FILTHY LUCRE by Roland Goity
from The Rocking Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence
SHE WAS A BEAUTIFUL but bitter woman, burdened by her children and the failed prospects of her husband. People never noticed, saying of her, “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” But she and her children knew otherwise. They read it in each other’s eyes.
This woman and her husband had a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden out back, and servants at their beck and call. While they lived in style, they also lived beyond their means. Money troubles always seemed just around the corner.
Her husband away at his office, the mother said to herself: “I will see if I can’t make something.” But she didn’t know where to begin. She racked her brains and, over time, tried a number of things, never with any success. The failure brought deep lines into her face from worry. The children were now school-age, so the family needed more money. She and her husband had expensive tastes. They needed more money.
The house became haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! Even the children could hear what was never said aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when pricey, extravagant toys filled their nursery. Behind the shining rocking-horse or the fancy doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: There must be more money! There must be more money! And the children would stop playing, to listen. Each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”
The mantra whispered from the springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse until, even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it. The big doll, sitting so pink in her new pram, smirked too from hearing it. The puppy, as well, became foolish upon hearing the repeated words: “There must be more money!”
Again, it was never said aloud. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” despite the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
“Mother, when will we have our own car?” asked Paul, the boy, one day. “We always borrow Uncle’s or take a taxi.”
“Because, we’re the poor ones in the family.
“But why, Mother?”
“Well…because your father has no luck.”
Silence ensued before the boy asked timidly, “Is luck money, Mother.”
No, Paul. But it helps you get money.”
“Oh?” said Paul, confused.”Uncle Oscar calls filthy lucker, ‘money.’”
“Filthy lucre means money,” said the mother. “It’s lucre, not luck.”
“Then what is luck, Mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. It’s better to be born lucky than rich. Rich people can lose their money, but the lucky will always get more.”
“Is Father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky,” she said in disgust.
The boy remained confused. “Why?” he asked.
“God only knows.”
“What about you, Mother?”
“Not since I married an unlucky husband.”
“Well, I’m a lucky person. God, Himself, told me,” he said brazenly.
“Right,” his mother said.
The boy became upset that she didn’t believe him. He made way to the nursery, searching for luck. While his sisters played dolls, he climbed aboard the big rocking-horse, charging madly into space as the girls peered at him uneasily. Wildly, the horse thrust, the boy’s wavy hair was tossed and his eyes bore a strange glow. Upon riding to the end of his crazed little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse. He stared fixedly into its open red mouth, into its big wide eye which was glassy and bright.
“Now!” he would silently command the snorting steed. “Take me to where there is luck! And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for. The horse could take him to luck, but only if he forced it. So he would mount again and again and take furious rides.
“You’ll break your horse, Paul!” said the nurse.
“He always rides like that!” said his elder sister Joan.
But he only glared at them in silence.
One day his mother and his Uncle Oscar came in.
“Hello, you young jockey! Riding a winner?” said his uncle.
“Aren’t you growing too big for a rocking-horse? You’re no longer a little boy,” said his mother.
But Paul simply glared from his big, close-set eyes. He never spoke when at full tilt. Finally, he stopped the horse and got off. “Well, I got there!” he announced fiercely, blue eyes blazing, long legs straddling apart.
“Where did you get to?” asked his mother.
“Where I wanted to go,” he flared back.
“Don’t you stop til you get there,” said Uncle Oscar. “What’s the horse’s name?”
“Well, he has different names. Last week it was Sansovino.”
“Sansovino won the Ascot. How did you know the name?”
“He talks about horse races with Bassett,” said Joan.
Bassett, the young gardener, had gotten his job through Oscar. He’d been wounded in the foot during the war, but now was a perfect blade of the ‘turf.’ He lived for racing events.
So Oscar Cresswell went and got it all from Bassett.
“Master Paul comes and asks me. So I simply tell him, sir,” said Bassett, as serious as church.
“Does he put anything on a horse he fancies?”
“You might ask him that yourself, sir. I don’t want to give him away.
Uncle Oscar soon gave his nephew a ride out to his place in the country, in Hampshire. “Say, Paul, old sport, ever put money down a horse?” he asked, as they sped along.
“Why, do you think I shouldn’t?”
“Not a bit! Just thought perhaps you might offer a tip.”
“On your honor?”
“Honor bright, son!” said Uncle Oscar.
“Well, then, Daffodil.”
“Daffodil? No way, sonny. What about Mirza?”
“I only know winners,” the boy said. “That’s Daffodil.”
“Don’t tell Bassett.” Paul said. “I promised him.”
“What’s Bassett got to do with it?”
“We’re partners. Bassett lent me my first five shillings, which I lost. I promised him, honor bright, it was only between me and him. But then you gave me that ten-shilling note I started winning with, so I thought you were lucky. You won’t tell him, will you?”
Uncle Oscar agreed to keep things private. Then asked, “Where’s your three hundred?”
“Bassett keeps it for me. We’re partners.”
“How much is Bassett putting on Daffodil?”
“He won’t go quite as high as me, I expect. Perhaps a hundred and fifty.”
“What, pennies?” laughed the uncle.
“Pounds,” said the child, surprised. “Bassett keeps a bigger reserve than I do.”
Uncle Oscar was impressed. He quickly became determined to take Paul with him to the Lincoln races.
The child had never been to a racetrack before, and his eyes were blue fire. He pursed his mouth tight and watched as people strolled up to the ticket window and placed their bets. He queued up behind Uncle Oscar, who said: “Now, Paul. I’m putting twenty on Mirza, and I’ll put five on for you on any horse you fancy. What’s your pick?”
“No, not the fiver on Daffodil!”
“I should if it was my own fiver,” said Paul.
“Right you are, then! A fiver for me and a fiver for you on Daffodil.”
They gathered around the track. As the race began, a man in front, wild with excitement, flayed his arms up and down, yelling “Lancelot! Lancelot!” in a heavy French accent.
But Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third. In the excitement, Paul became flushed. His eyes again blazed, but he was curiously serene. His uncle brought him four five-pound notes, four to one.
“What am I to do with these?” he cried, waving them before the boy’s eyes.
“We’ll talk to Bassett,” said Paul. “I expect I have fifteen hundred now; and twenty in reserve; and this twenty.”
His uncle studied him.”Look here, son!” he said. “You’re not serious about Bassett and that fifteen hundred, are you?”
“Yes, I’m serious. If you’d like, you, Bassett and me, we could all be partners. Only, you’d have to promise, honor bright, uncle, not to let it go beyond us three. Bassett and I are lucky, and you must be lucky, because it was your ten shillings I started winning with …”
Uncle Oscar took both Bassett and Paul into Richmond Park for an afternoon.
“It’s like this, you see, sir,” Bassett said. “Master Paul would get me spinning yarns about the races, always keen on knowing if I’d made or if I’d lost. About a year ago I put five shillings on Blush of Dawn for him: and we lost. Then the luck turned, with your ten shillings that we put on Sinhalese. It’s been steady going since then, eh Master Paul?”
“We’re all right when we’re sure,” said Paul. “It’s when we’re not quite sure that we go down.”
“When are you sure?” smiled Uncle Oscar.
“It’s Master Paul, sir,” Basset whispered. “It’s as if he had it from heaven. Like Daffodil, now, for the Lincoln. That was as sure as eggs.”
“Did you put anything on Daffodil?” asked Uncle Oscar.
“Yes, sir, I made my bit.”
“And my nephew?”
Bassett looked at Paul.
“I made twelve hundred on Daffodil, didn’t I, Bassett?”
“That’s right,” said Bassett, nodding.
“But where’s the money?” asked the uncle.
“I keep it locked away, sir, fifteen hundred pounds. Master Paul can have it whenever he’d like. If Master Paul offers you to be partners, sir, I would, if I were you,” said Bassett.
“It’s amazing!” Uncle Oscar said. “Can I see the money?”
They drove home. Soon Bassett came round to the garden-house with fifteen hundred pounds in notes.
“You see, it’s all right, uncle, when I’m sure!”
“What makes you so sure, sonny, like about Daffodil?”
“I’m sure, you know, uncle; that’s all,” Paul said uneasily.
“It’s as if he had it from heaven, sir,” Bassett reiterated.
“I should say!” said Uncle Oscar.
Uncle Oscar became a partner. And when they all returned to the track Paul was “sure” about Lively Spark, a rather inconsiderable horse. The boy insisted on putting a thousand down, Bassett went for five hundred, and Uncle Oscar two hundred. Lively Spark came in first. The betting had been ten to one against; Paul had made ten thousand.
“You see,” the boy said. “I was absolutely sure of him.”
“Look here, son,” Oscar said, “this sort of thing makes me nervous. What do you plan to do with the money?”
“I started it for mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop whispering.”
“What might stop whispering?”
“Our house. I hate our house for whispering.”
“What does it whisper?”
“Why, how it’s always short of money. You know people send mother writs, don’t you, uncle?”
“I’m afraid I do,” Oscar said.
“And then the house whispers, like people laughing at you behind your back. So I thought, if I was lucky…” The boy’s blue eyes grew cold. “I shouldn’t like mother to know I was lucky.”
His mother went into town nearly every day. She had a special knack for sketching furs and dress materials, and worked secretly in the studio of an artist friend who worked for the leading drapers. She drew the figures of ladies in furs and ladies in silk and sequins for the newspaper advertisements. This young woman artist earned several thousand pounds a year, but Paul’s mother only made several hundred. She so wanted to be successful in something, but couldn’t manage it, even in making sketches for drapery advertisements.
Uncle Oscar promised she wouldn’t find out. They managed it very easily. Paul handed over five thousand pounds to his uncle, who deposited it with the family lawyer, who was then to inform Paul’s mother that a relative had put five thousand pounds into his hands. The sum was to be paid out a thousand pounds at a time, on the mother’s birthday, for the next five years.
Paul’s mother had her birthday in November. The house had been “whispering” worse than ever. In spite of his luck, Paul could not bear up against it. He was very anxious to see the effect of the birthday letter, telling his mother about the thousand pounds.
She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her face as she read the morning mail. When she read the lawyer’s letter, his mother’s face hardened around the mouth and became expressionless. She hid the letter under the pile of others, said not a word about it.
“Any nice letters for your birthday, Mother?” said Paul.
“Moderately nice,” she said in an absent voice, and soon went to town without saying more.
In the afternoon Uncle Oscar appeared. He said Paul’s mother had a long interview with the lawyer, asking if the whole five thousand could not be advanced at once, as she was in debt.
“What do you think?” said the boy.
“I’ll leave it to you, son.”
Paul decided to let her have her wish, saying, “I’m sure to know for the Grand National; or the Lincolnshire; or else the Derby. I’m sure to know for one of them.”
So Uncle Oscar signed the agreement, and Paul’s mother touched the whole five thousand. But the voices in the house suddenly went mad, from behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushion they trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, n-n-now! There must be more money!”
It frightened Paul. While he studied Latin and Greek with his tutor, his most intent hours were spent with Bassett. The Grand National had gone by: he had not “known,” and lost a hundred pounds. Summer had come and he’d been in agony for the Lincoln. But even for that he didn’t “know,” and lost fifty pounds. He became wild-eyed, combustible. His uncle tried calming him, to no avail.
“I’ve got to know for the Derby! I’ve got to know for the Derby!” Paul reiterated.
“You’d better go to the seaside. Wouldn’t you like to go now to the seaside? I think you’d better,” his mother said, gazing down with an anxious look.
But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes. “I couldn’t possibly go before the Derby, Mother!”
“Why not?” she said, her voice heavy when opposed. “Why not? You can still go from the seaside to see the Derby with your Uncle Oscar, if you wish. But I think you care too much about these races. It’s a bad sign. My family has been a gambling family, and much damage it has done. Maybe I shall have to send Bassett away, and ask Uncle Oscar not to talk racing with you. Go on to the seaside and forget it. You’re all nerves!”
“I’ll do what you like, mother, just don’t send me away till after the Derby,” Paul said.
“Send you away from where? This house? Why, you curious child, I never knew you loved this house so much.”
The boy gazed at her without speaking. He had a secret within a secret, something he had not divulged, even to Bassett or to his Uncle Oscar.
“Very well, then! Don’t go to the seaside till after the Derby. But promise me you won’t think so much about these horse-racing events!”
“Oh no,” said Paul casually. “You needn’t worry.”
“If you were me and I were you,” said his mother, “I wonder what we should do!”
“But you know you needn’t worry, mother,” the boy repeated.
Paul’s secret of secrets was his wooden horse. Since Paul’s emancipation from the governess, his rocking-horse had been removed from the nursery to his own bedroom at the top of the house.
“Surely you’re too big for a rocking-horse!” his mother had remonstrated.
“Well, Mother, this one will have to do until the day I have a real horse,” had been his quaint answer. And the horse, rather shabby, stood in an arrested prance in his bedroom.
As the Derby drew near, Paul grew more and more tense. He hardly heard what was spoken to him, and always appeared very frail. His mother worried over him, wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe.
Two nights before the Derby, she was at a big party in town when a surge of anxiety about her boy, her first-born, gripped her heart till she could hardly speak. She left the dance to go downstairs to the telephone. She rang the children’s nursery-governess.
“Are the children all right, Miss Wilmot?”
“Master Paul? Is he alright?”
“He went to bed as right as a trivet,” said the governess. “Shall I check on him?”
“No,” said Paul’s mother. “Don’t trouble. We shall be home fairly soon.”
It was about one o’clock when Paul’s mother and father drove up. All was still; they’d told the help not to wait up. Paul’s mother went to her room and slipped off her white fur cloak. She could hear her husband downstairs, mixing a whisky and soda.
And then, because of the strange anxiety at her heart, she stole upstairs to her son’s room. Quietly she went along the upper corridor. Was there a faint noise? What was it?
She stood, with arrested muscles, outside his door, listening. The strange noise stilled her heart. It was nearly soundless yet powerful, violent, a hushed motion. What was it? What in God’s name was it? She knew the noise, but couldn’t place it. On and on it went, like a madness.
Softly, she turned the door-handle. The room was dark. Yet near the window, something plunged to and fro. She gazed in fear before suddenly switching on the light. There was her son, in his green pajamas, madly surging on the rocking-horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as he urged the wooden horse.
Paul’s blonde mother stood in the doorway, illuminated in her dress of pale green and crystal “Paul!” she cried. “Whatever are you doing?”
“It’s Malabar!” he screamed in a ghoulish voice. “It’s Malabar!” His eyes blazed for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. Then he fell to the ground with a crash.
His mother rushed over, but he was overcome with some brain-fever. He talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side.
“Malabar! It’s Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It’s Malabar!” the child cried, trying to rise up and again urge the rocking-horse.
Paul’s fever persisted.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” asked the boy’s mother.
“I don’t know,” said the father barely above a whisper.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” she asked her brother Oscar.
“It’s one of the horses running for the Derby.”
And, in spite of himself, Oscar Cresswell spoke to Bassett, who would put a thousand on Malabar: at fourteen to one.
The third day of the illness was critical: the boy, with his long, curly hair, tossed ceaselessly on the pillow. He neither slept nor regained full consciousness, and his eyes were like sapphires. His mother sat bedside, feeling as if her heart had turned to stone.
That evening, Uncle Oscar did not come, but Bassett sent a message, asking if he could come up for just one moment. Paul’s mother was at first angered by the request, but her son remained in the same condition. Perhaps Bassett might bring him to consciousness.
The shortish Bassett, with his little brown moustache and sharp brown eyes, tiptoed into the room, and touched his imaginary cap to Paul’s mother. He stole to the bedside, and gazed upon the writhing, dying child.
“Master Paul!” he whispered. “Master Paul! Malabar came in first all right, a clean win. I did as you told me. You’ve made over seventy thousand pounds, you have; you’ve got over eighty thousand. Malabar came in all right, Master Paul.”
“Malabar! Malabar! Did I say Malabar, Mother? Did I say Malabar? Do you think I’m lucky, Mother? I knew Malabar, didn’t I? Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn’t I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. If I ride my horse till I’m sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for all you were worth, Bassett?”
“I went a thousand on it, Master Paul.”
“You see, Mother, if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure—oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!”
“No, you never did,” she said.
The boy died in the night. But even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother’s voice say to her, “My God, Hester, you’re eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, he’s best gone from a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
ROLAND GOITY edits fiction for the online journal LITnIMAGE. Along with John Ottey, he edited EXPERIENCED: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction, and is currently editing JOBBED: Tales of Fact & Fiction from the Workplace.