Hilda sat alone in the boudoir, before the fire. She had just come out of the kitchen, and she was wearing the white uniform of the kitchen, unsuited for a boudoir; but she wore it with piquancy. The November afternoon had passed into dusk, and through the window, over the roofs of Hulton Street, stars could be seen in a darkening clear sky. After a very sharp fall and rise of the barometer, accounting for heavy rainstorms, the first frosts were announced, and winter was on the doorstep. The hardy inhabitants of the Five Towns, Hilda among them, were bracing themselves to the discipline of winter, with its mud, increased smuts, sleet, and damp, piercing chills; and they were taking pleasure in the tonic prospect of discomfort. The visitation had threatened ever since September. Now it had positively come. Let it come! Build up the fire, stamp the feet, and defy it! Hilda was exhilarated, having been reawakened to the zest and the romance of life, not merely by the onset of winter, but by dramatic events in the kitchen.
A little over three years had elapsed since the closing of the episode of George Cannon, and for two of those years Hilda had had peace in the kitchen. She had been the firm mistress who knows what she wants, and, knowing also how to handle the peculiar inmates of the kitchen, gets it; she had been the mistress who “won’t put up with” all sorts of things, including middle-age and ugliness in servants, and whom heaven has spoilt by too much favour. Then the cook, with the ingratitude of a cherished domestic, had fallen in love and carried her passion into a cottage miles away at Longshaw. And from that moment Hilda had ceased to be the mistress who by firmness commands fate; she had become as other mistresses. In a year she had had five cooks, giving varying degrees of intense dissatisfaction. She had even dismissed the slim and constant Ada once, but, yielding to an outburst of penitent affection, had withdrawn the notice. The last cook, far removed from youthfulness or prettiness, had left suddenly that day, after insolence, after the discovery of secret beer and other vileness in the attic-bedroom, after a scene in which Hilda had absolutely silenced her, reducing ribaldry to sobs. Cook and trunk expelled, Hilda had gone about the house like a fumigation, and into the kitchen like the embodiment of calm and gay efficiency. She would do the cooking herself. She would show the kitchen that she was dependent upon nobody. She had quickened the speed of Ada, accused her “tartly,” but not without dry good-humour, of a disloyal secretiveness, and counselled her to mind what she was about if she wanted to get on in the world.
Edwin knew nothing, for all had happened since his departure to the works after midday dinner. He would be back in due course, and George would be back, and Tertius Ingpen (long ago reconciled) was coming for the evening. She would show them all three what a meal was, and incidentally Ada would learn what a meal was. There was nothing like demonstrating to servants that you could beat them easily at their own game.
She had just lived through her thirty-ninth birthday. “Forty!” she had murmured to herself with a shiver of apprehension, meaning that the next would be the fortieth. It was an unpleasant experience. She had told Edwin not to mention her birthday abroad. Clumsy George had enquired: “Mother, how old are you?” To which she had replied, “Lay-ours for meddlers!” a familiar phrase whose origin none of them understood, but George knew that it signified, “Mind your own business.” No! She had not been happy on that birthday. She had gazed into the glass and decided that she looked old, that she did not look old, that she looked old, endlessly alternating. She was not stout, but her body was solid, too solid; it had no litheness, none whatever; it was absolutely set; the cleft under the chin was quite undeniable, and the olive complexion subtly ravaged. Still, not a hair of her dark head had changed colour. It was perhaps her soul that was greying. Her married life was fairly calm. It had grown monotonous in ease and tranquillity. The sharp, respectful admiration for her husband roused in her by his handling of the Cannon episode, had gradually been dulled. She had nothing against him. Yet she had everything against him, because apart from his grave abiding love for her he possessed an object and interest in life, and because she was a mere complement and he was not. She had asked herself the most dreadful of questions: “Why have I lived? Why do I go on living?” and had answered: “Because of them,” meaning Edwin and her son. But it was not enough for her, who had once been violently enterprising, pugnacious, endangered, and independent. For after she had watched over them she had energy to spare, and such energy was not being employed and could not be employed. Reading — a diversion! Fancy work — a detestable device for killing time and energy! Social duties — ditto! Charity — hateful! She had slowly descended into marriage as into a lotus valley. And more than half her life was gone. She could never detect that any other married woman in the town felt as she felt. She could never explain herself to Edwin, and indeed had not tried to explain herself.
Now the affair of the alcoholic cook, aided by winter’s first fillip, stimulated and brightened her. And while thinking with a glance at the clock of the precise moment when she must return to the kitchen and put a dish down to the fire, she also thought, rather hopefully and then quite hopefully, about the future of her marriage. Her brain seemed to straighten and correct itself, like the brain of one who, waking up in the morning, slowly perceives that the middle-of-the-night apprehensiveness about eventualities was all awry in its pessimism. She saw that everything could and must be improved, that the new life must begin. Edwin needed to be inspired; she must inspire him. He slouched more and more in his walk; he was more and more absorbed in his business, quieter in the evenings, more impatient in the mornings. Moreover, the household machine had been getting slack. A general tonic was required; she would administer it — and to herself also. They should all feel the invigorating ozone that very night. She would organise social distractions; on behalf of the home she would reclaim from the works those odd hours and half-hours of Edwin’s which it had imperceptibly filched. She would have some new clothes, and she would send Edwin to the tailor’s. She would make him buy a dog-cart and a horse. Oh! She could do it. She had the mastery of him in many things when she chose to be aroused. In a word, she would “branch out.”
She was not sure that she would not prosecute a campaign for putting Edwin on the Town Council, where he certainly ought to be. It was his duty to take a share in public matters, and ultimately to dominate the town. Suggestions had already been made by wirepullers, and unreflectively repulsed by the too casual Edwin. She saw him mayor, and herself mayoress. Once, the prospect of any such formal honour, with all that it entailed of ceremoniousness and insincere civilities, would have annoyed if not frightened her. But now she thought, proudly and timidly and desirously, that she would make as good a mayoress as most mayoresses, and that she could set one or two of them an example in tact and dignity. Why not? Of late neither mayors nor mayoresses in the Five Towns had been what they used to be. The grand tradition was apparently in abeyance, the people who ought to carry it on seeming somehow to despise it. She could remember mayors, especially Chief Bailiffs at Turnhill, who imposed themselves upon the imagination of the town. But nowadays the name of a mayor was never a household word. She had even heard Ingpen ask Edwin: “See, who is the new mayor?” and Edwin start his halting answer: “Let me see —”
And she had still another and perhaps greater ambition — to possess a country house. In her fancy her country house was very like Alicia Hesketh’s house, Tavy Mansion, which she had never ceased to envy. She felt that in a new home, spacious, with space around it, she could really commence the new life. She saw the place perfectly appointed and functioning perfectly — no bother about smuts on white curtains; no half-trained servants; none of the base, confined, promiscuity of filthy Trafalgar Road; and the Benbows and Auntie Hamps at least eight or ten miles off! She saw herself driving Edwin to the station in the morning, or perhaps right into Bursley if she wanted to shop. . . . No, she would of course shop at Oldcastle. . . . She would leave old Darius Clayhanger’s miracle-house without one regret. And in the new life she would be always active, busy, dignified, elegant, influential, and kind. And to Edwin she would be absolutely indispensable.
In these imaginings their solid but tarnished love glittered and gleamed again. She saw naught but the charming side of Edwin and the romantic side of their union. She was persuaded that there really was nobody like Edwin, and that no marriage had ever had quite the mysterious, secretly exciting quality of hers. She yearned for him to come home at once, to appear magically in the dusk of the doorway. The mood was marvellous.
The door opened.
“Can I speak to you, m’m?”
It was the voice of Ada, somewhat perturbed. She advanced a little and stood darkly in front of the open doorway.
“What is it, Ada?” Hilda asked curtly, without turning to look at her.
“It’s —” Ada began and stopped.
Hilda glanced round quickly, recognising now in the voice a peculiar note with which experience had familiarised her. It was a note between pertness and the beginning of a sob, and it always indicated that Ada was feeling more acutely than usual the vast injustice of the worldly scheme. It might develop into tears; on the other hand it might develop into mere insolence. Hilda discerned that Ada was wearing neither cap nor apron. She thought: “If this stupid girl wants trouble, she has come to me at exactly and precisely the right moment to get it. I’m not in the humour, after all I’ve gone through today, to stand any nonsense either from her or from anybody else.”
“What is it, Ada?” she repeated, with restraint, and yet warningly. “And where’s your apron and your cap?”
“In the kitchen, m’m.”
“Well, go and put them on, and then come and say what you have to say,” said Hilda, thinking: “I don’t give any importance to her cap and apron, but she does.”
“I was thinking I’d better give ye notice, m’m,” said Ada, and she said it pertly, ignoring the command.
The two women were alone together in the house. Each felt it; each felt the large dark emptiness of the house behind them, and the solid front and back doors cutting them off from succour; each had to depend entirely upon herself.
Hilda asked quietly:
“What’s the matter now?”
She knew that Ada’s grievance would prove to be silly. The girl had practically no commonsense. Not one servant girl in a hundred had any appreciable commonsense. And when girls happened to be “upset”— as they were all liable to be, and as Ada by the violent departure of the cook no doubt was — even such minute traces of gumption as they possessed were apt to disappear.
“There’s no pleasing you, m’m!” said Ada. “The way you talked to me in the kitchen, saying I was always a-hiding things from ye. I’ve felt it very much!”
She threw her head back, and the gesture signified: “I’m younger than you, and young men are always running after me. And I can get a new situation any time. And I’ve not gone back into my kitchen to put my cap and apron on.”
“Ada,” said Hilda. “Shall I tell you what’s wrong with you? You’re a little fool. You know you’re talking rightdown nonsense. You know that as well as I do. And you know you’ll never get a better place than you have here. But you’ve taken an idea into your head — and there you are! Now do be sensible. You say you think you’d better give notice. Think it over before you do anything ridiculous. Sleep on it. We’ll see how you feel in the morning.”
“I think I’d better give notice, m’m, especially seeing I’m a fool, and silly,” Ada persisted.
Hilda sighed. Her voice hardened slightly:
“So you’d leave me without a maid just at Christmas! And that’s all the thanks I get for all I’ve done for you.”
“Well, m’m. We’ve had such a queer lot of girls here lately, haven’t we?” The pertness was intensified. “I don’t hardly care to stay. I feel we sh’d both be better for a change like.”
It was perhaps Ada’s subtly insolent use of the word “we” and “both” that definitely brought about a new phase of the interview. Hilda suddenly lost all desire for an amicable examination of the crisis.
“Very well, Ada,” she said, shortly. “But remember I shan’t take you back again, whatever happens.”
Ada moved away, and then returned.
“Could I leave at once, m’m, same as cook?”
Hilda was astonished and outraged, despite all her experience and its resulting secret sardonic cynicism in regard to servants. The girl was ready to walk out instantly.
“And may I enquire where you’d go to?” asked Hilda with a sneer. “At this time of night you couldn’t possibly get home to your parents.”
“Oh!” answered Ada brightly. “I could go to me cousin’s up at Toft End. And her could send down a lad with a barrow for me box.”
The plot, then, had been thought out. “Her cousin’s!” thought Hilda, and seemed to be putting her finger on the cause of Ada’s disloyalty. “Her cousin’s!” It was a light in a dark mystery. “Her cousin’s!”
“I suppose you know you’re forfeiting the wages due to you the day after tomorrow?”
“I shall ask me cousin about that, m’m,” said Ada, as it were menacingly.
“I should!” Hilda sarcastically agreed. “I certainly should.” And she thought with bitter resignation: “She’ll have to leave anyhow after this. She may as well leave on the spot.”
“There’s those as’ll see as I have me rights,” said Ada pugnaciously, with another toss of the head.
Hilda had a mind to retort in anger; but she controlled herself. Already that afternoon she had imperilled her dignity in the altercation with the cook. The cook, however, had not Ada’s ready tongue, and, while the mistress had come off best against the cook, she might through impulsiveness find herself worsted by Ada’s more youthful impudence, were it once unloosed.
“That will do, then, Ada,” she said. “You can go and pack your box first thing.”
In less than three quarters of an hour Ada was gone, and her corded trunk lay just within the scullery door, waiting the arrival of the cousin’s barrow. She had bumped it down the stairs herself.
All solitary in the house, which had somehow been transformed into a strange and unusual house, Hilda wept. She had only parted with an unfaithful and ungrateful servant, but she wept. She dashed into the kitchen and began to do Ada’s work, still weeping, and she was savage against her own tears; yet they continued softly to fall, misting her vision of fire and utensils and earthenware vessels. Ada had left everything in a moment; she had left the kettle on the fire, and the grease in the square tin in which the dinner-joint had been cooked, and the ashes in the fender, and tea-leaves in the kitchen teapot and a cup and saucer unwashed. She had cared naught for the inconvenience she was causing; had shewn not the slightest consideration; had walked off without a pang, smilingly hoity-toity. And all servants were like that. Such conduct might be due as much to want of imagination, to a simple inability to picture to themselves the consequences of certain acts, as to stark ingratitude; but the consequences remained the same; and Hilda held fiercely to the theory of stark ingratitude.
She had made Ada; she had created her. When Hilda engaged her, Ada was little more than an “oat-cake girl,”— that is to say, one of those girls who earn a few pence by delivering oat-cakes fresh from the stove at a halfpenny each before breakfast at the houses of gormandising superior artisans and the middle-classes. True, she had been in one situation prior to Hilda’s, but it was a situation where she learnt nothing and could have learnt nothing. Nevertheless, she was very quick to learn, and in a month Hilda had done wonders with her. She had taught her not only her duties, but how to respect herself, to make the best of herself, and favourably to impress others. She had enormously increased Ada’s value in the universe. And she had taught her some worldly wisdom, and permitted and even encouraged certain coquetries, and in the bed-room during dressings and undressings had occasionally treated her as a soubrette if not as a confidante; had listened to her at length, and had gone so far as to ask her views on this matter or that — the supreme honour for a menial. Also she had very conscientiously nursed her in sickness. She had really liked Ada, and had developed a sentimental weakness for her. She had taken pleasure in her prettiness, in her natural grace, and in her crude youth. She enjoyed seeing Ada arrange a bedroom, or answer the door, or serve a meal. And Ada’s stupidity — that half-cunning stupidity of her class, which immovably underlay her superficial aptitudes — had not sufficed to spoil her affection for the girl. She had been indulgent to Ada’s stupidity; she had occasionally in some soft moods hoped that it was curable. And she had argued in moments of discouragement that at any rate stupidity could be faithful. In her heart she had counted Ada as a friend, as a true standby in the more or less tragic emergencies of the household. And now Ada had deserted her. Stupidity had proved to be neither faithful nor grateful. Why had Ada been so silly and so base? Impossible to say! A nothing! A whim! Nerves! Fatuity! The whole affair was horribly absurd. These creatures were incalculable. Of course Hilda would have been wiser not to upbraid her so soon after the scene with the cook, and to have spoken more smoothly to the chit in the boudoir. Hilda admitted that. But what then? Was that an excuse for the chit’s turpitude? There must be a limit to the mistress’s humouring. And probably after all the chit had meant to go. . . . If she had not meant to go she would not have entered the boudoir apronless and capless. Some rankling word, some ridiculous sympathy with the cook, some wild dream of a Christmas holiday — who could tell what might have influenced her? Hilda gave it up — and returned to it a thousand times. One truth emerged — and it was the great truth of housemistresses — namely, that it never, never, never pays to be too kind to servants. “Servants do not understand kindness.” You think they do; they themselves think they do; but they don’t — they don’t and they don’t. Hilda went back into the immensity of her desolating experience as an employer of female domestic servants of all kinds, but chiefly bad — for the landlady of a small boarding house must take what servants she can get — and she raged at the persistence of the proof that kindness never paid. What did pay was severity and inhuman strictness, and the maintenance of an impassable gulf between employer and employed. Not again would she make the mistake which she had made a hundred times. She hardened herself to the consistency of a slave-driver. And all the time it was the woman in her, not the mistress, that the hasty thoughtless Ada had wounded. To the woman the kitchen was not the same place without Ada — Ada on whom she had utterly relied in the dilemma caused by the departure of the cook. As with angrily wet eyes she went about her new work in the kitchen, she could almost see the graceful ghost of Ada tripping to and fro therein.
And all that the world, and the husband, would know or understand was that a cook had been turned out for drunkenness, and that a quite sober parlour-maid had most preposterously walked after her. Hilda was aware that in Edwin she had a severe, though a taciturn, critic of her activities as employer of servants. She had no hope whatever of his sympathy, and so she closed all her gates against him. She waited for him as for an adversary, and all the lustre faded from her conception of their love.
When Edwin approached his home that frosty evening, he was disturbed to perceive that there was no light from the hall-gas shining through the panes of the front-door, though some light showed at the dining-room window, the blinds of which had not been drawn. “What next?” he thought crossly. He was tired, and the keenness of the weather, instead of bracing him, merely made him petulant. He was astonished that several women in a house could all forget such an important act as the lighting of the hall-gas at nightfall. Never before had the hall-gas been forgotten, and the negligence appeared to Edwin as absolutely monstrous. The effect of it on the street, the effect on a possible caller, was bad enough (Edwin, while pretending to scorn social opinion, was really very deferential towards it), but what was worse was the revelation of the feminine mentality.
In opening the door with his latchkey he was purposely noisy, partly in order to give expression to his justified annoyance, and partly to warn all peccant women that the male had arrived, threatening.
As his feet fumbled into the interior gloom and he banged the door, he quite expected a rush of at least one apologetic woman with a box of matches. But nobody came. Nevertheless he could hear sharp movements through the half-open door of the kitchen. Assuredly women had the irresponsibility of infants. He glanced for an instant into the dining-room; the white cloth was laid, but the table was actually not set. With unusual righteous care he wiped the half-congealed mud off his boots on the mat; then removed his hat and his overcoat, took a large new piece of indiarubher from his pocket and put it on the hall-table, felt the radiator (which despite all his injunctions and recommendations was almost cold); and lastly he lighted the gas himself. This final act was contrary to his own rule, for he had often told Hilda that half her trouble with servants arose through her impatiently doing herself things which they had omitted, instead of ringing the bell and seeing the things done. But he was not infrequently inconsistent, both in deed and in thought. For another example, he would say superiorly that a woman could never manage women, ignoring that he the all-wise had never been able to manage Hilda.
He turned to go upstairs. At the same moment somebody emerged obscurely from the kitchen. It was Hilda, in a white apron.
“Oh! I’m glad you’ve lighted it,” said she curtly, without the least symptom of apology, but rather affrontingly.
He continued his way.
“Have you seen anything of George?” she asked, and her tone stopped him.
Yet she well knew that he hated to be stopped of an evening on his way to the bathroom. It could not be sufficiently emphasized that to accost him before he had descended from the bathroom was to transgress one of the most solemn rules of his daily life.
“Of course I haven’t seen George,” he answered. “How should I have seen George?”
“Because he’s not back from school yet, and I can’t help wondering ——”
She was worrying about George as usual.
He grunted and passed on.
“There’s no light on the landing, either,” he said, over the banisters. “I wish you’d see to those servants of yours.”
“As it happens there aren’t any servants.”
Her tone, getting more peculiar with each phrase, stopped him again.
“Aren’t any servants? What d’you mean?”
“Well, I found the attic full of beer bottles, so I sent her off on the spot.”
“Sent who off?”
“And where’s Ada?”
“She’s gone too,” said Hilda defiantly, and as though rebutting an accusation before it could be made.
“She seemed to want to. And she was very impertinent over it.”
He snorted and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, it’s your affair,” he muttered, too scornful to ask details.
“It is,” said she, significantly laconic.
In the bathroom, vexed and gloomy as he brushed his nails and splashed in the wash basin, he mused savagely over the servant problem. The servant problem had been growing acute. He had predicted several times that a crisis would arrive; a crisis had arrived; he was always right; his rightness was positively uncanny. He had liked Ada; he had not disliked the cook. He knew that Hilda was to blame. How should she not be to blame — losing her entire staff in one afternoon? It was not merely that she lacked the gift of authoritative control — it was also that she had no feeling for democratic justice as between one human being and another. And yet among his earliest recollections of her was her passionate sympathy with men on strike as against their employers. Totally misleading manifestations! For her a servant was nothing but a “servant.” She was convinced that all her servants were pampered and spoilt; and as for Edwin’s treatment of his workpeople she considered it to be ridiculously, criminally soft. If she had implied once she had implied a hundred times that the whole lot of them laughed at him behind his back for a sentimental simpleton. Occasionally Edwin was quite outraged by her callousness. The topic of the eight-hours day, of the ten-hours day, and even of the twelve-hours day (the last for tramwaymen) had been lately exciting the district. And Edwin was distressed that in his own house a sixteen-hour day for labour was in vogue and that the employer perceived no shame in it. He did not clearly see how the shame was to be abolished, but he thought that it ought to be admitted. It was not admitted. From six in the morning until ten at night these mysterious light-headed young women were the slaves of a bell. They had no surcease except one long weekday evening each week and a short Sunday evening each fortnight. At one period Hilda had had a fad for getting them out of bed at half-past five, to cure them of laziness. He remembered one cook whose family lived at the village of Brindley Edge, five miles off. This cook on her weekday evening would walk to Brindley Edge, spend three quarters of an hour in her home, and walk back to Bursley, reaching Trafalgar Road just in time to get to bed. Hilda saw nothing very odd in that. She said the girl could always please herself about going to Brindley Edge.
Edwin’s democratic sense was gradually growing in force; it disturbed more and more the peace of his inmost mind. He seldom displayed his sympathies (save to Tertius Ingpen who, though a Tory, was in some ways astoundingly open to ideas, which seemed to interest him as a pretty equation would interest him), but they pursued their secret activity in his being, annoying him at his lithographic works, and still more in his home. He would suppress them, and grin, and repeat his ancient consoling truth that what was, was. The relief, however, was not permanent.
In that year the discovery of Rontgen Rays, the practical invention of the incandescent gas-mantle, the abolition of the man with the red flag in front of self-propelled vehicles, and the fact that Consols stood at 113, had combined to produce in innumerable hearts the illusion that civilisation was advancing at a great rate. But Edwin in his soul scarcely thought so. He was worrying not only about Liberal principles, but about the world; in his youth he had never worried about the world. And of his own personal success he would ask and ask: Is it right? He said to himself in the bathroom: “There’s a million domestic servants in this blessed country, and not one of them works less than a hundred hours a week, and nobody cares. I don’t think I really care myself. But there it is all the same!” And he was darkly resentful against Hilda on account of the entire phenomenon. . . . He foresaw, too, a period of upset and discomfort in his house. Would there, indeed, ever be any real tranquillity in his house, with that strange, primeval cave-woman in charge of it?
As he descended the stairs, Hilda came out of the dining-room with an empty tray.
“I wish you’d go out and look for George.”
Imagine it — going out into the Five Towns to look for one boy!
“Oh! He’ll be all right. I suppose you haven’t forgotten Ingpen’s coming to-night.”
“Of course I haven’t. But I want you to go out and look for George.”
He knew what was in her mind — namely an absurd vision of George and his new bicycle crushed under a tramcar somewhere between Bleakridge and Hanbridge. In that year everybody with any pretension to youthfulness and modernity rode a bicycle. Both Edwin and Hilda rode occasionally — such was the power of fashion. Maternal apprehensions had not sufficed to keep George from having a bicycle, nor from riding on it unprotected up and down the greasy slopes of Trafalgar Road to and from school. Edwin himself had bought the bicycle, pooh-poohing danger, and asserting that anyhow normal risks must always be accepted with an even mind.
He was about to declare that he would certainly not do anything so silly as to go out and look for George — and then all of a sudden he had the queer sensation of being alone with Hilda in the house made strange and romantic by a domestic calamity. He gazed at Hilda with her apron, and the calamity had made her strange and romantic also. He was vexed, annoyed, despondent, gloomy, fearful of the immediate future; he had immense grievances; he hated Hilda, he loathed giving way to her. He thought: “What is it binds me to this incomprehensible woman? I will not be bound!” But he felt that he would be compelled (not by her but by something in himself) to commit the folly of going out to look for George. And he felt that though his existence was an exasperating adventure, still it was an adventure.
“Oh! Damn!” he exploded, and reached for a cap.
And then George came into the hall through the kitchen. The boy often preferred to enter by the back, the stalking Indian way.
George wore spectacles. He had grown considerably. He was now between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and he had begun to look his age. His mental outlook and conversation were on the whole in advance of his age. Even when he was younger he had frequently an adult manner of wise talking, but it had appeared unreal, naïve — it was amusing rather than convincing. Now he imposed himself even on his family as a genuine adolescent, though the idiom he employed was often schoolboyish and his gestures were immaturely rough. The fact was he was not the same boy. Everybody noticed it. His old charm and delicacy seemed to have gone, and his voice was going. He had become harsh, defiant, somewhat brutal, and egotistic if not conceited. He held a very low opinion of all his school-fellows, and did not conceal it. Yet he was not very high in his form (the lower fifth); his reports were mediocre; and he cut no figure in the playfield. In the home he was charged with idleness, selfishness, and irresolution. It was pointed out to him that he was not making the best of his gifts, and that if he only chose to make the best of them he might easily, etc., etc. Apparently he did not care a bit. He had marked facility on the piano, but he had insisted on giving up his piano lessons and would not open the piano for a fortnight at a time. He still maintained his intention of being an architect, but he had ceased to show any interest in architecture. He would, however, still paint in water-colours; and he read a lot, but gluttonously, without taste. Edwin and Hilda, and especially Hilda, did not hide their discontent. Hilda had outbursts against him. In regard to Hilda he was disobedient. Edwin always spoke quietly to him, and was seldom seriously disobeyed. When disobeyed Edwin would show a taciturn resentment against the boy, who would sulk and then melt.
“Oh! He’ll grow out of it,” Edwin would say to Hilda, yet Edwin, like Hilda, thought that the boy was deliberately naughty, and they held themselves towards him as grieved persons of superior righteousness towards a person of inferior righteousness. Not even Edwin reflected that profound molecular changes might be proceeding in George’s brain, for which changes he was in no way responsible. Nevertheless, despite the blighting disappointment of George’s evolution, the home was by no means deeply engloomed. No! George had an appealing smile, a mere gawky boyishness, a peculiar way of existing, that somehow made joy in the home. Also he was a centre of intense and continual interest, and of this he was very well aware.
In passing through the kitchen George had of course been struck by the astounding absence of the cook; he had noticed further a fancy apron and a cap lying on the window sill therein. And when he came into the hall, the strange aspect of his mother (in a servant’s apron) and his uncle proved to him that something marvellously unusual, exciting, and uplifting was afoot. He was pleased, agog, and he had the additional satisfaction that great events would conveniently divert attention from his lateness. Still he must be discreet, for the adults were evidently at loggerheads, and therefore touchy. He slipped between Edwin and Hilda with a fairly good imitation of innocent casualness, as if saying: “Whatever has occurred, I am guiltless, and going on just as usual.”
“Ooh! Bags I!” he exclaimed loudly, at the hall-table, and seized the indiarubber, which Edwin had promised him. His school vocabulary comprised an extraordinary number of words ending in gs. He would never, for example, say “first,” but “foggs”; and never “second,” but “seggs.” That very morning, for example, meeting Hilda on the mat at the foot of the stairs, he had shocked her by saying: “You go up foggs, mother, and I’ll go seggs.”
“George!” Hilda severely protested. Her anxiety concerning him was now turned into resentment. “Have you had an accident?”
“An accident?” said George, as though at a loss. Yet he knew perfectly that his mother was referring to the bicycle.
Edwin said curtly:
“Now, don’t play the fool. Have you fallen off your bike? Look at your overcoat. Don’t leave that satchel there, and hang your coat up properly.”
The overcoat was in a grievous state. A few days earlier it had been new. Besides money, it had cost an enormous amount of deliberation and discussion, like everything else connected with George. Against his will, Edwin himself had been compelled to conduct George to Shillitoe’s, the tailor’s, and superintend a third trying-on, for further alterations, after the overcoat was supposed to be finished. And lo, now it had no quality left but warmth! Efforts in regard to George were always thus out of proportion to the trifling results obtained. At George’s age Edwin doubtless had an overcoat, but he positively could not remember having one, and he was quite sure that no schoolboy overcoat of his had ever preoccupied a whole household for two minutes, to say nothing of a week.
George’s face expressed a sense of injury, and his face hardened.
“Mother made me take my overcoat. You know I can’t cycle in my overcoat. I’ve not been on my bicycle all day. Also my lamp’s broken,” he said, with gloomy defiance.
His curiosity about wondrous events in the house was quenched.
And Edwin felt angry with Hilda for having quite unjustifiably assumed that George had gone to school on his bicycle. Ought she not to have had the ordinary gumption to assure herself, before worrying, that the lad’s bicycle was not in the shed? Incredible thoughtlessness! All these alarms for nothing!
“Then why are you so late?” Hilda demanded, diverting to George her indignation at Edwin’s unuttered but yet conveyed criticism of herself.
“All this time?” Hilda questioned, suspiciously.
George sullenly nodded.
“Homework? Again?” ejaculated Edwin. “Why hadn’t you done it properly?”
“I had a headache last night. And I’ve got one today.”
“Another of your Latin headaches!” said Edwin sarcastically. There was nothing, except possibly cod liver oil, that George detested more than Edwin’s serious sarcasm.
The elders glanced at one another and glanced away. Both had the same fear — the dreadful fear that George might be developing the worse characteristics of his father. Both had vividly in mind the fact that this boy was the son of George Cannon. They never mentioned to each other either the fear or the fact; they dared not. But each knew the thoughts of the other. The boy was undoubtedly crafty; he could conceal subtle designs under a simple exterior; he was also undoubtedly secretive. The recent changes in his disposition had put Edwin and Hilda on their guard, and every time young George displayed cunning, or economised the truth, or lied, the fear visited them. “I hope he’ll turn out all right!” Hilda had said once. Edwin had nearly replied: “What are you worrying about? The sons of honest men are often rascals. Why on earth shouldn’t the son of a rascal be an honest man?” But he had only said, with good-humoured impatience: “Of course he’ll turn out all right!” Not that he himself was convinced.
Edwin now attacked the boy gloomily:
“You didn’t seem to have much of a headache when you came in just now.”
It was true.
But George suddenly burst into tears. His headaches were absolutely genuine. The emptiness of the kitchen and the general queer look of things in the house had, however, by their promise of adventurous happenings, caused him to forget his headache altogether, and the discovery of the new indiarubber had been like a tonic to a convalescent. The menacing attitude of the elders had now brought about a relapse. The headache established itself as his chief physical sensation. His chief moral sensation was that of a terrible grievance. He did not often cry; he had not indeed cried for about a year. But to-night there was something nervous in the very air, and the sob took him unawares. The first sob having prostrated all resistance, others followed victoriously, and there was no stopping them. He did not quite know why he should have been more liable to cry on this particular occasion than on certain others, and he was rather ashamed; on the other hand it was with an almost malicious satisfaction that he perceived the troubling effect of his tears on the elders. They were obviously in a quandary. Serve them right!
“It’s my eyes,” he blubbered. “I told you these specs would never suit me. But you wouldn’t believe me, and the headmaster won’t believe me.”
The discovery that George’s eyesight was defective, about two months earlier, had led to a desperate but of course hopeless struggle on his part against the wearing of spectacles. It was curious that in the struggle he had never even mentioned his strongest objection to spectacles — namely, the fact that Bert Benbow wore spectacles.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Edwin demanded.
Between sobs George replied with overwhelming disillusioned disgust:
“What’s the good of telling you anything? You only think I’m codding.”
And he passed upstairs, apparently the broken victim of fate and parents, but in reality triumphant. His triumph was such that neither Edwin nor Hilda dared even to protest against the use of such an inexcusable word as ‘codding.’
Hilda went into the kitchen, and Edwin rather aimlessly followed her. He felt incompetent. He could do nothing except carry trays, and he had no desire to carry trays. Neither spoke. Hilda was bending over the fire, then she arranged the grid in front of the fire to hold a tin, and she greased the tin. He thought she looked very wistful, for all the somewhat bitter sturdiness of her demeanour. Tertius Ingpen was due for the evening; she had no servants — through her own fault; and now a new phase had arrived in the unending responsibility for George’s welfare. He knew that she was blaming him on account of George. He knew that she believed in the sincerity of George’s outburst; he believed in it himself. The spectacles were wrong; the headache was genuine. And he, Edwin, was guilty of the spectacles because he had forced Hilda, by his calm bantering commonsense, to consult a small local optician of good reputation.
Hilda had wanted to go to Birmingham or Manchester; but Edwin said that such an idea was absurd. The best local optician was good enough for the great majority of the inhabitants of the Five Towns and would be good enough for George. Why not indeed? Why the craze for specialists? There could be nothing uniquely wrong with the boy’s eyes — it was a temporary weakness. And so on and so on, in accordance with Edwin’s instinct for denying the existence of a crisis. And the local optician, consulted, had borne him out. The local optician said that every year he dealt with dozens of cases similar to George’s. And now both the local optician and Edwin were overthrown by a boy’s sobbing tears.
Suddenly Hilda turned round upon her husband.
“I shall take George to London tomorrow about his eyes,” she said, with immense purpose and sincerity, in a kind of fierce challenge.
This was her amends to George for having often disbelieved him, and for having suspected him of taking after his father. She made her amends passionately, and with all the force of her temperament. In her eyes George was now a martyr.
“To London?” exclaimed Edwin weakly.
“Yes. It’s no use half doing these things. I shall ask Charlie Orgreave to recommend me a first-class oculist.”
Edwin dared say nothing. Either Manchester or Birmingham would have been just as good as London, perhaps better. Moreover, she had not even consulted him. She had decided by a violent impulse and announced her decision. This was not right; she would have protested against a similar act by Edwin. But he could not argue with her. She was far beyond argument.
“I wouldn’t have that boy’s eyesight played with for anything!” she said fiercely.
“Well, of course you wouldn’t! Who would?” Edwin thought, but he did not say it.
“Go and see what he’s doing,” she said.
Edwin slouched off. He was no longer the master of the house. He was only an economic factor and general tool in the house. And as he wandered like a culprit up the stairs of the mysteriously transformed dwelling he thought again: “What is it that binds me to her?” But he was abashed and in spite of himself impressed by the intensity of Hilda’s formidable emotion. Nevertheless as he began vaguely to perceive all that was involved in her threat to go to London on the morrow, he stiffened, and said to himself: “We shall see about that. We shall just see about that!”
They were at the meal. Hilda had covered George’s portion of fish with a plate and put it before the fire to keep warm. She was just returning to the table. Tertius Ingpen, who sat with his back to the fire, looked at her over his shoulder with an admiring smile and said:
“Well, I’ve had some good meals in this house, but this is certainly the best bit of fish I ever tasted. So that the catastrophe in the kitchen leaves me unmoved.”
Hilda, with face suddenly transformed by a responsive smile, insinuated herself between the table and her arm-chair, drew forward the chair by its arms, and sat down. Her keen pleasure in the compliment was obvious. Edwin noted that the meal was really very well served, the table brighter than usual, the toast crisper, and the fish — a fine piece of hake white as snow within its browned exterior — merely perfect. There was no doubt that Hilda could be extremely efficient when she desired; Edwin’s criticism was that she was too often negligent, and that in her moods of conscientiousness she gave herself too urgently and completely, producing an unnecessary disturbance in the atmosphere of the home. Nevertheless Edwin too felt pleasure in the compliment to Hilda; and he calmly enjoyed the spectacle of his wife and his friend side by side on such mutually appreciative terms. The intimacy of the illuminated table in the midst of the darker room, the warmth and crackling of the fire, the grave solidity of the furniture, the springiness of the thick carpet, and the delicate odours of the repast — all these things satisfied in him something that was profound. And the two mature, vivacious, intelligent faces under the shaded gas excited his loyal affection.
“That’s right,” Hilda murmured, in her clear enunciation. “I do like praise!”
“Now then, you callous brute,” said Ingpen to Edwin. “What do you say?”
And Hilda cried with swift, complaining sincerity:
“Oh! Edwin never praises me!”
Her sincerity convinced by its very artlessness. The complaint had come unsought from her heart. And it was so spontaneous and forcible that Tertius Ingpen, as a tactful guest, saw the advisability of easing the situation by laughter.
“Yes, I do!” Edwin protested, and though he was shocked, he laughed, in obedience to Ingpen’s cue. It was true; he did praise her; but not frequently, and almost always in order to flatter her rather than to express his own emotion. Edwin did not care for praising people; he would enthusiastically praise a book, but not a human being. His way was to take efficiency for granted. “Not so bad,” was a superlative of laudation with him. He was now shocked as much by the girl’s outrageous candour as by the indisputable revelation that she went hungry for praise. Even to a close friend such as Ingpen, surely a wife had not the right to be quite so desperately sincere. Edwin considered that in the presence of a third person husband and wife should always at any cost maintain the convention of perfect conjugal amenity. He knew couples who achieved the feat — Albert and Clara, for example. But Hilda, he surmised, had other ideas, if indeed she had ever consciously reflected upon this branch of social demeanour. Certainly she seemed at moments to lose all regard for appearances.
Moreover, she was polluting by acerbity the pure friendliness of the atmosphere, and endangering cheer.
“He’s too wrapped up in the works to think about praising his wife,” Hilda continued, still in the disconcerting vein of sincerity, but with less violence and a more philosophical air. The fact was that, although she had not regained the zest of the mood so rudely dissipated by the scene with Ada, she was kept cheerful by the mere successful exercise of her own energy in proving to these two men that servants were not in the least essential to the continuance of plenary comfort in her house; and she somewhat condescended towards Edwin.
“By the way, Teddie,” said Ingpen, pulling lightly at his short beard, “I heard a rumour that you were going to stand for the Town Council in the South ward. Why didn’t you?”
Edwin looked a little confused.
“Who told you that tale?”
“It was about.”
“It never came from me,” said Edwin.
Hilda broke in eagerly:
“He was invited to stand. But he wouldn’t. I thought he ought to. I begged him to. But no, he wouldn’t. And did you know he refused a J.P.ship too?”
“Oh!” mumbled Edwin. “That sort o’ thing’s not my line.”
“Oh, isn’t it!” Ingpen exclaimed. “Then whose line is it?”
“Look at all the rotters in the Council!” said Edwin.
“All the more reason why you should be on it!”
“Well, I’ve got no time,” Edwin finished gloomily and uneasily.
Ingpen paused, tapping his teeth with his finger, before proceeding, in a judicial, thoughtful manner which in recent years he had been developing:
“I’ll tell you what’s the matter with you, old man. You don’t know it, but you’re in a groove. You go about like a shuttle from the house to the works and the works to the house. And you never think beyond the works and the house.”
“Oh, don’t I?”
Ingpen went placidly on:
“No, you don’t. You’ve become a good specimen of the genus ‘domesticated business man.’ You’ve forgotten what life is. You fancy you’re at full stretch all the time, but you’re in a coma. I suppose you’ll never see forty again — and have you ever been outside this island? You went to Llandudno this year because you went last year. And you’ll go next year because you went this year. If you happen now and then to worry about the failure of your confounded Liberal Party you think you’re a blooming broad-minded publicist. Where are your musical evenings? When I asked you to go with me to a concert at Manchester last week but one, you thought I’d gone dotty, simply because it meant your leaving the works early and not getting to bed until the unheard-of-time of one thirty a.m.”
“I was never told anything about any concert,” Hilda interjected sharply.
“Go on! Go on!” said Edwin raising his eyebrows.
“I will,” said Ingpen with tranquillity, as though discussing impartially and impersonally the conduct of some individual at the Antipodes. “Where am I? Well, you’re always buying books, and I believe you reckon yourself a bit of a reader. What d’you get out of them? I daresay you’ve got decided views on the transcendent question whether Emily Brontë was a greater writer than Charlotte. That’s about what you’ve got. Why, dash it, you haven’t a vice left. A vice would interfere with your lovely litho. There’s only one thing that would upset you more than a machinery breakdown at the works ——”
“And what’s that?”
“What’s that? If one of the hinges of your garden-gate came off, or you lost your latchkey! Why, just look how you’ve evidently been struck all of a heap by this servant affair! I expect it occurred to you your breakfast might be five minutes late in the morning.”
“Stuff!” said Edwin, amiably. He regarded Ingpen’s observations as fantastically unjust and beside the mark. But his sense of fairness and his admiration of the man’s intellectual honesty would not allow him to resent them. Ingpen would discuss and dissect either his friends or himself with equal detachment; the detachment was complete. And his assumption that his friends fully shared his own dispassionate, curious interest in arriving at the truth appealed very strongly to Edwin’s loyalty. That Ingpen was liable to preach and even to hector was a drawback which he silently accepted.
“Struck all of a heap indeed!” muttered Edwin.
“Wasn’t he, Hilda?”
“I should just say he was! And I know he thinks it’s all my fault,” said Hilda.
Tertius Ingpen glanced at her an instant, and gave a short half-cynical laugh, which scarcely concealed his mild scorn of her feminine confusion of the argument.
“It’s the usual thing!” said Ingpen, with scorn still more marked. At this stage of a dissertation he was inclined to be less a human being than the trumpet of a sacred message. “It’s the usual thing! I never knew a happy marriage yet that didn’t end in the same way.” Then, perceiving that he was growing too earnest, and that his emphasis on the phrase ‘happy marriage’ had possibly been too sarcastic, he sniggered.
“I really don’t see what marriage has to do with it,” said Hilda, frowning.
“No, of course you don’t,” Ingpen agreed.
“If you’d said business ——” she added.
“Now we’ve had the diagnosis,” Edwin sardonically remarked, looking at his plate, “what’s the prescription?” He was reflecting: “‘Happy marriage,’ does he call it! . . . Why on earth does she say I think it’s all her fault? I’ve not breathed a word.”
“Well,” replied Ingpen. “You live much too close to your infernal works. Why don’t you get away, right away, and live out in the country like a sensible man, instead of sticking in this filthy hole — among all these new cottages? . . . Barbarian hordes. . . . ”
“Oh! Hurrah!” cried Hilda. “At last I’ve got somebody who takes my side.”
“Of course you say it’s impossible. You naturally would ——” Ingpen resumed.
He was interrupted by the entrance of George. Soon after Tertius Ingpen’s arrival, George had been despatched to summon urgently Mrs. Tams, the charwoman who had already more than once helped to fill a hiatus between two cooks. George showed now no trace of his late martyrdom, nor of a headache. To conquer George in these latter days you had to demand of him a service. It was Edwin who had first discovered the intensity of the boy’s desire to take a useful share in any adult operation whatever. He came in red-cheeked, red-handed, rough, defiant, shy, proud, and making a low intermittent “Oo-oo” noise with protruding lips to indicate the sharpness of the frost outside. As he had already greeted Ingpen he was able to go without ceremony straight to his chair.
Confidentially, in the silence, Hilda raised her eyebrows to him interrogatively. In reply he gave one short nod. Thus in two scarcely perceptible gestures the assurance was asked for and given that the mission had been successful and that Mrs. Tams would be coming up at once. George loved these private and laconic signallings, which produced in him the illusion that he was getting nearer to the enigma of life.
As he persisted in the “Oo-oo” manifestation, Hilda amicably murmured:
George pressed his lips swiftly and hermetically together, and raised his eyebrows in protest against his own indecorum. He glanced at his empty place; whereupon Hilda glanced informingly in the direction of the fire, and George, skilled in the interpretation of minute signs, skirted stealthily round the table behind his mother’s chair, and snatched his loaded plate from the hearth.
Nobody said a word. The sudden stoppage of the conversation had indeed caused a slight awkwardness among the elders. George, for his part, was quite convinced that they had been discussing his eyesight.
“Furnace all right again, sonny?” asked Edwin, quietly, when the boy had sat down. Hilda was replenishing Ingpen’s plate.
“Blop!” muttered George, springing up aghast. This meant that he had forgotten the furnace in the cellar, source of heat to the radiator in the hall. By a recent arrangement he received sixpence a week for stoking the furnace.
“Never mind! It’ll do afterwards,” said Edwin.
But George, masticating fish, shook his head. He must be stern with himself, possibly to atone for his tears. And he went off instantly to the cellar.
“Bit chill,” observed Edwin to him as he left the room. “A bit chilly” was what he meant; but George delighted to chip the end off a word, and when Edwin chose to adopt the same practice, the boy took it as a masonic sign of profound understanding between them.
George nodded and vanished. And both Edwin and Hilda dwelt in secret upon his boyish charm, and affectionate satisfaction mingled with and softened their apprehensions and their brooding responsibility and remorse. They thought: “He is simply exquisite,” and in their hearts apologised to him.
Tertius Ingpen asked suddenly:
“What’s happened to the young man’s spectacles?”
“They don’t suit him,” said Hilda eagerly. “They don’t suit him at all. They give him headaches. Edwin would have me take him to the local man, what’s-his-name at Hanbridge. I was afraid it would be risky, but Edwin would have it. I’m going to take him to London tomorrow. He’s been having headaches for some time and never said a word. I only found it out by accident.”
“Surely,” Ingpen smiled, “it’s contrary to George’s usual practice to hide his troubles like that, isn’t it?”
“Oh!” said Hilda. “He’s rather secretive, you know.”
“I’ve never noticed,” said Ingpen, “that he was more secretive than most of us are about a grievance.”
Edwin, secretly agitated, said in a curious light tone:
“If you ask me, he kept it quiet just to pay us out.”
“Pay you out? What for?”
“For making him wear spectacles at all. These kids want a deuce of a lot of understanding; but that’s my contribution. He simply said to himself: ‘Well, if they think they’re going to cure my eyesight for me with their beastly specs they just aren’t, and I won’t tell ’em!’”
“Edwin!” Hilda protested warmly. “I wonder you can talk like that!”
Tertius Ingpen went off into one of his peculiar long fits of laughter; and Edwin quizzically smiled, feeling as if he was repaying Hilda for her unnecessary insistence upon the fact that he was responsible for the choosing of an optician. Hilda, suspecting that the two men saw something droll which was hidden from her, blushed and then laughed in turn, somewhat self-consciously.
“Don’t you think it’s best to go to London, about an affair like eyesight?” she asked Ingpen pointedly.
“The chief thing in these cases,” said Ingpen solemnly, “is to satisfy the maternal instinct. Yes, I should certainly go to London. If Teddie disagrees, I’m against him. Who are you going to?”
“You are horrid!” Hilda exclaimed, and added with positiveness: “I shall ask Charlie Orgreave first. He’ll tell me the best man.”
“You seem to have a great belief in Charlie,” said Ingpen.
“I have,” said Hilda, who had seen Charlie at George’s bedside when nobody knew whether George would live or die.
And while they were talking about Charlie and about Janet, who was now living with her brother at Ealing, the sounds of George stoking the furnace below came dully up through the floor-boards.
“If you and George are going away,” asked Ingpen, “what’ll happen to his worship — with not a servant in the house?”
This important point had been occupying Edwin’s mind ever since Hilda had first announced her intention to go to London. But he had not mentioned it to her, nor she to him, their relations being rather delicate. It had, for him, only an academic interest, since he had determined that she should not go to London on the morrow. Nevertheless he awaited anxiously the reply.
Hilda answered with composure:
“I’m hoping he’ll come with us.”
He had been prepared for anything but this. The proposition was monstrously impossible. Could a man leave his works at a moment’s notice? The notion was utterly absurd.
“That’s quite out of the question,” he said at once. He was absolutely sincere. The effect of Ingpen’s discourse was, however, such as to upset the assured dignity of his pronouncement; for the decision was simply an illustration of Ingpen’s theory concerning him. He blushed.
“Why is it out of the question?” demanded Hilda, inimically gazing at him.
She had lost her lenient attitude towards him of the afternoon. Nevertheless, reflecting upon Tertius Ingpen’s indictment of the usual happy marriage, she had been planning the expedition to London as a revival of romance in their lives. She saw it as a marvellous rejuvenating experience. When she thought of all that she had suffered, and all that Edwin had suffered, in order that they might come together, she was quite desolated by the prosaic flatness of the ultimate result. Was it to attain their present stolid existence that they had endured affliction for a decade? She wanted passionately to break the mysterious bands that held them both back from ecstasy and romance. And he would not help her. He would not enter into her desire. She had known that he would refuse. He refused everything — he was so set in his own way. Resentment radiated from her.
“I can’t,” said Edwin. “What d’you want to go tomorrow for? What does a day or two matter?”
Then she loosed her tongue. Why tomorrow? Because you couldn’t trifle with a child’s eyesight. Already the thing had been dragging on for goodness knew how long. Every day might be of importance. And why not tomorrow? They could shut the house up, and go off together and stay at Charlie’s. Hadn’t Janet asked them many a time? Maggie would look out for new servants. And Mrs. Tams would clean the house. It was really the best way out of the servant question too, besides being the best for George.
“And there’s another thing,” she went on without a pause, speaking rapidly and clearly. “Your eyes want seeing to as well. Do you think I don’t know?” she sneered.
“Mine!” he exclaimed. “My eyes are as right as rain.” It was not true. His eyes had been troubling him.
“Then why have you had a double candle-bracket fixed at your bed-head, when a single one’s been enough for you all these years?” she demanded.
“I just thought of it, that’s all,” said Edwin glumly, and with no attempt to be diplomatic. “Anyhow I can’t go to London tomorrow. And when I want an oculist,” he finished with grimness, “Hanbridge’ll be good enough for me, I’m thinking.”
Strange, she had never before said a word to him about his eyes!
“Then what shall you do while I’m away?” she asked implacably.
But if she was implacable, he also could be implacable. If she insisted on leaving him in the lurch — well, she should leave him in the lurch! Tertius Ingpen was witness of a plain breach between them. It was unfortunate; it was wholly Hilda’s fault; but he had to face the fact.
“I don’t know,” he replied curtly.
The next moment George returned.
“Hasn’t Mrs. Tams been quick, mother?” said George. “She’s come.”
In the drawing-room, after the meal, Edwin could hear through the half open door the sounds of conversation between Hilda and Mrs. Tams, with an occasional word from George, who was going to help Mrs. Tams to “put the things away” after she had washed and wiped. The voice of Mrs. Tams was very gentle and comforting. Edwin’s indignant pity went out to her. Why should Mrs. Tams thus cheerfully bear the misfortunes of others? Why should she at a moment’s notice leave a cottageful of young children and a husband liable at any time to get drunk and maim either them or her, in order to meet a crisis caused by Hilda’s impulsiveness and lack of tact? The answer, as in so many cases, was of course economic. Mrs. Tams could not afford not to be at Mrs. Clayhanger’s instant call; also she was born the victim of her own altruism; her soul was soft like her plump cushionlike body, and she lived as naturally in injustice as a fish in water. But could anything excuse those who took advantage of such an economic system and such a devoted nature? Edwin’s conscience uneasily stirred; he could have blushed. However, he was helpless; and he was basely glad that he was helpless, that it was no affair of his after all, and that Mrs. Tams had thus to work out her destiny to his own benefit. He saw in her a seraph for the next world, and yet in this world he contentedly felt himself her superior. And her voice, soothing, acquiescent, expressive of the spirit which gathers in extraneous woes as the mediæval saint drew to his breast the swords of the executioners, continued to murmur in the hall.
“I alone in this house feel the real significance of Mrs. Tams. I’m sure she doesn’t feel it herself.”
But these reflections were only the vague unimportant background to the great matter in his mind — the difficulty with Hilda. When he had entered the house, questions of gaslight and blinds were enormous to him. The immense general question of servants had diminished them to a trifle. Then the question of George’s headache and eyesight had taken precedence. And now the relations of husband and wife were mightily paramount over everything else. Tertius Ingpen, having as usual opened the piano, was idly diverting himself with strange chords, while cigarette smoke rose into his eyes, making him blink. Like Edwin, Ingpen was a little self-conscious after the open trouble in the dining-room. It would have been absurd to pretend that trouble did not exist; on the other hand the trouble was not of the kind that could be referred to, by even a very intimate friend. The acknowledgment of it had to be mute. But in addition to being self-conscious, Ingpen was also triumphant. There was a peculiar sardonic and somewhat disdainful look on his face as he mused over the chords, trying to keep the cigarette smoke out of his eyes. His oblique glance seemed to be saying to Edwin: “What have I always told you about women? Well, you’ve married and you must take the consequences. Your wife’s no worse than other wives. Here am I, free! And wouldn’t you like to be in my place, my boy! . . . How wise I have been!”
Edwin resented these unspoken observations. The contrast between Ingpen’s specious support and flattery of Hilda when she was present, and his sardonic glance when she was absent, was altogether too marked. Himself in revolt against the institution of marriage, Edwin could not bear that Ingpen should attack it. Edwin had, so far as concerned the outside world, taken the institution of marriage under his protection. Moreover Ingpen’s glance was a criticism of Hilda such as no husband ought to permit. And it was also a criticism of the husband — that slave and dupe! . . . Yet, at bottom what Edwin resented was Ingpen’s contemptuous pity for the slave and the dupe.
“Why London — and why tomorrow?” said Edwin, cheerfully, with a superior philosophical air, as though impartially studying an argumentative position, as though he could regard the temporary vagaries of an otherwise fine sensible woman with bland detachment. He said it because he was obliged to say something, in order to prove that he was neither a slave nor a dupe.
“Ask me another,” replied Ingpen curtly, continuing to produce chords.
“Well, we shall see,” said Edwin mysteriously, firmly, and loftily; meaning that, if his opinion were invited, his opinion would be that Hilda would not go away tomorrow and that whenever she went she would not go to London.
He had decided to have a grand altercation with his wife that night, when Ingpen and Mrs. Tams had departed and George was asleep and they had the house to themselves. He knew his ground and he could force a decisive battle. He felt no doubt as to the result. The news of his triumph should reach Ingpen.
Ingpen was apparently about to take up the conversation when George came clumsily and noisily into the drawing-room. All his charm seemed to have left him.
“I thought you were going to help,” said Edwin.
“So I am,” George challenged him; and, lacking the courage to stop at that point, added: “But they aren’t ready yet.”
“Let’s try those Haydn bits, George,” Ingpen suggested.
“Oh no!” said George curtly.
Ingpen and the boy had begun to play easy fragments of duets together.
Edwin said with sternness:
“Sit down to that piano and do as Mr. Ingpen asks you.”
George flushed and looked foolish and sat down; and Ingpen quizzed him. All three knew well that Edwin’s fierceness was only one among sundry consequences of the mood of the housemistress. The slow movement and the scherzo from the symphony were played. And while the music went on, Edwin heard distantly the opening and shutting of the front-door and an arrival in the hall, and then chattering. Maggie had called. “What’s she after?” thought Edwin.
“Hoo! There’s Auntie Maggie!” George exclaimed, as soon as the scherzo was finished, and ran off.
“That boy is really musical,” said Ingpen with conviction.
“Yes, I suppose he is,” Edwin agreed casually, as though deprecating a talent which however was undeniable. “But you’d never guess he’s got a bad headache, would you?”
It was a strange kind of social evening, and Hilda — it seemed to the august Edwin — had a strange notion of the duties of hostess. Surely, if Mrs. Tams was in the kitchen, Hilda ought to be in the drawing-room with their guest! Surely Maggie ought to have been brought into the drawing-room — she was not a school girl, she was a woman of over forty, and yet she had quite inexcusably kept her ancient awkwardness and timidities. He could hear chatterings from the dining-room, scurryings through the hall, and chatterings from the kitchen; then a smash of crockery, a slight scream, and girlish gigglings. They were all the same, all the women he knew, except perhaps Clara — they had hours when they seemed to forget that they were adult and that their skirts were long. And how was it that Hilda and Maggie were suddenly so intimate, they whose discreet mutual jealousy was an undeniable phenomenon of the family life? With all his majesty he was simpleton enough never to have understood that two women who eternally suspect each other may yet dissolve upon occasion into the most touching playful tenderness. The whole ground-floor was full of the rumour of an apparent alliance between Hilda and Maggie. And as he listened Edwin glanced sternly at the columns of the evening Signal, while Tertius Ingpen, absorbed, worked his way bravely through a sonata of Beethoven.
Then George reappeared.
“Mother’s going to take me to London tomorrow about my eyes,” said George to Ingpen, stopping the sonata by his mere sense of the terrific importance of such tidings. And he proceeded to describe the projected doings in London, the visit to Charlie and Janet Orgreave, and possibly to the Egyptian Hall.
Edwin did not move. He kept an admirable and complete calm under the blow. Hilda was decided, then, to defy him. In telling the boy, who during the meal had been permitted to learn nothing, she had burnt her boats; she had even burnt Edwin’s boats also: which seemed to be contrary to the rules laid down by society for conjugal warfare — but women never could fight according to rules! The difficulties and dangers of the great pitched battle which Edwin had planned for the close of the evening were swiftly multiplied. He had misgivings.
The chattering, giggling girls entered the drawing-room. But as Maggie came through the doorway her face stiffened; her eyes took on a glaze; and when Ingpen bent over her hand in all the false ardour of his excessive conventional chivalry, the spinster’s terrible constraint — scourge of all her social existence — gripped her like a disease. She could scarcely speak.
“Hello, Mag,” Edwin greeted her.
Impossible to divine in this plump, dowdy, fading, dumb creature the participator in all those chatterings and gigglings of a few moments earlier! Nevertheless Edwin, who knew her profoundly, could see beneath the glaze of those eyes the commonsense soul of the sagacious woman protesting against Ingpen’s affected manners and deciding that she did not care for Ingpen at all.
“Auntie Hamps is being naughty again,” said Hilda bluntly.
Ingpen, and then Edwin, sniggered.
“I can’t do anything with her, Edwin,” said Maggie, speaking quickly and eagerly, as she and Hilda sat down. “She’s bound to let herself in for another attack if she doesn’t take care of herself. And she won’t take care of herself. She won’t listen to the doctor or anybody else. She’s always on her feet, and she’s got sewing-meetings on the brain just now. I’ve got her to bed early to-night — she’s frightfully shaky — and I thought I’d come up and tell you. You’re the only one that can do anything with her at all, and you really must come and see her tomorrow on your way to the works.”
Maggie spoke as though she had been urging Edwin for months to take the urgent matter in hand and was now arrived at desperation.
“All right! All right!” said he, with amiable impatience; it was the first he had heard of the matter. “I’ll drop in. But I’ve got no influence over her,” he added, with sincerity.
“Oh yes, you have!” said Maggie, mildly now. “I’m very sorry to hear about George’s eyes. Seeing it’s absolutely necessary for Hilda to take him to London tomorrow, and you’ve got no servants at all, can’t you come and sleep at Auntie’s for a night or two? You’ve no idea what a relief it would be to me.”
In an instant Edwin saw that he was beaten, that Hilda and Maggie, in the intervals of their giggling, had combined to overthrow him. The tone in which Maggie uttered the words ‘George’s eyes,’ ‘absolutely necessary’ and ‘such a relief’ precluded argument. His wife would have her capricious unnecessary way, and he would be turned out of his own house.
“I think you might, dear,” said Hilda, with the angelic persuasiveness of a loving and submissive wife. Nobody could have guessed from that marvellous tone that she had been determined to defeat him and was then, so to speak, standing over his prostrate form.
Maggie, having said what was necessary to be said, fell back into the constraint from which no efforts of her companions could extricate her. Such was the effect upon her of the presence of Tertius Ingpen, a stranger. Presently Ingpen was scanning time-tables for Hilda, and George was finding notepaper for her, and Maggie was running up and down stairs for her. She was off to London. “In that woman’s head,” thought Edwin, as, observing his wife, he tried in vain to penetrate the secrets behind her demeanour, “there’s only room for one idea at a time.”
Edwin sat alone in the drawing-room, at the end of an evening which he declined to call an evening at all. His eyes regarded a book on his knee, but he was not reading it. His mind was engaged upon the enigma of his existence. He had entered his house without the least apprehension, and brusquely, in a few hours, everything seemed to be changed for him. Impulse had conquered commonsense; his ejectment was a settled thing; and he was condemned to the hated abode of Auntie Hamps. Events seemed enormous; they desolated him; his mouth was full of ashes. The responsibilities connected with George were increasing; his wife, incalculable and unforeseeable, was getting out of hand; and the menace of a future removal to another home in the country was raised again.
He looked about the room; and he imagined all the house, every object in which was familiar and beloved, and he simply could not bear to think of the disintegration of these interiors by furniture-removers, and of the endless rasping business of creating a new home in partnership with a woman whose ideas about furnishing were as unsound as they were capricious. He utterly dismissed the fanciful scheme, as he dismissed the urgings towards public activity. He deeply resented all these headstrong intentions to disturb him in his tranquillity. They were indefensible, and he would not have them. He would die in sullen obstinacy rather than yield. Impulse might conquer commonsense, but not beyond a certain degree. He would never yield.
Ingpen had departed, to sleep in a room in the same building as his office at Hanbridge. He knew that Ingpen had no comprehension of domestic comfort and a well-disposed day. Nevertheless he envied the man his celestial freedom. If he, Edwin, were free, what an ideal life he could make for himself, a life presided over by commonsense, regularity, and order! He was not free; he would never be free; and what had he obtained in exchange for freedom? . . . Ingpen’s immense criticism smote him. He had a wife and her child; servants — at intervals; a fine works and many workpeople; a house, with books; money, security. The organised machinery of his existence was tremendous; and it was all due to him, made by him in his own interests and to satisfy his own desires. Without him the entire structure would crumble in a week; without him it would have no excuse. And what was the result? Was he ever, in any ideal sense, happy: that is, free from foreboding, from friction, from responsibility, and withal lightly joyous? Was any quarter of an hour of his day absolutely what he would have wished? He ranged over his day, and concluded that the best part of it was the very last. . . . He got into bed, the candles in the sconce were lit, the gas diminished to a blue speck, and most of the room in darkness; he lay down on his left side, took the marker from the volume in his hand, and began to read; the house was silent and enclosed; the rumbling tramcar — to whose sound he had been accustomed from infancy — did not a bit disturb him; it was in another world; over the edge of his book he could see the form of his wife, fast asleep in the other bed, her plaited hair trailing over the pillow; the feel of the sheets to his limbs was exquisite; he read, the book was good; the chill of winter just pleasantly affected the hand that held the book; nothing annoyed; nothing jarred; sleep approached. . . . That fifteen minutes, that twenty or thirty minutes, was all that he could show as the result of the tremendous organised machinery of his existence — his house, his works, his workpeople, his servants, his wife with her child. . . .
Hilda came with quick determination into the drawing-room. They had not spoken to each other alone since the decision and his defeat. He was aware of his heart beating resentfully.
“I’m going to bed now, dear,” she said in an ordinary tone. “I’ve got a frightful headache, and I must sleep. Be sure and wake me up at seven in the morning, will you? I shall have such lots to do.”
“Has she a frightful headache?”
She bent down and kissed him several times, very fervently; her lips lingered on his. And all the time she frowned ever so little; and it was as if she was conveying to him: “But — each for himself in marriage, after all.”
In spite of himself, he felt just a little relieved; and he could not understand why. He watched her as she left the room. How had it come about that the still finally mysterious creature was living in his house, imposing her individuality upon him, spoiling his existence? He considered that it was all disconcertingly strange.
He rose, lit a cigarette, and opened the window; and the frosty air, entering, braced him and summoned his self-reliance. The night was wondrous. And when he had shut the window and turned again within, the room, beautiful, withdrawn, peaceful, was wondrous too. He reflected that soon he would be in bed, calmly reading, with his wife unconscious as an infant in the other bed. And then his grievance against Hilda slowly surged up and he began for the first time to realise how vast it was.
“Confound that woman!” he muttered, meaning Auntie Hamps.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05