26. A Chair
There was a jumble market every Monday afternoon in the old market-place in town. Ursula and Birkin strayed down there one afternoon. They had been talking of furniture, and they wanted to see if there was any fragment they would like to buy, amid the heaps of rubbish collected on the cobble-stones.
The old market-square was not very large, a mere bare patch of granite setts, usually with a few fruit-stalls under a wall. It was in a poor quarter of the town. Meagre houses stood down one side, there was a hosiery factory, a great blank with myriad oblong windows, at the end, a street of little shops with flagstone pavement down the other side, and, for a crowning monument, the public baths, of new red brick, with a clock-tower. The people who moved about seemed stumpy and sordid, the air seemed to smell rather dirty, there was a sense of many mean streets ramifying off into warrens of meanness. Now and again a great chocolate-and-yellow tramcar ground round a difficult bend under the hosiery factory.
Ursula was superficially thrilled when she found herself out among the common people, in the jumbled place piled with old bedding, heaps of old iron, shabby crockery in pale lots, muffled lots of unthinkable clothing. She and Birkin went unwillingly down the narrow aisle between the rusty wares. He was looking at the goods, she at the people.
She excitedly watched a young woman, who was going to have a baby, and who was turning over a mattress and making a young man, down-at-heel and dejected, feel it also. So secretive and active and anxious the young woman seemed, so reluctant, slinking, the young man. He was going to marry her because she was having a child.
When they had felt the mattress, the young woman asked the old man seated on a stool among his wares, how much it was. He told her, and she turned to the young man. The latter was ashamed, and selfconscious. He turned his face away, though he left his body standing there, and muttered aside. And again the woman anxiously and actively fingered the mattress and added up in her mind and bargained with the old, unclean man. All the while, the young man stood by, shamefaced and down-at-heel, submitting.
'Look,' said Birkin, 'there is a pretty chair.'
'Charming!' cried Ursula. 'Oh, charming.'
It was an arm-chair of simple wood, probably birch, but of such fine delicacy of grace, standing there on the sordid stones, it almost brought tears to the eyes. It was square in shape, of the purest, slender lines, and four short lines of wood in the back, that reminded Ursula of harpstrings.
'It was once,' said Birkin, 'gilded---and it had a cane seat. Somebody has nailed this wooden seat in. Look, here is a trifle of the red that underlay the gilt. The rest is all black, except where the wood is worn pure and glossy. It is the fine unity of the lines that is so attractive. Look, how they run and meet and counteract. But of course the wooden seat is wrong---it destroys the perfect lightness and unity in tension the cane gave. I like it though--'
'Ah yes,' said Ursula, 'so do I.'
'How much is it?' Birkin asked the man.
'And you will send it---?'
It was bought.
'So beautiful, so pure!' Birkin said. 'It almost breaks my heart.' They walked along between the heaps of rubbish. 'My beloved country---it had something to express even when it made that chair.'
'And hasn't it now?' asked Ursula. She was always angry when he took this tone.
'No, it hasn't. When I see that clear, beautiful chair, and I think of England, even Jane Austen's England---it had living thoughts to unfold even then, and pure happiness in unfolding them. And now, we can only fish among the rubbish heaps for the remnants of their old expression. There is no production in us now, only sordid and foul mechanicalness.'
'It isn't true,' cried Ursula. 'Why must you always praise the past, at the expense of the present? Really, I don't think so much of Jane Austen's England. It was materialistic enough, if you like---'
'It could afford to be materialistic,' said Birkin, 'because it had the power to be something other---which we haven't. We are materialistic because we haven't the power to be anything else---try as we may, we can't bring off anything but materialism: mechanism, the very soul of materialism.'
Ursula was subdued into angry silence. She did not heed what he said. She was rebelling against something else.
'And I hate your past. I'm sick of it,' she cried. 'I believe I even hate that old chair, though it is beautiful. It isn't my sort of beauty. I wish it had been smashed up when its day was over, not left to preach the beloved past to us. I'm sick of the beloved past.'
'Not so sick as I am of the accursed present,' he said.
'Yes, just the same. I hate the present---but I don't want the past to take its place---I don't want that old chair.'
He was rather angry for a moment. Then he looked at the sky shining beyond the tower of the public baths, and he seemed to get over it all. He laughed.
'All right,' he said, 'then let us not have it. I'm sick of it all, too. At any rate one can't go on living on the old bones of beauty.'
'One can't,' she cried. 'I don't want old things.'
'The truth is, we don't want things at all,' he replied. 'The thought of a house and furniture of my own is hateful to me.'
This startled her for a moment. Then she replied:
'So it is to me. But one must live somewhere.'
'Not somewhere---anywhere,' he said. 'One should just live anywhere---not have a definite place. I don't want a definite place. As soon as you get a room, and it is complete, you want to run from it. Now my rooms at the Mill are quite complete, I want them at the bottom of the sea. It is a horrible tyranny of a fixed milieu, where each piece of furniture is a commandment-stone.'
She clung to his arm as they walked away from the market.
'But what are we going to do?' she said. 'We must live somehow. And I do want some beauty in my surroundings. I want a sort of natural grandeur even, splendour.'
'You'll never get it in houses and furniture---or even clothes. Houses and furniture and clothes, they are all terms of an old base world, a detestable society of man. And if you have a Tudor house and old, beautiful furniture, it is only the past perpetuated on top of you, horrible. And if you have a perfect modern house done for you by Poiret, it is something else perpetuated on top of you. It is all horrible. It is all possessions, possessions, bullying you and turning you into a generalisation. You have to be like Rodin, Michelangelo, and leave a piece of raw rock unfinished to your figure. You must leave your surroundings sketchy, unfinished, so that you are never contained, never confined, never dominated from the outside.'
She stood in the street contemplating.
'And we are never to have a complete place of our own--never a home?' she said.
'Pray God, in this world, no,' he answered.
'But there's only this world,' she objected.
He spread out his hands with a gesture of indifference.
'Meanwhile, then, we'll avoid having things of our own,' he said.
'But you've just bought a chair,' she said.
'I can tell the man I don't want it,' he replied.
She pondered again. Then a queer little movement twitched her face.
'No,' she said, 'we don't want it. I'm sick of old things.'
'New ones as well,' he said.
They retraced their steps.
There---in front of some furniture, stood the young couple, the woman who was going to have a baby, and the narrow-faced youth. She was fair, rather short, stout. He was of medium height, attractively built. His dark hair fell sideways over his brow, from under his cap, he stood strangely aloof, like one of the damned.
'Let us give it to them,' whispered Ursula. 'Look they are getting a home together.'
'I won't aid abet them in it,' he said petulantly, instantly sympathising with the aloof, furtive youth, against the active, procreant female.
'Oh yes,' cried Ursula. 'It's right for them---there's nothing else for them.'
'Very well,' said Birkin, 'you offer it to them. I'll watch.'
Ursula went rather nervously to the young couple, who were discussing an iron washstand--or rather, the man was glancing furtively and wonderingly, like a prisoner, at the abominable article, whilst the woman was arguing.
'We bought a chair,' said Ursula, 'and we don't want it. Would you have it? We should be glad if you would.'
The young couple looked round at her, not believing that she could be addressing them.
'Would you care for it?' repeated Ursula. 'It's really very pretty---but---but---' she smiled rather dazzlingly.
The young couple only stared at her, and looked significantly at each other, to know what to do. And the man curiously obliterated himself, as if he could make himself invisible, as a rat can.
'We wanted to give it to you,' explained Ursula, now overcome with confusion and dread of them. She was attracted by the young man. He was a still, mindless creature, hardly a man at all, a creature that the towns have produced, strangely pure-bred and fine in one sense, furtive, quick, subtle. His lashes were dark and long and fine over his eyes, that had no mind in them, only a dreadful kind of subject, inward consciousness, glazed and dark. His dark brows and all his lines, were finely drawn. He would be a dreadful, but wonderful lover to a woman, so marvellously contributed. His legs would be marvellously subtle and alive, under the shapeless, trousers, he had some of the fineness and stillness and silkiness of a dark-eyed, silent rat.
Ursula had apprehended him with a fine frisson of attraction. The full-built woman was staring offensively. Again Ursula forgot him.
'Won't you have the chair?' she said.
The man looked at her with a sideways look of appreciation, yet faroff, almost insolent. The woman drew herself up. There was a certain costermonger richness about her. She did not know what Ursula was after, she was on her guard, hostile. Birkin approached, smiling wickedly at seeing Ursula so nonplussed and frightened.
'What's the matter?' he said, smiling. His eyelids had dropped slightly, there was about him the same suggestive, mocking secrecy that was in the bearing of the two city creatures. The man jerked his head a little on one side, indicating Ursula, and said, with curious amiable, jeering warmth:
'What she warnt?---eh?' An odd smile writhed his lips.
Birkin looked at him from under his slack, ironical eyelids.
'To give you a chair---that---with the label on it,' he said, pointing.
The man looked at the object indicated. There was a curious hostility in male, outlawed understanding between the two men.
'What's she warnt to give it us for, guvnor,' he replied, in a tone of free intimacy that insulted Ursula.
'Thought you'd like it---it's a pretty chair. We bought it and don't want it. No need for you to have it, don't be frightened,' said Birkin, with a wry smile.
The man glanced up at him, half inimical, half recognising.
'Why don't you want it for yourselves, if you've just bought it?' asked the woman coolly. ''Taint good enough for you, now you've had a look at it. Frightened it's got something in it, eh?'
She was looking at Ursula, admiringly, but with some resentment.
'I'd never thought of that,' said Birkin. 'But no, the wood's too thin everywhere.'
'You see,' said Ursula, her face luminous and pleased. 'We are just going to get married, and we thought we'd buy things. Then we decided, just now, that we wouldn't have furniture, we'd go abroad.'
The full-built, slightly blowsy city girl looked at the fine face of the other woman, with appreciation. They appreciated each other. The youth stood aside, his face expressionless and timeless, the thin line of the black moustache drawn strangely suggestive over his rather wide, closed mouth. He was impassive, abstract, like some dark suggestive presence, a gutter-presence.
'It's all right to be some folks,' said the city girl, turning to her own young man. He did not look at her, but he smiled with the lower part of his face, putting his head aside in an odd gesture of assent. His eyes were unchanging, glazed with darkness.
'Cawsts something to change your mind,' he said, in an incredibly low accent.
'Only ten shillings this time,' said Birkin.
The man looked up at him with a grimace of a smile, furtive, unsure.
'Cheap at 'arf a quid, guvnor,' he said. 'Not like getting divawced.'
'We're not married yet,' said Birkin.
'No, no more aren't we,' said the young woman loudly. 'But we shall be, a Saturday.'
Again she looked at the young man with a determined, protective look, at once overbearing and very gentle. He grinned sicklily, turning away his head. She had got his manhood, but Lord, what did he care! He had a strange furtive pride and slinking singleness.
'Good luck to you,' said Birkin.
'Same to you,' said the young woman. Then, rather tentatively: 'When's yours coming off, then?'
Birkin looked round at Ursula.
'It's for the lady to say,' he replied. 'We go to the registrar the moment she's ready.'
Ursula laughed, covered with confusion and bewilderment.
'No 'urry,' said the young man, grinning suggestive.
'Oh, don't break your neck to get there,' said the young woman. ''Slike when you're dead--you're long time married.'
The young man turned aside as if this hit him.
'The longer the better, let us hope,' said Birkin.
'That's it, guvnor,' said the young man admiringly. 'Enjoy it while it larsts--niver whip a dead donkey.'
'Only when he's shamming dead,' said the young woman, looking at her young man with caressive tenderness of authority.
'Aw, there's a difference,' he said satirically.
'What about the chair?' said Birkin.
'Yes, all right,' said the woman.
They trailed off to the dealer, the handsome but abject young fellow hanging a little aside.
'That's it,' said Birkin. 'Will you take it with you, or have the address altered.'
'Oh, Fred can carry it. Make him do what he can for the dear old 'ome.'
'Mike use of'im,' said Fred, grimly humorous, as he took the chair from the dealer. His movements were graceful, yet curiously abject, slinking.
''Ere's mother's cosy chair,' he said. 'Warnts a cushion.' And he stood it down on the market stones.
'Don't you think it's pretty?' laughed Ursula.
'Oh, I do,' said the young woman.
''Ave a sit in it, you'll wish you'd kept it,' said the young man.
Ursula promptly sat down in the middle of the market-place.
'Awfully comfortable,' she said. 'But rather hard. You try it.' She invited the young man to a seat. But he turned uncouthly, awkwardly aside, glancing up at her with quick bright eyes, oddly suggestive, like a quick, live rat.
'Don't spoil him,' said the young woman. 'He's not used to arm-chairs, 'e isn't.
The young man turned away, and said, with averted grin:
'Only warnts legs on 'is.'
The four parted. The young woman thanked them.
'Thank you for the chair--it'll last till it gives way.'
'Keep it for an ornyment,' said the young man.
'Good afternoon---Good afternoon,' said Ursula and Birkin.
'Goo'-luck to you,' said the young man, glancing and avoiding Birkin's eyes, as he turned aside his head.
The two couples went asunder, Ursula clinging to Birkin's arm. When they had gone some distance, she glanced back and saw the young man going beside the full, easy young woman. His trousers sank over his heels, he moved with a sort of slinking evasion, more crushed with odd self-consciousness now he had the slim old arm-chair to carry, his arm over the back, the four fine, square tapering legs swaying perilously near the granite setts of the pavement. And yet he was somewhere indomitable and separate, like a quick, vital rat. He had a queer, subterranean beauty, repulsive too.
'How strange they are!' said Ursula.
'Children of men,' he said. 'They remind me of Jesus: "The meek shall inherit the earth."'
'But they aren't the meek,' said Ursula.
'Yes, I don't know why, but they are,' he replied.
They waited for the tramcar. Ursula sat on top and looked out on the town. The dusk was just dimming the hollows of crowded houses.
'And are they going to inherit the earth?' she said.
'Then what are we going to do?' she asked. 'We're not like them--are we? We're not the meek?'
'No. We've got to live in the chinks they leave us.'
'How horrible!' cried Ursula. 'I don't want to live in chinks.'
'Don't worry,' he said. 'They are the children of men, they like market-places and street-corners best. That leaves plenty of chinks.'
'All the world,' she said.
'Ah no--but some room.'
The tramcar mounted slowly up the hill, where the ugly winter-grey masses of houses looked like a vision of hell that is cold and angular. They sat and looked. Away in the distance was an angry redness of sunset. It was all cold, somehow small, crowded, and like the end of the world.
'I don't mind it even then,' said Ursula, looking at the repulsiveness of it all. 'It doesn't concern me.'
'No more it does,' he replied, holding her hand. 'One needn't see. One goes one's way. In my world it is sunny and spacious---'
'It is, my love, isn't it?' she cried, hugging near to him on the top of the tramcar, so that the other passengers stared at them.
'And we will wander about on the face of the earth,' he said, 'and we'll look at the world beyond just this bit.'
There was a long silence. Her face was radiant like gold, as she sat thinking.
'I don't want to inherit the earth,' she said. 'I don't want to inherit anything.'
He closed his hand over hers.
'Neither do I. I want to be disinherited.'
She clasped his fingers closely.
'We won't care about anything,' she said.
He sat still, and laughed.
'And we'll be married, and have done with them,' she added.
Again he laughed.
'It's one way of getting rid of everything,' she said, 'to get married.'
'And one way of accepting the whole world,' he added.
'A whole other world, yes,' she said happily.
'Perhaps there's Gerald---and Gudrun---' he said.
'If there is there is, you see,' she said. 'It's no good our worrying. We can't really alter them, can we?'
'No,' he said. 'One has no right to try---not with the best intentions in the world.'
'Do you try to force them?' she asked.
'Perhaps,' he said. 'Why should I want him to be free, if it isn't his business?'
She paused for a time.
'We can't make him happy, anyhow,' she said. 'He'd have to be it of himself.'
'I know,' he said. 'But we want other people with us, don't we?'
'Why should we?' she asked.
'I don't know,' he said uneasily. 'One has a hankering after a sort of further fellowship.'
'But why?' she insisted. 'Why should you hanker after other people? Why should you need them?'
This hit him right on the quick. His brows knitted.
'Does it end with just our two selves?' he asked, tense.
'Yes---what more do you want? If anybody likes to come along, let them. But why must you run after them?'
His face was tense and unsatisfied.
'You see,' he said, 'I always imagine our being really happy with some few other people--a little freedom with people.'
She pondered for a moment.
'Yes, one does want that. But it must happen. You can't do anything for it with your will. You always seem to think you can force the flowers to come out. People must love us because they love us---you can't make them.'
'I know,' he said. 'But must one take no steps at all? Must one just go as if one were alone in the world---the only creature in the world?'
'You've got me,' she said. 'Why should you need others? Why must you force people to agree with you? Why can't you be single by yourself, as you are always saying? You try to bully Gerald---as you tried to bully Hermione. You must learn to be alone. And it's so horrid of you. You've got me. And yet you want to force other people to love you as well. You do try to bully them to love you. And even then, you don't want their love.'
His face was full of real perplexity.
'Don't I?' he said. 'It's the problem I can't solve. I know I want a perfect and complete relationship with you: and we've nearly got it---we really have. But beyond that. Do I want a real, ultimate relationship with Gerald? Do I want a final, almost extra-human relationship with him---a relationship in the ultimate of me and him---or don't I?'
She looked at him for a long time, with strange bright eyes, but she did not answer.