Genius by Elinor
(From Hutchinson's Magazine and
The Century Magazine)
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
A dim white-gloved hand was thrust through it and took her
“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
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
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
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
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
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 Pathetique 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
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
“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.”
“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.”
“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
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.
“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.
“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
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,
“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
“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'
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.
“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
“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.”