Leonard accepted the invitation to tea next Saturday. But he was right; the visit proved a conspicuous failure.
"Sugar?" said Margaret.
"Cake?" said Helen. "The big cake or the little deadlies? I'm afraid you thought my letter rather odd, but we'll explain--we aren't odd, really--not affected, really.
We're over-expressive: that's all. "
As a lady's lap-dog Leonard did not excel. He was not an Italian, still less a Frenchman, in whose blood there runs the very spirit of persiflage and of gracious repartee. His wit was the Cockney's; it opened no doors into imagination, and Helen was drawn up short by "The more a lady has to say, the better," administered waggishly.
"Oh, yes," she said.
"Yes, I know. The darlings are regular sunbeams. Let me give you a plate."
"How do you like your work?" interposed Margaret.
He, too, was drawn up short. He would not have these women prying into his work. They were Romance, and so was the room to which he had at last penetrated, with the queer sketches of people bathing upon its walls, and so were the very tea-cups, with their delicate borders of wild strawberries. But he would not let Romance interfere with his life. There is the devil to pay then.
"Oh, well enough," he answered.
"Your company is the Porphyrion, isn't it?"
"Yes, that's so"--becoming rather offended. "It's funny how things get round."
"Why funny?" asked Helen, who did not follow the workings of his mind. "It was written as large as life on your card, and considering we wrote to you there, and that you replied on the stamped paper--"
"Would you call the Porphyrion one of the big Insurance Companies?" pursued Margaret.
"It depends what you call big."
"I mean by big, a solid, well-established concern, that offers a reasonably good career to its employes."
"I couldn't say--some would tell you one thing and others another," said the employe uneasily. "For my own part"--he shook his head--"I only believe half I hear. Not that even; it's safer. Those clever ones come to the worse grief, I've often noticed. Ah, you can't be too careful."
He drank, and wiped his moustache, which was going to be one of those moustaches that always droop into tea-cups--more bother than they're worth, surely, and not fashionable either.
"I quite agree, and that's why I was curious to know: is it a solid, well-established concern?"
Leonard had no idea. He understood his own corner of the machine, but nothing beyond it. He desired to confess neither knowledge nor ignorance, and under these circumstances, another motion of the head seemed safest. To him, as to the British public, the Porphyrion was the Porphyrion of the advertisement--a giant, in the classical style, but draped sufficiently, who held in one hand a burning torch, and pointed with the other to St. Paul's and Windsor Castle. A large sum of money was inscribed below, and you drew your own conclusions. This giant caused Leonard to do arithmetic and write letters, to explain the regulations to new clients, and re-explain them to old ones. A giant was of an impulsive morality--one knew that much. He would pay for Mrs. Munt's hearth-rug with ostentatious haste, a large claim he would repudiate quietly, and fight court by court. But his true fighting weight, his antecedents, his amours with other members of the commercial Pantheon--all these were as uncertain to ordinary mortals as were the escapades of Zeus. While the gods are powerful, we learn little about them. It is only in the days of their decadence that a strong light beats into heaven.
"We were told the Porphyrion's no go," blurted Helen.
"We wanted to tell you; that's why we wrote."
"A friend of ours did think that it is unsufficiently reinsured," said Margaret.
Now Leonard had his clue. He must praise the Porphyrion. "You can tell your friend," he said, "that he's quite wrong."
The young man coloured a little. In his circle to be wrong was fatal. The Miss Schlegels did not mind being wrong. They were genuinely glad that they had been misinformed. To them nothing was fatal but evil.
"Wrong, so to speak," he added.
"How 'so to speak'?"
"I mean I wouldn't say he's right altogether."
But this was a blunder. "Then he is right partly," said the elder woman, quick as lightning.
Leonard replied that every one was right partly, if it came to that.
"Mr. Bast, I don't understand business, and I dare say my questions are stupid, but can you tell me what makes a concern 'right' or 'wrong'?"
Leonard sat back with a sigh.
"Our friend, who is also a business man, was so positive. He said before Christmas--"
"And advised you to clear out of it," concluded Helen.
"But I don't see why he should know better than you do."
Leonard rubbed his hands. He was tempted to say that he knew nothing about the thing at all. But a commercial training was too strong for him. Nor could he say it was a bad thing, for this would be giving it away; nor yet that it was good, for this would be giving it away equally. He attempted to suggest that it was something between the two, with vast possibilities in either direction, but broke down under the gaze of four sincere eyes. As yet he scarcely distinguished between the two sisters. One was more beautiful and more lively, but "the Miss Schlegels" still remained a composite Indian god, whose waving arms and contradictory speeches were the product of a single mind.
"One can but see," he remarked, adding, "as Ibsen says, 'things happen.'" He was itching to talk about books and make the most of his romantic hour. Minute after minute slipped away, while the ladies, with imperfect skill, discussed the subject of reinsurance or praised their anonymous friend. Leonard grew annoyed--perhaps rightly.
He made vague remarks about not being one of those who minded their affairs being talked over by others, but they did not take the hint. Men might have shown more tact.
Women, however tactful elsewhere, are heavy-handed here.
They cannot see why we should shroud our incomes and our prospects in a veil. "How much exactly have you, and how much do you expect to have next June?" And these were women with a theory, who held that reticence about money matters is absurd, and that life would be truer if each would state the exact size of the golden island upon which he stands, the exact stretch of warp over which he throws the woof that is not money. How can we do justice to the pattern otherwise?
And the precious minutes slipped away, and Jacky and squalor came nearer. At last he could bear it no longer, and broke in, reciting the names of books feverishly. There was a moment of piercing joy when Margaret said, "So YOU like Carlyle," and then the door opened, and "Mr. Wilcox, Miss Wilcox" entered, preceded by two prancing puppies.
"Oh, the dears! Oh, Evie, how too impossibly sweet!" screamed Helen, falling on her hands and knees.
"We brought the little fellows round," said Mr. Wilcox.
"I bred 'em myself."
"Oh, really! Mr. Bast, come and play with puppies."
"I've got to be going now," said Leonard sourly.
"But play with puppies a little first."
"This is Ahab, that's Jezebel," said Evie, who was one of those who name animals after the less successful characters of Old Testament history.
"I've got to be going."
Helen was too much occupied with puppies to notice him.
"Mr. Wilcox, Mr. Ba--Must you be really? Good-bye!"
"Come again," said Helen from the floor.
Then Leonard's gorge arose. Why should he come again?
What was the good of it? He said roundly: "No, I shan't; I knew it would be a failure."
Most people would have let him go. "A little mistake.
We tried knowing another class--impossible." But the Schlegels had never played with life. They had attempted friendship, and they would take the consequences. Helen retorted, "I call that a very rude remark. What do you want to turn on me like that for?" and suddenly the drawing-room re-echoed to a vulgar row.
"You ask me why I turn on you?"
"What do you want to have me here for?"
"To help you, you silly boy!" cried Helen. "And don't shout."
"I don't want your patronage. I don't want your tea. I was quite happy. What do you want to unsettle me for?" He turned to Mr. Wilcox. "I put it to this gentleman. I ask you, sir, am to have my brain picked?"
Mr. Wilcox turned to Margaret with the air of humorous strength that he could so well command. "Are we intruding, Miss Schlegel? Can we be of any use or shall we go?"
But Margaret ignored him.
"I'm connected with a leading insurance company, sir. I receive what I take to be an invitation from these--ladies" (he drawled the word). "I come, and it's to have my brain picked. I ask you, is it fair?"
"Highly unfair," said Mr. Wilcox, drawing a gasp from Evie, who knew that her father was becoming dangerous.
"There, you hear that? Most unfair, the gentleman says. There! Not content with"--pointing at Margaret--"you can't deny it." His voice rose: he was falling into the rhythm of a scene with Jacky. "But as soon as I'm useful it's a very different thing. 'Oh yes, send for him.
Cross-question him. Pick his brains.' Oh yes. Now, take me on the whole, I'm a quiet fellow: I'm law-abiding, I don't wish any unpleasantness; but I--I--"
"You," said Margaret--"you--you--"
Laughter from Evie, as at a repartee.
"You are the man who tried to walk by the Pole Star."
"You saw the sunrise."
"You tried to get away from the fogs that are stifling us all--away past books and houses to the truth. You were looking for a real home. "
"I fail to see the connection," said Leonard, hot with stupid anger.
"So do I." There was a pause. "You were that last Sunday--you are this today. Mr. Bast! I and my sister have talked you over. We wanted to help you; we also supposed you might help us. We did not have you here out of charity--which bores us--but because we hoped there would be a connection between last Sunday and other days. What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives? They have never entered into mine, but into yours, we thought--Haven't we all to struggle against life's daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion? I struggle by remembering my friends; others I have known by remembering some place--some beloved place or tree--we thought you one of these."
"Of course, if there's been any misunderstanding," mumbled Leonard, "all I can do is to go. But I beg to state--" He paused. Ahab and Jezebel danced at his boots and made him look ridiculous. "You were picking my brain for official information--I can prove it--I--He blew his nose and left them.
"Can I help you now?" said Mr. Wilcox, turning to Margaret. "May I have one quiet word with him in the hall?"
"Helen, go after him--do anything--ANYTHING--to make the noodle understand."
"But really--" said their visitor. "Ought she to?"
At once she went.
He resumed. "I would have chimed in, but I felt that you could polish him off for yourselves--I didn't interfere. You were splendid, Miss Schlegel--absolutely splendid. You can take my word for it, but there are very few women who could have managed him."
"Oh yes," said Margaret distractedly.
"Bowling him over with those long sentences was what fetched me," cried Evie.
"Yes, indeed," chuckled her father; "all that part about 'mechanical cheerfulness'--oh, fine!"
"I'm very sorry," said Margaret, collecting herself.
"He's a nice creature really. I cannot think what set him off. It has been most unpleasant for you."
"Oh, _I_ didn't mind." Then he changed his mood. He asked if he might speak as an old friend, and, permission given, said: "Oughtn't you really to be more careful?"
Margaret laughed, though her thoughts still strayed after Helen. "Do you realize that it's all your fault?" she said. "You're responsible."
"This is the young man whom we were to warn against the Porphyrion. We warn him, and--look!"
Mr. Wilcox was annoyed. "I hardly consider that a fair deduction," he said.
"Obviously unfair," said Margaret. "I was only thinking how tangled things are. It's our fault mostly--neither yours nor his."
"Miss Schlegel, you are too kind."
"Yes, indeed," nodded Evie, a little contemptuously.
"You behave much too well to people, and then they impose on you. I know the world and that type of man, and as soon as I entered the room I saw you had not been treating him properly. You must keep that type at a distance. Otherwise they forget themselves. Sad, but true. They aren't our sort, and one must face the fact."
"Do admit that we should never have had the outburst if he was a gentleman."
"I admit it willingly," said Margaret, who was pacing up and down the room. "A gentleman would have kept his suspicions to himself."
Mr. Wilcox watched her with a vague uneasiness.
"What did he suspect you of?"
"Of wanting to make money out of him."
"Intolerable brute! But how were you to benefit?"
"Exactly. How indeed! Just horrible, corroding suspicion. One touch of thought or of goodwill would have brushed it away. Just the senseless fear that does make men intolerable brutes."
"I come back to my original point. You ought to be more careful, Miss Schlegel. Your servants ought to have orders not to let such people in."
She turned to him frankly. "Let me explain exactly why we like this man, and want to see him again."
"That's your clever way of thinking. I shall never believe you like him."
"I do. Firstly, because he cares for physical adventure, just as you do. Yes, you go motoring and shooting; he would like to go camping out. Secondly, he cares for something special IN adventure. It is quickest to call that special something poetry--"
"Oh, he's one of that writer sort."
"No--oh no! I mean he may be, but it would be loathsome stiff. His brain is filled with the husks of books, culture--horrible; we want him to wash out his brain and go to the real thing. We want to show him how he may get upsides with life. As I said, either friends or the country, some"--she hesitated--"either some very dear person or some very dear place seems necessary to relieve life's daily grey, and to show that it is grey. If possible, one should have both."
Some of her words ran past Mr. Wilcox. He let them run past. Others he caught and criticized with admirable lucidity.
"Your mistake is this, and it is a very common mistake.
This young bounder has a life of his own. What right have you to conclude it is an unsuccessful life, or, as you call it, 'grey'?"
"One minute. You know nothing about him. He probably has his own joys and interests--wife, children, snug little home. That's where we practical fellows"--he smiled--"are more tolerant than you intellectuals. We live and let live, and assume that things are jogging on fairly well elsewhere, and that the ordinary plain man may be trusted to look after his own affairs. I quite grant--I look at the faces of the clerks in my own office, and observe them to be dull, but I don't know what's going on beneath. So, by the way, with London. I have heard you rail against London, Miss Schlegel, and it seems a funny thing to say but I was very angry with you. What do you know about London? You only see civilization from the outside. I don't say in your case, but in too many cases that attitude leads to morbidity, discontent, and Socialism."
She admitted the strength of his position, though it undermined imagination. As he spoke, some outposts of poetry and perhaps of sympathy fell ruining, and she retreated to what she called her "second line"--to the special facts of the case.
"His wife is an old bore," she said simply. "He never came home last Saturday night because he wanted to be alone, and she thought he was with us."
"Yes." Evie tittered. "He hasn't got the cosy home that you assumed. He needs outside interests."
"Naughty young man!" cried the girl.
"Naughty?" said Margaret, who hated naughtiness more than sin. "When you're married, Miss Wilcox, won't you want outside interests?"
"He has apparently got them," put in Mr. Wilcox slyly.
"Yes, indeed, Father."
"He was tramping in Surrey, if you mean that," said Margaret, pacing away rather crossly.
"Oh, I dare say!"
"Miss Wilcox, he was!"
"M-m-m-m!" from Mr. Wilcox, who thought the episode amusing, if risque. With most ladies he would not have discussed it, but he was trading on Margaret's reputation as an emanicipated woman.
"He said so, and about such a thing he wouldn't lie."
They both began to laugh.
"That's where I differ from you. Men lie about their positions and prospects, but not about a thing of that sort."
He shook his head. "Miss Schlegel, excuse me, but I know the type."
"I said before--he isn't a type. He cares about adventures rightly. He's certain that our smug existence isn't all. He's vulgar and hysterical and bookish, but I don't think that sums him up. There's manhood in him as well. Yes, that's what I'm trying to say. He's a real man."
As she spoke their eyes met, and it was as if Mr. Wilcox's defences fell. She saw back to the real man in him. Unwittingly she had touched his emotions. A woman and two men--they had formed the magic triangle of sex, and the male was thrilled to jealousy, in case the female was attracted by another male. Love, say the ascetics, reveals our shameful kinship with the beasts. Be it so: one can bear that; jealousy is the real shame. It is jealousy, not love, that connects us with the farmyard intolerably, and calls up visions of two angry cocks and a complacent hen.
Margaret crushed complacency down because she was civilized. Mr. Wilcox, uncivilized, continued to feel anger long after he had rebuilt his defences, and was again presenting a bastion to the world.
"Miss Schlegel, you're a pair of dear creatures, but you really MUST be careful in this uncharitable world. What does your brother say?"
"Surely he has some opinion?"
"He laughs, if I remember correctly."
"He's very clever, isn't he?" said Evie, who had met and detested Tibby at Oxford.
"Yes, pretty well--but I wonder what Helen's doing."
"She is very young to undertake this sort of thing," said Mr. Wilcox.
Margaret went out into the landing. She heard no sound, and Mr. Bast's topper was missing from the hall.
"Helen!" she called.
"Yes!" replied a voice from the library.
"You in there?"
"Yes--he's gone some time."
Margaret went to her. "Why, you're all alone," she said.
"Yes--it's all right, Meg--Poor, poor creature--"
"Come back to the Wilcoxes and tell me later--Mr. W. much concerned, and slightly titillated."
"Oh, I've no patience with him. I hate him. Poor dear Mr. Bast! he wanted to talk literature, and we would talk business. Such a muddle of a man, and yet so worth pulling through. I like him extraordinarily. "
"Well done," said Margaret, kissing her, "but come into the drawing-room now, and don't talk about him to the Wilcoxes. Make light of the whole thing."
Helen came and behaved with a cheerfulness that reassured their visitor--this hen at all events was fancy-free.
"He's gone with my blessing," she cried, "and now for puppies."
As they drove away, Mr. Wilcox said to his daughter:
"I am really concerned at the way those girls go on.
They are as clever as you make 'em, but unpractical--God bless me! One of these days they'll go too far. Girls like that oughtn't to live alone in London. Until they marry, they ought to have someone to look after them. We must look in more often--we're better than no one. You like them, don't you, Evie?"
Evie replied: "Helen's right enough, but I can't stand the toothy one. And I shouldn't have called either of them girls."
Evie had grown up handsome. Dark-eyed, with the glow of youth under sunburn, built firmly and firm-lipped, she was the best the Wilcoxes could do in the way of feminine beauty. For the present, puppies and her father were the only things she loved, but the net of matrimony was being prepared for her, and a few days later she was attracted to a Mr. Percy Cahill, an uncle of Mrs. Charles, and he was attracted to her.
The Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push, and send toppling into the sea. But there were all their father's books--they never read them, but they were their father's, and must be kept. There was the marble-topped chiffonier--their mother had set store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.
It was absurd, if you came to think of it; Helen and Tibby came to think of it: Margaret was too busy with the house-agents. The feudal ownership of land did bring dignity, whereas the modern ownership of movables is reducing us again to a nomadic horde. We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty. The Schlegels were certainly the poorer for the loss of Wickham Place. It had helped to balance their lives, and almost to counsel them.
Nor is their ground-landlord spiritually the richer. He has built flats on its site, his motor-cars grow swifter, his exposures of Socialism more trenchant. But he has spilt the precious distillation of the years, and no chemistry of his can give it back to society again.
Margaret grew depressed; she was anxious to settle on a house before they left town to pay their annual visit to Mrs. Munt. She enjoyed this visit, and wanted to have her mind at ease for it. Swanage, though dull, was stable, and this year she longed more than usual for its fresh air and for the magnificent downs that guard it on the north. But London thwarted her; in its atmosphere she could not concentrate. London only stimulates, it cannot sustain; and Margaret, hurrying over its surface for a house without knowing what sort of a house she wanted, was paying for many a thrilling sensation in the past. She could not even break loose from culture, and her time was wasted by concerts which it would be a sin to miss, and invitations which it would never do to refuse. At last she grew desperate; she resolved that she would go nowhere and be at home to no one until she found a house, and broke the resolution in half an hour.
Once she had humorously lamented that she had never been to Simpson's restaurant in the Strand. Now a note arrived from Miss Wilcox, asking her to lunch there. Mr. Cahill was coming, and the three would have such a jolly chat, and perhaps end up at the Hippodrome. Margaret had no strong regard for Evie, and no desire to meet her fiance, and she was surprised that Helen, who had been far funnier about Simpson's, had not been asked instead. But the invitation touched her by its intimate tone. She must know Evie Wilcox better than she supposed, and declaring that she "simply must," she accepted.
But when she saw Evie at the entrance of the restaurant, staring fiercely at nothing after the fashion of athletic women, her heart failed her anew. Miss Wilcox had changed perceptibly since her engagement. Her voice was gruffer, her manner more downright, and she was inclined to patronize the more foolish virgin. Margaret was silly enough to be pained at this. Depressed at her isolation, she saw not only houses and furniture, but the vessel of life itself slipping past her, with people like Evie and Mr. Cahill on board.
There are moments when virtue and wisdom fail us, and one of them came to her at Simpson's in the Strand. As she trod the staircase, narrow, but carpeted thickly, as she entered the eating-room, where saddles of mutton were being trundled up to expectant clergymen, she had a strong, if erroneous, conviction of her own futility, and wished she had never come out of her backwater, where nothing happened except art and literature, and where no one ever got married or succeeded in remaining engaged. Then came a little surprise. "Father might be of the party--yes, Father was." With a smile of pleasure she moved forward to greet him, and her feeling of loneliness vanished.
"I thought I'd get round if I could," said he. "Evie told me of her little plan, so I just slipped in and secured a table. Always secure a table first. Evie, don't pretend you want to sit by your old father, because you don't. Miss Schlegel, come in my side, out of pity. My goodness, but you look tired! Been worrying round after your young clerks?"
"No, after houses," said Margaret, edging past him into the box. "I'm hungry, not tired; I want to eat heaps."
"That's good. What'll you have?"
"Fish pie," said she, with a glance at the menu.
"Fish pie! Fancy coming for fish pie to Simpson's.
It's not a bit the thing to go for here. "
"Go for something for me, then," said Margaret, pulling off her gloves. Her spirits were rising, and his reference to Leonard Bast had warmed her curiously.
"Saddle of mutton," said he after profound reflection: "and cider to drink. That's the type of thing. I like this place, for a joke, once in a way. It is so thoroughly Old English. Don't you agree?"
"Yes," said Margaret, who didn't. The order was given, the joint rolled up, and the carver, under Mr. Wilcox's direction, cut the meat where it was succulent, and piled their plates high. Mr. Cahill insisted on sirloin, but admitted that he had made a mistake later on. He and Evie soon fell into a conversation of the "No, I didn't; yes, you did" type--conversation which, though fascinating to those who are engaged in it, neither desires nor deserves the attention of others.
"It's a golden rule to tip the carver. Tip everywhere's my motto."
"Perhaps it does make life more human."
"Then the fellows know one again. Especially in the East, if you tip, they remember you from year's end to year's end.
"Have you been in the East?"
"Oh, Greece and the Levant. I used to go out for sport and business to Cyprus; some military society of a sort there. A few piastres, properly distributed, help to keep one's memory green. But you, of course, think this shockingly cynical. How's your discussion society getting on? Any new Utopias lately?"
"No, I'm house-hunting, Mr. Wilcox, as I've already told you once. Do you know of any houses?"
"Afraid I don't."
"Well, what's the point of being practical if you can't find two distressed females a house? We merely want a small house with large rooms, and plenty of them."
"Evie, I like that! Miss Schlegel expects me to turn house agent for her!"
"What's that, Father?
"I want a new home in September, and someone must find it. I can't."
"Percy, do you know of anything?"
"I can't say I do," said Mr. Cahill.
"How like you! You're never any good."
"Never any good. Just listen to her! Never any good.
"Well, you aren't. Miss Schlegel, is he?"
The torrent of their love, having splashed these drops at Margaret, swept away on its habitual course. She sympathized with it now, for a little comfort had restored her geniality. Speech and silence pleased her equally, and while Mr. Wilcox made some preliminary inquiries about cheese, her eyes surveyed the restaurant, and admired its well-calculated tributes to the solidity of our past.
Though no more Old English than the works of Kipling, it had selected its reminiscences so adroitly that her criticism was lulled, and the guests whom it was nourishing for imperial purposes bore the outer semblance of Parson Adams or Tom Jones. Scraps of their talk jarred oddly on the ear. "Right you are! I'll cable out to Uganda this evening," came from the table behind. "Their Emperor wants war; well, let him have it," was the opinion of a clergyman. She smiled at such incongruities. "Next time," she said to Mr. Wilcox, "you shall come to lunch with me at Mr. Eustace Miles's."
"No, you'd hate it," she said, pushing her glass towards him for some more cider. "It's all proteids and body-buildings, and people come up to you and beg your pardon, but you have such a beautiful aura."
"Never heard of an aura? Oh, happy, happy man! I scrub at mine for hours. Nor of an astral plane?"
He had heard of astral planes, and censured them.
"Just so. Luckily it was Helen's aura, not mine, and she had to chaperone it and do the politenesses. I just sat with my handkerchief in my mouth till the man went."
"Funny experiences seem to come to you two girls. No one's ever asked me about my--what d'ye call it? Perhaps I've not got one."
"You're bound to have one, but it may be such a terrible colour that no one dares mention it."
"Tell me, though, Miss Schlegel, do you really believe in the supernatural and all that?"
"Too difficult a question."
"Why's that? Gruyere or Stilton?"
"Better have Stilton."
"Stilton. Because, though I don't believe in auras, and think Theosophy's only a halfway-house--"
"--Yet there may be something in it all the same," he concluded, with a frown.
"Not even that. It may be halfway in the wrong direction. I can't explain. I don't believe in all these fads, and yet I don't like saying that I don't believe in them."
He seemed unsatisfied, and said: "So you wouldn't give me your word that you DON'T hold with astral bodies and all the rest of it?"
"I could," said Margaret, surprised that the point was of any importance to him. "Indeed, I will. When I talked about scrubbing my aura, I was only trying to be funny. But why do you want this settled?"
"I don't know."
"Now, Mr. Wilcox, you do know."
"Yes, I am," "No, you're not," burst from the lovers opposite. Margaret was silent for a moment, and then changed the subject.
"How's your house?"
"Much the same as when you honoured it last week."
"I don't mean Ducie Street. Howards End, of course."
"Why 'of course'?"
"Can't you turn out your tenant and let it to us? We're nearly demented."
"Let me think. I wish I could help you. But I thought you wanted to be in town. One bit of advice: fix your district, then fix your price, and then don't budge. That's how I got both Ducie Street and Oniton. I said to myself, 'I mean to be exactly here,' and I was, and Oniton's a place in a thousand."
"But I do budge. Gentlemen seem to mesmerize houses--cow them with an eye, and up they come, trembling.
Ladies can't. It's the houses that are mesmerizing me.
I've no control over the saucy things. Houses are alive. No?"
"I'm out of my depth," he said, and added: "Didn't you talk rather like that to your office boy?"
"Did I? --I mean I did, more or less. I talk the same way to every one--or try to."
"Yes, I know. And how much do you suppose that he understood of it?"
"That's his lookout. I don't believe in suiting my conversation to my company. One can doubtless hit upon some medium of exchange that seems to do well enough, but it's no more like the real thing than money is like food. There's no nourishment in it. You pass it to the lower classes, and they pass it back to you, and this you call 'social intercourse' or 'mutual endeavour,' when it's mutual priggishness if it's anything. Our friends at Chelsea don't see this. They say one ought to be at all costs intelligible, and sacrifice--"
"Lower classes," interrupted Mr. Wilcox, as it were thrusting his hand into her speech. "Well, you do admit that there are rich and poor. That's something."
Margaret could not reply. Was he incredibly stupid, or did he understand her better than she understood herself?
"You do admit that, if wealth was divided up equally, in a few years there would be rich and poor again just the same. The hard-working man would come to the top, the wastrel sink to the bottom."
"Every one admits that."
"Your Socialists don't."
"My Socialists do. Yours mayn't; but I strongly suspect yours of being not Socialists, but ninepins, which you have constructed for your own amusement. I can't imagine any living creature who would bowl over quite so easily."
He would have resented this had she not been a woman.
But women may say anything--it was one of his holiest beliefs--and he only retorted, with a gay smile: "I don't care. You've made two damaging admissions, and I'm heartily with you in both."
In time they finished lunch, and Margaret, who had excused herself from the Hippodrome, took her leave. Evie had scarcely addressed her, and she suspected that the entertainment had been planned by the father. He and she were advancing out of their respective families towards a more intimate acquaintance. It had begun long ago. She had been his wife's friend, and, as such, he had given her that silver vinaigrette as a memento. It was pretty of him to have given that vinaigrette, and he had always preferred her to Helen--unlike most men. But the advance had been astonishing lately. They had done more in a week than in two years, and were really beginning to know each other.
She did not forget his promise to sample Eustace Miles, and asked him as soon as she could secure Tibby as his chaperon. He came, and partook of body-building dishes with humility.
Next morning the Schlegels left for Swanage. They had not succeeded in finding a new home.
As they were seated at Aunt Juley's breakfast-table at The Bays, parrying her excessive hospitality and enjoying the view of the bay, a letter came for Margaret and threw her into perturbation. It was from Mr. Wilcox. It announced an "important change" in his plans. Owing to Evie's marriage, he had decided to give up his house in Ducie Street, and was willing to let it on a yearly tenancy. It was a businesslike letter, and stated frankly what he would do for them and what he would not do. Also the rent. If they approved, Margaret was to come up AT ONCE--the words were underlined, as is necessary when dealing with women--and to go over the house with him. If they disapproved, a wire would oblige, as he should put it into the hands of an agent.
The letter perturbed, because she was not sure what it meant. If he liked her, if he had manoeuvred to get her to Simpson's, might this be a manoeuvre to get her to London, and result in an offer of marriage? She put it to herself as indelicately as possible, in the hope that her brain would cry, "Rubbish, you're a self-conscious fool!" But her brain only tingled a little and was silent, and for a time she sat gazing at the mincing waves, and wondering whether the news would seem strange to the others.
As soon as she began speaking, the sound of her own voice reassured her. There could be nothing in it. The replies also were typical, and in the buff of conversation her fears vanished.
"You needn't go though--" began her hostess.
"I needn't, but hadn't I better? It's really getting rather serious. We let chance after chance slip, and the end of it is we shall be bundled out bag and baggage into the street. We don't know what we WANT, that's the mischief with us--"
"No, we have no real ties," said Helen, helping herself to toast.
"Shan't I go up to town today, take the house if it's the least possible, and then come down by the afternoon train tomorrow, and start enjoying myself. I shall be no fun to myself or to others until this business is off my mind."
"But you won't do anything rash, Margaret?"
"There's nothing rash to do."
"Who ARE the Wilcoxes?" said Tibby, a question that sounds silly, but was really extremely subtle, as his aunt found to her cost when she tried to answer it. "I don't MANAGE the Wilcoxes; I don't see where they come IN."
"No more do I," agreed Helen. "It's funny that we just don't lose sight of them. Out of all our hotel acquaintances, Mr. Wilcox is the only one who has stuck. It is now over three years, and we have drifted away from far more interesting people in that time.
"Interesting people don't get one houses."
"Meg, if you start in your honest-English vein, I shall throw the treacle at you."
"It's a better vein than the cosmopolitan," said Margaret, getting up. "Now, children, which is it to be?
You know the Ducie Street house. Shall I say yes or shall I say no? Tibby love--which? I'm specially anxious to pin you both."
"It all depends what meaning you attach to the word 'possi--'"
"It depends on nothing of the sort. Say 'yes.'"
Then Margaret spoke rather seriously. "I think," she said, "that our race is degenerating. We cannot settle even this little thing; what will it be like when we have to settle a big one?"
"It will be as easy as eating," returned Helen.
"I was thinking of Father. How could he settle to leave Germany as he did, when he had fought for it as a young man, and all his feelings and friends were Prussian? How could he break loose with Patriotism and begin aiming at something else? It would have killed me. When he was nearly forty he could change countries and ideals--and we, at our age, can't change houses. It's humiliating."
"Your father may have been able to change countries," said Mrs. Munt with asperity, "and that may or may not be a good thing. But he could change houses no better than you can, in fact, much worse. Never shall I forget what poor Emily suffered in the move from Manchester."
"I knew it," cried Helen. "I told you so. It is the little things one bungles at. The big, real ones are nothing when they come."
"Bungle, my dear! You are too little to recollect--in fact, you weren't there. But the furniture was actually in the vans and on the move before the lease for Wickham Place was signed, and Emily took train with baby--who was Margaret then--and the smaller luggage for London, without so much as knowing where her new home would be. Getting away from that house may be hard, but it is nothing to the misery that we all went through getting you into it."
Helen, with her mouth full, cried: "And that's the man who beat the Austrians, and the Danes, and the French, and who beat the Germans that were inside himself. And we're like him."
"Speak for yourself," said Tibby. "Remember that I am cosmopolitan, please."
"Helen may be right."
"Of course she's right," said Helen.
Helen might be right, but she did not go up to London.
Margaret did that. An interrupted holiday is the worst of the minor worries, and one may be pardoned for feeling morbid when a business letter snatches one away from the sea and friends. She could not believe that her father had ever felt the same. Her eyes had been troubling her lately, so that she could not read in the train, and it bored her to look at the landscape, which she had seen but yesterday. At Southampton she "waved" to Frieda: Frieda was on her way down to join them at Swanage, and Mrs. Munt had calculated that their trains would cross. But Frieda was looking the other way, and Margaret travelled on to town feeling solitary and old-maidish. How like an old maid to fancy that Mr. Wilcox was courting her! She had once visited a spinster--poor, silly, and unattractive--whose mania it was that every man who approached her fell in love. How Margaret's heart had bled for the deluded thing! How she had lectured, reasoned, and in despair acquiesced! "I may have been deceived by the curate, my dear, but the young fellow who brings the midday post really is fond of me, and has, as a matter fact--" It had always seemed to her the most hideous corner of old age, yet she might be driven into it herself by the mere pressure of virginity.
Mr. Wilcox met her at Waterloo himself. She felt certain that he was not the same as usual; for one thing, he took offence at everything she said.
"This is awfully kind of you," she began, "but I'm afraid it's not going to do. The house has not been built that suits the Schlegel family."
"What! Have you come up determined not to deal?"
"Not exactly? In that case let's be starting."
She lingered to admire the motor, which was new and a fairer creature than the vermilion giant that had borne Aunt Juley to her doom three years before.
"Presumably it's very beautiful," she said. "How do you like it, Crane?"
"Come, let's be starting," repeated her host. "How on earth did you know that my chauffeur was called Crane?"
"Why, I know Crane: I've been for a drive with Evie once. I know that you've got a parlourmaid called Milton.
I know all sorts of things."
"Evie!" he echoed in injured tones. "You won't see her. She's gone out with Cahill. It's no fun, I can tell you, being left so much alone. I've got my work all day--indeed, a great deal too much of it--but when I come home in the evening, I tell you, I can't stand the house."
"In my absurd way, I'm lonely too," Margaret replied.
"It's heart-breaking to leave one's old home. I scarcely remember anything before Wickham Place, and Helen and Tibby were born there. Helen says--"
"You, too, feel lonely?"
"Horribly. Hullo, Parliament's back!"
Mr. Wilcox glanced at Parliament contemptuously. The more important ropes of life lay elsewhere. "Yes, they are talking again." said he. "But you were going to say--"
"Only some rubbish about furniture. Helen says it alone endures while men and houses perish, and that in the end the world will be a desert of chairs and sofas--just imagine it! --rolling through infinity with no one to sit upon them."
"Your sister always likes her little joke.
"She says 'Yes,' my brother says 'No,' to Ducie Street.
It's no fun helping us, Mr. Wilcox, I assure you."
"You are not as unpractical as you pretend. I shall never believe it."
Margaret laughed. But she was--quite as unpractical.
She could not concentrate on details. Parliament, the Thames, the irresponsive chauffeur, would flash into the field of house-hunting, and all demand some comment or response. It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. Mr. Wilcox saw steadily. He never bothered over the mysterious or the private. The Thames might run inland from the sea, the chauffeur might conceal all passion and philosophy beneath his unhealthy skin. They knew their own business, and he knew his.
Yet she liked being with him. He was not a rebuke, but a stimulus, and banished morbidity. Some twenty years her senior, he preserved a gift that she supposed herself to have already lost--not youth's creative power, but its self-confidence and optimism. He was so sure that it was a very pleasant world. His complexion was robust, his hair had receded but not thinned, the thick moustache and the eyes that Helen had compared to brandy-balls had an agreeable menace in them, whether they were turned towards the slums or towards the stars. Some day--in the millennium--there may be no need for his type. At present, homage is due to it from those who think themselves superior, and who possibly are."
"At all events you responded to my telegram promptly," he remarked.
"Oh, even I know a good thing when I see it."
"I'm glad you don't despise the goods of this world."
"Heavens, no! Only idiots and prigs do that."
"I am glad, very glad," he repeated, suddenly softening and turning to her, as if the remark had pleased him.
"There is so much cant talked in would-be intellectual circles. I am glad you don't share it. Self-denial is all very well as a means of strengthening the character. But I can't stand those people who run down comforts. They have usually some axe to grind. Can you?"
"Comforts are of two kinds," said Margaret, who was keeping herself in hand--"those we can share with others, like fire, weather, or music; and those we can't--food, for instance. It depends."
"I mean reasonable comforts, of course. I shouldn't like to think that you--" He bent nearer; the sentence died unfinished. Margaret's head turned very stupid, and the inside of it seemed to revolve like the beacon in a lighthouse. He did not kiss her, for the hour was half-past twelve, and the car was passing by the stables of Buckingham Palace. But the atmosphere was so charged with emotion that people only seemed to exist on her account, and she was surprised that Crane did not realize this, and turn round.
Idiot though she might be, surely Mr. Wilcox was more--how should one put it? --more psychological than usual. Always a good judge of character for business purposes, he seemed this afternoon to enlarge his field, and to note qualities outside neatness, obedience, and decision.
"I want to go over the whole house," she announced when they arrived. "As soon as I get back to Swanage, which will be tomorrow afternoon, I'll talk it over once more with Helen and Tibby, and wire you 'yes' or 'no.'"
"Right. The dining-room." And they began their survey.
The dining-room was big, but over-furnished. Chelsea would have moaned aloud. Mr. Wilcox had eschewed those decorative schemes that wince, and relent, and refrain, and achieve beauty by sacrificing comfort and pluck. After so much self-colour and self-denial, Margaret viewed with relief the sumptuous dado, the frieze, the gilded wall-paper, amid whose foliage parrots sang. It would never do with her own furniture, but those heavy chairs, that immense side-board loaded with presentation plate, stood up against its pressure like men. The room suggested men, and Margaret, keen to derive the modern capitalist from the warriors and hunters of the past, saw it as an ancient guest-hall, where the lord sat at meat among his thanes.
Even the Bible--the Dutch Bible that Charles had brought back from the Boer War--fell into position. Such a room admitted loot.
"Now the entrance-hall."
The entrance-hall was paved.
"Here we fellows smoke."
We fellows smoked in chairs of maroon leather. It was as if a motor-car had spawned. "Oh, jolly!" said Margaret, sinking into one of them.
"You do like it?" he said, fixing his eyes on her upturned face, and surely betraying an almost intimate note. "It's all rubbish not making oneself comfortable.
"Ye-es. Semi-rubbish. Are those Cruikshanks?"
"Gillrays. Shall we go on upstairs?"
"Does all this furniture come from Howards End?"
"The Howards End furniture has all gone to Oniton."
"Does--However, I'm concerned with the house, not the furniture. How big is this smoking-room?"
"Thirty by fifteen. No, wait a minute. Fifteen and a half?."
"Ah, well. Mr. Wilcox, aren't you ever amused at the solemnity with which we middle classes approach the subject of houses?"
They proceeded to the drawing-room. Chelsea managed better here. It was sallow and ineffective. One could visualize the ladies withdrawing to it, while their lords discussed life's realities below, to the accompaniment of cigars. Had Mrs. Wilcox's drawing-room looked thus at Howards End? Just as this thought entered Margaret's brain, Mr. Wilcox did ask her to be his wife, and the knowledge that she had been right so overcame her that she nearly fainted.
But the proposal was not to rank among the world's great love scenes.
"Miss Schlegel"--his voice was firm--"I have had you up on false pretences. I want to speak about a much more serious matter than a house."
Margaret almost answered: "I know--"
"Could you be induced to share my--is it probable--"
"Oh, Mr. Wilcox!" she interrupted, holding the piano and averting her eyes. "I see, I see. I will write to you afterwards if I may."
He began to stammer. "Miss Schlegel--Margaret--you don't understand."
"Oh yes! Indeed, yes!" said Margaret.
"I am asking you to be my wife."
So deep already was her sympathy, that when he said, "I am asking you to be my wife," she made herself give a little start. She must show surprise if he expected it. An immense joy came over her. It was indescribable. It had nothing to do with humanity, and most resembled the all-pervading happiness of fine weather. Fine weather is due to the sun, but Margaret could think of no central radiance here. She stood in his drawing-room happy, and longing to give happiness. On leaving him she realized that the central radiance had been love.
"You aren't offended, Miss Schlegel?"
"How could I be offended?"
There was a moment's pause. He was anxious to get rid of her, and she knew it. She had too much intuition to look at him as he struggled for possessions that money cannot buy. He desired comradeship and affection, but he feared them, and she, who had taught herself only to desire, and could have clothed the struggle with beauty, held back, and hesitated with him.
"Good-bye," she continued. "You will have a letter from me--I am going back to Swanage tomorrow.
"Good-bye, and it's you I thank."
"I may order the motor round, mayn't I?"
"That would be most kind."
"I wish I had written instead. Ought I to have written?"
"Not at all."
"There's just one question--"
She shook her head. He looked a little bewildered, and they parted.
They parted without shaking hands: she had kept the interview, for his sake, in tints of the quietest grey. Yet she thrilled with happiness ere she reached her own house.
Others had loved her in the past, if one may apply to their brief desires so grave a word, but those others had been "ninnies"--young men who had nothing to do, old men who could find nobody better. And she had often "loved," too, but only so far as the facts of sex demanded: mere yearnings for the masculine, to be dismissed for what they were worth, with a smile. Never before had her personality been touched. She was not young or very rich, and it amazed her that a man of any standing should take her seriously. As she sat trying to do accounts in her empty house, amidst beautiful pictures and noble books, waves of emotion broke, as if a tide of passion was flowing through the night air.
She shook her head, tried to concentrate her attention, and failed. In vain did she repeat: "But I've been through this sort of thing before." She had never been through it; the big machinery, as opposed to the little, had been set in motion, and the idea that Mr. Wilcox loved, obsessed her before she came to love him in return.
She would come to no decision yet. "Oh, sir, this is so sudden"--that prudish phrase exactly expressed her when her time came. Premonitions are not preparation. She must examine more closely her own nature and his; she must talk it over judicially with Helen. It had been a strange love-scene--the central radiance unacknowledged from first to last. She, in his place, would have said "Ich liebe dich," but perhaps it was not his habit to open the heart.
He might have done it if she had pressed him--as a matter of duty, perhaps; England expects every man to open his heart once; but the effort would have jarred him, and never, if she could avoid it, should he lose those defences that he had chosen to raise against the world. He must never be bothered with emotional talk, or with a display of sympathy. He was an elderly man now, and it would be futile and impudent to correct him.
Mrs. Wilcox strayed in and out, ever a welcome ghost; surveying the scene, thought Margaret, without one hint of bitterness.
If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe. Then system after system of our island would roll together under his feet. Beneath him is the valley of the Frome, and all the wild lands that come tossing down from Dorchester, black and gold, to mirror their gorse in the expanses of Poole. The valley of the Stour is beyond, unaccountable stream, dirty at Blandford, pure at Wimborne--the Stour, sliding out of fat fields, to marry the Avon beneath the tower of Christchurch. The valley of the Avon--invisible, but far to the north the trained eye may see Clearbury Ring that guards it, and the imagination may leap beyond that on to Salisbury Plain itself, and beyond the Plain to all the glorious downs of Central England. Nor is Suburbia absent. Bournemouth's ignoble coast cowers to the right, heralding the pine-trees that mean, for all their beauty, red houses, and the Stock Exchange, and extend to the gates of London itself. So tremendous is the City's trail! But the cliffs of Freshwater it shall never touch, and the island will guard the Island's purity till the end of time. Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner--chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow. And behind the fragment lies Southampton, hostess to the nations, and Portsmouth, a latent fire, and all around it, with double and treble collision of tides, swirls the sea. How many villages appear in this view! How many castles! How many churches, vanished or triumphant!
How many ships, railways, and roads! What incredible variety of men working beneath that lucent sky to what final end! The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England.
So Frieda Mosebach, now Frau Architect Liesecke, and mother to her husband's baby, was brought up to these heights to be impressed, and, after a prolonged gaze, she said that the hills were more swelling here than in Pomerania, which was true, but did not seem to Mrs. Munt apposite. Poole Harbour was dry, which led her to praise the absence of muddy foreshore at Friedrich Wilhelms Bad, Rugen, where beech-trees hang over the tideless Baltic, and cows may contemplate the brine. Rather unhealthy Mrs. Munt thought this would be, water being safer when it moved about.
"And your English lakes--Vindermere, Grasmere--are they, then, unhealthy?"
"No, Frau Liesecke; but that is because they are fresh water, and different. Salt water ought to have tides, and go up and down a great deal, or else it smells. Look, for instance, at an aquarium."
"An aquarium! Oh, MEESIS Munt, you mean to tell me that fresh aquariums stink less than salt? Why, when Victor, my brother-in-law, collected many tadpoles--"
"You are not to say 'stink,'" interrupted Helen; "at least, you may say it, but you must pretend you are being funny while you say it."
"Then 'smell.' And the mud of your Pool down there--does it not smell, or may I say 'stink, ha, ha'?"
"There always has been mud in Poole Harbour," said Mrs. Munt, with a slight frown. "The rivers bring it down, and a most valuable oyster-fishery depends upon it."
"Yes, that is so," conceded Frieda; and another international incident was closed.
"'Bournemouth is,'" resumed their hostess, quoting a local rhyme to which she was much attached--" 'Bournemouth is, Poole was, and Swanage is to be the most important town of all and biggest of the three.' Now, Frau Liesecke, I have shown you Bournemouth, and I have shown you Poole, so let us walk backward a little, and look down again at Swanage."
"Aunt Juley, wouldn't that be Meg's train?"
A tiny puff of smoke had been circling the harbour, and now was bearing southwards towards them over the black and the gold.
"Oh, dearest Margaret, I do hope she won't be overtired."
"Oh, I do wonder--I do wonder whether she's taken the house."
"I hope she hasn't been hasty."
"So do I--oh, so do I."
"Will it be as beautiful as Wickham Place?" Frieda asked.
"I should think it would. Trust Mr. Wilcox for doing himself proud. All those Ducie Street houses are beautiful in their modern way, and I can't think why he doesn't keep on with it. But it's really for Evie that he went there, and now that Evie's going to be married--"
"You've never seen Miss Wilcox, Frieda. How absurdly matrimonial you are!"
"But sister to that Paul?"
"And to that Charles," said Mrs. Munt with feeling.
"Oh, Helen, Helen, what a time that was!"
Helen laughed. "Meg and I haven't got such tender hearts. If there's a chance of a cheap house, we go for it."
"Now look, Frau Liesecke, at my niece's train. You see, it is coming towards us--coming, coming; and, when it gets to Corfe, it will actually go THROUGH the downs, on which we are standing, so that, if we walk over, as I suggested, and look down on Swanage, we shall see it coming on the other side. Shall we?"
Frieda assented, and in a few minutes they had crossed the ridge and exchanged the greater view for the lesser.
Rather a dull valley lay below, backed by the slope of the coastward downs. They were looking across the Isle of Purbeck and on to Swanage, soon to be the most important town of all, and ugliest of the three. Margaret's train reappeared as promised, and was greeted with approval by her aunt. It came to a standstill in the middle distance, and there it had been planned that Tibby should meet her, and drive her, and a tea-basket, up to join them.
"You see," continued Helen to her cousin, "the Wilcoxes collect houses as your Victor collects tadpoles. They have, one, Ducie Street; two, Howards End, where my great rumpus was; three, a country seat in Shropshire; four, Charles has a house in Hilton; and five, another near Epsom; and six, Evie will have a house when she marries, and probably a pied-a-terre in the country--which makes seven. Oh yes, and Paul a hut in Africa makes eight. I wish we could get Howards End. That was something like a dear little house!
Didn't you think so, Aunt Juley?"
" I had too much to do, dear, to look at it," said Mrs. Munt, with a gracious dignity. "I had everything to settle and explain, and Charles Wilcox to keep in his place besides. It isn't likely I should remember much. I just remember having lunch in your bedroom."
"Yes so do I. But, oh dear, dear, how dead it all seems! And in the autumn there began this anti-Pauline movement--you, and Frieda, and Meg, and Mrs. Wilcox, all obsessed with the idea that I might yet marry Paul."
"You yet may," said Frieda despondently.
Helen shook her head. "The Great Wilcox Peril will never return. If I'm certain of anything it's of that."
"One is certain of nothing but the truth of one's own emotions."
The remark fell damply on the conversation. But Helen slipped her arm round her cousin, somehow liking her the better for making it. It was not an original remark, nor had Frieda appropriated it passionately, for she had a patriotic rather than a philosophic mind. Yet it betrayed that interest in the universal which the average Teuton possesses and the average Englishman does not. It was, however illogically, the good, the beautiful, the true, as opposed to the respectable, the pretty, the adequate. It was a landscape of Bocklin's beside a landscape of Leader's, strident and ill-considered, but quivering into supernatural life. It sharpened idealism, stirred the soul. It may have been a bad preparation for what followed.
"Look!" cried Aunt Juley, hurrying away from generalities over the narrow summit of the down. "Stand where I stand, and you will see the pony-cart coming. I see the pony-cart coming."
They stood and saw the pony-cart coming. Margaret and Tibby were presently seen coming in it. Leaving the outskirts of Swanage, it drove for a little through the budding lanes, and then began the ascent.
"Have you got the house?" they shouted, long before she could possibly hear.
Helen ran down to meet her. The highroad passed over a saddle, and a track went thence at right angles along the ridge of the down.
"Have you got the house?"
Margaret shook her head.
"Oh, what a nuisance! So we're as we were?"
She got out, looking tired.
"Some mystery," said Tibby. "We are to be enlightened presently."
Margaret came close up to her and whispered that she had had a proposal of marriage from Mr. Wilcox.
Helen was amused. She opened the gate on to the downs so that her brother might lead the pony through. "It's just like a widower," she remarked. "They've cheek enough for anything, and invariably select one of their first wife's friends."
Margaret's face flashed despair.
"That type--" She broke off with a cry. "Meg, not anything wrong with you?"
"Wait one minute," said Margaret, whispering always.
"But you've never conceivably--you've never--" She pulled herself together. "Tibby, hurry up through; I can't hold this gate indefinitely. Aunt Juley! I say, Aunt Juley, make the tea, will you, and Frieda; we've got to talk houses, and I'll come on afterwards." And then, turning her face to her sister's, she burst into tears.
Margaret was stupefied. She heard herself saying, "Oh, really--" She felt herself touched with a hand that trembled.
"Don't," sobbed Helen, "don't, don't, Meg, don't!" She seemed incapable of saying any other word. Margaret, trembling herself, led her forward up the road, till they strayed through another gate on to the down.
"Don't, don't do such a thing! I tell you not to--don't! I know--don't!"
"What do you know?"
"Panic and emptiness," sobbed Helen. "Don't!"
Then Margaret thought, "Helen is a little selfish. I have never behaved like this when there has seemed a chance of her marrying. She said: "But we would still see each other very often, and--"
"It's not a thing like that," sobbed Helen. And she broke right away and wandered distractedly upwards, stretching her hands towards the view and crying.
"What's happened to you?" called Margaret, following through the wind that gathers at sundown on the northern slopes of hills. "But it's stupid!" And suddenly stupidity seized her, and the immense landscape was blurred. But Helen turned back.
"I don't know what's happened to either of us," said Margaret, wiping her eyes. "We must both have gone mad."
Then Helen wiped hers, and they even laughed a little.
"Look here, sit down."
"All right; I'll sit down if you'll sit down."
"There. (One kiss.) Now, whatever, whatever is the matter?"
"I do mean what I said. Don't; it wouldn't do."
"Oh, Helen, stop saying 'don't'! It's ignorant. It's as if your head wasn't out of the slime. 'Don't' is probably what Mrs. Bast says all the day to Mr. Bast."
Helen was silent.
"Tell me about it first, and meanwhile perhaps I'll have got my head out of the slime."
"That's better. Well, where shall I begin? When I arrived at Waterloo--no, I'll go back before that, because I'm anxious you should know everything from the first. The 'first' was about ten days ago. It was the day Mr. Bast came to tea and lost his temper. I was defending him, and Mr. Wilcox became jealous about me, however slightly. I thought it was the involuntary thing, which men can't help any more than we can. You know--at least, I know in my own case--when a man has said to me, 'So-and-so's a pretty girl,' I am seized with a momentary sourness against So-and-so, and long to tweak her ear. It's a tiresome feeling, but not an important one, and one easily manages it. But it wasn't only this in Mr. Wilcox's case, I gather now."
"Then you love him?"
Margaret considered. "It is wonderful knowing that a real man cares for you," she said. "The mere fact of that grows more tremendous. Remember, I've known and liked him steadily for nearly three years.
"But loved him?"
Margaret peered into her past. It is pleasant to analyze feelings while they are still only feelings, and unembodied in the social fabric. With her arm round Helen, and her eyes shifting over the view, as if this county or that could reveal the secret of her own heart, she meditated honestly, and said, "No."
"But you will?"
"Yes," said Margaret, "of that I'm pretty sure. Indeed, I began the moment he spoke to me."
"And have settled to marry him?"
"I had, but am wanting a long talk about it now. What is it against him, Helen? You must try and say."
Helen, in her turn, looked outwards. "It is ever since Paul," she said finally.
"But what has Mr. Wilcox to do with Paul?"
"But he was there, they were all there that morning when I came down to breakfast, and saw that Paul was frightened--the man who loved me frightened and all his paraphernalia fallen, so that I knew it was impossible, because personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger."
She poured the sentence forth in one breath, but her sister understood it, because it touched on thoughts that were familiar between them.
"That's foolish. In the first place, I disagree about the outer life. Well, we've often argued that. The real point is that there is the widest gulf between my love-making and yours. Yours--was romance; mine will be prose. I'm not running it down--a very good kind of prose, but well considered, well thought out. For instance, I know all Mr. Wilcox's faults. He's afraid of emotion. He cares too much about success, too little about the past. His sympathy lacks poetry, and so isn't sympathy really. I'd even say"--she looked at the shining lagoons--"that, spiritually, he's not as honest as I am. Doesn't that satisfy you?"
"No, it doesn't," said Helen. "It makes me feel worse and worse. You must be mad."
Margaret made a movement of irritation.
"I don't intend him, or any man or any woman, to be all my life--good heavens, no! There are heaps of things in me that he doesn't, and shall never, understand."
Thus she spoke before the wedding ceremony and the physical union, before the astonishing glass shade had fallen that interposes between married couples and the world. She was to keep her independence more than do most women as yet. Marriage was to alter her fortunes rather than her character, and she was not far wrong in boasting that she understood her future husband. Yet he did alter her character--a little. There was an unforeseen surprise, a cessation of the winds and odours of life, a social pressure that would have her think conjugally.
"So with him," she continued. "There are heaps of things in him--more especially things that he does--that will always be hidden from me. He has all those public qualities which you so despise and enable all this--" She waved her hand at the landscape, which confirmed anything.
"If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn't sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery.
No--perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it. There are times when it seems to me--"
"And to me, and to all women. So one kissed Paul."
"That's brutal," said Margaret. "Mine is an absolutely different case. I've thought things out."
"It makes no difference thinking things out. They come to the same."
There was a long silence, during which the tide returned into Poole Harbour. "One would lose something," murmured Helen, apparently to herself. The water crept over the mud-flats towards the gorse and the blackened heather.
Branksea Island lost its immense foreshores, and became a sombre episode of trees. Frome was forced inward towards Dorchester, Stour against Wimborne, Avon towards Salisbury, and over the immense displacement the sun presided, leading it to triumph ere he sank to rest. England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas.
What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity?
Margaret had often wondered at the disturbance that takes place in the world's waters, when Love, who seems so tiny a pebble, slips in. Whom does Love concern beyond the beloved and the lover? Yet his impact deluges a hundred shores. No doubt the disturbance is really the spirit of the generations, welcoming the new generation, and chafing against the ultimate Fate, who holds all the seas in the palm of her hand. But Love cannot understand this. He cannot comprehend another's infinity; he is conscious only of his own--flying sunbeam, falling rose, pebble that asks for one quiet plunge below the fretting interplay of space and time. He knows that he will survive at the end of things, and be gathered by Fate as a jewel from the slime, and be handed with admiration round the assembly of the gods. "Men did produce this," they will say, and, saying, they will give men immortality. But meanwhile--what agitations meanwhile! The foundations of Property and Propriety are laid bare, twin rocks; Family Pride flounders to the surface, puffing and blowing, and refusing to be comforted; Theology, vaguely ascetic, gets up a nasty ground swell. Then the lawyers are aroused--cold brood--and creep out of their holes. They do what they can; they tidy up Property and Propriety, reassure Theology and Family Pride.
Half-guineas are poured on the troubled waters, the lawyers creep back, and, if all has gone well, Love joins one man and woman together in Matrimony.
Margaret had expected the disturbance, and was not irritated by it. For a sensitive woman she had steady nerves, and could bear with the incongruous and the grotesque; and, besides, there was nothing excessive about her love-affair. Good-humour was the dominant note of her relations with Mr. Wilcox, or, as I must now call him, Henry. Henry did not encourage romance, and she was no girl to fidget for it. An acquaintance had become a lover, might become a husband, but would retain all that she had noted in the acquaintance; and love must confirm an old relation rather than reveal a new one.
In this spirit she promised to marry him.
He was in Swanage on the morrow, bearing the engagement-ring. They greeted one another with a hearty cordiality that impressed Aunt Juley. Henry dined at The Bays, but he had engaged a bedroom in the principal hotel: he was one of those men who knew the principal hotel by instinct. After dinner he asked Margaret if she wouldn't care for a turn on the Parade. She accepted, and could not repress a little tremor; it would be her first real love scene. But as she put on her hat she burst out laughing.
Love was so unlike the article served up in books: the joy, though genuine, was different; the mystery an unexpected mystery. For one thing, Mr. Wilcox still seemed a stranger.
For a time they talked about the ring; then she said:
"Do you remember the Embankment at Chelsea? It can't be ten days ago."
"Yes," he said, laughing. "And you and your sister were head and ears deep in some Quixotic scheme. Ah well!"
"I little thought then, certainly. Did you?"
"I don't know about that; I shouldn't like to say."
"Why, was it earlier?" she cried. "Did you think of me this way earlier! How extraordinarily interesting, Henry!
But Henry had no intention of telling. Perhaps he could not have told, for his mental states became obscure as soon as he had passed through them. He misliked the very word "interesting," connoting it with wasted energy and even with morbidity. Hard facts were enough for him.
"I didn't think of it," she pursued. "No; when you spoke to me in the drawing-room, that was practically the first. It was all so different from what it's supposed to be. On the stage, or in books, a proposal is--how shall I put it? --a full-blown affair, a kind of bouquet; it loses its literal meaning. But in life a proposal really is a proposal--"
"By the way--"
"--a suggestion, a seed," she concluded; and the thought flew away into darkness.
"I was thinking, if you didn't mind, that we ought to spend this evening in a business talk; there will be so much to settle."
"I think so too. Tell me, in the first place, how did you get on with Tibby?"
"With your brother?"
"Yes, during cigarettes."
"Oh, very well."
"I am so glad," she answered, a little surprised. "What did you talk about? Me, presumably."
"About Greece too."
"Greece was a very good card, Henry. Tibby's only a boy still, and one has to pick and choose subjects a little.
"I was telling him I have shares in a currant-farm near Calamata.
"What a delightful thing to have shares in! Can't we go there for our honeymoon?"
"What to do?"
"To eat the currants. And isn't there marvellous scenery?"
"Moderately, but it's not the kind of place one could possibly go to with a lady."
"Some ladies do without hotels. Are you aware that Helen and I have walked alone over the Apennines, with our luggage on our backs?"
"I wasn't aware, and, if I can manage it, you will never do such a thing again."
She said more gravely: "You haven't found time for a talk with Helen yet, I suppose?"
"Do, before you go. I am so anxious you two should be friends."
"Your sister and I have always hit it off," he said negligently. "But we're drifting away from our business.
Let me begin at the beginning. You know that Evie is going to marry Percy Cahill."
"Exactly. The girl's madly in love with him. A very good sort of fellow, but he demands--and rightly--a suitable provision with her. And in the second place, you will naturally understand, there is Charles. Before leaving town, I wrote Charles a very careful letter. You see, he has an increasing family and increasing expenses, and the I. and W. A. is nothing particular just now, though capable of development.
"Poor fellow!" murmured Margaret, looking out to sea, and not understanding.
"Charles being the elder son, some day Charles will have Howards End; but I am anxious, in my own happiness, not to be unjust to others."
"Of course not," she began, and then gave a little cry.
"You mean money. How stupid I am! Of course not!"
Oddly enough, he winced a little at the word. "Yes.
Money, since you put it so frankly. I am determined to be just to all--just to you, just to them. I am determined that my children shall have no case against me."
"Be generous to them," she said sharply. "Bother justice!"
"I am determined--and have already written to Charles to that effect--"
"But how much have you got?"
"How much have you a year? I've six hundred."
"Yes. We must begin with how much you have, before we can settle how much you can give Charles. Justice, and even generosity, depend on that."
"I must say you're a downright young woman," he observed, patting her arm and laughing a little. "What a question to spring on a fellow!"
"Don't you know your income? Or don't you want to tell it me?"
"That's all right"--now she patted him--"don't tell me.
I don't want to know. I can do the sum just as well by proportion. Divide your income into ten parts. How many parts would you give to Evie, how many to Charles, how many to Paul?"
"The fact is, my dear, I hadn't any intention of bothering you with details. I only wanted to let you know that--well, that something must be done for the others, and you've understood me perfectly, so let's pass on to the next point."
"Yes, we've settled that," said Margaret, undisturbed by his strategic blunderings. "Go ahead; give away all you can, bearing in mind I've a clear six hundred. What a mercy it is to have all this money about one!"
"We've none too much, I assure you; you're marrying a poor man.
"Helen wouldn't agree with me here," she continued.
"Helen daren't slang the rich, being rich herself, but she would like to. There's an odd notion, that I haven't yet got hold of, running about at the back of her brain, that poverty is somehow 'real.' She dislikes all organization, and probably confuses wealth with the technique of wealth.
Sovereigns in a stocking wouldn't bother her; cheques do.
Helen is too relentless. One can't deal in her high-handed manner with the world."
"There's this other point, and then I must go back to my hotel and write some letters. What's to be done now about the house in Ducie Street?"
"Keep it on--at least, it depends. When do you want to marry me?"
She raised her voice, as too often, and some youths, who were also taking the evening air, overheard her. "Getting a bit hot, eh?" said one. Mr. Wilcox turned on them, and said sharply, "I say!" There was silence. "Take care I don't report you to the police." They moved away quietly enough, but were only biding their time, and the rest of the conversation was punctuated by peals of ungovernable laughter.
Lowering his voice and infusing a hint of reproof into it, he said: "Evie will probably be married in September.
We could scarcely think of anything before then."
"The earlier the nicer, Henry. Females are not supposed to say such things, but the earlier the nicer."
"How about September for us too?" he asked, rather dryly.
"Right. Shall we go into Ducie Street ourselves in September? Or shall we try to bounce Helen and Tibby into it? That's rather an idea. They are so unbusinesslike, we could make them do anything by judicious management. Look here--yes. We'll do that. And we ourselves could live at Howards End or Shropshire."
He blew out his cheeks. "Heavens! how you women do fly round! My head's in a whirl. Point by point, Margaret.
Howards End's impossible. I let it to Hamar Bryce on a three years' agreement last March. Don't you remember?
Oniton. Well, that is much, much too far away to rely on entirely. You will be able to be down there entertaining a certain amount, but we must have a house within easy reach of Town. Only Ducie Street has huge drawbacks. There's a mews behind."
Margaret could not help laughing. It was the first she had heard of the mews behind Ducie Street. When she was a possible tenant it had suppressed itself, not consciously, but automatically. The breezy Wilcox manner, though genuine, lacked the clearness of vision that is imperative for truth. When Henry lived in Ducie Street he remembered the mews; when he tried to let he forgot it; and if anyone had remarked that the mews must be either there or not, he would have felt annoyed, and afterwards have found some opportunity of stigmatizing the speaker as academic. So does my grocer stigmatize me when I complain of the quality of his sultanas, and he answers in one breath that they are the best sultanas, and how can I expect the best sultanas at that price? It is a flaw inherent in the business mind, and Margaret may do well to be tender to it, considering all that the business mind has done for England.
"Yes, in summer especially, the mews is a serious nuisance. The smoking room, too, is an abominable little den. The house opposite has been taken by operatic people.
Ducie Street's going down, it's my private opinion."
"How sad! It's only a few years since they built those pretty houses."
"Shows things are moving. Good for trade."
"I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst--eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, streaming away--streaming, streaming for ever. That's why I dread it so. I mistrust rivers, even in scenery. Now, the sea--"
"High tide, yes."
"Hoy toid"--from the promenading youths.
"And these are the men to whom we give the vote," observed Mr. Wilcox, omitting to add that they were also the men to whom he gave work as clerks--work that scarcely encouraged them to grow into other men. "However, they have their own lives and interests. Let's get on."
He turned as he spoke, and prepared to see her back to The Bays. The business was over. His hotel was in the opposite direction, and if he accompanied her his letters would be late for the post. She implored him not to come, but he was obdurate.
"A nice beginning, if your aunt saw you slip in alone!"
"But I always do go about alone. Considering I've walked over the Apennines, it's common sense. You will make me so angry. I don't the least take it as a compliment."
He laughed, and lit a cigar. "It isn't meant as a compliment, my dear. I just won't have you going about in the dark. Such people about too! It's dangerous. "
"Can't I look after myself? I do wish--"
"Come along, Margaret; no wheedling."
A younger woman might have resented his masterly ways, but Margaret had too firm a grip of life to make a fuss.
She was, in her own way, as masterly. If he was a fortress she was a mountain peak, whom all might tread, but whom the snows made nightly virginal. Disdaining the heroic outfit, excitable in her methods, garrulous, episodical, shrill, she misled her lover much as she had misled her aunt. He mistook her fertility for weakness. He supposed her "as clever as they make 'em," but no more, not realizing that she was penetrating to the depths of his soul, and approving of what she found there.
And if insight were sufficient, if the inner life were the whole of life, their happiness has been assured.
They walked ahead briskly. The parade and the road after it were well lighted, but it was darker in Aunt Juley's garden. As they were going up by the side-paths, through some rhododendrons, Mr. Wilcox, who was in front, said "Margaret" rather huskily, turned, dropped his cigar, and took her in his arms.
She was startled, and nearly screamed, but recovered herself at once, and kissed with genuine love the lips that were pressed against her own. It was their first kiss, and when it was over he saw her safely to the door and rang the bell for her, but disappeared into the night before the maid answered it. On looking back, the incident displeased her.
It was so isolated. Nothing in their previous conversation had heralded it, and, worse still, no tenderness had ensued. If a man cannot lead up to passion he can at all events lead down from it, and she had hoped, after her complaisance, for some interchange of gentle words. But he had hurried away as if ashamed, and for an instant she was reminded of Helen and Paul.