They came to the town, and left Gerald at the railway station. Gudrun and Winifred were to come to tea with Birkin, who expected Ursula also. In the afternoon, however, the first person to turn up was Hermione. Birkin was out, so she went in the drawing-room, looking at his books and papers, and playing on the piano. Then Ursula arrived. She was surprised, unpleasantly so, to see Hermione, of whom she had heard nothing for some time.
'It is a surprise to see you,' she said.
'Yes,' said Hermione—'I've been away at Aix—'
'Oh, for your health?'
The two women looked at each other. Ursula resented Hermione's long, grave, downward-looking face. There was something of the stupidity and the unenlightened self-esteem of a horse in it. 'She's got a horse-face,' Ursula said to herself, 'she runs between blinkers.' It did seem as if Hermione, like the moon, had only one side to her penny. There was no obverse. She stared out all the time on the narrow, but to her, complete world of the extant consciousness. In the darkness, she did not exist. Like the moon, one half of her was lost to life. Her self was all in her head, she did not know what it was spontaneously to run or move, like a fish in the water, or a weasel on the grass. She must always KNOW.
But Ursula only suffered from Hermione's one-sidedness. She only felt Hermione's cool evidence, which seemed to put her down as nothing. Hermione, who brooded and brooded till she was exhausted with the ache of her effort at consciousness, spent and ashen in her body, who gained so slowly and with such effort her final and barren conclusions of knowledge, was apt, in the presence of other women, whom she thought simply female, to wear the conclusions of her bitter assurance like jewels which conferred on her an unquestionable distinction, established her in a higher order of life. She was apt, mentally, to condescend to women such as Ursula, whom she regarded as purely emotional. Poor Hermione, it was her one possession, this aching certainty of hers, it was her only justification. She must be confident here, for God knows, she felt rejected and deficient enough elsewhere. In the life of thought, of the spirit, she was one of the elect. And she wanted to be universal. But there was a devastating cynicism at the bottom of her. She did not believe in her own universals—they were sham. She did not believe in the inner life—it was a trick, not a reality. She did not believe in the spiritual world—it was an affectation. In the last resort, she believed in Mammon, the flesh, and the devil—these at least were not sham. She was a priestess without belief, without conviction, suckled in a creed outworn, and condemned to the reiteration of mysteries that were not divine to her. Yet there was no escape. She was a leaf upon a dying tree. What help was there then, but to fight still for the old, withered truths, to die for the old, outworn belief, to be a sacred and inviolate priestess of desecrated mysteries? The old great truths BAD been true. And she was a leaf of the old great tree of knowledge that was withering now. To the old and last truth then she must be faithful even though cynicism and mockery took place at the bottom of her soul.
'I am so glad to see you,' she said to Ursula, in her slow voice, that was like an incantation. 'You and Rupert have become quite friends?'
'Oh yes,' said Ursula. 'He is always somewhere in the background.'
Hermione paused before she answered. She saw perfectly well the other woman's vaunt: it seemed truly vulgar.
'Is he?' she said slowly, and with perfect equanimity. 'And do you think you will marry?'
The question was so calm and mild, so simple and bare and dispassionate that Ursula was somewhat taken aback, rather attracted. It pleased her almost like a wickedness. There was some delightful naked irony in Hermione.
'Well,' replied Ursula, 'HE wants to, awfully, but I'm not so sure.'
Hermione watched her with slow calm eyes. She noted this new expression of vaunting. How she envied Ursula a certain unconscious positivity! even her vulgarity!
'Why aren't you sure?' she asked, in her easy sing song. She was perfectly at her ease, perhaps even rather happy in this conversation. 'You don't really love him?'
Ursula flushed a little at the mild impertinence of this question. And yet she could not definitely take offence. Hermione seemed so calmly and sanely candid. After all, it was rather great to be able to be so sane.
'He says it isn't love he wants,' she replied.
'What is it then?' Hermione was slow and level.
'He wants me really to accept him in marriage.'
Hermione was silent for some time, watching Ursula with slow, pensive eyes.
'Does he?' she said at length, without expression. Then, rousing, 'And what is it you don't want? You don't want marriage?'
'No—I don't—not really. I don't want to give the sort of SUBMISSION he insists on. He wants me to give myself up—and I simply don't feel that I CAN do it.'
Again there was a long pause, before Hermione replied:
'Not if you don't want to.' Then again there was silence. Hermione shuddered with a strange desire. Ah, if only he had asked HER to subserve him, to be his slave! She shuddered with desire.
'You see I can't—'
'But exactly in what does—'
They had both begun at once, they both stopped. Then, Hermione, assuming priority of speech, resumed as if wearily:
'To what does he want you to submit?'
'He says he wants me to accept him non-emotionally, and finally—I really don't know what he means. He says he wants the demon part of himself to be mated—physically—not the human being. You see he says one thing one day, and another the next—and he always contradicts himself—'
'And always thinks about himself, and his own dissatisfaction,' said Hermione slowly.
'Yes,' cried Ursula. 'As if there were no-one but himself concerned. That makes it so impossible.'
But immediately she began to retract.
'He insists on my accepting God knows what in HIM,' she resumed. 'He wants me to accept HIM as—as an absolute—But it seems to me he doesn't want to GIVE anything. He doesn't want real warm intimacy—he won't have it—he rejects it. He won't let me think, really, and he won't let me FEEL—he hates feelings.'
There was a long pause, bitter for Hermione. Ah, if only he would have made this demand of her? Her he DROVE into thought, drove inexorably into knowledge—and then execrated her for it.
'He wants me to sink myself,' Ursula resumed, 'not to have any being of my own—'
'Then why doesn't he marry an odalisk?' said Hermione in her mild sing-song, 'if it is that he wants.' Her long face looked sardonic and amused.
'Yes,' said Ursula vaguely. After all, the tiresome thing was, he did not want an odalisk, he did not want a slave. Hermione would have been his slave—there was in her a horrible desire to prostrate herself before a man—a man who worshipped her, however, and admitted her as the supreme thing. He did not want an odalisk. He wanted a woman to TAKE something from him, to give herself up so much that she could take the last realities of him, the last facts, the last physical facts, physical and unbearable.
And if she did, would he acknowledge her? Would he be able to acknowledge her through everything, or would he use her just as his instrument, use her for his own private satisfaction, not admitting her? That was what the other men had done. They had wanted their own show, and they would not admit her, they turned all she was into nothingness. Just as Hermione now betrayed herself as a woman. Hermione was like a man, she believed only in men's things. She betrayed the woman in herself. And Birkin, would he acknowledge, or would he deny her?
'Yes,' said Hermione, as each woman came out of her own separate reverie. 'It would be a mistake—I think it would be a mistake—'
'To marry him?' asked Ursula.
'Yes,' said Hermione slowly—'I think you need a man—soldierly, strong-willed—' Hermione held out her hand and clenched it with rhapsodic intensity. 'You should have a man like the old heroes—you need to stand behind him as he goes into battle, you need to SEE his strength, and to HEAR his shout—. You need a man physically strong, and virile in his will, NOT a sensitive man—.' There was a break, as if the pythoness had uttered the oracle, and now the woman went on, in a rhapsody-wearied voice: 'And you see, Rupert isn't this, he isn't. He is frail in health and body, he needs great, great care. Then he is so changeable and unsure of himself—it requires the greatest patience and understanding to help him. And I don't think you are patient. You would have to be prepared to suffer—dreadfully. I can't TELL you how much suffering it would take to make him happy. He lives an INTENSELY spiritual life, at times—too, too wonderful. And then come the reactions. I can't speak of what I have been through with him. We have been together so long, I really do know him, I DO know what he is. And I feel I must say it; I feel it would be perfectly DISASTROUS for you to marry him—for you even more than for him.' Hermione lapsed into bitter reverie. 'He is so uncertain, so unstable—he wearies, and then reacts. I couldn't TELL you what his re-actions are. I couldn't TELL you the agony of them. That which he affirms and loves one day—a little latter he turns on it in a fury of destruction. He is never constant, always this awful, dreadful reaction. Always the quick change from good to bad, bad to good. And nothing is so devastating, nothing—'
'Yes,' said Ursula humbly, 'you must have suffered.'
An unearthly light came on Hermione's face. She clenched her hand like one inspired.
'And one must be willing to suffer—willing to suffer for him hourly, daily—if you are going to help him, if he is to keep true to anything at all—'
'And I don't WANT to suffer hourly and daily,' said Ursula. 'I don't, I should be ashamed. I think it is degrading not to be happy.'
Hermione stopped and looked at her a long time.
'Do you?' she said at last. And this utterance seemed to her a mark of Ursula's far distance from herself. For to Hermione suffering was the greatest reality, come what might. Yet she too had a creed of happiness.
'Yes,' she said. 'One SHOULD be happy—' But it was a matter of will.
'Yes,' said Hermione, listlessly now, 'I can only feel that it would be disastrous, disastrous—at least, to marry in a hurry. Can't you be together without marriage? Can't you go away and live somewhere without marriage? I do feel that marriage would be fatal, for both of you. I think for you even more than for him—and I think of his health—'
'Of course,' said Ursula, 'I don't care about marriage—it isn't really important to me—it's he who wants it.'
'It is his idea for the moment,' said Hermione, with that weary finality, and a sort of SI JEUNESSE SAVAIT infallibility.
There was a pause. Then Ursula broke into faltering challenge.
'You think I'm merely a physical woman, don't you?'
'No indeed,' said Hermione. 'No, indeed! But I think you are vital and young—it isn't a question of years, or even of experience—it is almost a question of race. Rupert is race-old, he comes of an old race—and you seem to me so young, you come of a young, inexperienced race.'
'Do I!' said Ursula. 'But I think he is awfully young, on one side.'
'Yes, perhaps childish in many respects. Nevertheless—'
They both lapsed into silence. Ursula was filled with deep resentment and a touch of hopelessness. 'It isn't true,' she said to herself, silently addressing her adversary. 'It isn't true. And it is YOU who want a physically strong, bullying man, not I. It is you who want an unsensitive man, not I. You DON'T know anything about Rupert, not really, in spite of the years you have had with him. You don't give him a woman's love, you give him an ideal love, and that is why he reacts away from you. You don't know. You only know the dead things. Any kitchen maid would know something about him, you don't know. What do you think your knowledge is but dead understanding, that doesn't mean a thing. You are so false, and untrue, how could you know anything? What is the good of your talking about love—you untrue spectre of a woman! How can you know anything, when you don't believe? You don't believe in yourself and your own womanhood, so what good is your conceited, shallow cleverness—!'
The two women sat on in antagonistic silence. Hermione felt injured, that all her good intention, all her offering, only left the other woman in vulgar antagonism. But then, Ursula could not understand, never would understand, could never be more than the usual jealous and unreasonable female, with a good deal of powerful female emotion, female attraction, and a fair amount of female understanding, but no mind. Hermione had decided long ago that where there was no mind, it was useless to appeal for reason—one had merely to ignore the ignorant. And Rupert—he had now reacted towards the strongly female, healthy, selfish woman—it was his reaction for the time being—there was no helping it all. It was all a foolish backward and forward, a violent oscillation that would at length be too violent for his coherency, and he would smash and be dead. There was no saving him. This violent and directionless reaction between animalism and spiritual truth would go on in him till he tore himself in two between the opposite directions, and disappeared meaninglessly out of life. It was no good—he too was without unity, without MIND, in the ultimate stages of living; not quite man enough to make a destiny for a woman.
They sat on till Birkin came in and found them together. He felt at once the antagonism in the atmosphere, something radical and insuperable, and he bit his lip. But he affected a bluff manner.
'Hello, Hermione, are you back again? How do you feel?'
'Oh, better. And how are you—you don't look well—'
'Oh!—I believe Gudrun and Winnie Crich are coming in to tea. At least they said they were. We shall be a tea-party. What train did you come by, Ursula?'
It was rather annoying to see him trying to placate both women at once. Both women watched him, Hermione with deep resentment and pity for him, Ursula very impatient. He was nervous and apparently in quite good spirits, chattering the conventional commonplaces. Ursula was amazed and indignant at the way he made small-talk; he was adept as any FAT in Christendom. She became quite stiff, she would not answer. It all seemed to her so false and so belittling. And still Gudrun did not appear.
'I think I shall go to Florence for the winter,' said Hermione at length.
'Will you?' he answered. 'But it is so cold there.'
'Yes, but I shall stay with Palestra. It is quite comfortable.'
'What takes you to Florence?'
'I don't know,' said Hermione slowly. Then she looked at him with her slow, heavy gaze. 'Barnes is starting his school of aesthetics, and Olandese is going to give a set of discourses on the Italian national policy-'
'Both rubbish,' he said.
'No, I don't think so,' said Hermione.
'Which do you admire, then?'
'I admire both. Barnes is a pioneer. And then I am interested in Italy, in her coming to national consciousness.'
'I wish she'd come to something different from national consciousness, then,' said Birkin; 'especially as it only means a sort of commercial-industrial consciousness. I hate Italy and her national rant. And I think Barnes is an amateur.'
Hermione was silent for some moments, in a state of hostility. But yet, she had got Birkin back again into her world! How subtle her influence was, she seemed to start his irritable attention into her direction exclusively, in one minute. He was her creature.
'No,' she said, 'you are wrong.' Then a sort of tension came over her, she raised her face like the pythoness inspired with oracles, and went on, in rhapsodic manner: 'Il Sandro mi scrive che ha accolto il piu grande entusiasmo, tutti i giovani, e fanciulle e ragazzi, sono tutti—' She went on in Italian, as if, in thinking of the Italians she thought in their language.
He listened with a shade of distaste to her rhapsody, then he said:
'For all that, I don't like it. Their nationalism is just industrialism—that and a shallow jealousy I detest so much.'
'I think you are wrong—I think you are wrong—' said Hermione. 'It seems to me purely spontaneous and beautiful, the modern Italian's PASSION, for it is a passion, for Italy, L'Italia—'
'Do you know Italy well?' Ursula asked of Hermione. Hermione hated to be broken in upon in this manner. Yet she answered mildly:
'Yes, pretty well. I spent several years of my girlhood there, with my mother. My mother died in Florence.'
There was a pause, painful to Ursula and to Birkin. Hermione however seemed abstracted and calm. Birkin was white, his eyes glowed as if he were in a fever, he was far too over-wrought. How Ursula suffered in this tense atmosphere of strained wills! Her head seemed bound round by iron bands.
Birkin rang the bell for tea. They could not wait for Gudrun any longer. When the door was opened, the cat walked in.
'Micio! Micio!' called Hermione, in her slow, deliberate sing-song. The young cat turned to look at her, then, with his slow and stately walk he advanced to her side.
'Vieni—vieni qua,' Hermione was saying, in her strange caressive, protective voice, as if she were always the elder, the mother superior. 'Vieni dire Buon' Giorno alla zia. Mi ricorde, mi ricorde bene—non he vero, piccolo? E vero che mi ricordi? E vero?' And slowly she rubbed his head, slowly and with ironic indifference.
'Does he understand Italian?' said Ursula, who knew nothing of the language.
'Yes,' said Hermione at length. 'His mother was Italian. She was born in my waste-paper basket in Florence, on the morning of Rupert's birthday. She was his birthday present.'
Tea was brought in. Birkin poured out for them. It was strange how inviolable was the intimacy which existed between him and Hermione. Ursula felt that she was an outsider. The very tea-cups and the old silver was a bond between Hermione and Birkin. It seemed to belong to an old, past world which they had inhabited together, and in which Ursula was a foreigner. She was almost a parvenue in their old cultured milieu. Her convention was not their convention, their standards were not her standards. But theirs were established, they had the sanction and the grace of age. He and she together, Hermione and Birkin, were people of the same old tradition, the same withered deadening culture. And she, Ursula, was an intruder. So they always made her feel.
Hermione poured a little cream into a saucer. The simple way she assumed her rights in Birkin's room maddened and discouraged Ursula. There was a fatality about it, as if it were bound to be. Hermione lifted the cat and put the cream before him. He planted his two paws on the edge of the table and bent his gracious young head to drink.
'Siccuro che capisce italiano,' sang Hermione, 'non l'avra dimenticato, la lingua della Mamma.'
She lifted the cat's head with her long, slow, white fingers, not letting him drink, holding him in her power. It was always the same, this joy in power she manifested, peculiarly in power over any male being. He blinked forbearingly, with a male, bored expression, licking his whiskers. Hermione laughed in her short, grunting fashion.
'Ecco, il bravo ragazzo, come e superbo, questo!'
She made a vivid picture, so calm and strange with the cat. She had a true static impressiveness, she was a social artist in some ways.
The cat refused to look at her, indifferently avoided her fingers, and began to drink again, his nose down to the cream, perfectly balanced, as he lapped with his odd little click.
'It's bad for him, teaching him to eat at table,' said Birkin.
'Yes,' said Hermione, easily assenting.
Then, looking down at the cat, she resumed her old, mocking, humorous sing-song.
'Ti imparano fare brutte cose, brutte cose—'
She lifted the Mino's white chin on her forefinger, slowly. The young cat looked round with a supremely forbearing air, avoided seeing anything, withdrew his chin, and began to wash his face with his paw. Hermione grunted her laughter, pleased.
'Bel giovanotto—' she said.
The cat reached forward again and put his fine white paw on the edge of the saucer. Hermione lifted it down with delicate slowness. This deliberate, delicate carefulness of movement reminded Ursula of Gudrun.
'No! Non e permesso di mettere il zampino nel tondinetto. Non piace al babbo. Un signor gatto cosi selvatico—!'
And she kept her finger on the softly planted paw of the cat, and her voice had the same whimsical, humorous note of bullying.
Ursula had her nose out of joint. She wanted to go away now. It all seemed no good. Hermione was established for ever, she herself was ephemeral and had not yet even arrived.
'I will go now,' she said suddenly.
Birkin looked at her almost in fear—he so dreaded her anger. 'But there is no need for such hurry,' he said.
'Yes,' she answered. 'I will go.' And turning to Hermione, before there was time to say any more, she held out her hand and said 'Good-bye.'
'Good-bye—' sang Hermione, detaining the band. 'Must you really go now?'
'Yes, I think I'll go,' said Ursula, her face set, and averted from Hermione's eyes.
'You think you will—'
But Ursula had got her hand free. She turned to Birkin with a quick, almost jeering: 'Good-bye,' and she was opening the door before he had time to do it for her.
When she got outside the house she ran down the road in fury and agitation. It was strange, the unreasoning rage and violence Hermione roused in her, by her very presence. Ursula knew she gave herself away to the other woman, she knew she looked ill-bred, uncouth, exaggerated. But she did not care. She only ran up the road, lest she should go back and jeer in the faces of the two she had left behind. For they outraged her.