You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 7

They Come — They Go

SO it was that Doober’s changed continually and remained always the same, as manhood dawned murkily upon our Edward Albert. Doober’s, until he was wrenched out of it by circumstances beyond his control, was the foundation of his world. But outside it a number of other human encounters were streaming past him, making suggestions to him and deflecting his ideas about life. The staff he worked with at North London Leaseholds was a purely male one, and his general pose towards his colleagues was of someone “a bit superior” who condescended rather than was compelled to earn. He felt he dressed better than they did. He made a certain mystery of his place of residence; he had more pocket money; most of them still lived in and paid in to their homes. But if he offended them they controlled their resentment at his airs, and he found it more agreeable to go with them to the restaurant they frequented for lunch than to sit alone. And there they met “the girls —”

The girls were still cheaper human material than the clerical staff; they functioned in another department with envelopes and postal responses of various sorts. And they mixed very cheerfully with, the boys at the lunch-time rendezvous. There was a certain process called getting away with a nice boy, and there was a natural response in the adolescing male. A mutual possessiveness was established, which, in those days of underpaid femininity, meant taking your girl out in the evening to a café gossip or a cinema or even a music hall, and paying for her. It was only in the latter stages of the first World War that anything like economic equality dawned on young women. And the North London Leaseholds girls found a certain stand-offishness in Edward Albert provocative rather than annoying, and he responded with a certain excitement. This was far easier and simpler and less sustained than the relationships at Doober’s. He discovered “flirting”, that mutual stimulation of egotism.0

Marriage was something remote and incredible for all these youngsters, so that one “paid attention” and professed all sorts of amorous feelings with the completest immunity from any sort of fulfilment. It was a play of self-assertion, remote from any thought of that It, which distressed his dreams and secrecies.

He had a number of shadow love affairs, with Erne and Laura and Molly Brown, the only one whose surname he acquired, and several whose Christian names slipped his memory. The shadow took on a certain substance with Molly Brown. He took her one sunny Sunday to Rickmansworth for a country walk, and they got some ham and beer at an inn. Then they wandered into a patch of woodland and sat down in the shade of some bracken. They looked at one another in a mood of ignorant desire. “Let’s smoke,” she said.

“If anyone sees us,” he said.

“Nobody’s seeing us,” she said, and they smoked and regarded one another.

“Well?” she said, when the smoking was done. They heard a burst of giggling and little squeals in the adjacent bushes. “Her chap’s tickling her!” she said. Edward Albert took no further action.

She sprawled back leisurely and regarded him.

“Kiss me, Teddy!” she said, and she kissed him! She kissed rather nicely. “Like that?” she asked, and they kissed again. “Put your arm round me. No, so. . . . Let’s cuddle up close.”

He cuddled tepidly.

“My, I wish it was dark. Then we could cuddle. Couldn’t we stay till alter dark and cuddle?”

“Oo. I dunno. P’raps we’re trespassing here. Someone might come along and see us.”

“People won’t mind us just cuddling. They all do it here. Some of them do more than that.”

He mumbled a reply. He was trembling violently. Her kisses and her embrace had set him alight. He wanted to hug her violently, and also he wanted to run away. He was acutely aware of his visibility and with the stir of his senses all the secretive factors in his sensuality were aroused. She kissed him a third time and his self-control exploded. His grip tightened upon her; he held her beneath him, and hugged, hugged actively, breathing hard, until suddenly he was satisfied, and sat up as suddenly and pushed her away from him. She had been struggling against his onslaught.

“Lemme go,” she whispered fiercely “Starp it, I tell you!”

She rolled away from him and sat up also. Her hat had come off, her hair was disordered, her skirts pushed up to her knees, and her expression ruffled. Both of them were flushed and out of breath and surprised.

The tickling had ceased apparently; nobody was audible; the only sound was the breeze among the bracken.

She looked about them. “My word,” she said, in an undertone, “you do hug.”

“I— I liked it, Molly.”

“I didn’t. You were rough. Look at my hair!” She adjusted her crumpled frock and edged still further away from him, “You’ll have to help look for my hair-pins. “You seemed just to go right off your nut.”

“Well, you made me.”

“I like that.”

“You led me on.”

“I’ll take jolly good care I don’t lead you on again, my boy. You were rough. You were rough.”

“Just a bit of fun like, Molly. I didn’t mean anything.”

“Look at my ‘at!”

Another young couple in search of retirement rustled through the undergrowth twenty yards away.

“Suppose they’d come by just now,” said Molly with three pins in her mouth, remodelling her hat.

“Well they didn’t anyhow,” said Edward Albert, becoming snappy.

“If they ‘ad —”

“Why ‘arp on it?” he snarled.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in an atmosphere of mute reproach. They went home long before dusk, and she decided to leave him and go to church with her mother.

“Right O,” said he, instead of the usual tender good night.

He retired thoughtfully to Scartmore House. He reflected that the path of true love never had run smooth.

He knew he was in love with Molly because otherwise why should he have wanted her so much and given way like that?

He wanted to hug again, already, and he dreaded hugging her again. But the next time they met she seemed to have forgotten her urgency and he was disappointed. They sat on a seat by the road on Hampstead Heath, making no further allusion to hugging, and he went on with his favourite impersonation of a mysterious bastard. “I don’t know who my father was or what he was. I’ve been sort of made away with. . . . ”

The difficulty of the story was to keep it so as to avoid any suggestion of Great Expectations. For you cannot be too careful. She seemed to listen with a jaded interest, and when he suggested she should give him a kiss she gave him a peck on the cheek. “Let’s go for a ramble into these bushes,” he suggested. She shook her head.

“Just a little bit of spooning,” he pleaded.

“You don’t know where to stop. I don’t like — what you did. You know. Sunday.”

Their next meeting was more hopeful. He took her to a cinema and they sat holding hands side by side in quite their old fashion. Afterwards they got some lemon squash and a sandwich in the new little ham and beef shop, and they had a little tiff about the magic of Rudolph Valentino, which was healed when she accepted Edward Albert’s contention that there was something unEnglish about Rudolph and admitted that for her own part she couldn’t imagine how any Englishwoman could feel “that way” about any foreigner. “I’d almost as soon a Chinese. But then of course she was half-Mexican.”

That was all right. They met again. But she kept him at arm’s length, and both were much too tongue-tied to explore the difficult question of what “going too far” might mean.

The warmth of his physical interest in her cooled. . . . That was one significant incident in his sentimental education. He tried to find a stimulus in one or two of the other girls, but there wasn’t much doing with them. His feelings towards her were invaded by a streak of possessive, dislike. She had led him on. He brooded, resentfully on that idea. She had let him and then she hadn’t let him any more. For a time they went about together largely, though they did not realise it, to keep up appearances with the rest of the boys and girls. Once or twice he was.stirred to a competitive attempt at resumption by the realisation that she was going around with another fellow. She was “nice.” to him, but more and more evasive. . . .

“Well anyhow,” soliloquised the disillusioned Edward Albert, “he won’t get much.”

At the Imperial College of Commercial Science Edward Albert made very few, personal contacts of any sort. There were a few possible young women about he thought he might have flirted with, but he couldn’t contrive any method of accosting them, and the chief other factor in the evocation of Edward Albert’s manhood, was such intercourse as he had with his old schoolfellows who still remained in the neighbourhood of Camden Town.

The school was there still. Once or twice he caught a glimpse of Mr Myame in the offing, but escaped his hirsute disapproval by dodging down a side street. One boy whose name he forgot met him one day and told him that the old man had forbidden the school to speak to him. “He said you were an evil companion. What was it all about? D’jer get a girl into trouble?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Edward Albert, and nursed that gratifying suspicion. “It was sumpthing pretty awful,” he said.

Blond Bert Bloxham with the dissimilar aunt was still in the neighbourhood, though Nuts MacBryde of the warts had drifted to Clapham. Bert’s looks had never been much to boast about, and he was more than ever like a large hairy onion. But he too was in a state of feverish sexual awakening. He too was on the rack between the insanity of Nature cranking away at one end and the insanity of the social order cranking away at the other.

He began at once with reminiscences of the Hidden Hand.

“I still got that stable,” he said, “and it’s safer than ever. The O. girl’s so heavy now, she’d break the ladder if she tried it. I got some photographs there — oh, hot stuff. Show you everything. I got ’em off a man in the Strand late one night when I was doing a prowl. I’ll show you them.”

He paused. “Ever ‘ad a woman yet, Tewler?. . . . Yes, I ‘ave.” (Description.) “And I don’t care ‘ow many more I ‘ave. But them street walkers. You can’t be too careful. You know they don’t wash themselves. They smell. Puts you off it.” (Rough account of Precautions to take,)

“But never mind about that. That’s by the way. I got my plans. What I’m going to ‘ave is a little love nest, my boy, a little love nest of my own. Up the ladder we go, eh? What price ankles? You’re going to show more than that, my gel. And ’ere we are playing Adam and Eve together. Ever played Adam and Eve, Tewler?

“Leastways that’s what I’m going to do,” said Bert, “when I get hold of a girl I fancy. And they ain’t ‘ard nowadays, not like before the war. Girls ain’t the same. Nothing’s $he same. And if ever you get anybody. Old friends we are. I’ll make it as safe for you up there, o. boy. Safe as ‘ouses. . . . ”

That was the sort of chance the fickle Molly had thrown away. What did she want really? Bother her! Forget her.

Adam and Eve indeed! Catch her! Catch her taking off a blessed thing! With her everlasting “Starp it.”

Presently Edward Albert found himself actually flirting in Doober’s and being competed for, actually competed for, by two energetic and interesting young women only five or six years older than himself. They were overripe virgins and they too suffered from the tortures of suppression the social order inflicted upon them. Nature urged them on and they didn’t know, they didn’t know, and an infinite futility was expected of them. What outlook had they? Older men would fall for any cheeky kid of sixteen first, and there didn’t seem to be any young men left. Such a lot of young men had being killed. What were left were Nancy boys. They were mostly objectors to war and love alike. They seemed to have turned their backs on life altogether. But here was something at once male and ostensibly harmless, that had missed all that.

The attentions of these young women seemed to him much more formidable and much more interesting than those of the Leasehold office girls, particularly after Molly let him down. He talked to them with an intermittent nervous laugh as a sort of declaration of insincerity. He didn’t dare think of kissing or hugging them or anything of that sort, he didn’t know how they’d take it, but he said the boldest things to them. Much worse than what he said to the North London Leaseholds girls, who’d snap your head off at almost anything.

They began it. They certainly began it. They wanted to win his calf love and reduce him to adoration, slavery, timid offerings, and the running of errands, which is what adolescents are for. Easier than men but not so dangerous as men. Either could have managed it, no doubt, but not both. One was a remarkable dark young woman who had been in France for some months, and had become temporarily Frenchified by that experience. Her name was Evangeline Birkenhead, she was interested apparently in the glove trade, but^in what precise capacity was never revealed. She was destined to play a much ampler r61e in Edward Albert’s life than he anticipated, and we shall have much to tell about her. She spoke French which sounded like the real thing, faster than the Belgians but only in flashes, and Miss Pooley, whose style was much more deliberate, seemed to listen first with incredulous perplexity and then with an ill-concealed delight. She would manoeuvre, Edward Albert noted, to sit within earshot of Evangeline.

Evangeline’s rival, Miss Blame, was a blonde young woman, a fluffy bleached blonde, soft-spoken and almost inarticulate, but with extremely significant, desirous eyes. She listened and looked at Edward Albert. She had a way of putting her hands on him, on his shoulders, even on his hands on the chair arm, and they were extremely soft hands. She would whisper, a warm zephyr against his cheek, She drew him out. She asked what his ambitions were.

“Jerst to go on looking at you,” said Edward Albert gallantly.

“But tell me about yourself. What do you think of Miss Birkenhead? She’s awfully clever, don’t you think?

“Clever is as clever does,” said Edward Albert darkly.

“You’re a bit in love with her?”

“‘Ow could I be?”

Interrogative purr.

“‘Cos I’m devoted” said the wicked flirt, and refrained from clinching matters by crooning, “to yew.”

And when Evangeline taxed him with sitting about with that Blame girl and asked what he could possibly find to talk about with her, “I jest don’t notice where I sit, when you’re about,” said Young Artfulness. “I jest don’t. And as for talking! Well, I ask you.”

Great fun! A safe game, and a harmless one, it seemed to him, not realising how vulnerable he was presently to become.

Yet the thought of marriage was already in his mind as he returned from Edinburgh in that luxurious first-class carriage, to London. He realised now that a way was opening to alleviate the fears and desires that were devastating his mind. He would look round and find a nice little wife. A thrill of anticipation followed the thought. You couldn’t be too careful, of course. A nice, healthy, simple, pure-minded girl. There were endless girls you wouldn’t dream of marrying, designing hussies, hot stuff you couldn’t trust round the corner.

And there It would be, safe at home and always handy. Just whenever you liked. No risk of entanglements; no risk of those horrible diseases, no more horrible phases of unsatisfied lust and shame. And that little wife, that smiling, yielding little wife. Church of England preferably. She’d have to be religious, otherwise you never knew, he whistled softly in his characteristic way as the reverie unfolded. They wouldn’t have a lot of children to bother them and spoil her figure. Dear old Bert had put him wise about that. And imagine it! Running up against Nuts or Bert, for example, with the little lady dressed up to the nines. “Ellow me to introduce you to Mrs Tewler!” he’d say. He’d buy her things. He’d surprise her by giving her all sorts of things. She’d just love it. “Look what I brought you now,” he’d say. Love’s young dream.

In all of this he was reckoning without Evangeline Birkenhead. He never gave her a thought until he went in to dinner that evening. “You back!” she said, and “Come over here next me and tell me about it.”

He hurried across the room to her with a provocative mixture of irony and reverence. He wasn’t going to tell anyone exactly why he had gone away or what had happened to him. He was just going to be mysterious and have a fine time with the two of them.

But Mrs Doober had been talking already. Mr Doober had been consulted when first that letter came from Edinburgh, even before Mr Whittaker.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30