On the next evening it was Maggie who opened Mrs. Hamps’s front-door for Edwin. There was no light in the lobby, but a faint gleam coming through the open door of the sitting-room disclosed the silhouette of Maggie’s broad figure.
“I thought you’d call in this morning,” said Maggie discontentedly. “I asked you to. I’ve been expecting you all day.”
“Didn’t you get my message?”
“No. What message?”
“D’you mean to say a lad hasn’t been here with my portmanteau?” demanded Edwin, alarmed and ready to be annoyed.
“Yes. A lad’s been with your portmanteau. But he gave no message.”
“D— n him. I told him to tell you I couldn’t possibly get here before night.”
“Well, he didn’t!” said Maggie stoutly, throwing back the blame upon Edwin and his hirelings. “I particularly wanted you to come early. I told Auntie you’d be coming.”
“How’s she getting on?” Edwin asked with laconic gruffness, dismissing Maggie’s grievance without an apology. He might have to stand nonsense from Hilda; but he would not stand it from Maggie, of whose notorious mildness he at once began to take advantage, as in the old days of their housekeeping together. Moreover, his entrance into this abode was a favour, exhibiting the condescension of the only human being who could exercise influence upon Auntie Hamps.
“She’s worse,” said Maggie, briefly and significantly.
“In bed?” said Edwin, less casually, marking her tone.
“Had the doctor?”
“I should think so indeed!”
“Hm! Why don’t you have a light in this lobby?” he enquired suddenly, on a drily humorous note, as he groped to suspend his overcoat upon an unstable hatstand. It seemed to be a very cold lobby, after his own radiator-heated half.
“She never will have a light here, unless she’s doing the grand for someone. Are you going to wash ye?”
“No. I cleaned up at the works.” A presentiment of the damp chilliness of the Hamps bedroom had suggested this precaution.
Maggie preceded him into the sitting-room, where a hexagonal occasional-table was laid for tea.
“Hello! Do you eat here? What’s the matter with the dining-room?”
“The chimney always smokes when the wind’s in the south-west.”
“Well, why doesn’t she have a cowl put on it?”
“You’d better ask her. . . . Also she likes to save a fire. She can’t bear to have two fires going as well as the kitchen-range. I’ll bring tea in. It’s all ready.”
Maggie went away.
Edwin looked round the shabby Victorian room. A length of featureless linoleum led from the door to the table. This carpet-protecting linoleum exasperated him. It expressed the very spirit of his aunt’s house. He glanced at the pictures, the texts, the beady and the woolly embroideries, the harsh chairs, and the magnificent morocco exteriors of the photograph-albums in which Auntie Hamps kept the shiny portraits of all her relatives, from grand-nieces back to the third and fourth generation of ancestors. And a feeling of desolation came over him. He thought: “How many days shall I have to spend in this deadly hole?” It was extremely seldom that he visited King Street, and when he did come the house was brightened to receive him. He had almost forgotten what the house really was. And, suddenly thrown back into it at its most lugubrious and ignoble, after years of the amenities of Trafalgar Road, he was somehow surprised that that sort of thing had continued to exist, and he resented that it should have dared to continue to exist. He had a notion that, since he had left it behind, it ought to have perished.
He cautiously lifted the table and carried it to the hearthrug. Then he sat down in the easy-chair, whose special property, as he remembered, was slowly and inevitably to slide the sitter forward to the hard edge of the seat; and he put his feet inside the fender. In the grate a small fire burned between two fire-bricks. He sneezed. Maggie came in with a tray.
“Are you cold?” she asked, seeing the new situation of the table.
“Am I cold!” Edwin repeated.
“Well,” said Maggie, “I always think your rooms are so hot.”
Edwin seized the small serviceable tongs which saved the wear of the large tongs matching the poker and the shovel, and he dragged both firebricks out of the grate.
“No coal here, I suppose!” he exclaimed gloomily, opening the black japanned coal-scuttle. “Oh! Corn in Egypt!” The scuttle was full of coal. He threw on to the fire several profuse shovelfuls of best household nuts which had cost sixteen shillings a ton even in that district of cheap coal.
“Well,” Maggie murmured, aghast. “It’s a good thing it’s you. If it had been anybody else —”
“What on earth does she do with her money?” he muttered.
Shrugging her shoulders, Maggie went out again with an empty tray.
“No servant, either?” Edwin asked, when she returned.
“She’s sitting with Auntie.”
“Must I go up before I have my tea?”
“No. She won’t have heard you come.”
There was a grilled mutton-chop and a boiled egg on the crowded small table, with tea, bread-and-butter, two rounds of dry bread, some cakes, and jam.
“Which are you having — egg or chop?” Edwin demanded as Maggie sat down.
“Oh! They’re both for you.”
“And what about you?”
“I only have bread-and-butter as a rule.”
Edwin grunted, and started to eat.
“What’s supposed to be the matter with her?” he enquired.
“It seems it’s congestion of the lung, and thickened arteries. It wouldn’t matter so much about the lung being congested, in itself, only it’s the strain on her heart.”
“Been in bed all day, I suppose.”
“No, she would get up. But she had to go back to bed at once. She had a collapse.”
He could not think of anything else to say.
“Haven’t got to-night’s Signal, have you?”
“Oh no!” said Maggie, astonished at such a strange demand. “Hilda get off all right?”
“Yes, they went by the nine train.”
“She told me that she should, if she could manage it. I expect Mrs. Tams was up there early.”
Edwin nodded, recalling with bitterness certain moments of the early morning. And then silence ensued. The brother and sister could not keep the conversation alive. Edwin thought: “We know each other intimately, and we respect each other, and yet we cannot even conduct a meal together without awkwardness and constraint. Has civilisation down here got no further than that?” He felt sorry for Maggie, and also kindly disdainful of her. He glanced at her furtively and tried to see in her the girl of the far past. She had grown immensely older than himself. She was now at home in the dreadful Hamps environment. True, she had an income, but had she any pleasures? It was impossible to divine what her pleasures might be, what she thought about when she lay in bed, to what hours she looked forward. First his father, then himself, and lastly Auntie Hamps had subjugated her. And of the three Auntie Hamps had most ruthlessly succeeded, and in the shortest time. And yet — Edwin felt — even Auntie Hamps had not quite succeeded, and the original individual still survived in Maggie and was silently critical of all the phenomena which surrounded her and to which she had apparently submitted. Realising this, Edwin ceased to be kindly disdainful.
Towards the end of the meal a heavy foot was heard on the stairs.
“Minnie!” Maggie called.
After shuffling and hesitation the sitting-room door was pushed ever so little open.
“Yes, miss,” said someone feebly.
“Why have you left Mrs. Hamps? Do you need anything?”
“Missis made me go, miss,” came the reply, very loosely articulated.
“Come in and take your bread,” said Maggie, and aside to Edwin: “Auntie’s at it again!”
After another hesitation the door opened wide, and Minnie became visible. She was rather a big girl, quite young, fat, too fair, undecided, obviously always between two minds. Her large apron, badly-fitting over the blue frock, was of a dubious yellow colour. She wore spectacles. Behind her spectacles she seemed to be blinking in confusion at all the subtle complexities of existence. She advanced irregularly to the table with a sort of nervous desperation, as if saying: “I have to go through this ordeal.” Edwin could not judge whether she was about to smile or about to weep.
“Here’s your bread,” said Maggie, indicating the two rounds of dry bread. “I’ve left the dripping on the kitchen table for you.”
Edwin, revolted, perceived of course in a flash what the life of Minnie was under the regime of Auntie Hamps.
“Thank ye, miss.”
He noticed that the veiled voice was that of a rather deaf person.
Blushing, Minnie took the bread, and moved away. Just as she reached the door, she gave a great sob, followed by a number of little ones; and the bread fell on to the carpet. She left it there, and vanished, still violently sobbing.
Edwin, spellbound, stopped masticating. A momentary sensation almost of horror seized him. Maggie turned pale, and he was glad that she turned pale. If she had shown by no sign that such happenings were unusual, he would have been afraid of the very house itself, of its mere sinister walls which seemed to shelter sick tyrants, miserable victims, and enchanted captives; he would have begun to wonder whether he himself was safe in it.
“What next?” muttered Maggie, intimidated but plucky, rising and following Minnie. “Just go up to Auntie, will you?” she called to Edwin over her shoulder. “She oughtn’t really to be left alone for a minute.”
Edwin pushed open the door and crept with precautions into the bedroom. Mrs. Hamps was dozing. In the half-light of the lowered gas he looked at her and was alarmed, shocked, for it was at once apparent that she must be very ill. She lay reclining against several crumpled and crushed pillows, with her head on one side and her veined hands limp on the eiderdown, between the heavy brown side-curtains that hung from the carved mahogany tester. The posture seemed to be that of an exhausted animal, surprised by the unconsciousness of final fatigue, shameless in the intense need of repose. Auntie Hamps had ceased to be a Wesleyan, a pillar of society, a champion of the conventions, and a keeper-up of appearances; she was just an utterly wearied and beaten creature, breathing noisily through wide-open mouth. Edwin could not remember ever having seen her when she was not to some extent arrayed for the world’s gaze; he had not seen her at the crisis of any of her recent attacks. He knew that more than once she had recovered when good judges had pronounced recovery impossible; but he was quite sure, now, that she would never rise from that bed. He had the sudden dreadful thought: “She is done for, sentenced, cut off from the rest of us. This is the end for her. She won’t be able to pretend any more. All her efforts have come to this.” The thought affected him like a blow. And two somewhat contradictory ideas sprang from it: first, the entire absurdity of her career as revealed by its close, and secondly, the tragic dignity with which its close was endowing her.
At once contemptible and august, she was diminished, even in size. Her scanty grey hair was tousled. Her pink flannel night-dress with its long, loose sleeves was grotesque; the multitude of her patched outer wrappings, from which peeped her head on its withered neck, and safety-pins, and the orifice of a hot-water bag, were equally grotesque. None of the bed-linen was clean, or of good quality. The eiderdown was old, and the needle-points of its small white feathers were piercing it. The table at the bed-head had a strange collection of poor, odd crockery. The whole room, with its distempered walls of an uncomfortable green colour, in spite of several respectable pieces of mahogany furniture, seemed to be the secret retreat of a graceless and mean indigence. And above all it was damply cold; the window stood a little open, and only the tiniest fire burnt in the inefficient grate.
For decades Auntie Hamps, with her erect figure and handsome face, her black silks, jet ornaments, and sealskins, her small regular subscriptions and her spasmodic splendours of golden generosity, her heroic relentless hypocrisies and her absolute self-reliance and independence, had exhibited a glorious front to the world. With her, person and individuality were almost everything, and the environment she had made for herself almost nothing. The ground-floor of her house was presentable, especially when titivated for occasional hospitalities, but not more than presentable. The upper floor was never shown. In particular, Auntie Hamps was not one of those women who invite other women to their bedrooms. Her bedroom was guarded like a fastness. In it, unbeheld, lived the other Auntie Hamps, complementary to the grand and massive Mrs. Hamps known to mankind. And now the fastness was exposed, defenceless, and its squalid avaricious secrets discovered; and she was too broken to protest. There was something unbearably pitiful in that. Her pose was pitiful and her face was pitiful. Those features were still far from ugly; the contours of the flushed cheeks, the chin, and the convex eyelids were astonishingly soft, and recalled the young girl of about half a century earlier. She was both old and young in her troubled unconsciousness. The reflection was inevitable: “She was a young girl — and now she is sentenced.” Edwin felt himself desolated by a terrible gloom which questioned the justification of all life. The cold of the room made him shiver. After gazing for a long time at the sufferer, he tiptoed to the fire. On the painted iron mantelpiece were a basalt clock and three photographs; a recent photograph of smirking Clara surrounded by her brood; a faded photograph of Maggie as a young girl, intolerably dowdy; and an equally faded photograph of himself as a young man of twenty — he remembered the suit and the necktie in which he had been photographed. The simplicity, the ingenuousness, of his own boyish face moved him deeply and at the same time disgusted him. “Was I like that?” he thought, astounded, and he felt intensely sorry for the raw youth. Above the clock was suspended by a ribbon a new green card, lettered in silver with some verses entitled “Lean Hard.” This card, he knew, had superseded a booklet of similar tenor that used to lie on the dressing-table when he was an infant. The verses began:
Child of My love, “Lean hard”,
And let Me feel the pressure of thy care.
And they ended:
Thou lovest Me. I knew it. Doubt not then,
But loving Me, LEAN HARD.
All his life he had laughed at the notion of his Auntie leaning hard upon anything whatever. Yet she had lived continually with these verses ever since the year of their first publication; she had never tired of their message. And now Edwin was touched. He seemed to see some sincerity, some beauty, in them. He had a vision of their author, unknown to literature, but honoured in a hundred thousand respectable homes. He thought: “Did Auntie only pretend to believe in them? Or did she think she did believe in them? Or did she really believe in them?” The last seemed a possibility. Supposing she did really believe in them? . . . Yes, he was touched. He was ready to admit that spirituality was denied to none. He seemed to come into contact with the universal immanent spirituality.
Then he stooped to put some bits of coal silently on the fire.
“Who’s that putting coal on the fire?” said a faint but sharply protesting voice from the bed.
The weakness of the voice gave Edwin a fresh shock. The voice seemed to be drawing on the very last reserves of its owner’s vitality. Owing to the height of the foot of the bed, Auntie Hamps could not see anything at the fireplace lower than the mantelpiece. As she withdrew from earth she employed her fading faculties to expostulate against a waste of coal and to identify the unseen criminal.
“I am,” said Edwin cheerfully. “It was nearly out.”
He stood up, smiling slightly, and faced her.
Auntie Hamps, lifting her head and frowning in surprise, gazed at him for a few moments, as if trying to decide who he was. Then she said, in the same enfeebled tone as before:
“Eh, Edwin! I never heard you come in. This is an honour!” And her head dropped back.
“I’m sleeping here,” said Edwin, with determined cheerfulness. “Did ye know?”
She reflected, and answered deliberately, using her volition to articulate every syllable:
“Yes. Ye’re having Maggie’s room.”
“Oh no, Auntie!”
“Yes, you are. I’ve told her.” The faint voice became harshly obstinate. “Turn the gas up a bit, Edwin, so that I can see you. Well, this is an honour. Did Maggie give ye a proper tea?”
“Oh yes, thanks. Splendid.”
He raised the gas. Auntie Hamps blinked.
“You want something to shade this gas,” said Edwin. “I’ll fix ye something.”
The gas-bracket was a little to the right of the fireplace, over the dressing-table, and nearly opposite the bed. Auntie Hamps nodded. Having glanced about, Edwin put a bonnet-box on the dressing-table and on that, upright and open, the Hamps family Bible from the ottoman. The infirm creation was just lofty enough to come between the light and the old woman’s eyes.
“That’ll be better,” said he. “You’re not at all well, I hear, Auntie.” He endeavoured to be tactful.
She slowly shook her head as it lay on the pillow.
“This is one of my bad days. . . . But I shall pick up. . . . Then has Hilda taken George to London?”
“Eh, I do hope and pray it’ll be all right. I’ve had such good eyesight myself, I’m all the more afraid for others. What a blessing it’s been to me! . . . Eh, what a good mother dear Hilda is!” She added after a pause: “I daresay there never was such a mother as Hilda, unless it’s Clara.”
“Has Clara been in today?” Edwin demanded, to change the subject of conversation.
“No, she hasn’t. But she will, as soon as she has a moment. She’ll be popping in. They’re such a tie on her, those children are — and how she looks after them! . . . Edwin!” She called him, as though he were receding.
The frail voice continued, articulating with great carefulness, and achieving each sentence as though it were a miracle, as indeed it was:
“I think no one ever had such nephews and nieces as I have. I’ve never had children of my own — that was not to be! — but I must say the Lord has made it up to me in my nephews and nieces. You and Hilda . . . and Clara and Albert . . . and the little chicks!” Tears stood in her eyes.
“You’re forgetting Maggie,” said Edwin, lightly.
“Yes,” Auntie Hamps agreed, but in a quite different tone, reluctant and critical. “I’m sure Maggie does her best. Oh! I’m sure she does . . . Edwin!” Again she called him.
He approached the tumbled bed, and even sat on the edge of it, his hands in his pockets. Auntie Hamps, though breathing now more rapidly and with more difficulty, seemed to have revitalised herself at some mysterious source of energy. She was still preoccupied by the mental concentration and the effort of volition required for the smallest physical acts incident to her continued existence; but she had accumulated power for the furtherance of greater ends.
“D’ye want anything?” Edwin suggested, indicating the contents of the night-table.
She moved her head to signify a negative. Her pink-clad arms did not stir. And her whole being seemed to be suspended while she prepared for an exertion.
“I’m so relieved you’ve come,” she said at length, slowly and painfully. “You can’t think what a relief it is to me. I’ve really no one but you. . . . It’s about that girl.”
Mrs. Hamps inclined her head, and fetched breath through the wide-open mouth. “I’ve only just found it out. She’s in trouble. Oh! She admitted it to me a bit ago. I sent her downstairs. I wouldn’t have her in my bedroom a minute longer. She’s in trouble. I felt sure she was. . . . She was at class-meeting last Wednesday. And only yesterday I paid her her wages. Only yesterday! Here she lives on the fat of the land, and what does she do for it? I assure you I have to see to everything myself. I’m always after her. . . . In a month she won’t be fit to be seen . . . Edwin, I’ve never been so ashamed. . . . That I should have to tell such a thing to my own nephew!” She ceased, exhausted.
Edwin was somewhat amused. He could not help feeling amused at such an accident happening in the house of Mrs. Hamps.
“Who’s the man?” he asked.
“Yes, and that’s another thing!” answered Mrs. Hamps solemnly, in her extreme weakness. “It’s the barman at the Vaults, of all people. She wouldn’t admit it, but I know.”
“What are you going to do?”
“She must leave my house at once.”
“Where does she live — I mean her people?”
“She has no parents.” Auntie Hamps reflected for a few moments. “She has an aunt at Axe.”
“Well, she can’t get to Axe to-night,” said Edwin positively. “Does Maggie know about it?”
“Maggie!” exclaimed Mrs. Hamps scornfully. “Maggie never notices anything.” She added in a graver tone: “And there’s no reason why Maggie should know. It’s not the sort of thing that Maggie ought to know about. You can speak to the girl herself. It will come much better from you. I shall simply tell Maggie I’ve decided the girl must go.”
“She can’t go to-night,” Edwin repeated, humouringly, but firmly.
Auntie Hamps proved the sincerity of her regard for him by yielding.
“Well,” she murmured, “tomorrow morning, then. She can turn out the sitting-room, and clean the silver in the black box, and then she can go — before dinner. I don’t see why I should give her her dinner. Nor her extra day’s wages either.”
“And what shall you do for a servant? Get a charwoman?”
“Charwoman? No! Maggie will manage.” And then with a sudden flare of relished violence: “I always knew that girl was a mopsy slut. And what’s more, if you ask me, she brought him into the house — and after eleven o’clock at night too!”
“All right!” Edwin muttered, to soothe the patient.
And Mrs. Hamps sadly smiled.
“It’s such a relief to me,” she breathed. “You don’t know what a relief to me it is to put it in your hands.”
Her eyelids dropped. She said no more. Having looked back for an instant in a supreme effort on behalf of the conventions upon which society was established, Auntie Hamps turned again exhausted towards the lifting veil of the unknown. And Edwin began to realise the significance of the scene that was ended.
“I say,” Edwin began, when he had silently closed the door of the sitting-room. “Here’s a lark, if you like!” And he gave a short laugh. It was under such language and such demeanour that he concealed his real emotion, which was partly solemn, partly pleasurable, and wholly buoyant.
Maggie looked up gloomily. With a bit of pencil held very close to the point in her heavy fingers, she was totting up the figures of household accounts in a penny red-covered cash-book.
Edwin went on:
“It seems the girl yon”— he indicated the kitchen with a jerk of the head —”‘s been and got herself into a mess.”
Maggie leaned her chin on her hand.
“Has she been talking to you about it?” With a similar jerk of the head Maggie indicated Mrs. Hamps’s bedroom.
“I suppose she’s only just found it out?”
“Who? Auntie? Yes. Did you know about it?”
“Did I know about it?” Maggie repeated with mild disdainful impatience. “Of course I knew about it. I’ve known for weeks. But I wasn’t going to tell her.” She finished bitterly.
Edwin regarded his sister with new respect and not without astonishment. Never before in their lives had they discussed any inconvenient sexual phenomenon. Save for vague and very careful occasional reference to Clara’s motherhood, Maggie had never given any evidence to her brother that she was acquainted with what are called in Anglo–Saxon countries “the facts of life,” and he had somehow thought of her as not having emerged, at the age of forty-four or so, from the naïve ignorance of the young girl. Now her perfectly phlegmatic attitude in front of the Minnie episode seemed to betoken a familiarity that approached cynicism. And she was not at all tongue-tied; she was at her ease. She had become a woman of the world. Edwin liked her; he liked her manner and her tone. His interest in the episode even increased.
“She was for turning her out to-night,” said he. “I stopped that.”
“I should think so indeed!”
“I’ve got her as far as tomorrow morning.”
“The girl won’t go tomorrow morning either!” said Maggie. “At least, if she goes, I go.” She spoke with tranquillity, adding: “But we needn’t bother about that. Auntie’ll be past worrying about Minnie tomorrow morning. . . . I’d better go up to her. She can’t possibly be left alone.”
Maggie shut the account-book, and rose.
“I only came down for a sec to tell you. She was dozing,” said Edwin apologetically. “She’s awfully ill. I’d no idea.”
“Yes, she’s ill right enough.”
“Who’ll sit up with her?”
“Did you sit up with her last night?”
“No — only part of the night.”
“We ought to get a nurse.”
“Well, we can’t get one to-night.”
“And what about Clara? Can’t she take a turn? Surely in a case like this she can chuck her eternal kids for a bit.”
“I expect she could. But she doesn’t know.”
“Haven’t you sent round?” 7He expressed surprise.
“I couldn’t,” said Maggie with undisturbed equanimity. “Who could I send? I couldn’t spare Minnie. The thing didn’t seem at all serious until this morning. Since then I’ve had my hands full.”
“Yes, I can see you have,” Edwin agreed appreciatively.
“It was lucky the doctor called on his own. He does sometimes, you know, since she began to have her attacks.”
“Well, I’ll go round to Clara’s myself,” said Edwin.
“I shouldn’t,” said Maggie. “At least not to-night.”
“Why not?” He might have put the question angrily, overbearingly; but Maggie was so friendly, suave, confidential, persuasive, and so sure of herself, that with pleasure he copied her accents. He enjoyed thus talking to her intimately in the ugly dark house, with the life-bearing foolish Minnie on the one hand, and the dying old woman on the other. He thought: “There’s something splendid about Mag. In fact I always knew there was.” And he forgot her terrible social shortcomings, her utter lack of the feminine seductiveness that for him ought to be in every woman, and her invincible stolidity. Her sturdy and yet scarcely articulate championship of Minnie delighted him and quickened his pulse.
“I’d sooner not have her here to-night,” said Maggie. “You knew they’d had a tremendous rumpus, didn’t you?”
“Who? Auntie and Clara?”
“I didn’t. What about? When? Nobody ever said anything to me.”
“Oh, it must have been two or three months ago. Auntie said something about Albert not paying me my interest on my money he’s got. And then Clara flared up, and the fat was in the fire.”
“D’you mean to say he’s not paying you your interest? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Oh! It doesn’t matter. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Well, you ought to have bothered me,” said Edwin, with a trace of benevolent severity. He was astounded, and somewhat hurt, that this great family event should have been successfully concealed from him. He felt furious against Albert and Clara, and at the same time proud that his prognostication about the investment with Albert had proved correct.
“Did Hilda know?”
“Oh yes. Hilda knew.”
“Well, I’m dashed!” The exclamation showed naïvete. His impression of the chicanery of women was deepened, so that it actually disquieted him. “But I suppose,” he went on, “I suppose this row isn’t going to stop Clara from coming here, seeing the state Auntie’s in?”
“No, certainly not. Clara would come like a shot if she knew, and Albert as well. She’s a good nurse — in some ways.”
“Well, if they aren’t told, and anything happens to Auntie in the night, there’ll be a fine to-do afterwards — don’t forget that.”
“Nothing’ll happen to Auntie in the night,” said Maggie, with tranquil reassurance. “And I don’t think I could stand ’em to-night.”
The hint of her nervous susceptibility, beneath that stolid exterior, appealed to him.
Maggie, since closing the account-book, had moved foot by foot anxiously towards the door, and had only been kept in the room by the imperative urgency of the conversation. She now had her hand on the door.
“I say!” He held her yet another moment. “What’s this about me taking your room? I don’t want to turn you out of your room.”
“That’s all right,” she said, with a kind smile. “It’s easiest, really. Moreover, I daresay there won’t be such a lot of sleeping. . . . I must go up at once. She can’t possibly be left alone.”
Maggie opened the door and she had scarcely stepped forth when Minnie from the kitchen rushed into the lobby and dropped, intentionally or unintentionally, on her knees before her. Edwin, unobserved by Minnie, witnessed the scene through the doorway. Minnie, agitated almost to the point of hysteria, was crying violently and as she breathed her shoulders lifted and fell, and the sound of her sobbing rose periodically to a shriek and sank to a groan. She knelt with her body and thighs upright and her head erect, making no attempt to stem the tears or to hide her face. In her extreme desolation she was perhaps as unconscious of herself as she had ever been. Her cap was awry on her head, and her hair disarranged; the blinking spectacles made her ridiculous; only the blue print uniform, and the sinister yellowish apron drawn down tight under her knees, gave a certain respectable regularity to her extraordinary and grotesque appearance.
To Edwin she seemed excessively young and yet far too large and too developed for her age. The girl was obviously a fool. Edwin could perceive in her no charm whatever, except that of her innocence; and it was not easy to imagine that any man, even the barman at the Vaults, could have mistaken her, even momentarily, for the ideal. And then some glance of her spectacled eyes, or some gesture of the great red hand, showed him his own blindness and mysteriously made him realise the immensity of the illusion and the disillusion through which she had passed in her foolish and incontinent simplicity. What had happened to her was miraculous, exquisite, and terrible. He felt the magic of her illusion and the terror of her disillusion. Already in her girlishness and her stupidity she had lived through supreme hours. “Compared to her,” he thought, “I don’t know what life is. No man does.” And he not only suffered for her sorrow, he gave her a sacred quality. It seemed to him that heaven itself ought to endow her with beauty, grace, and wisdom, so that she might meet with triumphant dignity the ordeals that awaited her; and that mankind should supplement the work of heaven by clothing her richly and housing her in secluded splendour, and offering her the service which only victims merit. Surely her caprices ought to be indulged and honoured! . . . Edwin was indignant; indignation positively burnt his body. She was helpless and defenceless and she had been exploited by Auntie Hamps. And after having been exploited she had been driven out by ukase on week-night to class-meeting and on Sunday night to chapel, to find Christ, with the result that she had found the barman at the Vaults. The consequences were inevitable. She was definitely ruined, unless the child should bereave her by dying; and even then she might still be ruined. And what about the child, if the child lived? And although Edwin had never seen the silly girl before, he said to himself, while noticing that a crumb or two of the bread dropped by her still remained on the floor: “I’ll see that girl through whatever it costs!” He was not indignant against Auntie Hamps. How could he be indignant against an expiring old creature already desperate in the final dilemma. He felt nearly as sorry for Auntie Hamps as for Minnie. He was indignant against destiny, of which Auntie Hamps was only the miserable, unimaginative instrument.
“I’d better go to-night, miss. Let me go to-night!” cried Minnie. And she cried so loudly that Edwin was afraid Auntie Hamps might hear and might make an apparition at the head of the stairs and curse Minnie with fearful Biblical names. And the old woman in the curtained bed upstairs was almost as present to him as the girl kneeling before his eyes on the linoleum of the lobby.
“Minnie! Minnie! Don’t be foolish!” said Maggie, standing over her and soothing her, not with her hands but with her voice.
Maggie had shown no perturbation or even surprise at Minnie’s behaviour. She stood looking down at her benevolent, deprecating, and calm. And by contrast with Minnie she seemed to be quite middle-aged. Her tone was exactly right. It reminded Edwin of the tone which she would use to himself when, she was sixteen and the housekeeper, and he was twelve. Maggie had long since lost authority over him; she had lost everything; she would die without having lived; she had never begun to live —(No, perhaps once she had just begun to live!)— Minnie had prime knowledge far exceeding hers. And yet she had power over Minnie and could exercise it with skill.
Minnie, hesitating, sobbed more slowly, and then ceased to sob.
“Go back into the kitchen and have something to eat, and then you can go to bed. You’ll feel differently in the morning,” said Maggie with the same gentle blandness.
And Minnie, as though fascinated, rose from her knees.
Edwin, surmising what had passed between the two in the kitchen while he was in the bedroom, was aware of a fresh, intense admiration for Maggie. She might be dowdy, narrow, dull, obstinate, virgin — but she was superb. She had terrific reserves. He was proud of her. The tone merely of her voice as she spoke to the girl seemed to prove the greatness of her deeply-hidden soul.
Suddenly Minnie caught sight of Edwin through the doorway, flushed red, had the air of slavishly apologising to the unapproachable male for having disturbed him by her insect-woes, and vanished. Maggie hurried upstairs to the departing. Edwin was alone with the chill draught from the lobby into the room, and with the wonder of life.
In the middle of the night Edwin kept watch over Auntie Hamps, who was asleep. He sat in a rocking-chair, with his back to the window and the right side of his face to the glow of the fire. The fire was as effective as the size and form of the grate would allow; it burnt richly red; but its influence did not seem to extend beyond a radius of four feet outwards from its centre. The terrible damp chill of the Five Towns winter hung in the bedroom like an invisible miasma. He could feel the cold from the window, which was nevertheless shut, through the shawl with which he had closed the interstices of the back of the chair, and, though he had another thick shawl over his knees, the whole of his left side felt the creeping attack of the insidious miasma. A thermometer which he had found and which lay on the night-table five yards from the fire registered only fifty-two degrees. His expelled breath showed in the air. It was as if he were fighting with all resources against frigidity, and barely holding his own.
In the half-light of the gas, still screened from the bed by the bonnet-box and the Bible, he glanced round amid the dark meadows at the mean and sinister ugliness of the historic chamber, the secret nest and withdrawing place of Auntie Hamps; and the real asceticism of her life and of the life of all her generation almost smote him. Half a century earlier such a room had represented comfort; in some details, as for instance in its bed, it represented luxury; and in half a century Auntie Hamps had learnt nothing from the material progress of civilisation but the use of the hot-water bag; her vanished and forgotten parents would have looked askance at the enervating luxuriousness of her hot-water bag — unknown even to the crude wistful boy Edwin on the mantelpiece. And Auntie Hamps herself was wont as it were to atone for it by using the still tepid water therefrom for her morning toilet instead of having truly hot water brought up from the kitchen. Edwin thought: “Are we happier for these changes brought about by the mysterious force of evolution?” And answered very emphatically: “Yes, we are.” He would not for anything have gone back to the austerities of his boyhood.
He rocked gently to and fro in the chair, excited by events and by the novel situation, and he was not dissatisfied with himself. Indeed he was aware of a certain calm complacency, for his commonsense had triumphed over Maggie’s devoted silly womanishness. Maggie was for sitting up through the night; she was anxious to wear herself out for no reason whatever; but he had sent her to bed until three o’clock, promising to call her if she should be needed. The exhausted girl was full of sagacity save on that one point of martyrdom to the fullest — apparently with her a point of honour. For the sake of the sensation of having martyrised herself utterly she was ready to imperil her fitness for the morrow. She secretly thought it was unfair to call upon him, a man, to share her fatigues. He regarded himself as her superior in wisdom, and he was relieved that anyone so wise and balanced as Edwin Clayhanger had taken supreme charge of the household organism.
Restless, he got up from the chair and looked at the bed. He had heard no unusual sound therefrom, but to excuse his restlessness he had said: “Suppose some change had occurred and I didn’t notice it!” No change had occurred. Auntie Hamps lay like a mite, like a baby forlorn, senile and defenceless, amid the heaped pillows and coverings of the bed. Within the deep gloom of the canopy and the over-arching curtains only her small, soft face was alive; even her hair was hidden in the indentation made by the weight of her head in the pillows. She was unconscious, either in sleep or otherwise — he could not tell how. And in her unconsciousness the losing but obstinate fight against the power which was dragging her over the edge of eternity still went on. It showed in the apprehensive character of her breathing, which made a little momentary periodic cloud above her face, and in the uneasy muscular movements of the lips and jaws, and in the vague noises in her throat. A tremendous pity for her reentered his heart, almost breaking it, because she was so beaten, and so fallen from the gorgeousness of her splendour. Even Minnie could have imposed her will upon Auntie Hamps now; each hour she weakened.
He had no more resentment against her on account of Minnie, no accusation to formulate. He was merely grieved, with a compassionate grief, that Auntie Hamps had learnt so little while living so long. He knew that she was cruel only because she was incapable of imagining what it was to be Minnie. He understood. She worshipped God under the form of respectability, but she did worship God. Like all religious votaries she placed religion above morality; hence her chicane, her inveterate deceit and self-deceit. It was with a religious aim that she had concealed from him the estrangement between herself and Clara. The unity of the family was one of her major canons (as indeed it was one of Edwin’s). She had a passion for her nephew and nieces. It was a grand passion. Her pride in them must have been as terrific as her longing that they and all theirs should conform to the sole ideal that she comprehended. Undeniably there was something magnificent in her religion — her unscrupulousness in the practice of it, and the mighty consistency of her career. She had lived. He ceased to pity her, for she towered above pity. She was dying, but only for an instant. He would smile at his aunt’s primeval notions of a future life, yet he had to admit that his own notions, though far less precise, could not be appreciably less crude. He and she were anyhow at one in the profound and staggering conviction of immortality. Enlightened by that conviction, he was able to reduce the physical and mental tragedy of the death-bed to its right proportions as a transiency between the heroic past and the inconceivable future. And in the stillness of the room and the stillness of the house, perfumed by the abnegation of Maggie and the desolate woe of the ruined Minnie whom the Clayhangers would save, and in the outer stillness of the little street with the Norman church-tower sticking up out of history at the bottom of its slope, Edwin felt uplifted and serene.
He returned to the rocking-chair.
“She’s asleep now in some room I’ve never seen!” he reflected.
He was suddenly thinking of his wife. During the previous night, lying sleepless close to her while she slept soundly, he had reflected long and with increasing pessimism. The solace of Hilda’s kiss had proved fleeting. She had not realised — he himself was then only realising little by little — the enormity of the thing she had done. What she had deliberately and obstinately done was to turn him out of his house. No injury that she might have chosen could have touched him more closely, more painfully — for his house to him was sacred. Her blundering with the servants might be condoned, but what excuse was it possible to find for this precipitate flight to London involving the summary ejectment from the home of him who had created the home and for and by whom the home chiefly existed? True the astounding feat of wrong-headedness had been aided by the mere chance of Maggie’s calling (capricious women were always thus lucky!) — Maggie’s suggestion and request had given some afterglow of reason to the mad project. But the justification was still far from sufficient. And the odious idea haunted him that, even if Maggie had not called with her tale, Hilda would have persisted in her scheme all the same. Yes, she was capable of that! The argument that George’s eyes (of whose condition she had learnt by mere hazard) could not wait until domestic affairs were arranged, was too grotesque to deserve an answer.
Lying thus close to his wife in the dark, he had perceived that the conflict between his individuality and hers could never cease. No diplomatic devices of manner could put an end to it. And he had seen also that as they both grew older and developed more fully, the conflict was becoming more serious. He assumed that he had faults, but he was solemnly convinced that the faults of Hilda were tremendous, essential, and ineradicable. She had a faculty for acting contrary to justice and contrary to sense which was simply monstrous. And it had always been so. Her whole life had been made up of impulsiveness and contumacy in that impulsiveness. Witness the incredible scenes of the strange Dartmoor episode — all due to her stubborn irrationality! The perspective of his marriage was plain to him in the night — and it ended in a rupture. He had been resolutely blind to Hilda’s peculiarities, dismissing incident after incident as an isolated misfortune. But he could be blind no more. His marriage was all of a piece, and he must and would recognise the fact. . . . The sequel would be a scandal! . . . Well, let it be a scandal! As the minutes and hours passed in grim meditation, the more attractive grew the lost freedom of the bachelor and the more ready he felt to face any ordeal that lay between him and it. . . . And just as it was occurring to him that his proper course was to have fought a terrific open decisive battle with her in front of both Maggie and Ingpen he had fallen asleep.
Upon awaking, barely in time to arouse Hilda, he knew that the mood of the night had not melted away as such moods are apt to melt when the window begins to show a square of silver-grey. The mood was even intensified. Hilda had divined nothing. She never did divine the tortures which she inflicted in his heart. She did not possess the gumption to divine. Her demeanour had been amazing. She averred that she had not slept at all. Instead of cajoling, she bullied. Instead of tacitly admitting that she was infamously wronging him, she had assumed a grievance of her own — without stating it. Once she had said discontentedly about some trifle: “You might at any rate——” as though the victim should caress the executioner. She had kissed him at departure, but not as usual effusively, and he had suffered the kiss in enmity; and after an unimaginable general upset and confusion, in which George had shown himself strangely querulous, she had driven off with her son — unconscious, stupidly unaware, that she was leaving a disaster behind her. And last of all Edwin, solitary, had been forced to perform the final symbolic act, that of locking him out of his own sacred home! The affair had transcended belief.
All day at the works his bitterness and melancholy had been terrible, and the works had been shaken with apprehension, for no angry menaces are more disconcerting than those of a man habitually mild. Before evening he had decided to write to his wife from Auntie Hamps’s — a letter cold, unanswerable, crushing, that would confront her unescapably with the alternatives of complete submission or complete separation. The phrases of the letter came into his mind. . . . He would see who was master. . . . He had been full of the letter when he entered Auntie Hamps’s lobby. But the strange tone in which Maggie had answered his questions about the sick woman had thrust the letter and the crisis right to the back of his mind, where they had uneasily remained throughout the evening. And now in the rocking-chair he was reflecting:
“She’s asleep in some room I’ve never seen!”
He smiled, such a smile, candid, generous, and affectionate, as was Hilda’s joy, such a smile as Hilda dwelt on in memory when she was alone. The mood of resentment passed away, vanished like a nightmare at dawn, and like one of his liverish headaches dispersed suddenly after the evening meal. He saw everything differently. He saw that he had been entirely wrong in his estimate of the situation, and of Hilda. Hilda was a mother. She had the protective passion of maternity. She was carried away by her passions; but her passions were noble, marvellous, unique. He himself could never — he thought, humbled — attain to her emotional heights. He was incapable of feeling about anything or anybody as she felt about George. The revelation concerning George’s eyesight had shocked her, overwhelmed her with remorse, driven every other idea out of her head. She must atone to George instantly; instantly she must take measures — the most drastic and certain — to secure him from the threatened danger. She could not count the cost till afterwards. She was not a woman in such moments — she was an instinct, a desire, a ruthless purpose. And as she felt towards George, so she must feel, in other circumstances, towards himself. Her kisses proved it, and her soothing hand when he was unwell. Mrs. Hamps had said: “Eh, dear! What a good mother dear Hilda is!” A sentimental outcry! But there was profound truth in it, truth which the old woman had seen better than he had seen it. “I daresay there never was such a mother — unless it’s Clara!” Hyperbole! And yet he himself now began to think that there never could have been such a mother as Hilda. Clara too in her way was wonderful. . . . Smile as you might, these mothers were tremendous. The mysterious sheen of their narrow and deep lives dazzled him. For the first time, perhaps, he bowed his head to Clara.
But Hilda was far beyond Clara. She was not only a mother but a lover. Would he cut himself off from her loving? Why? For what? To live alone in the arid and futile freedom of a Tertius Ingpen? Such a notion was fatuous. Where lay the difficulty between himself and Hilda? There was no difficulty. How had she harmed him? She had not harmed him. Everything was all right. He had only to understand. He understood. As for her impulsiveness, her wrongheadedness, her bizarre ratiocination — he knew how to accept them, for was he not a philosopher? They were indeed part of the incomparable romance of existence with these prodigious and tantalising creatures. He admitted that Hilda in some aspects transcended him, but in others he was comfortably confident of his own steady, conquering superiority. He thought of her with the most exquisite devotion. He pictured the secret tenderness of their reunion amid the conventional gloom of Auntie Hamps’s death-bed. . . . He was confident of his ability to manage Hilda, at any rate in the big things — for example the disputed points of his entry into public activity and their removal from Trafalgar Road into the country. The sturdiness of the male inspired him. At the same time the thought of the dark mood from which he had emerged obscurely perturbed him, like a fearful danger passed; and he argued to himself with satisfaction, and yet not quite with conviction, that he had yielded to Maggie, and not to Hilda, in the affair of the journey to London, and that therefore his masculine marital dignity was intact.
And then he started at a strange sound below, which somehow recalled him to the nervous tension of the house. It was a knocking at the front-door. His heart thumped at the formidable muffled noise in the middle of the night. He jumped up, and glanced at the bed. Auntie Hamps was not wakened. He went downstairs where the gas which he had lighted was keeping watch.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05