It was Auntie Hamps’s birthday.
“She must be quite fifty-nine,” said Maggie.
“Oh, stuff!” Edwin contradicted her curtly. “She can’t be anything like as much as that.”
Having by this positive and sharp statement disposed of the question of Mrs Hamps’s age, he bent again with eagerness to his newspaper. The “Manchester Examiner” no longer existing as a Radical organ, he read the “Manchester Guardian,” of which that morning’s issue contained a long and vivid obituary of Charles Stewart Parnell.
Brother and sister were at breakfast. Edwin had changed the character of this meal. He went fasting to business at eight o’clock, opened correspondence, and gave orders to the wonderful Stifford, a person now of real importance in the firm, and at nine o’clock flew by car back to the house to eat bacon and eggs and marmalade leisurely, like a gentleman. It was known that between nine and ten he could not be seen at the shop.
“Well,” Maggie continued, with her mild persistence, “Aunt Spenser told me —”
“Who’s Aunt Spenser, in God’s name?”
“You know — mother’s and auntie’s cousin — the fat old thing!”
“Oh! Her!” He recalled one of the unfamiliar figures that had bent over his father’s coffin.
“She told me auntie was either fifty-five or fifty-six, at father’s funeral. And that’s nearly three and a half years ago. So she must be-”
“Two and a half, you mean.” Edwin interrupted with a sort of savageness.
“No, I don’t. It’s nearly three years since Mrs Nixon died.”
Edwin was startled to realise the passage of time. But he said nothing. Partly he wanted to read in peace, and partly he did not want to admit his mistake. Bit by bit he was assuming the historic privileges of the English master of the house. He had the illusion that if only he could maintain a silence sufficiently august his error of fact and of manner would cease to be an error.
“Yes; she must be fifty-nine,” Maggie resumed placidly.
“I don’t care if she’s a hundred and fifty-nine!” snapped Edwin. “Any more coffee? Hot, that is.”
Without moving his gaze from the paper, he pushed his cup a little way across the table.
Maggie took it, her chin slightly lifting, and her cheeks showing a touch of red.
“I hope you didn’t forget to order the inkstand, after all,” she said stiffly. “It’s not been sent up yet, and I want to take it down to auntie’s myself this morning. You know what a lot she thinks of such things!”
It had been arranged that Auntie Hamps should receive that year a cut-glass double inkstand from her nephew and niece. The shop occasionally dealt in such articles. Edwin had not willingly assented to the choice. He considered that a cut-glass double inkstand was a vicious concession to Mrs Hamps’s very vulgar taste in knick-knacks, and, moreover, he always now discouraged retail trade at the shop. But still, he had assented, out of indolence.
“Well, it won’t come till tomorrow,” he said.
“But, Edwin, how’s that?”
“How’s that? Well, if you want to know, I didn’t order it till yesterday. I can’t think of everything.”
“It’s very annoying!” said Maggie sincerely.
Edwin put on the martyr’s crown. “Some people seem to think I’ve nothing else to do down at my shop but order birthday presents,” he remarked with disagreeable sarcasm.
“I think you might be a little more polite,” said Maggie.
“Yes; I do!” Maggie insisted stoutly. “Sometimes you get positively unbearable. Everybody notices it.”
“You never mind!”
Maggie tossed her head, and Edwin knew that when she tossed her head — a gesture rare with her — she was tossing the tears back from her eyes. He was more than startled, he was intimidated, by that feminine movement of the head. She was hurt. It was absurd of her to be so susceptible, but he had undoubtedly hurt her. He had been clumsy enough to hurt her. She was nearing forty, and he also was close behind her on the road to forty; she was a perfectly decent sort, and he reckoned that he, too, was a perfectly decent sort, and yet they lacked the skill not to bicker. They no longer had the somewhat noisy altercations of old days concerning real or fancied interferences with the order and privacy of Edwin’s sacred chamber, but their general demeanour to one another had dully soured. It was as if they tolerated one another, from motives of self-interest. Why should this be so? They were, at bottom, affectionate and mutually respectful. In a crisis they could and would rely on one another utterly. Why should their demeanour be so false an index to their real feelings? He supposed it was just the fault of loose habit. He did not blame her. From mere pride he blamed himself. He knew himself to be cleverer, more perceptive, wilier, than she; and he ought to have been able to muster the diplomatic skill necessary for smooth and felicitous intercourse. Any friction, whether due to her stupidity or not, was a proof of his incompetence in the art of life . . .
“Everybody notices it!” The phrase pricked him. An exaggeration, of course! Still, a phrase that would not be dismissed by a superior curl of the lips. Maggie was not Clara, and she did not invent allegations. His fault! Yes, his fault! Beyond doubt he was occasionally gruff, he was churlish, he was porcupinish. He did not mean to be so — indeed he most honestly meant not to be so — but he was. He must change. He must turn over a new leaf. He wished it had been his own birthday, or, better still, the New Year, instead of his auntie’s birthday, so that he might have turned over a new leaf at once with due solemnity. He actually remembered a pious saw uttered over twenty years earlier by that wretch in a white tie who had damnably devised the Saturday afternoon Bible-class, a saw which he furiously scorned —“Every day begins a New Year.” Well, every day did begin a New Year! So did every minute. Why not begin a New Year then, in that minute? He had only to say in a cajoling, good-natured tone, “All right, all right! Keep your hair on, my child. I grovel!” He had only to say some such words, and the excellent, simple, unresentful Maggie would at once be appeased. It would be a demonstration of his moral strength to say them.
But he could not say them.
Nevertheless he did seriously determine to turn over a new leaf at the very next occasion. His eyes were now following the obituary of Parnell mechanically, without transmitting any message that his preoccupied brain would seize. He had been astonished to find that Parnell was only forty-five. He thought: “Why, at my age Parnell was famous — a great man and a power!” And there was he, Edwin, eating bacon and eggs opposite his sister in the humdrum dining-room at Bleakridge. But after all, what was the matter with the dining-room? It was not the dining-room that his father had left. He had altered and improved it to suit his own taste. He was free to do so, and he had done so. He was free in every way. The division of his father’s estate according to the will had proved unjust to himself; but he had not cared in the least. He had let Albert do as Albert and Clara pleased. In the settlement Maggie had taken the house (at a figure too high), and he paid her an adequate rent for it, while she in turn paid him for her board and lodging. They were all in clover, thanks to the terrible lifelong obstinacy of the little boy from the Bastille. And Edwin had had the business unburdened. It was not growing, but it brought in more than twice as much as he spent. Soon he would be as rich as either of the girls, and that without undue servitude. He bought books surpassing those books of Tom Orgreave which had once seemed so hopelessly beyond his reach. He went to the theatre. He went to concerts. He took holidays. He had been to London, and more than once. He had a few good friends. He was his own master. Nobody dreamed of saying him nay, and no bad habits held him in subjection. Everywhere he was treated with quite notable respect. Even when, partly from negligence, and partly to hide recurring pimples, he had allowed his beard to grow, Clara herself had not dared to titter. And although he suffered from certain disorders of the blood due to lack of exercise and to his condition, his health could not be called bad. The frequency of his colds had somewhat diminished. His career, which to others probably seemed dull and monotonous, presented itself to him as almost miraculously romantic in its development.
And withal he could uneasily ask himself, “Am I happy?” Maggie did not guess that, as he bent unseeing over his precious “Manchester Guardian,” he was thinking: “I must hold an inquisition upon my whole way of existence. I must see where I stand. If ever I am to be alive, I ought to be alive now. And I’m not at all sure whether I am.” Maggie never put such questions to herself. She went on in placidness from hour to hour, ruffled occasionally.
An unusual occurrence gave him the opportunity to turn over a new leaf immediately. The sounds of the front-door bell and of voices in the hall were followed by the proud entrance of Auntie Hamps herself into the dining-room.
“Now don’t disturb yourselves, please,” Mrs Hamps entreated. She often began with this phrase.
Maggie sprang up and kissed her, somewhat effusively for Maggie, and said in a quiet, restrained tone —
“Many happy returns of the day, auntie.”
Then Edwin rose, scraping his arm-chair backwards along the floor, and shook hands with her, and said with a guilty grin —
“A long life and a merry one, auntie!”
“Eh!” she exclaimed, falling back with a sigh of satisfaction into a chair by the table. “I’m sure everybody’s very kind. Will you believe me, those darling children of Clara’s were round at my house before eight o’clock this morning!”
“Is Amy’s cough better?” Maggie interjected, as she and Edwin sat down.
“Bless ye!” cried Auntie Hamps, “I was in such a fluster I forgot to ask the little toddler. But I didn’t hear her cough. I do hope it is. October’s a bad time for coughs to begin. I ought to have asked. But I’m getting an old woman.”
“We were just arguing whether you were thirty-eight or thirty-nine, auntie,” said Edwin.
“What a tease he is — with his beard!” she archly retorted. “Well, your old aunt is sixty this day.”
“Sixty!” the nephew and niece repeated together in astonishment.
Auntie Hamps nodded.
“You’re the finest sixty I ever saw!” said Edwin, with unaffected admiration.
And she was fine. The pride in her eye as she made the avowal — probably the first frank avowal of her age that had passed those lips for thirty years — was richly justified. With her clear, rosy complexion, her white regular teeth, her straight spine, her plump figure, her brilliant gaze, her rapid gestures, and that authentic hair of hers falling in Victorian curls, she offered to the world a figure that no one could regard without a physical pleasure and stimulation. And she was so shiningly correct in her black silk and black velvet, and in the massive jet at her throat, and in the slenderness of her shoe! It was useless to recall her duplicities, her mendacities, her hypocrisies, her meannesses. At any rate she could be generous at moments, and the splendour of her vitality sometimes, as now, hid all her faults. She would confess to aches and pains like other folk, bouts of rheumatism for example — but the high courage of her body would not deign to ratify such miserable statements; it haughtily repelled the touch of time; it kept at least the appearance of victory. If you did not like Auntie Hamps willingly, in her hours of bodily triumph, you had to like her unwillingly. Both Edwin and Maggie had innumerable grievances against her, but she held their allegiance, and even their warm instinctive affection, on the morning of her sixtieth birthday. She had been a lone widow ever since Edwin could remember, and yet she had continued to bloom. Nothing could desiccate nor wither her. Even her sins did not find her out. God and she remained always on the best terms, and she thrived on insincerity.
“There’s a little parcel for you, auntie,” said Edwin, with a particular effort to make his voice soft and agreeable. “But it’s in Manchester. It won’t be here till tomorrow. My fault entirely! You know how awful I am for putting off things.”
“We quite expected it would be here today,” said the loyal Maggie, when most sisters — and Clara assuredly — would have said in an eager, sarcastic tone: “Yes, it’s just like Edwin, and yet I reminded him I don’t know how many times!” (Edwin felt with satisfaction that the new leaf was already turned. He was glad that he had said ‘My fault entirely.’ He now said to himself: “Maggie’s all right, and so am I. I must keep this up. Perfect nonsense, people hinting that she and I can’t get on together!”)
“Please, please!” Auntie Hamps entreated. “Don’t talk about parcels!” And yet they knew that if they had not talked about a parcel the ageing lady would have been seriously wounded. “All I want is your love. You children are all I have now. And if you knew how proud I am of you all, seeing you all so nice and good, and respected in the town, and Clara’s little darlings beginning to run about, and such strong little things. If only your poor mother —!”
Impossible not to be impressed by those accents! Edwin and Maggie might writhe under Auntie Hamps’s phraseology; they might remember the most horrible examples of her cant. In vain! They were impressed. They had to say to themselves: “There’s something very decent about her, after all.”
Auntie Hamps looked from one to the other, and at the quiet opulence of the breakfast-table, and the spacious solidities of the room. Admiration and respect were in that eye, always too masculine to weep under emotion. Undoubtedly she was proud of her nephew and nieces. And had she not the right to be? The bearded Edwin, one of the chief tradesmen in the town, and so fond of books, such a reader, and so quiet in his habits! And the two girls, with nice independent fortunes: Clara so fruitful and so winning, and Maggie so dependable, so kind! Auntie Hamps had scarce anything else to wish for. Her ideals were fulfilled. Undoubtedly since the death of Darius her attitude towards his children had acquired even a certain humility.
“Shall you be in tomorrow morning, auntie?” Maggie asked, in the constrained silence that followed Mrs Hamps’s protestations.
“Yes, I shall,” said Mrs Hamps, with assurance. “I shall be mending curtains.”
“Well, then, I shall call. About eleven.” Maggie turned to Edwin benevolently. “It won’t be too soon if I pop in at the shop a little before eleven?”
“No,” said Edwin with equal benevolence. “It’s not often Sutton’s delivery is after ten. That’ll be all right. I’ll have it unpacked.”
He lit a cigarette.
“Have one?” he suggested to Mrs Hamps, holding out the case.
“I shall give you a rap over the knuckles in a minute,” smiled Mrs Hamps, who was now leaning an elbow on the table in easy intimacy. And she went on in a peculiar tone, low, mysterious, and yet full of vivacity: “I can’t quite make out who that little nephew is that Janet Orgreave is taking about.”
“Little nephew that Janet’s taking about!” murmured Maggie, in surprise; and to Edwin, “Do you know?”
Edwin shook his head. “When?” he asked.
“Well, this morning,” said Mrs Hamps. “I met them as I was coming up. She was on one side of the road, and the child was on the other — just opposite Howson’s. My belief is she’d lost all control over the little jockey. Oh! A regular little jockey! You could see that at once. ‘Now, George, come along,’ she called to him. And then he shouted, ‘I want you to come on this side, auntie.’ Of course I couldn’t stop to see it out. She was so busy with him she only just moved to me.”
“George? George?” Maggie consulted her memory. “How old was he, about?”
“Seven or eight, I should say.”
“Well, it couldn’t be one of Tom’s children. Nor Alicia’s.”
“No,” said Auntie Hamps. “And I always understood that the eldest daughter’s — what’s her name?”
“Marian’s were all girls.”
“I believe they are. Aren’t they, Edwin?”
“How can I tell?” said Edwin. It was a marvel to him how his auntie collected her information. Neither she nor Clara had ever been in the slightest degree familiar with the Orgreaves, and Maggie, so far as he knew, was not a gossiper. He thought he perceived, however, the explanation of Mrs Hamps’s visit. She had encountered in the street a phenomenon which would not harmonise with facts of her own knowledge, and the discrepancy had disturbed her to such an extent that she had been obliged to call in search of relief. There was that, and there was also her natural inclination to show herself off on her triumphant sixtieth birthday.
“Charles Orgreave isn’t married, is he?” she inquired.
“No,” said Maggie.
Silence fell upon this enigma of Janet’s entirely unaccountable nephew.
“Charlie may be married,” said Edwin humorously, at length. “You never know! It’s a funny world! I suppose you’ve seen,” he looked particularly at his auntie, “that your friend Parnell’s dead?”
She affected to be outraged.
“I’ve seen that Parnell is dead,” she rebuked him, with solemn quietness. “I saw it on a poster as I came up. I don’t want to be uncharitable, but it was the best thing he could do. I do hope we’ve heard the last of all this Home Rule now!”
Like many people Mrs Hamps was apparently convinced that the explanation of Parnell’s scandalous fall and of his early death was to be found in the inherent viciousness of the Home Rule cause, and also that the circumstances of his end were a proof that Home Rule was cursed of God. She reasoned with equal power forwards and backwards. And she was so earnest and so dignified that Edwin was sneaped into silence. Once more he could not keep from his face a look that seemed to apologise for his opinions. And all the heroic and passionate grandeur of Parnell’s furious career shrivelled up to mere sordidness before the inability of one narrow-minded and ignorant but vigorous woman to appreciate its quality. Not only did Edwin feel apologetic for himself, but also for Parnell. He wished he had not tried to be funny about Parnell; he wished he had not mentioned him. The brightness of the birthday was for an instant clouded.
“I don’t know what’s coming over things!” Auntie Hamps murmured sadly, staring out of the window at the street gay with October sun shine. “What with that! And what with those terrible baccarat scandals. And now there’s this free education, that we ratepayers have to pay for. They’ll be giving the children of the working classes free meals next!” she added, with remarkably intelligent anticipation.
“Oh well! Never mind!” Edwin soothed her.
She gazed at him in loving reproach. And he felt guilty because he only went to chapel about once in two months, and even then from sheer moral cowardice.
“Can you give me those measurements, Maggie?” Mrs Hamps asked suddenly. “I’m on my way to Brunt’s.”
The women left the room together. Edwin walked idly to the window. After all, he had been perhaps wrong concerning the motive of her visit. The next moment he caught sight of Janet and the unaccountable nephew, breasting the hill from Bursley, hand in hand.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51