"GENIUS"

By ELINOR MORDAUNT

(From Hutchinson's Magazine and The Century Magazine)

1921, 1922

Best British Short Stories

I have written before of Ben Cohen, with his eternal poring and humming over the scores of great masters; of the timber-yard at Canning Town, for ever changing and for ever the same, devouring forests with the eternal wind-like rush of saws, slide of gigantic planes; practical and chill; wrapped in river-fogs, and yet exotic with the dust of cedar, camphor, paregoric.

In those days Ben Cohen was wont to read music as other boys read their penny-dreadfuls, avidly, with the imagined sounds like great waves for ever a-rush through his soul.

In the very beginning it was any music, just music. Then for a while Wagner held him. Any Wagnerian concert, any mixed entertainment which included Wagner—it seemed as though he sniffed them upon the breeze—and he would tramp for miles, wait for hours; biting cold, sleet, snow, mud, rain, all alike disregarded by that persistence which the very poor must bring to the pursuit of pleasure, the capture of cheap seats.

Once ensconced, regardless of hard, narrow seats, heights, crowds, his passion of adoration and excitement took him, shook him, tore him so that it was wonder his frail body did not split in two, render up the soul coming forth as Lazarus from the sepulchre. It was indeed, if you knew little Ben Cohen, him, himself, difficult to realise that his body had anything more to do with him than the yellow-drab water-proof which is a sort of uniform—a species of charity, covering a multitude of sins of poverty, shabbiness, thread-bareness—had to do with the real Jenny Bligh.

And yet, Ben Cohen's body was more completely his than one might have imagined. Jenny could, and indeed did, slough off her disguise on Sundays or rare summer days; but Ben and that self which was apart from music—that wildly-beating heart, pulsing blood, flooding warmth, grateful as the watchman's fire in the fog-sodden yard, that little fire over which he used to hang, warming his stiffened hands—were, after all, amazingly one.

The thing surprised him even more than it surprised any one else; above all, when it refused to be separated from his holy of holies, crept, danced, smiled its way through the most portentous scores—a thrilling sense of Jenny Bligh, all crotchets and quavers, smiles and thrills, quaint homeliness, sudden dignity.

By the time he first met Jenny he was clear of Wagner, had glanced a little patronisingly at Beethoven, turned aside and enwrapped himself in the sombre splendour of Bach, right away from the world; then, harking back, with a fresh vision, a sudden sense of the inevitable, had anchored himself in the solemn, wide-stretching harbourage of Beethoven.

It was like a return from a long voyage, tearing round a world full of beauty and interest, and yet, at the same time, full of pettiness, fuss, annoyance: a home-coming beyond words. There was a sense of eternity, a harmony which drew everything to itself, smoothing out the pattern of life, the present life and the life to come, so crumpled that, up to this time, he had had no real idea of the meaning of it.

All at once everything was immensely right, with Jenny as an essential and inevitable part of the rightness. He felt this so strongly that he never stopped to wonder if other people felt it as plainly as he did.

Apart from all this, he was bound by the inarticulateness of his class. His Jewish blood lent him a wider and more picturesque vocabulary than most, and yet it stopped at any discussion of his feelings.

We have an idea that what we call the "common people" are more communicative on such subjects than we are; but this is not so. They talk of their physical ailments and sensations, but they are deeply shy upon the subject of their feelings. Ben's mother would discuss the state of her inside, the deaths of her relations and friends; his own birth, down to the smallest detail. But she would never have dreamt of telling her son that she loved him, desired his love, hungered for his coming, grieved at his going.

Ben himself put none of his feeling for Beethoven into words, above all to his mother; she would not have understood him if he had. He said nothing of Jenny, either, save as a girl he'd met, a girl he was going to bring home to tea; but she understood that without any words; that was courting, part of the business of human nature; much like the preparation of meals.

It was odd, coming to think of it—might have been ridiculous, save that ridicule was the sort of thing which could find no possible lodgment with Ben—that his determination to devote his whole musical life to Beethoven, to interpret him as no Englishman had ever done before, should have been synonymous with his sacred, heady, and yet absolute determination to marry Jenny Bligh.

Jenny worked in the jam-factory, and there was something of the aroma of ripe fruit about her: ripe strawberries, raspberries, plums, damsons. She was plumpish and fresh: very red lips and very bright eyes, reddish-brown, the colour of blackberry leaves in autumn, with hair to match. Her little figure was neat; her small hands, with their square-tipped fingers, deft and quick in their movements; there was something at once rounded and clear-cut about everything she did.

A sea-faring admirer used to say that she was "a bit short in the beam, but a daisy fur carryin' sail"; and that was the idea she gave: so well-balanced, so trim, going off to work in her wide white apron on those rare mornings when she shook off the yellow mackintosh.

Ben saw her like that for the first time crossing the Lee just below the timber-yard with its cranes like black notes zigzagging out over the river, which had for once discarded its fog. It was a day of bright blue sky, immense, rounded, silvery clouds, fresh and clean; with a wind which caught up the white apron and billowed it out for the sheer fun of the thing: showing trim ankles, the turn of a plump calf, such as Ben Cohen had never even thought of before, the realisation of which was like wine: freshly tasted, red, fruity, running through his veins, mounting to his head. He had known that women had legs; his mother, the laundress, suffered from hers—complainingly, devoted woman as she was—swollen with much standing, and "them there dratted veins": stocky legs, with loose folds of stocking.

As to thinking any more of a woman's legs than of the legs of a table, the idea had never even occurred to him. But there you are! It is the unexpected that happens: the sort of thing which we could never have imagined ourselves as doing, thinking, feeling. The temptations we have recognised, struggled against, are nothing; but there comes a sort of wild, whistling wind from nowhere—much the same as that wind about jenny's skirts, white apron—and our life is like a kaleidoscope, suddenly shaken up and showing a completely fresh pattern.

Who could have thought it—who?—that Ben Cohen, dreamer, idealist, passionate, pure, the devotee of art, would have fallen in love with Jenny Bligh's legs—or, rather, a pair of ankles, and a little more at that side where the wind caught her skirt—before he had so much as a glimpse of her face?

Just over the bridge she stopped to speak with another girl who worked in his own counting-house. As Ben hurried up to pass them before they separated, really see her, this other girl recognised him, flung him a friendly "Hullo!" and was answered in the same fashion.

As he moved on he heard her—was meant to hear, knew that he was meant to hear, from the pitch of the voice—"Clever ain't no word fur it! There ain't no tune as——"

The end of the sentence was lost; but he knew the sort of thing, knew it by heart, had spent his time running away from it. Now, however, he was grateful: more grateful still when he met Miss Ankles again, and she herself, regarding Florry Hines' eulogy as a sort of introduction, smiled, moved on a step, and herself tossed a "Hullo" over one shoulder.

Ben's thin olive-tinted face was flushed as he drew forward to her side with his odd stoop, his way of ducking his head and raising his eyes, dark and glowing. He took jenny's dinner-basket, and she noticed his hands, large and well-shaped, with long fingers, widened at the tips. Florry had said that he was a "Sheeny," but there was nothing of the Jew about him apart from his colouring, his brilliant dark eyes; unless it were a sort of inner glow, an ardour, curbed by his almost childlike shyness, lack of self-confidence in everything apart from his music: that something, at once finer and more cruelly persistent, vital, than is to be found in the purely Anglo-Saxon race.

Though Jenny liked what she called "a pretty tune," she knew nothing whatever of music, understood less. And yet, almost from that first moment, she understood Ben Cohen, realising him as lover and child: understood him better, maybe, then than she did later on: losing her sureness for a while, shaken and bewildered; everything blurred by her own immensity of love, longing; of fearing that she did not understand—feeling out of it.

But that was not for sometime to come: in the meanwhile she was like a dear little bantam hen with one chick; while Ben himself was content to shelter under her wing, until it grew upon him that, loving her as he did, loving his mother—realising what it meant to be a mother, in thinking of jenny herself with a child—his child—in her arms—it was "up to" him to prove himself for their sakes, to make them proud of him and his music, without the faintest idea of how proud they were already, lift the whole weight of care from their shoulders.

The worst of it was, he told them nothing whatever about it. The better sort of men are given to these crablike ways of appearing to move away from what they intend to move towards. It simply seemed as though he were forgetting them a little—then, more and more; elbowing them aside to clear the way for his beloved music.

He was no longer deprecating, appealing, leaning upon them: each woman thought of him as "her child," and when his love made a man of him, they realised the hurt, nothing more.

He overdid it, too, as genius does overdo things; was brusque, entirely immersed in his great scheme. Sometimes he even laughed to himself over this. "They don't know what I'm up to!" he would declare to himself, with a sense of triumph.

He had never even thought of his music in the money sense before, but as his love and ambition for the two women grew upon him, he was like a child with a new toy. He would not only make a great name, he would make an immense fortune: his mind blinked, dazzled at the very thought. He moved with a new pride, and also—alas!—a new remoteness.

His health had broken when he was about seventeen—his bent shoulders still showed that old drag upon the chest—and he was away in a sanatorium for a year. When he came back he was cured. It was young Saere, the junior partner in the timber business, who had sent him away; and it was he who, when Ben returned, paid for lessons for him, so that he learnt to play as well as read music.

From that time onward he had always stuck to the firm, working in the tally sheds; paid, out of his earnings, for the use of a room and a piano for practising upon so many hours each week, completely happy and contented.

He had never even thought of leaving the business until he realised his immense love for Jenny, and, through her, for his mother; the necessity for doing something big. What did sacrifice matter? What did it matter being poor, hungry, shabby?—What did anything matter just for a while? There was so little he wanted; meals were a nuisance; his eyes were so dazzled by the brilliance of the future, set upon a far horizon, that he forgot the path of the present, still beneath his feet.

If his mother had not set food before him he would scarcely have thought of it. But, all the same, he ate it, and money had to be earned by some one or other.

His mother had never let him know the actual pinch of poverty; she wore that shoe upon her own foot. He had no more idea than a child of the cost of mere daily necessities; and during the last few years, between his work and hers, they had been comfortable enough.

"We can hang on for a bit," he said, when he spoke of leaving the wood-yard; and she answered, almost with triumph, that she had "hung on" well enough before he'd earned "aught but a licking."

At first she was proud of reshouldering the entire burden; it made him more entirely hers. He could not do without her; even with Jenny he could not do without her. But she had not been a young woman when Ben was born; she was old now, and tired, with that sort of tiredness which accumulates, heaps up, and which no single night's rest can ever cure; the tiredness which is ready, more than ready, for a narrower bed—eternal sleep.

"—Hold on until after the concert?"

"Sorry fur meself if I couldn't."

The concert! That was the goal. There was a public hall at Clapton where Ben had chanced on some really good music—just one night of it, and quite by chance—and this, to his mind, ennobled the Claptonites; there was the place in which to start the revolutionising of the musical world. Besides—and here he thought himself very canny, by no means a Jew for nothing—there were fine old houses at Clapton, and where there were such houses there must be rich people.

When the date was actually arranged, he practised for the best part of the day. While he was at home he read music; he lived in a maze of music. He never thought of advertising, collecting his public; he even avoided his old friends, his patrons at the timber-yard, overcome by agonies of shyness at the very thought of so much as mentioning his concert. Quite simply, in a way he did not even attempt to explain to himself, he felt that the world of London would scent it from afar off. As to paid claques, presentation-tickets, patrons, advance agents, all the booming and flattery, the jam of the powder for an English audience, he had no idea of the existence of such things. Beethoven was wonderful, and he had found out wonderful things about him: that was enough.

When the Angel Gabriel blew the last trump, there would be no need to invite the dead to rise. Neither was there any need to invite the really elect to his concert. Not to hear him, Ben Cohen, but to hear Beethoven as he ought to be heard; that's how he felt.

During those weeks of preparation for the concert, his mother worked desperately hard to keep their home together without his earnings, while Jenny helped. At first that had been enough for her, too: to help. But later—

Throughout those long evenings when, already tired from her work in the factory, she had stood sorting, sprinkling, folding, ironing, the two women got to a state where they scarcely dared to look at each other: just a passing glance, a hardish stare, but no looking into.

If he had but once said, "I can't bear you to work so hard for me," everything would have been different, the fatigue wiped out. But he didn't; he didn't even know they were working for him, working beyond the limit of an ordinary working-woman's working-day, hard enough, in all conscience.

"Men can't not be expected to notice things the way we do." That's what they told themselves—they did not say even this much to each other. But far, far away, out of sight, out of all actual knowledge, was the fear which neither of them would have dared to realise, a vague horror, a sort of ghost….

"He don't care—he's changed."

And, indeed, this is how it appeared. All through that time he wore an odd look of excitement, triumph, pleasure, which lifted him away from himself. There was a sort of lilt in his very step; his eyes shone, his cheeks were flushed. When he cleared a pile of freshly-ironed, starched things from the end of a table, so as to spread out a score upon it, laid them on the floor where the cat padded them over with dirty feet, and his mother railed at him, as she still did rail—on any subject apart from this of not caring—he glanced up at her with bright, amused eyes, his finger still following the black-and-white tangle of notes, looked at Jenny, and laughed—actually laughed.

"You great oaf!" cried Mrs. Cohen, and could have killed him. Up at four o'clock next morning, rewashing, starching, ironing, she retched with sick fatigue and something more—that sense of giddiness, of being hit on the head which had oppressed her of late. It was as though that laugh of Ben's had stuck like a bone in her chest, so sharp that she could scarcely draw breath; driven all the blood to her head.

And yet it had been full of nothing but triumph, a sort of tender triumph, almost childish delight. He was going to do wonders— wonders!—open a new world to them! He was so dazzled by his own work, dreams, by all he had in store for them, that he did not even see them, themselves, worn with toil, realise the meaning of it, the reason for it. In any case he would have laughed, because they had no idea how near it was to an end.

That concert! It would be like nothing so much as opening a door into a new world, where they need never so much as soil a finger: floating around, dressed in silk, feeding from off the finest china, sleeping upon down.

Man-like, his eyes were fixed upon the future. No two women had ever been loved as they were loved. All this work, this washing and ironing, it resembled nothing more than the opening scene in an opera: a sort of prelude, for the sake of contrast. They would see—O-o-oh, yes, they would see!

It was like that old childish "Shut your eyes and open your mouth."

But they—they were bound in the close-meshed strait-waistcoat of endless toil, petty anxiety. The days and hours heaped in front of them obliterated all possible view of the future.

In the beginning they had been as excited as he was over the thought of the concert. He must wear a rosette—no, a flower in his button-hole; and white kid gloves; as he moved forward upon the platform, he must bow right and left, and draw them off as he bowed.

This was Jenny's idea. It was Jenny who made him practise his bows, and it was Jenny who borrowed a dress-suit from a waiter-friend; while it was his mother who "got up" the borrowed shirt to go with it, stiff and shining; who polished his best boots until they looked "near as near like patent."

All this had been done close upon a fortnight before. Jenny was a good girl, but if she was not there to see to things, Jenny might fail with a bubble on the shirt-front. No amount of meaning well was of any use in getting up a stiff shirt as it ought to be got up.

"Better 'ave it all ready, 'a-case o' anything happening." That was what Mrs. Cohen said to herself, with a dull dread at the back of her mind: a feeling as though every next day were a Friday.

Her face had been oddly flushed of late, with a rather fixed and glassy look about the eyes. Jenny thought of this, on her way to the concert; alone, for by some ill fate, his nearer vision blurred in that golden maze of the future, Ben had fixed his concert for a Friday.

This Friday! Always a bad day, bad in itself, bad for every one, like an east wind; worst of all for a laundress: not so depressing as a Monday, but so hurried, so overcrowded, with all the ironing and folding, the packing of the lots, all small, into their separate newspaper parcels; the accumulated fatigue of a whole week. Some demon seemed to possess her clients that week: they had come in with a collar here, a shirt there, an odd pillow-slip, tablecloth, right over Thursday. She was working until after twelve o'clock that night—so was Jenny—up before dawn next morning, though no one save herself knew of this.

"Whatever they do, they shan't not keep me from my Ben's concert!" That was what she said, with a vision of motors blocking the road in front of the little hall. But she had been a laundress best part of a lifetime—before she discovered herself as the mother of a genius—and it had bit into her bone: she could not get finished, and she could not leave the work undone.

"Some one's got to earn a living!"—that was what she said, embittered by fatigue, the sweat pouring down her face, beaten to every sensibility, apart from her swollen feet, by the time that Jenny called in for her, soon after six. She had longed to go, had never even thought of not going; but by now, apart from her physical pain and weariness, she was alive to but one point, her whole being drawn out to a sort of cone with an eye at the end of it; and far, far away at the back of her brain, struggling with impenetrable mists, but one thought—if she scorched anything, she would have to replace it.

When Jenny found that it was impossible to move her, she made her own way up to Clapton alone. For Ben had to be at the hall early; there were certain matters to arrange, and he would try over the piano.

Her efforts with Mrs. Cohen had delayed her; she was driven desperate by that cruel malice of inanimate things: every 'bus and tram was against her, whisking out of sight just as she wanted them, or blocked by slow crawling carts and lorries. There was a tight, hard pain in her heart, like toothache, round which her whole body gathered, pressing, impaled upon it; a sense of desperation, and yet at the heart of this, like a nerve, the wonder if anything really mattered.

Ben had promised to reserve seats for his mother and herself; but had he?—Had he? Would she find the place blocked by swells with their hard stare, duchesses and such-like, glistening in diamonds? In her mind's eye she saw billows of silk, slabs of black cloth and shining white shirt-fronts—hundreds and hundreds of them. And Ben bowing, bowing to them as she had taught him to do.

For some time past he had been so far away, so detached that she was haunted by the fear that if she put out a finger to touch him it might go through him, as though he were a ghost. At times she had caught him, held him to her in a passion of love and longing. But even then, with his head against her heart, his lips, or some pulse or nerve, had moved in a wordless tune, the beat of time.

If only he had still seemed to need her, nothing, nothing would have mattered. But he didn't: he needed no one—no one. He seemed so frail, she had made sure that he wanted looking after; but he didn't. A drunkard might have fallen down in the street, needed fetching, supporting, exhorting; a bully come home with a broken head. But it seemed as though Ben were, in reality, for all his air of appeal, sufficient to himself, moving like a steady light through the darkness; unstirred by so much as a breath of wind.

Overcome by anxiety, she got out of the tram too soon. It had begun to rain, a dull, dark night, and there was a blur of misty light flooding the pavement a little way ahead. That must be the hall. She was afraid of over-shooting the mark. Those trams had such a way of getting going just as one wanted to be out of them!

But the light was nothing more than a cinema, and she she had a good quarter of a mile to walk in the wet. The cruel wet!—just like it to be wet on this night of all nights! Even her optimism was gone. She kept on thinking of Mrs. Cohen, her flushed face and oddly-glazed eyes; the queer stiff way in which she moved, held her head. For once she was angry with Ben.

"'Im and his crowds,' 'Im an' 'is fine lydies! 'Im an' 'is motor-cars!"

After all, she did overshoot her mark; on inquiry for the hall, she was told that she had passed it, and was obliged to retrace her steps.

No wonder she had passed it; with all she had expected at the back of her mind! The strip of pavement outside was dark, with not so much as a single taxi in sight; the door half-shut, the dreary vestibule badly-lighted, empty, smelling of damp. The sodden-looking sketch of a man in the pay-box seemed half asleep; stretched, yawned when she spoke, pushing a strip of pink paper towards her as she gave her name.

"For two." He poked out a long neck and peered round the edge of the box, like a tortoise from its shell.

"The other lydy wasn't not able ter come ter-night," answered Jenny with dignity, and the beast grinned, displaying a wreckage of broken teeth.

"Ain't not what you might call a crowd, anyway," he remarked.

She could have killed him for that! She realised the white face of a clock, but she would not look at it. She was early, that was it. Look how she had hurried. No wonder that she was early. And great ladies were always late: she had learnt that from the Daily Mail stories.

"Two an' two make four—them too late an' me too early!" she said to herself, with a gallant effort after her own brisk way of taking things, a surer tap of heels on the stone floor as she turned towards a swing-door to her left; pushed it open, and was hit in the face by what seemed like a thick black curtain.

A dim white-gloved hand was thrust through it and took her ticket.

"Mind you don't fall—no good wasting the lights until they come—if ever they does come," exhorted and explained a voice out of the darkness; for, after all, it was not a curtain, but just darkness.

At first Jenny could see nothing. Then, little by little, it seemed as though different objects crept forward, one by one, like wild animals from their lair.

Those white patches, the hands of two white-gloved men, holding sheaves of programmes—she realised one between her own fingers—whispering together.

There was the platform, the great piano sprawling over it; and in front of this, rows and rows and rows—and rows upon rows—of empty seats.

She looked behind her—they had argued long over the question of places for herself and his mother. "The very best," that's what Ben had said; but they fought against this, fought and conquered, for the best seats meant money. "What's a seat more or less, I'd like to know?"

"Money, all money." Old Mrs. Cohen had been firm upon this point.

Still, there were a great many seats yet further back—and all empty: a little raised, seeming to push themselves forward with the staring vacuity of an idiot: more seats overhead in a curving balcony, rising above each other as though proud of their emptiness. It would have been impossible to believe that mere vacant places could wear so sinister, as well as foolish, an aspect. An idiot, but a cruel idiot, too: the whole thing one cruel idiot, of the sort that likes to pull legs from flies.

There was a clock there, also. For a long while Jenny would not allow herself to look at it. But something drew her, until it became an unbearable effort to keep her eyes away from it, to look anywhere else; and at last she turned her head, stared, sharply, defiantly, as though daring it.

It was five-and-twenty minutes to nine. Five-and-twenty minutes to nine, and the concert was to have begun at eight!—Five-and-twenty minutes to nine, and there was no one there—no one whatever!

The clock hands dragged themselves on for another five-minutes; then one of the men disappeared behind the scene; came back, speaking excitedly, gesticulating with white hands:

"We're to turn on the light. 'E swears as 'e won't give it up—'e's goin' ter play."

"Goin' ter play? Well, I'll be blowed!—Goin' ter play! An' with nothing 'ere but That"

Jenny saw how he jerked his head in her direction. So she was
"That"—she, Jenny Bligh!—and so far gone that she did not even care.

As the lights went up the hall seemed to swim in a sort of mist: the terra-cotta walls, the heavy curtains at either side of the platform, those awful empty seats!

Jenny spread her skirt wide, catching at the chair to either side of her, stretching out her arms along the backs of them. She had a wild feeling as though it were up to her to spread herself sufficiently to cover them all. She half rose. Perhaps she could hide more of that emptiness if she moved nearer to the front: that was her thought.

But no; she mustn't do that: this was the place Ben had chosen for her; she must stay where she was. He might look there, miss her, and imagine that there was nobody, nobody at all; that even she had failed him.

If only she could spread herself—spread herself indefinitely—multiply herself: anything, anything to cover those beastly chairs: sticking out there, grinning, shaming her man!

Then she had a sudden idea of running into the street, entreating the people to come in; was upon her feet for the second time, when Ben walked on to the platform.

For once he was not ducking or moving sideways; he came straight forward, bowed to the front of him, right and left; drew off his gloves and bowed again. Mingling with her agony of pity, a thrill, ran through Jenny Bligh at this. He remembered her teaching; he was hers—hers—hers—after all, hers—more than ever hers!

The borrowed coat, far too big for him, rose in a sort of hood at the back of his neck; as he bowed something happened to the centre stud of his shirt, and it disappeared into an aperture shaped like a dark gourd in the whiteness.

But, for all that, Jenny felt herself overawed by his dignity, as any one would have been: there was something in the man so much greater than his clothes, greater than his conscious, half-childish self.

Jenny's hands were raised to clap; but they dropped into her lap, lay there, as, with a face set like marble, Ben turned and seated himself at the piano. There was a moment's pause, while he stared straight in front of him—such a pause that a feeling of goose-flesh ran down the back of her arms—then he began to play.

Jenny had not even glanced at her programme; she would have understood nothing of it if she had; but it gave the Sonata, Op. III, as the opening piece.

Ben, however, took no notice of this; but, for some reason he could not have explained, flung himself straight-way into the third item, the tremendous "Hammerclavier."

The sounds flooded the hall; swept through it as if it were not there, obliterating time and space. It was as though the Heavenly Host had descended upon the earth, sweet, wonderful, and yet terrible, with a sweep of pinions, deep-drawn breath—Tubal Cain and his kind, deified and yet human in their immense masculinity and strength.

Jenny Bligh was neither imaginative nor susceptible to sound, but it drew her out of herself. It was like bathing in a sea whose waves overpower one so that, try as one may to cling to the earth, it slips off from beneath one's feet—shamed, beaten. She had a feeling that if it did not stop soon she would die; and would yet die when it did stop. Her heart beat thickly and heavily, her eyes were dim; she was bewildered, lost, and yet exhilarated. It was worse than an air raid, she thought—more exciting, more wonderful.

The end left her almost as much exhausted as Ben himself. The sweat was running down his face as he got up from his seat, came forward to the front of the platform, and bowed right and left. Jenny had not clapped—she would as soon have thought of clapping God with His last trump—but Ben bowed as though a whole multitude had applauded him.

By some chance, the only direction in which he did not turn his eyes was the gallery: even then, he might not have seen a single figure seated a little to one side—a man with a dark overcoat buttoned up to his chin, who clapped his two thumbs noiselessly together, drawing in his breath with a sort of whistle.

"That's the stuff!" he said. "That's the stuff to give 'em!"

After a moment's pause, Ben turned again to the piano. This time he played the Sonata Pathétique in C Minor, Op. XIII; then the Sonata Walstein in C Major. Between each, he got up, moved forward to the edge of the platform, and bowed.

At the end of the Sonata, Op. III—by rights the first on the programme—during the short interval which followed it he straightened his shoulders with a sort of swagger, utterly unlike himself, swung round to the piano again, and slammed out "God Save the King."

He played it through to the very end, then rose, bowed from where he stood, stared round at the empty hall—a dreadful, strained, defiant smile stiffening upon his face—and sinking back upon his stool, laid his arms across the keyboard with a crash of notes, burying his head upon them.

In a moment Jenny was out of her seat. There were chairs in her way, and she kicked them aside; raked one forward with her foot, and scrambled on to the platform; then, catching a sideways glimpse of the empty seats, bent forward and shook her fist at them.

"Beasts! Pigs! A-a-a-ah!—You!"

The attendants had disappeared, the stranger was lost in shadows. There was nobody there but themselves: it would not have mattered if there had been: all the lords and ladies, all the swells in the world, would not have mattered. The great empty hall, suddenly friendly, closed, curving, around them.

Jenny dropped upon her knees at Ben's side, and flung her arms about him, with little moans of love and pity; slid one hand beneath his cheek, with a muffled roll of notes, raised his head and pressed it against her heart.

"There, my dear! There, my love—there—there—there!"

She laid her lips to his thick dark hair, in a passion of adoration, loving every lock of it; and then, woman-like, picked a white thread from off his black coat; clasped him afresh, with joy and sorrow like runnels of living water pouring through and through her.

"There, there, there, there!"

He was too much of a child to fight against her: all his pride was gone. "Oh, Jenny, Jenny, Jenny!" he cried; then, in an extremity of innocent anguish, amazement—

"They didn't come! They don't care—they don't want it! Jenny, they don't want it!"

"Don't you worry about them there blighters, my darling. Selfish pigs! they ain't not worth a thought. Don't you worry about them."

"But—Beethoven…."

"Don't you worry about Beethoven, neifer—ain't no better nor he oughter be, taeke my word fur it. Lettin' you in like this 'ere! There—there—there, my dear!"

They clung together, weeping, rocking to and fro. "Well," said the man in the gallery, "I'm jiggered!" and crept out very softly, stumbling a little because of the damp air which seemed to have got into his eyes and made them smart.

As the lovers came out into the little vestibule, clinging to each other, they did not so much as see the stranger, who stood talking to the man in the box-office, but went straight on out into the rain, with their umbrellas unopened in their hands.

"A good thing as the 'all people insists upon payment in advance," remarked the man in the box-office.

The other gave him a curious, half-contemptuous glance. "I'd like to hear you say that in a year's time."

"Why?"

"Because that chap will be able to buy and sell a place like this a hundred times over by then—Queen's Hall—Albert Hall—I know. It's my business to know. There's something about his playing. That something different they're all out for."

It took a long time to get back to Canning Town. Even Jenny had lost her certainty: her grasp of the ways of 'buses and such things. She felt oddly clear and empty: like a room swept and garnished, with the sense of a ghost in some dim corner of it; physically sapped out.

Ben clung to her. He said very little, but he clung to her, with an odd, lost air: the look of a child who has been slapped in the face, and cannot understand why.

She was so much smaller than he, like a diminutive, sturdy steam-tug; and yet if she could have carried him, she would have done so.

As it was, she threw her whole heart and soul into guiding, comforting; thinking of a hundred things at once, her soft mouth folded tight with anxiety.—How to prevent him from feeling shamed before his mother: how to keep the trouble away from her: though at the back of her own mind was a feeling—and she had an idea that it would be at the back of old Mrs. Cohen's also—of immense relief, of some load gone: almost as though her child had been through a bad attack of scarlet-fever, or something which one does not take twice.

With all this, there was the thought of what she would step out and buy for their supper, if the fried-fish shop were still open; all she would do and say to cheer them.

As for Ben, the "Hammerclavier" was surging through his brain, carrying the empty hall with it, those rows upon rows of empty seats—swinging them to and fro so that he felt physically sick, as though he were at sea.

Quite suddenly, as they got out of the last tram, the rain ceased. At the worst it had been a mild night of velvety darkness and soft airs, the reflection from the lamps swimming in a haze of gold across the wet pavement; but now, just as they reached the end of his own street, the black sky opened upon a wide sea of pinkish-amber and a full moon sailed into sight. At the same moment, Ben's sense of anguished bewilderment cleared away, leaving in its place a feeling of incalculable weariness.

To be back in his own home again—that was all he asked. "You'll stay the night at our place, Jenny?" "Yes; I promised your mother." Her brow knitted, and then cleared again. Ah, well; that was all over: Ben would go back to his regular job again; they would get married; then there would be her money, too: no need for old Mrs. Cohen to do another hand's turn. Plenty of time for her to rest now: all her life for resting in.

"Your mother." As she spoke Ben remembered, for the first time, actively remembered, for of course it was his mother that he meant when he thought of home.

"She wasn't there, Jenny! She wasn't there!"

"She was very busy, 'adn't not finished 'er work." Something beyond Jenny's will stiffened within her. So he had only just realised it! She tried not to remember, but she could not help it—the flushed face, the glassy eyes: the whole look of a woman beaten, with her back against a wall; condemning Ben by her very silence, desperate courage.

"Work?"

"Yes, work." Jenny snapped it: hating herself for it, drawing him closer, and yet unable to help it. "Why——" began Ben, and then stopped—horrified. At last he realised it: perhaps it ran to him through Jenny's arm; perhaps it was just that he was down on earth again, humble, ductile, seeing other people's lives as they were, not as he meant to make them.

"Ter-night—workin'"

"All night; one the saeme as another."

"But why——" he began again; stopped dead, loosed his own arm and caught hers. "All this while workin' like that! She works too hard. Jenny, look here: she works too hard. And I—this damned music! Look here, Jenny, it's got to stop! I'll never play a note again; she shall never do a hard stroke of work again; never, never—not so long as I'm here to work for her. All my life—ever since I can remember—washing and ironing, like—like—the very devil!"

He pulled the girl along with him. "That was what I was thinking all the time: to make a fortune so that you'd both have everything you wanted, a big house, servants, motors, silk dresses——And all the time letting you both work yourselves to death! But this is the end; no more of that. To be happy—that's all that matters—sort of everyday happiness.

"No more of that beastly washing, ironing—it's the end of that, anyhow. When I'm back at the timber-yard——"

He was like a child again, planning; they almost ran down the street.
"No more o' that damned washin' and ironin'—no more work——"

True! How true! The street door opened straight into the little kitchen. She was not in bed, for the light was still burning; they could see it at either side of the blind, shrunk crooked with steam. There was one step down into the kitchen; but for all that, the door would not open when they raised the latch and pushed it, stuck against something.

"Some of those beastly old clothes!" Ben shoved it, hailing his mother. "Mother! Mother, you've got something stuck against the door." Odd that she did not come to his help, quick as she always was.

After all, it gave way too suddenly for him to altogether realise the oddness; and he stumbled forward right across the kitchen, seeing nothing until he turned and faced Jenny still standing upon the step, staring downward, with an ashy-white face, wide eyes fixed upon old Mrs. Cohen, who lay there at her feet, resting—incomprehensibly resting.

They need not have been so emphatic about it all—"No more beastly washing, no more work"—for the whole thing was out of their hands once and for all.

She had fallen across the doorway, a flat-iron still in her hand—the weapon with which she had fought the world, kept the wolf from that same door—all the strain gone out of her face, a little twisted to the left side, and oddly smiling. One child's pinafore was still unironed; the rest were folded, finished.

They raised her between them, laid her upon her bed. It was Jenny who washed her, wrapped her in clean linen—no one else should touch her; Ben who sat by her, with hardly a break, until the day that she was buried, wiped out with self-reproach, grief; desolate as any child, sodden with tears.

He collected all his music into a pile, the day before the funeral, gave it to Jenny to put under the copper—a burnt-offering.

"If it hadn't been for that, she might be here now. I don't want ever to see it again—ever to hear a note of it!" That was what he said.

Jenny went back to the house with him after the funeral: she was going to give him his tea, and then return to her own room. In a week they were to be married, and she would be with him for good, looking after him. That evening, before she left, she would set his breakfast, cut his lunch ready for the morrow. By Saturday week they would be settled down to their regular life together. She would not think about his music; pushed it away at the back of her mind—over and done with—would not even allow herself the disloyalty of being glad. And yet was glad, deeply glad, relieved, despite her pride in it, in him: as though it were something unknown, alien, dangerous, like things forbidden.

Two men were waiting at the door of the narrow slip of a house: the tall, thin one with his overcoat still buttoned up to his chin, and another fat and shining, with a top-hat, black frock-coat, and white spats.

"About that concert——" said the first man.

"We were thinking that if we could persuade you to play——" put in the other.

"There was no one there," interrupted Ben roughly. His shoulders were bent, his head dropped forward on his chest, poking sideways, his eyes sullen as a child's.

"I was there," put in the first man, "and I must say, impressed——"

"Very deeply impressed," added the other; but once again Ben brushed him aside.

"You were there—at my concert!" Jenny, standing a little back—for they were all three crowded upon the tiny door-step—saw him glance up at the speaker with something luminous shining through the darkness of his face. "At my concert——! And you liked it? You liked it?"

"'Like' is scarcely the word."

"We feel that if you could be persuaded to give another concert," put in the stout man, blandly, "and would allow——"

"I shall never play again—never—never!" cried Ben, harshly; but this time the other went on imperturbably: "—allow us to make all arrangements, take all responsibility: boom you; see to the advertising and all that—we thought if we were to let practically all the seats for the first concert go in complimentary tickets; get a few good names on the committee—perhaps a princess or something of that sort as a patroness—a strong claque"

"Of course, playing Beethoven—playing him as you played him the other night. Grand-magnificent!" put in the first man realising the weariness, the drop to blank indifference in the musician's face. "The 'Hammerclavier' for instance——"

It was magical.—"Oh, yes, yes—that—that!" Ben's eyes widened, his face glowed. He hummed a bar or so. "Was there ever anything like it? My God! was there ever anything like it!"

Jenny, who had the key, squeezed past them at this, and ran through the kitchen to the scullery, where she filled the kettle and put it upon the gas-ring to boil; looked round her for a moment, with quick, darting eyes—like a small wild animal at bay in a strange place—then drew a bucketful of water, turned up her sleeves, the skirt of her new black frock, tied on an old hessian apron of Mrs. Cohen's, with a savage jerk of the strings, and dropping upon her knees, started to scrub the floor, the rough stone floor.

"Men!—trapsin' in an' out, muckin' up a place!"

She could hear the murmur of men's voices in the kitchen, and through it that "trapsin'" of other men struggling with a long coffin on the steep narrow stairs.

On and on it went—the agonised remembrance of all that banging, trampling; the swish of her own scrubbing-brush; the voices round the table where old Mrs. Cohen had stood ironing for hours and hours upon end.

Then the door into the scullery was opened. For a moment or so she kept her head obstinately lowered, determined that she would not look up. Then, feeling her own unkindness, she raised it and smiled upon Ben, who stood there, flushed, glowing, and yet too shame-faced to speak—smiled involuntarily, as one must smile at a child.

"Well?"

"That—that—music stuff—I suppose it's burnt?" he began, fidgeting from one foot to another, his head bent, ducking sideways, his shoulder to his ear.

Her glance enwrapped him—smiling, loving, bitter-sweet. Things were not going to be as she had thought; none of that going out regularly to work, coming home to tea like other men; none of that safe sameness of life. At the back of her calm was a fierce battle; then she rose to her feet, wiped her hands upon her apron, stooped to the lowest shelf of the cupboard, and drew out a pile of music.

"There you are, my dear. I didn't not burn it, a'cause Well, I suppose as I sorter knowed all the time as you'd be wantin' it."

Children! Well, one knew where one was with children—real children.
But men, that was a different pair of shoes altogether—something you
could never be sure of—unless you remembered, always remembered, to
treat them as though they were grown-up, think of them as children.

"Now you taeke that an' get along back to yer friends an' yer playin', and let me get on with my work. It'll be dark an' tea-time on us afore ever I've time ter so much as turn round."

"That woman," said the fat, shining man, as they moved away down the street, greasy with river-mist.—"Hang it all! where in the world are we to get a taxi?—Common-place little thing; a bit of a drag on him, I should think."

"Don't you believe it, my friend—that's the sort to give 'em—some'un who will sort of dry-nurse 'em—feed em—mind 'em. That's the wife for a genius. The only sort of wife—mark my word for it."