Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others--and thus was the death of Wickham Place--the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in the spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness.
Through its round-topped doorway passed furniture, and pictures, and books, until the last room was gutted and the last van had rumbled away. It stood for a week or two longer, open-eyed, as if astonished at its own emptiness.
Then it fell. Navvies came, and spilt it back into the grey. With their muscles and their beery good temper, they were not the worst of undertakers for a house which had always been human, and had not mistaken culture for an end.
The furniture, with a few exceptions, went down into Hertfordshire, Mr. Wilcox having most kindly offered Howards End as a warehouse. Mr. Bryce had died abroad--an unsatisfactory affair--and as there seemed little guarantee that the rent would be paid regularly, he cancelled the agreement, and resumed possession himself. Until he relet the house, the Schlegels were welcome to stack their furniture in the garage and lower rooms. Margaret demurred, but Tibby accepted the offer gladly; it saved him from coming to any decision about the future. The plate and the more valuable pictures found a safer home in London, but the bulk of the things went country-ways, and were entrusted to the guardianship of Miss Avery.
Shortly before the move, our hero and heroine were married. They have weathered the storm, and may reasonably expect peace. To have no illusions and yet to love--what stronger surety can a woman find? She had seen her husband's past as well as his heart. She knew her own heart with a thoroughness that commonplace people believe impossible. The heart of Mrs. Wilcox was alone hidden, and perhaps it is superstitious to speculate on the feelings of the dead. They were married quietly--really quietly, for as the day approached she refused to go through another Oniton. Her brother gave her away, her aunt, who was out of health, presided over a few colourless refreshments. The Wilcoxes were represented by Charles, who witnessed the marriage settlement, and by Mr. Cahill. Paul did send a cablegram. In a few minutes, and without the aid of music, the clergyman made them man and wife, and soon the glass shade had fallen that cuts off married couples from the world. She, a monogamist, regretted the cessation of some of life's innocent odours; he, whose instincts were polygamous, felt morally braced by the change, and less liable to the temptations that had assailed him in the past.
They spent their honeymoon near Innsbruck. Henry knew of a reliable hotel there, and Margaret hoped for a meeting with her sister. In this she was disappointed. As they came south, Helen retreated over the Brenner, and wrote an unsatisfactory postcard from the shores of the Lake of Garda, saying that her plans were uncertain and had better be ignored. Evidently she disliked meeting Henry. Two months are surely enough to accustom an outsider to a situation which a wife has accepted in two days, and Margaret had again to regret her sister's lack of self-control. In a long letter she pointed out the need of charity in sexual matters: so little is known about them; it is hard enough for those who are personally touched to judge; then how futile must be the verdict of Society. "I don't say there is no standard, for that would destroy morality; only that there can be no standard until our impulses are classified and better understood." Helen thanked her for her kind letter--rather a curious reply.
She moved south again, and spoke of wintering in Naples.
Mr. Wilcox was not sorry that the meeting failed. Helen left him time to grow skin over his wound. There were still moments when it pained him. Had he only known that Margaret was awaiting him--Margaret, so lively and intelligent, and yet so submissive--he would have kept himself worthier of her. Incapable of grouping the past, he confused the episode of Jacky with another episode that had taken place in the days of his bachelorhood. The two made one crop of wild oats, for which he was heartily sorry, and he could not see that those oats are of a darker stock which are rooted in another's dishonour. Unchastity and infidelity were as confused to him as to the Middle Ages, his only moral teacher. Ruth (poor old Ruth!) did not enter into his calculations at all, for poor old Ruth had never found him out.
His affection for his present wife grew steadily. Her cleverness gave him no trouble, and, indeed, he liked to see her reading poetry or something about social questions; it distinguished her from the wives of other men. He had only to call, and she clapped the book up and was ready to do what he wished. Then they would argue so jollily, and once or twice she had him in quite a tight corner, but as soon as he grew really serious, she gave in. Man is for war, woman for the recreation of the warrior, but he does not dislike it if she makes a show of fight. She cannot win in a real battle, having no muscles, only nerves. Nerves make her jump out of a moving motor-car, or refuse to be married fashionably. The warrior may well allow her to triumph on such occasions; they move not the imperishable plinth of things that touch his peace.
Margaret had a bad attack of these nerves during the honeymoon. He told her--casually, as was his habit--that Oniton Grange was let. She showed her annoyance, and asked rather crossly why she had not been consulted.
"I didn't want to bother you," he replied. "Besides, I have only heard for certain this morning."
"Where are we to live?" said Margaret, trying to laugh.
"I loved the place extraordinarily. Don't you believe in having a permanent home, Henry?"
He assured her that she misunderstood him. It is home life that distinguishes us from the foreigner. But he did not believe in a damp home.
"This is news. I never heard till this minute that Oniton was damp."
"My dear girl!"--he flung out his hand--"have you eyes?
have you a skin? How could it be anything but damp in such a situation? In the first place, the Grange is on clay, and built where the castle moat must have been; then there's that destestable little river, steaming all night like a kettle. Feel the cellar walls; look up under the eaves.
Ask Sir James or anyone. Those Shropshire valleys are notorious. The only possible place for a house in Shropshire is on a hill; but, for my part, I think the country is too far from London, and the scenery nothing special. "
Margaret could not resist saying, "Why did you go there, then?"
"I--because--" He drew his head back and grew rather angry. "Why have we come to the Tyrol, if it comes to that? One might go on asking such questions indefinitely."
One might; but he was only gaining time for a plausible answer. Out it came, and he believed it as soon as it was spoken.
"The truth is, I took Oniton on account of Evie. Don't let this go any further."
"I shouldn't like her to know that she nearly let me in for a very bad bargain. No sooner did I sign the agreement than she got engaged. Poor little girl! She was so keen on it all, and wouldn't even wait to make proper inquiries about the shooting. Afraid it would get snapped up--just like all of your sex. Well, no harm's done. She has had her country wedding, and I've got rid of my house to some fellows who are starting a preparatory school."
"Where shall we live, then, Henry? I should enjoy living somewhere."
"I have not yet decided. What about Norfolk?"
Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!
"It is now what?" continued Henry. "Nearly October.
Let us camp for the winter at Ducie Street, and look out for something in the spring.
"If possible, something permanent. I can't be as young as I was, for these alterations don't suit me. "
"But, my dear, which would you rather have--alterations or rheumatism?"
"I see your point," said Margaret, getting up. "If Oniton is really damp, it is impossible, and must be inhabited by little boys. Only, in the spring, let us look before we leap. I will take warning by Evie, and not hurry you. Remember that you have a free hand this time. These endless moves must be bad for the furniture, and are certainly expensive."
"What a practical little woman it is! What's it been reading? Theo--theo--how much?"
So Ducie Street was her first fate--a pleasant enough fate. The house, being only a little larger than Wickham Place, trained her for the immense establishment that was promised in the spring. They were frequently away, but at home life ran fairly regularly. In the morning Henry went to the business, and his sandwich--a relic this of some prehistoric craving--was always cut by her own hand. He did not rely upon the sandwich for lunch, but liked to have it by him in case he grew hungry at eleven. When he had gone, there was the house to look after, and the servants to humanize, and several kettles of Helen's to keep on the boil. Her conscience pricked her a little about the Basts; she was not sorry to have lost sight of them. No doubt Leonard was worth helping, but being Henry's wife, she preferred to help someone else. As for theatres and discussion societies, they attracted her less and less. She began to "miss" new movements, and to spend her spare time re-reading or thinking, rather to the concern of her Chelsea friends. They attributed the change to her marriage, and perhaps some deep instinct did warn her not to travel further from her husband than was inevitable. Yet the main cause lay deeper still; she had outgrown stimulants, and was passing from words to things. It was doubtless a pity not to keep up with Wedekind or John, but some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.
She was looking at plans one day in the following spring--they had finally decided to go down into Sussex and build--when Mrs. Charles Wilcox was announced.
"Have you heard the news?" Dolly cried, as soon as she entered the room. "Charles is so ang--I mean he is sure you know about it, or rather, that you don't know."
"Why, Dolly!" said Margaret, placidly kissing her.
"Here's a surprise! How are the boys and the baby?"
Boys and the baby were well, and in describing a great row that there had been at Hilton Tennis Club, Dolly forgot her news. The wrong people had tried to get in. The rector, as representing the older inhabitants, had said--Charles had said--the tax-collector had said--Charles had regretted not saying--and she closed the description with, "But lucky you, with four courts of your own at Midhurst."
"It will be very jolly," replied Margaret.
"Are those the plans? Does it matter me seeing them?"
"Of course not."
"Charles has never seen the plans."
"They have only just arrived. Here is the ground floor--no, that's rather difficult. Try the elevation. We are to have a good many gables and a picturesque sky-line."
"What makes it smell so funny?" said Dolly, after a moment's inspection. She was incapable of understanding plans or maps.
"I suppose the paper."
"And WHICH way up is it?"
"Just the ordinary way up. That's the sky-line, and the part that smells strongest is the sky."
"Well, ask me another. Margaret--oh--what was I going to say? How's Helen?"
"Is she never coming back to England? Every one thinks it's awfully odd she doesn't."
"So it is," said Margaret, trying to conceal her vexation. She was getting rather sore on this point.
"Helen is odd, awfully. She has now been away eight months.
"But hasn't she any address?"
"A poste restante somewhere in Bavaria is her address.
Do write her a line. I will look it up for you."
"No, don't bother. That's eight months she has been away, surely?"
"Exactly. She left just after Evie's wedding. It would be eight months."
"Just when baby was born, then?"
Dolly sighed, and stared enviously round the drawing-room. She was beginning to lose her brightness and good looks. The Charles' were not well off, for Mr. Wilcox, having brought up his children with expensive tastes, believed in letting them shift for themselves. After all, he had not treated them generously. Yet another baby was expected, she told Margaret, and they would have to give up the motor. Margaret sympathized, but in a formal fashion, and Dolly little imagined that the step-mother was urging Mr. Wilcox to make them a more liberal allowance. She sighed again, and at last the particular grievance was remembered. "Oh yes," she cried, "that is it: Miss Avery has been unpacking your packing-cases."
"Why has she done that? How unnecessary!"
"Ask another. I suppose you ordered her to."
"I gave no such orders. Perhaps she was airing the things. She did undertake to light an occasional fire."
"It was far more than an air," said Dolly solemnly.
"The floor sounds covered with books. Charles sent me to know what is to be done, for he feels certain you don't know."
"Books!" cried Margaret, moved by the holy word.
"Dolly, are you serious? Has she been touching our books?"
"Hasn't she, though! What used to be the hall's full of them. Charles thought for certain you knew of it."
"I am very much obliged to you, Dolly. What can have come over Miss Avery? I must go down about it at once.
Some of the books are my brother's, and are quite valuable.
She had no right to open any of the cases."
"I say she's dotty. She was the one that never got married, you know. Oh, I say, perhaps she thinks your books are wedding-presents to herself. Old maids are taken that way sometimes. Miss Avery hates us all like poison ever since her frightful dust-up with Evie."
"I hadn't heard of that," said Margaret. A visit from Dolly had its compensations.
"Didn't you know she gave Evie a present last August, and Evie returned it, and then--oh, goloshes! You never read such a letter as Miss Avery wrote."
"But it was wrong of Evie to return it. It wasn't like her to do such a heartless thing."
"But the present was so expensive."
"Why does that make any difference, Dolly?"
"Still, when it costs over five pounds--I didn't see it, but it was a lovely enamel pendant from a Bond Street shop.
You can't very well accept that kind of thing from a farm woman. Now, can you?"
"You accepted a present from Miss Avery when you were married.
"Oh, mine was old earthenware stuff--not worth a halfpenny. Evie's was quite different. You'd have to ask anyone to the wedding who gave you a pendant like that.
Uncle Percy and Albert and father and Charles all said it was quite impossible, and when four men agree, what is a girl to do? Evie didn't want to upset the old thing, so thought a sort of joking letter best, and returned the pendant straight to the shop to save Miss Avery trouble."
"But Miss Avery said--"
Dolly's eyes grew round. "It was a perfectly awful letter. Charles said it was the letter of a madman. In the end she had the pendant back again from the shop and threw it into the duckpond.
"Did she give any reasons?"
"We think she meant to be invited to Oniton, and so climb into society."
"She's rather old for that," said Margaret pensively.
"May not she have given the present to Evie in remembrance of her mother?"
"That's a notion. Give every one their due, eh? Well, I suppose I ought to be toddling. Come along, Mr. Muff--you want a new coat, but I don't know who'll give it you, I'm sure;" and addressing her apparel with mournful humour, Dolly moved from the room.
Margaret followed her to ask whether Henry knew about Miss Avery's rudeness.
"I wonder, then, why he let me ask her to look after the house."
"But she's only a farm woman," said Dolly, and her explanation proved correct. Henry only censured the lower classes when it suited him. He bore with Miss Avery as with Crane--because he could get good value out of them. "I have patience with a man who knows his job," he would say, really having patience with the job, and not the man. Paradoxical as it may sound, he had something of the artist about him; he would pass over an insult to his daughter sooner than lose a good charwoman for his wife.
Margaret judged it better to settle the little trouble herself. Parties were evidently ruffled. With Henry's permission, she wrote a pleasant note to Miss Avery, asking her to leave the cases untouched. Then, at the first convenient opportunity, she went down herself, intending to repack her belongings and store them properly in the local warehouse: the plan had been amateurish and a failure.
Tibby promised to accompany her, but at the last moment begged to be excused. So, for the second time in her life, she entered the house alone.
The day of her visit was exquisite, and the last of unclouded happiness that she was to have for many months.
Her anxiety about Helen's extraordinary absence was still dormant, and as for a possible brush with Miss Avery--that only gave zest to the expedition. She had also eluded Dolly's invitation to luncheon. Walking straight up from the station, she crossed the village green and entered the long chestnut avenue that connects it with the church. The church itself stood in the village once. But it there attracted so many worshippers that the devil, in a pet, snatched it from its foundations, and poised it on an inconvenient knoll, three-quarters of a mile away. If this story is true, the chestnut avenue must have been planted by the angels. No more tempting approach could be imagined for the luke-warm Christian, and if he still finds the walk too long, the devil is defeated all the same, Science having built Holy Trinity, a Chapel of Ease, near the Charles', and roofed it with tin.
Up the avenue Margaret strolled slowly, stopping to watch the sky that gleamed through the upper branches of the chestnuts, or to finger the little horseshoes on the lower branches. Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our country-side have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature--for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.
At the church the scenery changed. The chestnut avenue opened into a road, smooth but narrow, which led into the untouched country. She followed it for over a mile. Its little hesitations pleased her. Having no urgent destiny, it strolled downhill or up as it wished, taking no trouble about the gradients, nor about the view, which nevertheless expanded. The great estates that throttle the south of Hertfordshire were less obtrusive here, and the appearance of the land was neither aristocratic nor suburban. To define it was difficult, but Margaret knew what it was not: it was not snobbish. Though its contours were slight, there was a touch of freedom in their sweep to which Surrey will never attain, and the distant brow of the Chilterns towered like a mountain. "Left to itself," was Margaret's opinion, "this county would vote Liberal." The comradeship, not passionate, that is our highest gift as a nation, was promised by it, as by the low brick farm where she called for the key.
But the inside of the farm was disappointing. A most finished young person received her. "Yes, Mrs. Wilcox; no, Mrs. Wilcox; oh yes, Mrs. Wilcox, auntie received your letter quite duly. Auntie has gone up to your little place at the present moment. Shall I send the servant to direct you?" Followed by: "Of course, auntie does not generally look after your place; she only does it to oblige a neighbour as something exceptional. It gives her something to do. She spends quite a lot of her time there. My husband says to me sometimes, 'Where's auntie?' I say, 'Need you ask? She's at Howards End.' Yes, Mrs. Wilcox. Mrs. Wilcox, could I prevail upon you to accept a piece of cake?
Not if I cut it for you?"
Margaret refused the cake, but unfortunately this acquired her gentility in the eyes of Miss Avery's niece.
"I cannot let you go on alone. Now don't. You really mustn't. I will direct you myself if it comes to that. I must get my hat. Now"--roguishly--"Mrs. Wilcox, don't you move while I'm gone."
Stunned, Margaret did not move from the best parlour, over which the touch of art nouveau had fallen. But the other rooms looked in keeping, though they conveyed the peculiar sadness of a rural interior. Here had lived an elder race, to which we look back with disquietude. The country which we visit at week-ends was really a home to it, and the graver sides of life, the deaths, the partings, the yearnings for love, have their deepest expression in the heart of the fields. All was not sadness. The sun was shining without. The thrush sang his two syllables on the budding guelder-rose. Some children were playing uproariously in heaps of golden straw. It was the presence of sadness at all that surprised Margaret, and ended by giving her a feeling of completeness. In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect--connect without bitterness until all men are brothers. But her thoughts were interrupted by the return of Miss Avery's niece, and were so tranquillizing that she suffered the interruption gladly.
It was quicker to go out by the back door, and, after due explanations, they went out by it. The niece was now mortified by unnumerable chickens, who rushed up to her feet for food, and by a shameless and maternal sow. She did not know what animals were coming to. But her gentility withered at the touch of the sweet air. The wind was rising, scattering the straw and ruffling the tails of the ducks as they floated in families over Evie's pendant. One of those delicious gales of spring, in which leaves stiff in bud seem to rustle, swept over the land and then fell silent. "Georgia," sang the thrush. "Cuckoo," came furtively from the cliff of pine-trees. "Georgia, pretty Georgia," and the other birds joined in with nonsense. The hedge was a half-painted picture which would be finished in a few days. Celandines grew on its banks, lords and ladies and primroses in the defended hollows; the wild rose-bushes, still bearing their withered hips, showed also the promise of blossom. Spring had come, clad in no classical garb, yet fairer than all springs; fairer even than she who walks through the myrtles of Tuscany with the graces before her and the zephyr behind.
The two women walked up the lane full of outward civility. But Margaret was thinking how difficult it was to be earnest about furniture on such a day, and the niece was thinking about hats. Thus engaged, they reached Howards End. Petulant cries of "Auntie!" severed the air. There was no reply, and the front door was locked.
"Are you sure that Miss Avery is up here?" asked Margaret.
"Oh yes, Mrs. Wilcox, quite sure. She is here daily."
Margaret tried to look in through the dining-room window, but the curtain inside was drawn tightly. So with the drawing-room and the hall. The appearance of these curtains was familiar, yet she did not remember them being there on her other visit: her impression was that Mr. Bryce had taken everything away. They tried the back. Here again they received no answer, and could see nothing; the kitchen-window was fitted with a blind, while the pantry and scullery had pieces of wood propped up against them, which looked ominously like the lids of packing-cases. Margaret thought of her books, and she lifted up her voice also. At the first cry she succeeded.
"Well, well!" replied someone inside the house. "If it isn't Mrs. Wilcox come at last!"
"Have you got the key, auntie?"
"Madge, go away," said Miss Avery, still invisible.
"Auntie, it's Mrs. Wilcox--"
Margaret supported her. "Your niece and I have come together--"
"Madge, go away. This is no moment for your hat."
The poor woman went red. "Auntie gets more eccentric lately," she said nervously.
"Miss Avery!" called Margaret. "I have come about the furniture. Could you kindly let me in?"
"Yes, Mrs. Wilcox," said the voice, "of course." But after that came silence. They called again without response. They walked round the house disconsolately.
"I hope Miss Avery is not ill," hazarded Margaret.
"Well, if you'll excuse me," said Madge, "perhaps I ought to be leaving you now. The servants need seeing to at the farm. Auntie is so odd at times." Gathering up her elegancies, she retired defeated, and, as if her departure had loosed a spring, the front door opened at once.
Miss Avery said, "Well, come right in, Mrs. Wilcox!" quite pleasantly and calmly.
"Thank you so much," began Margaret, but broke off at the sight of an umbrella-stand. It was her own.
"Come right into the hall first," said Miss Avery. She drew the curtain, and Margaret uttered a cry of despair.
For an appalling thing had happened. The hall was fitted up with the contents of the library from Wickham Place. The carpet had been laid, the big work-table drawn up near the window; the bookcases filled the wall opposite the fireplace, and her father's sword--this is what bewildered her particularly--had been drawn from its scabbard and hung naked amongst the sober volumes. Miss Avery must have worked for days.
"I'm afraid this isn't what we meant," she began. "Mr. Wilcox and I never intended the cases to be touched. For instance, these books are my brother's. We are storing them for him and for my sister, who is abroad. When you kindly undertook to look after things, we never expected you to do so much."
"The house has been empty long enough," said the old woman.
Margaret refused to argue. "I dare say we didn't explain," she said civilly. "It has been a mistake, and very likely our mistake."
"Mrs. Wilcox, it has been mistake upon mistake for fifty years. The house is Mrs. Wilcox's, and she would not desire it to stand empty any longer."
To help the poor decaying brain, Margaret said:
"Yes, Mrs. Wilcox's house, the mother of Mr. Charles."
"Mistake upon mistake," said Miss Avery. "Mistake upon mistake."
"Well, I don't know," said Margaret, sitting down in one of her own chairs. "I really don't know what's to be done." She could not help laughing.
The other said: "Yes, it should be a merry house enough."
"I don't know--I dare say. Well, thank you very much, Miss Avery. Yes, that's all right. Delightful."
"There is still the parlour." She went through the door opposite and drew a curtain. Light flooded the drawing-room and the drawing-room furniture from Wickham Place. "And the dining-room." More curtains were drawn, more windows were flung open to the spring. "Then through here--" Miss Avery continued passing and repassing through the hall. Her voice was lost, but Margaret heard her pulling up the kitchen blind. "I've not finished here yet," she announced, returning. "There's still a deal to do. The farm lads will carry your great wardrobes upstairs, for there is no need to go into expense at Hilton."
"It is all a mistake," repeated Margaret, feeling that she must put her foot down. "A misunderstanding. Mr. Wilcox and I are not going to live at Howards End."
"Oh, indeed. On account of his hay fever?"
"We have settled to build a new home for ourselves in Sussex, and part of this furniture--my part--will go down there presently." She looked at Miss Avery intently, trying to understand the kink in her brain. Here was no maundering old woman. Her wrinkles were shrewd and humorous. She looked capable of scathing wit and also of high but unostentatious nobility.
"You think that you won't come back to live here, Mrs. Wilcox, but you will."
"That remains to be seen," said Margaret, smiling. "We have no intention of doing so for the present. We happen to need a much larger house. Circumstances oblige us to give big parties. Of course, some day--one never knows, does one?"
Miss Avery retorted: "Some day! Tcha! tcha! Don't talk about some day. You are living here now."
"You are living here, and have been for the last ten minutes, if you ask me."
It was a senseless remark, but with a queer feeling of disloyalty Margaret rose from her chair. She felt that Henry had been obscurely censured. They went into the dining-room, where the sunlight poured in upon her mother's chiffonier, and upstairs, where many an old god peeped from a new niche. The furniture fitted extraordinarily well. In the central room--over the hall, the room that Helen had slept in four years ago--Miss Avery had placed Tibby's old bassinette.
"The nursery," she said.
Margaret turned away without speaking.
At last everything was seen. The kitchen and lobby were still stacked with furniture and straw, but, as far as she could make out, nothing had been broken or scratched. A pathetic display of ingenuity! Then they took a friendly stroll in the garden. It had gone wild since her last visit. The gravel sweep was weedy, and grass had sprung up at the very jaws of the garage. And Evie's rockery was only bumps. Perhaps Evie was responsible for Miss Avery's oddness. But Margaret suspected that the cause lay deeper, and that the girl's silly letter had but loosed the irritation of years.
"It's a beautiful meadow," she remarked. It was one of those open-air drawing-rooms that have been formed, hundreds of years ago, out of the smaller fields. So the boundary hedge zigzagged down the hill at right angles, and at the bottom there was a little green annex--a sort of powder-closet for the cows.
"Yes, the maidy's well enough," said Miss Avery, "for those that is, who don't suffer from sneezing." And she cackled maliciously. "I've seen Charlie Wilcox go out to my lads in hay time--oh, they ought to do this--they mustn't do that--he'd learn them to be lads. And just then the tickling took him. He has it from his father, with other things. There's not one Wilcox that can stand up against a field in June--I laughed fit to burst while he was courting Ruth."
"My brother gets hay fever too," said Margaret.
"This house lies too much on the land for them.
Naturally, they were glad enough to slip in at first. But Wilcoxes are better than nothing, as I see you've found."
"They keep a place going, don't they? Yes, it is just that."
"They keep England going, it is my opinion."
But Miss Avery upset her by replying: "Ay, they breed like rabbits. Well, well, it's a funny world. But He who made it knows what He wants in it, I suppose. If Mrs. Charlie is expecting her fourth, it isn't for us to repine."
"They breed and they also work," said Margaret, conscious of some invitation to disloyalty, which was echoed by the very breeze and by the songs of the birds. "It certainly is a funny world, but so long as men like my husband and his sons govern it, I think it'll never be a bad one--never really bad."
"No, better'n nothing," said Miss Avery, and turned to the wych-elm.
On their way back to the farm she spoke of her old friend much more clearly than before. In the house Margaret had wondered whether she quite distinguished the first wife from the second. Now she said: "I never saw much of Ruth after her grandmother died, but we stayed civil. It was a very civil family. Old Mrs. Howard never spoke against anybody, nor let anyone be turned away without food. Then it was never 'Trespassers will be prosecuted' in their land, but would people please not come in. Mrs. Howard was never created to run a farm."
"Had they no men to help them?" Margaret asked.
Miss Avery replied: "Things went on until there were no men."
"Until Mr. Wilcox came along," corrected Margaret, anxious that her husband should receive his dues.
"I suppose so; but Ruth should have married a--no disrespect to you to say this, for I take it you were intended to get Wilcox any way, whether she got him first or no."
"Whom should she have married?"
"A soldier!" exclaimed the old woman. "Some real soldier."
Margaret was silent. It was a criticism of Henry's character far more trenchant than any of her own. She felt dissatisfied.
"But that's all over," she went on. "A better time is coming now, though you've kept me long enough waiting. In a couple of weeks I'll see your lights shining through the hedge of an evening. Have you ordered in coals?"
"We are not coming," said Margaret firmly. She respected Miss Avery too much to humour her. "No. Not coming. Never coming. It has all been a mistake. The furniture must be repacked at once, and I am very sorry but I am making other arrangements, and must ask you to give me the keys."
"Certainly, Mrs. Wilcox," said Miss Avery, and resigned her duties with a smile.
Relieved at this conclusion, and having sent her compliments to Madge, Margaret walked back to the station.
She had intended to go to the furniture warehouse and give directions for removal, but the muddle had turned out more extensive than she expected, so she decided to consult Henry. It was as well that she did this. He was strongly against employing the local man whom he had previously recommended, and advised her to store in London after all.
But before this could be done an unexpected trouble fell upon her.
It was not unexpected entirely. Aunt Juley's health had been bad all the winter. She had had a long series of colds and coughs, and had been too busy to get rid of them. She had scarcely promised her niece "to really take my tiresome chest in hand," when she caught a chill and developed acute pneumonia. Margaret and Tibby went down to Swanage. Helen was telegraphed for, and that spring party that after all gathered in that hospitable house had all the pathos of fair memories. On a perfect day, when the sky seemed blue porcelain, and the waves of the discreet little bay beat gentlest of tattoos upon the sand, Margaret hurried up through the rhododendrons, confronted again by the senselessness of Death. One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another: the groping inquiry must begin anew. Preachers or scientists may generalize, but we know that no generality is possible about those whom we love; not one heaven awaits them, not even one oblivion.
Aunt Juley, incapable of tragedy, slipped out of life with odd little laughs and apologies for having stopped in it so long. She was very weak; she could not rise to the occasion, or realize the great mystery which all agree must await her; it only seemed to her that she was quite done up--more done up than ever before; that she saw and heard and felt less every moment; and that, unless something changed, she would soon feel nothing. Her spare strength she devoted to plans: could not Margaret take some steamer expeditions? were mackerel cooked as Tibby liked them? She worried herself about Helen's absence, and also that she could be the cause of Helen's return. The nurses seemed to think such interests quite natural, and perhaps hers was an average approach to the Great Gate. But Margaret saw Death stripped of any false romance; whatever the idea of Death may contain, the process can be trivial and hideous.
"Important--Margaret dear, take the Lulworth when Helen comes."
"Helen won't be able to stop, Aunt Juley. She has telegraphed that she can only get away just to see you. She must go back to Germany as soon as you are well."
"How very odd of Helen! Mr. Wilcox--"
"Can he spare you?"
Henry wished her to come, and had been very kind. Yet again Margaret said so.
Mrs. Munt did not die. Quite outside her will, a more dignified power took hold of her and checked her on the downward slope. She returned, without emotion, as fidgety as ever. On the fourth day she was out of danger.
"Margaret--important," it went on: "I should like you to have some companion to take walks with. Do try Miss Conder."
"I have been a little walk with Miss Conder."
"But she is not really interesting. If only you had Helen."
"I have Tibby, Aunt Juley."
"No, but he has to do his Chinese. Some real companion is what you need. Really, Helen is odd."
"Helen is odd, very," agreed Margaret.
"Not content with going abroad, why does she want to go back there at once?"
"No doubt she will change her mind when she sees us.
She has not the least balance."
That was the stock criticism about Helen, but Margaret's voice trembled as she made it. By now she was deeply pained at her sister's behaviour. It may be unbalanced to fly out of England, but to stop away eight months argues that the heart is awry as well as the head. A sick-bed could recall Helen, but she was deaf to more human calls; after a glimpse at her aunt, she would retire into her nebulous life behind some poste restante. She scarcely existed; her letters had become dull and infrequent; she had no wants and no curiosity. And it was all put down to poor Henry's account! Henry, long pardoned by his wife, was still too infamous to be greeted by his sister-in-law. It was morbid, and, to her alarm, Margaret fancied that she could trace the growth of morbidity back in Helen's life for nearly four years. The flight from Oniton; the unbalanced patronage of the Basts; the explosion of grief up on the Downs--all connected with Paul, an insignificant boy whose lips had kissed hers for a fraction of time. Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox had feared that they might kiss again. Foolishly: the real danger was reaction. Reaction against the Wilcoxes had eaten into her life until she was scarcely sane. At twenty-five she had an idee fixe. What hope was there for her as an old woman?
The more Margaret thought about it the more alarmed she became. For many months she had put the subject away, but it was too big to be slighted now. There was almost a taint of madness. Were all Helen's actions to be governed by a tiny mishap, such as may happen to any young man or woman?
Can human nature be constructed on lines so insignificant?
The blundering little encounter at Howards End was vital.
It propagated itself where graver intercourse lay barren; it was stronger than sisterly intimacy, stronger than reason or books. In one of her moods Helen had confessed that she still "enjoyed" it in a certain sense. Paul had faded, but the magic of his caress endured. And where there is enjoyment of the past there may also be reaction--propagation at both ends.
Well, it is odd and sad that our minds should be such seed-beds, and we without power to choose the seed. But man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul. Margaret and Helen have been more patient, and it is suggested that Margaret has succeeded--so far as success is yet possible. She does understand herself, she has some rudimentary control over her own growth. Whether Helen has succeeded one cannot say.
The day that Mrs. Munt rallied Helen's letter arrived.
She had posted it at Munich, and would be in London herself on the morrow. It was a disquieting letter, though the opening was affectionate and sane.
Give Helen's love to Aunt Juley. Tell her that I love, and have loved, her ever since I can remember. I shall be in London Thursday.
My address will be care of the bankers. I have not yet settled on a hotel, so write or wire to me there and give me detailed news. If Aunt Juley is much better, or if, for a terrible reason, it would be no good my coming down to Swanage, you must not think it odd if I do not come. I have all sorts of plans in my head. I am living abroad at present, and want to get back as quickly as possible. Will you please tell me where our furniture is. I should like to take out one or two books; the rest are for you.
Forgive me, dearest Meg. This must read like rather a tiresome letter, but all letters are from your loving
It was a tiresome letter, for it tempted Margaret to tell a lie. If she wrote that Aunt Juley was still in danger her sister would come. Unhealthiness is contagious.
We cannot be in contact with those who are in a morbid state without ourselves deteriorating. To "act for the best" might do Helen good, but would do herself harm, and, at the risk of disaster, she kept her colours flying a little longer. She replied that their aunt was much better, and awaited developments.
Tibby approved of her reply. Mellowing rapidly, he was a pleasanter companion than before. Oxford had done much for him. He had lost his peevishness, and could hide his indifference to people and his interest in food. But he had not grown more human. The years between eighteen and twenty-two, so magical for most, were leading him gently from boyhood to middle age. He had never known young-manliness, that quality which warms the heart till death, and gives Mr. Wilcox an imperishable charm. He was frigid, through no fault of his own, and without cruelty.
He thought Helen wrong and Margaret right, but the family trouble was for him what a scene behind footlights is for most people. He had only one suggestion to make, and that was characteristic.
"Why don't you tell Mr. Wilcox?"
"Perhaps he has come across that sort of thing."
"He would do all he could, but--"
"Oh, you know best. But he is practical."
It was the student's belief in experts. Margaret demurred for one or two reasons. Presently Helen's answer came. She sent a telegram requesting the address of the furniture, as she would now return at once. Margaret replied, "Certainly not; meet me at the bankers at four." She and Tibby went up to London. Helen was not at the bankers, and they were refused her address. Helen had passed into chaos.
Margaret put her arm round her brother. He was all that she had left, and never had he seemed more unsubstantial.
"Tibby love, what next?"
He replied: "It is extraordinary."
"Dear, your judgment's often clearer than mine. Have you any notion what's at the back?"
"None, unless it's something mental."
"Oh--that!" said Margaret. "Quite impossible." But the suggestion had been uttered, and in a few minutes she took it up herself. Nothing else explained. And London agreed with Tibby. The mask fell off the city, and she saw it for what it really is--a caricature of infinity. The familiar barriers, the streets along which she moved, the houses between which she had made her little journeys for so many years, became negligible suddenly. Helen seemed one with grimy trees and the traffic and the slowly-flowing slabs of mud. She had accomplished a hideous act of renunciation and returned to the One. Margaret's own faith held firm. She knew the human soul will be merged, if it be merged at all, with the stars and the sea. Yet she felt that her sister had been going amiss for many years. It was symbolic the catastrophe should come now, on a London afternoon, while rain fell slowly.
Henry was the only hope. Henry was definite. He might know of some paths in the chaos that were hidden from them, and she determined to take Tibby's advice and lay the whole matter in his hands. They must call at his office. He could not well make it worse. She went for a few moments into St. Paul's, whose dome stands out of the welter so bravely, as if preaching the gospel of form. But within, St. Paul's is as its surroundings--echoes and whispers, inaudible songs, invisible mosaics, wet footmarks crossing and recrossing the floor. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: it points us back to London. There was no hope of Helen here.
Henry was unsatisfactory at first. That she had expected. He was overjoyed to see her back from Swanage, and slow to admit the growth of a new trouble. When they told him of their search, he only chaffed Tibby and the Schlegels generally, and declared that it was "just like Helen" to lead her relatives a dance.
"That is what we all say," replied Margaret. "But why should it be just like Helen? Why should she be allowed to be so queer, and to grow queerer?"
"Don't ask me. I'm a plain man of business. I live and let live. My advice to you both is, don't worry. Margaret, you've got black marks again under your eyes. You know that's strictly forbidden. First your aunt--then your sister. No, we aren't going to have it. Are we, Theobald?" He rang the bell. "I'll give you some tea, and then you go straight to Ducie Street. I can't have my girl looking as old as her husband."
"All the same, you have not quite seen our point," said Tibby.
Mr. Wilcox, who was in good spirits, retorted, "I don't suppose I ever shall." He leant back, laughing at the gifted but ridiculous family, while the fire flickered over the map of Africa. Margaret motioned to her brother to go on. Rather diffident, he obeyed her.
"Margaret's point is this," he said. "Our sister may be mad."
Charles, who was working in the inner room, looked round.
"Come in, Charles," said Margaret kindly. "Could you help us at all? We are again in trouble."
"I'm afraid I cannot. What are the facts? We are all mad more or less, you know, in these days."
"The facts are as follows," replied Tibby, who had at times a pedantic lucidity. "The facts are that she has been in England for three days and will not see us. She has forbidden the bankers to give us her address. She refuses to answer questions. Margaret finds her letters colourless. There are other facts, but these are the most striking."
"She has never behaved like this before, then?" asked Henry.
"Of course not!" said his wife, with a frown.
"Well, my dear, how am I to know?"
A senseless spasm of annoyance came over her. "You know quite well that Helen never sins against affection," she said. "You must have noticed that much in her, surely."
"Oh yes; she and I have always hit it off together."
"No, Henry--can't you see? --I don't mean that."
She recovered herself, but not before Charles had observed her. Stupid and attentive, he was watching the scene.
"I was meaning that when she was eccentric in the past, one could trace it back to the heart in the long run. She behaved oddly because she cared for someone, or wanted to help them. There's no possible excuse for her now. She is grieving us deeply, and that is why I am sure that she is not well. 'Mad' is too terrible a word, but she is not well. I shall never believe it. I shouldn't discuss my sister with you if I thought she was well--trouble you about her, I mean."
Henry began to grow serious. Ill-health was to him something perfectly definite. Generally well himself, he could not realize that we sink to it by slow gradations.
The sick had no rights; they were outside the pale; one could lie to them remorselessly. When his first wife was seized, he had promised to take her down into Hertfordshire, but meanwhile arranged with a nursing-home instead. Helen, too, was ill. And the plan that he sketched out for her capture, clever and well-meaning as it was, drew its ethics from the wolf-pack.
"You want to get hold of her?" he said. "That's the problem, isn't it? She has got to see a doctor."
"For all I know she has seen one already."
"Yes, yes; don't interrupt." He rose to his feet and thought intently. The genial, tentative host disappeared, and they saw instead the man who had carved money out of Greece and Africa, and bought forests from the natives for a few bottles of gin. "I've got it," he said at last. "It's perfectly easy. Leave it to me. We'll send her down to Howards End."
"How will you do that?"
"After her books. Tell her that she must unpack them herself. Then you can meet her there."
"But, Henry, that's just what she won't let me do. It's part of her--whatever it is--never to see me."
"Of course you won't tell her you're going. When she is there, looking at the cases, you'll just stroll in. If nothing is wrong with her, so much the better. But there'll be the motor round the corner, and we can run her up to a specialist in no time."
Margaret shook her head. "It's quite impossible."
"It doesn't seem impossible to me," said Tibby; "it is surely a very tippy plan."
"It is impossible, because--" She looked at her husband sadly. "It's not the particular language that Helen and I talk if you see my meaning. It would do splendidly for other people, whom I don't blame."
"But Helen doesn't talk," said Tibby. "That's our whole difficulty. She won't talk your particular language, and on that account you think she's ill."
"No, Henry; it's sweet of you, but I couldn't."
"I see," he said; "you have scruples."
"I suppose so."
"And sooner than go against them you would have your sister suffer. You could have got her down to Swanage by a word, but you had scruples. And scruples are all very well. I am as scrupulous as any man alive, I hope; but when it is a case like this, when there is a question of madness--"
"I deny it's madness."
"You said just now--"
"It's madness when I say it, but not when you say it."
Henry shrugged his shoulders. "Margaret! Margaret!" he groaned. "No education can teach a woman logic. Now, my dear, my time is valuable. Do you want me to help you or not?"
"Not in that way."
"Answer my question. Plain question, plain answer. Do--"
Charles surprised them by interrupting. "Pater, we may as well keep Howards End out of it," he said.
Charles could give no reason; but Margaret felt as if, over tremendous distance, a salutation had passed between them.
"The whole house is at sixes and sevens," he said crossly. "We don't want any more mess."
"Who's 'we'?" asked his father. "My boy, pray, who's 'we'?"
"I am sure I beg your pardon," said Charles. "I appear always to be intruding."
By now Margaret wished she had never mentioned her trouble to her husband. Retreat was impossible. He was determined to push the matter to a satisfactory conclusion, and Helen faded as he talked. Her fair, flying hair and eager eyes counted for nothing, for she was ill, without rights, and any of her friends might hunt her. Sick at heart, Margaret joined in the chase. She wrote her sister a lying letter, at her husband's dictation; she said the furniture was all at Howards End, but could be seen on Monday next at 3 p.m., when a charwoman would be in attendance. It was a cold letter, and the more plausible for that. Helen would think she was offended. And on Monday next she and Henry were to lunch with Dolly, and then ambush themselves in the garden.
After they had gone, Mr. Wilcox said to his son: "I can't have this sort of behaviour, my boy. Margaret's too sweet-natured to mind, but I mind for her."
Charles made no answer.
"Is anything wrong with you, Charles, this afternoon?"
"No, pater; but you may be taking on a bigger business than you reckon."
"Don't ask me."
One speaks of the moods of spring, but the days that are her true children have only one mood; they are all full of the rising and dropping of winds, and the whistling of birds.
New flowers may come out, the green embroidery of the hedges increase, but the same heaven broods overhead, soft, thick, and blue, the same figures, seen and unseen, are wandering by coppice and meadow. The morning that Margaret had spent with Miss Avery, and the afternoon she set out to entrap Helen, were the scales of a single balance. Time might never have moved, rain never have fallen, and man alone, with his schemes and ailments, was troubling Nature until he saw her through a veil of tears.
She protested no more. Whether Henry was right or wrong, he was most kind, and she knew of no other standard by which to judge him. She must trust him absolutely. As soon as he had taken up a business, his obtuseness vanished. He profited by the slightest indications, and the capture of Helen promised to be staged as deftly as the marriage of Evie.
They went down in the morning as arranged, and he discovered that their victim was actually in Hilton. On his arrival he called at all the livery-stables in the village, and had a few minutes' serious conversation with the proprietors. What he said, Margaret did not know--perhaps not the truth; but news arrived after lunch that a lady had come by the London train, and had taken a fly to Howards End.
"She was bound to drive," said Henry. "There will be her books.
"I cannot make it out," said Margaret for the hundredth time.
"Finish your coffee, dear. We must be off."
"Yes, Margaret, you know you must take plenty," said Dolly.
Margaret tried, but suddenly lifted her hand to her eyes. Dolly stole glances at her father-in-law which he did not answer. In the silence the motor came round to the door.
"You're not fit for it," he said anxiously. "Let me go alone. I know exactly what to do."
"Oh yes, I am fit," said Margaret, uncovering her face.
"Only most frightfully worried. I cannot feel that Helen is really alive. Her letters and telegrams seem to have come from someone else. Her voice isn't in them. I don't believe your driver really saw her at the station. I wish I'd never mentioned it. I know that Charles is vexed. Yes, he is--" She seized Dolly's hand and kissed it. "There, Dolly will forgive me. There. Now we'll be off."
Henry had been looking at her closely. He did not like this breakdown.
"Don't you want to tidy yourself?" he asked.
"Have I time?"
She went to the lavatory by the front door, and as soon as the bolt slipped, Mr. Wilcox said quietly:
"Dolly, I'm going without her."
Dolly's eyes lit up with vulgar excitement. She followed him on tip-toe out to the car.
"Tell her I thought it best."
"Yes, Mr. Wilcox, I see."
"Say anything you like. All right."
The car started well, and with ordinary luck would have got away. But Porgly-woggles, who was playing in the garden, chose this moment to sit down in the middle of the path. Crane, in trying to pass him, ran one wheel over a bed of wallflowers. Dolly screamed. Margaret, hearing the noise, rushed out hatless, and was in time to jump on the footboard. She said not a single word: he was only treating her as she had treated Helen, and her rage at his dishonesty only helped to indicate what Helen would feel against them.
She thought, "I deserve it: I am punished for lowering my colours." And she accepted his apologies with a calmness that astonished him.
"I still consider you are not fit for it," he kept saying.
"Perhaps I was not at lunch. But the whole thing is spread clearly before me now."
"I was meaning to act for the best."
"Just lend me your scarf, will you? This wind takes one's hair so."
"Certainly, dear girl. Are you all right now?"
"Look! My hands have stopped trembling."
"And have quite forgiven me? Then listen. Her cab should already have arrived at Howards End. (We're a little late, but no matter.) Our first move will be to send it down to wait at the farm, as, if possible, one doesn't want a scene before servants. A certain gentleman"--he pointed at Crane's back--"won't drive in, but will wait a little short of the front gate, behind the laurels. Have you still the keys of the house?"
"Well, they aren't wanted. Do you remember how the house stands?"
"If we don't find her in the porch, we can stroll round into the garden. Our object--"
Here they stopped to pick up the doctor.
"I was just saying to my wife, Mansbridge, that our main object is not to frighten Miss Schlegel. The house, as you know, is my property, so it should seem quite natural for us to be there. The trouble is evidently nervous--wouldn't you say so, Margaret?"
The doctor, a very young man, began to ask questions about Helen. Was she normal? Was there anything congenital or hereditary? Had anything occurred that was likely to alienate her from her family?
"Nothing," answered Margaret, wondering what would have happened if she had added: "Though she did resent my husband's immorality."
"She always was highly strung," pursued Henry, leaning back in the car as it shot past the church. "A tendency to spiritualism and those things, though nothing serious.
Musical, literary, artistic, but I should say normal--a very charming girl."
Margaret's anger and terror increased every moment. How dare these men label her sister! What horrors lay ahead!
What impertinences that shelter under the name of science!
The pack was turning on Helen, to deny her human rights, and it seemed to Margaret that all Schlegels were threatened with her. "Were they normal?" What a question to ask! And it is always those who know nothing about human nature, who are bored by psychology and shocked by physiology, who ask it. However piteous her sister's state, she knew that she must be on her side. They would be mad together if the world chose to consider them so.
It was now five minutes past three. The car slowed down by the farm, in the yard of which Miss Avery was standing.
Henry asked her whether a cab had gone past. She nodded, and the next moment they caught sight of it, at the end of the lane. The car ran silently like a beast of prey. So unsuspicious was Helen that she was sitting on the porch, with her back to the road. She had come. Only her head and shoulders were visible. She sat framed in the vine, and one of her hands played with the buds. The wind ruffled her hair, the sun glorified it; she was as she had always been.
Margaret was seated next to the door. Before her husband could prevent her, she slipped out. She ran to the garden gate, which was shut, passed through it, and deliberately pushed it in his face. The noise alarmed Helen. Margaret saw her rise with an unfamiliar movement, and, rushing into the porch, learnt the simple explanation of all their fears--her sister was with child.
"Is the truant all right?" called Henry.
She had time to whisper: "Oh, my darling--" The keys of the house were in her hand. She unlocked Howards End and thrust Helen into it. "Yes, all right," she said, and stood with her back to the door.