“What was that telegram you had this afternoon, Hilda?”
The question was on Edwin’s tongue as he walked up Acre Lane from the works by his wife’s side. But it did not achieve utterance. A year had passed since he last walked up Acre Lane with Hilda; and now of course he recalled the anger of that previous promenade. In the interval he had acquired to some extent the habit of containing his curiosity and his criticism. In the interval he had triumphed, but Hilda also had consolidated her position, so that despite the increase of his prestige she was still his equal; she seemed to take strength from him in order to maintain the struggle against him.
During the final half-hour at the works the great, the enormous problem in his mind had been — not whether such and such a plan of action for Janet’s welfare in a very grave crisis would be advisable, but whether he should demand an explanation from Hilda of certain disquieting phenomena in her boudoir. In the excitement of his indecision Janet’s tragic case scarcely affected his sensibility. For about twelve months Hilda had, he knew, been intermittently carrying on a correspondence as to which she had said no word to him; she did not precisely conceal it, but she failed to display it. Lately, so far as his observation went, it had ceased. And then today he had caught sight of an orange telegraph-envelope in her wastepaper basket. Alone in the boudoir, and glancing back cautiously and guiltily at the door, he had picked up the little ball of paper and smoothed it out, and read the words: “Mrs. Edwin Clayhanger.” In those days the wives of even prominent business men did not customarily receive such a rain of telegrams that the delivery of a telegram would pass unmentioned and be forgotten. On the contrary, the delivery of a telegram was an event in a woman’s life. The telegram which he had detected might have been innocently negligible, in forty different ways. It might, for example, have been from Janet, or about a rehearsal of the Choral Society, or from a tradesman at Oldcastle, or about rooms at the seaside. But supposing that it was not innocently negligible? Supposing that she was keeping a secret? . . . What secret? What conceivable secret? He could conceive no secret. Yes, he could conceive a secret. He had conceived and did conceive a secret, and his private thoughts elaborated it. . . . He had said to himself at the works: “I may ask her as we go home. I shall see.” But, out in the street, with the disturbing sense of her existence over his shoulder, he knew that he should not ask her. Partly timidity and partly pride kept him from asking. He knew that, as a wise husband, he ought to ask. He knew that commonsense was not her strongest quality, and that by diffidence he might be inviting unguessed future trouble; but he would not ask. In the great, passionate war of marriage they would draw thus apart, defensive and watchful, rushing together at intervals either to fight or to kiss. The heat of their kisses had not cooled; but to him at any rate the kisses often seemed intensely illogical; for, though he regarded himself as an improving expert in the science of life, he had not yet begun to perceive that those kisses were the only true logic of their joint career.
He was conscious of grievances against her as they walked up Acre Lane, but instead of being angrily resentful, he was content judicially to register the grievances as further corroboration of his estimate of her character. They were walking up Acre Lane solely because Hilda was Hilda. A year ago they had walked up Acre Lane in order that Edwin might call at the shop. But Acre Lane was by no means on the shortest way from Shawport to Bleakridge. Hilda, however, on emerging from the works, full of trouble concerning Janet, had suddenly had the beautiful idea of buying some fish for tea. In earlier days he would have said: “How accidental you are! What would have happened to our tea if you hadn’t been down here, or if you hadn’t by chance thought of fish?” He would have tried to show her that her activities were not based in the principles of reason, and that even the composition of meals ought not to depend upon the hazard of an impulse. Now, wiser, he said not a word. He resigned himself in silence to an extra three-quarters of a mile of walking. In such matters, where her deep instinctiveness came into play, she had established over him a definite ascendancy.
Then another grievance was that she had sent George to Hanbridge, knowing that George, according to a solemn family engagement, ought to have been at the works. She was conscienceless. A third grievance, naturally, was her behaviour to Ingpen. And a fourth came back again to George. Why had she sent George to Hanbridge at all? Was it not to despatch a telegram which she was afraid to submit to the inquisitiveness of the Post Office at Bursley? A daring supposition, but plausible; and if correct, of what duplicity was she not guilty! The mad, shameful episode of Johnnie Orgreave, the awful dilemma of Janet — colossal affairs though they were — interested him less and less as he grew more and more preoccupied with his relations to Hilda. And he thought, not caring:
“Something terrific will occur between us, one of these days.”
And then his bravado would turn to panic.
They passed along Wedgwood Street, and Hilda preceded him into the chief poulterer-and-fishmonger’s. Here was another slight grievance of Edwin’s; for the chief poulterer-and-fishmonger’s happened now to be the Clayhanger shop at the corner of Wedgwood Street and Duck Bank. Positively there had been competitors for the old location! Why should Hilda go there and drag him there? Could she not comprehend that he had a certain fine delicacy about entering? . . . The place where the former sign had been was plainly visible on the brickwork above the shop-front. Rabbits, fowl, and a few brace of grouse hung in the right-hand window, from which most of the glass had been removed; and in the left, upon newly-embedded slabs of Sicilian marble, lay amid ice the curved forms of many fish, and behind them was the fat white-sleeved figure of the chief poulterer-and-fishmonger’s wife with her great, wet hands. He was sad. He seriously thought yet again: “Things are not what they were in this town, somehow.” For this place had once been a printer’s; and he had a conviction that printing was an aristocrat among trades. Indeed, could printing and fishmongering be compared?
The saleswoman greeted them with deference, calling Edwin “sir,” and yet with a certain complacent familiarity, as an occupant to exoccupants. Edwin casually gave the short shake of the head which in the district may signify “Good-day,” and turned, humming, to look at the hanging game. It seemed to him that he could only keep his dignity as a man of the world by looking at the grouse with a connoisseur’s eye. Why didn’t Hilda buy grouse? The shop was a poor little interior. It smelt ill. He wondered what the upper rooms were like, and what had happened to the decrepit building at the end of the yard. The saleswoman slapped the fish about on the marble, and running water could be heard.
“Edwin,” said Hilda, with enchanting sweetness and simplicity, “would you like hake or turbot, dear?”
Impossible to divine from her voice that the ruin of their two favourite Orgreaves was complete, that she was conducting a secret correspondence, and that she had knowingly and deliberately offended her husband!
Both women waited, moveless, for the decision, as for an august decree.
When the transaction was finished, the saleswoman handed over the parcel into Hilda’s gloved hands; it was a rough-and-ready parcel, not at all like the neat stiff paper-bag of the modern age.
“Very hot, isn’t it, ma’am?” said the saleswoman.
And Hilda, utterly distinguished in gesture and tone, replied with calm, impartial urbanity:
“Very. Good afternoon.”
“I’d better take that thing,” said Edwin outside, in spite of himself.
She gave up the parcel to him.
“Tell cook to fry it,” said Hilda. “She always fries better than she boils.”
“‘Tell cook to fry it.’ What’s up now?” His tone challenged.
“I must go over and see Janet at once. I shall take the next car.”
He lifted the end of his nose in disgust. There was no end to the girl’s caprices.
“Why at once?” the superior male demanded. Disdain and resentment were in his voice. Hundreds of times, when alone, he had decided that he would never use that voice — first, because it was unworthy of a philosopher, second, because it never achieved any good result, and third, because it often did harm. Yet he would use it. The voice had an existence and a volition of its own within his being; he marvelled that the essential mechanism of life should be so clumsy and inefficient. He heard the voice come out, and yet was not displeased, was indeed rather pleasantly excited. A new grievance had been created for him; he might have ignored it, just as he might ignore a solitary cigarette lying in his cigarette case. Both cigarettes and grievances were bad for him. But he could not ignore them. The last cigarette in the case magnetised him. Useless to argue with himself that he had already smoked more than enough — the cigarette had to emerge from the case and be burnt; and the grievance too was irresistible. In an instant he had it between his teeth and was darkly enjoying it. Of course Hilda’s passionate pity for Janet was a fine thing. Granted! But therein was no reason why she should let it run away with her. The worst of these capricious, impulsive creatures was that they could never do anything fine without an enormous fuss and upset. What possible difference would it make whether Hilda went to break the news of disaster to Janet at once or in an hour’s time? The mere desire to protect and assuage could not properly furnish an excuse for unnecessarily dislocating a household and depriving oneself of food. On the contrary, it was wiser and more truly kind to take one’s meals regularly in a crisis. But Hilda would never appreciate that profound truth — never, never!
Moreover, it was certain that Johnnie had written to Janet.
“I feel I must go at once,” said Hilda.
He spoke with more marked scorn:
“And what about your tea?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter about my tea.”
“Of course it matters about your tea. If you have your tea quietly, you’ll find the end of the world won’t have come, and you can go and see Janet just the same, and the whole house won’t have been turned upside down.”
She put her lips together and smiled mysteriously, saying nothing. The racket of the Hanbridge and Knype steam-car could be heard behind them. She did not turn her head. The car overtook them, and then stopped a few yards in front. But she did not hail the conductor. The car went onwards.
He had won. His argument had been so convincing that she could not help being convinced. It was too powerful for even her obstinacy, which as a rule successfully defied any argument whatever.
Did he smile and forgive? Did he extend to her the blessing of his benevolence? No. He could not have brought himself to such a point. After all, she had done nothing to earn approval; she had simply refrained from foolishness. She had had to be reminded of considerations which ought ever to have been present in her brain. Doubtless she thought that he was hard, that he was incapable of her divine pity for Janet. But that was only because she could not imagine a combination of emotional generosity and calm commonsense; and she never would be able to imagine it. Hence she would always be unjust to him.
When they arrived home, she was still smiling mysteriously to herself. She did not take her hat off — sign of disturbance! He moved with careful tranquillity through the ritual that preceded tea. He could feel her in the house, ordering it, softening it, civilising it. He could smell the fish. He could detect the subservience of Ada to her mistress’s serious mood. He went into the dining-room. Ada followed him with a tray of hot things. Hilda followed Ada. Then George entered, cleaner than ordinary. Edwin savoured deeply the functioning of his home. And his wife had yielded. Her instinct had compelled her not to neglect him; his sagacity had mastered her. In her heart she must admire his sagacity, whatever she said or looked, and her unreasoning passion for him was still the paramount force in her vitality.
“Now, are you two all right?” said Hilda, when she had poured out the tea, and Edwin was carving the fish.
Edwin glanced up.
“I don’t want any tea,” she said. “I couldn’t touch it.”
She bent and kissed George, took her gloves from the sideboard, and left the house, the mysterious smile still on her face.
Edwin controlled his vexation at this dramatic move. It was only slight, and he had to play the serene omniscient to George. Further, the attractive food helped to make him bland.
“Didn’t you know your mother had to go out?” said Edwin, with astounding guile.
“Yes, she told me upstairs,” George murmured, “while she was washing me. She said she had to go and see Auntie Janet again.”
The reply was a blow to Edwin. She had said nothing to him, but she had told the boy. Still, his complacency was not overset. Boy and stepfather began to talk, with the mingled freedom and constraint practised by males accustomed to the presence of a woman, when the woman is absent. Each was aware of the stress of a novel, mysterious, and grave situation. Each also thought of the woman, and each knew that the other was thinking of the woman. Each, over a serious apprehension, seemed to be lightly saying: “It’s rather fun to be without her for a bit. But we must be able to rely on her return.” Nothing stood between them and domestic discomfort. Possible stupidity in the kitchen had no check. As regards the mere household machine, they had a ridiculous and amusing sense of distant danger.
Edwin had to get up in order to pour out more tea. He reckoned that he could both make tea and pour it out with more exactitude than his wife, who often forgot to put the milk in first. But he could not pour it out with the same grace. His brain, not his heart, poured the tea out. He left the tray in disorder. The symmetry of the table was soon wrecked.
“Glad you’re going back to school, I suppose?” said Edwin satirically.
George nodded. He was drinking, and he glanced at Edwin over the rim of the cup. He had grown much in twelve months, and was more than twelve months older. Edwin was puzzled by the almost sudden developments of his intelligence. Sometimes the boy was just like a young man; his voice had become a little uncertain. He still showed the greatest contempt for his fingernails, but he had truly discovered the toothbrush, and was preaching it at school among a population that scoffed yet was impressed.
“Yes, I’m glad,” he answered.
“Oh! You’re glad, are you?”
“Well, I’m glad in a way. A boy does have to go to school, doesn’t he, uncle? And the sooner it’s over the better. I tell you what I should like — I should like to go to school night and day and have no holidays till it was all done. I sh’d think you could save at least three years with that.”
“A bit hard on the masters, wouldn’t it be?”
“I never thought of that. Of course it would never be over for them. I expect they’d gradually die.”
“Then you don’t like school?”
George shook his head.
“Did you like school, uncle?”
Edwin shook his head. They both laughed.
“Uncle, can I leave school when I’m sixteen?”
“I’ve told you once.”
“Yes, I know. But did you mean it? People change so.”
“I told you you could leave school when you’re sixteen if you pass the London Matric.”
“But what good’s the London Matric to an architect? Mr. Orgreave says it isn’t any good, anyway.”
“When did he tell you that?”
“But not so long since you were all for being a stock-breeder!”
“Ah! I was only pretending to myself!” George smiled.
“Well, fetch me my cigarettes off the mantelpiece in the drawing-room.”
The boy ran off, eager to serve, and Edwin’s glance followed him with affection. George’s desire to be an architect had consistently strengthened, save during a brief period when the Show of the North Staffordshire Agricultural Society, held with much splendour at Hanbridge, had put another idea into his noddle — an idea that fed itself richly on glorious bulls and other prize cattle for about a week, and then expired. Indeed, already it had been in a kind of way arranged that the youth should ultimately be articled to Johnnie Orgreave. Among many consequences of Johnnie’s defiance to society would probably be the quashing of that arrangement. And there was Johnnie, on the eve of his elopement, chatting to George about the futility of the London Matriculation! Edwin wondered how George would gradually learn what had happened to his friend and inspirer, John Orgreave.
He arrived with the cigarettes, and offered them, and lit the match, and offered that.
“And what have you been doing with yourself all afternoon?” Edwin enquired, between puffs of smoke.
“Oh, nothing much!”
“I thought you were coming to the works and then going down to Auntie Clara’s for tea.”
“So I was. But mother sent me to Hanbridge.”
“Oh,” murmured Edwin casually. “So your mother packed you off to Hanbridge, did she?”
“I had to go to the Post Office,” George continued. “I think it was a telegram, but it was in an envelope, and some money.”
“Indeed!” said Edwin, with a very indifferent air.
He was, however, so affected that he jumped up abruptly from the table, and went into the darkening, chill garden, ignoring George. George, accustomed to these sudden accessions of interest and these sudden forgettings, went unperturbed his ways.
About half past eight Hilda returned. Edwin was closing the curtains in the drawing-room. The gas had been lighted.
“Johnnie has evidently written to Alicia,” she burst out somewhat breathless. “Because Alicia’s telegraphed to Janet that she must positively go straight down there and stay with them when she leaves the Home.”
“What, on Dartmoor?” Edwin muttered, in a strange voice. The very word “Dartmoor” made him shake.
“It isn’t actually on the moor,” said Hilda. “And so I shall take her down myself. I’ve told her all about things. She wasn’t a bit surprised. They’re a strange lot.”
She tried to speak quite naturally, but he knew that she was not succeeding. Their eyes would not meet. Edwin thought:
“How far away we are from this morning!” Hazard and fate, like converging armies, seemed to be closing upon him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51