We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.
The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food.
Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded.
But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, "All men are equal--all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas," and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible.
As he walked away from Wickham Place, his first care was to prove that he was as good as the Miss Schlegels.
Obscurely wounded in his pride, he tried to wound them in return. They were probably not ladies. Would real ladies have asked him to tea? They were certainly ill-natured and cold. At each step his feeling of superiority increased.
Would a real lady have talked about stealing an umbrella?
Perhaps they were thieves after all, and if he had gone into the house they could have clapped a chloroformed handkerchief over his face. He walked on complacently as far as the Houses of Parliament. There an empty stomach asserted itself, and told him he was a fool.
"Evening, Mr. Bast."
"Evening, Mr. Dealtry."
Mr. Dealtry, a fellow clerk, passed on, and Leonard stood wondering whether he would take the tram as far as a penny would take him, or whether he would walk. He decided to walk--it is no good giving in, and he had spent money enough at Queen's Hall--and he walked over Westminster Bridge, in front of St. Thomas's Hospital, and through the immense tunnel that passes under the South-Western main line at Vauxhall. In the tunnel he paused and listened to the roar of the trains. A sharp pain darted through his head, and he was conscious of the exact form of his eye sockets.
He pushed on for another mile, and did not slacken speed until he stood at the entrance of a road called Camelia Road, which was at present his home.
Here he stopped again, and glanced suspiciously to right and left, like a rabbit that is going to bolt into its hole. A block of flats, constructed with extreme cheapness, towered on either hand. Farther down the road two more blocks were being built, and beyond these an old house was being demolished to accommodate another pair. It was the kind of scene that may be observed all over London, whatever the locality--bricks and mortar rising and falling with the restlessness of the water in a fountain, as the city receives more and more men upon her soil. Camelia Road would soon stand out like a fortress, and command, for a little, an extensive view. Only for a little. Plans were out for the erection of flats in Magnolia Road also. And again a few years, and all the flats in either road might be pulled down, and new buildings, of a vastness at present unimaginable, might arise where they had fallen.
"Evening, Mr. Bast."
"Evening, Mr. Cunningham."
"Very serious thing this decline of the birth-rate in Manchester."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Very serious thing this decline of the birth-rate in Manchester," repeated Mr. Cunningham, tapping the Sunday paper, in which the calamity in question had just been announced to him.
"Ah, yes," said Leonard, who was not going to let on that he had not bought a Sunday paper.
"If this kind of thing goes on the population of England will be stationary in 1960."
"You don't say so."
"I call it a very serious thing, eh?"
"Good-evening, Mr. Cunningham."
"Good-evening, Mr. Bast."
Then Leonard entered Block B of the flats, and turned, not upstairs, but down, into what is known to house agents as a semi-basement, and to other men as a cellar. He opened the door, and cried "Hullo!" with the pseudo-geniality of the Cockney. There was no reply. "Hullo!" he repeated.
The sitting-room was empty, though the electric light had been left burning. A look of relief came over his face, and he flung himself into the armchair.
The sitting-room contained, besides the armchair, two other chairs, a piano, a three-legged table, and a cosy corner. Of the walls, one was occupied by the window, the other by a draped mantelshelf bristling with Cupids.
Opposite the window was the door, and beside the door a bookcase, while over the piano there extended one of the masterpieces of Maud Goodman. It was an amorous and not unpleasant little hole when the curtains were drawn, and the lights turned on, and the gas-stove unlit. But it struck that shallow makeshift note that is so often heard in the modem dwelling-place. It had been too easily gained, and could be relinquished too easily.
As Leonard was kicking off his boots he jarred the three-legged table, and a photograph frame, honourably poised upon it, slid sideways, fell off into the fireplace, and smashed. He swore in a colourless sort of way, and picked the photograph up. It represented a young lady called Jacky, and had been taken at the time when young ladies called Jacky were often photographed with their mouths open. Teeth of dazzling whiteness extended along either of Jacky's jaws, and positively weighted her head sideways, so large were they and so numerous. Take my word for it, that smile was simply stunning, and it is only you and I who will be fastidious, and complain that true joy begins in the eyes, and that the eyes of Jacky did not accord with her smile, but were anxious and hungry.
Leonard tried to pull out the fragments of glass, and cut his fingers and swore again. A drop of blood fell on the frame, another followed, spilling over on to the exposed photograph. He swore more vigorously, and dashed to the kitchen, where he bathed his hands. The kitchen was the same size as the sitting room; through it was a bedroom.
This completed his home. He was renting the flat furnished: of all the objects that encumbered it none were his own except the photograph frame, the Cupids, and the books.
"Damn, damn, damnation!" he murmured, together with such other words as he had learnt from older men. Then he raised his hand to his forehead and said, "Oh, damn it all--" which meant something different. He pulled himself together. He drank a little tea, black and silent, that still survived upon an upper shelf. He swallowed some dusty crumbs of cake. Then he went back to the sitting-room, settled himself anew, and began to read a volume of Ruskin.
"Seven miles to the north of Venice--"
How perfectly the famous chapter opens! How supreme its command of admonition and of poetry! The rich man is speaking to us from his gondola.
"Seven miles to the north of Venice the banks of sand which nearer the city rise little above low-water mark attain by degrees a higher level, and knit themselves at last into fields of salt morass, raised here and there into shapeless mounds, and intercepted by narrow creeks of sea."
Leonard was trying to form his style on Ruskin: he understood him to be the greatest master of English Prose.
He read forward steadily, occasionally making a few notes.
"Let us consider a little each of these characters in succession, and first (for of the shafts enough has been said already), what is very peculiar to this church--its luminousness."
Was there anything to be learnt from this fine sentence? Could he adapt it to the needs of daily life?
Could he introduce it, with modifications, when he next wrote a letter to his brother, the lay-reader? For example--
"Let us consider a little each of these characters in succession, and first (for of the absence of ventilation enough has been said already), what is very peculiar to this flat--its obscurity. "
Something told him that the modifications would not do; and that something, had he known it, was the spirit of English Prose. "My flat is dark as well as stuffy." Those were the words for him.
And the voice in the gondola rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard's life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.
Leonard listened to it with reverence. He felt that he was being done good to, and that if he kept on with Ruskin, and the Queen's Hall Concerts, and some pictures by Watts, he would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe. He believed in sudden conversion, a belief which may be right, but which is peculiarly attractive to a half-baked mind. It is the bias of much popular religion: in the domain of business it dominates the Stock Exchange, and becomes that "bit of luck" by which all successes and failures are explained. "If only I had a bit of luck, the whole thing would come straight. . . . He's got a most magnificent place down at Streatham and a 20 h.-p. Fiat, but then, mind you, he's had luck. . . . I'm sorry the wife's so late, but she never has any luck over catching trains." Leonard was superior to these people; he did believe in effort and in a steady preparation for the change that he desired. But of a heritage that may expand gradually, he had no conception: he hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus.
Those Miss Schlegels had come to it; they had done the trick; their hands were upon the ropes, once and for all.
And meanwhile, his flat was dark, as well as stuffy.
Presently there was a noise on the staircase. He shut up Margaret's card in the pages of Ruskin, and opened the door. A woman entered, of whom it is simplest to say that she was not respectable. Her appearance was awesome. She seemed all strings and bell-pulls--ribbons, chains, bead necklaces that clinked and caught--and a boa of azure feathers hung round her neck, with the ends uneven. Her throat was bare, wound with a double row of pearls, her arms were bare to the elbows, and might again be detected at the shoulder, through cheap lace. Her hat, which was flowery, resembled those punnets, covered with flannel, which we sowed with mustard and cress in our childhood, and which germinated here yes, and there no. She wore it on the back of her head. As for her hair, or rather hairs, they are too complicated to describe, but one system went down her back, lying in a thick pad there, while another, created for a lighter destiny, rippled around her forehead. The face--the face does not signify. It was the face of the photograph, but older, and the teeth were not so numerous as the photographer had suggested, and certainly not so white.
Yes, Jacky was past her prime, whatever that prime may have been. She was descending quicker than most women into the colourless years, and the look in her eyes confessed it.
"What ho!" said Leonard, greeting that apparition with much spirit, and helping it off with its boa.
Jacky, in husky tones, replied, "What ho!"
"Been out?" he asked. The question sounds superfluous, but it cannot have been really, for the lady answered, "No," adding, "Oh, I am so tired."
"I'm tired," said he, hanging the boa up.
"Oh, Len, I am so tired."
"I've been to that classical concert I told you about," said Leonard.
"I came back as soon as it was over."
"Any one been round to our place?" asked Jacky.
"Not that I've seen. I met Mr. Cunningham outside, and we passed a few remarks."
"What, not Mr. Cunnginham?"
"Oh, you mean Mr. Cunningham."
"Yes. Mr. Cunningham."
"I've been out to tea at a lady friend's."
Her secret being at last given to the world, and the name of the lady-friend being even adumbrated, Jacky made no further experiments in the difficult and tiring art of conversation. She never had been a great talker. Even in her photographic days she had relied upon her smile and her figure to attract, and now that she was--
"On the shelf,
On the shelf,
Boys, boys, I'm on the shelf,"
she was not likely to find her tongue. Occasional bursts of song (of which the above is an example) still issued from her lips, but the spoken word was rare.
She sat down on Leonard's knee, and began to fondle him. She was now a massive woman of thirty-three, and her weight hurt him, but he could not very well say anything.
Then she said, "Is that a book you're reading?" and he said, "That's a book," and drew it from her unreluctant grasp.
Margaret's card fell out of it. It fell face downwards, and he murmured, "Bookmarker."
"What is it?" he asked, a little wearily, for she only had one topic of conversation when she sat upon his knee.
"You do love me?"
"Jacky, you know that I do. How can you ask such questions!"
"But you do love me, Len, don't you?"
"Of course I do."
A pause. The other remark was still due.
"Well? What is it?"
"Len, you will make it all right?"
"I can't have you ask me that again," said the boy, flaring up into a sudden passion. "I've promised to marry you when I'm of age, and that's enough. My word's my word.
I've promised to marry you as soon as ever I'm twenty-one, and I can't keep on being worried. I've worries enough. It isn't likely I'd throw you over, let alone my word, when I've spent all this money. Besides, I'm an Englishman, and I never go back on my word. Jacky, do be reasonable. Of course I'll marry you. Only do stop badgering me."
"When's your birthday, Len?"
"I've told you again and again, the eleventh of November next. Now get off my knee a bit; someone must get supper, I suppose."
Jacky went through to the bedroom, and began to see to her hat. This meant blowing at it with short sharp puffs.
Leonard tidied up the sitting-room, and began to prepare their evening meal. He put a penny into the slot of the gas-meter, and soon the flat was reeking with metallic fumes. Somehow he could not recover his temper, and all the time he was cooking he continued to complain bitterly.
"It really is too bad when a fellow isn't trusted. It makes one feel so wild, when I've pretended to the people here that you're my wife--all right, you shall be my wife--and I've bought you the ring to wear, and I've taken this flat furnished, and it's far more than I can afford, and yet you aren't content, and I've also not told the truth when I've written home." He lowered his voice. "He'd stop it." In a tone of horror, that was a little luxurious, he repeated: "My brother'd stop it. I'm going against the whole world, Jacky.
"That's what I am, Jacky. I don't take any heed of what anyone says. I just go straight forward, I do. That's always been my way. I'm not one of your weak knock-kneed chaps. If a woman's in trouble, I don't leave her in the lurch. That's not my street. No, thank you.
"I'll tell you another thing too. I care a good deal about improving myself by means of Literature and Art, and so getting a wider outlook. For instance, when you came in I was reading Ruskin's STONES OF VENICE. I don't say this to boast, but just to show you the kind of man I am. I can tell you, I enjoyed that classical concert this afternoon."
To all his moods Jacky remained equally indifferent.
When supper was ready--and not before--she emerged from the bedroom, saying: "But you do love me, don't you?"
They began with a soup square, which Leonard had just dissolved in some hot water. It was followed by the tongue--a freckled cylinder of meat, with a little jelly at the top, and a great deal of yellow fat at the bottom--ending with another square dissolved in water (jelly: pineapple), which Leonard had prepared earlier in the day. Jacky ate contentedly enough, occasionally looking at her man with those anxious eyes, to which nothing else in her appearance corresponded, and which yet seemed to mirror her soul. And Leonard managed to convince his stomach that it was having a nourishing meal.
After supper they smoked cigarettes and exchanged a few statements. She observed that her "likeness" had been broken. He found occasion to remark, for the second time, that he had come straight back home after the concert at Queen's Hall. Presently she sat upon his knee. The inhabitants of Camelia Road tramped to and fro outside the window, just on a level with their heads, and the family in the flat on the ground-floor began to sing, "Hark, my soul, it is the Lord."
"That tune fairly gives me the hump," said Leonard.
Jacky followed this, and said that, for her part, she thought it a lovely tune.
"No; I'll play you something lovely. Get up, dear, for a minute."
He went to the piano and jingled out a little Grieg. He played badly and vulgarly, but the performance was not without its effect, for Jacky said she thought she'd be going to bed. As she receded, a new set of interests possessed the boy, and he began to think of what had been said about music by that odd Miss Schlegel--the one that twisted her face about so when she spoke. Then the thoughts grew sad and envious. There was the girl named Helen, who had pinched his umbrella, and the German girl who had smiled at him pleasantly, and Herr someone, and Aunt someone, and the brother--all, all with their hands on the ropes. They had all passed up that narrow, rich staircase at Wickham Place, to some ample room, whither he could never follow them, not if he read for ten hours a day. Oh, it was not good, this continual aspiration. Some are born cultured; the rest had better go in for whatever comes easy. To see life steadily and to see it whole was not for the likes of him.
From the darkness beyond the kitchen a voice called, "Len?"
"You in bed?" he asked, his forehead twitching.
Presently she called him again.
"I must clean my boots ready for the morning," he answered.
Presently she called him again.
"I rather want to get this chapter done."
He closed his ears against her.
"All right, Jacky, nothing; I'm reading a book."
"What?" he answered, catching her degraded deafness.
Presently she called him again.
Ruskin had visited Torcello by this time, and was ordering his gondoliers to take him to Murano. It occurred to him, as he glided over the whispering lagoons, that the power of Nature could not be shortened by the folly, nor her beauty altogether saddened by the misery, of such as Leonard.
"Oh, Margaret," cried her aunt next morning, "such a most unfortunate thing has happened. I could not get you alone."
The most unfortunate thing was not very serious. One of the flats in the ornate block opposite had been taken furnished by the Wilcox family, "coming up, no doubt, in the hope of getting into London society." That Mrs. Munt should be the first to discover the misfortune was not remarkable, for she was so interested in the flats, that she watched their every mutation with unwearying care. In theory she despised them--they took away that old-world look--they cut off the sun--flats house a flashy type of person. But if the truth had been known, she found her visits to Wickham Place twice as amusing since Wickham Mansions had arisen, and would in a couple of days learn more about them than her nieces in a couple of months, or her nephew in a couple of years. She would stroll across and make friends with the porters, and inquire what the rents were, exclaiming for example: "What! a hundred and twenty for a basement?
You'll never get it!" And they would answer: "One can but try, madam." The passenger lifts, the provision lifts, the arrangement for coals (a great temptation for a dishonest porter), were all familiar matters to her, and perhaps a relief from the politico-economical-aesthetic atmosphere that reigned at the Schlegels'.
Margaret received the information calmly, and did not agree that it would throw a cloud over poor Helen's life.
"Oh, but Helen isn't a girl with no interests," she explained. "She has plenty of other things and other people to think about. She made a false start with the Wilcoxes, and she'll be as willing as we are to have nothing more to do with them."
"For a clever girl, dear, how very oddly you do talk.
Helen'll HAVE to have something more to do with them, now that they're all opposite. She may meet that Paul in the street. She cannot very well not bow."
"Of course she must bow. But look here; let's do the flowers. I was going to say, the will to be interested in him has died, and what else matters? I look on that disastrous episode (over which you were so kind) as the killing of a nerve in Helen. It's dead, and she'll never be troubled with it again. The only things that matter are the things that interest one. Bowing, even calling and leaving cards, even a dinner-party--we can do all those things to the Wilcoxes, if they find it agreeable; but the other thing, the one important thing--never again. Don't you see?"
Mrs. Munt did not see, and indeed Margaret was making a most questionable statement--that any emotion, any interest once vividly aroused, can wholly die.
"I also have the honour to inform you that the Wilcoxes are bored with us. I didn't tell you at the time--it might have made you angry, and you had enough to worry you--but I wrote a letter to Mrs. W., and apologized for the trouble that Helen had given them. She didn't answer it."
"How very rude!"
"I wonder. Or was it sensible?"
"No, Margaret, most rude."
"In either case one can class it as reassuring."
Mrs. Munt sighed. She was going back to Swanage on the morrow, just as her nieces were wanting her most. Other regrets crowded upon her: for instance, how magnificently she would have cut Charles if she had met him face to face.
She had already seen him, giving an order to the porter--and very common he looked in a tall hat. But unfortunately his back was turned to her, and though she had cut his back, she could not regard this as a telling snub.
"But you will be careful, won't you?" she exhorted.
"Oh, certainly. Fiendishly careful."
"And Helen must be careful, too,"
"Careful over what?" cried Helen, at that moment coming into the room with her cousin.
"Nothing," said Margaret, seized with a momentary awkwardness.
"Careful over what, Aunt Juley?"
Mrs. Munt assumed a cryptic air. "It is only that a certain family, whom we know by name but do not mention, as you said yourself last night after the concert, have taken the flat opposite from the Mathesons--where the plants are in the balcony."
Helen began some laughing reply, and then disconcerted them all by blushing. Mrs. Munt was so disconcerted that she exclaimed, "What, Helen, you don't mind them coming, do you?" and deepened the blush to crimson.
"Of course I don't mind," said Helen a little crossly.
"It is that you and Meg are both so absurdly grave about it, when there's nothing to be grave about at all."
"I'm not grave," protested Margaret, a little cross in her turn.
"Well, you look grave; doesn't she, Frieda?"
"I don't feel grave, that's all I can say; you're going quite on the wrong tack."
"No, she does not feel grave," echoed Mrs. Munt. "I can bear witness to that. She disagrees--"
"Hark!" interrupted Fraulein Mosebach. "I hear Bruno entering the hall."
For Herr Liesecke was due at Wickham Place to call for the two younger girls. He was not entering the hall--in fact, he did not enter it for quite five minutes. But Frieda detected a delicate situation, and said that she and Helen had much better wait for Bruno down below, and leave Margaret and Mrs. Munt to finish arranging the flowers.
Helen acquiesced. But, as if to prove that the situation was not delicate really, she stopped in the doorway and said:
"Did you say the Mathesons' flat, Aunt Juley? How wonderful you are! I never knew that the woman who laced too tightly's name was Matheson."
"Come, Helen," said her cousin.
"Go, Helen," said her aunt; and continued to Margaret almost in the same breath: "Helen cannot deceive me, She does mind."
"Oh, hush!" breathed Margaret. "Frieda'll hear you, and she can be so tiresome."
"She minds," persisted Mrs. Munt, moving thoughtfully about the room, and pulling the dead chrysanthemums out of the vases. "I knew she'd mind--and I'm sure a girl ought to! Such an experience! Such awful coarse-grained people!
I know more about them than you do, which you forget, and if Charles had taken you that motor drive--well, you'd have reached the house a perfect wreck. Oh, Margaret, you don't know what you are in for. They're all bottled up against the drawing-room window. There's Mrs. Wilcox--I've seen her. There's Paul. There's Evie, who is a minx. There's Charles--I saw him to start with. And who would an elderly man with a moustache and a copper-coloured face be?"
"Mr. Wilcox, possibly."
"I knew it. And there's Mr. Wilcox."
"It's a shame to call his face copper colour," complained Margaret. "He has a remarkably good complexion for a man of his age."
Mrs. Munt, triumphant elsewhere, could afford to concede Mr. Wilcox his complexion. She passed on from it to the plan of campaign that her nieces should pursue in the future. Margaret tried to stop her.
"Helen did not take the news quite as I expected, but the Wilcox nerve is dead in her really, so there's no need for plans."
"It's as well to be prepared."
"No--it's as well not to be prepared."
Her thought drew being from the obscure borderland. She could not explain in so many words, but she felt that those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy. It is necessary to prepare for an examination, or a dinner-party, or a possible fall in the price of stock: those who attempt human relations must adopt another method, or fail. "Because I'd sooner risk it," was her lame conclusion.
"But imagine the evenings," exclaimed her aunt, pointing to the Mansions with the spout of the watering-can. "Turn the electric light on her or there, and it's almost the same room. One evening they may forget to draw their blinds down, and you'll see them; and the next, you yours, and they'll see you. Impossible to sit out on the balconies.
Impossible to water the plants, or even speak. Imagine going out of the front-door, and they come out opposite at the same moment. And yet you tell me that plans are unnecessary, and you'd rather risk it."
"I hope to risk things all my life."
"Oh, Margaret, most dangerous."
"But after all," she continued with a smile, "there's never any great risk as long as you have money."
"Oh, shame! What a shocking speech!"
"Money pads the edges of things," said Miss Schlegel.
"God help those who have none."
"But this is something quite new!" said Mrs. Munt, who collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts, and was especially attracted by those that are portable.
"New for me; sensible people have acknowledged it for years. You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It's only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin."
"I call that rather cynical."
"So do I. But Helen and I, we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticize others, that we are standing on these islands, and that most of the others, are down below the surface of the sea. The poor cannot always reach those whom they want to love, and they can hardly ever escape from those whom they love no longer. We rich can. Imagine the tragedy last June, if Helen and Paul Wilcox had been poor people, and couldn't invoke railways and motor-cars to part them."
"That's more like Socialism," said Mrs. Munt suspiciously.
"Call it what you like. I call it going through life with one's hand spread open on the table. I'm tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor, and think it shows a nice mind to ignore the piles of money that keep their feet above the waves. I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen upon the same, and Tibby will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed--from the sea, yes, from the sea. And all our thoughts are the thoughts of six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches; and because we don't want to steal umbrellas ourselves, we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them, and do steal them sometimes, and that what's a joke up here is down there reality--"
"There they go--there goes Fraulein Mosebach. Really, for a German she does dress charmingly. Oh--!"
"What is it?"
"Helen was looking up at the Wilcoxes' flat."
"Why shouldn't she?"
"I beg your pardon, I interrupted you. What was it you were saying about reality?"
"I had worked round to myself, as usual," answered Margaret in tones that were suddenly preoccupied.
"Do tell me this, at all events. Are you for the rich or for the poor?"
"Too difficult. Ask me another. Am I for poverty or for riches? For riches. Hurrah for riches!"
"For riches!" echoed Mrs. Munt, having, as it were, at last secured her nut.
"Yes. For riches. Money for ever!"
"So am I, and so, I am afraid, are most of my acquaintances at Swanage, but I am surprised that you agree with us."
"Thank you so much, Aunt Juley. While I have talked theories, you have done the flowers."
"Not at all, dear. I wish you would let me help you in more important things."
"Well, would you be very kind? Would you come round with me to the registry office? There's a housemaid who won't say yes but doesn't say no."
On their way thither they too looked up at the Wilcoxes' flat. Evie was in the balcony, "staring most rudely," according to Mrs. Munt. Oh yes, it was a nuisance, there was no doubt of it. Helen was proof against a passing encounter but--Margaret began to lose confidence. Might it reawake the dying nerve if the family were living close against her eyes? And Frieda Mosebach was stopping with them for another fortnight, and Frieda was sharp, abominably sharp, and quite capable of remarking, "You love one of the young gentlemen opposite, yes?" The remark would be untrue, but of the kind which, if stated often enough, may become true; just as the remark, "England and Germany are bound to fight," renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation. Have the private emotions also their gutter press? Margaret thought so, and feared that good Aunt Juley and Frieda were typical specimens of it. They might, by continual chatter, lead Helen into a repetition of the desires of June. Into a repetition--they could not do more; they could not lead her into lasting love. They were--she saw it clearly--Journalism; her father, with all his defects and wrong-headedness, had been Literature, and had he lived, he would have persuaded his daughter rightly.
The registry office was holding its morning reception.
A string of carriages filled the street. Miss Schlegel waited her turn, and finally had to be content with an insidious "temporary," being rejected by genuine housemaids on the ground of her numerous stairs. Her failure depressed her, and though she forgot the failure, the depression remained. On her way home she again glanced up at the Wilcoxes' flat, and took the rather matronly step of speaking about the matter to Helen.
"Helen, you must tell me whether this thing worries you."
"If what?" said Helen, who was washing her hands for lunch.
"The W.'s coming."
"No, of course not."
"Really." Then she admitted that she was a little worried on Mrs. Wilcox's account; she implied that Mrs. Wilcox might reach backward into deep feelings, and be pained by things that never touched the other members of that clan. "I shan't mind if Paul points at our house and says, 'There lives the girl who tried to catch me.' But she might."
"If even that worries you, we could arrange something.
There's no reason we should be near people who displease us or whom we displease, thanks to our money. We might even go away for a little."
"Well, I am going away. Frieda's just asked me to Stettin, and I shan't be back till after the New Year. Will that do? Or must I fly the country altogether? Really, Meg, what has come over you to make such a fuss?"
"Oh, I'm getting an old maid, I suppose. I thought I minded nothing, but really I--I should be bored if you fell in love with the same man twice and"--she cleared her throat--"you did go red, you know, when Aunt Juley attacked you this morning. I shouldn't have referred to it otherwise."
But Helen's laugh rang true, as she raised a soapy hand to heaven and swore that never, nowhere and nohow, would she again fall in love with any of the Wilcox family, down to its remotest collaterals.
The friendship between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox, which was to develop so--quickly and with such strange results, may perhaps have had its beginnings at Speyer, in the spring.
Perhaps the elder lady, as she gazed at the vulgar, ruddy cathedral, and listened to the talk of Helen and her husband, may have detected in the other and less charming of the sisters a deeper sympathy, a sounder judgment. She was capable of detecting such things. Perhaps it was she who had desired the Miss Schlegels to be invited to Howards End, and Margaret whose presence she had particularly desired.
All this is speculation: Mrs. Wilcox has left few clear indications behind her. It is certain that she came to call at Wickham Place a fortnight later, the very day that Helen was going with her cousin to Stettin.
"Helen!" cried Fraulein Mosebach in awestruck tones (she was now in her cousin's confidence)--"his mother has forgiven you!" And then, remembering that in England the new-comer ought not to call before she is called upon, she changed her tone from awe to disapproval, and opined that Mrs. Wilcox was "keine Dame."
"Bother the whole family!" snapped Margaret. "Helen, stop giggling and pirouetting, and go and finish your packing. Why can't the woman leave us alone?"
"I don't know what I shall do with Meg," Helen retorted, collapsing upon the stairs. "She's got Wilcox and Box upon the brain. Meg, Meg, I don't love the young gentleman; I don't love the young gentleman, Meg, Meg. Can a body speak plainer?"
"Most certainly her love has died," asserted Fraulein Mosebach.
"Most certainly it has, Frieda, but that will not prevent me from being bored with the Wilcoxes if I return the call."
Then Helen simulated tears, and Fraulein Mosebach, who thought her extremely amusing, did the same. "Oh, boo hoo!
boo hoo hoo! Meg's going to return the call, and I can't.
'Cos why? 'Cos I'm going to German-eye."
"If you are going to Germany, go and pack; if you aren't, go and call on the Wilcoxes instead of me."
"But, Meg, Meg, I don't love the young gentleman; I don't love the young--0 lud, who's that coming down the stairs? I vow 'tis my brother. 0 crimini!"
A male--even such a male as Tibby--was enough to stop the foolery. The barrier of sex, though decreasing among the civilized, is still high, and higher on the side of women. Helen could tell her sister all, and her cousin much about Paul; she told her brother nothing. It was not prudishness, for she now spoke of "the Wilcox ideal" with laughter, and even with a growing brutality. Nor was it precaution, for Tibby seldom repeated any news that did not concern himself. It was rather the feeling that she betrayed a secret into the camp of men, and that, however trivial it was on this side of the barrier, it would become important on that. So she stopped, or rather began to fool on other subjects, until her long-suffering relatives drove her upstairs. Fraulein Mosebach followed her, but lingered to say heavily over the banisters to Margaret, "It is all right--she does not love the young man--he has not been worthy of her."
"Yes, I know; thanks very much."
"I thought I did right to tell you."
"Ever so many thanks."
"What's that?" asked Tibby. No one told him, and he proceeded into the dining-room, to eat Elvas plums.
That evening Margaret took decisive action. The house was very quiet, and the fog--we are in November now--pressed against the windows like an excluded ghost. Frieda and Helen and all their luggage had gone. Tibby, who was not feeling well, lay stretched on a sofa by the fire. Margaret sat by him, thinking. Her mind darted from impulse to impulse, and finally marshalled them all in review. The practical person, who knows what he wants at once, and generally knows nothing else, will excuse her of indecision. But this was the way her mind worked. And when she did act, no one could accuse her of indecision then.
She hit out as lustily as if she had not considered the matter at all. The letter that she wrote Mrs. Wilcox glowed with the native hue of resolution. The pale cast of thought was with her a breath rather than a tarnish, a breath that leaves the colours all the more vivid when it has been wiped away.
Dear Mrs. Wilcox,
I have to write something discourteous. It would be better if we did not meet. Both my sister and my aunt have given displeasure to your family, and, in my sister's case, the grounds for displeasure might recur.
As far as I know, she no longer occupies her thoughts with your son. But it would not be fair, either to her or to you, if they met, and it is therefore right that our acquaintance which began so pleasantly, should end.
I fear that you will not agree with this; indeed, I know that you will not, since you have been good enough to call on us. It is only an instinct on my part, and no doubt the instinct is wrong. My sister would, undoubtedly, say that it is wrong. I write without her knowledge, and I hope that you will not associate her with my discourtesy.
M. J. Schlegel
Margaret sent this letter round by post. Next morning she received the following reply by hand:
Dear Miss Schlegel,
You should not have written me such a letter. I called to tell you that Paul has gone abroad.
Margaret's cheeks burnt. She could not finish her breakfast. She was on fire with shame. Helen had told her that the youth was leaving England, but other things had seemed more important, and she had forgotten. All her absurd anxieties fell to the ground, and in their place arose the certainty that she had been rude to Mrs. Wilcox.
Rudeness affected Margaret like a bitter taste in the mouth. It poisoned life. At times it is necessary, but woe to those who employ it without due need. She flung on a hat and shawl, just like a poor woman, and plunged into the fog, which still continued. Her lips were compressed, the letter remained in her hand, and in this state she crossed the street, entered the marble vestibule of the flats, eluded the concierges, and ran up the stairs till she reached the second-floor.
She sent in her name, and to her surprise was shown straight into Mrs. Wilcox's bedroom.
"Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, I have made the baddest blunder. I am more, more ashamed and sorry than I can say."
Mrs. Wilcox bowed gravely. She was offended, and did not pretend to the contrary. She was sitting up in bed, writing letters on an invalid table that spanned her knees.
A breakfast tray was on another table beside her. The light of the fire, the light from the window, and the light of a candle-lamp, which threw a quivering halo round her hands, combined to create a strange atmosphere of dissolution.
"I knew he was going to India in November, but I forgot."
"He sailed on the 17th for Nigeria, in Africa."
"I knew--I know. I have been too absurd all through. I am very much ashamed."
Mrs. Wilcox did not answer.
"I am more sorry than I can say, and I hope that you will forgive me."
"It doesn't matter, Miss Schlegel. It is good of you to have come round so promptly."
"It does matter," cried Margaret. "I have been rude to you; and my sister is not even at home, so there was not even that excuse.
"She has just gone to Germany."
"She gone as well," murmured the other. "Yes, certainly, it is quite safe--safe, absolutely, now."
"You've been worrying too!" exclaimed Margaret, getting more and more excited, and taking a chair without invitation. "How perfectly extraordinary! I can see that you have. You felt as I do; Helen mustn't meet him again."
"I did think it best."
"That's a most difficult question," said Mrs. Wilcox, smiling, and a little losing her expression of annoyance.
"I think you put it best in your letter--it was an instinct, which may be wrong."
"It wasn't that your son still--"
"Oh no; he often--my Paul is very young, you see."
"Then what was it?"
She repeated: "An instinct which may be wrong."
"In other words, they belong to types that can fall in love, but couldn't live together. That's dreadfully probable. I'm afraid that in nine cases out of ten Nature pulls one way and human nature another."
"These are indeed 'other words,'" said Mrs. Wilcox." I had nothing so coherent in my head. I was merely alarmed when I knew that my boy cared for your sister."
"Ah, I have always been wanting to ask you. How did you know? Helen was so surprised when our aunt drove up, and you stepped forward and arranged things. Did Paul tell you?"
"There is nothing to be gained by discussing that," said Mrs. Wilcox after a moment's pause.
"Mrs. Wilcox, were you very angry with us last June? I wrote you a letter and you didn't answer it."
"I was certainly against taking Mrs. Matheson's flat. I knew it was opposite your house."
"But it's all right now?"
"I think so."
"You only think? You aren't sure? I do love these little muddles tidied up?"
"Oh yes, I'm sure," said Mrs. Wilcox, moving with uneasiness beneath the clothes. "I always sound uncertain over things. It is my way of speaking."
"That's all right, and I'm sure too."
Here the maid came in to remove the breakfast-tray.
They were interrupted, and when they resumed conversation it was on more normal lines.
"I must say good-bye now--you will be getting up."
"No--please stop a little longer--I am taking a day in bed. Now and then I do."
"I thought of you as one of the early risers."
"At Howards End--yes; there is nothing to get up for in London."
"Nothing to get up for?" cried the scandalized Margaret. "When there are all the autumn exhibitions, and Ysaye playing in the afternoon! Not to mention people."
"The truth is, I am a little tired. First came the wedding, and then Paul went off, and, instead of resting yesterday, I paid a round of calls."
"Yes; Charles, my elder son, is married."
"We took the flat chiefly on that account, and also that Paul could get his African outfit. The flat belongs to a cousin of my husband's, and she most kindly offered it to us. So before the day came we were able to make the acquaintance of Dolly's people, which we had not yet done."
Margaret asked who Dolly's people were.
"Fussell. The father is in the Indian army--retired; the brother is in the army. The mother is dead."
So perhaps these were the "chinless sunburnt men" whom Helen had espied one afternoon through the window. Margaret felt mildly interested in the fortunes of the Wilcox family. She had acquired the habit on Helen's account, and it still clung to her. She asked for more information about Miss Dolly Fussell that was, and was given it in even, unemotional tones. Mrs. Wilcox's voice, though sweet and compelling, had little range of expression. It suggested that pictures, concerts, and people are all of small and equal value. Only once had it quickened--when speaking of Howards End.
"Charles and Albert Fussell have known one another some time. They belong to the same club, and are both devoted to golf. Dolly plays golf too, though I believe not so well, and they first met in a mixed foursome. We all like her, and are very much pleased. They were married on the 11th, a few days before Paul sailed. Charles was very anxious to have his brother as best man, so he made a great point of having it on the 11th. The Fussells would have preferred it after Christmas, but they were very nice about it. There is Dolly's photograph--in that double frame."
"Are you quite certain that I'm not interrupting, Mrs. Wilcox?"
"Then I will stay. I'm enjoying this."
Dolly's photograph was now examined. It was signed "For dear Mims," which Mrs. Wilcox interpreted as "the name she and Charles had settled that she should call me." Dolly looked silly, and had one of those triangular faces that so often prove attractive to a robust man. She was very pretty. From her Margaret passed to Charles, whose features prevailed opposite. She speculated on the forces that had drawn the two together till God parted them. She found time to hope that they would be happy.
"They have gone to Naples for their honeymoon."
"I can hardly imagine Charles in Italy."
"Doesn't he care for travelling?"
"He likes travel, but he does see through foreigners so. What he enjoys most is a motor tour in England, and I think that would have carried the day if the weather had not been so abominable. His father gave him a car of his own for a wedding present, which for the present is being stored at Howards End."
"I suppose you have a garage there?"
"Yes. My husband built a little one only last month, to the west of the house, not far from the wych-elm, in what used to be the paddock for the pony."
The last words had an indescribable ring about them.
"Where's the pony gone?" asked Margaret after a pause.
"The pony? Oh, dead, ever so long ago." "The wych-elm I remember. Helen spoke of it as a very splendid tree."
"It is the finest wych-elm in Hertfordshire. Did your sister tell you about the teeth?"
"Oh, it might interest you. There are pigs' teeth stuck into the trunk, about four feet from the ground. The country people put them in long ago, and they think that if they chew a piece of the bark, it will cure the toothache.
The teeth are almost grown over now, and no one comes to the tree."
"I should. I love folklore and all festering superstitions."
"Do you think that the tree really did cure toothache, if one believed in it?"
"Of course it did. It would cure anything--once."
"Certainly I remember cases--you see I lived at Howards End long, long before Mr. Wilcox knew it. I was born there."
The conversation again shifted. At the time it seemed little more than aimless chatter. She was interested when her hostess explained that Howards End was her own property. She was bored when too minute an account was given of the Fussell family, of the anxieties of Charles concerning Naples, of the movements of Mr. Wilcox and Evie, who were motoring in Yorkshire. Margaret could not bear being bored. She grew inattentive, played with the photograph frame, dropped it, smashed Dolly's glass, apologized, was pardoned, cut her finger thereon, was pitied, and finally said she must be going--there was all the housekeeping to do, and she had to interview Tibby's
Then the curious note was struck again.
"Good-bye, Miss Schlegel, good-bye. Thank you for coming. You have cheered me up."
"I'm so glad!"
"I--I wonder whether you ever think about yourself.?"
"I think of nothing else," said Margaret, blushing, but letting her hand remain in that of the invalid.
"I wonder. I wondered at Heidelberg."
"I almost think--"
"Yes?" asked Margaret, for there was a long pause--a pause that was somehow akin to the flicker of the fire, the quiver of the reading-lamp upon their hands, the white blur from the window; a pause of shifting and eternal shadows.
"I almost think you forget you're a girl."
Margaret was startled and a little annoyed. "I'm twenty-nine," she remarked. "That not so wildly girlish."
Mrs. Wilcox smiled.
"What makes you say that? Do you mean that I have been gauche and rude?"
A shake of the head. "I only meant that I am fifty-one, and that to me both of you--Read it all in some book or other; I cannot put things clearly."
"Oh, I've got it--inexperience. I'm no better than Helen, you mean, and yet I presume to advise her."
"Yes. You have got it. Inexperience is the word."
"Inexperience," repeated Margaret, in serious yet buoyant tones. "Of course, I have everything to learn--absolutely everything--just as much as Helen. Life's very difficult and full of surprises. At all events, I've got as far as that. To be humble and kind, to go straight ahead, to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged--well, one can't do all these things at once, worse luck, because they're so contradictory. It's then that proportion comes in--to live by proportion. Don't BEGIN with proportion. Only prigs do that. Let proportion come in as a last resource, when the better things have failed, and a deadlock--Gracious me, I've started preaching!"
"Indeed, you put the difficulties of life splendidly," said Mrs. Wilcox, withdrawing her hand into the deeper shadows. "It is just what I should have liked to say about them myself."
Mrs. Wilcox cannot be accused of giving Margaret much information about life. And Margaret, on the other hand, has made a fair show of modesty, and has pretended to an inexperience that she certainly did not feel. She had kept house for over ten years; she had entertained, almost with distinction; she had brought up a charming sister, and was bringing up a brother. Surely, if experience is attainable, she had attained it.
Yet the little luncheon-party that she gave in Mrs. Wilcox's honour was not a success. The new friend did not blend with the "one or two delightful people" who had been asked to meet her, and the atmosphere was one of polite bewilderment. Her tastes were simple, her knowledge of culture slight, and she was not interested in the New English Art Club, nor in the dividing-line between Journalism and Literature, which was started as a conversational hare. The delightful people darted after it with cries of joy, Margaret leading them, and not till the meal was half over did they realize that the principal guest had taken no part in the chase. There was no common topic.
Mrs. Wilcox, whose life had been spent in the service of husband and sons, had little to say to strangers who had never shared it, and whose age was half her own. Clever talk alarmed her, and withered her delicate imaginings; it was the social; counterpart of a motorcar, all jerks, and she was a wisp of hay, a flower. Twice she deplored the weather, twice criticized the train service on the Great Northern Railway. They vigorously assented, and rushed on, and when she inquired whether there was any news of Helen, her hostess was too much occupied in placing Rothenstein to answer. The question was repeated: "I hope that your sister is safe in Germany by now." Margaret checked herself and said, "Yes, thank you; I heard on Tuesday." But the demon of vociferation was in her, and the next moment she was off again.
"Only on Tuesday, for they live right away at Stettin.
Did you ever know any one living at Stettin?"
"Never," said Mrs. Wilcox gravely, while her neighbour, a young man low down in the Education Office, began to discuss what people who lived at Stettin ought to look like. Was there such a thing as Stettininity? Margaret swept on.
"People at Stettin drop things into boats out of overhanging warehouses. At least, our cousins do, but aren't particularly rich. The town isn't interesting, except for a clock that rolls its eyes, and the view of the Oder, which truly is something special. Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, you would love the Oder! The river, or rather rivers--there seem to be dozens of them--are intense blue, and the plain they run through an intensest green."
"Indeed! That sounds like a most beautiful view, Miss Schlegel."
"So I say, but Helen, who will muddle things, says no, it's like music. The course of the Oder is to be like music. It's obliged to remind her of a symphonic poem. The part by the landing-stage is in B minor, if I remember rightly, but lower down things get extremely mixed. There is a slodgy theme in several keys at once, meaning mud-banks, and another for the navigable canal, and the exit into the Baltic is in C sharp major, pianissimo."
"What do the overhanging warehouses make of that?" asked the man, laughing.
"They make a great deal of it," replied Margaret, unexpectedly rushing off on a new track. "I think it's affectation to compare the Oder to music, and so do you, but the overhanging warehouses of Stettin take beauty seriously, which we don't, and the average Englishman doesn't, and despises all who do. Now don't say 'Germans have no taste,' or I shall scream. They haven't. But--but--such a tremendous but! --they take poetry seriously. They do take poetry seriously.
"Is anything gained by that?"
"Yes, yes. The German is always on the lookout for beauty. He may miss it through stupidity, or misinterpret it, but he is always asking beauty to enter his life, and I believe that in the end it will come. At Heidelberg I met a fat veterinary surgeon whose voice broke with sobs as he repeated some mawkish poetry. So easy for me to laugh--I, who never repeat poetry, good or bad, and cannot remember one fragment of verse to thrill myself with. My blood boils--well, I'm half German, so put it down to patriotism--when I listen to the tasteful contempt of the average islander for things Teutonic, whether they're Bocklin or my veterinary surgeon. 'Oh, Bocklin,' they say; 'he strains after beauty, he peoples Nature with gods too consciously.' Of course Bocklin strains, because he wants something--beauty and all the other intangible gifts that are floating about the world. So his landscapes don't come off, and Leader's do."
"I am not sure that I agree. Do you?" said he, turning to Mrs. Wilcox.
She replied: "I think Miss Schlegel puts everything splendidly"; and a chill fell on the conversation.
"Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, say something nicer than that. It's such a snub to be told you put things splendidly. "
"I do not mean it as a snub. Your last speech interested me so much. Generally people do not seem quite to like Germany. I have long wanted to hear what is said on the other side."
"The other side? Then you do disagree. Oh, good! Give us your side."
"I have no side. But my husband"--her voice softened, the chill increased--"has very little faith in the Continent, and our children have all taken after him."
"On what grounds? Do they feel that the Continent is in bad form?"
Mrs. Wilcox had no idea; she paid little attention to grounds. She was not intellectual, nor even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she should give the idea of greatness. Margaret, zigzagging with her friends over Thought and Art, was conscious of a personality that transcended their own and dwarfed their activities. There was no bitterness in Mrs. Wilcox; there was not even criticism; she was lovable, and no ungracious or uncharitable word had passed her lips. Yet she and daily life were out of focus: one or the other must show blurred.
And at lunch she seemed more out of focus than usual, and nearer the line that divides life from a life that may be of greater importance.
"You will admit, though, that the Continent--it seems silly to speak of 'the Continent,' but really it is all more like itself than any part of it is like England. England is unique. Do have another jelly first. I was going to say that the Continent, for good or for evil, is interested in ideas. Its Literature and Art have what one might call the kink of the unseen about them, and this persists even through decadence and affectation. There is more liberty of action in England, but for liberty of thought go to bureaucratic Prussia. People will there discuss with humility vital questions that we here think ourselves too good to touch with tongs."
"I do not want to go to Prussian" said Mrs. Wilcox--"not even to see that interesting view that you were describing.
And for discussing with humility I am too old. We never discuss anything at Howards End."
"Then you ought to!" said Margaret. "Discussion keeps a house alive. It cannot stand by bricks and mortar alone."
"It cannot stand without them," said Mrs. Wilcox, unexpectedly catching on to the thought, and rousing, for the first and last time, a faint hope in the breasts of the delightful people. "It cannot stand without them, and I sometimes think--But I cannot expect your generation to agree, for even my daughter disagrees with me here."
"Never mind us or her. Do say!"
"I sometimes think that it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men."
There was a little silence.
"One admits that the arguments against the suffrage are extraordinarily strong," said a girl opposite, leaning forward and crumbling her bread.
"Are they? I never follow any arguments. I am only too thankful not to have a vote myself."
"We didn't mean the vote, though, did we?" supplied Margaret. "Aren't we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may. I would even admit a biological change."
"I don't know, I don't know."
"I must be getting back to my overhanging warehouse," said the man. "They've turned disgracefully strict.
Mrs. Wilcox also rose.
"Oh, but come upstairs for a little. Miss Quested plays. Do you like MacDowell? Do you mind him only having two noises? If you must really go, I'll see you out. Won't you even have coffee?"
They left the dining-room, closing the door behind them, and as Mrs. Wilcox buttoned up her jacket, she said: "What an interesting life you all lead in London!"
"No, we don't," said Margaret, with a sudden revulsion.
"We lead the lives of gibbering monkeys. Mrs. Wilcox--really--We have something quiet and stable at the bottom. We really have. All my friends have. Don't pretend you enjoyed lunch, for you loathed it, but forgive me by coming again, alone, or by asking me to you."
"I am used to young people," said Mrs. Wilcox, and with each word she spoke the outlines of known things grew dim.
"I hear a great deal of chatter at home, for we, like you, entertain a great deal. With us it is more sport and politics, but--I enjoyed my lunch very much, Miss Schlegel, dear, and am not pretending, and only wish I could have joined in more. For one thing, I'm not particularly well just today. For another, you younger people move so quickly that it dazes me. Charles is the same, Dolly the same. But we are all in the same boat, old and young. I never forget that."
They were silent for a moment. Then, with a newborn emotion, they shook hands. The conversation ceased suddenly when Margaret re-entered the dining-room: her friends had been talking over her new friend, and had dismissed her as uninteresting.
Several days passed.
Was Mrs. Wilcox one of the unsatisfactory people--there are many of them--who dangle intimacy and then withdraw it?
They evoke our interests and affections, and keep the life of the spirit dawdling round them. Then they withdraw.
When physical passion is involved, there is a definite name for such behaviour--flirting--and if carried far enough it is punishable by law. But no law--not public opinion even--punishes those who coquette with friendship, though the dull ache that they inflict, the sense of misdirected effort and exhaustion, may be as intolerable. Was she one of these?
Margaret feared so at first, for, with a Londoner's impatience, she wanted everything to be settled up immediately. She mistrusted the periods of quiet that are essential to true growth. Desiring to book Mrs. Wilcox as a friend, she pressed on the ceremony, pencil, as it were, in hand, pressing the more because the rest of the family were away, and the opportunity seemed favourable. But the elder woman would not be hurried. She refused to fit in with the Wickham Place set, or to reopen discussion of Helen and Paul, whom Margaret would have utilized as a short-cut. She took her time, or perhaps let time take her, and when the crisis did come all was ready.
The crisis opened with a message: would Miss Schlegel come shopping? Christmas was nearing, and Mrs. Wilcox felt behind-hand with the presents. She had taken some more days in bed, and must make up for lost time. Margaret accepted, and at eleven o'clock one cheerless morning they started out in a brougham.
"First of all," began Margaret, "we must make a list and tick off the people's names. My aunt always does, and this fog may thicken up any moment. Have you any ideas?"
"I thought we would go to Harrod's or the Haymarket Stores," said Mrs. Wilcox rather hopelessly. "Everything is sure to be there. I am not a good shopper. The din is so confusing, and your aunt is quite right--one ought to make a list. Take my notebook, then, and write your own name at the top of the page."
"Oh, hooray!" said Margaret, writing it. "How very kind of you to start with me!" But she did not want to receive anything expensive. Their acquaintance was singular rather than intimate, and she divined that the Wilcox clan would resent any expenditure on outsiders; the more compact families do. She did not want to be thought a second Helen, who would snatch presents since she could not snatch young men, nor to be exposed, like a second Aunt Juley, to the insults of Charles. A certain austerity of demeanour was best, and she added: "I don't really want a Yuletide gift, though. In fact, I'd rather not."
"Because I've odd ideas about Christmas. Because I have all that money can buy. I want more people, but no more things."
"I should like to give you something worth your acquaintance, Miss Schlegel, in memory of your kindness to me during my lonely fortnight. It has so happened that I have been left alone, and you have stopped me from brooding. I am too apt to brood."
"If that is so," said Margaret, "if I have happened to be of use to you, which I didn't know, you cannot pay me back with anything tangible."
" I suppose not, but one would like to. Perhaps I shall think of something as we go about."
Her name remained at the head of the list, but nothing was written opposite it. They drove from shop to shop. The air was white, and when they alighted it tasted like cold pennies. At times they passed through a clot of grey. Mrs. Wilcox's vitality was low that morning, and it was Margaret who decided on a horse for this little girl, a golliwog for that, for the rector's wife a copper warming-tray. "We always give the servants money." "Yes, do you, yes, much easier," replied Margaret, but felt the grotesque impact of the unseen upon the seen, and saw issuing from a forgotten manger at Bethlehem this torrent of coins and toys.
Vulgarity reigned. Public-houses, besides their usual exhortation against temperance reform, invited men to "Join our Christmas goose club"--one bottle of gin, etc., or two, according to subscription. A poster of a woman in tights heralded the Christmas pantomime, and little red devils, who had come in again that year, were prevalent upon the Christmas-cards. Margaret was no morbid idealist. She did not wish this spate of business and self-advertisement checked. It was only the occasion of it that struck her with amazement annually. How many of these vacillating shoppers and tired shop-assistants realized that it was a divine event that drew them together? She realized it, though standing outside in the matter. She was not a Christian in the accepted sense; she did not believe that God had ever worked among us as a young artisan. These people, or most of them, believed it, and if pressed, would affirm it in words. But the visible signs of their belief were Regent Street or Drury Lane, a little mud displaced, a little money spent, a little food cooked, eaten, and forgotten. Inadequate. But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision.
"No, I do like Christmas on the whole," she announced.
"In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill.
But oh, it is clumsier every year."
"Is it? I am only used to country Christmases."
"We are usually in London, and play the game with vigour--carols at the Abbey, clumsy midday meal, clumsy dinner for the maids, followed by Christmas-tree and dancing of poor children, with songs from Helen. The drawing-room does very well for that. We put the tree in the powder-closet, and draw a curtain when the candles are lighted, and with the looking-glass behind it looks quite pretty. I wish we might have a powder-closet in our next house. Of course, the tree has to be very small, and the presents don't hang on it. No; the presents reside in a sort of rocky landscape made of crumpled brown paper."
"You spoke of your 'next house,' Miss Schlegel. Then are you leaving Wickham Place?"
"Yes, in two or three years, when the lease expires. We must."
"Have you been there long?"
"All our lives."
"You will be very sorry to leave it."
"I suppose so. We scarcely realize it yet. My father--" She broke off, for they had reached the stationery department of the Haymarket Stores, and Mrs. Wilcox wanted to order some private greeting cards.
"If possible, something distinctive," she sighed. At the counter she found a friend, bent on the same errand, and conversed with her insipidly, wasting much time. "My husband and our daughter are motoring."
"Bertha too? Oh, fancy, what a coincidence!" Margaret, though not practical, could shine in such company as this.
While they talked, she went through a volume of specimen cards, and submitted one for Mrs. Wilcox's inspection. Mrs. Wilcox was delighted--so original, words so sweet; she would order a hundred like that, and could never be sufficiently grateful. Then, just as the assistant was booking the order, she said: "Do you know, I'll wait. On second thoughts, I'll wait. There's plenty of time still, isn't there, and I shall be able to get Evie's opinion."
They returned to the carriage by devious paths; when they were in, she said, "But couldn't you get it renewed?"
"I beg your pardon?" asked Margaret.
"The lease, I mean."
"Oh, the lease! Have you been thinking of that all the time? How very kind of you!"
"Surely something could be done."
"No; values have risen too enormously. They mean to pull down Wickham Place, and build flats like yours."
"But how horrible!"
"Landlords are horrible."
Then she said vehemently: "It is monstrous, Miss Schlegel; it isn't right. I had no idea that this was hanging over you. I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father's house--it oughtn't to be allowed. It is worse than dying.
I would rather die than--Oh, poor girls! Can what they call civilization be right, if people mayn't die in the room where they were born? My dear, I am so sorry--"
Margaret did not know what to say. Mrs. Wilcox had been overtired by the shopping, and was inclined to hysteria.
"Howards End was nearly pulled down once. It would have killed me."
"Howards End must be a very different house to ours. We are fond of ours, but there is nothing distinctive about it. As you saw, it is an ordinary London house. We shall easily find another."
"So you think."
"Again my lack of experience, I suppose!" said Margaret, easing away from the subject. "I can't say anything when you take up that line, Mrs. Wilcox. I wish I could see myself as you see me--foreshortened into a backfisch. Quite the ingenue. Very charming--wonderfully well read for my age, but incapable--"
Mrs. Wilcox would not be deterred. "Come down with me to Howards End now," she said, more vehemently than ever.
"I want you to see it. You have never seen it. I want to hear what you say about it, for you do put things so wonderfully."
Margaret glanced at the pitiless air and then at the tired face of her companion. "Later on I should love it," she continued, "but it's hardly the weather for such an expedition, and we ought to start when we're fresh. Isn't the house shut up, too?"
She received no answer. Mrs. Wilcox appeared to be annoyed.
"Might I come some other day?"
Mrs. Wilcox bent forward and tapped the glass. "Back to Wickham Place, please!" was her order to the coachman.
Margaret had been snubbed.
"A thousand thanks, Miss Schlegel, for all your help."
"Not at all."
"It is such a comfort to get the presents off my mind--the Christmas-cards especially. I do admire your choice."
It was her turn to receive no answer. In her turn Margaret became annoyed.
"My husband and Evie will be back the day after tomorrow. That is why I dragged you out shopping today. I stayed in town chiefly to shop, but got through nothing, and now he writes that they must cut their tour short, the weather is so bad, and the police-traps have been so bad--nearly as bad as in Surrey. Ours is such a careful chauffeur, and my husband feels it particularly hard that they should be treated like roadhogs."
"Well, naturally he--he isn't a road-hog."
"He was exceeding the speed-limit, I conclude. He must expect to suffer with the lower animals."
Mrs. Wilcox was silenced. In growing discomfort they drove homewards. The city seemed Satanic, the narrower streets oppressing like the galleries of a mine. No harm was done by the fog to trade, for it lay high, and the lighted windows of the shops were thronged with customers.
It was rather a darkening of the spirit which fell back upon itself, to find a more grievous darkness within. Margaret nearly spoke a dozen times, but something throttled her.
She felt petty and awkward, and her meditations on Christmas grew more cynical. Peace? It may bring other gifts, but is there a single Londoner to whom Christmas is peaceful? The craving for excitement and for elaboration has ruined that blessing. Goodwill? Had she seen any example of it in the hordes of purchasers? Or in herself. She had failed to respond to this invitation merely because it was a little queer and imaginative--she, whose birthright it was to nourish imagination! Better to have accepted, to have tired themselves a little by the journey, than coldly to reply, "Might I come some other day?" Her cynicism left her.
There would be no other day. This shadowy woman would never ask her again.
They parted at the Mansions. Mrs. Wilcox went in after due civilities, and Margaret watched the tall, lonely figure sweep up the hall to the lift. As the glass doors closed on it she had the sense of an imprisonment. The beautiful head disappeared first, still buried in the muff, the long trailing skirt followed. A woman of undefinable rarity was going up heaven-ward, like a specimen in a bottle. And into what a heaven--a vault as of hell, sooty black, from which soots descended!
At lunch her brother, seeing her inclined for silence, insisted on talking. Tibby was not ill-natured, but from babyhood something drove him to do the unwelcome and the unexpected. Now he gave her a long account of the day-school that he sometimes patronized. The account was interesting, and she had often pressed him for it before, but she could not attend now, for her mind was focussed on the invisible. She discerned that Mrs. Wilcox, though a loving wife and mother, had only one passion in life--her house--and that the moment was solemn when she invited a friend to share this passion with her. To answer "another day" was to answer as a fool. "Another day" will do for brick and mortar, but not for the Holy of Holies into which Howards End had been transfigured. Her own curiosity was slight. She had heard more than enough about it in the summer. The nine windows, the vine, and the wych-elm had no pleasant connections for her, and she would have preferred to spend the afternoon at a concert. But imagination triumphed. While her brother held forth she determined to go, at whatever cost, and to compel Mrs. Wilcox to go, too.
When lunch was over she stepped over to the flats.
Mrs. Wilcox had just gone away for the night.
Margaret said that it was of no consequence, hurried downstairs, and took a hansom to King's Cross. She was convinced that the escapade was important, though it would have puzzled her to say why. There was a question of imprisonment and escape, and though she did not know the time of the train, she strained her eyes for the St. Pancras' clock.
Then the clock of King's Cross swung into sight, a second moon in that infernal sky, and her cab drew up at the station. There was a train for Hilton in five minutes. She took a ticket, asking in her agitation for a single. As she did so, a grave and happy voice saluted her and thanked her.
"I will come if I still may," said Margaret, laughing nervously.
"You are coming to sleep, dear, too. It is in the morning that my house is most beautiful. You are coming to stop. I cannot show you my meadow properly except at sunrise. These fogs"--she pointed at the station roof--"never spread far. I dare say they are sitting in the sun in Hertfordshire, and you will never repent joining them.
"I shall never repent joining you."
"It is the same."
They began the walk up the long platform. Far at its end stood the train, breasting the darkness without. They never reached it. Before imagination could triumph, there were cries of "Mother! Mother!" and a heavy-browed girl darted out of the cloak-room and seized Mrs. Wilcox by the arm.
"Evie!" she gasped. "Evie, my pet--"
The girl called, "Father! I say! look who's here."
"Evie, dearest girl, why aren't you in Yorkshire?"
"No--motor smash--changed plans--Father's coming."
"Why, Ruth!" cried Mr. Wilcox, joining them. "What in the name of all that's wonderful are you doing here, Ruth?"
Mrs. Wilcox had recovered herself.
"Oh, Henry dear! --here's a lovely surprise--but let me introduce--but I think you know Miss Schlegel."
"Oh, yes," he replied, not greatly interested. "But how's yourself, Ruth?"
"Fit as a fiddle," she answered gaily.
"So are we and so was our car, which ran A-1 as far as Ripon, but there a wretched horse and cart which a fool of a driver--"
"Miss Schlegel, our little outing must be for another day."
"I was saying that this fool of a driver, as the policeman himself admits--"
"Another day, Mrs. Wilcox. Of course."
"--But as we've insured against third party risks, it won't so much matter--"
"--Cart and car being practically at right angles--"
The voices of the happy family rose high. Margaret was left alone. No one wanted her. Mrs. Wilcox walked out of King's Cross between her husband and her daughter, listening to both of them.