These Twain, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter vii

The Truce

i

Nearly a week passed. Hilda, in the leisure of a woman of fashion after dinner, was at the piano in the drawing-room. She had not urgent stockings to mend, nor jam to make, nor careless wenches to overlook, nor food to buy, nor accounts to keep, nor a new dress to scheme out of an old one, nor to perform her duty to her neighbour. She had nothing to do. Like Edwin, she could not play the piano, but she had picked up a note here and a note there in the course of her life, and with much labour and many slow hesitations she could puzzle out a chord or a melody from the printed page. She was now exasperatingly spelling with her finger a fragment of melody from one of Dvorak’s “Legends,”— a fragment that had inhabited her mind since she first heard it, and that seemed to gather up and state all the sweet heart-breaking intolerable melancholy implicit in the romantic existence of that city on the map, Prague. On the previous day she had been a quarter of an hour identifying the unforgetable, indismissible fragment amid the multitude of notes. Now she had recognisably pieced its phrases together, and as her stiff finger stumbled through it, her ears heard it, once more; and she could not repeat it often enough. What she heard was not what she was playing but something finer — her souvenir of what Tertius Ingpen had played; and something finer than that, something finer than the greatest artist could possibly play — magic!

It was in the nature of a miracle to her that she had been able to reproduce the souvenir in physical sound. She was proud of herself as a miracle-worker, and somewhat surprised. And at the same time she was abject because she “could not play the piano.” She thought that she would be ready to sacrifice many happinesses in order to be able to play as well as even George played, that she would exchange all her own gifts multiplied by a hundred in order to be able to play as Janet Orgreave played, and that to be a world-renowned pianist dominating immense audiences in European capitals must mean the summit of rapture and glory. (She had never listened to a world-renowned pianist.) Meanwhile, without the ennui and slavery of practice, she was enchanting herself; and she savoured her idleness, and thought of her young pretty servants at work, and her boy loose and at large, and her husband keeping her, and of the intensity of beautiful sorrow palpitating behind the mediæval façades of Prague. Had Ingpen overheard her, he might have demanded: “Who is making that infernal noise on the piano?”

Edwin came into the room, holding a thick green book. He ought long ago to have been back at the works (or “shop,” as it was still called, because it had once been principally a shop), keeping her.

“Hello!” she murmured, without glancing away from the piano. “I thought you were gone.”

They had not quarrelled; but they had not made peace; and the open question of lithography and the new works still separated them. Sometimes they had approached each other, pretending amiably or even affectionately that there was no open question. But the reality of the question could not be destroyed by any pretence of ignoring it.

While gazing at the piano, Hilda could also see Edwin. She thought she knew him, but she was always making discoveries in this branch of knowledge. Now and then she was so bewildered by discoveries that she came to wonder why she had married him, and why people do marry — really! The fact was that she had married him for the look in his eyes. It was a sad look, and beyond that it could not be described. Also, a little, she had married him for his bright untidy hair, and for that short oblique shake of the head which with him meant a greeting or an affirmative. She had not married him for his sentiments nor for his goodness of heart. Some points in him she did not like. He had a tendency to colds, and she hated him whenever he had a cold. She often detested his terrible tidiness, though it was a convenient failing. More and more she herself wilfully enjoyed being untidy, as her mother had been untidy. . . . And to think that her mother’s untidiness used to annoy her! On the other hand she found pleasure in humouring Edwin’s crotchettiness in regard to the details of a meal. She did not like his way of walking, which was ungainly, nor his way of standing, which was infirm. She preferred him to be seated. She could not but regret his irresolution, and his love of ease. However, the look in his eyes was paramount, because she was in love with him. She knew that he was more deeply and helplessly in love with her than she with him, but even she was perhaps tightlier bound than in her pride she thought.

Her love had the maladies of a woman’s love when it is great; these may possibly be also the maladies of a man’s love. It could be bitter. Certainly it could never rest from criticism, spoken or unspoken. In the presence of others she would criticise him to herself, if not aloud, nearly all the time; the ordeal was continuous. When she got him alone she would often endow him at a stroke with perfection, and her tenderness would pour over him. She trusted him profoundly; and yet she had constant misgivings, which weakened or temporarily destroyed her confidence. She would treat a statement from him with almost hostile caution, and accept blindly the very same statement from a stranger! Her habit was to assume that in any encounter between him and a stranger he would be worsted. She was afraid for him. She felt that she could protect him better than he could protect himself — against any danger whatever. This instinct to protect him was also the instinct of self-protection; for peril to him meant peril to her. And she had had enough of peril. After years of disastrous peril she was safe and George was safe. And if she was passionately in love with Edwin, she was also passionately in love with safety. She had breathed a long sigh of relief, and from a desperate self-defender had become a woman. She lay back, as it were, luxuriously on a lounge, after exhausting and horrible exertions; she had scarcely ceased to pant. At the least sign of recurring danger all her nerves were on the qui vive. Hence her inimical attitude towards the project of the new works and the extension of lithography in Bursley. The simpleton (a moment earlier the perfect man) might ruin himself — and her! In her view he was the last person to undertake such an enterprise.

Since her marriage, Clara, Maggie, and Auntie Hamps had been engaged in the pleasant endless task of telling her all about everything that related to the family, and she had been permitted to understand that Edwin, though utterly admirable, was not of a creative disposition, and that he had done nothing but conserve what his father had left. Without his father Edwin “would have been in a very different position.” She believed this. Every day, indeed, Edwin, by the texture of his hourly life, proved the truth of it. . . . All the persons standing to make a profit out of the new project would get the better of his fine ingenuous temperament — naturally! She knew the world. Did Edwin suppose that she did not know what the world was? . . . And then the interminable worry of the new enterprise — misgivings, uncertainties, extra work, secret preoccupations! What room for love, what hope of tranquillity in all that? He might argue —— But she did not want to argue; she would not argue. She was dead against the entire project. He had not said to her that it was no affair of hers, but she knew that such was his thought, and she resented the attitude. No affair of hers? When it threatened her felicity? No! She would not have it. She was happy and secure. And while lying luxuriously back in her lounge she would maintain all the defences of her happiness and her security.

ii

Holding the green book in front of her, Edwin said quietly:

“Read this!”

“Which?”

He pointed with his finger.

She read:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained.

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition.

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago.

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Edwin had lately been exciting himself, not for the first time, over Walt Whitman.

“Fine, isn’t it?” he said, sure that she would share his thrill.

“Magnificent!” she agreed with quiet enthusiasm. “I must read more of that.” She gazed over the top of the book through the open blue-curtained window into the garden.

He withdrew the book and closed it.

“You haven’t got that tune exactly right, you know,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the music.

“Oh!” She was startled. What did he know about it? He could not play the piano.

“Where are you?” he asked. “Show me. Where’s the confounded place on the piano? Well! At the end you play it like this.” He imitated her. “Whereas it ought to be like this.” He played the last four notes differently.

“So it ought!” She murmured with submission, after having frowned.

“That bit of a tune’s been running in my head, too,” he said.

The strange beauty of Whitman and the strange beauty of Dvorak seemed to unite, and both Edwin and Hilda were uplifted, not merely by these mingled beauties, but by their realisation of the wondrous fact that they both took intense pleasure in the same varied forms of beauty. Happiness rose about them like a sweet smell in the spaces of the comfortable impeccable drawing-room. And for a moment they leaned towards each other in bliss — across the open question. . . . Was it still open? . . . Ah! Edwin might be ingenuous, a simpleton, but Hilda admitted the astounding, mystifying adroitness of his demeanour. Had he abandoned the lithographic project, or was he privately nursing it? In his friendliness towards herself was there a reserve, or was there not? She knew . . . she did not know . . . she knew. . . . Yes, there was a reserve, but it was so infinitesimal that she could not define it — could not decide whether it was due to obstinacy of purpose, or merely to a sense of injury, whether it was resentful or condescending. Exciting times! And she perceived that her new life was gradually getting fuller of such excitements.

“Well,” said he. “It’s nearly three. Quarter-day’s coming along. I’d better be off down and earn a bit towards Maggie’s rent.”

Before the June quarter-day, he had been jocular in the same way about Maggie’s rent. In the division of old Darius Clayhanger’s estate Maggie had taken over the Clayhanger house, and Edwin paid rent to her therefor.

“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” said Hilda, pouting amiably.

“Why not?”

“Well, I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Anyhow, the rent has to be paid, I suppose.”

“And I wish it hadn’t. I wish we didn’t live in Maggie’s house.”

“Why?”

“I don’t like the idea of it.”

“You’re sentimental.”

“You can call it what you like. I don’t like the idea of us living in Maggie’s house. I never feel as if I was at home. No, I don’t feel as if I was at home.”

“What a kid you are!”

“You won’t change me,” she persisted stoutly.

He knew that she was not sympathetic towards the good Maggie. And he knew the reasons for her attitude, though they had never been mentioned. One was mere vague jealousy of Maggie as her predecessor in the house. The other was that Maggie was always very tepid towards George. George had annoyed her on his visits previous to his mother’s marriage, and moreover Maggie had dimly resented Edwin’s interest in the son of a mysterious woman. If she had encountered George after the proclamation of Edwin’s engagement she would have accepted the child with her customary cheerful blandness. But she had encountered him too soon, and her puzzled gaze had said to George: “Why is my brother so taken up with you? There must be an explanation, and your strange mother is the explanation.” Edwin did not deny Maggie’s attitude to George, but he defended Maggie as a human being. Though dull, “she was absolutely the right sort,” and the very slave of duty and loyalty. He would have liked to make Hilda see all Maggie’s excellences.

“Do you know what I’ve been thinking?” Hilda went on. “Suppose you were to buy the house from Maggie? Then it would be ours.”

He answered with a smile:

“What price ‘the mania for owning things’? . . . Would you like me to?” There was promise in his roguish voice.

“Oh! I should. I’ve often thought of it,” she said eagerly. And at the same time all her gestures and glances seemed to be saying: “Humour me! I appeal to you as a girl pouting and capricious. But humour me. You know it gives you pleasure to humour me. You know you like me not to be too reasonable. We both know it. I want you to do this.”

It was not the fact that she had often thought of the plan. But in her eagerness she imagined it to be the fact. She had never seriously thought of the plan until that moment, and it appeared doubly favourable to her now, because the execution of it, by absorbing capital, ought to divert Edwin from his lithographic project, and perhaps render the lithographic project impossible for years.

She added, aloud:

“Then you wouldn’t have any rent to pay.”

“How true!” said Edwin, rallying her. “But it would stand me in a loss, because I should have to pay too much for the place.”

“Why?” she cried, in arms. “Why should Maggie ask too much just because you want it? And think of all the money you’ve spent on it!”

“The money spent on it only increases its value to Maggie. You don’t seem to understand landlordism, my child. But that’s not the point at all. Maggie won’t ask any price. Only I couldn’t decently pay her less than the value she took the house over at when we divided up. To wit, £1,800. It ain’t worth that. I only pay £60 rent.”

“If she took it over at too high a value that’s her look-out,” said the harsh and unjust Hilda.

“Not at all. She was a fool. Albert and Clara persuaded her. It was a jolly good thing for them. I couldn’t very well interfere.”

“It seems a great shame you should have to pay for what Albert and Clara did.”

“I needn’t unless I want to. Only, if I buy the house, £1,800 will have to be the price.”

“Well,” said Hilda. “I wish you’d buy it.”

“Would she feel more at home if he did?” he seductively chaffed her.

“Yes, she would.” Hilda straightened her shoulders, and smiled with bravado.

“And suppose Mag won’t sell?”

“Will you allow me to mention it to her?” Hilda’s submissive tone implied that Edwin was a tyrant who ruled with a nod.

“I don’t mind,” he said negligently.

“Well, one of these days I just will.”

Edwin departed, leaving the book behind. Hilda was flushed. She thought: “It is marvellous. I can do what I like with him. When I use a particular tone, and look at him in a particular way, I can do what I like with him.”

She was ecstatically conscious of an incomprehensible power. What a rôle, that of the capricious, pouting queen, reclining luxuriously on her lounge, and subduing a tyrant to a slave! It surpassed that of the world-renowned pianist! . . .

iii

But soon she became more serious. She had a delicious glow of seriousness. She overflowed with gratitude to Edwin. His good-nature was exquisite. He was not perfect. She could see all his faults just as plainly as when she was angry with him. But he was perfect in lovableness. She adored every aspect of him, every manifestation of his character. She felt her responsibility to him and to George. It was hers to bring grace into their lives. Without her, how miserable, how uncared for, those two would be! They would be like lost children. Nobody could do for them what she did. Money could not buy what she gave naturally, and mere invention could not devise it. She looked up to Edwin, but at the same time she was mysteriously above both him and George. She had a strange soft wisdom for them. It was agreeable, and it was proper, and it was even prudent, to be capricious on occasion and to win by pouting and wiles and seductions; but beneath all that lay the tremendous sternness of the wife’s duty, everlasting and intricate, a heavy obligation that demanded all her noblest powers for its fulfilment. She rose heroically to the thought of duty, conceiving it as she had never conceived it before. She desired intensely to be the most wonderful wife in the whole history of marriage. And she believed strongly in her capabilities.

She went upstairs to put on another and a finer dress; for since the disastrous sequel to the At Home she had somewhat wearied in the pursuit of elegance. She had thought: “What is the use of me putting myself to such a lot of trouble for a husband who is insensible enough to risk my welfare unnecessarily?” She was now ashamed of this backsliding. Ada was in the bedroom finicking with something on the dressing-table. Ada sprang to help as soon as she knew that her mistress had to go out. And she openly admired the new afternoon dress and seemed as pleased as though she was to wear it herself. And Ada buttoned her boots and found her gloves and her parasol, and remembered her purse and her bag and her handkerchief.

“I don’t quite know what time I shall be back, Ada.”

“No’m,” said Ada eagerly, as though saying: “Of course you don’t, m’m. You have many engagements. But no matter when you come back we shall be delighted to see you because the house is nothing without you.”

“Of course I shall be back for tea.”

“Oh, yes’m!” Ada agreed, as though saying: “Need you tell me that, m’m? I know you would never leave the master to have his tea alone.”

Hilda walked regally down the stairs and glanced round about her at the house, which belonged to Maggie and which Edwin had practically promised to buy. Yes, it was a fine house, a truly splendid abode. And it seemed all the finer because it was Maggie’s. Hilda had this regrettable human trait of overvaluing what was not hers and depreciating what was. It accounted in part, possibly, for her often very critical attitude towards Edwin. She passed out of the front-door in triumph, her head full of wise schemes and plots. But even then she was not sure whether she had destroyed — or could ever destroy, by no matter what arts! — the huge dangerous lithographic project.

As soon as she was gone, Ada ran yelling to the kitchen:

“Hooray! She’s safe.”

And both servants burst like infants into the garden, to disport themselves upon the swing.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31