"Margaret, you look upset!" said Henry. Mansbridge had followed. Crane was at the gate, and the flyman had stood up on the box. Margaret shook her head at them; she could not speak any more. She remained clutching the keys, as if all their future depended on them. Henry was asking more questions. She shook her head again. His words had no sense. She heard him wonder why she had let Helen in. "You might have given me a knock with the gate," was another of his remarks. Presently she heard herself speaking. She, or someone for her, said "Go away." Henry came nearer. He repeated, "Margaret, you look upset again. My dear, give me the keys. What are you doing with Helen?"
"Oh, dearest, do go away, and I will manage it all."
He stretched out his hand for the keys. She might have obeyed if it had not been for the doctor.
"Stop that at least," she said piteously; the doctor had turned back, and was questioning the driver of Helen's cab.
A new feeling came over her; she was fighting for women against men. She did not care about rights, but if men came into Howards End, it should be over her body.
"Come, this is an odd beginning," said her husband.
The doctor came forward now, and whispered two words to Mr. Wilcox--the scandal was out. Sincerely horrified, Henry stood gazing at the earth.
"I cannot help it," said Margaret. "Do wait. It's not my fault. Please all four of you to go away now."
Now the flyman was whispering to Crane.
"We are relying on you to help us, Mrs. Wilcox," said the young doctor. "Could you go in and persuade your sister to come out?"
"On what grounds?" said Margaret, suddenly looking him straight in the eyes.
Thinking it professional to prevaricate, he murmured something about a nervous breakdown.
"I beg your pardon, but it is nothing of the sort. You are not qualified to attend my sister, Mr. Mansbridge. If we require your services, we will let you know."
"I can diagnose the case more bluntly if you wish," he retorted.
"You could, but you have not. You are, therefore, not qualified to attend my sister."
"Come, come, Margaret!" said Henry, never raising his eyes. "This is a terrible business, an appalling business.
It's doctor's orders. Open the door."
"Forgive me, but I will not."
"I don't agree."
Margaret was silent.
"This business is as broad as it's long," contributed the doctor. "We had better all work together. You need us, Mrs. Wilcox, and we need you."
"Quite so," said Henry.
"I do not need you in the least," said Margaret.
The two men looked at each other anxiously.
"No more does my sister, who is still many weeks from her confinement."
"Well, Henry, send your doctor away. What possible use is he now?"
Mr. Wilcox ran his eye over the house. He had a vague feeling that he must stand firm and support the doctor. He himself might need support, for there was trouble ahead.
"It all turns on affection now," said Margaret.
"Affection. Don't you see?" Resuming her usual methods, she wrote the word on the house with her finger. "Surely you see. I like Helen very much, you not so much. Mr. Mansbridge doesn't know her. That's all. And affection, when reciprocated, gives rights. Put that down in your notebook, Mr. Mansbridge. It's a useful formula."
Henry told her to be calm.
"You don't know what you want yourselves," said Margaret, folding her arms. "For one sensible remark I will let you in. But you cannot make it. You would trouble my sister for no reason. I will not permit it. I'll stand here all the day sooner."
"Mansbridge," said Henry in a low voice, "perhaps not now."
The pack was breaking up. At a sign from his master, Crane also went back into the car.
"Now, Henry, you," she said gently. None of her bitterness had been directed at him. "Go away now, dear. I shall want your advice later, no doubt. Forgive me if I have been cross. But, seriously, you must go."
He was too stupid to leave her. Now it was Mr. Mansbridge who called in a low voice to him.
"I shall soon find you down at Dolly's," she called, as the gate at last clanged between them. The fly moved out of the way, the motor backed, turned a little, backed again, and turned in the narrow road. A string of farm carts came up in the middle; but she waited through all, for there was no hurry. When all was over and the car had started, she opened the door. "Oh, my darling!" she said. "My darling, forgive me." Helen was standing in the hall.
Margaret bolted the door on the inside. Then she would have kissed her sister, but Helen, in a dignified voice, that came strangely from her, said:
"Convenient! You did not tell me that the books were unpacked. I have found nearly everything that I want.
"I told you nothing that was true."
"It has been a great surprise, certainly. Has Aunt Juley been ill?"
"Helen, you wouldn't think I'd invent that?"
"I suppose not," said Helen, turning away, and crying a very little. "But one loses faith in everything after this."
"We thought it was illness, but even then--I haven't behaved worthily."
Helen selected another book.
"I ought not to have consulted anyone. What would our father have thought of me?"
She did not think of questioning her sister, nor of rebuking her. Both might be necessary in the future, but she had first to purge a greater crime than any that Helen could have committed--that want of confidence that is the work of the devil.
"Yes, I am annoyed," replied Helen. "My wishes should have been respected. I would have gone through this meeting if it was necessary, but after Aunt Juley recovered, it was not necessary. Planning my life, as I now have to do--"
"Come away from those books," called Margaret. "Helen, do talk to me."
"I was just saying that I have stopped living haphazard. One can't go through a great deal of"--she missed out the noun--"without planning one's actions in advance. I am going to have a child in June, and in the first place conversations, discussions, excitement, are not good for me. I will go through them if necessary, but only then. In the second place I have no right to trouble people. I cannot fit in with England as I know it. I have done something that the English never pardon. It would not be right for them to pardon it. So I must live where I am not known."
"But why didn't you tell me, dearest?"
"Yes," replied Helen judicially. "I might have, but decided to wait."
" I believe you would never have told me."
"Oh yes, I should. We have taken a flat in Munich."
Margaret glanced out of window.
"By 'we' I mean myself and Monica. But for her, I am and have been and always wish to be alone."
"I have not heard of Monica."
"You wouldn't have. She's an Italian--by birth at least. She makes her living by journalism. I met her originally on Garda. Monica is much the best person to see me through."
"You are very fond of her, then."
"She has been extraordinarily sensible with me."
Margaret guessed at Monica's type--"Italiano Inglesiato" they had named it: the crude feminist of the South, whom one respects but avoids. And Helen had turned to it in her need!
"You must not think that we shall never meet," said Helen, with a measured kindness. "I shall always have a room for you when you can be spared, and the longer you can be with me the better. But you haven't understood yet, Meg, and of course it is very difficult for you. This is a shock to you. It isn't to me, who have been thinking over our futures for many months, and they won't be changed by a slight contretemps, such as this. I cannot live in England."
"Helen, you've not forgiven me for my treachery. You COULDN'T talk like this to me if you had."
"Oh, Meg dear, why do we talk at all?" She dropped a book and sighed wearily. Then, recovering herself, she said: "Tell me, how is it that all the books are down here?"
"Series of mistakes."
"And a great deal of the furniture has been unpacked."
"Who lives here, then?"
"I suppose you are letting it though--"
"The house is dead," said Margaret with a frown. "Why worry on about it?"
"But I am interested. You talk as if I had lost all my interest in life. I am still Helen, I hope. Now this hasn't the feel of a dead house. The hall seems more alive even than in the old days, when it held the Wilcoxes' own things."
"Interested, are you? Very well, I must tell you, I suppose. My husband lent it on condition we--but by a mistake all our things were unpacked, and Miss Avery, instead of--" She stopped. "Look here, I can't go on like this. I warn you I won't. Helen, why should you be so miserably unkind to me, simply because you hate Henry?"
"I don't hate him now," said Helen. "I have stopped being a schoolgirl, and, Meg, once again, I'm not being unkind. But as for fitting in with your English life--no, put it out of your head at once. Imagine a visit from me at Ducie Street! It's unthinkable."
Margaret could not contradict her. It was appalling to see her quietly moving forward with her plans, not bitter or excitable, neither asserting innocence nor confessing guilt, merely desiring freedom and the company of those who would not blame her. She had been through--how much? Margaret did not know. But it was enough to part her from old habits as well as old friends.
"Tell me about yourself," said Helen, who had chosen her books, and was lingering over the furniture.
"There's nothing to tell."
"But your marriage has been happy, Meg?"
"Yes, but I don't feel inclined to talk."
"You feel as I do."
"Not that, but I can't."
"No more can I. It is a nuisance, but no good trying."
Something had come between them. Perhaps it was Society, which henceforward would exclude Helen. Perhaps it was a third life, already potent as a spirit. They could find no meeting-place. Both suffered acutely, and were not comforted by the knowledge that affection survived.
"Look here, Meg, is the coast clear?"
"You mean that you want to go away from me?"
"I suppose so--dear old lady! it isn't any use. I knew we should have nothing to say. Give my love to Aunt Juley and Tibby, and take more yourself than I can say. Promise to come and see me in Munich later."
"For that is all we can do."
It seemed so. Most ghastly of all was Helen's common sense: Monica had been extraordinarily good for her.
"I am glad to have seen you and the things." She looked at the bookcase lovingly, as if she was saying farewell to the past.
Margaret unbolted the door. She remarked: "The car has gone, and here's your cab."
She led the way to it, glancing at the leaves and the sky. The spring had never seemed more beautiful. The driver, who was leaning on the gate, called out, "Please, lady, a message," and handed her Henry's visiting-card through the bars.
"How did this come?" she asked.
Crane had returned with it almost at once.
She read the card with annoyance. It was covered with instructions in domestic French. When she and her sister had talked she was to come back for the night to Dolly's.
"Il faut dormir sur ce sujet." While Helen was to be found "une comfortable chambre a l'hotel." The final sentence displeased her greatly until she remembered that the Charles' had only one spare room, and so could not invite a third guest.
"Henry would have done what he could," she interpreted.
Helen had not followed her into the garden. The door once open, she lost her inclination to fly. She remained in the hall, going from bookcase to table. She grew more like the old Helen, irresponsible and charming.
"This is Mr. Wilcox's house?" she inquired.
"Surely you remember Howards End?"
"Remember? I who remember everything! But it looks to be ours now."
"Miss Avery was extraordinary," said Margaret, her own spirits lightening a little. Again she was invaded by a slight feeling of disloyalty. But it brought her relief, and she yielded to it. "She loved Mrs. Wilcox, and would rather furnish her house with our things than think of it empty. In consequence here are all the library books. "
"Not all the books. She hasn't unpacked the Art Books, in which she may show her sense. And we never used to have the sword here."
"The sword looks well, though."
"Yes, doesn't it?"
"Where's the piano, Meg?"
"I warehoused that in London. Why?"
"Curious, too, that the carpet fits."
"The carpet's a mistake," announced Helen. "I know that we had it in London, but this floor ought to be bare. It is far too beautiful."
"You still have a mania for under-furnishing. Would you care to come into the dining-room before you start? There's no carpet there.
They went in, and each minute their talk became more natural.
"Oh, WHAT a place for mother's chiffonier!" cried Helen.
"Look at the chairs, though."
"Oh, look at them! Wickham Place faced north, didn't it?"
"Anyhow, it is thirty years since any of those chairs have felt the sun. Feel. Their little backs are quite warm."
"But why has Miss Avery made them set to partners? I shall just--"
"Over here, Meg. Put it so that any one sitting will see the lawn."
Margaret moved a chair. Helen sat down in it.
"Ye-es. The window's too high."
"Try a drawing-room chair."
"No, I don't like the drawing-room so much. The beam has been match-boarded. It would have been so beautiful otherwise. "
"Helen, what a memory you have for some things! You're perfectly right. It's a room that men have spoilt through trying to make it nice for women. Men don't know what we want--"
"And never will."
"I don't agree. In two thousand years they'll know."
"But the chairs show up wonderfully. Look where Tibby spilt the soup."
"Coffee. It was coffee surely."
Helen shook her head. "Impossible. Tibby was far too young to be given coffee at that time."
"Was Father alive?"
"Then you're right and it must have been soup. I was thinking of much later--that unsuccessful visit of Aunt Juley's, when she didn't realize that Tibby had grown up.
It was coffee then, for he threw it down on purpose. There was some rhyme, 'Tea, coffee--coffee, tea,' that she said to him every morning at breakfast. Wait a minute--how did it go?"
"I know--no, I don't. What a detestable boy Tibby was!"
"But the rhyme was simply awful. No decent person could have put up with it."
"Ah, that greengage tree," cried Helen, as if the garden was also part of their childhood. "Why do I connect it with dumbbells? And there come the chickens. The grass wants cutting. I love yellow-hammers--"
Margaret interrupted her. "I have got it," she announced.
'Tea, tea, coffee, tea,<BR>
"That every morning for three weeks. No wonder Tibby was wild."
"Tibby is moderately a dear now," said Helen.
"There! I knew you'd say that in the end. Of course he's a dear."
A bell rang.
"Listen! what's that?"
Helen said, "Perhaps the Wilcoxes are beginning the siege."
And the triviality faded from their faces, though it left something behind--the knowledge that they never could be parted because their love was rooted in common things.
Explanations and appeals had failed; they had tried for a common meeting-ground, and had only made each other unhappy. And all the time their salvation was lying round them--the past sanctifying the present; the present, with wild heart-throb, declaring that there would after all be a future, with laughter and the voices of children. Helen, still smiling, came up to her sister. She said, "It is always Meg." They looked into each other's eyes. The inner life had paid.
Solemnly the clapper tolled. No one was in the front.
Margaret went to the kitchen, and struggled between packing-cases to the window. Their visitor was only a little boy with a tin can. And triviality returned.
"Little boy, what do you want?"
"Please, I am the milk."
"Did Miss Avery send you?" said Margaret, rather sharply.
"Then take it back and say we require no milk." While she called to Helen, "No, it's not the siege, but possibly an attempt to provision us against one."
"But I like milk," cried Helen. "Why send it away?"
"Do you? Oh, very well. But we've nothing to put it in, and he wants the can."
"Please, I'm to call in the morning for the can," said the boy.
"The house will be locked up then."
"In the morning would I bring eggs, too?"
"Are you the boy whom I saw playing in the stacks last week?"
The child hung his head.
"Well, run away and do it again."
"Nice little boy," whispered Helen. "I say, what's your name? Mine's Helen."
That was Helen all over. The Wilcoxes, too, would ask a child its name, but they never told their names in return.
"Tom, this one here is Margaret. And at home we've another called Tibby."
"Mine are lop-eared," replied Tom, supposing Tibby to be a rabbit.
"You're a very good and rather a clever little boy.
Mind you come again.--Isn't he charming?"
"Undoubtedly," said Margaret. "He is probably the son of Madge, and Madge is dreadful. But this place has wonderful powers."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know."
"Because I probably agree with you."
"It kills what is dreadful and makes what is beautiful live."
"I do agree," said Helen, as she sipped the milk. "But you said that the house was dead not half an hour ago."
"Meaning that I was dead. I felt it."
"Yes, the house has a surer life than we, even if it was empty, and, as it is, I can't get over that for thirty years the sun has never shone full on our furniture. After all, Wickham Place was a grave. Meg, I've a startling idea."
"What is it?"
"Drink some milk to steady you."
"No, I won't tell you yet," said Helen, "because you may laugh or be angry. Let's go upstairs first and give the rooms an airing."
They opened window after window, till the inside, too, was rustling to the spring. Curtains blew, picture-frames tapped cheerfully. Helen uttered cries of excitement as she found this bed obviously in its right place, that in its wrong one. She was angry with Miss Avery for not having moved the wardrobes up. "Then one would see really." She admired the view. She was the Helen who had written the memorable letters four years ago. As they leant out, looking westward, she said: "About my idea. Couldn't you and I camp out in this house for the night?"
"I don't think we could well do that," said Margaret.
"Here are beds, tables, towels--"
"I know; but the house isn't supposed to be slept in, and Henry's suggestion was--"
"I require no suggestions. I shall not alter anything in my plans. But it would give me so much pleasure to have one night here with you. It will be something to look back on. Oh, Meg lovey, do let's!"
"But, Helen, my pet," said Margaret, "we can't without getting Henry's leave. Of course, he would give it, but you said yourself that you couldn't visit at Ducie Street now, and this is equally intimate."
"Ducie Street is his house. This is ours. Our furniture, our sort of people coming to the door. Do let us camp out, just one night, and Tom shall feed us on eggs and milk. Why not? It's a moon."
Margaret hesitated. "I feel Charles wouldn't like it," she said at last. "Even our furniture annoyed him, and I was going to clear it out when Aunt Juley's illness prevented me. I sympathize with Charles. He feels it's his mother's house. He loves it in rather an untaking way.
Henry I could answer for--not Charles."
"I know he won't like it," said Helen. "But I am going to pass out of their lives. What difference will it make in the long run if they say, 'And she even spent the night at Howards End'?"
"How do you know you'll pass out of their lives? We have thought that twice before."
"Because my plans--"
"--which you change in a moment."
"Then because my life is great and theirs are little," said Helen, taking fire. "I know of things they can't know of, and so do you. We know that there's poetry. We know that there's death. They can only take them on hearsay. We know this is our house, because it feels ours. Oh, they may take the title-deeds and the doorkeys, but for this one night we are at home."
"It would be lovely to have you once more alone," said Margaret. "It may be a chance in a thousand."
"Yes, and we could talk." She dropped her voice. "It won't be a very glorious story. But under that wych-elm--honestly, I see little happiness ahead. Cannot I have this one night with you?"
"I needn't say how much it would mean to me."
"Then let us."
"It is no good hesitating. Shall I drive down to Hilton now and get leave?"
"Oh, we don't want leave."
But Margaret was a loyal wife. In spite of imagination and poetry--perhaps on account of them--she could sympathize with the technical attitude that Henry would adopt. If possible, she would be technical, too. A night's lodging--and they demanded no more--need not involve the discussion of general principles.
"Charles may say no," grumbled Helen.
"We shan't consult him."
"Go if you like; I should have stopped without leave."
It was the touch of selfishness, which was not enough to mar Helen's character, and even added to its beauty. She would have stopped without leave, and escaped to Germany the next morning. Margaret kissed her.
"Expect me back before dark. I am looking forward to it so much. It is like you to have thought of such a beautiful thing."
"Not a thing, only an ending," said Helen rather sadly; and the sense of tragedy closed in on Margaret again as soon as she left the house.
She was afraid of Miss Avery. It is disquieting to fulfil a prophecy, however superficially. She was glad to see no watching figure as she drove past the farm, but only little Tom, turning somersaults in the straw.
The tragedy began quietly enough, and like many another talk, by the man's deft assertion of his superiority. Henry heard her arguing with the driver, stepped out and settled the fellow, who was inclined to be rude, and then led the way to some chairs on the lawn. Dolly, who had not been "told," ran out with offers of tea. He refused them, and ordered her to wheel baby's perambulator away, as they desired to be alone.
"But the diddums can't listen; he isn't nine months old," she pleaded.
"That's not what I was saying," retorted her father-in-law.
Baby was wheeled out of earshot, and did not hear about the crisis till later years. It was now the turn of Margaret.
"Is it what we feared?" he asked.
"Dear girl," he began, "there is a troublesome business ahead of us, and nothing but the most absolute honesty and plain speech will see us through." Margaret bent her head.
"I am obliged to question you on subjects we'd both prefer to leave untouched. As you know, I am not one of your Bernard Shaws who consider nothing sacred. To speak as I must will pain me, but there are occasions--We are husband and wife, not children. I am a man of the world, and you are a most exceptional woman."
All Margaret's senses forsook her. She blushed, and looked past him at the Six Hills, covered with spring herbage. Noting her colour, he grew still more kind.
"I see that you feel as I felt when--My poor little wife! Oh, be brave! Just one or two questions, and I have done with you. Was your sister wearing a wedding-ring?"
Margaret stammered a "No."
There was an appalling silence.
"Henry, I really came to ask a favour about Howards End."
"One point at a time. I am now obliged to ask for the name of her seducer."
She rose to her feet and held the chair between them.
Her colour had ebbed, and she was grey. It did not displease him that she should receive his question thus.
"Take your time," he counselled her. "Remember that this is far worse for me than for you."
She swayed; he feared she was going to faint. Then speech came, and she said slowly: "Seducer? No; I do not know her seducer's name."
"Would she not tell you?"
"I never even asked her who seduced her," said Margaret, dwelling on the hateful word thoughtfully.
"That is singular." Then he changed his mind. "Natural perhaps, dear girl, that you shouldn't ask. But until his name is known, nothing can be done. Sit down. How terrible it is to see you so upset! I knew you weren't fit for it.
I wish I hadn't taken you."
Margaret answered, "I like to stand, if you don't mind, for it gives me a pleasant view of the Six Hills."
"As you like."
"Have you anything else to ask me, Henry?"
"Next you must tell me whether you have gathered anything. I have often noticed your insight, dear. I only wish my own was as good. You may have guessed something, even though your sister said nothing. The slightest hint would help us."
"Who is 'we'?"
"I thought it best to ring up Charles."
"That was unnecessary," said Margaret, growing warmer.
"This news will give Charles disproportionate pain."
"He has at once gone to call on your brother."
"That too was unnecessary."
"Let me explain, dear, how the matter stands. You don't think that I and my son are other than gentlemen? It is in Helen's interests that we are acting. It is still not too late to save her name."
Then Margaret hit out for the first time. "Are we to make her seducer marry her?" she asked.
"If possible. Yes."
"But, Henry, suppose he turned out to be married already? One has heard of such cases."
"In that case he must pay heavily for his misconduct, and be thrashed within an inch of his life."
So her first blow missed. She was thankful of it. What had tempted her to imperil both of their lives? Henry's obtuseness had saved her as well as himself. Exhausted with anger, she sat down again, blinking at him as he told her as much as he thought fit. At last she said: "May I ask you my question now?"
"Certainly, my dear."
"Tomorrow Helen goes to Munich--"
"Well, possibly she is right."
"Henry, let a lady finish. Tomorrow she goes; tonight, with your permission, she would like to sleep at Howards End."
It was the crisis of his life. Again she would have recalled the words as soon as they were uttered. She had not led up to them with sufficient care. She longed to warn him that they were far more important than he supposed. She saw him weighing them, as if they were a business proposition.
"Why Howards End?" he said at last. "Would she not be more comfortable, as I suggested, at the hotel?"
Margaret hastened to give him reasons. "It is an odd request, but you know what Helen is and what women in her state are." He frowned, and moved irritably. "She has the idea that one night in your house would give her pleasure and do her good. I think she's right. Being one of those imaginative girls, the presence of all our books and furniture soothes her. This is a fact. It is the end of her girlhood. Her last words to me were, 'A beautiful ending.'"
"She values the old furniture for sentimental reasons, in fact."
"Exactly. You have quite understood. It is her last hope of being with it."
"I don't agree there, my dear! Helen will have her share of the goods wherever she goes--possibly more than her share, for you are so fond of her that you'd give her anything of yours that she fancies, wouldn't you? and I'd raise no objection. I could understand it if it was her old home, because a home, or a house"--he changed the word, designedly; he had thought of a telling point--"because a house in which one has once lived becomes in a sort of way sacred, I don't know why. Associations and so on. Now Helen has no associations with Howards End, though I and Charles and Evie have. I do not see why she wants to stay the night there. She will only catch cold."
"Leave it that you don't see," cried Margaret. "Call it fancy. But realize that fancy is a scientific fact. Helen is fanciful, and wants to."
Then he surprised her--a rare occurrence. He shot an unexpected bolt. "If she wants to sleep one night, she may want to sleep two. We shall never get her out of the house, perhaps."
"Well?" said Margaret, with the precipice in sight.
"And suppose we don't get her out of the house? Would it matter? She would do no one any harm."
Again the irritated gesture.
"No, Henry," she panted, receding. "I didn't mean that. We will only trouble Howards End for this one night.
I take her to London tomorrow--"
"Do you intend to sleep in a damp house, too?"
"She cannot be left alone."
"That's quite impossible! Madness. You must be here to meet Charles."
"I have already told you that your message to Charles was unnecessary, and I have no desire to meet him."
"What has this business to do with Charles? If it concerns me little, it concerns you less, and Charles not at all."
"As the future owner of Howards End," said Mr. Wilcox, arching his fingers, "I should say that it did concern Charles."
"In what way? Will Helen's condition depreciate the property?"
"My dear, you are forgetting yourself."
"I think you yourself recommended plain speaking."
They looked at each other in amazement. The precipice was at their feet now.
"Helen commands my sympathy," said Henry. "As your husband, I shall do all for her that I can, and I have no doubt that she will prove more sinned against than sinning.
But I cannot treat her as if nothing has happened. I should be false to my position in society if I did."
She controlled herself for the last time. "No, let us go back to Helen's request," she said. "It is unreasonable, but the request of an unhappy girl. Tomorrow she will go to Germany, and trouble society no longer. Tonight she asks to sleep in your empty house--a house which you do not care about, and which you have not occupied for over a year. May she? Will you give my sister leave? Will you forgive her--as you hope to be forgiven, and as you have actually been forgiven? Forgive her for one night only. That will be enough."
"As I have actually been forgiven--?"
"Never mind for the moment what I mean by that," said Margaret. "Answer my question."
Perhaps some hint of her meaning did dawn on him. If so, he blotted it out. Straight from his fortress he answered: "I seem rather unaccommodating, but I have some experience of life, and know how one thing leads to another. I am afraid that your sister had better sleep at the hotel. I have my children and the memory of my dear wife to consider. I am sorry, but see that she leaves my house at once."
"You mentioned Mrs. Wilcox."
"I beg your pardon?"
"A rare occurrence. In reply, may I mention Mrs. Bast?"
"You have not been yourself all day," said Henry, and rose from his seat with face unmoved. Margaret rushed at him and seized both his hands. She was transfigured.
"Not any more of this!" she cried. "You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress--I forgave you. My sister has a lover--you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel--oh, contemptible! --a man who insults his wife when she's alive and cants with her memory when she's dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These, man, are you. You can't recognize them, because you cannot connect. I've had enough of your unweeded kindness. I've spoilt you long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told what you are--muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don't repent. Only say to yourself, 'What Helen has done, I've done.'"
"The two cases are different," Henry stammered. His real retort was not quite ready. His brain was still in a whirl, and he wanted a little longer.
"In what way different? You have betrayed Mrs. Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can't.
You have had only pleasure, she may die. You have the insolence to talk to me of differences, Henry?"
Oh, the uselessness of it! Henry's retort came.
"I perceive you are attempting blackmail. It is scarcely a pretty weapon for a wife to use against her husband. My rule through life has been never to pay the least attention to threats, and I can only repeat what I said before: I do not give you and your sister leave to sleep at Howards End."
Margaret loosed his hands. He went into the house, wiping first one and then the other on his handkerchief.
For a little she stood looking at the Six Hills, tombs of warriors, breasts of the spring. Then she passed out into what was now the evening.
Charles and Tibby met at Ducie Street, where the latter was staying. Their interview was short and absurd. They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood. Charles saw in Helen the family foe. He had singled her out as the most dangerous of the Schlegels, and, angry as he was, looked forward to telling his wife how right he had been.
His mind was made up at once: the girl must be got out of the way before she disgraced them farther. If occasion offered she might be married to a villain or, possibly, to a fool. But this was a concession to morality, it formed no part of his main scheme. Honest and hearty was Charles's dislike, and the past spread itself out very clearly before him; hatred is a skilful compositor. As if they were heads in a note-book, he ran through all the incidents of the Schlegels' campaign: the attempt to compromise his brother, his mother's legacy, his father's marriage, the introduction of the furniture, the unpacking of the same. He had not yet heard of the request to sleep at Howards End; that was to be their master-stroke and the opportunity for his. But he already felt that Howards End was the objective, and, though he disliked the house, was determined to defend it.
Tibby, on the other hand, had no opinions. He stood above the conventions: his sister had a right to do what she thought right. It is not difficult to stand above the conventions when we leave no hostages among them; men can always be more unconventional than women, and a bachelor of independent means need encounter no difficulties at all.
Unlike Charles, Tibby had money enough; his ancestors had earned it for him, and if he shocked the people in one set of lodgings he had only to move into another. His was the leisure without sympathy--an attitude as fatal as the strenuous: a little cold culture may be raised on it, but no art. His sisters had seen the family danger, and had never forgotten to discount the gold islets that raised them from the sea. Tibby gave all the praise to himself, and so despised the struggling and the submerged.
Hence the absurdity of the interview; the gulf between them was economic as well as spiritual. But several facts passed: Charles pressed for them with an impertinence that the undergraduate could not withstand. On what date had Helen gone abroad? To whom? (Charles was anxious to fasten the scandal on Germany.) Then, changing his tactics, he said roughly: "I suppose you realize that you are your sister's protector?"
"In what sense?"
"If a man played about with my sister, I'd send a bullet through him, but perhaps you don't mind."
"I mind very much," protested Tibby.
"Who d'ye suspect, then? Speak out, man. One always suspects someone."
"No one. I don't think so." Involuntarily he blushed.
He had remembered the scene in his Oxford rooms.
"You are hiding something," said Charles. As interviews go, he got the best of this one. "When you saw her last, did she mention anyone's name? Yes, or no!" he thundered, so that Tibby started.
"In my rooms she mentioned some friends, called the Basts--"
"Who are the Basts?"
"People--friends of hers at Evie's wedding."
"I don't remember. But, by great Scott! I do. My aunt told me about some tag-rag. Was she full of them when you saw her? Is there a man? Did she speak of the man?
Or--look here--have you had any dealings with him?"
Tibby was silent. Without intending it, he had betrayed his sister's confidence; he was not enough interested in human life to see where things will lead to. He had a strong regard for honesty, and his word, once given, had always been kept up to now. He was deeply vexed, not only for the harm he had done Helen, but for the flaw he had discovered in his own equipment.
"I see--you are in his confidence. They met at your rooms. Oh, what a family, what a family! God help the poor pater--"
And Tibby found himself alone.
Leonard--he would figure at length in a newspaper report, but that evening he did not count for much. The foot of the tree was in shadow, since the moon was still hidden behind the house. But above, to right, to left, down the long meadow the moonlight was streaming. Leonard seemed not a man, but a cause.
Perhaps it was Helen's way of falling in love--a curious way to Margaret, whose agony and whose contempt of Henry were yet imprinted with his image. Helen forgot people.
They were husks that had enclosed her emotion. She could pity, or sacrifice herself, or have instincts, but had she ever loved in the noblest way, where man and woman, having lost themselves in sex, desire to lose sex itself in comradeship?
Margaret wondered, but said no word of blame. This was Helen's evening. Troubles enough lay ahead of her--the loss of friends and of social advantages, the agony, the supreme agony, of motherhood, which is even yet not a matter of common knowledge. For the present let the moon shine brightly and the breezes of the spring blow gently, dying away from the gale of the day, and let the earth, who brings increase, bring peace. Not even to herself dare she blame Helen. She could not assess her trespass by any moral code; it was everything or nothing. Morality can tell us that murder is worse than stealing, and group most sins in an order all must approve, but it cannot group Helen. The surer its pronouncements on this point, the surer may we be that morality is not speaking. Christ was evasive when they questioned Him. It is those that cannot connect who hasten to cast the first stone.
This was Helen's evening--won at what cost, and not to be marred by the sorrows of others. Of her own tragedy Margaret never uttered a word.
"One isolates," said Helen slowly. "I isolated Mr. Wilcox from the other forces that were pulling Leonard downhill. Consequently, I was full of pity, and almost of revenge. For weeks I had blamed Mr. Wilcox only, and so, when your letters came--"
"I need never have written them," sighed Margaret.
"They never shielded Henry. How hopeless it is to tidy away the past, even for others!"
"I did not know that it was your own idea to dismiss the Basts."
"Looking back, that was wrong of me."
"Looking back, darling, I know that it was right. It is right to save the man whom one loves. I am less enthusiastic about justice now. But we both thought you wrote at his dictation. It seemed the last touch of his callousness. Being very much wrought up by this time--and Mrs. Bast was upstairs. I had not seen her, and had talked for a long time to Leonard--I had snubbed him for no reason, and that should have warned me I was in danger. So when the notes came I wanted us to go to you for an explanation. He said that he guessed the explanation--he knew of it, and you mustn't know. I pressed him to tell me. He said no one must know; it was something to do with his wife. Right up to the end we were Mr. Bast and Miss Schlegel. I was going to tell him that he must be frank with me when I saw his eyes, and guessed that Mr. Wilcox had ruined him in two ways, not one. I drew him to me. I made him tell me. I felt very lonely myself. He is not to blame. He would have gone on worshipping me. I want never to see him again, though it sounds appalling. I wanted to give him money and feel finished. Oh, Meg, the little that is known about these things!"
She laid her face against the tree.
"The little, too, that is known about growth! Both times it was loneliness, and the night, and panic afterwards. Did Leonard grow out of Paul?"
Margaret did not speak for a moment. So tired was she that her attention had actually wandered to the teeth--the teeth that had been thrust into the tree's bark to medicate it. From where she sat she could see them gleam. She had been trying to count them. "Leonard is a better growth than madness," she said. "I was afraid that you would react against Paul until you went over the verge."
"I did react until I found poor Leonard. I am steady now. I shan't ever like your Henry, dearest Meg, or even speak kindly about him, but all that blinding hate is over.
I shall never rave against Wilcoxes any more. I understand how you married him, and you will now be very happy."
Margaret did not reply.
"Yes," repeated Helen, her voice growing more tender, "I do at last understand."
"Except Mrs. Wilcox, dearest, no one understands our little movements."
"Because in death--I agree."
"Not quite. I feel that you and I and Henry are only fragments of that woman's mind. She knows everything. She is everything. She is the house, and the tree that leans over it. People have their own deaths as well as their own lives, and even if there is nothing beyond death, we shall differ in our nothingness. I cannot believe that knowledge such as hers will perish with knowledge such as mine. She knew about realities. She knew when people were in love, though she was not in the room. I don't doubt that she knew when Henry deceived her."
"Good-night, Mrs. Wilcox," called a voice.
"Oh, good-night, Miss Avery."
"Why should Miss Avery work for us?" Helen murmured.
Miss Avery crossed the lawn and merged into the hedge that divided it from the farm. An old gap, which Mr. Wilcox had filled up, had reappeared, and her track through the dew followed the path that he had turfed over, when he improved the garden and made it possible for games.
"This is not quite our house yet," said Helen. "When Miss Avery called, I felt we are only a couple of tourists."
"We shall be that everywhere, and for ever."
"But affectionate tourists--"
"But tourists who pretend each hotel is their home."
"I can't pretend very long," said Helen. "Sitting under this tree one forgets, but I know that tomorrow I shall see the moon rise out of Germany. Not all your goodness can alter the facts of the case. Unless you will come with me."
Margaret thought for a moment. In the past year she had grown so fond of England that to leave it was a real grief.
Yet what detained her? No doubt Henry would pardon her outburst, and go on blustering and muddling into a ripe old age. But what was the good? She had just as soon vanish from his mind.
"Are you serious in asking me, Helen? Should I get on with your Monica?"
"You would not, but I am serious in asking you."
"Still, no more plans now. And no more reminiscences."
They were silent for a little. It was Helen's evening.
The present flowed by them like a stream. The tree rustled. It had made music before they were born, and would continue after their deaths, but its song was of the moment. The moment had passed. The tree rustled again.
Their senses were sharpened, and they seemed to apprehend life. Life passed. The tree nestled again.
"Sleep now," said Margaret.
The peace of the country was entering into her. It has no commerce with memory, and little with hope. Least of all is it concerned with the hopes of the next five minutes. It is the peace of the present, which passes understanding.
Its murmur came "now," and "now" once more as they trod the gravel, and "now," as the moonlight fell upon their father's sword. They passed upstairs, kissed, and amidst the endless iterations fell asleep. The house had enshadowed the tree at first, but as the moon rose higher the two disentangled, and were clear for a few moments at midnight. Margaret awoke and looked into the garden. How incomprehensible that Leonard Bast should have won her this night of peace! Was he also part of Mrs. Wilcox's mind?