost unearthly. And the woman, with her serious, conscience-harrowing question tortured him on the quick.
'They are not roused to consciousness,' he said. 'Consciousness comes to them, willy-nilly.'
'But do you think they are better for having it quickened, stimulated? Isn't it better that they should remain unconscious of the hazel, isn't it better that they should see as a whole, without all this pulling to pieces, all this knowledge?'
'Would you rather, for yourself, know or not know, that the little red flowers are there, putting out for the pollen?' he asked harshly. His voice was brutal, scornful, cruel.
Hermione remained with her face lifted up, abstracted. He hung silent in irritation.
'I don't know,' she replied, balancing mildly. 'I don't know.'
'But knowing is everything to you, it is all your life,' he broke out. She slowly looked at him.
'Is it?' she said.
'To know, that is your all, that is your life—you have only this, this knowledge,' he cried. 'There is only one tree, there is only one fruit, in your mouth.'
Again she was some time silent.
'Is there?' she said at last, with the same untouched calm. And then in a tone of whimsical inquisitiveness: 'What fruit, Rupert?'
'The eternal apple,' he replied in exasperation, hating his own metaphors.
'Yes,' she said. There was a look of exhaustion about her. For some moments there was silence. Then, pulling herself together with a convulsed movement, Hermione resumed, in a sing-song, casual voice:
'But leaving me apart, Rupert; do you think the children are better, richer, happier, for all this knowledge; do you really think they are? Or is it better to leave them untouched, spontaneous. Hadn't they better be animals, simple animals, crude, violent, ANYTHING, rather than this self-consciousness, this incapacity to be spontaneous.'
They thought she had finished. But with a queer rumbling in her throat she resumed, 'Hadn't they better be anything than grow up crippled, crippled in their souls, crippled in their feelings—so thrown back—so turned back on themselves—incapable—' Hermione clenched her fist like one in a trance—'of any spontaneous action, always deliberate, always burdened with choice, never carried away.'
Again they thought she had finished. But just as he was going to reply, she resumed her queer rhapsody—'never carried away, out of themselves, always conscious, always self-conscious, always aware of themselves. Isn't ANYTHING better than this? Better be animals, mere animals with no mind at all, than this, this NOTHINGNESS—'
'But do you think it is knowledge that makes us unliving and selfconscious?' he asked irritably.
She opened her eyes and looked at him slowly.
'Yes,' she said. She paused, watching him all the while, her eyes vague. Then she wiped her fingers across her brow, with a vague weariness. It irritated him bitterly. 'It is the mind,' she said, 'and that is death.' She raised her eyes slowly to him: 'Isn't the mind—' she said, with the convulsed movement of her body, 'isn't it our death? Doesn't it destroy all our spontaneity, all our instincts? Are not the young people growing up today, really dead before they have a chance to live?'
'Not because they have too much mind, but too little,' he said brutally.
'Are you SURE?' she cried. 'It seems to me the reverse. They are overconscious, burdened to death with consciousness.'
'Imprisoned within a limited, false set of concepts,' he cried.
But she took no notice of this, only went on with her own rhapsodic interrogation.
'When we have knowledge, don't we lose everything but knowledge?' she asked pathetically. 'If I know about the flower, don't I lose the flower and have only the knowledge? Aren't we exchanging the substance for the shadow, aren't we forfeiting life for this dead quality of knowledge? And what does it mean to me, after all? What does all this knowing mean to me? It means nothing.'
'You are merely making words,' he said; 'knowledge means everything to you. Even your animalism, you want it in your head. You don't want to BE an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them. It is all purely secondary—and more decadent than the most hide-bound intellectualism. What is it but the worst and last form of intellectualism, this love of yours for passion and the animal instincts? Passion and the instincts—you want them hard enough, but through your head, in your consciousness. It all takes place in your head, under that skull of yours. Only you won't be conscious of what ACTUALLY is: you want the lie that will match the rest of your furniture.'
Hermione set hard and poisonous against this attack. Ursula stood covered with wonder and shame. It frightened her, to see how they hated each other.
'It's all that Lady of Shalott business,' he said, in his strong abstract voice. He seemed to be charging her before the unseeing air. 'You've got that mirror, your own fixed will, your immortal understanding, your own tight conscious world, and there is nothing beyond it. There, in the mirror, you must have everything. But now you have come to all your conclusions, you want to go back and be like a savage, without knowledge. You want a life of pure sensation and "passion."'
He quoted the last word satirically against her. She sat convulsed with fury and violation, speechless, like a stricken pythoness of the Greek oracle.
'But your passion is a lie,' he went on violently. 'It isn't passion at all, it is your WILL. It's your bullying will. You want to clutch things and have them in your power. You want to have things in your power. And why? Because you haven't got any real body, any dark sensual body of life. You have no sensuality. You have only your will and your conceit of consciousness, and your lust for power, to KNOW.'
He looked at her in mingled hate and contempt, also in pain because she suffered, and in shame because he knew he tortured her. He had an impulse to kneel and plead for forgiveness. But a bitterer red anger burned up to fury in him. He became unconscious of her, he was only a passionate voice speaking.
'Spontaneous!' he cried. 'You and spontaneity! You, the most deliberate thing that ever walked or crawled! You'd be verily deliberately spontaneous—that's you. Because you want to have everything in your own volition, your deliberate voluntary consciousness. You want it all in that loathsome little skull of yours, that ought to be cracked like a nut. For you'll be the same till it is cracked, like an insect in its skin. If one cracked your skull perhaps one might get a spontaneous, passionate woman out of you, with real sensuality. As it is, what you want is pornography—looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental.'
There was a sense of violation in the air, as if too much was said, the unforgivable. Yet Ursula was concerned now only with solving her own problems, in the light of his words. She was pale and abstracted.
'But do you really WANT sensuality?' she asked, puzzled.
Birkin looked at her, and became intent in his explanation.
'Yes,' he said, 'that and nothing else, at this point. It is a fulfilment—the great dark knowledge you can't have in your head—the dark involuntary being. It is death to one's self—but it is the coming into being of another.'
'But how? How can you have knowledge not in your head?' she asked, quite unable to interpret his phrases.
'In the blood,' he answered; 'when the mind and the known world is drowned in darkness everything must go—there must be the deluge. Then you find yourself a palpable body of darkness, a demon—'
'But why should I be a demon—?' she asked.
'"WOMAN WAILING FOR HER DEMON LOVER"—' he quoted—'why, I don't know.'
Hermione roused herself as from a death—annihilation.
'He is such a DREADFUL satanist, isn't he?' she drawled to Ursula, in a queer resonant voice, that ended on a shrill little laugh of pure ridicule. The two women were jeering at him, jeering him into nothingness. The laugh of the shrill, triumphant female sounded from Hermione, jeering him as if he were a neuter.
'No,' he said. 'You are the real devil who won't let life exist.'
She looked at him with a long, slow look, malevolent, supercilious.
'You know all about it, don't you?' she said, with slow, cold, cunning mockery.
'Enough,' he replied, his face fixing fine and clear like steel. A horrible despair, and at the same time a sense of release, liberation, came over Hermione. She turned with a pleasant intimacy to Ursula.
'You are sure you will come to Breadalby?' she said, urging.
'Yes, I should like to very much,' replied Ursula.
Hermione looked down at her, gratified, reflecting, and strangely absent, as if possessed, as if not quite there.
'I'm so glad,' she said, pulling herself together. 'Some time in about a fortnight. Yes? I will write to you here, at the school, shall I? Yes. And you'll be sure to come? Yes. I shall be so glad. Good-bye! Good-bye!'
Hermione held out her hand and looked into the eyes of the other woman. She knew Ursula as an immediate rival, and the knowledge strangely exhilarated her. Also she was taking leave. It always gave her a sense of strength, advantage, to be departing and leaving the other behind. Moreover she was taking the man with her, if only in hate.
Birkin stood aside, fixed and unreal. But now, when it was his turn to bid good-bye, he began to speak again.
'There's the whole difference in the world,' he said, 'between the actual sensual being, and the vicious mental-deliberate profligacy our lot goes in for. In our night-time, there's always the electricity switched on, we watch ourselves, we get it all in the head, really. You've got to lapse out before you can know what sensual reality is, lapse into unknowingness, and give up your volition. You've got to do it. You've got to learn not-to-be, before you can come into being.
'But we have got such a conceit of ourselves—that's where it is. We are so conceited, and so unproud. We've got no pride, we're all conceit, so conceited in our own papier-mache realised selves. We'd rather die than give up our little self-righteous self-opinionated self-will.'
There was silence in the room. Both women were hostile and resentful. He sounded as if he were addressing a meeting. Hermione merely paid no attention, stood with her shoulders tight in a shrug of dislike.
Ursula was watching him as if furtively, not really aware of what she was seeing. There was a great physical attractiveness in him—a curious hidden richness, that came through his thinness and his pallor like another voice, conveying another knowledge of him. It was in the curves of his brows and his chin, rich, fine, exquisite curves, the powerful beauty of life itself. She could not say what it was. But there was a sense of richness and of liberty.
'But we are sensual enough, without making ourselves so, aren't we?' she asked, turning to him with a certain golden laughter flickering under her greenish eyes, like a challenge. And immediately the queer, careless, terribly attractive smile came over his eyes and brows, though his mouth did not relax.
'No,' he said, 'we aren't. We're too full of ourselves.'
'Surely it isn't a matter of conceit,' she cried.
'That and nothing else.'
She was frankly puzzled.
'Don't you think that people are most conceited of all about their sensual powers?' she asked.
'That's why they aren't sensual—only sensuous—which is another matter. They're ALWAYS aware of themselves—and they're so conceited, that rather than release themselves, and live in another world, from another centre, they'd—'
'You want your tea, don't you,' said Hermione, turning to Ursula with a gracious kindliness. 'You've worked all day—'
Birkin stopped short. A spasm of anger and chagrin went over Ursula. His face set. And he bade good-bye, as if he had ceased to notice her.
They were gone. Ursula stood looking at the door for some moments. Then she put out the lights. And having done so, she sat down again in her chair, absorbed and lost. And then she began to cry, bitterly, bitterly weeping: but whether for misery or joy, she never knew.