I suppose it was, in the end, me that drew the attention of Eleanor Marx, and led to that dinner invitation; for, though Flo had been in the heart of socialist politicking in London for years, her work was all of a toiling, thankless sort – writing letters, drumming up interest and membership in the thousand and one workers’ unions in the city – whereas my lecture series had made me, in an odd way, a face of the movement. It was a face that didn’t need much of a brain – I never wrote so much as a syllable of the speeches given me to recite, and, in fact, Florence wrote a number of them – but it was, nevertheless, my giving of one such speech that had caught Eleanor Marx’s attention.
I had not been told she would be in the audience, for which I was later grateful, for I shouldn’t have liked to contend with my nerves had I known she would be watching. Not that any size crowd could throw me, ordinarily; but Eleanor Marx I had confused in my head with Florence’s Lilian to such a great extent that I should have had the sensation that I was performing before Lilian herself, Florence’s dead, sainted almost-sweetheart. Things had been odd between Flo and me, ever since the socialist demonstration in the park that spring day. For though, on the one hand, we had ended the day with a firm commitment to one another, the shadowy ghosts of Kitty and Lilian both cast aside, still I could never quite forget what had passed shortly before I had sent Kitty away – how Flo had cried that I cared only for myself, that I knew and wished to know nothing of socialism or justice, and that Lilian should have been there that day, not me. I had had no answer for her, knowing it for truth, and that made it far worse. Flo might have said since that it was me, not Lilian, that she cared for now – but could anyone, least of all Florence Banner, care for a girl like me with the vision of a woman such as Lilian (selfless, wholly impassioned about socialist ideals, brilliant and generous and more beautiful every time I imagined her) always in the wings?
Over the months since the demonstration I had tried, here and there, to break into Florence’s socialist circle, but it was hard going. If it had not been for my pride, I suppose I might have learned some basic things easily enough, simply by asking Florence – but I didn’t want her to know just how fearfully little I understood of her world, nor how ardently I cared to learn. I wanted her to wake up some morning and realize with glad surprise how dazzlingly clever her sweetheart was, how noble and good and self-sacrificing, and she never noticing all the while! The last thing I wanted was to ask her, at long last, just what it was the SDF stood for, and the WTUL and the WLF besides. I gave speeches full of such acronyms, never knowing what they meant, stirring crowds to stomps and roars and feeling horribly, as Flo had said the day of the demonstration, like a parrot.
Yet it was one of my parroted speeches that Eleanor Marx had turned up for, and one of them that had caused her to strike up a correspondence with Mrs Macey and, finally, to accept an invitation to dinner at our own house on Quilter Street. I shall never forget the look of Flo as she opened the letter from Mrs. Macey – she was sitting before the fire, skimming and sorting the mail in a desultory sort of way, her glasses throwing winks of firelight around the room, and I was sitting on the floor before her, my head almost resting against her knee, idly playing solitaire on the rug as I waited for her to finish. Suddenly I heard a sharp intake of breath – I glanced up; Flo was staring at a letter in front of her quite in shock, her mouth slightly ajar, her face, despite the fire’s warmth, pale as clay. The firelight against her glasses made her gaze quite opaque to me; for a moment I had the uncanny sense of sitting, not by my sweetheart, but by a stone idol, its features fixed and frozen in a mask of astonishment. Then the letter slipped from her fingers; as I grasped after it, she spoke in hollow tones.
“Eleanor Marx is coming here – here! She’s to be in London in two weeks’ time, and wanted – wanted to meet the girl who spoke so eloquently at the lecture at the Athenaeum last month…”
At this she seemed, for a moment, to look at me almost accusingly; then she tilted her head a bit, and the light glaring off her glasses shifted, and she looked only stunned – and imploring. All bewildered myself – Eleanor Marx was coming here, and to see me? Florence herself had written that speech for me, and I had had to ask her if “statism” had a long or short A! -- I got up and stood behind her, careless of my feet creasing the cards and treading them into the carpet; Florence tilted her head back, a few curls standing out against the cushion, and looked so overwhelmed and piteous that I leaned in and kissed her, letting the fingers of my right hand drift against her cheek. Her lips were slack for a moment, then responded, moving against me so subtly and yet so familiarly I felt a quick flush of heat between my legs. The letter began to crinkle and grow damp in my left hand as my fingers worked restlessly against it.
Eleanor Marx, Florence’s great hero. Lilian, Florence’s great love… I pictured her sitting at our table, untidy and black-browed and beloved, and kissed Florence harder, till she was quite breathless, till she was mine, in this moment, mine…
Eventually the kiss broke. We stared at one another, wordless. Her face, that had been white, was quite pink now.
“Oh, Nance,” she whispered, “what are we to do?”
I laughed, putting on a jovial air, feeling as though a poker fresh from the brazier were lodged in my breast. “To do?” I said. “Why, serve her dinner, of course…”
And so we plunged into preparation, with barely two weeks to ready ourselves for a dinner and a meeting Florence must have dreamt of since she was in short skirts. We hadn’t a tenth as much space as we should have required to pack in all the socialist friends who would have liked to have attended the dinner; indeed, I was moved to wonder why on earth Eleanor Marx would wish to come to such a dreary area of town as we lived in, to eat a meal in a room with peeling plaster and tattered rugs; but then, for all I knew, the leveling of society might mean the abolishment of parlours such as Diana’s, done up with rich tapestries and Oriental carpets. I imagined Eleanor Marx living in a spartan warren of rooms where tottering bookshelves leaned against unpainted, unpapered plaster walls, their barren, undecorated sterility marked only here and there by union banners, with a dozen people crowded around a table the size of a chess board. Yet in my mind’s eye I couldn’t shake the image of a gaudy woven carpet under it all – Lilian’s rug, that she had made, and I had tended all unawares. I had given up tending it when I had learned its origin; now, learning that Eleanor Marx was to come, I had to force myself to beat the mud out of it once more, as the house kicked up into a frenzy of cleaning and clearing out and straightening and rearranging. I found it difficult to believe that Eleanor Marx wouldn’t come and nod at the rug, remembering when she had made it…
I felt it ironic that Eleanor Marx’s coming to dinner should require me, more than ever before, to step into the role of domestic help under which I’d first come to live here. I couldn’t bear the idea of facing her all ignorant and callow, especially if she sought to meet me in particular, expecting wisdom from me; but there was little time for studying, for reading the socialist texts crammed into the bookshelf (much of which I had read before, but that I thought I might understand better another time through) or for seeking out one Flo’s more sympathetic friends – Annie, perhaps – and imploring her to explain to me the principles of socialism and who or what the “proletariat” was. The rugs needed beating, the fixtures scouring, the plaster needed a new coat of paint. The menu I planned together with Florence, and we came almost to a quarrel over whether we might serve oysters or not; Florence not being sure whether Eleanor Marx was a vegetarian, and I entirely convinced from long experience that no oyster could rightly be classified as meat. “They’ve neither legs, nor arms, nor hearts, nor brains,” I cried -- and then winced, suddenly sure that Florence meant to accuse me of having neither heart nor brain myself, and yet my flesh was as meaty as anyone’s. The thought made me scowl, and then catch myself – even Florence wasn’t that cutting. Still, late that night, after she’d fallen asleep, I moved a curl very gently from one of her flushed cheeks, and placed a soft kiss on her temple; and then I went quietly downstairs and pulled the texts and tracts from the shelf once more, determined to give it another try. The letters chased themselves across the page, refusing to cohere into words, and the photo of Eleanor Marx seemed to be staring holes in the back of my head. Eventually I put the tracts away and went back upstairs, to lie by Florence’s side, staring grainy-eyed into the darkness.
The day of the dinner came as if blown in by a whirlwind, my heart beating triphammer all the morning and afternoon. Florence did nothing to calm my nerves, running up and down the stairs all day with the blood high in her cheeks, curls of her hair springing out in a halo around her head; so that, along with all my anxiety over the dinner, I had to fight back the impulse to take her flushed face in my hands and kiss her senseless. By noon we were side by side in the kitchen, I rolling oysters in flour and stewing them in cream, she attempting – against all my advice – some elaborate dish of thinly sliced potatoes layered, fried to a crisp in butter and finally baked into a sort of cake, which she was struggling to read off a recipe (increasingly curly-edged and illegible in the steam) that she had copied from a library book, and which I thought was as likely to turn out well as I was to turn out a society belle. Yet I hadn’t any energy to spare helping her, I was so fixated on what I should say to Eleanor Marx, and whether I should impress Florence. “Miss Marx,” I would murmur under my breath, my fingers prying open oysters as if on their own, “I wonder what you think of the ILP’s bent towards Christian socialism, and how it might affect their chances of shifting towards a more Fabian outlook…” It was a question someone had asked at my most recent lecture, and the author of my speech, who was taking questions, had seemed quite thrown. I hoped it would throw Eleanor Marx as well. I wanted it to throw her. Let her gaze on me with startlement – and let Florence be more than startled; let her be quite overcome, by the hitherto unseen depths in me, by my ability to converse with her idol, by my cleverness and dedication and passion, that she had once thought the sole province of her darling Miss Marx and (so far as they could be distinguished) her darling Lilian.
So I went through the day; and the oysters were done and bubbling in their pot, and the potatoes, that were meant to rise gracefully in a sort of dome, were leaning doubtfully to one side in the oven, and Florence was beside herself prodding at them with the fireplace tongs, trying to convince them to stand straight. I betook myself to the bedroom to get dressed, finding my shirt-waist and waistcoat and skirt – all women’s clothing, for Eleanor Marx might not have liked to see a woman in men’s clothing; I was sure Lilian should not. The only scrap of clothing that felt like it belonged to me was the blue necktie that Florence had admired on our first night out at the Boy in the Boat; I wore it, though it was made to a man’s pattern, because Florence thought me handsome in it, and handsome I must be before – or, rather, beside – Eleanor Marx. I didn’t care a whit whether Eleanor Marx should find me handsome or not – but I could never have borne for Florence to look from one of us to the other, and then let her gaze linger on Miss Marx rather than me…
Dinner drew near, and Florence had given up on her leaning potatoes in despair and had commandeered the bedroom to get ready in. I slunk downstairs to the bookshelf and began paging through the tracts frantically, then found myself pulling out Leaves of Grass, which I had never looked at since the night Florence told me Lilian’s story, and read me the parts Lilian had thought so beautiful, that I had mocked and sung to the tune of a music-hall number. O mater! O fils! O brood continental! – I hadn’t a grain of an idea more what was meant than I ever had had; nor, if I were being strictly truthful, a grain more of real interest.
The door-bell rang; and before I had half taken a step toward the door Florence had come barreling down the stairs, so fast I was afraid she should trip. Our eyes met across the room and I saw the same rising fever in her gaze that I felt in my own. An odd, familiar ghost of a feeling seemed to pass between us; it was almost like finding a new passion together, a thread of lust or of love unspooling between us, which we were discovering all new. For just that second I wanted to leave the door-bell ringer out in the cold, and to kiss and caress Florence until her knees weakened, until we sank down together in the stairwell…
Then Florence had moved to my side, and taken my hand, and clenched it tight. “I suppose we’d better answer it, then,” she said in a dry-sounding voice. I squeezed her hand, and together we went to the door.
But it wasn’t Eleanor Marx at the door, only Ruth and Nora. We welcomed them, and before they’d quite finished pinning themselves in against the wall – the table we had borrowed from Freemantle House, and it was far too big for the room – a couple of Ralph’s union friends were at the door. There were to be seven people to dinner in all, and all arrived promptly – all but Eleanor Marx. We let the dinner wait, the conversation growing listless and strained, everyone starting at the smallest noise from out in the street, lest it be Eleanor Marx arriving in her carriage. But the noises all faded away with no ring at the door-bell, and the cream sauce began to boil away from the oysters, and half the crust on the potatoes had fallen away and lay on the floor of the oven, and still we waited. Florence, her eyes dull and leaden, had just begun to say, “I suppose we had better –“ when there was a clatter of footsteps on the step, and the doorbell did ring.
Florence began to spring up, but I leapt to my own feet – I was closer to the door than she, and not so hemmed in – and said “No, let me.” I went to the door rehearsing my question in my head, as though I should greet her with it in place of a more conventional salutation: Miss Marx, I wonder what you think of the ILP’s bent towards Christian socialism…
But it wasn’t Eleanor Marx at the door – I knew her photograph far too well to think it. This was a smaller girl, slender and with hair the shade of cinnamon, and dressed commonly; I figured her for a maid. “Good evening,” I said automatically; then, as she seemed to hesitate, “Can I help you? We’re in the midst of a dinner at the moment –“
“No, ma’am – excuse me – that’s what I’ve to tell you, ma’am. Miss Marx – she won’t be coming…”
“Not coming!” I said stupidly, as though it hadn’t been perfectly obvious by now. Behind me, I heard Florence rise and step towards me. “Why, what has happened?”
“That’s just it, ma’am. Miss Marx is – is dead. She has – oh, Miss Marx has killed herself!"
“Well,” I said the next morning, after many terrible, sleepless hours had given way to a blank, exhausted morning, “perhaps it’s best to be a tom, after all…”
For we had learned, through a combination of socialist word-of-mouth and the morning paper, that Eleanor Marx had swallowed chloroform and prussic acid the day before, and died in her own bed and by her own hand; and that she had done it because she had learned of some dreadful betrayal on the part of her male lover, no one was sure quite what. Her story seemed to blend with Lilian’s even more now; and I thought of Lilian, dead in childbed, whom no doctor would see because her man had deserted her, and Eleanor Marx, who had killed herself to escape her man’s betrayal, and suddenly was quite grateful to be myself, and living a life quite free of bonds to any man.
Still, I probably shouldn’t have said what I said, about toms -- it was not the most sensitive remark, under the circumstances – and I glanced up at Flo anxiously. But she merely gave a short, rough laugh, and then propped her elbows on the table and leant her face in her hands. “Mmm,” she said, then raised her face and spoke out clearly. “Yes, perhaps it is best, indeed. Oh! Nance! to think of all the years I spent longing to meet her, thinking of her as – as the strongest of women, and the bravest and the most committed to our fight; and now to hear she’s done this – killed herself – over a man! When there is so much to be fought for, so many poor people who need so much, and when she is needed so badly…”
“I suppose,” I said uneasily – I had a sudden, unwelcome memory of how desperate I had been when Kitty had left me all those years ago, how I’d felt she’d quite killed me, and had toyed with the idea of finishing the job for her; after all, despite what I’d said earlier, being a tom didn’t protect you from that kind of despair, at all. I couldn’t find it in me to judge Eleanor Marx as harshly as Flo was now doing – but then, I had always understood selfishness rather better than Florence.
Just as I was thinking this, however, she gave a sigh. “And yet…” she said, and shook her head. “I remember – when Lilian died – how often I thought I couldn’t go on, how often I thought…” She shook her head again, harder, and her eyes had a bright, wet sheen. “Oh – it doesn’t matter now -- but, Nance – if something happened to you – if you were to go…”
“I shan’t go, not a step,” I said, and reached out for her hand. Her tears began to fall, hard and fast, and suddenly I realized this was the first time she’d really cried since the news came in. My heart began to thump faster; after all, after the news about Eleanor Marx, the memories of Lilian, she had only begun to cry when she thought of losing me…
“I’ll never leave you, Flo,” I said, quite firm and matter-of-fact – not a promise born of any storm of emotion, but a simple truth, obvious and essential as the air I breathed. Her hand contracted in mine, her low sobs like ground glass.
She cried herself out eventually, and I dug a handkerchief out of my skirt – we had not changed from what we had worn to the dinner table – for her to use. She turned away as she mopped her face, embarrassed as she always was of any show of strong emotion. I gazed at the photograph of Eleanor Marx tucked into the frame across the room; her gaze seemed different now, less challenging and penetrating, more veiled and secretive, yet somehow more vulnerable, too…
“Well,” Florence said finally, with a return to practicality, “I shall remember in future, I suppose, to remain dedicated to the work, not the workers. Socialism may be the work we have to do, but I needn’t set my passions on those who are devoted to it, simply because we have some beliefs, some dry priorities, in common – not when I have you to set my passions on instead…”
“Oh, Flo!” I burst out. “You say that – and all this time I’ve been trying to learn about socialism, and politics, and philosophy, and – and everything that Eleanor Marx and Lilian knew – so you wouldn’t tire of me, so you’d love me like you loved them –“
“What?” Florence said, startled. “You have? And why didn’t you tell me?”
“Oh, I didn’t want you to teach me – I wanted to learn about it myself, so you’d see, and you’d realize that I – that I can be clever, and good, and understand what it is you care about –“
“I did think that was what I wanted – it wasn’t fair, I wanted you to be you, just as you were, and yet – well –“
“To be me and Lilian, yes, I know. And I wanted to do it, I wanted to learn it all for you, but I’ve read those tracts a dozen times and I only half-understand them, and as for Leaves of Grass –“
I broke off, startled, as Florence began laughing. “Oh, Nancy,” she gasped, “I have tried to reread Leaves of Grass half a dozen times since the night I showed it to you, and every time I begin to be swept away by it I hear your voice, singing the words to that music-hall tune; and suddenly it seems entirely ridiculous.”
I stared, then laughed myself. “I didn’t mean to spoil it for you…”
“You haven’t spoiled it at all – or, at least, if it is spoiled, perhaps it was time. The fact is that I have, in the past, quite buried myself in my work, in my books, in my – oh, in a life of hopes and visions and goals pursued, and never stopped to listen to a music-hall tune, or savor a good meal, or – well, with Lilian I spent a year living on dreams and never once on a real tommish touch. You brought me out of my sad memories and dreams, you made me live now. Eleanor Marx and Lilian are both gone now, and I find I can live without them after all, and do my work with such others as care to work with me; but when I think of living without you everything goes gray…”
I stood up, and crossed to her, and took both her hands in mine. I let my gaze travel from her autumn-leaves hair, to her hazel eyes, wide and naked, to the few freckles scattered across her cheeks and down to the creamy skin of her throat. I knelt beside her, and pressed my lips to where the pulse beat in her neck, and felt it quicken under my mouth. I kissed her there once more, then stood up and took her by the hand.
“Come upstairs,” I said, “and let’s get a bit of sleep, at least; and later I’ll stew you some more oysters.”
The time for sentiment seemed to have passed, and an “I love you” should have sounded rather maudlin; but as she slipped her hand into mine and we began up the stairs, I thought perhaps she understood it in what I said just as well.