The funeral was over. The carriages rolled away through the soft mud, and only the poor remained. They approached to the newly-dug shaft and looked their last at the coffin, now almost hidden beneath the spadefuls of clay. It was their moment. Most of them were women from the dead woman's district, to whom black garments had been served out by Mr. Wilcox's orders. Pure curiosity had brought others. They thrilled with the excitement of a death, and of a rapid death, and stood in groups or moved between the graves, like drops of ink. The son of one of them, a wood-cutter, was perched high above their heads, pollarding one of the churchyard elms. From where he sat he could see the village of Hilton, strung upon the North Road, with its accreting suburbs; the sunset beyond, scarlet and orange, winking at him beneath brows of grey; the church; the plantations; and behind him an unspoilt country of fields and farms. But he, too, was rolling the event luxuriously in his mouth. He tried to tell his mother down below all that he had felt when he saw the coffin approaching: how he could not leave his work, and yet did not like to go on with it; how he had almost slipped out of the tree, he was so upset; the rooks had cawed, and no wonder--it was as if rooks knew too. His mother claimed the prophetic power herself--she had seen a strange look about Mrs. Wilcox for some time. London had done the mischief, said others. She had been a kind lady; her grandmother had been kind, too--a plainer person, but very kind. Ah, the old sort was dying out! Mr. Wilcox, he was a kind gentleman. They advanced to the topic again and again, dully, but with exaltation. The funeral of a rich person was to them what the funeral of Alcestis or Ophelia is to the educated. It was Art; though remote from life, it enhanced life's values, and they witnessed it avidly.
The grave-diggers, who had kept up an undercurrent of disapproval--they disliked Charles; it was not a moment to speak of such things, but they did not like Charles Wilcox--the grave-diggers finished their work and piled up the wreaths and crosses above it. The sun set over Hilton: the grey brows of the evening flushed a little, and were cleft with one scarlet frown. Chattering sadly to each other, the mourners passed through the lych-gate and traversed the chestnut avenues that led down to the village. The young wood-cutter stayed a little longer, poised above the silence and swaying rhythmically. At last the bough fell beneath his saw. With a grunt, he descended, his thoughts dwelling no longer on death, but on love, for he was mating. He stopped as he passed the new grave; a sheaf of tawny chrysanthemums had caught his eye. "They didn't ought to have coloured flowers at buryings," he reflected. Trudging on a few steps, he stopped again, looked furtively at the dusk, turned back, wrenched a chrysanthemum from the sheaf, and hid it in his pocket.
After him came silence absolute. The cottage that abutted on the churchyard was empty, and no other house stood near. Hour after hour the scene of the interment remained without an eye to witness it. Clouds drifted over it from the west; or the church may have been a ship, high-prowed, steering with all its company towards infinity. Towards morning the air grew colder, the sky clearer, the surface of the earth hard and sparkling above the prostrate dead. The wood-cutter, returning after a night of joy, reflected: "They lilies, they chrysants; it's a pity I didn't take them all."
Up at Howards End they were attempting breakfast.
Charles and Evie sat in the dining-room, with Mrs. Charles.
Their father, who could not bear to see a face, breakfasted upstairs. He suffered acutely. Pain came over him in spasms, as if it was physical, and even while he was about to eat, his eyes would fill with tears, and he would lay down the morsel untasted.
He remembered his wife's even goodness during thirty years. Not anything in detail--not courtship or early raptures--but just the unvarying virtue, that seemed to him a woman's noblest quality. So many women are capricious, breaking into odd flaws of passion or frivolity. Not so his wife. Year after year, summer and winter, as bride and mother, she had been the same, he had always trusted her.
Her tenderness! Her innocence! The wonderful innocence that was hers by the gift of God. Ruth knew no more of worldly wickedness and wisdom than did the flowers in her garden, or the grass in her field. Her idea of business--"Henry, why do people who have enough money try to get more money?" Her idea of politics--"I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars." Her idea of religion--ah, this had been a cloud, but a cloud that passed. She came of Quaker stock, and he and his family, formerly Dissenters, were now members of the Church of England. The rector's sermons had at first repelled her, and she had expressed a desire for "a more inward light," adding, "not so much for myself as for baby" (Charles). Inward light must have been granted, for he heard no complaints in later years. They brought up their three children without dispute. They had never disputed.
She lay under the earth now. She had gone, and as if to make her going the more bitter, had gone with a touch of mystery that was all unlike her. "Why didn't you tell me you knew of it?" he had moaned, and her faint voice had answered: "I didn't want to, Henry--I might have been wrong--and every one hates illnesses." He had been told of the horror by a strange doctor, whom she had consulted during his absence from town. Was this altogether just?
Without fully explaining, she had died. It was a fault on her part, and--tears rushed into his eyes--what a little fault! It was the only time she had deceived him in those thirty years.
He rose to his feet and looked out of the window, for Evie had come in with the letters, and he could meet no one's eye. Ah yes--she had been a good woman--she had been steady. He chose the word deliberately. To him steadiness included all praise.
He himself, gazing at the wintry garden, is in appearance a steady man. His face was not as square as his son's, and, indeed, the chin, though firm enough in outline, retreated a little, and the lips, ambiguous, were curtained by a moustache. But there was no external hint of weakness. The eyes, if capable of kindness and goodfellowship, if ruddy for the moment with tears, were the eyes of one who could not be driven. The forehead, too, was like Charles's. High and straight, brown and polished, merging abruptly into temples and skull, it has the effect of a bastion that protected his head from the world. At times it had the effect of a blank wall. He had dwelt behind it, intact and happy, for fifty years.
"The post's come, Father," said Evie awkwardly.
"Thanks. Put it down."
"Has the breakfast been all right?"
The girl glanced at him and at it with constraint. She did not know what to do.
"Charles says do you want the TIMES?"
"No, I'll read it later."
"Ring if you want anything, Father, won't you?"
"I've all I want."
Having sorted the letters from the circulars, she went back to the dining-room.
"Father's eaten nothing," she announced, sitting down with wrinkled brows behind the tea-urn--
Charles did not answer, but after a moment he ran quickly upstairs, opened the door, and said: "Look here, Father, you must eat, you know"; and having paused for a reply that did not come, stole down again. "He's going to read his letters first, I think," he said evasively; "I dare say he will go on with his breakfast afterwards." Then he took up the TIMES, and for some time there was no sound except the clink of cup against saucer and of knife on plate.
Poor Mrs. Charles sat between her silent companions, terrified at the course of events, and a little bored. She was a rubbishy little creature, and she knew it. A telegram had dragged her from Naples to the death-bed of a woman whom she had scarcely known. A word from her husband had plunged her into mourning. She desired to mourn inwardly as well, but she wished that Mrs. Wilcox, since fated to die, could have died before the marriage, for then less would have been expected of her. Crumbling her toast, and too nervous to ask for the butter, she remained almost motionless, thankful only for this, that her father-in-law was having his breakfast upstairs.
At last Charles spoke. "They had no business to be pollarding those elms yesterday," he said to his sister.
"I must make a note of that," he continued. "I am surprised that the rector allowed it."
"Perhaps it may not be the rector's affair."
"Whose else could it be?"
"The lord of the manor."
"Thank you, Evie dear. Charles--"
"I didn't know one could pollard elms. I thought one only pollarded willows."
"Oh no, one can pollard elms."
"Then why oughtn't the elms in the churchyard to be pollarded?"
Charles frowned a little, and turned again to his sister. "Another point. I must speak to Chalkeley."
"Yes, rather; you must complain to Chalkeley.
"It's no good him saying he is not responsible for those men. He is responsible."
Brother and sister were not callous. They spoke thus, partly because they desired to keep Chalkeley up to the mark--a healthy desire in its way--partly because they avoided the personal note in life. All Wilcoxes did. It did not seem to them of supreme importance. Or it may be as Helen supposed: they realized its importance, but were afraid of it. Panic and emptiness, could one glance behind.
They were not callous, and they left the breakfast-table with aching hearts. Their mother never had come in to breakfast. It was in the other rooms, and especially in the garden, that they felt her loss most. As Charles went out to the garage, he was reminded at every step of the woman who had loved him and whom he could never replace. What battles he had fought against her gentle conservatism! How she had disliked improvements, yet how loyally she had accepted them when made! He and his father--what trouble they had had to get this very garage! With what difficulty had they persuaded her to yield them to the paddock for it--the paddock that she loved more dearly than the garden itself! The vine--she had got her way about the vine. It still encumbered the south wall with its unproductive branches. And so with Evie, as she stood talking to the cook. Though she could take up her mother's work inside the house, just as the man could take it up without, she felt that something unique had fallen out of her life. Their grief, though less poignant than their father's, grew from deeper roots, for a wife may be replaced; a mother never.
Charles would go back to the office. There was little to do at Howards End. The contents of his mother's will had been long known to them. There were no legacies, no annuities, none of the posthumous bustle with which some of the dead prolong their activities. Trusting her husband, she had left him everything without reserve. She was quite a poor woman--the house had been all her dowry, and the house would come to Charles in time. Her water-colours Mr. Wilcox intended to reserve for Paul, while Evie would take the jewellery and lace. How easily she slipped out of life! Charles thought the habit laudable, though he did not intend to adopt it himself, whereas Margaret would have seen in it an almost culpable indifference to earthly fame.
Cynicism--not the superficial cynicism that snarls and sneers, but the cynicism that can go with courtesy and tenderness--that was the note of Mrs. Wilcox's will. She wanted not to vex people. That accomplished, the earth might freeze over her for ever.
No, there was nothing for Charles to wait for. He could not go on with his honeymoon, so he would go up to London and work--he felt too miserable hanging about. He and Dolly would have the furnished flat while his father rested quietly in the country with Evie. He could also keep an eye on his own little house, which was being painted and decorated for him in one of the Surrey suburbs, and in which he hoped to install himself soon after Christmas. Yes, he would go up after lunch in his new motor, and the town servants, who had come down for the funeral, would go up by train.
He found his father's chauffeur in the garage, said, "Morning" without looking at the man's face, and, bending over the car, continued: "Hullo! my new car's been driven!"
"Has it, sir?"
"Yes," said Charles, getting rather red; "and whoever's driven it hasn't cleaned it properly, for there's mud on the axle. Take it off."
The man went for the cloths without a word. He was a chauffeur as ugly as sin--not that this did him disservice with Charles, who thought charm in a man rather rot, and had soon got rid of the little Italian beast with whom they had started.
"Charles--" His bride was tripping after him over the hoar-frost, a dainty black column, her little face and elaborate mourning hat forming the capital thereof.
"One minute, I'm busy. Well, Crane, who's been driving it, do you suppose?"
"Don't know, I'm sure, sir. No one's driven it since I've been back, but, of course, there's the fortnight I've been away with the other car in Yorkshire."
The mud came off easily.
"Charles, your father's down. Something's happened. He wants you in the house at once. Oh, Charles!"
"Wait, dear, wait a minute. Who had the key to the garage while you were away, Crane?"
"The gardener, sir."
"Do you mean to tell me that old Penny can drive a motor?"
"No, sir; no one's had the motor out, sir."
"Then how do you account for the mud on the axle?"
"I can't, of course, say for the time I've been in Yorkshire. No more mud now, sir."
Charles was vexed. The man was treating him as a fool, and if his heart had not been so heavy he would have reported him to his father. But it was not a morning for complaints. Ordering the motor to be round after lunch, he joined his wife, who had all the while been pouring out some incoherent story about a letter and a Miss Schlegel.
"Now, Dolly, I can attend to you. Miss Schlegel? What does she want?"
When people wrote a letter Charles always asked what they wanted. Want was to him the only cause of action. And the question in this case was correct, for his wife replied, "She wants Howards End."
"Howards End? Now, Crane, just don't forget to put on the Stepney wheel."
"Now, mind you don't forget, for I--Come, little woman." When they were out of the chauffeur's sight he put his arm around her waist and pressed her against him. All his affection and half his attention--it was what he granted her throughout their happy married life.
"But you haven't listened, Charles--"
"I keep on telling you--Howards End. Miss Schlegels got it."
"Got what?" asked Charles, unclasping her. "What the dickens are you talking about?"
"Now, Charles, you promised not to say those naughty--"
"Look here, I'm in no mood for foolery. It's no morning for it either."
"I tell you--I keep on telling you--Miss Schlegel--she's got it--your mother's left it to her--and you've all got to move out!"
"HOWARDS END!" she screamed, mimicking him, and as she did so Evie came dashing out of the shrubbery.
"Dolly, go back at once! My father's much annoyed with you. Charles"--she hit herself wildly--"come in at once to Father. He's had a letter that's too awful."
Charles began to run, but checked himself, and stepped heavily across the gravel path. There the house was--the nine windows, the unprolific vine. He exclaimed, "Schlegels again!" and as if to complete chaos, Dolly said, "Oh no, the matron of the nursing home has written instead of her."
"Come in, all three of you!" cried his father, no longer inert. "Dolly, why have you disobeyed me?"
"Oh, Mr. Wilcox--"
"I told you not to go out to the garage. I've heard you all shouting in the garden. I won't have it. Come in."
He stood in the porch, transformed, letters in his hand.
"Into the dining-room, every one of you. We can't discuss private matters in the middle of all the servants.
Here, Charles, here; read these. See what you make."
Charles took two letters, and read them as he followed the procession. The first was a covering note from the matron. Mrs. Wilcox had desired her, when the funeral should be over, to forward the enclosed. The enclosed--it was from his mother herself. She had written: "To my husband: I should like Miss Schlegel (Margaret) to have Howards End."
"I suppose we're going to have a talk about this?" he remarked, ominously calm.
"Certainly. I was coming out to you when Dolly--"
"Well, let's sit down."
"Come, Evie, don't waste time, sit down."
In silence they drew up to the breakfast-table. The events of yesterday--indeed, of this morning--suddenly receded into a past so remote that they seemed scarcely to have lived in it. Heavy breathings were heard. They were calming themselves. Charles, to steady them further, read the enclosure out loud: "A note in my mother's handwriting, in an envelope addressed to my father, sealed. Inside: 'I should like Miss Schlegel (Margaret) to have Howards End.' No date, no signature. Forwarded through the matron of that nursing home. Now, the question is--"
Dolly interrupted him. "But I say that note isn't legal. Houses ought to be done by a lawyer, Charles, surely."
Her husband worked his jaw severely. Little lumps appeared in front of either ear--a symptom that she had not yet learnt to respect, and she asked whether she might see the note. Charles looked at his father for permission, who said abstractedly, "Give it her." She seized it, and at once exclaimed: "Why, it's only in pencil! I said so. Pencil never counts."
"We know that it is not legally binding, Dolly," said Mr. Wilcox, speaking from out of his fortress. "We are aware of that. Legally, I should be justified in tearing it up and throwing it into the fire. Of course, my dear, we consider you as one of the family, but it will be better if you do not interfere with what you do not understand."
Charles, vexed both with his father and his wife, then repeated: "The question is--" He had cleared a space of the breakfast-table from plates and knives, so that he could draw patterns on the tablecloth. "The question is whether Miss Schlegel, during the fortnight we were all away, whether she unduly--" He stopped.
"I don't think that," said his father, whose nature was nobler than his son's
"Don't think what?"
"That she would have--that it is a case of undue influence. No, to my mind the question is the--the invalid's condition at the time she wrote."
"My dear father, consult an expert if you like, but I don't admit it is my mother's writing."
"Why, you just said it was!" cried Dolly.
"Never mind if I did," he blazed out; "and hold your tongue."
The poor little wife coloured at this, and, drawing her handkerchief from her pocket, shed a few tears. No one noticed her. Evie was scowling like an angry boy. The two men were gradually assuming the manner of the committee-room. They were both at their best when serving on committees. They did not make the mistake of handling human affairs in the bulk, but disposed of them item by item, sharply. Calligraphy was the item before them now, and on it they turned their well-trained brains. Charles, after a little demur, accepted the writing as genuine, and they passed on to the next point. It is the best--perhaps the only--way of dodging emotion. They were the average human article, and had they considered the note as a whole it would have driven them miserable or mad. Considered item by item, the emotional content was minimized, and all went forward smoothly. The clock ticked, the coals blazed higher, and contended with the white radiance that poured in through the windows. Unnoticed, the sun occupied his sky, and the shadows of the tree stems, extraordinarily solid, fell like trenches of purple across the frosted lawn. It was a glorious winter morning. Evie's fox terrier, who had passed for white, was only a dirty grey dog now, so intense was the purity that surrounded him. He was discredited, but the blackbirds that he was chasing glowed with Arabian darkness, for all the conventional colouring of life had been altered. Inside, the clock struck ten with a rich and confident note. Other clocks confirmed it, and the discussion moved towards its close.
To follow it is unnecessary. It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in illness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship; it was contrary to the dead woman's intentions in the past, contrary to her very nature, so far as that nature was understood by them. To them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir. And--pushing one step farther in these mists--may they not have decided even better than they supposed? Is it credible that the possessions of the spirit can be bequeathed at all? Has the soul offspring? A wych-elm tree, a vine, a wisp of hay with dew on it--can passion for such things be transmitted where there is no bond of blood? No; the Wilcoxes are not to be blamed. The problem is too terrific, and they could not even perceive a problem. No; it is natural and fitting that after due debate they should tear the note up and throw it on to their dining-room fire. The practical moralist may acquit them absolutely. He who strives to look deeper may acquit them--almost. For one hard fact remains. They did neglect a personal appeal. The woman who had died did say to them, "Do this," and they answered, "We will not."
The incident made a most painful impression on them.
Grief mounted into the brain and worked there disquietingly. Yesterday they had lamented: "She was a dear mother, a true wife: in our absence she neglected her health and died." Today they thought: "She was not as true, as dear, as we supposed." The desire for a more inward light had found expression at last, the unseen had impacted on the seen, and all that they could say was "Treachery." Mrs. Wilcox had been treacherous to the family, to the laws of property, to her own written word. How did she expect Howards End to be conveyed to Miss Schlegel? Was her husband, to whom it legally belonged, to make it over to her as a free gift? Was the said Miss Schlegel to have a life interest in it, or to own it absolutely? Was there to be no compensation for the garage and other improvements that they had made under the assumption that all would be theirs some day? Treacherous! treacherous and absurd! When we think the dead both treacherous and absurd, we have gone far towards reconciling ourselves to their departure. That note, scribbled in pencil, sent through the matron, was unbusinesslike as well as cruel, and decreased at once the value of the woman who had written it.
"Ah, well!" said Mr. Wilcox, rising from the table. "I shouldn't have thought it possible."
"Mother couldn't have meant it," said Evie, still frowning.
"No, my girl, of course not."
"Mother believed so in ancestors too--it isn't like her to leave anything to an outsider, who'd never appreciate. "
"The whole thing is unlike her," he announced. "If Miss Schlegel had been poor, if she had wanted a house, I could understand it a little. But she has a house of her own.
Why should she want another? She wouldn't have any use of Howards End."
"That time may prove," murmured Charles.
"How?" asked his sister.
"Presumably she knows--mother will have told her. She got twice or three times into the nursing home. Presumably she is awaiting developments."
"What a horrid woman!" And Dolly, who had recovered, cried, "Why, she may be coming down to turn us out now!"
Charles put her right. "I wish she would," he said ominously. "I could then deal with her."
"So could I," echoed his father, who was feeling rather in the cold. Charles had been kind in undertaking the funeral arrangements and in telling him to eat his breakfast, but the boy as he grew up was a little dictatorial, and assumed the post of chairman too readily.
"I could deal with her, if she comes, but she won't come.
You're all a bit hard on Miss Schlegel."
"That Paul business was pretty scandalous, though."
"I want no more of the Paul business, Charles, as I said at the time, and besides, it is quite apart from this business. Margaret Schlegel has been officious and tiresome during this terrible week, and we have all suffered under her, but upon my soul she's honest. She's not in collusion with the matron. I'm absolutely certain of it. Nor was she with the doctor. I'm equally certain of that. She did not hide anything from us, for up to that very afternoon she was as ignorant as we are. She, like ourselves, was a dupe--"
He stopped for a moment. "You see, Charles, in her terrible pain your poor mother put us all in false positions. Paul would not have left England, you would not have gone to Italy, nor Evie and I into Yorkshire, if only we had known.
Well, Miss Schlegel's position has been equally false. Take all in all, she has not come out of it badly."
Evie said: "But those chrysanthemums--"
"Or coming down to the funeral at all--" echoed Dolly.
"Why shouldn't she come down? She had the right to, and she stood far back among the Hilton women. The flowers--certainly we should not have sent such flowers, but they may have seemed the right thing to her, Evie, and for all you know they may be the custom in Germany. "
"Oh, I forget she isn't really English," cried Evie.
"That would explain a lot."
"She's a cosmopolitan," said Charles, looking at his watch. "I admit I'm rather down on cosmopolitans. My fault, doubtless. I cannot stand them, and a German cosmopolitan is the limit. I think that's about all, isn't it? I want to run down and see Chalkeley. A bicycle will do. And, by the way, I wish you'd speak to Crane some time. I'm certain he's had my new car out."
"Has he done it any harm?"
"In that case I shall let it pass. It's not worth while having a row."
Charles and his father sometimes disagreed. But they always parted with an increased regard for one another, and each desired no doughtier comrade when it was necessary to voyage for a little past the emotions. So the sailors of Ulysses voyaged past the Sirens, having first stopped one another's ears with wool.
Charles need not have been anxious. Miss Schlegel had never heard of his mother's strange request. She was to hear of it in after years, when she had built up her life differently, and it was to fit into position as the headstone of the corner. Her mind was bent on other questions now, and by her also it would have been rejected as the fantasy of an invalid.
She was parting from these Wilcoxes for the second time. Paul and his mother, ripple and great wave, had flowed into her life and ebbed out of it for ever. The ripple had left no traces behind: the wave had strewn at her feet fragments torn from the unknown. A curious seeker, she stood for a while at the verge of the sea that tells so little, but tells a little, and watched the outgoing of this last tremendous tide. Her friend had vanished in agony, but not, she believed, in degradation. Her withdrawal had hinted at other things besides disease and pain. Some leave our life with tears, others with an insane frigidity; Mrs. Wilcox had taken the middle course, which only rarer natures can pursue. She had kept proportion. She had told a little of her grim secret to her friends, but not too much; she had shut up her heart--almost, but not entirely. It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die--neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.
The last word--whatever it would be--had certainly not been said in Hilton churchyard. She had not died there. A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are the clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which Society would register the quick motions of man. In Margaret's eyes Mrs. Wilcox had escaped registration. She had gone out of life vividly, her own way, and no dust was so truly dust as the contents of that heavy coffin, lowered with ceremonial until it rested on the dust of the earth, no flowers so utterly wasted as the chrysanthemums that the frost must have withered before morning. Margaret had once said she "loved superstition." It was not true. Few women had tried more earnestly to pierce the accretions in which body and soul are enwrapped. The death of Mrs. Wilcox had helped her in her work. She saw a little more clearly than hitherto what a human being is, and to what he may aspire. Truer relationships gleamed. Perhaps the last word would be hope--hope even on this side of the grave.
Meanwhile, she could take an interest in the survivors.
In spite of her Christmas duties, in spite of her brother, the Wilcoxes continued to play a considerable part in her thoughts. She had seen so much of them in the final week.
They were not "her sort," they were often suspicious and stupid, and deficient where she excelled; but collision with them stimulated her, and she felt an interest that verged into liking, even for Charles. She desired to protect them, and often felt that they could protect her, excelling where she was deficient. Once past the rocks of emotion, they knew so well what to do, whom to send for; their hands were on all the ropes, they had grit as well as grittiness, and she valued grit enormously. They led a life that she could not attain to--the outer life of "telegrams and anger," which had detonated when Helen and Paul had touched in June, and had detonated again the other week. To Margaret this life was to remain a real force. She could not despise it, as Helen and Tibby affected to do. It fostered such virtues as neatness, decision, and obedience, virtues of the second rank, no doubt, but they have formed our civilization. They form character, too; Margaret could not doubt it: they keep the soul from becoming sloppy. How dare Schlegels despise Wilcoxes, when it takes all sorts to make a world?
"Don't brood too much," she wrote to Helen, "on the superiority of the unseen to the seen. It's true, but to brood on it is mediaeval. Our business is not to contrast the two, but to reconcile them."
Helen replied that she had no intention of brooding on such a dull subject. What did her sister take her for? The weather was magnificent. She and the Mosebachs had gone tobogganing on the only hill that Pomerania boasted. It was fun, but overcrowded, for the rest of Pomerania had gone there too. Helen loved the country, and her letter glowed with physical exercise and poetry. She spoke of the scenery, quiet, yet august; of the snow-clad fields, with their scampering herds of deer; of the river and its quaint entrance into the Baltic Sea; of the Oderberge, only three hundred feet high, from which one slid all too quickly back into the Pomeranian plains, and yet these Oderberge were real mountains, with pine-forests, streams, and views complete. "It isn't size that counts so much as the way things are arranged." In another paragraph she referred to Mrs. Wilcox sympathetically, but the news had not bitten into her. She had not realized the accessories of death, which are in a sense more memorable than death itself. The atmosphere of precautions and recriminations, and in the midst a human body growing more vivid because it was in pain; the end of that body in Hilton churchyard; the survival of something that suggested hope, vivid in its turn against life's workaday cheerfulness;--all these were lost to Helen, who only felt that a pleasant lady could now be pleasant no longer. She returned to Wickham Place full of her own affairs--she had had another proposal--and Margaret, after a moment's hesitation, was content that this should be so.
The proposal had not been a serious matter. It was the work of Fraulein Mosebach, who had conceived the large and patriotic notion of winning back her cousins to the Fatherland by matrimony. England had played Paul Wilcox, and lost; Germany played Herr Forstmeister someone--Helen could not remember his name.
Herr Forstmeister lived in a wood, and standing on the summit of the Oderberge, he had pointed out his house to Helen, or rather, had pointed out the wedge of pines in which it lay. She had exclaimed, "Oh, how lovely! That's the place for me!" and in the evening Frieda appeared in her bedroom. "I have a message, dear Helen," etc., and so she had, but had been very nice when Helen laughed; quite understood--a forest too solitary and damp--quite agreed, but Herr Forstmeister believed he had assurance to the contrary. Germany had lost, but with good-humour; holding the manhood of the world, she felt bound to win. "And there will even be someone for Tibby," concluded Helen. "There now, Tibby, think of that; Frieda is saving up a little girl for you, in pig-tails and white worsted stockings, but the feet of the stockings are pink, as if the little girl had trodden in strawberries. I've talked too much. My head aches. Now you talk."
Tibby consented to talk. He too was full of his own affairs, for he had just been up to try for a scholarship at Oxford. The men were down, and the candidates had been housed in various colleges, and had dined in hall. Tibby was sensitive to beauty, the experience was new, and he gave a description of his visit that was almost glowing. The august and mellow University, soaked with the richness of the western counties that it has served for a thousand years, appealed at once to the boy's taste: it was the kind of thing he could understand, and he understood it all the better because it was empty. Oxford is--Oxford: not a mere receptacle for youth, like Cambridge. Perhaps it wants its inmates to love it rather than to love one another: such at all events was to be its effect on Tibby. His sisters sent him there that he might make friends, for they knew that his education had been cranky, and had severed him from other boys and men. He made no friends. His Oxford remained Oxford empty, and he took into life with him, not the memory of a radiance, but the memory of a colour scheme.
It pleased Margaret to hear her brother and sister talking. They did not get on overwell as a rule. For a few moments she listened to them, feeling elderly and benign.
Then something occurred to her, and she interrupted:
"Helen, I told you about poor Mrs. Wilcox; that sad business?"
"I have had a correspondence with her son. He was winding up the estate, and wrote to ask me whether his mother had wanted me to have anything. I thought it good of him, considering I knew her so little. I said that she had once spoken of giving me a Christmas present, but we both forgot about it afterwards."
"I hope Charles took the hint."
"Yes--that is to say, her husband wrote later on, and thanked me for being a little kind to her, and actually gave me her silver vinaigrette. Don't you think that is extraordinarily generous? It has made me like him very much. He hopes that this will not be the end of our acquaintance, but that you and I will go and stop with Evie some time in the future. I like Mr. Wilcox. He is taking up his work--rubber--it is a big business. I gather he is launching out rather. Charles is in it, too. Charles is married--a pretty little creature, but she doesn't seem wise. They took on the flat, but now they have gone off to a house of their own."
Helen, after a decent pause, continued her account of Stettin. How quickly a situation changes! In June she had been in a crisis; even in November she could blush and be unnatural; now it was January, and the whole affair lay forgotten. Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.
The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle.
It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.
Margaret hoped that for the future she would be less cautious, not more cautious, than she had been in the past.
Over two years passed, and the Schlegel household continued to lead its life of cultured but not ignoble ease, still swimming gracefully on the grey tides of London. Concerts and plays swept past them, money had been spent and renewed, reputations won and lost, and the city herself, emblematic of their lives, rose and fell in a continual flux, while her shallows washed more widely against the hills of Surrey and over the fields of Hertfordshire. This famous building had arisen, that was doomed. Today Whitehall had been transformed: it would be the turn of Regent Street tomorrow. And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity.
To speak against London is no longer fashionable. The Earth as an artistic cult has had its day, and the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. One can understand the reaction. Of Pan and the elemental forces, the public has heard a little too much--they seem Victorian, while London is Georgian--and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again. Certainly London fascinates. One visualizes it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything: Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men. A friend explains himself: the earth is explicable--from her we came, and we must return to her. But who can explain Westminster Bridge Road or Liverpool Street in the morning--the city inhaling--or the same thoroughfares in the evening--the city exhaling her exhausted air? We reach in desperation beyond the fog, beyond the very stars, the voids of the universe are ransacked to justify the monster, and stamped with a human face. London is religion's opportunity--not the decorous religion of theologians, but anthropomorphic, crude. Yes, the continuous flow would be tolerable if a man of our own sort--not anyone pompous or tearful--were caring for us up in the sky.
The Londoner seldom understands his city until it sweeps him, too, away from his moorings, and Margaret's eyes were not opened until the lease of Wickham Place expired. She had always known that it must expire, but the knowledge only became vivid about nine months before the event. Then the house was suddenly ringed with pathos. It had seen so much happiness. Why had it to be swept away? In the streets of the city she noted for the first time the architecture of hurry, and heard the language of hurry on the mouths of its inhabitants--clipped words, formless sentences, potted expressions of approval or disgust. Month by month things were stepping livelier, but to what goal? The population still rose, but what was the quality of the men born? The particular millionaire who owned the freehold of Wickham Place, and desired to erect Babylonian flats upon it--what right had he to stir so large a portion of the quivering jelly? He was not a fool--she had heard him expose Socialism--but true insight began just where his intelligence ended, and one gathered that this was the case with most millionaires. What right had such men--But Margaret checked herself. That way lies madness. Thank goodness she, too, had some money, and could purchase a new home.
Tibby, now in his second year at Oxford, was down for the Easter vacation, and Margaret took the opportunity of having a serious talk with him. Did he at all know where he wanted to live? Tibby didn't know that he did know. Did he at all know what he wanted to do? He was equally uncertain, but when pressed remarked that he should prefer to be quite free of any profession. Margaret was not shocked, but went on sewing for a few minutes before she replied:
"I was thinking of Mr. Vyse. He never strikes me as particularly happy."
"Ye-es," said Tibby, and then held his mouth open in a curious quiver, as if he, too, had thoughts of Mr. Vyse, had seen round, through, over, and beyond Mr. Vyse, had weighed Mr. Vyse, grouped him, and finally dismissed him as having no possible bearing on the subject under discussion. That bleat of Tibby's infuriated Helen. But Helen was now down in the dining-room preparing a speech about political economy. At times her voice could be heard declaiming through the floor.
"But Mr. Vyse is rather a wretched, weedy man, don't you think? Then there's Guy. That was a pitiful business.
Besides"--shifting to the general--" every one is the better for some regular work."
"I shall stick to it," she continued, smiling. "I am not saying it to educate you; it is what I really think. I believe that in the last century men have developed the desire for work, and they must not starve it. It's a new desire. It goes with a great deal that's bad, but in itself it's good, and I hope that for women, too, 'not to work' will soon become as shocking as 'not to be married' was a hundred years ago."
"I have no experience of this profound desire to which you allude," enunciated Tibby.
"Then we'll leave the subject till you do. I'm not going to rattle you round. Take your time. Only do think over the lives of the men you like most, and see how they've arranged them."
"I like Guy and Mr. Vyse most," said Tibby faintly, and leant so far back in his chair that he extended in a horizontal line from knees to throat.
"And don't think I'm not serious because I don't use the traditional arguments--making money, a sphere awaiting you, and so on--all of which are, for various reasons, cant." She sewed on. "I'm only your sister. I haven't any authority over you, and I don't want to have any. Just to put before you what I think the truth. You see"--she shook off the pince-nez to which she had recently taken--"in a few years we shall be the same age practically, and I shall want you to help me. Men are so much nicer than women."
"Labouring under such a delusion, why do you not marry?"
"I sometimes jolly well think I would if I got the chance."
"Has nobody arst you?"
"Do people ask Helen?"
"Tell me about them."
"Tell me about your ninnies, then."
"They were men who had nothing better to do," said his sister, feeling that she was entitled to score this point.
"So take warning: you must work, or else you must pretend to work, which is what I do. Work, work, work if you'd save your soul and your body. It is honestly a necessity, dear boy. Look at the Wilcoxes, look at Mr. Pembroke. With all their defects of temper and understanding, such men give me more pleasure than many who are better equipped and I think it is because they have worked regularly and honestly.
"Spare me the Wilcoxes," he moaned.
"I shall not. They are the right sort."
"Oh, goodness me, Meg!" he protested, suddenly sitting up, alert and angry. Tibby, for all his defects, had a genuine personality.
"Well, they're as near the right sort as you can imagine."
"No, no--oh, no!"
"I was thinking of the younger son, whom I once classed as a ninny, but who came back so ill from Nigeria. He's gone out there again, Evie Wilcox tells me--out to his duty."
"Duty" always elicited a groan.
"He doesn't want the money, it is work he wants, though it is beastly work--dull country, dishonest natives, an eternal fidget over fresh water and food. A nation who can produce men of that sort may well be proud. No wonder England has become an Empire."
"I can't bother over results," said Margaret, a little sadly. "They are too difficult for me. I can only look at the men. An Empire bores me, so far, but I can appreciate the heroism that builds it up. London bores me, but what thousands of splendid people are labouring to make London--"
"What it is," he sneered.
"What it is, worse luck. I want activity without civilization. How paradoxical! Yet I expect that is what we shall find in heaven."
"And I," said Tibby, "want civilization without activity, which, I expect, is what we shall find in the other place."
"You needn't go as far as the other place, Tibbi-kins, if you want that. You can find it at Oxford."
"If I'm stupid, get me back to the house-hunting. I'll even live in Oxford if you like--North Oxford. I'll live anywhere except Bournemouth, Torquay, and Cheltenham. Oh yes, or Ilfracombe and Swanage and Tunbridge Wells and Surbiton and Bedford. There on no account."
"I agree, but Helen rather wants to get away from London. However, there's no reason we shouldn't have a house in the country and also a flat in town, provided we all stick together and contribute. Though of course--Oh, how one does maunder on, and to think, to think of the people who are really poor. How do they live? Not to move about the world would kill me."
As she spoke, the door was flung open, and Helen burst in in a state of extreme excitement.
"Oh, my dears, what do you think? You'll never guess.
A woman's been here asking me for her husband. Her WHAT?"
(Helen was fond of supplying her own surprise.) "Yes, for her husband, and it really is so."
"Not anything to do with Bracknell?" cried Margaret, who had lately taken on an unemployed of that name to clean the knives and boots.
"I offered Bracknell, and he was rejected. So was Tibby. (Cheer up, Tibby!) It's no one we know. I said, 'Hunt, my good woman; have a good look round, hunt under the tables, poke up the chimney, shake out the antimacassars.
Husband? husband?' Oh, and she so magnificently dressed and tinkling like a chandelier."
"Now, Helen, what did happen really?"
"What I say. I was, as it were, orating my speech.
Annie opens the door like a fool, and shows a female straight in on me, with my mouth open. Then we began--very civilly. 'I want my husband, what I have reason to believe is here.' No--how unjust one is. She said 'whom,' not 'what.' She got it perfectly. So I said, 'Name, please?' and she said, 'Lan, Miss,' and there we were.
"Lan or Len. We were not nice about our vowels. Lanoline."
"But what an extraordinary--"
"I said, 'My good Mrs. Lanoline, we have some grave misunderstanding here. Beautiful as I am, my modesty is even more remarkable than my beauty, and never, never has Mr. Lanoline rested his eyes on mine.'"
"I hope you were pleased," said Tibby.
"Of course," Helen squeaked. "A perfectly delightful experience. Oh, Mrs. Lanoline's a dear--she asked for a husband as if he was an umbrella. She mislaid him Saturday afternoon--and for a long time suffered no inconvenience.
But all night, and all this morning her apprehensions grew.
Breakfast didn't seem the same--no, no more did lunch, and so she strolled up to 2, Wickham Place as being the most likely place for the missing article."
"But how on earth--"
"Don't begin how on earthing. 'I know what I know,' she kept repeating, not uncivilly, but with extreme gloom. In vain I asked her what she did know. Some knew what others knew, and others didn't, and if they didn't, then others again had better be careful. Oh dear, she was incompetent!
She had a face like a silkworm, and the dining-room reeks of orris-root. We chatted pleasantly a little about husbands, and I wondered where hers was too, and advised her to go to the police. She thanked me. We agreed that Mr. Lanoline's a notty, notty man, and hasn't no business to go on the lardy-da. But I think she suspected me up to the last.
Bags I writing to Aunt Juley about this. Now, Meg, remember--bags I."
"Bag it by all means," murmured Margaret, putting down her work. "I'm not sure that this is so funny, Helen. It means some horrible volcano smoking somewhere, doesn't it?"
"I don't think so--she doesn't really mind. The admirable creature isn't capable of tragedy."
"Her husband may be, though," said Margaret, moving to the window.
"Oh, no, not likely. No one capable of tragedy could have married Mrs. Lanoline."
"Was she pretty?"
"Her figure may have been good once."
The flats, their only outlook, hung like an ornate curtain between Margaret and the welter of London. Her thoughts turned sadly to house-hunting. Wickham Place had been so safe. She feared, fantastically, that her own little flock might be moving into turmoil and squalor, into nearer contact with such episodes as these.
"Tibby and I have again been wondering where we'll live next September," she said at last.
"Tibby had better first wonder what he'll do," retorted Helen; and that topic was resumed, but with acrimony. Then tea came, and after tea Helen went on preparing her speech, and Margaret prepared one, too, for they were going out to a discussion society on the morrow. But her thoughts were poisoned. Mrs. Lanoline had risen out of the abyss, like a faint smell, a goblin football, telling of a life where love and hatred had both decayed.
The mystery, like so many mysteries, was explained. Next day, just as they were dressed to go out to dinner, a Mr. Bast called. He was a clerk in the employment of the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company. Thus much from his card. He had come "about the lady yesterday." Thus much from Annie, who had shown him into the dining-room.
"Cheers, children!" cried Helen. "It's Mrs. Lanoline."
Tibby was interested. The three hurried downstairs, to find, not the gay dog they expected, but a young man, colourless, toneless, who had already the mournful eyes above a drooping moustache that are so common in London, and that haunt some streets of the city like accusing presences. One guessed him as the third generation, grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit. Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well--the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her. She was only unprepared for an example of her own visiting-card.
"You wouldn't remember giving me this, Miss Schlegel?" said he, uneasily familiar.
"No; I can't say I do."
"Well, that was how it happened, you see."
"Where did we meet, Mr. Bast? For the minute I don't remember."
"It was a concert at the Queen's Hall. I think you will recollect," he added pretentiously, "when I tell you that it included a performance of the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven."
"We hear the Fifth practically every time it's done, so I'm not sure--do you remember, Helen?"
"Was it the time the sandy cat walked round the balustrade?"
He thought not.
"Then I don't remember. That's the only Beethoven I ever remember specially."
"And you, if I may say so, took away my umbrella, inadvertently of course."
"Likely enough," Helen laughed, "for I steal umbrellas even oftener than I hear Beethoven. Did you get it back?"
"Yes, thank you, Miss Schlegel."
"The mistake arose out of my card, did it?" interposed Margaret.
"Yes, the mistake arose--it was a mistake."
"The lady who called here yesterday thought that you were calling too, and that she could find you?" she continued, pushing him forward, for, though he had promised an explanation, he seemed unable to give one.
"That's so, calling too--a mistake."
"Then why--?" began Helen, but Margaret laid a hand on her arm.
"I said to my wife," he continued more rapidly--"I said to Mrs. Bast, 'I have to pay a call on some friends,' and Mrs. Bast said to me, 'Do go.' While I was gone, however, she wanted me on important business, and thought I had come here, owing to the card, and so came after me, and I beg to tender my apologies, and hers as well, for any inconvenience we may have inadvertently caused you."
"No inconvenience," said Helen; "but I still don't understand."
An air of evasion characterized Mr. Bast. He explained again, but was obviously lying, and Helen didn't see why he should get off. She had the cruelty of youth. Neglecting her sister's pressure, she said, "I still don't understand.
When did you say you paid this call?"
"Call? What call?" said he, staring as if her question had been a foolish one, a favourite device of those in mid-stream.
"This afternoon call."
"In the afternoon, of course!" he replied, and looked at Tibby to see how the repartee went. But Tibby, himself a repartee, was unsympathetic, and said, "Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon?"
"Really!" said Helen; "and you were still calling on Sunday, when your wife came here. A long visit."
"I don't call that fair," said Mr. Bast, going scarlet and handsome. There was fight in his eyes." I know what you mean, and it isn't so."
"Oh, don't let us mind," said Margaret, distressed again by odours from the abyss.
"It was something else," he asserted, his elaborate manner breaking down. "I was somewhere else to what you think, so there!"
"It was good of you to come and explain," she said.
"The rest is naturally no concern of ours."
"Yes, but I want--I wanted--have you ever read THE ORDEAL OF RICHARD FEVEREL?"
"It's a beautiful book. I wanted to get back to the Earth, don't you see, like Richard does in the end. Or have you ever read Stevenson's PRINCE OTTO?"
Helen and Tibby groaned gently.
"That's another beautiful book. You get back to the Earth in that. I wanted--" He mouthed affectedly. Then through the mists of his culture came a hard fact, hard as a pebble. "I walked all the Saturday night," said Leonard.
"I walked." A thrill of approval ran through the sisters.
But culture closed in again. He asked whether they had ever read E. V. Lucas's OPEN ROAD.
Said Helen, "No doubt it's another beautiful book, but I'd rather hear about your road."
"Oh, I walked."
"I don't know, nor for how long. It got too dark to see my watch."
"Were you walking alone, may I ask?"
"Yes," he said, straightening himself; "but we'd been talking it over at the office. There's been a lot of talk at the office lately about these things. The fellows there said one steers by the Pole Star, and I looked it up in the celestial atlas, but once out of doors everything gets so mixed--"
"Don't talk to me about the Pole Star," interrupted Helen, who was becoming interested. "I know its little ways. It goes round and round, and you go round after it."
"Well, I lost it entirely. First of all the street lamps, then the trees, and towards morning it got cloudy."
Tibby, who preferred his comedy undiluted, slipped from the room. He knew that this fellow would never attain to poetry, and did not want to hear him trying. Margaret and Helen remained. Their brother influenced them more than they knew: in his absence they were stirred to enthusiasm more easily.
"Where did you start from?" cried Margaret. "Do tell us more."
"I took the Underground to Wimbledon. As I came out of the office I said to myself, 'I must have a walk once in a way. If I don't take this walk now, I shall never take it.' I had a bit of dinner at Wimbledon, and then--"
"But not good country there, is it?"
"It was gas-lamps for hours. Still, I had all the night, and being out was the great thing. I did get into woods, too, presently."
"Yes, go on," said Helen.
"You've no idea how difficult uneven ground is when it's dark."
"Did you actually go off the roads?"
"Oh yes. I always meant to go off the roads, but the worst of it is that it's more difficult to find one's way."
"Mr. Bast, you're a born adventurer," laughed Margaret.
"No professional athlete would have attempted what you've done. It's a wonder your walk didn't end in a broken neck.
Whatever did your wife say?"
"Professional athletes never move without lanterns and compasses," said Helen. "Besides, they can't walk. It tires them. Go on."
"I felt like R. L. S. You probably remember how in VIRGINIBUS--"
"Yes, but the wood. This 'ere wood. How did you get out of it?"
"I managed one wood, and found a road the other side which went a good bit uphill. I rather fancy it was those North Downs, for the road went off into grass, and I got into another wood. That was awful, with gorse bushes. I did wish I'd never come, but suddenly it got light--just while I seemed going under one tree. Then I found a road down to a station, and took the first train I could back to London."
"But was the dawn wonderful?" asked Helen.
With unforgettable sincerity he replied, "No." The word flew again like a pebble from the sling. Down toppled all that had seemed ignoble or literary in his talk, down toppled tiresome R. L. S. and the "love of the earth" and his silk top-hat. In the presence of these women Leonard had arrived, and he spoke with a flow, an exultation, that he had seldom known.
"The dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention--"
"Just a grey evening turned upside down. I know."
"--and I was too tired to lift up my head to look at it, and so cold too. I'm glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides--you can believe me or not as you choose--I was very hungry. That dinner at Wimbledon--I meant it to last me all night like other dinners. I never thought that walking would make such a difference. Why, when you're walking you want, as it were, a breakfast and luncheon and tea during the night as well, and I'd nothing but a packet of Woodbines. Lord, I did feel bad! Looking back, it wasn't what you may call enjoyment.
It was more a case of sticking to it. I did stick. I--I was determined. Oh, hang it all! what's the good--I mean, the good of living in a room for ever? There one goes on day after day, same old game, same up and down to town, until you forget there is any other game. You ought to see once in a way what's going on outside, if it's only nothing particular after all."
"I should just think you ought," said Helen, sitting on the edge of the table.
The sound of a lady's voice recalled him from sincerity, and he said: "Curious it should all come about from reading something of Richard Jefferies."
"Excuse me, Mr. Bast, but you're wrong there. It didn't. It came from something far greater."
But she could not stop him. Borrow was imminent after Jefferies--Borrow, Thoreau, and sorrow. R. L. S. brought up the rear, and the outburst ended in a swamp of books. No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs. They mean us to use them for sign-posts, and are not to blame if, in our weakness, we mistake the sign-post for the destination. And Leonard had reached the destination. He had visited the county of Surrey when darkness covered its amenities, and its cosy villas had re-entered ancient night. Every twelve hours this miracle happens, but he had troubled to go and see for himself.
Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies' books--the spirit that led Jefferies to write them; and his dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.
"Then you don't think I was foolish?" he asked, becoming again the naive and sweet-tempered boy for whom Nature had intended him.
"Heavens, no!" replied Margaret.
"Heaven help us if we do!" replied Helen.
"I'm very glad you say that. Now, my wife would never understand--not if I explained for days."
"No, it wasn't foolish!" cried Helen, her eyes aflame.
"You've pushed back the boundaries; I think it splendid of you."
"You've not been content to dream as we have--"
"Though we have walked, too--"
"I must show you a picture upstairs--"
Here the door-bell rang. The hansom had come to take them to their evening party.
"Oh, bother, not to say dash--I had forgotten we were dining out; but do, do, come round again and have a talk."
"Yes, you must--do," echoed Margaret.
Leonard, with extreme sentiment, replied: "No, I shall not. It's better like this."
"Why better?" asked Margaret.
"No, it is better not to risk a second interview. I shall always look back on this talk with you as one of the finest things in my life. Really. I mean this. We can never repeat. It has done me real good, and there we had better leave it."
"That's rather a sad view of life, surely."
"Things so often get spoiled."
"I know," flashed Helen, "but people don't."
He could not understand this. He continued in a vein which mingled true imagination and false. What he said wasn't wrong, but it wasn't right, and a false note jarred.
One little twist, they felt, and the instrument might be in tune. One little strain, and it might be silent for ever.
He thanked the ladies very much, but he would not call again. There was a moment's awkwardness, and then Helen said: "Go, then; perhaps you know best; but never forget you're better than Jefferies." And he went. Their hansom caught him up at the corner, passed with a waving of hands, and vanished with its accomplished load into the evening.
London was beginning to illuminate herself against the night. Electric lights sizzled and jagged in the main thoroughfares, gas-lamps in the side streets glimmered a canary gold or green. The sky was a crimson battlefield of spring, but London was not afraid. Her smoke mitigated the splendour, and the clouds down Oxford Street were a delicately painted ceiling, which adorned while it did not distract. She has never known the clear-cut armies of the purer air. Leonard hurried through her tinted wonders, very much part of the picture. His was a grey life, and to brighten it he had ruled off a few corners for romance. The Miss Schlegels--or, to speak more accurately, his interview with them--were to fill such a corner, nor was it by any means the first time that he had talked intimately to strangers. The habit was analogous to a debauch, an outlet, though the worst of outlets, for instincts that would not be denied. Terrifying him, it would beat down his suspicions and prudence until he was confiding secrets to people whom he had scarcely seen. It brought him many fears and some pleasant memories. Perhaps the keenest happiness he had ever known was during a railway journey to Cambridge, where a decent-mannered undergraduate had spoken to him. They had got into conversation, and gradually Leonard flung reticence aside, told some of his domestic troubles, and hinted at the rest. The undergraduate, supposing they could start a friendship, asked him to "coffee after hall," which he accepted, but afterwards grew shy, and took care not to stir from the commercial hotel where he lodged. He did not want Romance to collide with the Porphyrion, still less with Jacky, and people with fuller, happier lives are slow to understand this. To the Schlegels, as to the undergraduate, he was an interesting creature, of whom they wanted to see more. But they to him were denizens of Romance, who must keep to the corner he had assigned them, pictures that must not walk out of their frames.
His behaviour over Margaret's visiting-card had been typical. His had scarcely been a tragic marriage. Where there is no money and no inclination to violence tragedy cannot be generated. He could not leave his wife, and he did not want to hit her. Petulance and squalor were enough. Here "that card" had come in. Leonard, though furtive, was untidy, and left it lying about. Jacky found it, and then began, "What's that card, eh?" "Yes, don't you wish you knew what that card was?" "Len, who's Miss Schlegel?" etc. Months passed, and the card, now as a joke, now as a grievance, was handed about, getting dirtier and dirtier. It followed them when they moved from Cornelia Road to Tulse Hill. It was submitted to third parties. A few inches of pasteboard, it became the battlefield on which the souls of Leonard and his wife contended. Why did he not say, "A lady took my umbrella, another gave me this that I might call for my umbrella"? Because Jacky would have disbelieved him? Partly, but chiefly because he was sentimental. No affection gathered round the card, but it symbolized the life of culture, that Jacky should never spoil. At night he would say to himself, "Well, at all events, she doesn't know about that card. Yah! done her there!"
Poor Jacky! she was not a bad sort, and had a great deal to bear. She drew her own conclusion--she was only capable of drawing one conclusion--and in the fulness of time she acted upon it. All the Friday Leonard had refused to speak to her, and had spent the evening observing the stars. On the Saturday he went up, as usual, to town, but he came not back Saturday night nor Sunday morning, nor Sunday afternoon. The inconvenience grew intolerable, and though she was now of a retiring habit, and shy of women, she went up to Wickham Place. Leonard returned in her absence. The card, the fatal card, was gone from the pages of Ruskin, and he guessed what had happened.
"Well?" he had exclaimed, greeting her with peals of laughter. "I know where you've been, but you don't know where I've been. "
Jacky sighed, said, "Len, I do think you might explain," and resumed domesticity.
Explanations were difficult at this stage, and Leonard was too silly--or it is tempting to write, too sound a chap to attempt them. His reticence was not entirely the shoddy article that a business life promotes, the reticence that pretends that nothing is something, and hides behind the DAILY TELEGRAPH. The adventurer, also, is reticent, and it is an adventure for a clerk to walk for a few hours in darkness. You may laugh at him, you who have slept nights on the veldt, with your rifle beside you and all the atmosphere of adventure past. And you also may laugh who think adventures silly. But do not be surprised if Leonard is shy whenever he meets you, and if the Schlegels rather than Jacky hear about the dawn.
That the Schlegels had not thought him foolish became a permanent joy. He was at his best when he thought of them.
It buoyed him as he journeyed home beneath fading heavens.
Somehow the barriers of wealth had fallen, and there had been--he could not phrase it--a general assertion of the wonder of the world. "My conviction," says the mystic, "gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe in it," and they had agreed that there was something beyond life's daily grey. He took off his top-hat and smoothed it thoughtfully. He had hitherto supposed the unknown to be books, literature, clever conversation, culture. One raised oneself by study, and got upsides with the world. But in that quick interchange a new light dawned. Was that something" walking in the dark among the surburban hills?
He discovered that he was going bareheaded down Regent Street. London came back with a rush. Few were about at this hour, but all whom he passed looked at him with a hostility that was the more impressive because it was unconscious. He put his hat on. It was too big; his head disappeared like a pudding into a basin, the ears bending outwards at the touch of the curly brim. He wore it a little backwards, and its effect was greatly to elongate the face and to bring out the distance between the eyes and the moustache. Thus equipped, he escaped criticism. No one felt uneasy as he titupped along the pavements, the heart of a man ticking fast in his chest.
The sisters went out to dinner full of their adventure, and when they were both full of the same subject, there were few dinner-parties that could stand up against them. This particular one, which was all ladies, had more kick in it than most, but succumbed after a struggle. Helen at one part of the table, Margaret at the other, would talk of Mr. Bast and of no one else, and somewhere about the entree their monologues collided, fell ruining, and became common property. Nor was this all. The dinner-party was really an informal discussion club; there was a paper after it, read amid coffee-cups and laughter in the drawing-room, but dealing more or less thoughtfully with some topic of general interest. After the paper came a debate, and in this debate Mr. Bast also figured, appearing now as a bright spot in civilization, now as a dark spot, according to the temperament of the speaker. The subject of the paper had been, "How ought I to dispose of my money?" the reader professing to be a millionaire on the point of death, inclined to bequeath her fortune for the foundation of local art galleries, but open to conviction from other sources.
The various parts had been assigned beforehand, and some of the speeches were amusing. The hostess assumed the ungrateful role of "the millionaire's eldest son," and implored her expiring parent not to dislocate Society by allowing such vast sums to pass out of the family. Money was the fruit of self-denial, and the second generation had a right to profit by the self-denial of the first. What right had "Mr. Bast" to profit? The National Gallery was good enough for the likes of him. After property had had its say--a saying that is necessarily ungracious--the various philanthropists stepped forward. Something must be done for "Mr. Bast": his conditions must be improved without impairing his independence; he must have a free library, or free tennis-courts; his rent must be paid in such a way that he did not know it was being paid; it must be made worth his while to join the Territorials; he must be forcibly parted from his uninspiring wife, the money going to her as compensation; he must be assigned a Twin Star, some member of the leisured classes who would watch over him ceaselessly (groans from Helen); he must be given food but no clothes, clothes but no food, a third-return ticket to Venice, without either food or clothes when he arrived there. In short, he might be given anything and everything so long as it was not the money itself.
And here Margaret interrupted.
"Order, order, Miss Schlegel!" said the reader of the paper. "You are here, I understand, to advise me in the interests of the Society for the Preservation of Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. I cannot have you speaking out of your role. It makes my poor head go round, and I think you forget that I am very ill."
"Your head won't go round if only you'll listen to my argument," said Margaret. "Why not give him the money itself. You're supposed to have about thirty thousand a year."
"Have I? I thought I had a million."
"Wasn't a million your capital? Dear me! we ought to have settled that. Still, it doesn't matter. Whatever you've got, I order you to give as many poor men as you can three hundred a year each. "
"But that would be pauperizing them," said an earnest girl, who liked the Schlegels, but thought them a little unspiritual at times.
"Not if you gave them so much. A big windfall would not pauperize a man. It is these little driblets, distributed among too many, that do the harm. Money's educational.
It's far more educational than the things it buys." There was a protest. "In a sense," added Margaret, but the protest continued. "Well, isn't the most civilized thing going, the man who has learnt to wear his income properly?"
"Exactly what your Mr. Basts won't do."
"Give them a chance. Give them money. Don't dole them out poetry-books and railway-tickets like babies. Give them the wherewithal to buy these things. When your Socialism comes it may be different, and we may think in terms of commodities instead of cash. Till it comes give people cash, for it is the warp of civilization, whatever the woof may be. The imagination ought to play upon money and realize it vividly, for it's the--the second most important thing in the world. It is so sluffed over and hushed up, there is so little clear thinking--oh, political economy, of course, but so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means. Money: give Mr. Bast money, and don't bother about his ideals.
He'll pick up those for himself."
She leant back while the more earnest members of the club began to misconstrue her. The female mind, though cruelly practical in daily life, cannot bear to hear ideals belittled in conversation, and Miss Schlegel was asked however she could say such dreadful things, and what it would profit Mr. Bast if he gained the whole world and lost his own soul. She answered, "Nothing, but he would not gain his soul until he had gained a little of the world." Then they said, "No they did not believe it," and she admitted that an overworked clerk may save his soul in the superterrestrial sense, where the effort will be taken for the deed, but she denied that he will ever explore the spiritual resources of this world, will ever know the rarer joys of the body, or attain to clear and passionate intercourse with his fellows. Others had attacked the fabric of Society-Property, Interest, etc.; she only fixed her eyes on a few human beings, to see how, under present conditions, they could be made happier. Doing good to humanity was useless: the many-coloured efforts thereto spreading over the vast area like films and resulting in an universal grey. To do good to one, or, as in this case, to a few, was the utmost she dare hope for.
Between the idealists, and the political economists, Margaret had a bad time. Disagreeing elsewhere, they agreed in disowning her, and in keeping the administration of the millionaire's money in their own hands. The earnest girl brought forward a scheme of "personal supervision and mutual help," the effect of which was to alter poor people until they became exactly like people who were not so poor. The hostess pertinently remarked that she, as eldest son, might surely rank among the millionaire's legatees. Margaret weakly admitted the claim, and another claim was at once set up by Helen, who declared that she had been the millionaire's housemaid for over forty years, overfed and underpaid; was nothing to be done for her, so corpulent and poor? The millionaire then read out her last will and testament, in which she left the whole of her fortune to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then she died. The serious parts of the discussion had been of higher merit than the playful--in a men's debate is the reverse more general? --but the meeting broke up hilariously enough, and a dozen happy ladies dispersed to their homes.
Helen and Margaret walked the earnest girl as far as Battersea Bridge Station, arguing copiously all the way.
When she had gone they were conscious of an alleviation, and of the great beauty of the evening. They turned back towards Oakley Street. The lamps and the plane-trees, following the line of the embankment, struck a note of dignity that is rare in English cities. The seats, almost deserted, were here and there occupied by gentlefolk in evening dress, who had strolled out from the houses behind to enjoy fresh air and the whisper of the rising tide.
There is something continental about Chelsea Embankment. It is an open space used rightly, a blessing more frequent in Germany than here. As Margaret and Helen sat down, the city behind them seemed to be a vast theatre, an opera-house in which some endless trilogy was performing, and they themselves a pair of satisfied subscribers, who did not mind losing a little of the second act.
The earnest girl's train rumbled away over the bridge.
"I say, Helen--"
"Are we really going to follow up Mr. Bast?"
"I don't know."
"I think we won't."
"As you like."
"It's no good, I think, unless you really mean to know people. The discussion brought that home to me. We got on well enough with him in a spirit of excitement, but think of rational intercourse. We mustn't play at friendship. No, it's no good."
"There's Mrs. Lanoline, too," Helen yawned. "So dull."
"Just so, and possibly worse than dull."
"I should like to know how he got hold of your card."
"But he said--something about a concert and an umbrella--"
"Then did the card see the wife--"
"Helen, come to bed."
"No, just a little longer, it is so beautiful. Tell me; oh yes; did you say money is the warp of the world?"
"Then what's the woof?"
"Very much what one chooses," said Margaret. "It's something that isn't money--one can't say more."
"Walking at night?"
"For Tibby, Oxford?"
"It seems so."
"Now that we have to leave Wickham Place, I begin to think it's that. For Mrs. Wilcox it was certainly Howards End."
One's own name will carry immense distances. Mr. Wilcox, who was sitting with friends many seats away, heard his, rose to his feet, and strolled along towards the speakers.
"It is sad to suppose that places may ever be more important than people," continued Margaret.
"Why, Meg? They're so much nicer generally. I'd rather think of that forester's house in Pomerania than of the fat Herr Forstmeister who lived in it."
"I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It's one of the curses of London.
I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place."
Here Mr. Wilcox reached them. It was several weeks since they had met.
"How do you do?" he cried. "I thought I recognized your voices. Whatever are you both doing down here?"
His tones were protective. He implied that one ought not to sit out on Chelsea Embankment without a male escort.
Helen resented this, but Margaret accepted it as part of the good man's equipment.
"What an age it is since I've seen you, Mr. Wilcox. I met Evie in the Tube, though, lately. I hope you have good news of your son."
"Paul?" said Mr. Wilcox, extinguishing his cigarette, and sitting down between them. "Oh, Paul's all right. We had a line from Madeira. He'll be at work again by now."
"Ugh--" said Helen, shuddering from complex causes.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Isn't the climate of Nigeria too horrible?"
"Someone's got to go," he said simply. "England will never keep her trade overseas unless she is prepared to make sacrifices. Unless we get firm in West Africa, Ger--untold complications may follow. Now tell me all your news."
"Oh, we've had a splendid evening," cried Helen, who always woke up at the advent of a visitor. "We belong to a kind of club that reads papers, Margaret and I--all women, but there is a discussion after. This evening it was on how one ought to leave one's money--whether to one's family, or to the poor, and if so how--oh, most interesting."
The man of business smiled. Since his wife's death he had almost doubled his income. He was an important figure at last, a reassuring name on company prospectuses, and life had treated him very well. The world seemed in his grasp as he listened to the River Thames, which still flowed inland from the sea. So wonderful to the girls, it held no mysteries for him. He had helped to shorten its long tidal trough by taking shares in the lock at Teddington, and if he and other capitalists thought good, some day it could be shortened again. With a good dinner inside him and an amiable but academic woman on either flank, he felt that his hands were on all the ropes of life, and that what he did not know could not be worth knowing.
"Sounds a most original entertainment!" he exclaimed, and laughed in his pleasant way. "I wish Evie would go to that sort of thing. But she hasn't the time. She's taken to breed Aberdeen terriers--jolly little dogs.
"I expect we'd better be doing the same, really."
"We pretend we're improving ourselves, you see," said Helen a little sharply, for the Wilcox glamour is not of the kind that returns, and she had bitter memories of the days when a speech such as he had just made would have impressed her favourably. "We suppose it is a good thing to waste an evening once a fortnight over a debate, but, as my sister says, it may be better to breed dogs."
"Not at all. I don't agree with your sister. There's nothing like a debate to teach one quickness. I often wish I had gone in for them when I was a youngster. It would have helped me no end."
"Yes. Quickness in argument. Time after time I've missed scoring a point because the other man has had the gift of the gab and I haven't. Oh, I believe in these discussions."
The patronizing tone thought Margaret, came well enough from a man who was old enough to be their father. She had always maintained that Mr. Wilcox had a charm. In times of sorrow or emotion his inadequacy had pained her, but it was pleasant to listen to him now, and to watch his thick brown moustache and high forehead confronting the stars. But Helen was nettled. The aim of THEIR debates she implied was Truth.
"Oh yes, it doesn't much matter what subject you take," said he.
Margaret laughed and said, "But this is going to be far better than the debate itself." Helen recovered herself and laughed too. "No, I won't go on," she declared. "I'll just put our special case to Mr. Wilcox."
"About Mr. Bast? Yes, do. He'll be more lenient to a special case.
"But, Mr. Wilcox, do first light another cigarette.
It's this. We've just come across a young fellow, who's evidently very poor, and who seems interest--"
"What's his profession?"
"Do you remember, Margaret?"
"Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company."
"Oh yes; the nice people who gave Aunt Juley a new hearth-rug. He seems interesting, in some ways very, and one wishes one could help him. He is married to a wife whom he doesn't seem to care for much. He likes books, and what one may roughly call adventure, and if he had a chance--But he is so poor. He lives a life where all the money is apt to go on nonsense and clothes. One is so afraid that circumstances will be too strong for him and that he will sink. Well, he got mixed up in our debate. He wasn't the subject of it, but it seemed to bear on his point. Suppose a millionaire died, and desired to leave money to help such a man. How should he be helped? Should he be given three hundred pounds a year direct, which was Margaret's plan?
Most of them thought this would pauperize him. Should he and those like him be given free libraries? I said 'No!' He doesn't want more books to read, but to read books rightly.
My suggestion was he should be given something every year towards a summer holiday, but then there is his wife, and they said she would have to go too. Nothing seemed quite right! Now what do you think? Imagine that you were a millionaire, and wanted to help the poor. What would you do?"
Mr. Wilcox, whose fortune was not so very far below the standard indicated, laughed exuberantly. "My dear Miss Schlegel, I will not rush in where your sex has been unable to tread. I will not add another plan to the numerous excellent ones that have been already suggested. My only contribution is this: let your young friend clear out of the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company with all possible speed."
"Why?" said Margaret.
He lowered his voice. "This is between friends. It'll be in the Receiver's hands before Christmas. It'll smash," he added, thinking that she had not understood.
"Dear me, Helen, listen to that. And he'll have to get another place!"
"Will have? Let him leave the ship before it sinks.
Let him get one now."
"Rather than wait, to make sure?"
Again the Olympian laugh, and the lowered voice.
"Naturally the man who's in a situation when he applies stands a better chance, is in a stronger position, than the man who isn't. It looks as if he's worth something. I know by myself--(this is letting you into the State secrets)--it affects an employer greatly. Human nature, I'm afraid."
"I hadn't thought of that," murmured Margaret, while Helen said, "Our human nature appears to be the other way round. We employ people because they're unemployed. The boot man, for instance."
"And how does he clean the boots?"
"Not well," confessed Margaret.
"There you are!"
"Then do you really advise us to tell this youth--"
"I advise nothing," he interrupted, glancing up and down the Embankment, in case his indiscretion had been overheard. "I oughtn't to have spoken--but I happen to know, being more or less behind the scenes. The Porphyrion's a bad, bad concern--Now, don't say I said so.
It's outside the Tariff Ring."
"Certainly I won't say. In fact, I don't know what that means."
"I thought an insurance company never smashed," was Helen's contribution. "Don't the others always run in and save them?"
"You're thinking of reinsurance," said Mr. Wilcox mildly. "It is exactly there that the Porphyrion is weak.
It has tried to undercut, has been badly hit by a long series of small fires, and it hasn't been able to reinsure.
I'm afraid that public companies don't save one another for love."
"'Human nature,' I suppose," quoted Helen, and he laughed and agreed that it was. When Margaret said that she supposed that clerks, like every one else, found it extremely difficult to get situations in these days, he replied, "Yes, extremely," and rose to rejoin his friends.
He knew by his own office--seldom a vacant post, and hundreds of applicants for it; at present no vacant post.
"And how's Howards End looking?" said Margaret, wishing to change the subject before they parted. Mr. Wilcox was a little apt to think one wanted to get something out of him.
"Really. And you wandering homeless in long-haired Chelsea? How strange are the ways of Fate!"
"No; it's let unfurnished. We've moved."
"Why, I thought of you both as anchored there for ever.
Evie never told me."
"I dare say when you met Evie the thing wasn't settled.
We only moved a week ago. Paul has rather a feeling for the old place, and we held on for him to have his holiday there; but, really, it is impossibly small. Endless drawbacks. I forget whether you've been up to it?"
"As far as the house, never."
"Well, Howards End is one of those converted farms.
They don't really do, spend what you will on them. We messed away with a garage all among the wych-elm roots, and last year we enclosed a bit of the meadow and attempted a mockery. Evie got rather keen on Alpine plants. But it didn't do--no, it didn't do. You remember, or your sister will remember, the farm with those abominable guinea-fowls, and the hedge that the old woman never would cut properly, so that it all went thin at the bottom. And, inside the house, the beams--and the staircase through a door--picturesque enough, but not a place to live in." He glanced over the parapet cheerfully. "Full tide. And the position wasn't right either. The neighbourhood's getting suburban. Either be in London or out of it, I say; so we've taken a house in Ducie Street, close to Sloane Street, and a place right down in Shropshire--Oniton Grange. Ever heard of Oniton? Do come and see us--right away from everywhere, up towards Wales. "
"What a change!" said Margaret. But the change was in her own voice, which had become most sad. "I can't imagine Howards End or Hilton without you."
"Hilton isn't without us," he replied. "Charles is there still."
"Still?" said Margaret, who had not kept up with the Charles'. "But I thought he was still at Epsom. They were furnishing that Christmas--one Christmas. How everything alters! I used to admire Mrs. Charles from our windows very often. Wasn't it Epsom?"
"Yes, but they moved eighteen months ago. Charles, the good chap"--his voice dropped--"thought I should be lonely.
I didn't want him to move, but he would, and took a house at the other end of Hilton, down by the Six Hills. He had a motor, too. There they all are, a very jolly party--he and she and the two grandchildren."
"I manage other people's affairs so much better than they manage them themselves," said Margaret as they shook hands. "When you moved out of Howards End, I should have moved Mr. Charles Wilcox into it. I should have kept so remarkable a place in the family."
"So it is," he replied. "I haven't sold it, and don't mean to."
"No; but none of you are there."
"Oh, we've got a splendid tenant--Hamar Bryce, an invalid. If Charles ever wanted it--but he won't. Dolly is so dependent on modern conveniences. No, we have all decided against Howards End. We like it in a way, but now we feel that it is neither one thing nor the other. One must have one thing or the other."
"And some people are lucky enough to have both. You're doing yourself proud, Mr. Wilcox. My congratulations."
"And mine," said Helen.
"Do remind Evie to come and see us--two, Wickham Place.
We shan't be there very long, either."
"You, too, on the move?"
"Next September," Margaret sighed.
"Every one moving! Good-bye."
The tide had begun to ebb. Margaret leant over the parapet and watched it sadly. Mr. Wilcox had forgotten his wife, Helen her lover; she herself was probably forgetting.
Every one moving. Is it worth while attempting the past when there is this continual flux even in the hearts of men?
Helen roused her by saying: "What a prosperous vulgarian Mr. Wilcox has grown! I have very little use for him in these days. However, he did tell us about the Porphyrion.
Let us write to Mr. Bast as soon as ever we get home, and tell him to clear out of it at once."
"Do; yes, that's worth doing. Let us."
"Let's ask him to tea."