Old People and the Things that Pass/Chapter VIII

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CHAPTER VIII[edit]

LOT PAUWS was sitting in his room, writing, when he heard the voices of his mother and of her husband, Steyn, below. Mamma Ottilie's voice sounded shrill, in steadily rising anger; and Steyn's calm, indifferent bass voice boomed with short, jerky sentences and egged on Mamma's words till she stuttered them out and almost choked in the panting effort.

Lot put down his pen with a sigh and went downstairs. He saw the old servant-maid listening eagerly at the kitchen-door, but she disappeared when she heard Lot's footstep on the stair.

Lot entered the room:

"What's the matter?"

"What's the matter? What's the matter? I'll tell you what's the matter: I was a fool when I married, I was a fool to bring my property into settlement. If I hadn't, I could have done as I pleased! Aren't they my children, my own children? If they want money, can't I send it to them? Must they starve, while he ... while he ..."

She pointed to Steyn.

"Well, what?" said Steyn, challenging her.

"While he blews my money on women, his everlasting, low women ..."

"I say, Mamma!"

"Well, it's true!"

"Hush, Mamma, for shame: don't talk like that I What's it. all about, Steyn?"

"Mamma has had a letter from London."

"From the Trevelleys?"

"From Hugh. He asks for money."

"And can't I send my son money if I want to?" cried Mamma to Lot. "Isn't Hugh my child, isn't he my son? It's bad enough of you to object to my seeing much of them, but am I to break with them altogether? If Hugh is without an appointment for the moment, can't I send him some money? Isn't it my money? Steyn has his money, his pension. I don't ask him for his money!"

"Look here, Lot," said Steyn. "Mamma can do as she likes, of course. But there is hardly enough as you know, for our regular expenses. If Mamma goes and sends Hugh fifty pounds, I don't know how we shall manage. That's all; and for the rest I don't care what Mamma says."

"You blew my money on low women, for you're low yourself and always have been!"

"Mamma, stop that! And be quiet. I can't stand quarrelling and scolding. Be quiet. Be quiet, Mamma. Let me see Hugh's letter."

"No, I sha'n't let you see it either! What do you imagine? I'm not accountable to my son! Are you also siding with that brute against your mother? You'd both of you like me to break with my own children, my own flesh and blood, my darlings, my d-dar-lings, because it suits your book! When do I see them? When? Tell me, when? Mary, John, Hugh: when do I see Hugh? Suppose I was mistaken in their father, aren't they my own children, just as much as you and Ottilie? I can't let my boy starve!"

"I know quite well that Hugh abuses your kind' ness, your weakness ... not to speak of the two others."

"That's right, don't you speak of them! Just break with your brothers and sisters! Just think that there's nobody in the world but yourself and that your mother has no one but you; and go and get married and leave your mother alone with that fellow, that low fellow, who sneaks out at night to his women! Because he's still young! Because he's so young and his wife is old! But, if he has to go to his women and if you get married, I promise you I won't stay in the house alone and I swear I'll go to Hugh. My own dear boy, my d-dar-lmg: when do I see him? When do I see him? I haven't seen him for a year!"

"Please, Mamma, keep calm and don't scream so. Talk quietly. You make me so dreadfully tired with that screaming and quarrelling and scolding: I can't stand it ... I won't ask you to show me Hugh's letter. But Steyn is right; and, from what I know of our present financial position, it would be folly to send six hundred guilders to Hugh, who never has more than some vague 'appointment' in the City. You can't do it."

"Yes, I can, selfish brute that you are! What do you know about your mother's money? I always have money when I want it!"

"Yes, I know: you lose it and then you find it again in your cupboard...."

"And, though I don't find it in my cupboard this time and if Steyn keeps the money locked up, I shall just go to the bank and ask for it and they won't refuse me. And I'll have it sent by the bank. There, you see, I can do it, grasping, selfish brutes that you both are! I'll put on my hat and go. I'll go at once, I'll go to the bank; and Hugh ... Hugh shall have his money to-morrow or next day, any day. I should do it for you, Lot, or for Ottilie; and I shall do it for Hugh. I am his mother and I shall do it: I shall, I shall, so there!"

She stammered and choked with rage; and a prick of jealousy, because Lot had defended Steyn and because Steyn cared more for Lot than for her, drove into the flesh of her heart and caused her such suffering that she no longer knew what she was saying and felt like boxing Lot's ears and felt that ... that she could have murdered Steyn! And she flounced out of the room, pale with passion, knocking against the furniture, slamming the door, and rushed upstairs. She could have sobbed with that pricking pain.... Steyn and Lot heard her moving and stamping overhead, putting on her things and talking to herself and scolding, scolding, scolding.

Steyn's hard features, rough but handsome under his beard, were suddenly twisted to softness by a spasm of despair.

"Lot, my dear fellow," he said, "I've stood this for nearly twenty years."

"Now then, Steyn!"

"For nearly twenty years. Screaming, scolding, wrangling.... She's your mother. We won't say any more about it."

"Steyn, she's my mother and I'm fond of her, in spite of everything; but you know I feel how you must suffer."

"Suffer? I don't know. A chap gets dulled. But I do think sometimes that I've thrown away my life in a most wretched way. And who's benefited by it? Not even she."

"Try to look upon her as a child, as a tempersome, spoilt child. Be nice to her, once in a way. A kind word, a caress: that's what she needs. She's a woman who lives on petting. Poor Mamma: I know nobody who needs it as she does. She leans up against me sometimes, while I stroke her. Then she's happy. If I give her a kiss, she's happy. If I tell her she's got a soft skin, she's happy. She is a child. Try to look upon her as that; and be nice to her, just once or twice."

"I can't, any longer. I was mad on her, madly in love with her, at one time. If she hadn't always quarrelled and been so impossibly unreasonable, we could still be living together amicably. Though she is older than I, we could still have got on. But she's impossible. You see it as well as I do. There's no money; and, because she doesn't discover any in her cupboard this time, she simply goes and draws it from the bank to send to Hugh. It's those letters from the Trevelleys which cause scenes at regular intervals. They bleed her in turns; and the shabbiest part of it, you know, is that the father's at the back of it."

"Is that quite certain?"

"Yes. Trevelley's always at the back of it. He influences those children. We are getting into debt for Trevelley's sake.... Lot, I've often thought of getting a divorce. I wouldn't do it, because Mamma has been twice divorced already. But I sometimes ask myself, am I not throwing away my life for nothing? What good am I to her or she to me? We are staying together for nothing, for things that are past, for a passion that is past: one moment of mad, insensate blindness, of not knowing or caring, of just wanting.... For things that are past I have been throwing away my life, day after day, for twenty years on end. I am a simple enough chap, but I used to enjoy my life, I enjoyed the service ... and I have taken a dislike to everything and go on wasting my life day after day ... For something that is quite past I ..."

"Steyn, you know I appreciate what you do. And you're doing it purely for Mamma's sake. But, you know, I have often said to you, go your own way. Barren sacrifices make no appeal to me. If you think you will still find something in life by leaving Mamma, then do so."

But Steyn seemed to have recovered his indifference:

"No, my boy, what's spoilt is spoilt. Twenty years wear out a man's energy to make something more of his life. I felt at the time that I oughn't to desert Mamma, when she was left all alone, not wholly through my fault, perhaps, but still very much so. To leave her now, when she is an old woman, would be the act of a cad: I can't do it. I take that line not as a barren sacrifice, but because I can't help it. I don't allow my life to be made a hell of. I go my own way when I want to, though Mamma exaggerates when she pretends that I go to a woman at night."

"Mamma is naturally jealous and she's still jealous of you."

"And she's jealous of you. She's an unhappy woman; and the older she grows the unhappier she will be. She's one of those people who ought never to grow old.... Come along, Jack, we're going for a walk.... But, Lot, if Mamma goes on like this, we shall have to have her property administered for her. There's nothing else for it."

Lot gave a start: he pictured Mamma with her property transferred to an administrator; and yet Steyn was right. He thought that he had better have a quiet talk with Mamma. For the moment, there was nothing to be done: Mamma was exasperated, was behaving like a lunatic and would send Hugh the fifty pounds.

Lot went back to his room and tried to resume his work. He was writing an essay On Art, proving that art was entertainment and the artist an entertainer. He did not know whether he agreed with everything that he was saying, but that didn't matter and was of no importance. It was a subject to fill a few brilliant pages, written with all his talent for words; and it would catch the public, it would be read: it would rouse indignation on the one side and a smile on the other, because there really might be a good deal in it and because Charles Pauws might be right in what he said. He lovingly fashioned his sentences out of beautiful words, making them seem convincing through their brilliancy.... But in between the sentences he thought of poor Mamma and suddenly found that he could not go on writing. He pitied her. He felt for Steyn, but he pitied poor Mamma.... He rose and paced his room, which was full of spoils of Italy: a few bronzes, a number of photographs after the Italian masters. A good fellow, Steyn, to let him have this room next to Mamma's and to go up to the top floor himself. But he pitied his mother, who was such a child. She had always been a child: she could not help being and remaining a child. She had been so very pretty and so seductive: a little doll always; and he remembered, when he was already a boy of seventeen, how perfectly charming Mamma used to look: so young, so extraordinarily young, with that adorable little face, those blue childlike eyes and that perfect, plump figure. She was thirty-eight then, without a sign of age; she was a pretty woman in the full bloom of her attractiveness. He had no need to look at Mamma's photographs as she was in those days and earlier: he remembered her like that; he remembered her looking like a young girl in a low, creamy-white lace dress, which she did not even take the trouble to put on very neatly, looking above all things charming, so intensely charming; he remembered her in a brown-cloth frock trimmed with astrakhan, with a little astrakhan cap on her frizzy hair, skating with him on the ice, so lightly and gracefully that people believed her to be his sister. ... Poor Mamma, growing old now! And yet she still looked very nice, but she was growing old; and she had nothing—he was sure of this—she had nothing but her faculty for love. She had five children, but she was not a mother: Lot laughed and shook his head at the thought. He had educated himself; Ottilie had very early become aware of her great talent and her beautiful voice and had also educated herself; the Trevelleys had run more wild. ... No, Mamma was not a mother, was not a woman of domestic tastes, was not even a woman of the world: Mamma had nothing but her faculty for love. She needed love, probably no longer needed passion, but still needed love; and what she needed most, needed mortally, was petting, like a child. And nobody petted her more than he did, because he knew that Mamma was mad on petting. She had once safd to him, pointing to a photograph of his half-brother Hugh Trevelley, a good-looking lad turned twenty:

"Lot, it's eight months since I had a kiss from him!"

And he had seen something in Mamma as though she were craving for Hugh's kiss, though he sometimes treated her so roughly and cavalierly. Of course, this was also a motherly feeling on Mamma's part, but it was perhaps even more a need to have this lad, who was her son, caress her, caress her sweetly.... And were they to put her under any kind of restraint? Perhaps it would have to come! It would be perfectly horrid: that dear Mummy! But she was so silly sometimes! So stupid! Such a child, for such an old woman! ... Oh, it was terrible, that growing old and older and yet remaining what you were! How little life taught you! How little it formed you! It left you as you were and merely wore off your sharp and attractive irregularities! ... Poor Mamma, her life was made up of nothing but things that were past ... and especially things of love! ... Aunt Stefanie spoke of hysteria; and a great streak of sensual passion had run through the family; but it did not come from the Derckszes, as Aunt Stefanie pretended: it came from Grandmamma herself. He had always heard that, like his mother, she too had been a woman of passion. People talked of all sorts of adventures which she had had in India, until she met Takma. There was a kind of curse on their family, a curse of unhappy marriages. Both of Grandmamma's marriages had turned out unhappily: General de Laders appeared to have been a brute, however much Aunt Stefanie might defend her father. With Grandpapa Dercksz, so people said, Grandmamma was exceedingly unhappy: the adventures dated back to that time. Grandpapa Dercksz was drowned by falling at night into the swollen river behind a pasangrahan in the Tegal mountains. Lot remembered how that had always been talked about, how the rumours had persisted for years. The story, which dated sixty years back, ran that Grandpapa Dercksz had shown kindness to a woman in the kampong and that he was stabbed by a Javanese out of jealousy. It was mere gossip: Dr. Roelofsz said that it was mere gossip....: A curse of unhappy marriages.... Uncle Anton had never been married; but in him the streak of passion developed into a broad vein of hysteria. ... Uncle Harold, human but inscrutable, had been unhappy with his freule, who was too Dutch for an Indian planter.... Uncle Daan, in India—they were on their way to Holland at this moment—was to outward appearances not unhappy with a far too Indian wife, Aunt Floor: they were now old and staid and sedate, but there was a time when the fatal streak had run through both of them, developing in Aunt—a Dillenhof, belonging to Grandmamma's family—into the vein, the broad vein. Well, that was all past: they were old people now.... Aunt Thérèse van der Staff had become a Catholic, after an unhappy marriage; they said that Theo, her son, was not the son of her husband.... And his own poor mother, thrice married and thrice unhappily!

He had never looked at it like this before, throughout and down the generations, but, when he did, it was terrible: a sort of clinging to the social law—of marriage—which was suited to none of those temperaments. Why had they married? They were all old people now, but ... if they had been young now, with modern views, would they have married? Would they have married? Their blood, often heated to the point of hysteria, could never have endured that constraint. They had found the momentary counterparts of their passion, for not one of them—with the exception perhaps of Uncle Harold—had married for other than passionate reasons; but, as soon as the constraint of marriage oppressed them, they had felt their fate, the social law which they had always honoured, thoughtlessly and instinctively, and which did not suit them; they had felt their family curse of being married and unhappy.... And he himself, why was he getting married? He suddenly asked himself the question, seriously, as he had once asked his mother in jest. Why was he getting married? Was he a man for marriage? Did he not know himself only too well? Cynical towards himself, he saw himself as he was and was fully aware of his own egotism. He knew all his little vanities, of personal appearance, of a fine literary style.... He smiled: he was not a bad sort, there were worse than he; but, in Heaven's name, why was he getting married? Why had he proposed to Elly? ... And yet he felt happy; and, now that he was seriously asking himself why he was getting married, he felt very seriously that he was fond of Elly, perhaps fonder than he himself knew. But—the thought was irrepressible—why get married? Would he escape the family curse? Wasn't Ottilie at Nice really right, Ottilie who refused to marry and who lived unbound with her Italian officer—she herself had written to tell him so—until they should cease to love each other? Was the streak continued in her or .... was she right and he wrong? Was she, his sister, a woman, stronger in her views of life than he, a man? ... Why, why get married? Couldn't he say to Elly, who was so sensible, that he preferred to live unbound with her?..... No, it was not feasible: there remained, however little it might count with them, the question of social consideration; there was her grandfather; there were people and things, conventions, difficulties. No, he could not put it to Elly; and yet she would have understood it all right.... So there was nothing for it but to get married in the ordinary way and to hope—because they loved each other so thoroughly and not only out of passion—that the curse would not force its fate upon them, the yoke of an unhappy marriage....

Those people, those uncles and aunts, had been unhappy, in their marriages. They were now growing old; those things of other days were now all passing.... They were passing.... Would they come to him, who was still young? Must they come around him, now that he was growing older? Oh, to grow older, to grow old! Oh, the terrible nightmare of growing old, of seeing the wintry-grey vistas opening before him! To be humbled in his conceit with his appearance did not mean so very much; to be humbled in his conceit with his literary gifts hurt more; but to be humbled in his whole physical and moral existence: that was the horror, the nightmare! Not humbled all at once, but slowly undergoing the decay of his young and vigorous body, the withering of his intelligence and his soul.... Oh, to grow as old as Grandmamma and as Grandpapa Takma: how awful! And those were people who had lived for their ninety years and more. An atom of emotion still seemed to be wafted between the two of them, an atom of memory. Who could tell? Perhaps they still talked ... about the past.... But to grow so old as that: ninety-seven I Oh, no, no, not so old as that: let him die before he decayed, before he withered! He felt himself turn cold with dread at the thought and he trembled, now that he realized so powerfully the possibility of growing as old as that: ninety-seven! ... O God, O God, no, no! ... Let him die young, let it be over, in his case, while he was still young! He was no pessimist, he loved life: life was beautiful, life was radiant; there were so many beautiful things in art, in Italy, in his own intellect: in his own soul even, at present, that emotion for Elly. But he loved young and vigorous life and did not want decay and withering. Oh, for vigour, vigour always, youth always! To die young, to die young! He implored it of That which he accepted as God, that Light, that Secret, which perhaps, however, would not listen from out of Its unfathomable depths of might to a prayer from him, so small, so selfish, so unmanly, so cowardly, so vain, so incredibly vain! Oh, did he not know himself? Did he pretend not to see himself as he was? Could he help seeing himself as he was?

He paced his room and did not hear the door open.

"And the fifty pounds is in the post!"

He started. His mother stood before him, looking like a little fury: her blue eyes blazed like those of a little demon and her mouth was wide open like a naughty child's.

"Oh! ..... Mamma!

"Lot! ... What's the matter with you?"

"With me? ... Nothing...."

"Oh, my boy, my boy, what's the matter with you?"

He was shivering as in a fever. He was quite pale. He tried to master himself, to be manly, plucky and brave. A dark terror overwhelmed him. Everything went black before his eyes.

"My dear, my dear ... what is it?"

She had thrown her arm round him and now drew him to the sofa.

"Oh, Mamma! ... To grow old! To grow old!"

"Hush, darling, be still!"

She stroked his head as it lay on her shoulder. She knew him like that: it was his disease, his weakness; it returned periodically and he would lie against her thus, moaning at the thought of growing old, of growing old.... Ah, well, it was his disease, his weakness; she knew all about it; and she became very calm, as she would have done if he had been feverish. She fondled him, stroked his hair with regular strokes, trying not to disorder it. She kissed him repeatedly. She felt a glow of content because she was petting him; her motherly attitude was bound to calm him.

"Hush, darling, be still!"

He did keep still for a moment.

"Do you really think it so terribb ... to grow old ... perhaps ... later on?" asked Ottilie, melancholy in spite of herself.

"Yes...."

"I didn't think it pleasant either. But you ...., you are so young still!"

He was already regaining his self-control and feeling ashamed of himself. He was a child, like his mother, an ailing, feeble, hysterical child at times. That was his hysteria, that dread of old age. And he was looking for consolation to his mother, who was not a mother! ...

No, he regained his self-control, was ashamed of himself:

"Oh, yes ... I'm young still!" he made an effort to say, indifferently.

"And you're going to be married: your life is only just beginning ..."

"Because I'm getting married?"

"Yes, because you're getting married. If only you are happy, dear, and not ... not as your mother ..."

He gave a little start, but smiled. He regained his self-control now and at the same time regained his control over his mother, to whom he had looked for a moment for consolation and who had always petted him. And he fondled her in his turn and gave her a fervent kiss:

"Poor little creatures that we are!" he said. "We sometimes act and think so strangely! We are very ill and very old ..... even though we are still young.... Mamma, I must have a serious talk with you some day ... serious, you know. Not now, another time: I must get on now with my work. Leave me to myself now and be calm ... and good. Really, I'm all right again. ... And don't you go on behaving like a little fury!"

She laughed inwardly, with mischievous delight:

"I've sent off the fifty pounds for all that!" she said, from behind the open door.

And she was gone.

He shook his head:

"I am sorry for her!" he thought, analysing his emotions. "And ... for myself! Even more for myself. We poor, poor creatures! We ought all to be placed under restraint ... but whose? Come, the best thing is to get to work and to keep working, strenuously, always....."