Hilda and Harry Hesketh stood together in the soft warm Devonshire sunshine bending above the foot-high wire-netting that separated the small ornamental pond from the lawn. By their side was a St. Bernard dog with his great baptising tongue hanging out. Two swans, glittering in the strong light, swam slowly to and fro; one had a black claw tucked up on his back among downy white feathers; the other hissed at the dog, who in his vast and shaggy good-nature simply could not understand this malevolence on the part of a fellow-creature. Round about the elegant haughtiness of the swans clustered a number of iridescent Muscovy ducks, and a few white Aylesburys with gamboge beaks that intermittently quacked, all restless and expectant of blessings to fall over the wire-netting that eternally separated them from the heavenly hunting-ground of the lawn. Across the pond, looking into a moored dinghy, an enormous drake with a vermilion top-knot reposed on the balustrade of the landing-steps. The water reflected everything in a rippled medley — blue sky, rounded woolly clouds, birds, shrubs, flowers, grasses, and browny-olive depths of the plantation beyond the pond, where tiny children in white were tumbling and shrieking with a nurse in white.
Harry was extraordinarily hospitable, kind, and agreeable to his guest. Scarcely thirty, tall and slim, he carried himself with distinction. His flannels were spotless; his white shirt was spotless; his tennis shoes were spotless; but his blazer, cap and necktie (which all had the same multicoloured pattern of stripes) were shabby, soiled, and without shape; nevertheless their dilapidation seemed only to adorn his dandyism, for they possessed a mysterious sacred quality. He had a beautiful moustache, nice eyes, hands excitingly dark with hair, and no affectations whatever. Although he had inherited Tavy Mansion and a fortune from an aunt who had left Oldcastle and the smoke to marry a Devonshire landowner, he was boyish, modest, and ingenuous. Nobody could have guessed from his manner that he had children, nurses, servants, gardeners, grooms, horses, carriages, a rent-roll, and a safe margin at every year’s end. He spoke of the Five Towns with a mild affection. Hilda thought, looking at him: “He has everything, simply everything! And yet he’s quite unspoilt!” In spite of the fact that in previous years he had seen Hilda only a few times — and that quite casually at the Orgreaves’— he had assumed and established intimacy at the very moment of meeting her and Janet at Tavistock station the night before, and their friendship might now have been twenty years old instead of twenty hours. Very obviously he belonged to a class superior to Hilda’s, but he was apparently quite unconscious of what was still the most deeply-rooted and influential institution of English life. His confiding confidential tone flattered her.
“How do you think Alicia’s looking?” he asked.
“Magnificent,” said Hilda, throwing a last piece of bread into the water.
“So do I,” said he. “But she’s ruined for tennis, you know. This baby business is spiffing, only it puts you right off your game. As a rule she manages to be hors de combat bang in the middle of the season. She has been able to play a bit this year, but she’s not keen — that’s what’s up with her ladyship — she’s not keen now.”
“Well,” said Hilda. “Even you can’t have everything.”
“Why ‘even’ me?” He laughed.
She merely gazed at him with a mysterious smile. She perceived that he was admiring her — probably for her enigmatic quality, so different from Alicia’s — and she felt a pleasing self-content.
“Edwin do much tennis nowadays?”
“Edwin?” She repeated the name in astonishment, as though it were the name of somebody who could not possibly be connected with tennis. “Not he! He’s not touched a racket all this season. He’s quite otherwise employed.”
“I hear he’s a fearful pot in the Five Towns, anyway,” said Harry seriously. “Making money hand over fist.”
Hilda raised her eyebrows and shook her head deprecatingly. But the marked respectfulness of Harry’s reference to Edwin was agreeable. She thought: “I do believe I’m becoming a snob!”
“It’s hard work making money, even in our small way, in Bursley,” she said — and seemed to indicate the expensive spaciousness of the gardens.
“I should like to see old Edwin again.”
“I never knew you were friends.”
“Well, I used to see him pretty often at Lane End House, after Alicia and I were engaged. In fact once he jolly nearly beat me in a set.”
“Edwin did?” she exclaimed.
“The same. . . . He had a way of saying things that a feller somehow thought about afterwards.”
“Oh! So you noticed that!”
“Does he still?”
“I— I don’t know. But he used to.”
“You ought to have brought him. In fact I quite thought he was coming. Anyhow, I told Alicia to invite him, too, as soon as we knew you were bringing old Jan down.”
“She did mention it, Alicia did. But, oh! He wouldn’t hear of it. Works! Works! No holiday all summer.”
“I’ll tell you a scheme,” said Harry roguishly. “Refuse to rejoin the domestic hearth until he comes and fetches you.”
She gave a little laugh. “Oh, he won’t come to fetch me.”
“Well,” said Harry shortly and decisively, “we shall see what can be done. I may tell you we’re rather great at getting people down here. . . . I wonder where those girls are?” He turned round and Hilda turned round.
The red Georgian house with its windows in octagonal panes, its large pediment hiding the centre of the roof, and its white paint, showed brilliantly across the hoop-studded green, between some cypresses and an ilex; on either side were smooth walls of green — trimmed shrubs forming long alleys whose floors were also green; and here and there a round or oval flowerbed, and, at the edges of the garden, curved borders of flowers. Everything was still, save the ship-like birds on the pond, the distant children in the plantation, and the slow-moving, small clouds overhead. The sun’s warmth was like an endearment.
Janet and Alicia, their arms round each other’s shoulders, sauntered into view from behind the cypresses. On the more sheltered lawn nearest the house they were engaged in a quiet but tremendous palaver; nobody but themselves knew what they were talking about; it might have been the affair of Johnnie and Mrs. Chris Hamson, as to which not a word had been publicly said at Tavy Mansion since Janet and Hilda’s arrival. Janet still wore black, and now she carried a red sunshade belonging to Alicia. Alicia was in white, not very clean white, and rather tousled. She was only twenty-five. She had grown big and jolly and downright (even to a certain shamelessness) and careless of herself. Her body had the curves, and her face the emaciation, of the young mother. She used abrupt, gawky, kind-hearted gestures. Her rough affectionateness embraced not merely her children, but all young living things, and many old. For her children she had a passion. And she would say openly, as it were, defiantly, that she meant to be the mother of more children — lots more.
“Hey, lass!” cried out Harry, using the broad Staffordshire accent for the amusement of Hilda.
The sisters stopped and untwined their arms.
“Hey, lad!” Alicia loudly responded. But instead of looking at her husband she was looking through him at the babies in the plantation behind the pond.
Janet smiled, in her everlasting resignation. Hilda, smiling at her in return from the distance, recalled the tone in which Harry had said ‘old Jan’— a tone at once affectionate and half-contemptuous. She was old Jan, now; destined to be a burden upon somebody and of very little use to anybody; no longer necessary. If she disappeared, life would immediately close over her, and not a relative, not a friend, would be inconvenienced. Some among them would remark: “Perhaps it’s for the best.” And Janet knew it. In the years immediately preceding the death of Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave, she had hardened a little from her earlier soft, benevolent self — hardened to everybody save her father and mother, whom she protected — and now she was utterly tender again, and her gentle acquiescences seemed to say: “I am defenceless, and tomorrow I shall be old.”
“I’m going to telegraph to Edwin Clayhanger to come down for the week-end,” shouted Harry.
And Alicia shouted in reply:
Hilda said nervously:
“You aren’t, really?”
She had no intention of agreeing to the pleasant project. A breach definitely existed between Edwin and herself, and the idea of either maintaining it or ending it on foreign ground was inconceivable. Such things could only be done at home. She had telegraphed a safe arrival, but she had not yet written to him nor decided in what tone she should write.
Two gardeners, one pushing a wheeled water-can, appeared from an alley and began silently and assiduously to water a shaded flower-bed. Alicia and Harry continued to shout enthusiastically to each other in a manner sufficiently disturbing, but the gardeners gave no sign that anybody except themselves lived in the garden. Alicia, followed by Janet, was slowly advancing towards the croquet lawn, when a parlourmaid tripping from the house overtook her, and with modest deference murmured something to the bawling, jolly mistress. Alicia, still followed by Janet, turned and went into the house, while the parlourmaid with bent head waited discreetly to bring up the rear.
A sudden and terrific envy possessed Hilda as she contrasted the circumstances of these people with her own. These people lived in lovely and cleanly surroundings without a care beyond the apprehension of nursery ailments. They had joyous and kindly dispositions. They were well-bred, and they were attended by servants who, professionally, were even better bred than themselves, and who were rendered happy by smooth words and good pay. They lived at peace with everyone. Full of health, they ate well and slept well. They suffered no strain. They had absolutely no problems, and they did not seek problems. Nor had they any duties, save agreeable ones to each other. Their world was ideal. If you had asked them how their world could be improved for them, they would not have found an easy reply. They could only have demanded less taxes and more fine days. . . . Whereas Hilda and hers were forced to live among a brutal populace, amid the most horrible surroundings of smoke, dirt, and squalor. In Devonshire the Five Towns was unthinkable; the whiteness of the window-curtains at Tavy Mansion almost broke the heart of the housewife in Hilda. And compare — not Hilda’s handkerchief-garden, but even the old garden of the Orgreaves, with this elysium, where nothing offended the eye and the soot nowhere lay on the trees, blackening the shiny leaves and stunting the branches. And compare the too mean planning and space-saving of the house in Trafalgar Road with the lavish generosity of space inside Tavy Mansion! . . .
Edwin in the Bursley sense was a successful man, and had consequence in the town, but the most that he had accomplished or could accomplish would not amount to the beginning of appreciable success according to higher standards. Nobody in Bursley really knew the meaning of the word success. And even such local success as Edwin had had — at what peril and with what worry was it won! These Heskeths were safe forever. Ah! She envied them, and she intensely depreciated everything that was hers. She stood in the Tavy Mansion garden — it seemed to her — like an impostor. Her husband was merely struggling upwards. And moreover she had quarrelled with him, darkly and obscurely; and who could guess what would be the end of marriage? Harry and Alicia never quarrelled; they might have tiffs — nothing worse than that; they had no grounds for quarrelling. . . . And supposing Harry and Alicia guessed the link connecting her with Dartmoor prison! . . . No, it could not be supposed. Her envy melted into secret deep dejection amid the beautiful and prosperous scene.
“Evidently some one’s called,” said Harry, of his wife’s disappearance. “I hope she’s nice.”
“Whoever’s called. Shall we knock the balls about a bit?”
They began a mild game of croquet. But after a few minutes Hilda burst out sharply:
“You aren’t playing your best, Mr. Hesketh. I wish you would.”
He was startled by her eyes and her tone.
“Honest Injun! I am,” he fibbed in answer. “But I’ll try to do better. You must remember croquet isn’t my game. Alicia floors me at it five times out of six.”
Then the parlourmaid and another maid came out to lay tea on two tables under the ilex.
“Bowley,” said Harry over his shoulder. “Bring me a telegraph-form next time you come out, will you?”
“Yes, sir,” said the parlourmaid.
“No, Mr. Hesketh! Really! I assure you —”
The telegraph-form came with the tea. Harry knocked a ball against a coloured stick, and both he and Hilda sat down with relief.
“Who’s called, Bowley?”
“Mrs. Rotherwas, sir.”
Harry counted the cups.
“Isn’t she staying for tea?”
“No, sir. I think not, sir.”
Hilda, humming, rose and walked about. At the same moment Alicia, Janet, and a tall young woman in black and yellow emerged from the house. Hilda moved behind a tree. She could hear good-byes. The group vanished round the side of the house, and then came the sound of hoofs and of wheels crunching. An instant later Alicia arrived at the ilex, bounding and jolly; Janet moved more sedately. The St. Bernard, who had been reposing near the pond, now smelt the tea and hot cakes and joined the party. The wagging of his powerful tail knocked over a wicker-chair, and Alicia gave a squeal. Then Alicia, putting her hands to her mouth, shouted across the lawn and the pond:
“Nursey! Nursey! Take them in!”
And a faint reply came.
“What was the Rotherwas dame after?” asked Harry, sharpening a pencil, when Alicia had ascertained the desires of her guests as to milk and sugar.
“She was after you, of course,” said Alicia. “Tennis party on Monday. She wants you to balance young Truscott. I just told her so. We shall all go. You’ll go, Hilda. She’ll be delighted. I should have brought her along only she was in such a hurry.”
“Who is Mrs. Rotherwas?”
“Her husband’s a big coal-owner at Cardiff. But she’s a niece or something of the governor of Dartmoor prison, and she’s apparently helping to keep house for dear uncle just now. They’ll take us over the prison before tennis. It’s awfully interesting. Harry and I have been once.”
“Oh!” murmured Hilda, staggered.
“Now about this ’ere woire,” said Harry. “What price this?” He handed over the message which he had just composed. It was rather long, and on the form was left space for only two more words.
Hilda could not decipher it. She saw the characters with her eyes, but she was incapable of interpreting them. All the time she thought:
“I shall go to that prison. I can’t help it. I shan’t be able to keep from going. I shall go to that prison. I must go. Who could have imagined this? I am bound to go, and I shall go.”
But instead of objecting totally to the despatch of the telegram, she said in a strange voice:
“It’s very nice of you.”
“You fill up the rest of the form,” said Harry, offering the pencil.
“What must I put?”
“Well, you’d better put ‘Countersigned, Hilda.’ That’ll fix it.”
“Will you write it?” she muttered.
He wrote the words.
“Let poor mummy see!” Alicia complained, seizing the telegraph-form.
Harry called out:
A shirt-sleeved gardener half hidden by foliage across the garden looked up sharply, saw Harry’s beckoning finger, and approached running.
“Have that sent off for me, will you? Tell Jos to take it,” said Harry, and gave Leeks the form and a florin.
“Why, Hilda, you aren’t eating anything!” protested Alicia.
“I only want tea,” said Hilda casually, wondering whether they had noticed anything wrong in her face.
Edwin, looking curiously out of the carriage-window as the train from Plymouth entered Tavistock station early on the Monday, was surprised to perceive Harry Hesketh on the platform. While, in the heavenly air of the September morning, the train was curving through Bickleigh Vale and the Valley of the Plym and through the steeper valley of the Meavy up towards the first fastnesses of the Moor, he had felt his body to be almost miraculously well and his soul almost triumphant. But when he saw Harry — the remembered figure, but a little stouter and coarser — he saw a being easily more triumphant than himself.
Harry had great reason for triumph, for he had proved himself to possess a genius for deductive psychological reasoning and for prophecy. Edwin had been characteristically vague about the visit. First he had telegraphed that he could not come, business preventing. Then he had telegraphed that he would come, but only on Sunday, and he had given no particulars of trains. They had all assured one another that this was just like Edwin. “The man’s mad!” said Harry with genial benevolence, and had set himself to one of his favourite studies — Bradshaw. He always handled Bradshaw like a master, accomplishing feats of interpretation that amazed his wife. He had announced, after careful connotations, that Edwin was perhaps after all not such a chump, but that he was in fact a chump, in that, having chosen the Bristol–Plymouth route, he had erred about the Sunday night train from Plymouth to Tavistock. How did he know that Edwin would choose the Bristol–Plymouth route? Well, his knowledge was derived from divination, based upon vast experience of human nature. Edwin would “get stuck” at Plymouth. He would sleep at Plymouth — staying at the Royal (he hoped)— and would come on by the 8.1 a.m. on Monday, arriving at 8.59 a.m., where he would be met by Harry in the dog-cart drawn by Joan. The telegraph was of course closed after 10 a.m. on Sunday, but if it had been open and he had been receiving hourly despatches about Edwin’s tortuous progress through England, Harry could not have been more sure of his position. And on the Monday Harry had risen up in the very apogee of health, and had driven Joan to the station. “Mark my words!” he had said. “I shall bring him back with me for breakfast.” He had offered to take Hilda to the station to witness his triumph; but Hilda had not accepted.
And there Edwin was! Everything had happened according to Harry’s prediction, except that, from an unfortunate modesty, Edwin had gone to the wrong hotel at Plymouth.
They shook hands in a glow of mutual pleasure.
“How on earth did you know?” Edwin began.
The careful-casual answer rounded off Harry’s triumph. And Edwin thought: “Why, he’s just like a grown-up boy!” But he was distinguished; his club-necktie in all its decay was still impressive; and his expansive sincere goodwill was utterly delightful. Also the station, neat, clean, solid — the negation of all gimcrackery — had an aspect of goodwill to man; its advertisements did not flare; and it seemed to be the expression of a sound and self-respecting race. The silvern middle-aged guard greeted Harry with deferential heartiness and saluted Edwin with even more warmth than he had used at Plymouth. On the Sunday Edwin had noticed that in the western country guards were not guards (as in other parts of England), but rather the cordial hosts of their trains. As soon as the doors had banged in a fusillade and the engine whistled, a young porter came and, having exchanged civilities with Harry, picked up Edwin’s bag. This porter’s face and demeanour showed perfect content. His slight yet eager smile and his quick movements seemed to be saying: “It is natural and proper that I should salute you and carry your bag while you walk free. You are gentlemen by divine right, and by the same right I am a railway porter and happy.” To watch the man at his job gave positive pleasure, and it was extraordinarily reassuring — reassuring about everything. Outside the station, the groom stood at Joan’s head, and a wonderful fox-terrier sat alert under the dog-cart. Instantly the dog sprang out and began to superintend the preparations for departure, rushing to and fro and insisting all the time that delay would be monstrous, if not fatal. The dog’s excellence as a specimen of breeding was so superlative as to accuse its breeder and owner of a lack of perspective in life. It was as if the entire resources of civilization had been employed towards the perfecting of the points of that dog.
“Balanced the cart, I suppose, Jos?” asked Harry, kindly.
“Yes, sir,” was all that Jos articulated, but his bright face said: “Sir, your assumption that I have already balanced the cart for three and a bag is benevolent and justified. You trust me. I trust you, sir. All is well.”
The bag was stowed and the porter got threepence and was so happy in his situation that apparently he could not bring himself to leave the scene. Harry climbed up on the right, Edwin on the left. The dog gave one short bark and flew madly forward. Jos loosed Joan’s head, and at the same moment Harry gave a click, and the machine started. It did not wait for young Jos. Jos caught the back step as the machine swung by, and levered himself dangerously to the groom’s place. And when he had done it he grinned, announcing to beholders that his mission in life was to do just that, and that it was a grand life and he a lucky and enviable fellow.
Harry drove across the Tavy, and through the small grey and brown town, so picturesque, so clean, so solid, so respectable, so content in its historicity. A policeman saluted amiably and firmly, as if saying: “I am protecting all this — what a treasure!” Then they passed the Town Hall.
“Town Hall,” said Harry.
“The Dook’s,” said Harry.
He put on a certain facetiousness, but there nevertheless escaped from him the conviction that the ownership of a town hall by a Duke was a wondrous rare phenomenon and fine, showing the strength of grand English institutions and traditions, and meet for honest English pride. (And you could say what you liked about progress!) And Edwin had just the same feeling. In another minute they were out of the town. The countryside, though bleak, with its spare hedges and granite walls, was exquisitely beautiful in the morning light; and it was tidy, tended, mature; it was as though it had nothing to learn from the future. Beyond rose the slopes of the moor, tonic and grim. An impression of health, moral and physical, everywhere disengaged itself. The wayfarer, sturdy and benign, invigorated by his mere greeting. The trot of the horse on the smooth winding road, the bounding of the dog, the resilience of the cart-springs, the sharp tang of the air on the cheek, all helped to perfect Edwin’s sense of pleasure in being alive. He could not deny that he had stood in need of a change. He had been worrying, perhaps through overwork. Overwork was a mistake. He now saw that there was no reason why he should not be happy always, even with Hilda. He had received a short but nice and almost apologetic letter from Hilda. As for his apprehensions, what on earth did it matter about Dartmoor being so near? Nothing! This district was marvellously reassuring. He thought: “There simply is no social question down here!”
“Had your breakfast?” asked Harry.
“Well, you just haven’t, then!” said Harry. “We shall be in the nick of time for it.”
“When do you have breakfast?”
“Bit late, isn’t it?”
“Oh no! It suits us. . . . I say!” Harry stared straight between the horse’s ears.
“No more news about Johnnie, I suppose?”
(Edwin glanced half round at the groom behind. Harry with a gesture indicated that the groom was negligible.)
“Not that I’ve heard. Bit stiff, isn’t it?” Edwin answered.
“Bit stiff? I should rather say it was. Especially after Jimmie’s performance. Rather hard lines on Alicia, don’t you think?”
“On all of ’em,” said Edwin, not seeing why Johnnie’s escapade should press more on Alicia than, for example, on Janet.
“Yes, of course,” Harry agreed, evidently seeing and accepting the point. “The less said the better!”
“I’m with you,” said Edwin.
Harry resumed his jolly tone:
“Well, you’d better peck a bit. We’ve planned a hard day for you.”
“Yes. Early lunch, and then we’re going to drive over to Princetown. Tennis with the Governor of the prison. He’ll show us all over the prison. It’s worth seeing.”
Impulsively Edwin exclaimed:
“All of you? Is Hilda going?”
“Certainly. Why not?” He raised the whip and pointed: “Behold our noble towers.”
Edwin, feeling really sick, thought:
“Hilda’s mad. She’s quite mad. . . . . Morbid isn’t the word!”
He was confounded.
At Tavy Mansion Edwin and Harry were told by a maid that Mrs. Hesketh and Miss Orgreave were in the nursery and would be down in a moment, but that Mrs. Clayhanger had a headache and was remaining in bed for breakfast. The master of the house himself took Edwin to the door of his wife’s bedroom. Edwin’s spirits had risen in an instant, as he perceived the cleverness of Hilda’s headache. There could be no doubt that women were clever, though perhaps unscrupulously and crudely clever, in a way beyond the skill of men. By the simple device of suffering from a headache Hilda had avoided the ordeal of meeting a somewhat estranged husband in public; she was also preparing an excuse for not going to Princetown and the prison. Certainly it was better, in the Dartmoor affair, to escape at the last moment than to have declined the project from the start.
As he opened the bedroom-door, apprehensions and bright hope were mingled in him. He had a weighty grievance against Hilda, whose behaviour at parting had been, he considered, inexcusable; but the warm tone of her curt private telegram to him and of her almost equally curt letter, restating her passionate love, was really equivalent to an apology, which he accepted with eagerness. Moreover he had done a lot in coming to Devonshire, and for this great act he lauded himself and he expected some gratitude. Nevertheless, despite the pacificism of his feelings, he could not smile when entering the room. No, he could not!
Hilda was lying in the middle of a very wide bed, and her dark hair was spread abroad upon the pillow. On the pedestal was a tea-tray. Squatted comfortably at Hilda’s side, with her left arm as a support, was a baby about a year old, dressed for the day. This was Cecil, born the day after his grandparents’ funeral. Cecil, with mouth open and outstretched pink hands, of which the fingers were spread like the rays of half a starfish, from wide eyes gazed at Edwin with a peculiar expression of bland irony. Hilda smiled lovingly; she smiled without reserve. And as soon as she smiled, Edwin could smile, and his heart was suddenly quite light.
“That wistful look in his eyes has never changed, and it never will. Imagine him travelling on Sunday, when the silly old thing might just as well have come on Saturday, if he’d had anybody to decide him! He’s been travelling for twenty-four hours or more, and now he’s here! What a shame for me to have dragged him down here in spite of himself! But he would do it for me! He has done it. . . . I had to have him, for this afternoon! . . . After all he must be very good at business. Everyone respects him, even here. We may end by being really rich. Have I ever really appreciated him? . . . And now of course he’s going to be annoyed again. Poor boy!”
“Hello! Who’s this?” cried Edwin.
“This is Cecil. His mummy’s left him, here with his Auntie Hilda,” said Hilda.
“Another clever dodge of hers!” thought Edwin. He liked the baby being there.
He approached the bed, and, staring nervously about, saw that his bag had already mysteriously reached the bedroom.
“Well, my poor boy! What a journey!” Hilda murmured compassionately. She could not help showing that she was his mother in wisdom and sense.
“Oh no!” he amiably dismissed this view.
He was standing over her by the bedside. She looked straight up at him timid and expectant. He bent and kissed her. Under his kiss she shifted slightly in the bed, and her arms clung round his neck, and by her arms she lifted herself a little towards him.
She shut her eyes. She would not loose him. She seemed again to be drawing the life out of him. At last she let him go, and gave a great sigh. All the past which did not agree with that kiss and that sigh of content was annihilated, and an immense reassurance filled Edwin’s mind.
“So you’ve got a headache?”
She gave a succession of little nods, smiling happily.
“I’m so glad you’ve come, dearest,” she said, after a pause. She was just like a young girl, like a child, in her relieved satisfaction. “What about George?”
“Well, as it was left to me to decide, I thought I’d better ask Maggie to come and stay in the house. Much better than packing him off to Auntie Hamps’s.”
“And she came?”
“Oh yes!” said Edwin, indifferently, as if to say: “Of course she came.”
“Then you did get my letter in time?”
“I shouldn’t have got it in time if I’d left Saturday morning as you wanted. Oh! And here’s a letter for you.”
He pulled a letter from his pocket. The envelope was of the peculiar tinted paper with which he had already been familiarised. Hilda became self-conscious as she took the letter and opened it. Edwin too was self-conscious. To lighten the situation, he put his little finger in the baby’s mouth. Cecil much appreciated this form of humour, and as soon as the finger was withdrawn from his toothless gums, he made a bubbling whirring noise, and waved his arms to indicate that the game must continue. Hilda, frowning, read the letter. Edwin sat down, ledging himself cautiously on the brink of the bed, and leaned back a little so as to be able to get at the baby and tickle it among its frills. From the distance, beyond walls, he could hear the powerful happy cries of older babies, beings fully aware of themselves, who knew their own sentiments and could express them. And he glanced round the long low room with its two small open windows showing sunlit yellow cornfields and high trees, and its monumental furniture, and the disorder of Hilda’s clothes and implements humanising it and individualising it and making it her abode, her lair. And he glanced prudently at Hilda over the letter-paper. She had no headache; it was obvious that she had no headache. Yet in the most innocent touching way she had nodded an affirmative to his question about the headache. He could not possibly have said to her: “Look here, you know you haven’t got a headache.” She would not have tolerated the truth. The truth would have made her transform herself instantly into a martyr, and him into a brute. She would have stuck to it, even if the seat of eternal judgment had suddenly been installed at the brassy foot of the bed, that she had a headache.
It was with this mentality (he reflected, assuming that his own mentality never loved anything as well as truth) that he had to live till one of them expired. He reminded himself wisely that the woman’s code is different from the man’s. But the honesty of his intelligence rejected such an explanation, such an excuse. It was not that the woman had a different code — she had no code except the code of the utter opportunist. To live with her was like living with a marvellous wild animal, full of grace, of cunning, of magnificent passionate gestures, of terrific affection, and of cruelty. She was at once indispensable and intolerable. He felt that to match her he had need of all his force, all his prescience, all his duplicity. The mystery that had lain between him and Hilda for a year was in the letter within two feet of his nose. He could watch her as she read, study her face; he knew that he was the wiser of the two; she was at a disadvantage; as regards the letter, she was fighting on ground chosen by him; and yet he could not in the least foresee the next ten minutes — whether she would advance, retreat, feint, or surrender.
“Did you bring your dress-clothes?” she murmured, while she was reading. She had instructed him in her letter on this point.
“Of course,” he said, manfully, striving to imply the immense untruth that he never stirred from home without his dress-clothes.
She continued to read, frowning, and drawing her heavy eyebrows still closer together. Then she said:
And passed him the letter. He could see now that she was becoming excited.
The letter was from the legitimate Mrs. George Cannon, and it said that, though nothing official was announced or even breathed, her solicitor had gathered from a permanent and important underling of the Home Office that George Cannon’s innocence was supposed to be established, and that the Queen’s pardon would, at some time or other, be issued. It was an affecting letter. Edwin, totally ignorant of all that had preceded it, did not immediately understand its significance. At first he did not even grasp what it was about. When he did begin to comprehend he had the sensation of being deprived momentarily of his bearings. He had expected everything but this. That is to say, he had absolutely not known what to expect. The shock was severe.
“What is it? What is it?” he questioned, as if impatient.
“It’s about George Cannon. It seems he was quite innocent in that bank-note affair. It’s his wife who’s been writing to me about it. I don’t know why she should. But she did, and of course I had to reply.”
“You never said anything to me about it.”
“I didn’t want to worry you, dearest. I knew you’d quite enough on your mind with the works. Besides, I’d no right to worry you with a thing like that. But of course I can show you all her letters — I’ve kept them.”
Unanswerable! Unanswerable! Insincere, concocted, but unanswerable! The implications in her spoken defence were of the simplest and deepest ingenuity, and withal they hurt him. For example, the implication that the strain of the new works was breaking him! As if he could not support it, and had not supported it, easily! As if the new works meant that he could not fulfil all his duties as a helpmeet! And then the devilishly adroit plea that her concealment was morally necessary since he ought not to be troubled with any result of her preconjugal life! And finally the implication that he would be jealous of the correspondence and might exact the production of it! . . . He now callously ignored Cecil’s signals for attention. . . . He knew that he would receive no further enlightenment as to the long secrecy of the past twelve months. His fears and apprehensions and infelicity were to be dismissed with those few words. They would never be paid for, redeemed, atoned. The grand scenic explanation and submission which was his right would never come. Sentimentally, he was cheated, and had no redress. And, as a climax, he had to assume, to pretend, that justice still prevailed on earth.
“Isn’t it awful!” Hilda muttered. “Him in prison all this time!”
He saw that her eyes were wet, and her emotion increasing.
He nodded in sympathy.
“She’ll want some handling — I can see that!”
He too, as well as she, imaginatively comprehended the dreadful tragedy of George Cannon’s false imprisonment. He had heart enough to be very glad that the innocent man (innocent at any rate of that one thing) was to be released. But at the same time he could not stifle a base foreboding and regret. Looking at his wife, he feared the moment when George Cannon, with all the enormous prestige of a victim in a woman’s eyes, should be at large. Yes, the lover in him would have preferred George Cannon to be incarcerated forever. Had he not heard, had he not read, had he not seen on the stage, that a woman never forgets the first man? Nonsense, all that! Invented theatrical psychology! And yet — if it was true! . . . Look at her eyes!
“I suppose he is innocent?” he said gruffly, for he mistrusted, or affected to mistrust, the doings of these two women together — Cannon’s wife and Cannon’s victim. Might they not somehow have been hoodwinked? He knew nothing, no useful detail, naught that was convincing — and he never would know! Was it not astounding that the bigamist should have both these women on his side, either working for him, or weeping over his woes?
“He must be innocent,” Hilda answered, thoughtfully, in a breaking voice.
“Where is he now — up yon?”
He indicated the unvisited heights of Dartmoor.
“I believe so.”
“I thought they always shifted ’em back to London before they released ’em.”
“I expect they will do. They may have moved him already.”
His mood grew soft, indulgent. He conceded that her emotion was natural. She had been bound up with the man. Cannon’s admitted guilt on the one count, together with all that she had suffered through it, only intensified the poignancy of his innocence on the other count. Contrary to the general assumption, you must be sorrier for an unfortunate rascal than for an unfortunate good man. He could feel all that. He, Edwin, was to be pitied; but nobody save himself would perceive that he was to be pitied. His rôle would be difficult, but all his pride and self-reliance commanded him to play it well, using every resource of his masculine skill, and so prove that he was that which he believed himself to be. The future would be all right, because he would be equal to the emergency. Why should it not be all right? His heart in kindliness and tenderness drew nearer to Hilda’s, and he saw, or fancied he saw, that all their guerilla had been leading up to this, had perhaps been caused by this, and would be nobly ended by it.
Just then a mysterious noise penetrated the room, growing and growing until it became a huge deafening din, and slowly died away.
“I expect that’s breakfast,” said Edwin in a casual tone.
The organism of the English household was functioning. Even in the withdrawn calm of the bedroom they could feel it irresistibly functioning. The gong had a physical effect on Cecil; all his disappointment and his sense of being neglected were gathered up in his throat and exploded in a yell. Hilda took him in her right arm and soothed him and called him silly names.
Edwin rose from the bed, and as he did so, Hilda retained him with her left hand, and pulled him very gently towards her, inviting a kiss. He kissed her. She held to him. He could see at a distance of two inches all the dark swimming colour of her wet eyes half veiled by the long lashes. And he could feel the soft limbs of the snuffling baby somewhere close to his head.
“You’d better stick where you are,” he advised her in a casual tone.
“Now the time’s come. He’ll be furious. But I can’t help it.”
“Oh no. I shall be quite all right soon. I’m going to get up in about half an hour.”
“But then how shall you get out of going to Princetown?”
“Oh! Edwin! I must go. I told them I should go.”
He was astounded. There was no end to her incalculability — no end! His resentment was violent. He stood right away from her.
“‘Told them you should go’!” he exclaimed. “What in the name of heaven does that matter? Are you absolutely mad?”
She stiffened. Her features hardened. In the midst of her terrible relief as to the fate of George Cannon and of her equal terrible excitement under the enigmatic and irresistible mesmerism of Dartmoor prison, she was desperate, and resentment against Edwin kindled deep within her. She felt the brute in him. She felt that he would never really understand. She felt all her weakness and all his strength, but she was determined. At bottom she knew well that her weakness was the stronger.
“I must go!” she repeated.
“It’s nothing but morbidness!” he said savagely. “Morbidness! . . . Well, I shan’t have it. I shan’t let you go. And that’s flat.”
She kept silent. Frightfully disturbed, cursing women, forgetting utterly in a moment his sublime resolves, Edwin descended to breakfast in the large, strange house. Existence was monstrous.
And before the middle of the morning Hilda came into the garden where everyone else was idling. And Alicia and Janet fondly kissed her. She said her headache had vanished.
“Sure you feel equal to going this afternoon, dearest?” asked Janet.
“Oh yes!” Hilda replied lightly. “It will do me good.”
Edwin was helpless. He thought, recalling with vexation his last firm forbidding words to Hilda in the bedroom:
“Nobody could be equal to this emergency.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05