Albert Benbow was at the front-door. Edwin curbed the expression of his astonishment.
“Oh! You aren’t gone to bed?”
“Not likely. Come in. What’s up?”
Albert, with the habit of one instructed never to tread actually on a doorstep lest it should be newly whitened, stepped straight on to the inner mat. He seemed excited, and Edwin feared that he had just learnt of Auntie Hamps’s illness and had come in the middle of the night ostensibly to make enquiries, but really to make a grievance of the fact that the Benbows had been “kept in ignorance.” He could already hear Albert demanding: “Why have you kept us in ignorance?” It was quite a Benbow phrase.
Edwin shut the door and shut out the dark and windy glimpse of the outer world which had emphasised for a moment the tense seclusion of the house.
“You’ve heard of course about the accident to Ingpen?” said Albert. His hands were deep in his overcoat pockets; the collar of the thin, rather shabby overcoat was turned up; an old cap adhered to the back of his head. While talking he slowly lifted his feet one after the other, as though desiring to get warmth by stamping but afraid to stamp in the night.
“No, I haven’t,” said Edwin, with false calmness. “What accident?”
The perspective of events seemed to change; Auntie Hamps’s illness to recede, and a definite and familiar apprehension to be supplanted by a fear more formidable because it was a fear of the unknown.
“It was all in the late special Signal!” Benbow protested, as if his pride had been affronted.
“Well, I haven’t seen the Signal. What is it?” And Edwin thought: “Is somebody else dying too?”
“Fly-wheel broke. Ingpen was inspecting the slip-house next to the engine-house. Part of the fly-wheel came through and knocked a loose nut off the blunger right into his groin.”
Albert answered in a light tone:
“And how’s he going on?”
“Well, he’s had an operation and Sterling’s got the nut out. Of course they didn’t know what it was till they got it out. And now Ingpen wants to see you at once. That’s why I’ve come.”
“Where is he?”
“At the hospital.”
“No. The Clowes — Moorthorne Road, you know.”
“Is he going on all right?”
“He’s very weak. He can scarcely whisper. But he wants you. I’ve been up there all the time, practically.”
Edwin seized his overcoat from the rack.
“I had a rare job finding ye,” Benbow went on. “I’d no idea you weren’t all at home. I wakened most of Hulton Street over it. It was Smiths next door came out at last and told me missis and George had gone to London and you were over here.”
“I wonder who told them!” Edwin mumbled as Albert helped him with the overcoat. “I must tell Maggie. We’ve got some illness here, you know.”
“Yes. Auntie. Very sudden. Seemed to get worse to-night. Fact is I was sitting up while Maggie has a bit of sleep. She was going to send round for Clara in the morning. I’ll just run up to Mag.”
Having thus by judicious misrepresentation deprived the Benbows of a grievance, Edwin moved towards the stairs. Maggie, dressed, already stood at the top of them, alert, anxious, adequate.
“Albert, is that you?”
After a few seconds of quick murmured explanation, Edwin and Albert departed, and as they went Maggie, in a voice doubly harassed but cheerful and oily called out after them how glad she would be, and what a help it would be, if Clara could come round early in the morning.
The small Clowes Hospital was high up in the town opposite the Park, near the station and the railway-cutting and not far from the Moorthorne ridge. Behind its bushes, through which the wet night-wind swished and rustled, it looked still very new and red in the fitful moonlight. And indeed it was scarcely older than the Park and swimming-baths close by, and Bursley had not yet lost its naïve pride in the possession of a hospital of its own. Not much earlier in the decade this town of thirty-five thousand inhabitants had had to send all its “cases” five miles in cabs to Pirehill Infirmary. Albert Benbow, with the satisfaction of a habitué, led Edwin round through an aisle of bushes to the side-entrance for out-patients. He pushed open a dark door, walked into a gaslit vestibule, and with the assured gestures of a proprietor invited Edwin to follow. A fat woman who looked like a char-woman made tidy sat in a windsor-chair in the vestibule, close to a radiator. She signed to Albert as an old acquaintance to go forward, and Albert nodded in the manner of one conspirator to another. What struck Edwin was that this middle-aged woman showed no sign of being in the midst of the unusual. She was utterly casual and matter-of-fact. And Edwin had the sensation of moving in a strange nocturnal world — a world which had always coexisted with his own, but of which he had been till then most curiously ignorant. His passage through the town listening absently to Albert’s descriptions of the structural damage to Ingpen and to the works, and Albert’s defence against unbrought accusations, had shown him that the silent streets lived long after midnight in many a lighted window here and there and in the movements of mysterious but not furtive frequenters. And he seemed to have been impinging upon half-veiled enigmas of misfortune or of love. At the other end of the thread of adventure was his aunt’s harsh bedroom with Maggie stolidly watching the last ebb of senile vitality, and at this end was the hospital, full of novel and disturbing vibrations and Tertius Ingpen waiting to impose upon him some charge or secret.
At the top of the naked stairs which came after a dark corridor was a long naked resounding passage lighted by a tiny jet at either end. A cough from behind a half-open door came echoing out and filled the night and the passage. And then at another door appeared a tall, thin, fair nurse in blue and white, with thin lips and a slight smile hard and disdainful.
“Here’s Mr. Clayhanger, nurse!” muttered Albert Benbow, taking off his cap, with a grimace at once sycophantic and grandiose.
Edwin imagined that he knew by sight everybody in the town above a certain social level, but he had no memory of the face of the nurse.
“How is he?” he asked awkwardly, fingering his hat.
The girl merely raised her eyebrows.
“You mustn’t stay,” said she, in a mincing but rather loud voice that matched her lips.
“Oh no, I won’t!”
“I suppose I’d better stop outside!” said Benbow.
Edwin followed the nurse into a darkened room, of which the chief article of furniture appeared to be a screen. Behind the screen was a bed, and on the bed in the deep obscurity lay a form under creaseless bedclothes. Edwin first recognised Ingpen’s beard, then his visage very pale and solemn, and without the customary spectacles. Of the whole body only the eyes moved. As Edwin approached the bed he cast across Ingpen a shadow from the distant gas.
“Well, old chap!” he began with constraint. “This is a nice state of affairs! How are you getting on?”
Ingpen’s enquiring apprehensive dumb glance silenced the clumsy greeting. It was just as if he had rebuked: “This is no time for How d’ye do’s.” When he had apparently made sure that Edwin was Edwin, Ingpen turned his eyes to the nurse.
“Water,” he whispered.
The nurse shook her head.
“Net yet,” she replied, with tepid indifference.
Ingpen’s eyes remained on her a moment and then went back to Edwin.
“Ed,” he whispered, and gazed once more at the nurse, who, looking away from the bed, did not move.
Edwin bent over the bed.
“Ed,” Ingpen demanded, speaking very deliberately. “Go to my office. In the top drawer of the desk in the bedroom there’s some photos and letters. . . . Burn them. . . . Before morning. . . . Understand?”
Edwin was profoundly stirred. In his emotion was pride at Ingpen’s trust, astonishment at the sudden, utterly unexpected revelation, and the thrill of romance.
“The man is dying!”
And the tragic sensation of the vigil of the nocturnal world almost overcame him.
“Yes,” he said. “Anything else?”
“What about keys?”
Ingpen gave him another long glance.
“Where are his clothes?” Edwin asked the nurse, whose lips were ironic.
“Oh! They’ll tell you downstairs. You’d better go now.”
As he went from the room he could feel Ingpen’s glance following him. He raged inwardly against the callousness of the nurse. It seemed monstrous that he should abandon Ingpen for the rest of the night, defenceless, to the cold tyranny of the nurse, whose power over the sufferer was as absolute as that of an eastern monarch, who had never heard of public opinion, over the meanest slave. He could not bear to picture to himself Ingpen and the nurse alone together.
“Isn’t he allowed to drink?” he could not help murmuring, at the door.
“Yes. At intervals.”
He wanted to chastise the nurse. He imagined an endless succession of sufferers under her appalling, inimical nonchalance. Who had allowed her to be a nurse? Had she become a nurse in order to take some needed revenge against mankind? And then he thought of Hilda’s passionate, succouring tenderness when he himself was unwell — he had not been really ill for years. What was happening to Ingpen could never happen to him, because Hilda stood everlastingly between him and such a horror. He considered that a bachelor was the most pathetic creature on the earth. He was drenched in the fearful, wistful sadness of all life. . . . The sleeping town; Auntie Hamps on the edge of eternity; Minnie trembling at the menaces of her own body; Hilda lying in some room that he had never seen; and Ingpen . . .!
“Soon over!” observed Albert Benbow in the corridor.
Edwin could have winced at the words.
“How do you think he is?” asked Albert.
“Don’t know!” Edwin replied. “Look here, I’ve got to get hold of his clothes — downstairs.”
“Oh! That’s it, is it? Pocket-book! Keys! Eh?”
Edwin had once been in Tertius Ingpen’s office at the bottom of Crown Square, Hanbridge, but never in the bedroom which Ingpen rented on the top floor of the same building. It had been for seventy or eighty years a building of four squat storeys; but a new landlord, seeing the architectural development of the town as a local metropolis and determined to join in it at a minimum of expense, had knocked the two lower storeys into one, fronted them with fawn-coloured terra cotta, and produced a lofty shop whose rent exceeded the previous rent of the entire house.
The landlord knew that passers-by would not look higher up the façade than the ground-floor, and that therefore any magnificence above that level was merely wasted. The shop was in the occupation of a tea-dealer who gave away beautiful objects such as vases and useful objects such as tea-trays, to all purchasers. Ingpen’s office, and a solicitor’s office, were on the first floor, formerly the second; the third floor was the headquarters of the Hanbridge and District Ethical Society; the top floor was temporarily unlet, save for Ingpen’s room. Nobody except Ingpen slept in the building, and he very irregularly.
The latchkey for the sidedoor was easy to choose in the glittering light of the latest triple-jetted and reflectored gaslamps which the corporation, to match the glories of the new town-hall, had placed in Crown Square. The lock, strange to say, worked easily. Edwin entered somewhat furtively, and as it were guiltily, though in Crown Square and the streets and the other squares visible therefrom, not a soul could be seen. The illuminated clock of the Old Town Hall at the top of the square showed twenty-five minutes to four. Immediately within the door began a new, very long and rather mean staircase, with which Edwin was acquainted. He closed the door, shutting out the light and the town, and struck a match in the empty building. He had walked into Hanbridge from Bursley, and as soon as he began to climb the stairs he was aware of great fatigue, both physical and mental. The calamity to Ingpen had almost driven Auntie Hamps out of his mind; it had not, however, driven Minnie out of his mind. He was gloomy and indignant on behalf of both Ingpen and Minnie. They were both victims. Minnie was undoubtedly a fool, and he was about to learn, perhaps, to what extent Ingpen had been a fool.
Each footstep sounded loud on the boards of deserted house. Having used several matches and arrived at the final staircase, Edwin wondered how he was to distinguish Ingpen’s room there from the others without trying keys in all of them till he got to the right one. But on the top landing he had no difficulty, for Ingpen’s card was fastened with a drawing-pin on to the first door he saw. A match burnt his fingers and expired just as he was shaking out a likely key from Ingpen’s bunch. And then, in the black darkness, he perceived a line of light under the door in front of which he stood. He forgot his fatigue in an instant. His heart leaped. A burglar? Or had Ingpen left the gas burning? Ingpen could not have left the gas burning since, according to Albert Benbow, he had been in Bursley all afternoon. With precautions, and feeling very desperate and yet also craven, he lit a fresh match and managed quietly to open the door, which was not locked.
As soon as he beheld the illuminated interior of the room, all his skin crept and flushed as though he had taken a powerful stimulant. A girl reclined asleep in a small basket lounge-chair by the gas-fire. He could not see her face, which was turned towards the wall and away from the gas-jet that hung from the ceiling over an old desk; but she seemed slim and graceful, and there was something in the abandonment of unconsciousness that made her marvellously alluring. Her hat and gloves had been thrown on the desk, and a cloak lay on a chair. These coloured and intimate objects — extensions of the veritable personality of the girl — had the effect of delightfully completing the furniture of a room which was in fact rather bare. A narrow bed in the far corner, disguised under a green rug as a sofa; a green square of carpet, showing the unpolished boards at the sides; the desk, and three chairs; a primitive hanging wardrobe in another corner, hidden by a bulging linen curtain; a portmanteau; a few unframed prints on the walls; an alarm-clock on the mantelpiece — there was nothing else in the chamber where Ingpen slept when it was too late, or he was too slack, to go to his proper home. But nothing else was needed. The scene was perfect; the girl rendered it so. And immense envy of, and admiration for, Ingpen surged through Edwin, who saw here the realisation of a dream that was to marriage what poetry is to prose. Ingpen might rail against women and against marriage in a manner exaggerated and indefensible; but he had at any rate known how to arrange his life and how to keep his own counsel. He had all the careless masculine freedom of his condition — and in the background this exquisite phenomenon! The girl, her trustfulness, her abandonment, her secrecy, that white ear peeping out of her hair — were his! It was staggering that such romance could exist in the Five Towns, of all places — for Edwin had the vague notion, common to all natives, that his own particular district fell short of full human nature in certain characteristics. For example, he could credit a human nature dying for love in Manchester, but never in the Five Towns. Even the occasional divorces that gave piquancy to life in the Five Towns seemed to lack the mysterious glamour of all other divorces.
“Was it because he was expecting her that he sent me? Perhaps the desk was only a blind — and he couldn’t tell me any more. Anyhow I shall have to break it to her.”
He felt exceedingly awkward and unequal to the situation so startling in its novelty. Yet he did not wish himself away.
As timidly, hat in hand, he went forward into the room, the girl stirred and woke up, to the creaking of the chair.
“Oh! Tert!” she murmured between sleeping and waking.
Edwin did not like her voice. It reminded him of the voice of the nurse whom he had just left.
The girl, looking round, perceived that it was not Tertius Ingpen who had come in. She gave a short, faint scream, then gathered herself together and with a single movement stood up, perfectly collected and on the defensive.
“It’s all right! It’s all right!” said Edwin. “Mr. Ingpen gave me his keys and asked me to come over and get some papers he wants. . . . I hope I didn’t frighten you. I’d no idea ——”
She was old! She was old! That is to say, she was not the girl he had seen asleep. Before his marriage he would have put her age at thirty-two, but now he knew enough to be sure that she must be more than that. She was not graceful in movement. The expression of her pale face was not agreeable. Her gestures were not distinguished. And she could not act her part in the idyll. Moreover her frock was shabby and untidy. But chiefly she was old. Had she been young, Edwin would have excused all the rest. Romance was not entirely destroyed, but very little remained.
He thought, disdainfully, and as if resenting a deception:
“Is this the best he can do?”
And the Five Towns sank back to its ancient humble place in his esteem.
The woman said with a silly nervous giggle:
“I called to see Mr. Ingpen. He wasn’t expecting me. And I suppose while I was waiting I must have dropped off to sleep.”
It might have been true, but to Edwin it was inexpressibly inane.
She seized her hat and then her cloak.
“I’m sorry to say Mr. Ingpen’s had an accident,” said Edwin.
She stopped, both hands above her head fingering her hat.
“An accident? Nothing serious?”
“Oh no! I don’t think so,” he lied. “A machinery accident. They had to take him to the Clowes Hospital at Bursley. I’ve just come from there.”
She asked one or two more questions, all the time hurrying her preparations to leave. But Edwin judged with disgust that she was not deeply interested in the accident. True, he had minimised it, but she ought not to have allowed him to minimise it. She ought to have obstinately believed that it was very grave.
“I do hope he’ll soon be all right,” she said, snatching at her gloves and going to the door. “Good night!” She gave another silly giggle, preposterous in a woman of her age. Then she stopped. “I think you’re gentleman enough not to say anything about me being here,” she said, rather nastily. “It was quite an accident. I could easily explain it, but you know what people are!”
What a phrase —“I think you’re gentleman enough!”
He blushed and offered the required assurance.
“Can I let you out?” he started forward.
“But you can’t open the door.”
“Yes I can.”
“The stairs are all dark.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself,” she said drily, in the tone of a woman who sees offence in the courtesy of a male travelling companion on the railway.
He heard her steps diminuendo down the stairs.
Closing the door, he went to the window, and drew aside the blind. Perhaps she would pass up the Square. But she did not pass up the Square which was peopled by nothing but meek gaslamps under the empire of the glowing clock in the pediment of the Old Town Hall. Where had she gone? Where did she come from? Her accent had no noticeable peculiarity. Was she married, or single, or a widow? Perhaps there was hidden in her some strange and seductive quality which he had missed. . . . He saw the slim girl again reclining in the basket-chair. . . . After all, she was a woman, and she had been in Ingpen’s room, waiting for him!
Later, seated in front of the open drawer in the old desk, gathering together letters and photographs — photographs of her in adroitly managed poses, taken at Oldham; letters in a woman’s hand — he was penetrated to the marrow by the disastrous and yet beautiful infelicity of things. The mere sight of the letters (of which he forebore to decipher a single word, even a signature) nearly made him cry; the photographs were tragic with the intolerable evanescence of life. By the will of Tertius Ingpen helpless on the bed in the hospital, these documents of a passion or of a fancy were to be burnt. Why? Was it true that Ingpen was dying? Better to keep them. No, they must be burnt. He rose, and, with difficulty, burnt them by instalments in a shovel over the tiny fender that enclosed the gas-stove — the room was soon half full of smoke. . . . Why had he deceived the woman as to the seriousness of Ingpen’s accident? To simplify and mitigate the interview, to save himself trouble; that was all! Well, she would learn soon enough!
His eye caught a print on the wall above the bed — a classic example of the sentimentality of Marcus Stone: departing cavalier, drooping maiden, terraced garden. It was a dreadful indictment of the Tertius Ingpen who talked so well, with such intellectual aplomb, with such detachment and exceptional cynicism. It was like a ray exposing some secret sinister corner in the man’s soul. He had hung up that print because it gave him pleasure! Poor chap! But Edwin loved him. He decided that he would call again at the hospital before returning to Auntie Hamps’s. Impossible that the man was dying! If the doctor or the matron had thought he was in danger they would have summoned his relatives. He might be dying. He might be dead. He must have immediately feared death, or he would not have imposed upon Edwin such an errand. . . . What simple, touching, admirable trust in a friend’s loyalty the man had displayed!
Edwin put out the gas-stove, which exploded, lit a match, gave a great yawn, put out the gas, and began the enterprise of leaving the house.
“Look here! I must have some tea, now!” said Edwin curtly and yet appealingly to Maggie, who opened the door for him at Auntie Hamps’s.
It was nearly eight o’clock. He had been to the hospital again, and, having reported in three words to Ingpen, whose condition was unchanged, had remained there some time. But he had said nothing to Ingpen about the woman. At six o’clock the matron had come into the room, and the nurse thenceforward until seven o’clock, when she went off duty, was a changed girl. Edwin slightly knew the matron, who was sympathetic but strangely pessimistic — considering her healthy, full figure.
“The water’s boiling,” answered Maggie, in a comforting tone, and disappeared instantly into the kitchen.
“There are some things that girl understands!”
She had shown no curiosity, no desire to impart news, because she had immediately comprehended that Edwin was, or imagined himself to be, at the end of his endurance. Maggie, with simple and surpassing wisdom had just said to herself: “He’s been out all night, and he’s not used to it.” For a moment he felt that Maggie was wiser, and more intimately close to him, than anybody else in the world.
“In the dining-room,” she called out from the kitchen.
And in the small dining-room there was a fire! It was like a living, welcoming creature. The cloth was laid, the gas was lighted. On the table was beautiful fresh bread and butter. A word, a tone, a glance of his on the previous evening had been enough to bring back the dining-room into use! Happily the wind suited the chimney. He had scarcely sat down in front of the fire when Maggie entered with the teapot. And at the sight of the teapot Edwin felt that he was saved. Before the tea was out of the teapot it had already magically alleviated the desperate sensations of physical fatigue and moral weariness which had almost overcome him on the way from the hospital in the chill and muddy dawn.
“What will you have to eat?” said Maggie.
“Nothing. I couldn’t eat to save my life.”
“Perhaps you’ll have a bit of bread-and-butter later,” said Maggie blandly.
He shook his head.
“How is she?”
“Worse,” said Maggie. “But she’s slept.”
“Who’s up with her now? Minnie?”
“Oh! She’s come?”
“She came at seven.”
Edwin was drinking the divine tea. After a few gulps he told Maggie briefly about Tertius Ingpen, saying that he had had to go “on business” for Ingpen to Hanbridge.
“Are you all right for the present?” she asked after a few moments.
He nodded. He was eating bread-and-butter.
“You had any sleep at all?” he mumbled, munching.
“Oh yes! A little,” she answered cheerfully, leaving the room.
He poured out more tea, and then sat down in the sole easy-chair for a minute’s reflection before going upstairs and thence to the works.
Not until he woke up did he realise that there had been any danger of his going to sleep. The earthenware clock on the mantelpiece (a birthday gift from Clara and Albert) showed five minutes past eleven. Putting no reliance on the cheap, horrible clock, he looked at his watch, which had stopped for lack of winding up. The fire was very low. His chief thought was: “It can’t possibly be eleven o’clock, because I haven’t been down to the works, and I haven’t sent word I’m not coming either!” He got up hurriedly and had reached the door when a sound of a voice on the stairs held him still like an enchantment. It seemed to be the voice, eloquent, and indeed somewhat Church-of-England, of the Rev. Christian Flowerdew, the new superintendent of the Bursley Wesleyan Methodist Circuit. The voice said: “I do hope so!” and then offered a resounding remark about the weather being the kind of weather that, bad as it was, people must expect in view of the time of year. Maggie’s voice concurred.
As soon as the front-door closed, Edwin peeped cautiously out of the dining-room.
“Who was that?” he murmured.
“Mr. Flowerdew. She wanted him. Albert sent for him early this morning.”
Maggie came into the room and shut the door.
“I’ve been to sleep,” said Edwin.
“Yes, I know. I wasn’t going to have you disturbed. They’re all here.”
“Who are all here?”
“Clara and the children. Auntie asked to see all of them. They waited in the drawing-room for Mr. Flowerdew to go. Bert didn’t go to school this morning, in case — because it was so far off. Clara fetched the others out of school, except Rupy of course — he doesn’t go —”
“Good heavens! I never came across such a morbid lot in my life. I believe they like it.”
Clara could be heard marshalling the brood up the stairs.
“You’d better go up,” said Maggie persuasively.
“I’d better go to the works — I’m no use here. What time is it?”
“After eleven. I think you’d better go up.”
“Does she ask for me?”
“Oh yes. All the time sometimes. But she forgets for a bit.”
“Well, anyhow I must wash myself and change my collar.”
“All right. Wash yourself, then.”
“How is she now?”
“She isn’t taking anything.”
When Edwin nervously pushed open the bedroom door, the room seemed to be crowded. Over the heads of clustering children towered Clara and Albert. As soon as the watchful Albert caught sight of Edwin, he made a conspiratorial sign and hurried to the door, driving Edwin out again.
“Didn’t know you were here,” Edwin muttered.
“I say,” Albert whispered. “Has she made a will?”
“I don’t know.”
The bedroom door half opened, and Clara in her shabby morning dress glidingly joined them.
“He doesn’t know,” said Albert to Clara.
Clara’s pretty face scowled a little as she asked sharply and resentfully:
“Then who does know?”
“I should ha’ thought you’d know,” said Edwin.
“Me! I like that! She hasn’t spoken to me for months, has she, Albert? And she was always frightfully close about all these things.”
“About what things?”
“Well, you know.”
It was a fact. Auntie Hamps had never discussed her own finance, or her testamentary dispositions, with anybody. And nobody had ever dared to mention such subjects to her.
“Don’t you think you’d better ask her?” said Clara. “Albert thinks you ought.”
“No, I don’t,” said Edwin, with curt disdain.
“Well, then I shall,” Albert decided.
“So long as you don’t do it while I’m there!” Edwin said menacingly. “If you want to ask people about their wills you ought to ask them before they’re actually dying. Can’t you see you can’t worry her about her will now?”
He was intensely disgusted. He thought of Mrs. Hamps’s bed, and of Tertius Ingpen’s bed, and of the woman at dead of night in Ingpen’s room, and of Minnie’s case; and the base insensibility of Albert and Clara made him feel sick. He wondered whether any occasion would ever have solemnity enough for them to make them behave with some distinction, some grandeur. For himself, if he could have secured a fortune by breathing one business word to Auntie Hamps just then, he would have let the fortune go.
“There’s nothing more to be said,” Clara murmured.
In the glance of both Clara and Albert Edwin saw hatred and envy. Clara especially had never forgiven him for preventing their father from pouring money into that sieve, her husband, nor for Hilda’s wounding tongue, nor for his worldly success. And they both suspected that either Maggie or Auntie Hamps had told him of Albert’s default in the payment of interest, and so fear was added to their hatred and envy.
They all entered the bedroom, the children having been left alone only a few seconds. Rupert, wearing a new blue overcoat with gilt buttons, had partially scrambled on to the bed; the pale veiled hands of Auntie Hamps could be seen round his right hand; Rupert had grown enormous, and had already utterly forgotten the time when he was two years old. The others, equally altered, stood two on either side of the bed — Bert and young Clara to the right, and Amy and Lucy to the left. Lucy was crying and Amy was benignantly wiping her eyes. Bert, a great lump of a boy, was to leave school at Christmas, but he was still ranked with the other children as a child. Young Clara sharply and Bert heavily turned round to witness the entrance of their elders.
“Oh! Here’s Uncle Edwin!”
The moral values of the room were instantly changed by the tone in which Auntie Hamps had murmured “Edwin.” All the Benbows knew, and Edwin himself knew, that a personage of supreme importance in Auntie Hamps’s eyes had come into the scene. The Benbows became secondary, and even Auntie Hamps’s grasp of Rupert’s hand loosened, and, having already kissed her, the child slipped off the bed. Edwin approached, and over the heads of the children, and between the great darkening curtains, he could at last see the face of the dying woman like a senile doll’s face amid the confusion of wrappings and bedclothes. The deep-set eyes seemed to burn beneath the white forehead and sparse grey hair; the cheeks, still rounded, were highly flushed over a very small part of their surface; the mouth, always open, was drawn in, and the chin, still rounded like the cheeks, protruded. The manner of Auntie Hamps’s noisy breathing, like the puzzled gaze of her eyes, indicated apprehension of the profoundest, acutest sort.
“Eh!” said she, in a somewhat falsetto voice, jerky and excessively feeble. “I thought — I’d — lost you.” Her hand was groping about.
“No, no,” said Edwin, leaning over between young Clara and Rupert.
“She’s feeling for your hand, Edwin,” said Clara.
He quickly took her hot, brittle fingers; they seemed to cling to his for essential support.
“Have you — been to the works?” Auntie Hamps asked the question as though the answer to it would end all trouble.
“No,” he said. “Not yet.”
“Eh! That’s right! That’s right!” she murmured, apparently much impressed by a new proof of Edwin’s wisdom.
“I’ve had a sleep.”
“I’ve been having a sleep,” he repeated more loudly.
“Eh! That’s right! That’s right. . . . I’m so glad — the children have been to see me. . . . Amy — did you kiss me?” Auntie Hamps looked at Amy hard, as if for the first time.
And then Amy began to cry.
“Better take them away,” Edwin suggested aside to Albert. “It’s as much as she can stand. The parson’s only just gone, you know.”
Albert, obedient, gave the word of command, and the room was full of movement.
“Eh, children — children!” Auntie Hamps appealed.
Everybody stood stockstill, gazing attendant.
“Eh, children, bless you all for coming. If you grow up — as good as your mother — it’s all I ask — all I ask. . . . Your mother and I— have never had a cross word — have we, mother?”
“No, auntie,” said Clara, with a sweet, touching smile that accentuated the fragile charm of her face.
“Never — since mother was — as tiny as you are.”
Auntie Hamps looked up at the ceiling during a few strained breaths, and then smiled for an instant at the departing children, who filed out of the room. Rupert loitered behind, gazing at his mother. The mere contrast between the infant so healthy and the dying old woman was pathetic to Edwin. Clara, with an exquisite reassuring gesture and smile picked up the stout Rupert and kissed him and carried him to the door, while Auntie Hamps looked at mother and son, ecstatic.
They were alone now. She had not loosed his hand. Her voice was very faint, and he bent over her still lower in the alcove of the curtains, which seemed to stretch very high above them.
“Have you heard from Hilda?”
“Not yet. By the second post, perhaps.”
“It’s about George’s eyes — isn’t it?”
“She’s done quite right — quite right. It’s just — like Hilda. I do hope — and pray — the boy’s eyesight — is safe.”
“Oh yes!” said Edwin. “Safe enough.”
“You really think so?” She had the air of hanging on his words.
“What a blessing!” She sighed deeply with relief.
“I believe her relations must have been her passion.” And he was impressed by the intensity of that passion.
“Has — that girl — gone yet?”
“Who?” he questioned, and added more softly: “Minnie d’you mean?” His own voice sounded too powerful, too healthy and dominating, in comparison with her failing murmurs.
Auntie Hamps nodded. “Yes — Minnie.”
“Because I can’t trust — Maggie — to see to it.”
“I’ll see to it.”
“Has she done — the silvers — d’you know?”
“She’s doing them,” answered Edwin, who thought it would be best to carry out the deception with artistic completeness.
“She needn’t have her dinner before she goes.”
“No.” Auntie Hamps’s face and tone hardened. “Why should she?”
“And if she asks — for her wages — tell her — I say there’s nothing due — under the circumstances.”
“All right, Auntie,” Edwin agreed, desperate.
Maggie, followed by Clara, softly entered the room. Auntie Hamps glanced at them with a certain cautious suspicion, as though one or other of them was capable of thwarting her in the matter of Minnie. Then her eyes closed, and Edwin was aware of a slackening of her hold on his hand. The doctor, who called half an hour later, said that she might never speak again, and she never did. Her last conscious moments were moments of satisfaction.
Edwin slowly released his hand.
“Where’s Albert?” he asked Clara, merely for the sake of saying something.
“He’s taking the children home, and then he’s going to the works. He ought to have gone long ago. There’s a dreadful upset there.”
“I suppose there is,” said Edwin, who had forgotten that the fly-wheel accident must have almost brought Albert’s manufactory to a standstill. And he wondered whether it was the family instinct, or anxiety about Auntie Hamps’s will, that had caused Albert to absent himself from business on such a critical morning.
“I ought to go too,” he muttered, as a full picture of a lithographic establishment masterless swept into his mind.
“Have you telegraphed to Hilda?” Clara demanded.
“What’s the use?”
“Well, I should have thought you would.”
“Oh, no!” he said, falsely mild. “I shall write.” He was immensely glad that Hilda was not present in the house to complicate still further the human equation.
Maggie was silently examining the face obscured in the gloom of the curtains.
Instead of remaining late that night at the works, Edwin came back to the house before six o’clock. He had had word that the condition of Tertius Ingpen was still unchanged. Clara had gone home to see to her children’s evening meal. Maggie sat alone in the darkened bedroom, where Auntie Hamps, her features a mere pale blur between the over-arching curtains, still withheld the secret of her soul’s reality from the world. Even in the final unconsciousness there was something grandiose which lingered from her crowning magnificent deceptions and obstinate effort to safeguard the structure of society. The sublime obstinacy of the woman had transformed hypocrisy into a virtue, and not the imminence of the infinite unknown had sufficed to make her apostate to the steadfast principles of her mortal career.
“What about to-night?” Edwin asked.
“Oh! Clara and I will manage.”
There was a tap at the door. Edwin opened it. Minnie, abashed but already taking courage, stood there blinking with a letter in her hand. “Ah!” he breathed. Hilda’s scrawling calligraphy was on the envelope.
The letter read: “Darling boy. George has influenza, Charlie says. Temp. 102 anyway. So of course he can’t go out tomorrow. I knew this morning there was something wrong with him. Janet and Charlie send their love. Your ever loving wife, Hilda.”
He was exceedingly uplifted and happy and exhausted. Hilda’s handwriting moved him. The whole missive was like a personal emanation from her. It lived with her vitality. It fought for the mastery of the household interior against the mysterious, far-reaching spell of the dying woman. “Your loving wife.” Never before, during their marriage, had she written a phrase so comforting and exciting. He thought: “My faith in her is never worthy of her.” And his faith leaped up and became worthy of her.
“George has got influenza,” he said indifferently.
“George! But influenza’s very serious for him, isn’t it?” Maggie showed alarm.
“Why should it be?”
“Considering he nearly died of it at Orgreaves’!”
“Oh! Then! . . . He’ll be all right.”
But Maggie had put fear into Edwin — a superstitious fear. Influenza indeed might be serious for George. Suppose he died of it. People did die of influenza. Auntie Hamps — Tertius Ingpen — and now George! . . . All these anxieties mingling with his joy in the thought of Hilda! And all the brooding rooms of the house waiting in light or in darkness for a decisive event!
“I must go and lie down,” he said. He could contain no more sensations.
“Do,” said Maggie.
At two o’clock in the afternoon of Auntie Hamps’s funeral, a procession consisting of the following people moved out of the small, stuffy dining-room of her house across the lobby into the drawing-room:— the Rev. Christian Flowerdew, the Rev. Guy Cliffe (second minister), the aged Reverend Josiah Higginbotham (supernumerary minister), the chapel and the circuit stewards, the doctor, Edwin, Maggie, Clara, Bert and young Clara (being respectively the eldest nephew and the eldest niece of the deceased), and finally Albert Benbow; Albert came last because he had constituted himself the marshal of the ceremonies. In the drawing-room the coffin with its hideous brass plate and handles lay upon two chairs, and was covered with white wreaths. At the head of the coffin was placed a small table with a white cloth; on the cloth a large inlaid box (in which Auntie Hamps had kept odd photographs), and on the box a black book. The drawn blinds created a beautiful soft silvery gloom which solemnised everything and made even the clumsy carving on the coffin seem like the finest antique work. The three ministers ranged themselves round the small table; the others stood in an irregular horseshoe about the coffin, nervous, constrained, and in dread of catching each other’s glances. Mr. Higginbotham, by virtue of his age, began to read the service, and Auntie Hamps became “she,” “her,” and “our sister,”— nameless. In the dining-room she had been the paragon of all excellences — in the drawing-room, packed securely and neatly in the coffin, she was a sinner snatched from the consequences of sin by a miracle of divine sacrifice.
The interment thus commenced was the result of a compromise between two schools of funebrial manners sharply divergent. Edwin, immediately after the demise, had become aware of influences far stronger than those which had shaped the already half-forgotten interment of old Darius Clayhanger into a form repugnant to him. Both Albert and Clara, but especially Albert, had assumed an elaborate funeral, with a choral service at the Wesleyan chapel, numerous guests, a superb procession, and a substantial and costly meal in the drawing-room to conclude. Edwin had at once and somewhat domineeringly decided: no guests whatever outside the family, no service at the chapel, every rite reduced to its simplest. When asked why, he had no logical answer. He soon saw that it would be impossible not to invite a minister and the doctor. He yielded, intimidated by the sacredness of custom. Then not only the Wesleyan chapel but its Sunday School sent dignified emissaries, who so little expected a No to their honorific suggestions that the No was unuttered and unutterable. Certain other invitations were agreed upon. The Sunday School announced that it would “walk,” and it prepared to “walk.”
All the emissaries spoke of Auntie Hamps as a saint; they all averred with restrained passion that her death was an absolutely irreparable loss to the circuit; and their apparent conviction was such that Edwin’s whole estimate of Auntie Hamps and of mankind was momentarily shaken. Was it conceivable that none of these respectable people had arrived at the truth concerning Auntie Hamps? Had she deceived them all? Or were they simply rewarding her in memory for her ceaseless efforts on behalf of the safety of society?
Edwin stood like a rock against a service in the Wesleyan Chapel. Clara cunningly pointed out to him that the Wesleyan Chapel would be heated for the occasion, whereas the chapel at the cemetery, where scores of persons had caught their deaths in the few years of its existence, was never heated. His reply showed genius. He would have the service at the house itself. The decision of the chief mourner might be regretted, and was regretted, but none could impugn its correctitude, nor its social distinction; some said approvingly that it was ‘just like’ Edwin. Thenceforward the arrangements went more smoothly, the only serious difficulty being about the route to the cemetery. Edwin was met by a saying that “the last journey must be the longest,” which meant that the cortège must go up St. Luke’s Square and along the Market Place past the Town Hall and the Shambles, encountering the largest number of sightseers, instead of taking the nearest way along Wedgwood Street. Edwin chose Wedgwood Street.
In the discussions, Maggie was neutral, thus losing part of the very little prestige which she possessed. Clara and Albert considered Edwin to be excessively high-handed. But they were remarkably moderate in criticism, for the reason that no will had been found. Maggie and Clara had searched the most secret places of the house for a will, in vain. All that they had found was a brass and copper paper-knife wrapped in tissue-paper and labelled “For Edwin, with Auntie’s love,” and a set of tortoise-shell combs equally wrapped in tissue-paper and labelled “For Maggie, with Auntie’s love.” Naught for Clara! Naught for the chicks.
Albert (who did all the running about) had been to see Mr. Julian Pidduck, the Wesleyan solicitor, who had a pew at the back of the chapel and was famous for invariably arriving at morning service half an hour late. Mr. Pidduck knew of no will. Albert had also been to the Bank — that is to say, the Bank, at the top of St. Luke’s Square, whose former manager had been a buttress of Wesleyanism. The new manager (after nearly eight years he was still called the “new” manager, because the previous manager, old Lovatt, had been in control for nearly thirty years), Mr. Breeze, was ill upstairs on the residential floor with one of his periodic attacks of boils; the cashier, however, had told Albert that certain securities, but no testament, were deposited at the Bank; he had offered to produce the securities, but only to Edwin, as the nearest relative. Albert had then secretly looked up the pages entitled “Intestates’ Estates” in Whitaker’s Almanac and had discovered that whereas Auntie Hamps being intestate, her personal property would be divided equally between Edwin, Maggie, and Clara, her real property would go entirely to Edwin. (Edwin also had secretly looked up the same pages.) This gross injustice nearly turned Albert from a Tory into a Land Laws reformer. It accounted for the comparative submissiveness of Clara and Albert before Edwin’s arrogance as the arbiter of funerals. They hoped that, if he was humoured, he might forego his rights. They could not credit, and Edwin maliciously did not tell them, that no matter what they did he was incapable of insisting on such rights.
While the ministers succeeded each other in the conduct of the service, each after his different manner, Edwin scrutinised the coffin, and the wreaths, and the cards inscribed with mournful ecstatic affection that nestled amid the flowers, and the faces of the audience, and his thought was: “This will soon be over now!” Beneath his gloomy and wearied expression he was unhappy, but rather hopeful and buoyant, looking forward to approaching felicity. His reflections upon the career of Auntie Hamps were kind, and utterly uncritical; he wondered what her spirit was doing in that moment; the mystery ennobled his mind. Yet he wondered also whether the ministers believed all they were saying, why the superintendent minister read so well and prayed with such a lack of distinction, how much the wreaths cost, whether the Sunday School deputation had silently arrived in the street, and why men in overcoats and hatless looked so grotesque in a room, and why when men and women were assembled on a formal occasion the women always clung together.
Probing his left-hand pocket, he felt a letter. He had received it that morning from Hilda. George was progressing very well, and Charlie Orgreave had actually brought the oculist with his apparatus to see him at Charlie’s house. Charlie would always do impossibilities for Hilda. It was Charlie who had once saved George’s life — so Hilda was convinced. The oculist had said that George’s vision was normal, and that he must not wear glasses, but that on account of a slight weakness he ought to wear a shade at night in rooms which were lighted from the top. In a few days Hilda and George would return. Edwin anticipated their arrival with an impatience almost gleeful, so anxious was he to begin the new life with Hilda. Her letters had steadily excited him. He pictured the intimacies of their reunion. He saw her ideally. His mind rose to the finest manifestations of her individuality, and the inconveniences of that individuality grew negligible. Withal, he was relieved that George’s illness had kept her out of Bursley during the illness, death, and burial of Auntie Hamps. Had she been there, he would have had three persons to manage instead of two, and he could not have asserted himself with the same freedom.
And then there was a sound of sobbing outside the door. Minnie, sharing humbly but obstinately in the service according to her station, had broken down in irrational grief at the funeral of the woman whose dying words amounted to an order for her execution. Edwin, though touched, could have smiled; and he felt abashed before the lofty and incomprehensible marvels of human nature. Several outraged bent heads twisted round in the direction of the door, but the minister intrepidly continued with the final prayer. Maggie slipped out, the door closed, and the sound of sobbing receded.
After the benediction Albert resumed full activity, while the remainder of the company stared and cleared their throats without exchanging a word. The news that the hearse and coaches had not arrived helped them to talk a little. The fault was not that of the undertaker, but Edwin’s. The service had finished too soon, because in response to Mr. Flowerdew’s official question: “How much time do you give me?” he had replied: “Oh! A quarter of an hour,” whereas Albert the organiser had calculated upon half an hour. The representatives of the Sunday School were already lined up on the pavement and on the opposite pavement and in the roadway were knots of ragged, callously inquisitive spectators. The vehicles could at length be described on the brow of Church Street. They descended the slope in haste. The four mutes nipped down with agility from the hammer cloths, hung their greasy top-hats on the ornamental spikes of the hearse, and sneaked grimly into the house. In a second the flowers were shifted from the coffin, and with startling accomplished swiftness the coffin was darted out of the room without its fraudulent brass handles even being touched, and down the steps into the hearse, and the flowers replaced. The one hitch was due to Edwin attempting to get into the first coach instead of waiting for the last one. Albert, putting on his new black gloves, checked him. The ministers and the doctor had to go first, the chapel officials next, and the chief mourners — Edwin, Albert, and Bert — had the third coach. The women stayed behind at the door, frowning at the murmurous crowd of shabby idlers. Albert gave a supreme glance at the vehicles and the walkers, made a signal, and joined Edwin and Bert in the last coach, buttoning his left hand glove. Edwin would only hold his gloves in his hand. The cortège moved. Rain was threatening, and the street was muddy.
At the cemetery it was raining, and the walkers made a string of glistening umbrellas; only the paid mutes had no umbrellas. Near the gates, under an umbrella, stood a man with a protruding chin and a wiry grey moustache. He came straight to Edwin and shook hands. It was Mr. Breeze, the Bank manager. His neck, enveloped in a white muffler, showed a large excrescence behind, and he kept his head very carefully in one position.
He said, in his defiant voice:
“I only had the news this morning, and I felt that I should pay the last tribute of respect to the deceased. I had known her in business and privately for many years.”
His greeting of Albert was extremely reserved, and Albert showed him a meek face. Albert’s overdraft impaired the cordiality of their relations.
“Sorry to hear you’ve got your old complaint!” said Edwin, astounded at this act of presence by the terrible bank-manager.
Vehicles, by some municipal caprice, were forbidden to enter the cemetery. And in the rain, between the stone-perpetuated great names of the town’s history — the Boultons, the Lawtons, the Blackshaws, the Beardmores, the Dunns, the Longsons, the Hulmes, the Suttons, the Greenes, the Gardiners, the Calverts, the Dawsons, the Brindleys, the Baineses, and the Woods — the long procession preceded by Auntie Hamps tramped for a third of a mile along the asphalted path winding past the chapel to the graveside. And all the way Mr. Breeze, between Edwin and Albert, with Bert a yard to the rear, talked about boils, and Edwin said “Yes” and “No,” and Albert said nothing. And at the graveside the three ministers removed their flat round hats and put on skull-caps while skilfully holding their umbrellas aloft.
And while Mr. Flowerdew was reading from a little book in the midst of the large encircling bare-headed crowd with umbrellas, and the gravedigger with absolute precision accompanied his words with three castings of earth into the hollow of the grave, Edwin scanned an adjoining tombstone, which marked the family vault of Isaac Plant, a renowned citizen. He read, chased in gilt letters on the Aberdeen granite, the following lines:
“Sacred to the memory of Adelaide Susan, wife of Isaac Plant, died 27th June, 1886, aged 47 years. And of Mary, wife of Isaac Plant, died 11th December, 1890, aged 33 years. And of Effie Harriet, wife of Isaac Plant, died 9th December, 1893, aged 27 years. The Flower Fadeth. And of Isaac Plant, died 9th February, 1894, aged 79 years. I know that my Redeemer Liveth.” And the passionate career of the aged and always respectable rip seemed to Edwin to have been a wondrous thing. The love of life was in Isaac Plant. He had risen above death again and again. After having detested him, Edwin now liked him on the tombstone.
And even in that hilly and bleak burial ground, with melancholy sepulchral parties and white wind-blown surplices dotted about the sodden slopes, and the stiff antipathetic multitude around the pit which held Auntie Hamps, and the terrible seared, harsh, grey-and-brown industrial landscape of the great smoking amphitheatre below, Edwin felt happy in the sensation of being alive and of having to contend with circumstance. He was inspired by the legend of Isaac Plant and of Auntie Hamps, who in very different ways had intensely lived. And he thought in the same mood of Tertius Ingpen, who was now understood to be past hope. If he died — well, he also had intensely lived! And he thought too of Hilda, whose terrific vitality of emotion had caused him such hours of apprehension and exasperation. He exulted in all those hours. It seemed almost a pity that, by reason of his new-found understanding of Hilda, such hours would not recur. His heart flew impatiently forward into the future, to take up existence with her again.
When the ministers pocketed their skull-caps and resumed their hats, everybody except Edwin appeared to feel relief in turning away from the grave. Faces brightened; footsteps were more alert. In the drawing-room Edwin had thought: “It will soon be over,” and every face near him was saying, “It is over”; but now that it was over Edwin had a pang of depression at the eagerness with which all the mourners abandoned Auntie Hamps to her strange and desolate grave amid the sinister population of corpses.
He lingered, glancing about. Mr. Breeze also lingered, and then in his downright manner squarely approached Edwin.
“I’ll walk down with ye to the gates,” said he.
“Yes,” said Edwin.
Mr. Breeze moved his head round with care. Their umbrellas touched. In front of them the broken units of a procession tramped in disorder, chatting.
“I’ve got that will for you,” said Mr. Breeze in a confidential tone.
“But your cashier said there was no will at your place!”
“My cashier doesn’t know everything,” remarked Mr. Breeze. And in his voice was the satisfied grimness of a true native of the district, and a Longshaw man. “Mrs. Hamps deposited her will with me as much as a friend as anything else. The fact is I had it in my private safe. I should have called with it this morning, but I knew that you’d be busy, and what’s more I can’t go paying calls of a morning. Here it is.”
Mr. Breeze drew an endorsed foolscap envelope from the breast pocket of his overcoat, and handed it to Edwin.
“Thanks,” said Edwin very curtly. He could be as native as any native. But beneath the careful imperturbability of his demeanour he was not unagitated.
“I’ve got a receipt for you to sign,” said Mr. Breeze. “It’s slipped into the envelope. Here’s an ink-pencil.”
Edwin comprehended that he must stand still in the rain and sign a receipt for the will as best he could under an umbrella. He complied. Mr. Breeze said no more.
“Good-bye, Mr. Breeze,” said Edwin at the gates.
“Good-day to you, Mr. Clayhanger.”
The coaches trotted down the first part of the hill into Bursley but as soon as the road became a street, with observant houses on either side, the pace was reduced to a proper solemnity. Edwin was amused and even uplifted by the thought of the will in his pocket; his own curiosity concerning it diverted him; he anticipated complications with a light heart. To Albert he said nothing on the subject, which somehow he could not bring himself to force bluntly into the conversation. Albert talked about his misfortunes at the works, including the last straw of the engine accident; and all the time he was vaguely indicating reasons — the presence of Bert in the carriage necessitated reticence — for his default in the interest-paying to Maggie. At intervals he gave out that he was expecting much from Bert, who at the New Year was to leave school for the works — and Bert taciturn behind his spectacles had to seem loyal, earnest, and promising.
As they approached the Clowes Hospital Edwin saw a nurse in a bonnet, white bow, and fluent blue robe emerging from the shrubbery and putting up an umbrella. She looked delightful — at once modest and piquant, until he saw that she was the night-nurse; and even then she still looked delightful. He thought: “I’d no idea she could look like that!” and began to admit to himself that perhaps in his encounters with her in the obscurity of the night he had not envisaged the whole of her personality. Involuntarily he leaned forward. Her eyes were scintillant and active, and they caught his. He saluted; she bowed, with a most inviting, challenging and human smile.
“There’s Nurse Faulkner!” he exclaimed to Albert. “I must just ask her how Ingpen is. I haven’t heard today.” He made as if to lean out of the window.
“But you can’t stop the procession!” Albert protested in horror, unable to conceive such an enormity.
“I’ll just slip out!” said Edwin, guiltily.
He spoke to the coachman and the coach halted.
In an instant he was on the pavement.
“Drive on,” he instructed the coachman, and to the outraged Albert: “I’ll walk down.”
Nurse Faulkner, apparently flattered by the proof of her attractiveness, stopped and smiled upon the visitor. She had a letter in one hand.
“Good afternoon, nurse.”
“Good morning, Mr. Clayhanger. I’m just going out for my morning walk before breakfast,” said she.
She had dimples. These dimples quite ignored Edwin’s mourning and the fact that he had quitted a funeral in order to speak to her.
“How is Mr. Ingpen today?” Edwin asked. He could read on the envelope in her hand the words “The Rev.”
She grew serious, and said in a low, cheerful tone: “I think he’s going on pretty well.”
Edwin was startled.
“D’you mean he’s getting better?”
“Slowly. He’s taking food more easily. He was undoubtedly better this morning. I haven’t seen him since, of course.”
“But the matron seemed to think ——” He stopped, for the dimples began to reappear.
“Matron always fears the worst, you know,” said Nurse Faulkner, not without irony.
The matron had never held out hope to Edwin; and he had unquestioningly accepted her opinion. It had not occurred to him that the matron of a hospital could be led astray by her instinctive unconscious appetite for gloom and disaster.
The nurse nodded.
“Then you think he’ll pull through?”
“I’m pretty sure he will. But of course I’ve not seen the doctor — I mean since the first night.”
“I’m awfully glad.”
“His brother came over from Darlington to see him yesterday evening, you know.”
“Yes. I just missed him.”
The nurse gave a little bow as she moved up the road.
“Just going to the pillar-box,” she explained. “Dreadful weather we’re having!”
He left her, feeling that he had made a new acquaintance.
“She’s in love with a parson, I bet,” he said to himself. And he had to admit that she had charm — when off duty.
The news about Ingpen filled him with bright joy. Everything was going well. Hilda would soon be home; George’s eyes were not seriously wrong; the awful funeral was over; and his friend was out of danger — marvellously restored to him. Then he thought of the will. He glanced about to see whether anybody of importance was observing him. There was nobody. The coaches were a hundred yards in front. He drew out the envelope containing the will, managed to extract the will from the envelope, and opened the document — not very easily because he was holding his umbrella.
A small printed slip fluttered to the muddy pavement. He picked it up; it was a printed form of attestation clause, seemingly cut from Whitaker’s Almanac:—“Signed by the testator (or testatrix as the case may be) in the presence of us, both present at the same time,” etc.
“She’s got that right, anyhow,” he murmured.
Then, walking along, he read the will of Auntie Hamps. It was quickly spotted with raindrops.
At the house the blinds were drawn up, and the women sedately cheerful. Maggie was actually teasing Bert about his new hat, and young Clara, active among the preparations for tea for six, was intensely and seriously proud at being included in the ceremonial party of adults. She did not suspect that the adults themselves had a novel sensation of being genuinely adult, and that the last representative of the older generation was gone, and that this common sensation drew them together rather wistfully.
“Oh! By the way, there’s a telegram for you,” said Maggie, as Minnie left the dining-room after serving the last trayful of hot dishes and pots.
Edwin took the telegram. It was from Hilda, to say that she and George would return on the morrow.
“But what about the house being cleaned, and what about servants?” cried Edwin, affecting, in order to conceal his pleasure, an annoyance which he did not in the least feel.
“Oh! Mrs. Tams has been looking after the house — I shall go round and see her after tea. I’ve got one servant for Hilda.”
“You never told me anything about it,” said Edwin, who was struck, by no means for the first time, by the concealment which all the women practised.
“Didn’t I?” Maggie innocently murmured. “And then Minnie can go and help if necessary until you’re all settled again. Hadn’t we better have the gas lighted before we begin?”
And in the warm cosiness of the small, ugly, dining-room shortly to be profaned by auctioneers and furniture-removers, amid the odours of tea and hot tea-cakes, and surrounded by the family faces intimate, beloved, and disdained, Edwin had an exciting vision of the new life with Hilda, and the vision was shot through with sharp flitting thoughts of the once gorgeous Auntie Hamps forlorn in the cemetery and already passing into oblivion.
After tea, immediately the children had been sent home, he said, self-consciously to Albert:
“I’ve got something for you.”
And offered the will. Maggie and Clara were upstairs.
“What is it?”
“It’s Auntie’s will. Breeze had it. He gave it to me in the cemetery. It seems he only knew this morning Auntie was dead. I think that was why he came up.”
“Well, I’m ——!” Albert muttered.
His hand trembled as he opened the paper.
Auntie Hamps had made Edwin sole executor, and had left all her property in trust for Clara’s children. Evidently she had reasoned that Edwin and Maggie had all they needed, and that the children of such a father as Albert could only be effectually helped in one way, which way she had chosen. The will was seven years old, and the astounding thing was that she had drawn it herself, having probably copied some of the wording from some source unknown. It was a wise if a rather ruthless will; and its provisions, like the manner of making it, were absolutely characteristic of the testatrix. Too mean to employ a lawyer, she had yet had a magnificent gesture of generosity towards that Benbow brood which she adored in her grandiose way. And further she had been clever enough not to invalidate the will by some negligent informality. It was as tight as if Julian Pidduck himself had drawn it.
And she had managed to put Albert in a position highly exasperating. For he was both very pleased and very vexed. In slighting him, she had aggrandized his children.
“What of it?” he asked nervously.
“It’s all right so far as I’m concerned,” said Edwin, with a short laugh. And he was sincere, for he had no desire whatever to take a share of his aunt’s modest wealth. He shrank from the trusteeship, but he knew that he could not avoid it, and he was getting accustomed to power and dominion. Albert would have to knuckle down to him, and Clara too.
Maggie and Clara came back together into the room, noticeably sisterly. They perceived at once from the men’s faces that they were in the presence of a historic event.
“I say, Clary,” Albert began; his voice quavered.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47