Harry had two stout and fast cobs in a light wagonette. He drove himself, and Hilda sat by his side. The driver’s boast was that he should accomplish the ten miles, with a rise of a thousand feet, in an hour and a quarter. A hired carriage would have spent two hours over the journey.
It was when they had cleared the town, and were on the long straight rise across the moor towards Longford, that the horses began to prove the faith that was in them, eager, magnanimous, conceiving grandly the splendour of their task in life, and irrepressibly performing it with glory. The stones on the loose-surfaced road flew from under the striding of their hoofs into the soft, dark ling on either hand. Harry’s whip hovered in affection over their twin backs, never touching them, and Harry smiled mysteriously to himself. He did not wish to talk. Nor did Hilda. The movement braced and intoxicated her, and rendered thought impossible. She brimmed with emotion, like a vase with some liquid unanalysable and perilous. She was not happy, she was not unhappy; the sensation of her vitality and of the kindred vitality of the earth and the air was overwhelming. She would have prolonged the journey indefinitely, and yet she intensely desired the goal, whatever terrors it might hold for her. At intervals she pulled up the embroidered and monogrammed apron that slipped slowly down over her skirt and over Harry’s tennis-flannels, disclosing two rackets in a press that lay between them. Perhaps Harry was thinking of certain strokes at tennis.
“Longford!” ejaculated Harry, turning his head slightly towards the body of the vehicle, as they rattled by a hamlet.
Soon afterwards the road mounted steeply — five hundred feet in little more than a mile, and the horses walked, but they walked in haste, fiercely, clawing at the road with their forefeet and thrusting it behind them. And some of the large tors emerged clearly into view — Cox Tor, the Staple Tors, and Great Mis lifting its granite above them and beyond.
They were now in the midst of the moor, trotting fast again. Behind and before them, and on either side, there was nothing but moor and sky. The sky, a vast hemisphere of cloud and blue and sunshine, with a complex and ever elusive geography of its own, discovered all the tints of heath and granite. It was one of those days when every tint was divided into ten thousand shades, and each is richer and more softly beautiful than the others. On the shoulder of Great Mis rain fell, while little Vixen Tor glittered with mica points in the sun. Nothing could be seen over the whole moor save here and there a long-tailed pony, or a tiny cottage set apart in solitude. And the yellowish road stretched forward, wavily, narrowing, disappeared for a space, reappeared still narrower, disappeared once more, reappeared like a thin meandering line, and was lost on the final verge. It was an endless road. Impossible that the perseverance of horses should cover it yard by yard! But the horses strained onward, seeing naught but the macadam under their noses. Harry checked them at a descent.
“Walkham River!” he announced.
They crossed a pebbly stream by a granite bridge.
“Hut-circles!” said Harry laconically.
They were climbing again.
Edwin, in the body of the wagonette with Janet and Alicia, looked for hut-circles and saw none; but he did not care. He was content with the knowledge that prehistoric hut-circles were somewhere there. He had never seen wild England before, and its primeval sanity awoke in him the primeval man. The healthiness and simplicity and grandiose beauty of it created the sublime illusion that civilisation was worthy to be abandoned. The Five Towns seemed intolerable by their dirt and ugliness, and by the tedious intricacy of their existence. Lithography — you had but to think of the word to perceive the paltriness of the thing! Riches, properties, proprieties, all the safeties — futile! He could have lived alone with Hilda on the moor, begetting children by her, watching with satisfaction the growing curves of her fecundity — his work, and seeing her with her brood, all their faces beaten by wind and rain and browned with sun. He had a tremendous, a painful longing for such a life. His imagination played round the idea of it with voluptuous and pure pleasure, and he wondered that he had never thought of it before. He felt that he had never before peered into the depths of existence. And though he knew that the dream of such an arcadian career was absurd, yet he seemed to guess that beneath the tiresome surfaces of life in the Five Towns the essence of it might be mystically lived. And he thought that Hilda would be capable of sharing it with him — nay, he knew she would!
His mood became gravely elated, even optimistic. He saw that he had worried himself about nothing. If she wanted to visit the prison, let her visit it! Why not? At any rate he should not visit it. He had an aversion for morbidity almost as strong as his aversion for sentimentality. But her morbidity could do no harm. She could not possibly meet George Cannon. The chances were utterly against such an encounter. Her morbidity would cure itself. He pitied her, cherished her, and in thought enveloped her fondly with his sympathetic and protective wisdom.
“North Hessary,” said Harry, pointing with his whip to a jutting tor on the right hand. “We go round by the foot of it. There in a jiff!”
Soon afterwards they swerved away from the main road, obeying a signpost marked “Princetown.”
“Glorious, isn’t it?” murmured Janet, after a long silence which had succeeded the light chatter of herself and Alicia about children, servants, tennis, laundries.
He nodded, with a lively responsive smile, and glanced at Hilda’s mysterious back. Only once during the journey had she looked round. Alicia with her coarse kind voice and laugh began to rally him, saying he had dozed.
A town, more granite than the moor itself, gradually revealed its roofs in the heart of the moor. The horses, indefatigable, quickened their speed. Villas, a school, a chapel, a heavy church-tower followed in succession; there were pavements; a brake full of excursionists had halted in front of a hotel; holiday-makers — simple folk who disliked to live in flocks — wandered in ecstatic idleness. Concealed within the warmth of the mountain air, there pricked a certain sharpness. All about, beyond the little town, the tors raised their shaggy flanks surmounted by colossal masses of stone that recalled the youth of the planet. The feel of the world was stimulating like a tremendous tonic. Then the wagonette passed a thick grove of trees, hiding a house, and in a moment, like magic, appeared a huge gated archway of brick and stone, and over it the incised words:
“Stop! Stop! Harry,” cried Alicia shrilly. “What are you doing? You’ll have to go to the house first.”
“Shall I?” said Harry. “All right. Two thirty-five, be it noted.”
The vehicle came to a standstill, and instantly clouds of vapour rose from the horses.
“Virgil!” thought Edwin, gazing at the archway, which filled him with sudden horror, like an obscenity misplaced.
Less than ten minutes later, he and Hilda and Alicia, together with three strange men, stood under the archway. Events had followed one another quickly, to Edwin’s undoing. When the wagonette drew up in the grounds of the Governor’s house, Harry Hesketh had politely indicated that for his horses he preferred the stables of a certain inn down the road to any stables that hospitality might offer; and he had driven off, Mrs. Rotherwas urging him to return without any delay so that tennis might begin. The Governor had been called from home, and in his absence a high official of the prison was deputed to show the visitors through the establishment. This official was the first of the three strange men; the other two were visitors. Janet had said that she would not go over the prison, because she meant to play tennis and wished not to tire herself. Alicia said kindly that she at any rate would go with Hilda — though she had seen it all before, it was interesting enough to see again.
Edwin had thereupon said that he should remain with Janet. But immediately Mrs. Rotherwas, whose reception of him had been full of the most friendly charm, had shown surprise, if not pain. What — come to Princetown without inspecting the wonderful prison, when the chance was there? Inconceivable! Edwin might in his blunt Five Towns way have withstood Mrs. Rotherwas, but he could not withstand Hilda, who, frowning, seemed almost ready to risk a public altercation in order to secure his attendance. He had to yield. To make a scene, even a very little one, in the garden full of light dresses and polite suave voices would have been monstrous. He thought of all that he had ever heard of the subjection of men to women. He thought of Johnnie and of Mrs. Chris Hamson, who was known for her steely caprices. And he thought also of Jimmie and of the undesirable Mrs. Jimmie, who, it was said, had threatened to love Jimmie no more unless he took her once a week without fail to the theatre, whatever the piece, and played cards with her and two of her friends on all the other nights of the week. He thought of men as a sex conquered by the unscrupulous and the implacable, and in this mood, superimposed on his mood of disgust at the mere sight of the archway, he followed the high official and his train. Mrs. Rotherwas’s last words were that they were not to be long. But the official said privately to the group that they must at any rate approach the precincts of the prison with all ceremony, and he led them proudly, with an air of ownership, round to the main entrance where the wagonette had first stopped.
A turnkey on the other side of the immense gates, using a theatrical gesture, jangled a great bouquet of keys; the portal opened, increasing the pride of the official, and the next moment they were interned in the outer courtyard. The moor and all that it meant lay unattainably beyond that portal. As the group slowly crossed the enclosed space, with the grim façades of yellow-brown buildings on each side and vistas of further gates and buildings in front, the official and the two male visitors began to talk together over the heads of Alicia and Hilda. The women held close to each other, and the official kept upon them a chivalrous eye; the two visitors were friends; Edwin was left out of the social scheme, and lagged somewhat behind, like one who is not wanted but who cannot be abandoned. He walked self-conscious, miserable, resentful, and darkly angry. In one instant the three men had estimated him, decided that he was not of their clan nor of any related clan, and ignored him. Whereas the official and the two male visitors, who had never met before, grew more and more friendly each minute. One said that he did not know So-and-So of the Scots Greys, but he knew his cousin Trevor of the Hussars, who had in fact married a niece of his own. And then another question about somebody else was asked, and immediately they were engaged in following clues, as explorers will follow the intricate mouths of a great delta and so unite in the main stream. They were happy.
Edwin did not seriously mind that; but what he did mind was their accent — in those days termed throughout the Midlands “lah-di-dah” (an onomatopoeic description), which, falsifying every vowel sound in the language, and several consonants, magically created around them an aura of utter superiority to the rest of the world. He quite unreasonably hated them, and he also envied them, because this accent was their native tongue, and because their clothes were not cut like his, and because they were entirely at their ease. Useless for the official to throw him an urbane word now and then; neither his hate nor his constraint would consent to be alleviated; the urbane words grew less frequent. Also Edwin despised them because they were seemingly insensible to the tremendous horror of the jail set there like an outrage in the midst of primitive and sane Dartmoor. “Yes,” their attitude said. “This is a prison, one of the institutions necessary to the well being of society, like a workhouse or an opera house — an interesting sight!”
A second pair of iron gates were opened with the same elaborate theatricality as the first, and while the operation was being done the official, invigorated by the fawning of turnkeys, conversed with Alicia, who during her short married life had acquired some shallow acquaintance with the clans, and he even drew a reluctant phrase from Hilda. Then, after another open space, came a third pair of iron gates, final and terrific, and at length the party was under cover, and even the sky of the moor was lost. Edwin, bored, disgusted, shamed, and stricken, yielded himself proudly and submissively to the horror of the experience.
Hilda had only one thought — would she catch sight of the innocent prisoner? The party was now deeply engaged in a system of corridors and stairways. The official had said that as the tour of inspection was to be short he would display to them chiefly the modern part of the prison. So far not a prisoner had been seen, and scarcely a warder. The two male visitors were scientifically interested in the question of escapes. Did prisoners ever escape?
“Never!” said the official, with satisfaction.
“Impossible, I suppose. Even when they’re working out on the moor? Warders are pretty good shots, eh?”
“Practically impossible,” said the official. “But there is one way.” He looked up the stairway on whose landing they stood, and down the stairway, and cautiously lowered his voice. “Of course what I tell you is confidential. If one of our Dartmoor fogs came on suddenly, and kind friends outside had hidden a stock of clothes and food in an arranged spot, then theoretically — I say, theoretically — a man might get away. But nobody ever has done.”
“I suppose you still have the silent system?”
The official nodded.
“How awful it must be!” said Alicia, with a nervous laugh.
The official shrugged his shoulders, and the other two males murmured reassuring axioms about discipline.
They emerged from the stairway into a colossal and resounding iron hall. Round the emptiness of this interior ran galleries of perforated iron protected from the abyss by iron balustrades. The group stood on the second of the galleries from the stony floor, and there were two galleries above them. Far away, opposite, a glint of sunshine had feloniously slipped in, transpiercing the gloom, and it lighted a series of doors. There was a row of these doors along every gallery. Each had a peep-hole, a key-hole and a number. The longer Hilda regarded, the more nightmarishly numerous seemed the doors. The place was like a huge rabbit-hutch designed for the claustration of countless rabbits. Across the whole width and length of the hall, and at the level of the lowest gallery, was stretched a great net.
“To provide against suicides?” suggested one of the men.
“Yes,” said the official.
“A good idea.”
When the reverberation of the words had ceased, a little silence ensued. The ear listened vainly for the slightest sound. In the silence the implacability of granite walls and iron reticulations reigned over the accursed vision, stultifying the soul.
“Are these cells occupied?” asked Alicia timidly.
“Not yet, Mrs. Hesketh. It’s too soon. A few are.”
“He may be here — behind one of those doors.” Her heart was liquid with compassion and revolt. “No,” she assured herself. “They must have taken him away already. It’s impossible he should be here. He’s innocent.”
“Perhaps you would like to see one of the cells?” the official suggested.
A warder appeared, and, with the inescapable jangle of keys, opened a door. The party entered the cell, ladies first, then the official and his new acquaintances; then Edwin, trailing. The cell was long and narrow, fairly lofty, bluish-white colour, very dimly lighted by a tiny grimed window high up in a wall of extreme thickness. The bed lay next the long wall; except the bed, a stool, a shelf, and some utensils, there was nothing to furnish the horrible nakedness of the cell. One of the visitors picked up an old book from the shelf. It was a Greek Testament. The party seemed astonished at this evidence of culture among prisoners, of the height from which a criminal may have fallen.
The official smiled.
“They often ask for such things on purpose,” said he. “They think it’s effective. They’re very naïve, you know, at bottom.”
“This very cell may be his cell,” thought Hilda. “He may have been here all these months, years, knowing he was innocent. He may have thought about me in this cell.” She glanced cautiously at Edwin, but Edwin would not catch her eye.
They left. On the way to the workshops, they had a glimpse of the old parts of the prison, used during the Napoleonic wars, incredibly dark, frowsy, like catacombs.
“We don’t use this part — unless we’re very full up,” said the official, and he contrasted it with the bright, spacious, healthy excellences of the hall which they had just quitted, to prove that civilisation never stood still.
And then suddenly, at the end of a passage, a door opened and they were in the tailors’ shop, a large irregular apartment full of a strong stench and of squatted and grotesque human beings. The human beings, for the most part, were clothed in a peculiar brown stuff, covered with broad arrows. The dress consisted of a short jacket, baggy knickerbockers, black stockings, and coloured shoes. Their hair was cut so short that they had the appearance of being bald, and their great ears protruded at a startling angle from the sides of those smooth heads. They were of every age, yet they all looked alike, ridiculous, pantomimic, appalling. Some gazed with indifference at the visitors; others seemed oblivious of the entry. They all stitched on their haunches, in the stench, under the surveillance of eight armed warders in blue.
“How many?” asked the official mechanically.
“Forty-nine, sir,” said a warder.
And Hilda searched their loathsome and vapid faces for the face of George Cannon. He was not there. She trembled — whether with relief or with disappointment she knew not. She was agonised, but in her torture she exulted that she had come.
No comment had been made in the workshop, the official having hinted that silence was usual on such occasions. But in a kind of antechamber — one of those amorphous spaces, serving no purpose and resembling nothing, which are sometimes to be found between definable rooms and corridors in a vast building imperfectly planned — the party halted in the midst of a discussion as to discipline. The male visitors, except Edwin, showed marked intelligence and detachment; they seemed to understand immediately how it was that forty-nine ruffians could be trusted to squat on their thighs and stitch industriously and use scissors and other weapons for hours without being chained to the ground; they certainly knew something of the handling of men. The official, triumphant, stated that every prisoner had the right of personal appeal to the Governor every day.
“They come with their stories of grievances,” said he, tolerant and derisive.
“Which often aren’t true?”
“Which are never true,” said the official quietly. “Never! They are always lies — always! . . . Shows the material we have to deal with!” He gave a short laugh.
“Really!” said one of the men, rather pleased and excited by this report of universal lying.
“I suppose,” Edwin blurted out, “you can tell for certain when they aren’t speaking the truth?”
Everybody looked at him surprised, as though the dumb had spoken. The official’s glance showed some suspicion of sarcasm and a tendency to resent it.
“We can,” he answered shortly, commanding his features to a faint smile. “And now I wonder what Mrs. Rotherwas will be saying if I don’t restore you to her.” It was agreed that regard must be had for Mrs. Rotherwas’s hospitable arrangements, though the prison was really very interesting and would repay study.
They entered a wide corridor — one of two that met at right-angles in the amorphous space — leading in the direction of the chief entrance. From the end of this corridor a file of convicts was approaching in charge of two warders with guns. The official offered no remark, but held on. Hilda, falling back near to Edwin in the procession, was divided between a dreadful fear and a hope equally dreadful. Except in the tailors’ shop, these were the only prisoners they had seen, and they appeared out of place in the half-freedom of the corridor; for nobody could conceive a prisoner save in a cell or shop, and these were moving in a public corridor, unshackled.
Then she distinguished George Cannon among them. He was the third from the last. She knew him by his nose and the shape of his chin, and by his walk, though there was little left of his proud walk in the desolating, hopeless prison-shuffle which was the gait of all six convicts. His hair was iron-grey. All these details she could see and be sure of in the distance of the dim corridor. She no longer had a stomach; it had gone, and yet she felt a horrible nausea.
She cried out to herself:
“Why did I come? Why did I come? I am always doing these mad things. Edwin was right. Why do I not listen to him?”
The party of visitors led by the high official, and the file of convicts in charge of armed warders, were gradually approaching one another in the wide corridor. It seemed to Hilda that a fearful collision was imminent, and that something ought to be done. But nobody among the visitors did anything or seemed to be disturbed. Only they had all fallen silent; and in the echoing corridor could be heard the firm steps of the male visitors accompanying the delicate tripping of the women, and the military tramp of the warders with the confused shuffling of the convicts.
“Has he recognised me?” thought Hilda, wildly.
She hoped that he had and that he had not. She recalled with the most poignant sorrow the few days of their union, their hours of intimacy, his kisses, her secret realisation of her power over him, and of his passion. She wanted to scream:
“That man there is as innocent as any of you, and soon the whole world will know it! He never committed any crime except that of loving me too much. He could not do without me, and so I was his ruin. It is horrible that he should be here in this hell. He must be set free at once. The Home Secretary knows he is innocent, but they are so slow. How can anyone bear that he should stop here one instant longer?”
But she made no sound. The tremendous force of an ancient and organised society kept her lips closed and her feet in a line with the others. She thought in despair:
“We are getting nearer, and I cannot meet him. I shall drop.” She glanced at Edwin, as if for help, but Edwin was looking straight ahead.
Then a warder, stopping, ejaculated with the harsh brevity of a drill-serjeant:
The file halted.
The six captives turned, with their faces close against the wall of the corridor, obedient, humiliated, spiritless, limp, stooping. Their backs presented the most ridiculous aspect; all the calculated grotesquerie of the surpassingly ugly prison uniform was accentuated as they stood thus, a row of living scarecrows, who knew that they had not the right even to look upon free men. Every one of them except George Cannon had large protuberant ears that completed the monstrosity of their appearance.
The official gave his new acquaintances a satisfied glance, as if saying:
“That is the rule by which we manage these chance encounters.”
The visitors went by in silence, instinctively edging away from the captives. And as she passed, Hilda lurched very heavily against Edwin, and recovered herself. Edwin seized her arm near the shoulder, and saw that she was pale. The others were in front.
Behind them they could hear the warder:
“Left turn! March!”
And the shuffling and the tramping recommenced.
In the garden of the Governor’s house tennis had already begun when the official brought back his convoy. Young Truscott and Mrs. Rotherwas were pitted against Harry Hesketh and a girl of eighteen who possessed a good wrist but could not keep her head. Harry was watching over his partner, quietly advising her upon the ruses of the enemy, taking the more difficult strokes for her, and generally imparting to her the quality which she lacked. Harry was fully engaged; the whole of his brain and body was at strain; he let nothing go by; he missed no chance, and within the laws of the game he hesitated at no stratagem. And he was beating young Truscott and Mrs. Rotherwas, while an increasing and polite audience looked on. To the entering party, the withdrawn scene, lit by sunshine, appeared as perfect as a stage-show, with its trees, lawn, flowers, toilettes, the flying balls, the grace of the players, and the grey solidity of the governor’s house in the background.
Alicia ran gawkily to Janet, who had got a box of chocolates from somewhere, and one of the men followed her, laughing. Hilda sat apart; she was less pale. Edwin remained cautiously near her. He had not left her side since she lurched against him in the corridor. He knew; he had divined that that which he most feared had come to pass — the supreme punishment of Hilda’s morbidity. He had not definitely recognised George Cannon, for he was not acquainted with him, and in the past had only once or twice by chance caught sight of him in the streets of Bursley or Turnhill. But he had seen among the six captives one who might be he, and who certainly had something of the Five Towns look. Hilda’s lurch told him that by vindictiveness of fate George Cannon was close to them.
He had ignored his own emotion. The sudden transient weight of Hilda’s body had had a strange moral effect upon him. “This,” he thought, “is the burden I have to bear. This, and not lithography, nor riches, is my chief concern. She depends on me. I am all she has to stand by.” The burden with its immense and complex responsibilities was sweet to his inmost being; and it braced him and destroyed his resentment against her morbidity. His pity was pure. He felt that he must live more nobly — yes, more heroically — than he had been living; that all irritable pettiness must drop away from him, and that his existence in her regard must have simplicity and grandeur. The sensation of her actual weight stayed with him. He had not spoken to her; he dared not; he had scarcely met her eyes; but he was ready for any emergency. Every now and then, in the garden, Hilda glanced over her shoulder at the house, as though her gaze could pierce the house and see the sinister prison beyond.
The set ended, to Harry Hesketh’s satisfaction; and, another set being arranged, he and Mrs. Rotherwas, athletic in a short skirt and simple blouse, came walking, rather flushed and breathless, round the garden with one or two others, including Harry’s late partner. The conversation turned upon the great South Wales colliery strike against a proposed reduction of wages. Mrs. Rotherwas’ husband was a colliery proprietor near Monmouth, and she had just received a letter from him. Everyone sympathised with her and her husband, and nobody could comprehend the wrongheadedness of the miners, except upon the supposition that they had been led away by mischievous demagogues. As the group approached, the timid young girl, having regained her nerve, was exclaiming with honest indignation: “The leaders ought to be shot, and the men who won’t go down the pits ought to be forced to go down and made to work.” And she picked at fluff on her yellow frock. Edwin feared an uprising from Hilda, but naught happened. Mrs. Rotherwas spoke about tea, though it was rather early, and they all, Hilda as well, wandered to a large yew tree under which was a table; through the pendant branches of the tree the tennis could be watched as through a screen.
The prison clock tolled the hour over the roofs of the house, and Mrs. Rotherwas gave the definite signal for refreshments.
“You’re exhausted,” she said teasingly to Harry.
“You’ll see,” said Harry.
“No,” Mrs. Rotherwas delightfully relented. “You’re a dear, and I love to watch you play. I’m sure you could give Mr. Truscott half fifteen.”
“Think so?” said Harry, pleased, and very conscious that he was living fully.
“You see what it is to have an object in life, Hesketh,” Edwin remarked suddenly.
Harry glanced at him doubtfully, and yet with a certain ingenuous admiration. At the same time a white ball rolled near the tree. He ducked under the trailing branches, returned the ball, and moved slowly towards the court.
“Alicia tells me you’re very old friends of theirs,” said Mrs. Rotherwas, agreeably, to Hilda.
Hilda smiled quietly.
“Yes, we are, both of us.”
Who could have guessed, now, that her condition was not absolutely normal?
“Charming people, aren’t they, the Heskeths?” said Mrs. Rotherwas. “Perfectly charming. They’re an ideal couple. And I do like their house, it’s so deliciously quaint, isn’t it, Mary?”
“Lovely,” agreed the young girl.
It was an ideal world, full of ideal beings.
Soon after tea the irresistible magnetism of Alicia’s babies drew Alicia off the moor, and with her the champion player, Janet, Hilda and Edwin. Mrs. Rotherwas let them go with regret, adorably expressed. Harry would have liked to stay, but on the other hand he was delightfully ready to yield to Alicia.
On arriving at Tavy Mansion Hilda announced that she should lie down. She told Edwin, in an exhausted but friendly voice, that she needed only rest, and he comprehended, rightly, that he was to leave her. Not a word was said between them as to the events within the prison. He left her, and spent the time before dinner with Harry Hesketh, who had the idea of occupying their leisure with a short game of bowls, for which it was necessary to remove the croquet hoops.
Hilda undressed and got into bed. Soon afterwards both Alicia, with an infant, and Janet came to see her. Had Janet been alone, Hilda might conceivably in her weakness have surrendered the secret to her in exchange for that soft and persuasive sympathy of which Janet was the mistress, but the presence of Alicia made a confidence impossible, and Hilda was glad. She plausibly fibbed to both sisters, and immediately afterwards the household knew that Hilda would not appear at dinner. There was not the slightest alarm or apprehension, for the affair explained itself in the simplest way — Hilda had had a headache in the morning, and had been wrong to go out; she was now merely paying for the indiscretion. She would be quite recovered the next day. Alicia whispered a word to her husband, who, besides, was not apt easily to get nervous about anything except his form at games. Edwin also, with his Five Towns habit of mind, soberly belittled the indisposition. The household remained natural and gay. When Edwin went upstairs to prepare for dinner, moving very quietly, his wife had her face towards the wall and away from the light. He came round the bed to look at her.
“I’m all right,” she murmured.
“Want nothing at all?” he asked, with nervous gruffness.
She shook her head.
Very impatiently she awaited his departure, exasperated more than she had ever been by his precise deliberation over certain details of his toilet. As soon as he was gone she began to cry; but the tears came so gently from her eyes that the weeping was as passive, as independent of volition, as the escape of blood from a wound.
She had a grievance against Edwin. At the crisis in the prison she had blamed herself for not submitting to his guidance, but now she had reacted against all such accusations, and her grievance amounted to just an indictment of his commonsense, his quietude, his talent for keeping out of harm’s way, his lack of violent impulses, his formidable respectability. She was a rebel; he was not. He would never do anything wrong, or even perilous. Never, never would he find himself in need of a friend’s help. He would always direct his course so that society would protect him. He was a firm part of the structure of society; he was the enemy of impulses. When he foresaw a danger, the danger was always realised: she had noticed that, and she resented it. He was infinitely above the George Cannons of the world. He would be incapable of bigamy, incapable of being caught in circumstances which could bring upon him suspicion of any crime whatever. Yet for her the George Cannons had a quality which he lacked, which he could never possess, and which would have impossibly perfected him — a quality heroic, foolish, martyr-like! She was almost ready to decide that his complete social security was due to cowardice and resulted in self-righteousness! . . . Could he really feel pity as she felt it, for the despised and rejected, and a hatred of injustice equal to hers?
These two emotions were burning her up. Again and again, ceaselessly, her mind ran round the circle of George Cannon’s torture and the callousness of society. He had sinned, and she had loathed him; but both his sin and her loathing were the fruit of passion. He had been a proud man, and she had shared his pride; now he was broken, unutterably humiliated, and she partook of his humiliation. The grotesque and beaten animal in the corridor was all that society had left of him who had once inspired her to acts of devotion, who could make her blush, and to satisfy whom she would recklessly spend herself. The situation was intolerable, and yet it had to be borne. But surely it must be ended! Surely at the latest on the morrow the prisoner must be released, and soothed and reinstated! . . . Pardoned? No! A pardon was an insult, worse than an insult. She would not listen to the word. Society might use it for its own purposes; but she would never use it. Pardon a man after deliberately and fiendishly achieving his ruin? She could have laughed.
Exhaustion followed, tempering emotion and reducing it to a profound despairing melancholy that was stirred at intervals by frantic revolt. The light failed. The windows became vague silver squares. Outside fowls clucked, a horse’s hoof clattered on stones; servants spoke to each other in their rough, good-natured voices. The peace of the world had its effect on her, unwilling though she was. Then there was a faint tap at the door. She made no reply, and shut her eyes. The door gently opened, and someone tripped delicately in. She heard movements at the washstand. . . . One of the maids. A match was struck. The blinds were stealthily lowered, the curtains drawn; garments were gathered together, and at last the door closed again.
She opened her eyes. The room was very dimly illuminated. A night-light, under a glass hemisphere of pale rose, stood on the dressing-table. By magic, order had been restored; a glinting copper ewer of hot water stood in the whiteness of the basin with a towel over it; the blue blinds, revealed by the narrowness of the red curtains, stirred in the depths of the windows; each detail of the chamber was gradually disclosed, and the chamber was steeped in the first tranquillity of the night. Not a sound could be heard. Through the depths of her bitterness, there rose slowly the sensation of the beauty of existence even in its sadness. . . .
A long time afterwards it occurred to her in the obscurity that the bed was tumbled. She must have turned over and over. The bed must be arranged before Edwin came. He had to share it. After all, he had committed no fault; he was entirely innocent. She and fate between them had inflicted these difficulties and these solicitudes upon him. He had said little or nothing, but he was sympathetic. When she had stumbled against him she had felt his upholding masculine strength. He was dependable, and would be dependable to the last. The bed must be creaseless when he came; this was the least she could do. She arose. Very faintly she could descry her image in the mirror of the great wardrobe — a dishevelled image. Forgetting the bed, she bathed her face, and, unusually, took care to leave the washstand as tidy as the maid had left it. Then, having arranged her hair, she set about the bed. It was not easy for one person unaided to make a wide bed. Before she had finished she heard footsteps outside the door. She stood still. Then she heard Edwin’s voice:
“Don’t trouble, thanks. I’ll take it in myself.”
He entered, carrying a tray, and shut the door, and instantly she busied herself once more with the bed.
“My poor girl,” he said with quiet kindliness, “what are you doing?”
“I’m just putting the bed to rights,” she answered, and almost with a single movement she slid back into the bed. “What have you got there?”
“I thought I’d ask for some tea for you,” he said. “Nearly the whole blessed household wanted to come and see you, but I wouldn’t have it.”
She could not say: “It’s very nice of you.” But she said, simply to please him: “I should like some tea.”
He put the tray on the dressing-table; then lit three candles, two on the dressing-table and one on the night-table, and brought the tray to the night-table.
He himself poured out the tea, and offered the cup. She raised herself on an elbow.
“Did you recognise him?” she muttered suddenly, after she had blown on the tea to cool it.
Under ordinary conditions Edwin would have replied to such an unprepared question with another, petulant and impatient: “Recognise who?” pretending that he did not understand the allusion. But now he made no pretences.
“Not quite,” he said. “But I knew at once. I could see which of them it must be.”
The subject at last opened between them, Hilda felt an extraordinary solace and relief. He stood by the bedside, in black, with a great breastplate of white, his hair rough, his hands in his pockets. She thought he had a fine face; she thought of him as, at such a time, her superior; she wanted powerfully to adopt his attitude, to believe in everything he said. They were talking together in safety, quietly, gravely, amicably, withdrawn and safe in the strange house — he benevolent and assuaging and comprehending, she desiring the balm which he could give. It seemed to her that they had never talked to each other in such tones.
“Isn’t it awful — awful?” she exclaimed.
“It is,” said Edwin, and added carefully, tenderly: “I suppose he is innocent.”
She might have flown at him: “That’s just like you — to assume he isn’t!” But she replied:
“I’m quite sure of it. I say — I want you to read all the letters I’ve had from Mrs. Cannon. I’ve got them here. They’re in my bag there. Read them now. Of course I always meant to show them to you.”
“All right,” he agreed, drew a chair to the dressing-table where the bag was, found the letters, and read them. She waited, as he read one letter, put it down, read another, laid it precisely upon the first one, with his terrible exactitude and orderliness, and so on through the whole packet.
“Yes,” said he at the end, “I should say he’s innocent this time, right enough.”
“But something ought to be done!” she cried. “Don’t you think something ought to be done, Edwin?”
“Something has been done. Something is being done.”
“But something else!”
He got up and walked about the room.
“There’s only one thing to be done,” he said.
He came towards her, and stood over her again, and the candle on the night-table lighted his chin and the space between his eyelashes and his eyebrows. He timidly touched her hair, caressing it. They were absolutely at their ease together in the intimacy of the bedroom. In her brief relations with George Cannon there had not been time to establish anything like such intimacy. With George Cannon she had always had the tremors of the fawn.
“What is it?”
“Wait. That’s all. It’s not the slightest use trying to hurry these public departments. You can’t do it. You only get annoyed for nothing at all. You can take that from me, my child.”
He spoke with such delicate persuasiveness, such an evident desire to be helpful, that Hilda was convinced and grew resigned. It did not occur to her that he had made a tremendous resolve which had raised him above the Edwin she knew. She thought she had hitherto misjudged and underrated him.
“I wanted to explain to you about that ten pounds,” she said.
“That’s all right — that’s all right,” said he hastily.
“But I must tell you. You saw Mrs. Cannon’s letter asking me for money. Well, I borrowed the ten pounds from Janet. So of course I had to pay it back, hadn’t I?”
“How is Janet?” he asked in a new, lighter tone.
“She seems to be going on splendidly, don’t you think so?”
“Well then, we’ll go home tomorrow.”
She lifted her arms and he bent. She was crying. In a moment she was sobbing. She gave him violent kisses amid her sobs, and held him close to her until the fit passed. Then she said, in her voice reduced to that of a child:
“What time’s the train?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51