Hilda showed her smiling, flattering face at the door of Edwin’s private office at a few minutes to one on Saturday morning, and she said:
“I had to go to the dressmaker’s after my shopping, so I thought I might as well call for you.” She added with deference: “But I can wait if you’re busy.”
True that the question of mourning had taken her to the dressmaker’s, and that the dressmaker lived in Shawport Lane, not four minutes from the works; but such accidents had nothing to do with her call, which, being part of a scheme of Hilda’s, would have occurred in any case.
“I’m ready,” said Edwin, pleased by the vision of his wife in the stylish wide-sleeved black jacket and black hat which she had bought in London. “What have you got in that parcel?”
“It’s your new office-coat,” Hilda replied, depositing on the desk the parcel which had been partly concealed behind her muff. “I’ve mended the sleeves.”
“Aha!” Edwin lightly murmured. “Let’s have a look at it.”
His benevolent attitude towards the new office-coat surprised and charmed her. Before her journey to London with George he would have jealously resented any interfering hand among his apparel, but since her return he had been exquisitely amenable. She thought, proud of herself:
“It’s really quite easy to manage him. I never used to go quite the right way about it.”
Her new system, which was one of the results of contact with London and which had been inaugurated a week earlier on the platform of Knype station when she stepped down from the London train, consisted chiefly in smiles, voice-control, and other devices to make Edwin believe in any discussion that she fully appreciated his point of view. Often (she was startled to find) this simulation had the unexpected result of causing her actually to appreciate his point of view. Which was very curious.
London indeed had had its effect on Hilda. She had seen the Five Towns from a distance, and as something definitely provincial. Having lived for years at Brighton, which is almost a suburb of London, and also for a short time in London itself, she could not think of herself as a provincial, in the full sense in which Edwin, for example, was a provincial. She had gone to London with her son, not like a staring and intimidated provincial, but with the confidence of an initiate returning to the scene of initiation. And once she was there, all her old condescensions towards the dirty and primitive ingenuous Five Towns had very quickly revived. She discovered Charlie Orgreave, the fairly successful doctor in Ealing (a suburb rich in doctors), to be the perfect Londoner, and Janet, no longer useless and forlorn, scarcely less so. These two, indeed, had the air of having at length reached their proper home after being born in exile. The same was true of Johnnie Orgreave, now safely through the matrimonial court and married to his blonde Adela (formerly the ripping Mrs. Chris Hamson), whose money had bought him a junior partnership in an important architectural firm in Russell Square. Johnnie and Adela had come over from Bedford Park to Ealing to see Hilda, and Hilda had dined with them at Bedford Park at a table illuminated by crimson-shaded night-lights — a repast utterly different in its appointments and atmosphere from anything conceivable in Trafalgar Road. The current Five Towns notion of Johnnie and his wife as two morally ruined creatures hiding for the rest of their lives in shame from an outraged public opinion, seemed merely comic in Ealing and Bedford Park. These people referred to the Five Towns with negligent affection, but with disdain, as to a community that, with all its good qualities, had not yet emerged from barbarism. They assumed that their attitude was also Hilda’s, and Hilda, after a moment’s secret resentment, had indeed made their attitude her own. When she mentioned that she hoped soon to move Edwin into a country house, they applauded and implied that no other course was possible. Withal, their respect, to say nothing of their regard, for Edwin, the astute and successful man of business, was obvious and genuine. The two brothers Orgreave, amid their possibly superficial splendours of professional men, hinted envy of the stability of Edwin’s trade position. And both Janet and Adela, shopping with Hilda, showed her, by those inflections and eyebrow-liftings of which women possess the secret, that the wife of a solid and generous husband had quite as much economic importance in London as in the Five Towns.
Thus when Hilda got into the train at Euston, she had in her head a plan of campaign compared to which the schemes entertained by her on the afternoon of the disastrous servants episode seemed amateurish and incomplete. And also she was like a returning adventurer, carrying back to his savage land the sacred torch of civilisation. She had perceived, as never before, the superior value of the suave and refined social methods of the metropolitan middle-classes, compared with the manners of the Five Towns, and it seemed to her, in her new enthusiasm for the art of life, that if she had ever had a difficulty with Edwin, her own clumsiness was to blame. She saw Edwin as an instrument to be played upon, and herself as a virtuoso. In such an attitude was necessarily a condescension. Yet this condescension somehow did not in the least affect the tenderness and the fever of her longing for Edwin. Her excitement grew as the train passed across the dusky December plain towards him. She thought of the honesty of his handshake and of his wistful glance. She knew that he was better than any of the people she had left — either more capable, or more reliable, or more charitable, or all three. She knew that most of the people she had left were at heart snobs. “Am I getting a snob?” she asked herself. She had asked herself the question before. “I don’t care if it is snobbishness. I want certain things, and I will have them, and they can call it what they like.” Like the majority of women, she was incapable of being frightened by the names of her desires. She might be snobbish in one part of her, but in another she had the fiercest scorn for all that Ealing stood for. And in Edwin she admired nothing more than the fact that success had not modified his politics, which were as downright as they had ever been; she could not honestly say the same for herself; and assuredly the Orgreaves could not say the same for themselves. In politics, Edwin was an inspiration to her.
And when the train entered the fiery zone of industry, and slackened speed amid the squalid twilit streets, and stopped at Knype station in front of a crowd of local lowering faces and mackintoshed and gaitered forms, and the damp chill of the Five Towns came in through the opened door of the compartment, her heart fell, and she regretted the elegance of Ealing. But simultaneously her heart was beating with ecstatic expectation. She saw Edwin’s face. It was a local face. He wore mourning. He saw her; his eye lighted; his wistful smile appeared. “Yes,” she thought, “he is the same as my image of him. He is better than any of them. I am safe. What a shame to have left him all alone! He was quite right — there was no need for it. But I am so impulsive. He must have suffered terribly with those Benbows, and shut out of his own house too.” . . . His hand thrilled her. In the terrible sincerity and outpouring of her kiss she sought to compensate him for all wrongs past and future. Her joy in being near him again made her tingle. His matter-of-fact calmness pleased her. She thought: “I know him, with his matter-of-fact calmness!” “Hello, kid,” Edwin addressed George with man-to-man negligence. “Been looking after your mother?” George answered like a Londoner. She had them side by side. It was the fact that George had looked after her. London had matured him; he had picked up a little Ealing. He was past Edwin’s shoulder. Indeed he was surprisingly near to being a man. She had both of them. On the platform they surrounded her with their masculine protection. George’s secret deep respect for Edwin was not hidden from her.
And yet, all the time, in her joy, reliance, love, admiration, eating him with her eyes, she was condescending to Edwin — because she had plans for his good. She knew better than he did what would be for his good. And he was a provincial and didn’t suspect it. “My poor boy!” she had said gleefully in the cab, pulling suddenly at a loose button of the old grey coat which he wore surreptitiously under his new black overcoat. “My poor boy, what a state you are in!” implying in her tone of affectionate raillery that without her he was a lost man. Through this loose button, she was his mother, his good angel, his saviour. The trifle had led to a general visitation of his wardrobe, conducted by her with metropolitan skill in humouring his susceptibilities.
Edwin now tried on the new office-coat with the self-consciousness that none but an odious dandy can avoid on such occasions.
“It seems warmer than it used to be,” he said, pleased to have her beholding him and interesting herself in him, especially in his office. Her presence there, unless it happened to arouse his jealousy for his business independence, always pleasurably excited him. Her muff on the desk had the air of being the muff of a woman who was amorously interested in him, but his relations with whom were not regularised by the law or the church.
“Yes,” said she. “I’ve put some wash-leather inside the lining at the back.”
“Well, didn’t you say you felt the cold from the window, and it’s bad for your liver?”
Her glance said:
“Am I not a clever woman?”
And his replied:
“That’s the end of that, I hope, darling,” she remarked, picking up the old office-coat and dropping it with charming affected disgust into the waste-paper basket.
He shouted for the clerk, who entered with some letters for signature. Under the eyes of his wife Edwin signed them with the demeanour of a secretary of state signing the destiny of provinces, while the clerk respectfully waited.
“I’ve asked Maggie to come up for the week-end,” said Hilda carelessly, when they were alone together, and Edwin was straightening the desk preparatory to departure.
Since her return she had become far more friendly with Maggie than ever before — not because Maggie had revealed any new charm, but because she saw in Maggie a victim of injustice. Nothing during the week had more severely tested Hilda’s new methods of intercourse with Edwin than the disclosure of the provisions of Auntie Hamps’s will, which she had at once and definitely set down as monstrous. She simply could not comprehend Edwin’s calm acceptance of them, and a month earlier she would have been bitter about it. It was not (she was convinced) that she coveted money, but that she hated unfairness. Why should the Benbows have all Auntie Hamps’s possessions, and Edwin and Maggie, who had done a thousand times more for her than the Benbows, nothing? Hilda’s conversation implied that the Benbows ought to be ashamed of themselves, and when Edwin pointed out that their good luck was not their fault, only a miracle of self-control had enabled her to say nicely: “That’s quite true,” instead of sneering: “That’s you all over, Edwin!” When she learnt that Edwin would receive not a penny for his labours as executor and trustee for the Benbow children, she was speechless. Perceiving that he did not care for her to discourse upon what she considered to be the wrong done to him, she discoursed upon the wrong done to Maggie — Maggie who was already being deprived by the wicked Albert of interest due to her. And Edwin had to agree with her about Maggie’s case. It appeared that Maggie also agreed with her about Maggie’s case. As for the Benbows, Hilda had not deigned to say one word to them on the matter. A look, a tone, a silence, had sufficed to express the whole of Hilda’s mind to those Benbows.
“Oh!” said Edwin. “So Maggie’s coming for the week-end, is she? Well, that’s not a bad scheme.” He knew that Maggie had been very helpful about servants, and that, the second servant having not yet arrived, she would certainly do much more work in the house than she “made.” He pictured her and Hilda becoming still more intimate as they turned sheets and blankets and shook pillows on opposite sides of beds, and he was glad.
“Yes,” said Hilda. “I’ve called there this morning.”
“And what’s she doing with Minnie?”
“We’ve settled all that,” said Hilda proudly. Edwin had told her in detail the whole story of Minnie, and she had behaved exactly as he had anticipated. Her championship of Minnie had been as passionate as her ruthless verdict upon Minnie’s dead mistress. “The girl’s aunt was there when I called. We’ve settled she is to go to Stone, and Maggie and I shall do something for her, and when it’s all over I may take her on as housemaid. Maggie says she probably wouldn’t make a bad housemaid. Anyhow it’s all arranged for the present.”
“Then Maggie’ll be without a servant?”
“No, she won’t. We shall manage that. Besides, I suppose Maggie won’t stay on in that house all by herself for ever! . . . It’s just the right size, I see.”
“Just!” said Edwin.
He was spreading over his desk a dust-sheet with a red scolloped edging which Hilda had presented to him three days earlier.
She gazed at him with composed and justifiable self-satisfaction, as if saying: “Leave absolutely to me everything in my department, and see how smooth your life will be!”
He would never praise her, and she had a very healthy appetite for praise, which appetite always went hungry. But now, instead of resenting his niggardly reserve, she said to herself: “Poor boy! He can’t bring himself to pay compliments; that’s it. But his eyes are full of delicious compliments.” She was happy, even if apprehensive for the immediate future. There she was, established and respected in his office, which was his church and the successful rival of her boudoir. Her plans were progressing.
She approached the real business of her call:
“I was thinking we might have gone over to see Ingpen this afternoon.”
Ingpen, convalescent, had insisted, two days earlier, on being removed to his own house, near the village of Stockbrook, a few miles south of Axe. The departure was a surprising example of the mere power of volition on the part of a patient. The routine of hospital life had exasperated the recovering soul of this priest of freedom to such a point that doctor, matron, and friends had had to yield to a mere instinct.
“There’s no decent train to go, and none at all to come back until nearly nine o’clock. And we can’t cycle in this weather — at least I can’t, especially in the dark.”
“Well, what about Sunday?”
“The Sunday trains are worse.”
“What a ghastly line!” said Edwin. “And they have the cheek to pay five per cent! I remember Ingpen telling me there was one fairish train into Knype in the morning, and one out in the afternoon. And there wouldn’t be that if the Locomotive Superintendent didn’t happen to live at Axe.”
“It’s a pity you haven’t got a dog-cart, isn’t it?” said Hilda, lightly smiling. “Because then we could use the works horse now and then, and it wouldn’t really cost anything extra, would it?”
Her heart was beating perceptibly.
Edwin shook his head, agreeably, but with firmness.
“Can’t mix up two different things like that!” he said.
She knew it. She was aware of the whole theory of horse-owning among the upper trading-class in the Five Towns. A butcher might use his cob for pleasure on Sundays — he never used it for pleasure on any other day — but traders on a higher plane than butchers drew between the works and the house a line which a works horse was not permitted to cross. One or two, perhaps — but not the most solid — would put a carter into a livery overcoat and a shabby top-hat and describe him as a coachman while on rare afternoons he drove a landau or a victoria picked up cheap at Axe or Market Drayton. But the majority had no pretensions to the owning of private carriages. The community was not in fact a carriage community. Even the Orgreaves had never dreamed of a carriage. Old Darius Clayhanger would have been staggered into profanity by the suggestion of such a thing. Indeed, until some time after old Clayhanger’s death the printing business had been content to deliver all its orders in a boy-pushed handcart. Only when Edwin discovered that, for instance, two thousand catalogues on faced clay paper could not be respectably delivered in a handcart, had he steeled himself to the prodigious move of setting up a stable. He had found an entirely trustworthy ostler-carter with the comfortable name of Unchpin, and, an animal and a tradesman’s covered cart having been bought, he had left the affair to Unchpin. Naturally he had never essayed to drive the tradesman’s cart. And Edwin Clayhanger could not be seen on the insecure box of a tradesman’s cart. He had learnt nothing about horses except that a horse should be watered before, and not after, being fed, that shoeing cost a shilling a week and fodder a shilling a day, and that a horse driven over a hundred and fifty miles a week was likely to get “a bit over” at the knees. At home the horse and cart had always been regarded as being just as exclusively a works item as the printing-machines or the steam-engine.
“I suppose,” said Hilda carefully, “you’ve got all the work one horse can do?”
“Well, then, why don’t you buy another one?” She tried to speak carelessly, without genuine interest.
“Yes, no doubt!” Edwin answered drily. “And build fresh stables, too.”
“Haven’t you got room for two?”
“Come along and look, and then perhaps you’ll be satisfied.”
Buzzers, syrens, and whistles began to sound in the neighbourhood. It was one o’clock.
“Shall I? . . . Your overcoat collar’s turned up behind. Let me do it.”
She straightened the collar.
They went out, through the clerk’s office. Edwin gave a sideways nod to Simpson. In the passage some girls and a few men were already hurrying forth. None of them took notice of Edwin and Hilda. They all plunged for the street as though the works had been on fire.
“They are in a hurry, my word!” Hilda murmured, with irony.
“And why shouldn’t they be?” the employer protested almost angrily.
In the small yard stood the horseless cart, with “Edwin Clayhanger, Lithographer and Steam Printer, Bursley,” on both its sides. The stable and cart-shed were in one penthouse, and to get to the stable it was necessary to pass through the cart-shed. Unchpin, a fat man of forty with a face marked by black seams, was bending over a chaff-cutter in the cart-shed. He ignored the intruders. The stable consisted of one large loose-box, in which a grey animal was restlessly moving.
“You see!” Edwin muttered curtly.
“Oh! What a beautiful horse! I’ve never seen him before.”
“Her,” Edwin corrected.
“Is it a mare?”
“So they say!”
“I never knew you’d got a fresh one.”
“I haven’t — yet. I’ve taken this one for a fortnight’s trial, from Chawner. . . . How’s she doing, Unchpin?” he called to the cart-shed.
Unchpin looked round and stared.
“Bit light,” he growled and turned back to the chaff-cutter, which he seemed to be repairing.
“I thought so,” said Edwin.
“But her’s a good ’un,” he added.
“But where’s the old horse?” asked Hilda.
“With God,” Edwin replied. “Dropped down dead last week.”
Edwin shook his head.
“It’s a privilege of horses to do that sort of thing,” he said. “They’re always doing it.”
“You never told me.”
“Well, you weren’t here, for one thing.”
The mare inquisitively but cautiously put her muzzle over the door of the box. Hilda stroked her. The animal’s mysterious eyes, her beautiful coat, her broad back, her general bigness relatively to Hilda, the sound of her feet among the litter on the paving stones, the smell of the stable — these things enchanted Hilda.
“I should adore horses!” she breathed, half to herself, ecstatically; and wondered whether she would ever be able to work her will on Edwin in the matter of a dog-cart. She pictured herself driving the grey mare, who had learnt to love her, in a flashing dog-cart, Edwin by her side on the front-seat. Her mind went back enviously to Tavy Mansion and Dartmoor. But she felt that Edwin had not enough elasticity to comprehend the rapture of her dream. She foresaw nearly endless trouble and altercation and chicane before she could achieve her end. She was ready to despair, but she remembered her resolutions and took heart.
“I say, Unchpin,” said Edwin. “I suppose this box couldn’t be made into two stalls?”
Unchpin on his gaitered legs clumped towards the stable, and gazed gloomily into the box. When he had gazed for some time, he touched his cap to Hilda.
“It could,” he announced.
“Could you get a trap into the shed as well as the cart?”
“Ay! If ye dropped th’ shafts o’ th’ trap under th’ cart. What of it, mester?”
“Nothing. Only missis is going to have this mare.”
After a pause, Unchpin muttered:
Hilda had moved a little away into the yard. Edwin approached her, flushing slightly, and with a self-consciousness which he tried to dissipate with one wink. Hilda’s face was set hard.
“I must just go back to the office,” she said, in a queer voice.
She walked quickly, Edwin following. Simpson beheld their return with gentle surprise. In the private office Hilda shut the door. She then ran to the puzzled Edwin, and kissed him with the most startling vehemence, clasping her arms — in one hand she still held the muff — round his neck. She loved him for being exactly as he was. She preferred his strange, uncouth method of granting a request, of yielding, of flattering her caprice, to any politer, more conventional methods of the metropolis. She thought that no other man could be as deeply romantic as Edwin. She despised herself for ever having been misled by the surface of him. And even the surface of him she saw now as it were, through the prism of passionate affection, to be edged with the blending colours of the rainbow. And when they came again out of the office, after the sacred rite, and Edwin, as uplifted as she, glanced back nevertheless at the sheeted desk and the safe and the other objects in the room with the half-mechanical habitual solicitude of a man from whom the weight of responsibility is never lifted, she felt saddened because she could not enter utterly into his impenetrable soul, and live through all his emotions, and comprehend like a creator the always baffling wistfulness of his eyes. This sadness was joy; it was the aura of her tremendous satisfaction in his individuality and in her triumph and in the thought: “I alone stand between him and desolation.”
“Wo!” exclaimed Hilda broadly, bringing the mare and the vehicle to a standstill in front of the “Live and Let Live” inn in the main street of the village of Stockbrook, which lay about a mile and a half off the high road from the Five Towns to Axe. And immediately the mare stopped she was enveloped in her own vapour.
“Ha!” exclaimed Edwin, with faint benevolent irony. “And no bones broken!”
A man came out from the stable-yard.
The village of Stockbrook gave the illusion that hundreds of English villages were giving that Christmas morning — the illusion that its name was Arcadia, that finality had been reached, and that the forces of civilisation could go no further. More suave than a Dutch village, incomparably neater and cleaner and more delicately finished than a French village, it presented, in the still, complacent atmosphere of long tradition, a picturesque medley of tiny architectures nearly every aspect of which was beautiful. And if seven people of different ages and sexes lived in a two-roomed cottage under a thatched roof hollowed by the weight of years, without drains and without water, and also without freedom, the beholder was yet bound to conclude that by some mysterious virtue their existence must be gracious, happy, and in fact ideal — especially on Christmas Day, though Christmas Day was also Quarter Day — and that they would not on any account have it altered in the slightest degree. Who could believe that fathers of families drank away their children’s bread in the quaint tap-room of that creeper-clad hostel — a public-house fit to produce ecstasy in the heart of every American traveller —“The Live and Let Live”? Who could have believed that the Wesleyan Methodists already singing a Christmas hymn inside the dwarf Georgian conventicle, and their fellow-Christians straggling under the lych into the church-yard, scorned one another with an immortal detestation, each claiming a monopoly in knowledge of the unknowable? But after all the illusion of Arcadia was not entirely an illusion. In this calm, rime-decked, Christmas-imbued village, with its motionless trees enchanted beneath a vast grey impenetrable cloud, a sort of relative finality had indeed been reached — the end of an epoch that was awaiting dissolution.
Edwin had not easily agreed to the project of shutting up house for the day and eating the Christmas dinner with Tertius Ingpen. Although customarily regarding the ritual of Christmas, with its family visits, its exchange of presents, its feverish kitchen activity, its somewhat insincere gaiety, its hours of boredom, and its stomachic regrets, as an ordeal rather than a delight, he nevertheless abandoned it with reluctance and a sense of being disloyal to something sacred. But the situation of Ingpen, Hilda’s strong desire and her teasing promise of a surprise, and the still continuing dearth of servants had been good arguments to persuade him.
And though he had left Trafalgar Road moody and captious, thinking all the time of the deserted and cold home, he had arrived in Stockbrook tingling and happy, and proud of Hilda — proud of her verve, her persistency, and her success. She had carried him very far on the wave of her new enthusiasm for horse-traction. She had beguiled him into immediately spending mighty sums on a dog-cart, new harness, rugs, a driving-apron, and a fancy whip. She had exhausted Unchpin, upset the routine of the lithographic business, and gravely overworked the mare, in her determination to learn to drive. She had had the equipage out at night for her lessons. On the other hand she had not in the least troubled herself about the purchase of a second horse for mercantile purposes, and a second horse had not yet been bought.
When she had announced that she would herself drive her husband and son over to Stockbrook, Edwin had absolutely negatived the idea; but Unchpin had been on her side; she had done the double journey with Unchpin, who judged her capable and the mare (eight years old) quite reliable, and who moreover wanted Christmas as much as possible to himself. And Hilda had triumphed. Walking the mare uphill — and also downhill — she had achieved Stockbrook in safety; and the conquering air with which she drew up at the “Live and Let Live” was delicious. The chit’s happiness and pride radiated out from her. It seemed to Edwin that by the mere strength of violition she had actually created the dog-cart and its appointments, and the mare too! And he thought that he himself had not lived in vain if he could procure her such sensations as her glowing face then displayed. Her occasionally overbearing tenacity, and the little jars which good resolutions several weeks old had naturally not been powerful enough to prevent, were forgotten and forgiven. He would have given all his savings to please her caprice, and been glad. A horse and trap, or even a pair of horses and a landau, were a trifling price to pay for her girlish joy and for his own tranquillity in his beloved house and business.
“Catch me, both of you!” cried Hilda.
Edwin had got down, and walked round behind the vehicle to the footpath, where George stood grinning. The stableman, in classic attitude, was at the mare’s head.
Hilda jumped rather wildly. It was Edwin who countered the shock of her descent. The edge of her velvet hat knocked against his forehead, disarranging his cap. He could smell the velvet, as for an instant he held his wife — strangely acquiescent and yielding — in his arms, and there was something intimately feminine in the faint odour. All Hilda’s happiness seemed to pass into him, and that felicity sufficed for him. He did not desire any happiness personal to himself. He wanted only to live in her. His contentment was profound, complete, rapturous.
And yet in the same moment, reflecting that Hilda would certainly have neglected the well-being of the mare, he could say to the stableman:
“Put the rug over her, will you?”
“Hello! Here’s Mr. Ingpen!” announced George, as he threw the coloured rug on the mare.
Ingpen, pale and thickly enveloped, came slowly round the bend of the road, waving and smiling. He had had a relapse, after a too early sortie, and was recovering from it.
“I made sure you’d be about here,” he said, shaking hands. “Merry Christmas, all!”
“Ought you to be out, my lad?” Edwin asked heartily.
“Out? Yes. I’m as fit as a fiddle. And I’ve been ordered mild exercise.” He squared off gaily against George and hit the stout adolescent in the chest.
“What about all your parcels, Hilda?” Edwin enquired.
“Oh! We’ll call for them afterwards.”
“Yes. Come along — before you catch a chill.” She winked openly at Ingpen, who returned the wink. “Come along, dear. It’s not far. We have to walk across the fields.”
“Put her up, sir?” the stableman demanded of Edwin.
“Yes. And give her a bit of a rub down,” he replied absently, remembering various references of Hilda’s to a surprise. His heart misgave him. Ingpen and Hilda looked like plotters, very intimate and mischievous. He had a notion that living with a woman was comparable to living with a volcano — you never knew when a dangerous eruption might not occur.
Within three minutes the first and minor catastrophe had occurred.
“Bit sticky, this field path of yours,” said Edwin, uneasily.
They were all four slithering about in brown clay under a ragged hedge in which a few red berries glowed.
“It was as hard as iron the day before yesterday,” said Hilda.
“Oh! So you were here the day before yesterday, were you? . . . What’s that house there?” Edwin turned to Ingpen.
“He’s guessed it in one!” Ingpen murmured, and then went off into his characteristic crescendo laugh.
The upper part of a late eighteenth-century house, squat and square, with yellow walls, black uncurtained windows, high slim chimney, and a blue slate roof, showed like a gigantic and mysterious fruit in a clump of variegated trees, some of which were evergreen.
“Ladderedge Hall, my boy,” said Ingpen. “Seat of the Beechinors for about a hundred years.”
“‘Seat’, eh!” Edwin murmured sarcastically.
“It’s been empty for two years,” remarked Hilda brightly. “So we thought we’d have a look at it.”
And Edwin said to himself that he had divined all along what the surprise was. It was astounding that a man could pass with such rapidity as Edwin from vivid joy to black and desolate gloom. She well knew that the idea of living in the country was extremely repugnant to him, and that nothing would ever induce him to consent to it. And yet she must needs lay this trap for him, prepare this infantile surprise, and thereby spoil his Christmas, she who a few moments earlier had been the embodiment of surrender in his arms! He said no word. He hummed a few notes and glanced airily to right and left with an effort after unconcern. The presence of Ingpen and the boy, and the fact of Christmas, forbade him to speak freely. He could not suddenly stop and drive his stick into the earth and say savagely:
“Now listen to me! Once for all, I won’t have this country house idea! So let it be understood — if you want a row, you know how to get it.”
The appearance of amity — and the more high-spirited the better — must be kept up throughout the day. Nevertheless in his heart he challenged Hilda desperately. All her good qualities became insignificant, all his benevolent estimates of her seemed ridiculous. She was the impossible woman. He saw a tremendous vista of unpleasantness, for her obstinacy in warfare was known to him, together with her perfect lack of scruple, of commonsense, and of social decency. He had made her a present of a horse and trap — solely to please her — and this was his reward! The more rope you gave these creatures, the more they wanted! But he would give no more rope. Compromise was at an end. The battle would be joined that night. . . . In his grim and resolute dejection there was something almost voluptuous. He continued to glance airily about, and at intervals to hum a few notes.
Over a stile they dropped into a rutty side-road, and opposite was the worn iron gate of Ladderedge Hall, with a house-agent’s board on it. A short curved gravel drive, filmed with green, led to the front-door of the house. In front were a lawn and a flower-garden, beyond a paddock, and behind a vegetable garden and a glimpse of stabling; a compact property! Ingpen drew a great key from his pocket. The plotters were all prepared; they took their victim for a simpleton, a ninny, a lamb!
In the damp echoing interior Edwin gazed without seeing, and heard as in a dream without listening. This was the hall, this the dining-room, this the drawing-room, this the morning-room. . . . White marble mantelpieces, prehistoric grates, wall-paper hanging in strips, cobwebs, uneven floors, scaly ceilings, the invisible vapour of human memories! This was the kitchen, enormous; then the larder, enormous, and the scullery still more enormous (with a pump-handle flanking the slopstone)! No water. No gas. And what was this room opening out of the kitchen? Oh! That must be the servants’ hall. . . . Servants’ hall indeed! Imagine Edwin Clayhanger living in a “Hall,” with a servants’ hall therein! Snobbishness unthinkable! He would not be able to look his friends in the face. . . . On the first floor, endless bedrooms, but no bath-room. Here, though, was a small bedroom that would make a splendid bath-room. . . . Ingpen, the ever expert, conceived a tank-room in the roof, and traced routes for plumbers’ pipes. George, excited, and comprehending that he must conduct himself as behoved an architect, ran up to the attic floor to study on the spot the problem of the tank-room, and Ingpen followed. Edwin stared out of a window at the prospect of the Arcadian village lying a little below across the sloping fields.
“Come along, Edwin,” Hilda coaxed.
Yes, she had pretended a deep concern for the welfare of the suffering feckless bachelor, Tertius Ingpen. She had paid visit after visit in order to watch over his convalescence. Choosing to ignore his scorn for all her sex, she had grown more friendly with him than even Edwin had ever been. Indeed by her sympathetic attentions she had made Edwin seem callous in comparison. And all the time she had merely been pursuing a private design — with what girlish deceitfulness.
In the emptiness of the house the voices of Ingpen and George echoed from above down the second flight of stairs.
“No good going to the attics,” muttered Edwin, on the landing.
Hilda, half cajoling, half fretful, protested:
“Now, Edwin, don’t be disagreeable.”
He followed her on high, martyrised. The front wall of the house rose nearly to the top of the attic windows, screening and darkening them.
“Cheerful view!” Edwin growled.
He heard Ingpen saying that the place could be had on a repairing lease for sixty-five pounds a year, and that perhaps £1,200 would buy it. Dirt cheap.
“Ah!” Edwin murmured. “I know those repairing leases. £1,000 wouldn’t make this barn fit to live in.”
He knew that Ingpen and Hilda exchanged glances.
“It’s larger than Tavy Mansion,” said Hilda.
Tavy Mansion! There was the secret! Tavy Mansion was at the bottom of her scheme. Alicia Hesketh had a fine house, and Hilda must have a finer. She, Hilda, of all people, was a snob. He had long suspected it.
He rejoined sharply: “Of course it isn’t larger than Tavy Mansion! It isn’t as large.”
“Oh! Edwin. How can you say such things!”
In the portico, as Ingpen was relocking the door, the husband said negligently, superiorly, cheerfully:
“It’s not so bad. I expect there’s hundreds of places like this up and down the country — going cheap.”
The walk back to the “Live and Let Live” was irked by constraint, against which everyone fought nobly, smiling, laughing, making remarks about cockrobins, the sky, the Christmas dinner.
“So I hear it’s settled you’re going to London when you leave school, kiddie,” said Tertius Ingpen, to bridge over a fearful hiatus in the prittle-prattle.
George, so big now and so mannishly dressed as to be amused and not a bit hurt by the appellation “kiddie,” confirmed the statement in his deepening voice.
“It’s more than I hear, anyway!”
Hilda had told him that during the visit to London the project for articling George to Johnnie Orgreave had been revived, but she had not said that a decision had been taken. Though Edwin from careful pride had not spoken freely — George being Hilda’s affair and not his — he had shown no enthusiasm. Johnnie Orgreave had sunk permanently in his esteem — scarcely less so than Jimmie, whose conjugal eccentricities had scandalised the Five Towns and were achieving the ruin of the Orgreave practice; or than Tom, who was developing into a miser. Moreover, he did not at all care for George going to London. Why should it be thought necessary for George to go to London? The sagacious and successful provincial in Edwin was darkly jealous of London, as a rival superficial and brilliant. And now he learnt from Ingpen that George’s destiny was fixed. . . . A matter of small importance, however!
Did “they” seriously expect him to travel from Ladderedge Hall to his works, and from his works to Ladderedge Hall every week-day of his life? He laughed sardonically to himself.
Out came the sun, which George greeted with a cheer. And Edwin, to his own surprise, began to feel hungry.
“I shan’t take that house, you know,” said Edwin, casually and yet confidentially, in a pause which followed a long analysis, by Ingpen, of Ingpen’s sensations in hospital before he was out of danger.
They sat on opposite sides of a splendid extravagant fire in Ingpen’s dining-room.
Ingpen, sprawling in a shabby, uncomfortable easychair, and flushed with the activity of digestion, raised his eyebrows, squinted down at the cigarette between his lips, and answered impartially:
“No. So I gather. Of course you must understand it was Hilda’s plan to go up there. I merely fell in with it — simplest thing to do in these cases!”
Thus they both condescended to the feather-headed capricious woman, dismissed her, and felt a marked access of sincere intimacy on a plane of civilisation exclusively masculine.
In the succeeding silence of satisfaction and relief could be heard George, in the drawing-room above, practising again the piano part of a Haydn violin sonata which he had very nervously tried over with Ingpen while they were awaiting dinner.
Ingpen said suddenly:
“I say, old chap! Why have you never mentioned that you happened to meet a certain person in my room at Hanbridge that night you went over there for me?” He frowned.
Edwin had a thrill, pleasurable and apprehensive, at the prospect of a supreme confidence.
“It was no earthly business of mine,” he answered lightly. But his tone conveyed: “You surely ought to be aware that my loyalty and my discretion are complete.”
And Ingpen, replying to Edwin’s tone, said with a simple directness that flattered Edwin to the heart:
“Naturally I knew I was quite safe in your hands. . . . I’ve reassured the lady.” Ingpen smiled slightly.
Edwin was too proud to tell Ingpen that he had not said a word to Hilda, and Ingpen was too proud to tell Edwin that he assumed as much.
At that moment Hilda came into the room, murmuring a carol that some children of Stockbrook had sung on the doorstep during dinner.
“Don’t be afraid — I’m not going to interrupt. I know you’re in the thick of it,” said she archly, not guessing how exactly truthful she was.
Ingpen, keeping his presence of mind in the most admirable manner, rejoined with irony:
“You don’t mean to say you’ve finished already explaining to Mrs. Dummer how she ought to run my house for me!”
“How soon do you mean to have this table cleared?” asked Hilda.
The Christmas dinner, served by a raw girl in a large bluish-white pinafore, temporarily hired to assist Mrs. Dummer the housekeeper, had been a good one. Its only real fault was that it had had a little too much the air of being a special and mighty effort; and although it owed something to Hilda’s parcels, Ingpen was justified in the self-satisfaction which he did not quite conceal as a bachelor host. But now, under Hilda’s quizzing gaze, not merely the table but the room and the house sank to the tenth-rate. The coarse imperfections of the linen and the cutlery grew very apparent; the disorder of bottles and glasses and cups recalled the refectory of an inferior club. And the untidiness of the room, heaped with accumulations of newspapers, magazines, documents, books, boxes and musical-instrument cases, loudly accused the solitary despot whose daily caprices of arrangement were perpetuated and rendered sacred by the ukase that nothing was to be disturbed. Hilda’s glinting eyes seemed to challenge each corner and dark place to confess its shameful dirt, and the malicious poise of her head mysteriously communicated the fact that in the past fortnight she had spied out every sinister secret in the whole graceless, primitive wigwam.
“This table,” retorted Ingpen bravely, “is going to be cleared when it won’t disturb me to have it cleared.”
“All right,” said Hilda. “But Mrs. Dummer does want to get on with her washing-up.”
“Look here, madam,” Ingpen replied. “You’re a little ray of sunshine, and all that, and I’m the first to say so; but I’m not your husband.” He made a warning gesture. “Now don’t say you’d be sorry for any woman I was the husband of. Think of something more original.” He burst out laughing.
Hilda went to the window and looked out at the fading day.
“Please, I only popped in to say it’s nearly a quarter to three, and George and I will go down to the inn and bring the dog-cart up here. I want a little walk. We shan’t get home till dark as it is.”
“Oh! Chance it and stop for tea, and all will be forgiven.”
“Drive home in the dark? Not much!” Edwin murmured.
“He’s afraid of my driving,” said Hilda.
When Edwin and Ingpen were alone together once more, Ingpen’s expression changed back instantly to that which Hilda had disturbed, and Edwin’s impatience, which had uneasily simmered during the interruption, began to boil.
“Her husband’s in a lunatic asylum, I may tell you,” said Ingpen.
“The young woman’s in question.”
For Edwin, it was as if a door had opened in a wall and disclosed a vast unsuspected garden of romance.
“Yes, my boy,” Ingpen went on, quietly, with restraint, but not without a naïve and healthy pride in the sudden display of the marvellous garden. “And I didn’t meet her at a concert, or on the Grand Canal, or anything of that sort. I met her in a mill at Oldham while I was doing my job. He was the boss of the mill; I walked into an office and he was lying on the floor on the flat of his back, and she was wiping her feet on his chest. He was saying in a very anxious tone: ‘You aren’t half wiping them. Harder! Harder!’ That was his little weakness, you see. He happened to be convinced that he was a doormat. She had been hiding the thing for weeks, coming with him to the works, and so on, to calm him.” Ingpen spoke more quickly and excitedly: “I never saw a more awful thing in my life! I never saw a more awful thing in my life! And coming across it suddenly, you see. . . . There was something absolutely odious in him lying down like that, and her trying to soothe him in the way he wanted. You should have seen the serious expression of his face, simply bursting with anxiety for her to wipe her boots properly on him. And her face when she caught sight of me. Oh! Dreadful! Dreadful!” Ingpen paused, and then continued calmly: “Of course I soon tumbled to it. For the matter of that, it didn’t want much tumbling to. He went raving mad the same afternoon. And he’s been more or less raving mad ever since.”
“What a ghastly business. . . . Any children?”
“No, thank God!” Ingpen answered with fresh emotion. “But don’t you forget that she’s still the wife of that lunatic, and he’ll probably live for ever. She’s tied up to him just as if she was tied up to a post. Those are our Divorce Laws! Isn’t it appalling? Isn’t it inconceivable? Just think of the situation of that woman!” Ingpen positively glared at Edwin in the intensity of his indignation.
“Awful!” Edwin murmured.
“Quite alone in the world, you know!” said Ingpen. “I’m hanged if I know what she’d have done without me. She hadn’t a friend — at any rate she hadn’t a friend with a grain of sense. Astonishing how solitary some couples are! . . . It aged her frightfully. She’s much younger than she looks. Happily there was a bit of money — enough in fact.”
Deeply as Edwin had been impressed by his romantic discovery of a woman in Ingpen’s room at Hanbridge, he was still more impressed by it now. He saw the whole scene again, and saw it far more poetically. He accused himself of blindness, and also of a certain harshness of attitude towards the woman. He endowed her now with wondrous qualities. The adventure, in its tragicalness and its clandestine tenderness, was enchanting. How exquisite must be the relations between Ingpen and the woman if without warning she could go to his lair at night and wait confidently for his return! How divine the surprise for him, how ardent the welcome! He envied Ingpen. And also he admired him, for Ingpen had obviously conducted the affair with worthy expertise. And he had known how to win devotion.
With an air of impartiality Ingpen proceeded:
“You wouldn’t see her quite at her best, I’m afraid. She’s very shy — and naturally she’d be more shy than ever when you saw her. She’s quite a different woman when the shyness has worn off. The first two or three times I met her I must say I didn’t think she was anything more than a nice well-meaning creature — you know what I mean. But she’s much more than that. Can’t play, but I believe she has a real feeling for music. She has time for reading, and she does read. And she has a more masculine understanding than nearly any other woman I’ve ever come across.”
“You wait a bit!” thought Edwin. This simplicity on the part of a notable man of the world pleased him and gave him a comfortable sense of superiority.
Aloud he responded sympathetically:
“Good! . . . Do I understand she’s living in the Five Towns now?”
“Yes,” said Ingpen, after a hesitation. He spoke in a peculiar, significant voice, carefully modest. The single monosyllable conveyed to Edwin: “I cannot deny it. I was necessary to this woman, and in the end she followed me!”
Edwin was impressed anew by the full revelation of romance which had concealed itself in the squalid dailiness of the Five Towns.
“In fact,” said Ingpen, “you never know your luck. If she’d been free I might have been fool enough to get married.”
“Why do you say a thing like that?”
“Because I think I should be a fool to marry.” Ingpen tapping his front teeth with his finger-nail, spoke reflectively, persuasively, and with calm detachment.
“Why?” asked Edwin, persuasively also, but nervously, as though the spirit of adventure in the search for truth was pushing him to fatal dangers.
“Marriage isn’t worth the price — for me, that is. I daresay I’m peculiar.” Ingpen said this quite seriously, prepared to consider impartially the proposition that he was peculiar. “The fact is, my boy, I think my freedom is worth a bit more than I could get out of any marriage.”
“That’s all very well,” said Edwin, trying to speak with the same dispassionate conviction as Ingpen, and scarcely succeeding. “But look what you miss! Look how you live!” Almost involuntarily he glanced with self-complacence round the unlovely, unseemly room, and his glance seemed to penetrate ceilings and walls, and to discover and condemn the whole charmless house from top to bottom.
“Why? What’s the matter with it?” Ingpen replied uneasily; a slight flush came into his cheeks. “Nobody has a more comfortable bed or more comfortable boots than I have. How many women can make coffee as good as mine? No woman ever born can make first-class tea. I have all I want.”
“No, you don’t. And what’s the good of talking about coffee, and tea, and beds?”
“Well, what else is there I want that I haven’t got? If you mean fancy cushions and draperies, no, thanks!”
“You know what I mean all right. . . . And then ‘freedom’ as you say. What do you mean by freedom?”
“I don’t specially mean,” said Ingpen, tranquil and benevolent, “what I may call physical freedom. I’d give that up. I like a certain amount of untidiness, for instance, and I don’t think an absence of dust is the greatest thing in the world; but I wouldn’t in the least mind giving all that up. It wouldn’t really matter to me. What I won’t give up is my intellectual freedom. Perhaps I mean intellectual honesty. I’d give up even my intellectual freedom if I could be deprived of it fairly and honestly. But I shouldn’t be. There’s almost no intellectual honesty in marriage. There can’t be. The entire affair is a series of compromises, chiefly base on the part of the man. The alternative is absolute subjection of the woman, which is offensive. No woman not absolutely a slave ever hears the truth except in anger. You can’t say the same about men, and you know it. I’m not blaming; I’m stating. Even assuming a married man gets a few advantages that I miss, they’re all purely physical ——”
“Oh no! Not at all.”
“My boy,” Ingpen insisted, sitting up, and gazing earnestly at Edwin. “Analyse them down, and they’re all physical — all! And I tell you I won’t pay the price for them. I won’t. I’ve no grievance against women; I can enjoy being with women as much as anybody, but I won’t — I will not — live permanently on their level. That’s why I say I might have been fool enough to get married. It’s quite simple.”
Edwin, although indubitably one of those who had committed the vast folly of marriage, and therefore subject to Ingpen’s indictment, felt not the least constraint, nor any need to offer an individual defence. Ingpen’s demeanour seemed to have lifted the argument above the personal. His assumption that Edwin could not be offended was positively inspiring to Edwin. The fear of truth was exorcised. Freedom of thought existed in that room in England. Edwin reflected: “If he’s right and I’m condemned accordingly — well, I can’t help it. Facts are facts, and they’re extremely interesting.”
He also reflected:
“Why on earth can’t Hilda and I discuss like that?”
He did not know why, but he profoundly and sadly knew that such discussion would be quite impossible with Hilda.
The red-hot coals in the grate subsided together.
“And I’ll tell you another thing ——” Ingpen commenced.
He was stopped by the entrance of Mrs. Dummer, a fat woman, with an old japanned tray. Mrs. Dummer came in like a desperate forlorn hope. Her aged, grim, and yet somewhat hysterical face seemed to say: “I’m going to clear this table and get on with my work, even if I die for it at the hands of a brutal tyrant.” Her gestures as she made a space for the tray and set it down on the table were the formidable gestures of the persecuted at bay.
“Mrs. Dummer,” said Ingpen, in a weak voice, leaning back in his chair, “would you mind fetching me my tonic off my dressing-table? I’ve forgotten it.”
“Bless us!” exclaimed Mrs. Dummer.
As she had hurried out, Ingpen winked placidly at Edwin in the room in which the shadows were already falling.
Nevertheless, when the dog-cart arrived at the front-door, Ingpen did seem to show some signs of exhaustion. Hilda would not get down. She sent word into the house by George that the departure must occur at once. Ingpen went out with Edwin, plaintively teased Hilda about the insufferable pride of those who sit in driving-seats, and took leave of her with the most punctilious and chivalrous ceremonial, while Hilda inscrutably smiling bent down to him with condescension from her perch.
“I’ll sit behind going home, I think,” said Edwin. “George, you can sit with your mother.”
“Tchik! Tchik!” Hilda signalled.
The mare with a jerk started off down the misty and darkening road.
The second and major catastrophe occurred very soon after the arrival in Trafalgar Road. It was three-quarters of an hour after sunset and the street lamps were lighted. Unchpin, with gloomy fatalism, shivered obscurely in the dark porch, waiting to drive the dog-cart down to the stable. Hilda had requested his presence; it was she also who had got him to bring the equipage up to the house in the morning. She had implied, but not asserted, that to harness the mare and trot up to Bleakridge was the work of a few minutes, and that a few minutes’ light labour could make no real difference to Unchpin’s Christmas Day. Edwin, descrying Unchpin in the porch, saw merely a defenceless man who had been robbed of the most sacred holiday of the year in order to gratify the selfish caprice of an overbearing woman. When asked how long he had been in the porch, Unchpin firmly answered that he had been there since three o’clock, the hour appointed by Mrs. Clayhanger. Edwin knew nothing of this appointment, and in it he saw more evidence of Hilda’s thoughtless egotism. He perceived that he would be compelled to stop her from using his employees as her private servants, and that the prohibition would probably cause trouble. Hilda demanded curtly of Unchpin why he had not waited in the warm kitchen, according to instructions, instead of catching his death of cold in the porch. The reply was that he had rung and knocked fifteen times without getting a response.
At this Hilda became angry, not only with Emmie, the defaulting servant, but with the entire servant class and with the world. Emmie, the new cook, and temporarily the sole resident servant, was to have gone to Maggie’s for her Christmas dinner, and to have returned at half past two without fail in order to light the drawing-room fire and prepare for tea-making. But, Maggie at the last moment having decided to go to Clara’s for the middle of the day, Emmie was told to go with her and be as useful as she could at Mrs. Benbow’s until a quarter past two.
“I hope you’ve got your latch-key, Edwin,” said Hilda threateningly, as if ready to assume that with characteristic and inexcusable negligence he had left his latch-key at home.
“I have,” he said drily, drawing the key from his pocket.
“Oh!” she muttered, as if saying: “Well, after all, you’re no better than you ought to be.” And took the key.
While she opened the door, Edwin surreptitiously gave half a crown to Unchpin, who was lighting the carriage-lamps.
George, with the marvellous self-preserving instinct of a small animal unprotected against irritated prowling monsters, had become invisible.
The front-doorway yawned black like the portal of a tomb. The place was a terrible negation of Christmas. Edwin felt for the radiator; it was as cold to the touch as a dead hand. He lit the hall-lamp, and the decorations of holly and mistletoe contrived by Hilda and George with smiles and laughter on Christmas Eve stood revealed as the very symbol of insincerity. Without taking off his hat and coat, he went into the unlighted glacial drawing-room, where Hilda was kneeling at the grate and striking matches. A fragment of newspaper blazed, and then the flame expired. The fire was badly laid.
“I’m sick of servants!” Hilda exclaimed with fury. “Sick! They’re all alike!” Her tone furiously blamed Edwin and everybody.
And Edwin knew that the day was a pyramid of which this moment was the dreadful apex. At intervals during the drive home Hilda had talked confidentially to George of the wondrous things he and she could do if they only resided in the country — things connected with flowers, vegetables, cocks, hens, ducks, cows, rabbits, horses. She had sketched out the life of a mistress of Ladderedge Hall, and she had sketched it out for the benefit of the dull, hard man sitting behind. Her voice, so persuasive and caressing to George, had been charged with all sorts of accusations against the silent fellow whose back now and then collided with hers. She had exasperated him. She had wilfully and deliberately exasperated him. . . . Her treatment of Unchpin, her childish outburst concerning servants, her acutely disagreeable demeanour, all combined now to exhaust the poor remainder of Edwin’s patience. Not one word had been said about Ladderedge Hall, but Ladderedge Hall loomed always between them. Deadly war was imminent. Let it come! He would prefer war to a peace which meant for him nothing but insults and injustice. He would welcome war. He turned brusquely and lit the chandelier. On the table beneath it lay the writing-case that Hilda had given to George, and the edition of Matthew Arnold that she had given to Edwin, for a Christmas present. One of Edwin’s Christmas presents to her, an ermine stole, she was wearing round her neck. Tragic absurdities, these false tokens of love. . . . There they were, both of them in full street attire, she kneeling at the grate and he standing at the table, in the dank drawing-room which now had no resemblance to a home.
Edwin said with frigid and disdainful malevolence:
“I wish you could control yourself, Hilda. The fact that a servant’s a bit late on Christmas Day is no reason for you to behave like a spoilt child. You’re offensive.”
His words, righteously and almost murderously resentful, seemed to startle and frighten the very furniture, which had the air of waiting, enchanted, for disaster.
Hilda turned her head and glared at Edwin. She threw back her shoulders, and her thick eyebrows seemed to meet in a passionate frown.
“Yes,” she said, with her clear, stinging articulation. “That’s just like you, that is! I lend my servant to your sister. She doesn’t send her back — and it’s my fault! I should have thought the Benbows twisted you round their little finger enough, without you having to insult me because of them. Goodness knows what tricks they didn’t play to get your Aunt’s money — every penny of it! And now they make you do all the work of the estate, for their benefit, and of course you do it like a lamb! You can never spare a minute from the works for me, but you can spare hours and hours for Auntie Hamps’s estate and the Benbows! It’s always like that.” She paused and spoke more thickly: “But I don’t see why you should insult me on the top of it!”
Her features went awry. She sobbed.
“You make me ill!” said Edwin savagely.
He walked out of the room and pulled the door to.
George was descending the stairs.
“Where are you going to, uncle?” demanded George, as Edwin opened the front-door.
“I’m going down to see Auntie Maggie,” Edwin answered, forcing himself to speak very gently. “Tell your mother if she asks.” The boy guessed the situation. It was humiliating that he should guess it, and still more humiliating to be compelled to make use of him in the fatal affair.
He walked at a moderate pace down Trafalgar Road. He did not know where he was going. Certainly he was not going to see Maggie. He had invented the visit to Maggie instantly in answer to George’s question, and he could not understand why he had invented it. Maggie would be at Clara’s; and, in a misfortune, he would never go to Clara’s; only when he was successful and triumphant could he expose himself to the Benbows.
The weather was damp and chill without rain. The chilliness was rather tonic and agreeable to his body, and he felt quite warm, though on getting down from the dog-cart a few minutes earlier he had been cold almost to the point of numbness. He could not remember how, nor when, the change had occurred.
Every street lamp was the centre of a greenish-grey sphere, which presaged rain as though the street-lamp were the moon. The pavements were greasy with black slime, the road deep in lamp-reflecting mire through which the tram-lines ran straight and gleaming. Far down the slope a cage of light moving obscurely between the glittering avenue of lamps indicated the steam-tram as it lifted towards the further hill into the heart of the town. Where the lamps merged together and vanished, but a little to the left, the illuminated dial of the clock in the Town Hall tower glowed in the dark heavens. The street was deserted; no Signal boys, no ragged girls staring into sweet shops, no artisans returning from work, no rattling carts, no vehicles of any kind save the distant tram. All the little shops were shut; even the little greengrocer’s shop, which never closed, was shut now, and its customary winter smell of oranges and apples withdrawn. The little inns, not yet open, showed through their lettered plate windows one watching jet of gas amid blue-and-red paper festoons and bunches of holly. The gloomy fronts of nearly all the houses were pierced with oblongs of light on which sometimes appeared transient shadows of human beings. A very few other human beings, equally mysterious, passed furtive and baffling up and down the slope. Melancholy, familiar, inexplicable, and piteous — the melancholy of existence itself — rose like a vapour out of the sodden ground, ennobling all the scene. The lofty disc of the Town Hall clock solitary in the sky was somehow so heart-rending, and the lives of the people both within and without the houses seemed to be so woven of futility and sorrow, that the menace of eternity grew intolerable.
Edwin’s brain throbbed and shook like an engine-house in which the machinery was his violent thoughts. He no longer saw his marriage as a chain of disconnected episodes; he saw it as a drama the true meaning of which was at last revealed by the climax now upon him. He had had many misgivings about it, and had put them away, and they all swept back presenting themselves as a series of signs that pointed to inevitable disaster. He had been blind, from wilfulness or cowardice. He now had vision. He had arrived at honesty. He said to himself, as millions of men and women have said to themselves, with awestruck calm: “My marriage was a mistake.” And he began to face the consequences of the admission. He was not such a fool as to attach too much importance to the immediate quarrel, nor even to the half-suppressed but supreme dissension concerning a place of residence. He assumed, even, that the present difficulties would somehow, with more or less satisfaction, be adjusted. What, however, would not and could not be adjusted was the temperament that produced them. Those difficulties, which had been preceded by smaller difficulties, would be followed by greater. It was inevitable. To hope otherwise would be weakly sentimental, as his optimism during the vigil in Auntie Hamps’s bedroom had been weakly sentimental. He must face the truth: “She won’t alter her ways — and I shan’t stand them.” No matter what their relations might in future superficially appear to be, their union was over. Or, if it was not actually over, it soon would be over, for the forces to shatter it were uncontrollable and increasing in strength.
“Of course she can’t help being herself!” he said impartially. “But what’s that got to do with me?”
His indictment of his wife was terrific and not to be answered. She had always been a queer girl. On the first night he ever saw her, she had run after him into his father’s garden, and stood with him in the garden-porch that he had since done away with, and spoken to him in the strangest manner. She was abnormal. The dismal and perilous adventure with George Cannon could not have happened to a normal woman. She could not see reason, and her sense of justice was non-existent. If she wanted a thing she must have it. In reality she was a fierce and unscrupulous egotist, incapable of understanding a point of view other than her own. Imagine her bursting out like that about Auntie Hamps’s will! It showed how her mind ran. That Auntie Hamps had an absolute right to dispose of her goods as she pleased; that there was a great deal to be said for Auntie Hamps’s arrangements; that in any case the Benbows were not to blame; that jealousy was despicable and the mark of a mean mind; that the only dignified course for himself was to execute the trust imposed upon him without complaining — these things were obvious; but not to her! No human skill could ever induce her to grant them. She did not argue — she felt; and the disaster was that she did not feel rightly. . . . Imagine her trying to influence Ingpen’s housekeeping, to worry the man — she the guest and he the host! What would she say if anybody played the same game on her? . . .
She could not be moderate. She expected every consideration from others, but she would yield none. She had desired a horse and trap. She had received it. And how had she used the gift? She had used it in defiance of the needs of the works. She had upset everybody and everything, and assuredly Unchpin had a very legitimate grievance. . . . She had said that she could not feel at home in her own house while the house belonged to Maggie. Edwin had obediently bought the house — and now she wanted another house. She scorned her husband’s convenience and preferences, and she wanted a house that was preposterously inaccessible. The satisfaction of her caprice for a dog-cart had not in the slightest degree appeased her egotism. On the contrary it had further excited her egotism and sharpened its aggressiveness. And by what strange infantile paths had she gone about the enterprise of shifting Edwin into the country! Not a frank word to Edwin of the house she had found and decided upon! Silly rumours of a “surprise!” And she had counted upon the presence of Ingpen to disarm Edwin and to tie his hands. The conspiracy was simply childish. And because Edwin had at once shown his distaste for her scheme, she had taken offence. Her acrimony had gradually increased throughout the day, hiding for a time under malicious silences and enigmatic demeanours, darting out in remarks to third persons and drawing back, and at last displaying itself openly, cruelly, monstrously. The injustice of it all passed belief. There was no excuse for Hilda, and there never would be any excuse for her. She was impossible; she would be still more impossible. He did not make her responsible; he admitted that she was not responsible. But at the same time, with a disdainful and cold resentment, he condemned and hated her.
He recalled Ingpen’s: “I won’t pay the price.”
“And I won’t!” he said. “The end has come!”
He envied Ingpen.
And there flitted through his mind the dream of liberty — not the liberty of ignorant youth, but liberty with experience and knowledge to use it. Ravishing prospect! Marriage had advantages. But he could retain those advantages in freedom. He knew what a home ought to be; he had the instinct of the interior; he considered that he could keep house as well as any woman, and better than most; he was not, in that respect, at all like Ingpen, who suffered from his inability to produce and maintain comfort. . . . He remembered Ingpen’s historic habitual phrase about the proper place for women — “behind the veil.” It was a phrase which intensely annoyed women; but nevertheless how true! And Ingpen had put it into practice. Ingpen, even in the banal Five Towns, had shown the way. . . . He saw the existence of males, with its rationality and its dependableness, its simplicity, its directness, its honesty, as something ideal. And as he pictured such an existence — with or without the romance of mysterious and interesting creatures ever modestly waiting for attention behind the veil — further souvenirs of Hilda’s wilful naughtiness and injustice rushed into his mind by thousands; in formulating to himself his indictment against her, he had overlooked ninety per cent of them; they were endless, innumerable. He marshalled them again and again, with the fiercest virulence, the most sombre gloom, with sardonic, bitter pleasure.
In the hollow where Trafalgar Road begins to be known as Duck Bank, he turned to the left and, crossing the foot of Woodisun Bank, arrived at one of the oldest quarters of the town, where St. Luke’s Church stands in its churchyard amid a triangle of little ancient houses. By the light of a new and improved gas-lamp at the churchyard gates could be seen the dark silhouette of the Norman tower and the occasional white gleam of gravestones.
One solitary couple, arm-inarm, and bending slightly towards each other, came sauntering in the mud past the historic National Schools towards the illumination of the lamp. The man was a volunteer, with a brilliant vermilion tunic, white belt, and black trousers; he wore his hat jauntily and carried a diminutive cane; pride was his warm overcoat. The girl was stout and short, with a heavily flowered hat and a dark amorphous cloak; under her left arm she carried a parcel. They were absorbed in themselves. Edwin discerned first the man’s face, in which was a gentle and harmless coxcombry, and then the girl’s face, ecstatic, upward-gazing, seeing absolutely naught but the youth. . . . It was Emmie’s face, as Edwin perceived after a momentary doubt due to his unfamiliarity with the inhabitants of his own house. Emmie, so impatiently and angrily awaited by her mistress, had lost her head about a uniform. Emmie, whose place was in the kitchen among saucepans and crockery, dish-clouts and brushes, had escaped into another realm, where time is not. That she had no immediate intention of returning to her kitchen was shown by the fact that she was moving deliberately in a direction away from it. She was not pretty, for Hilda had perforce long since ceased to insist upon physical charm in her servants. She was not even young — she was probably older than the adored soldier. But her rapt ecstasy, her fearful bliss, made a marvellous sight, rendered touching by the girl’s coarse gawkiness.
It seemed lamentable, pathetic, to Edwin that destiny should not permit her to remain forever in that dream. “Can it be possible,” he thought, “that a creature capable of such surpassing emotion is compelled to cook my bacon and black my boots?”
The couple, wordless, strolled onwards, sticking close to the railings. The churchyard was locked, but Emmie and the soldier were doing the best they could to satisfy that instinct which in the Five Towns seems to drive lovers to graves for their pleasure. The little houses cast here and there a blind yellow eye on the silent and tranquil scene. Edwin turned abruptly back into Woodisun Bank, feeling that he was a disturber of the peace.
Suddenly deciding to walk up to Hillport “for the sake of exercise,” he quickened his pace. After a mile and a half, when he had crossed the railway at Shawport and was on the Hillport rise, and the Five Towns had begun to spread out in a map behind him, he noticed that he was perspiring. He very seldom perspired, and therefore he had the conviction that the walk was “doing him good.” He felt exhilarated, and moved still faster.
His mood was now changed. The spectacle of Emmie and the soldier had thrown him violently out of resentment into wonder. His indignation was somewhat exhausted, and though he tried again and again to flick it back into full heat and activity, he could not. He kept thinking of the moment in the morning when, standing ready to jump from the dog-cart, his wife had said: “Catch me, both of you,” and he recalled vividly the sensation of her acquiescence, her momentary yielding — imperceptible yet unforgettable — as he supported her strongly in his arms; and with this memory was mingled the smell of velvet. Strange that a woman so harsh, selfish and overbearing, could thus contradict her whole character in an instant of surrender! Was she in that gesture confiding to him the deepest secret? . . . Rubbish! But now he no longer looked down on her disdainfully. Honesty made him admit that it was puerile to affect disdain of an individuality so powerful and so mysterious. If she was a foe, she was at any rate a dangerous fighter, and not to be played with. And yet she could be a trifle, a wisp of fragile flesh in his arms!
He saw the beatific face of Emmie against the churchyard gates under the lamp. . . . Why not humour Hilda? Why not let her plant their home according to her caprice? . . . Certainly not! Never would he do it! Why should he? Time after time he angrily rejected the idea. Time after time it returned. What did it matter to Hilda where she lived? And had he not bought their present house solely in order to please her? The first consideration in choosing a home ought to be and must be the consideration of business convenience. . . . Yet, what did it matter to him where his home was? (He remembered a phrase of Ingpen’s: “I don’t live on that plane.”) Could he not adapt himself? He dreamt of very rapid transit between Ladderedge Hall and the works. Motor-cars had just become lawful; but he had never happened to see one, though he had heard of several in the district, or passing through. His imagination could not rise so high as a motor-car. That he could ever use or possess one did not even occur to him. He thought only of a fast-trotting horse, and a trap with indiarubber tyres; himself the driver; sometimes Hilda the driver. . . . An equipage to earn renown in the district. “Clayhanger’s trap,”—“He drives in from Ladderedge in thirty-five minutes. The horse simply won’t walk; doesn’t know how to!” And so on. He had heard such talk of others. Why should not others hear it of him? . . . Then, the pleasure, the mere pleasure — call it sensual or what you like — of granting a caprice to the capricious creature! If a thing afforded her joy, why not give it? . . . To see her in the rôle of mistress of a country-house, delicately horsey, excited about charitable schemes, protecting the poor, working her will upon gardeners and grooms, stamping her foot in the violence of her resolution to have her own way, offering sugar to a horse, nursing a sick dog! Amusing; Agreeable! . . . And all that activity of hers a mere dependence of his own! Flattering to his pride! . . . He could afford it easily, for he was richer even than his wife supposed. To let the present house ought not to be difficult. To sell it advantageously ought not to be impossible. In this connection, he thought, though not seriously, of Tom Swetman, who had at last got himself engaged to one of those Scandinavian women about whom he had been chaffed for years; Tom would be wanting an abode, and probably a good one.
He was carried away by his own dream. To realise that dream he had only to yield, to nod negligently, to murmur with benevolent tolerance: “All right. Do as you please.” He would have nothing to withdraw, for he had uttered no refusal. Not a word had passed between them as to Ladderedge Hall since they had quitted it. He had merely said that he did not like it — “poured cold water on it” as the phrase was. True, his demeanour had plainly intimated that he was still opposed in principle to the entire project of living in the country; but a demeanour need not be formally retracted; it could be negatived without any humiliation. . . .
No, he would never yield, though yielding seemed to open up a pleasant, a delicious prospect. He could not yield. It would be wrong, and it would be dangerous, to yield. Had he not already quite clearly argued out with himself the whole position? And yet why not yield? . . . He was afraid as before a temptation.
He recrossed the railway, and crossed Fowlea Brook, a boundary, back into the borough. The dark path lay parallel with the canal, but below it. He had gone right through Hillport and round Hillport Marsh and returned down the flank of the great ridge that protects the Five Towns on the West. He could not recollect the details of the walk; he only knew that he had done it all, that time and the miles had passed with miraculous rapidity, and that his boots were very muddy. A change in the consistency of the mud caused him to look up at the sky, which was clearing and showed patches of faint stars. A frost had set in, despite the rainy prophecy of street-lamps. In a few moments he had climbed the short steep curving slope on to the canal-bridge. He was breathless and very hot.
He stopped and sat on the parapet. In his school-days he had crossed this bridge twice a day on the journey to and from Oldcastle. Many times he had lingered on it. But he had forgotten the little episodes of his schooldays, which seemed now almost to belong to another incarnation. He did, however, recall that as a boy he could not sit on the parapet unless he vaulted up to it. He thought he must have been ridiculously small and boyish. The lights of Bursley, Bleakridge, Hanbridge and Cauldon hung round the eastern horizon in an arc. To the north presided the clock of Bursley Town Hall, and to the south the clock of Cauldon Church; but both were much too far off to be deciphered. Below and around the Church clock the vague fires of Cauldon Bar Ironworks played, and the tremendous respiration of the blast-furnaces filled the evening. Beneath him gleamed the foul water of the canal. . . . He trembled with the fever that precedes a supreme decision. He trembled as though he was about to decide whether or not he would throw himself into the canal. Should he accept the country-house scheme? Ought he to accept it? The question was not simply that of a place of residence — it concerned all his life.
He admitted that marriage must be a mutual accommodation. He was, and always had been, ready to accommodate. But Hilda was unjust, monstrously unjust. Of that he was definitely convinced. . . . Well, perhaps not monstrously unjust, but very unjust. How could he excuse such injustice as hers? He obviously could not excuse it. . . . On previous occasions he had invented excuses for her conduct, but they were not convincing excuses. They were compromises between his intellectual honesty and his desire for peace. They were, at bottom, sentimentalism.
And then there flashed into his mind, complete, the great discovery of all his career. It was banal; it was commonplace; it was what everyone knew. Yet it was the great discovery of all his career. If Hilda had not been unjust in the assertion of her own individuality, there could be no merit in yielding to her. To yield to a just claim was not meritorious, though to withstand it would be wicked. He was objecting to injustice as a child objects to rain on a holiday. Injustice was a tremendous actuality! It had to be faced and accepted. (He himself was unjust. At any rate he intellectually conceived that he must be unjust, though honestly he could remember no instance of injustice on his part.) To reconcile oneself to injustice was the master achievement. He had read it; he had been aware of it; but he had never really felt it till that moment on the dark canal-bridge. He was awed, thrilled by the realisation. He longed ardently to put it to the test. He did put it to the test. He yielded on the canal-bridge. And in yielding, it seemed to him that he was victorious.
He thought confidently and joyously:
“I’m not going to be beaten by Hilda! And I’m not going to be beaten by marriage. Dashed if I am! A nice thing if I had to admit that I wasn’t clever enough to be a husband!”
He was happy, but somewhat timorously so. He had the sense to suspect that his discovery would scarcely transform marriage into an everlasting Eden, and that serious trouble would not improbably recur. “Marriage keeps on all the time till you’re dead!” he said to himself. But he profoundly knew that he had advanced a stage, that he had acquired new wisdom and new power, and that no danger in the future could equal the danger that was past.
“I know where I am!”
It had taken him years to discover where he was. Why should the discovery occur just then? He could only suppose that the cumulative battering of experience had at length knocked a hole through his thick head, and let saving wisdom in. The length of time necessary for the operation depended upon the thickness of the head. Some heads were impenetrable and their owners came necessarily to disaster. His head was probably of an average thickness.
When he got into Trafalgar Road, at the summit of Bleakridge, he hesitated to enter his own house, on account of the acute social difficulties that awaited him there, and passed it like a beggar who is afraid. One by one he went by all the new little streets of cottages with drawing-rooms — Millett Street, Wilcox Street, Paul Street, Oak Street, Hulton Street — and the two old little streets, already partly changed — Manor Street and Higginbotham Street. Those mysterious newcoming families from nowhere were driving him out — through the agency of his wife! The Orgreaves had gone, and been succeeded by excellent people with whom it was impossible to fraternise. There were rumours that in view of Tom Swetnam’s imminent defection the Swetnam household might be broken up and the home abandoned. The Suttons, now that Beatrice Sutton had left the district, talked seriously of going. Only Dr. Sterling was left on that side of the road, and he stayed because he must. The once exclusive Terraces on the other side were losing their quality. Old Darius Clayhanger had risen out of the mass, but he was fiercely exceptional. Now the whole mass seemed to be rising, under the action of some strange leaven, and those few who by intelligence, by manners, or by money counted themselves select were fleeing as from an inundation.
Edwin had not meant to join in the exodus. But he too would join it. Destiny had seized him. Let him be as democratic in spirit as he would, his fate was to be cut off from the democracy, with which, for the rest, he had very little of speech or thought or emotion in common, but in which, from an implacable sense of justice, he was religiously and unchangeably determined to put his trust.
He braced himself, and, mounting the steps of the porch, felt in his pocket for his latchkey. It was not there. Hilda had taken it and not returned it. She never did return it when she borrowed it, and probably she never would. He had intended to slip quietly into the house, and prepare if possible an astute opening to minimise the difficulty of the scenes which must inevitably occur. For his dignity would need some protection. In the matter of his dignity, he wished that he had not said quite so certainly to Ingpen: “I shan’t take that house.”
With every prim formality, Emmie answered his ring. She was wearing the mask and the black frock and the white apron and cap of her vocation. Not the slightest trace of the beatified woman in the flowered hat under the lamp at the gates of the churchyard! No sign of a heart or of passion or of ecstasy! Incredible creatures — they were all incredible!
He thought, nervous:
“I shall meet Hilda in half a second.”
George ran into the hall, wearing his new green shade over his eyes.
“Here he is, mother!” cried George. “I say, nunks, Emmie brought up a parcel for you from Uncle Albert, and Auntie Clara. Here it is. It wasn’t addressed outside, so I opened it.”
He indicated the hall-table, on which, in a bed of tissue paper and brown paper, lay a dreadful flat ink-stand of blue glass and bronze, with a card: “Best wishes to Edwin from Albert and Clara.”
George and Edwin gazed at each other with understanding.
“Just my luck isn’t it, sonny?” said Edwin. “It’s worse than last year’s.”
“You poor dear!” said Hilda, appearing, all smiles and caressing glances. She was in a pale grey dress. “Whatever shall you do with it? You know you’ll have to put it on view when they come up. Emmie ——” to the maid vanishing into the kitchen —“We’ll have supper now.”
“Yes,” said Edwin to himself, with light but sardonic tolerance. “Yes, my lady. You’re all smiles because you’re bent on getting Ladderedge Hall out of me. But you don’t know what a near shave you’ve had of getting something else.”
He was elated. The welcome of his familiar home was beautiful to him. And the incalculable woman with a single gesture had most unexpectedly annihilated the unpleasant past and its consequences. He could yield upon the grand contention how and when he chose. He had his acquiescence waiting like a delightful surprise for Hilda. As he looked at her lovingly, with all her crimes of injustice thick upon her, he clearly realised that he saw her as no other person saw her, and that because it was so she in her entirety was indispensable to him. And when he tried to argue impartially and aloofly with himself about rights and wrongs, asinine reason was swamped by an entirely irrational and wise joy in the simple fact of the criminal’s existence.
In the early spring of 1897 there was an evening party at the Clayhangers’. But it was not called a party; it was not even called a reception. The theory of the affair was that Hilda had “just asked a few people to come in, without any fuss.” The inhabitants of the Five Towns had, and still have, an aversion for every sort of formal hospitality, or indeed for any hospitality other than the impulsive and the haphazard. One or two fathers with forceful daughters agitated by newly revealed appetites in themselves, might hire a board-schoolroom in January, and give a dance at which sharp exercise and hot drinks alone kept bodies warm in the icy atmosphere. Also musical and dramatic societies and games clubs would have annual conversaziones and dances, which however were enterprises of coöperation rather than of hospitality. Beyond these semi-public entertainments there was almost nothing, in the evening, save card-parties and the small regular reunions of old friends who had foregathered on a certain night of the week for whiskey or tea and gossip ever since the beginning of time, and would continue to do so till some coffin or other was ordered. Every prearranged assemblage comprising more than two persons beyond the family was a “function”— a term implying both contempt and respect for ceremonial; and no function could be allowed to occur without an excuse for it — such as an anniversary. The notion of deliberately cultivating human intercourse for its own sake would have been regarded as an affectation approaching snobbishness. Hundreds of well-to-do and socially unimpeachable citizens never gave or received an invitation to a meal. The reason of all this was not meanness, for no community outside America has more generous instincts than the Five Towns; it was merely a primitive self-consciousness striving to conceal itself beneath breezy disdain for those more highly developed manners which it read about with industry and joy in the weekly papers, but which it lacked the courage to imitate.
The break-up of the Orgreave household had been a hard blow to the cult of hospitality in Bleakridge. Lane End House in the old days was a creative centre of hospitality; for the force of example, the desire to emulate, and the necessity of paying in kind for what one has permitted oneself to receive will make hosts of those who by their own initiative would never have sent out an invitation. When the Orgreaves vanished, sundry persons in Bleakridge were discouraged — and particularly Edwin and Hilda, whose musical evenings had never recovered from the effect of the circumstances of the first one. They entertained only by fits and starts, when Hilda happened to remember that she held a high position in the suburb. Hilda was handicapped by the fact that she could not easily strike up friendships with other women. She had had one friend, and after Janet’s departure she had fully confided in no woman. Moreover it was only at intervals that Hilda felt the need of companionship. Her present party was due chiefly to what Edwin in his more bitter moods would have called snobbishness — to-wit, partly a sudden resolve not to be outshone by the Swetnams, who in recent years, as the younger generation of the family grew up, had beyond doubt increased their ascendancy; and partly the desire to render memorable the last months of her residence in Bleakridge.
The list of Hilda’s guests, and the names absent from it, gave an indication of the trend of social history. The Benbows were not asked; the relations of the two families remained as friendly as ever they were, but the real breach between them, caused by profound differences of taste and intelligence, was now complete. Maggie would have been asked, had she not refused in advance, from a motive of shyness. In all essential respects Maggie had been annexed by Clara and Albert. She had given up Auntie Hamps’s house (of which the furniture had been either appropriated or sold) and gone to live with the Benbows as a working aunt — this in spite of Albert’s default in the matter of interest; she forewent her rights, slept in a small room with Amy, paid a share of the household expenses, and did the work of a nursemaid and servant combined — simply because she was Maggie. She might, had she chosen, have lived in magnificence with the Clayhangers, but she would not face the intellectual and social strain of doing so. Jim Orgreave was not invited; briefly he had become impossible, though he was still well-dressed. More strange — Tom Orgreave and his wife had only been invited after some discussion, and had declined! Tom was growing extraordinarily secretive, solitary, and mysterious. It was reported that Mrs. Tom had neither servant nor nursemaid, and that she dared not ask her husband for money to buy clothes. Yet Edwin and Tom when they met in the street always stopped for a talk, generally about books. Daisy Marrion, who said openly that Tom and Mrs. Tom were a huge disappointment to everybody, was invited and she accepted. Janet Orgreave had arrived in Bursley on a visit to the Clayhangers on the very day of the party. The Cheswardines were asked, mainly on account of Stephen, whose bluff, utterly unintellectual, profound good-nature, and whose adoration of his wife, were gradually endearing him to the perceptive. Mr. and Mrs. Fearns were requested to bring their daughter Annunciata, now almost marriageable, and also Mademoiselle Renée Souchon, the French governess, newly arrived in the district, of the Fearns younger children. Folks hinted their astonishment that Alma Fearns should have been imprudent enough to put so exotic a woman under the same roof with her husband. Ingpen needed no invitation; nothing could occur at the Clayhangers’ without him. Doctor Stirling was the other mature bachelor. Finally in the catalogue were four Swetnams, the vigorous and acute Sarah (who was a mere acquaintance), aged twenty-five, Tom Swetnam, and two younger brothers. Tom had to bring with him the prime excuse for the party — namely, Miss Manna Höst of Copenhagen, to whom Hilda intended to show that the Swetnams were not the only people on earth. There were thus eight women, eight men (who had put on evening dress out of respect for the foreigner), and George.
At eleven o’clock, when the musical part of the entertainment was over, Miss Höst had already fully secured for herself the position which later she was to hold as the wife of Tom Swetnam. Bleakridge had been asked to meet her and inspect her, and the opinion of Bleakridge was soon formed that Copenhagen must be a wondrous and a romantic place and that Tom Swetnam knew his way about. In the earliest years when the tourist agencies first discovered the advertising value of the phrase “Land of the Midnight Sun,” Tom the adventurous had made the Scandinavian round trip, and each subsequent Summer he had gone off again in the same direction. The serpents of the Hanbridge and the Bursley Conservative clubs, and of the bar of the Five Towns Hotel, had wagered that there was a woman at the bottom of it. There was. He had met her at Marienlyst, the watering-place near Helsingor (called by the tourist agencies Elsinore). Manna Höst was twenty-three, tall and athletically slim, and more blonde than any girl ever before seen in the Five Towns. She had golden hair and she wore white. It was understood that she spoke Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. She talked French with facility to Renée Souchon. And Tom said that her knowledge of German surpassed her knowledge of either French or English. She spoke English excellently, with a quaint, endearing accent, but with correctness. Sometimes she would use an idiom (picked up from the Swetnam boys), exquisitely unaware that it was not quite suited to the lips of a young woman in a strange drawing-room; her innocence, however, purified it.
She sang classical songs in German, with dramatic force, and she could play accompaniments. She was thoroughly familiar with all the music haltingly performed by Ingpen, Janet, Annunciata, and young George. Ingpen was very seriously interested in her views thereon. She knew about the French authors from whose works Renée Souchon chose her recitations. And standing up at the buffet table in the dining-room, she had fabricated astounding sandwiches in the Danish style. She stated that Danish cooks reckoned ninety-three sorts of sandwiches. She said in her light, eager voice, apropos of cooking: “There is one thing I cannot understand. I cannot understand why you English throw your potatoes to melt in cold water for an hour before you boil them.” “Nor I!” interjected Renée Souchon. No other woman standing round the table had ever conceived the propriety of boiling potatoes without first soaking them in cold water, and Manna was requested to explain. “Because,” she said, “it — it lets go the salts of potassium which are so necessary for the pheesical development of the body.” Whereupon Tertius Ingpen had been taken by one of his long crescendo laughs, a laugh that ended by his being bent nearly double below the level of the table. Everybody was much impressed, and Ingpen himself not the least. Ingpen wondered what a girl so complex could see in a man like Tom Swetnam, who, although he could talk about the arts, had no real feeling for any of them.
But what impressed the company even more than Miss Höst’s accomplishments was the candid fervour of her comprehensive interest in life, which was absolutely without self-consciousness or fear. She talked with the same disarming ingenuous eager directness to hard-faced Charles Fearns, the secret rake; to his wife, the ageing and sweetly-sad mother of a family; to Renée Souchon, who despite her plainness and her rumoured bigotry seemed to attract all the men in the room by something provocative in her eye and the carriage of her hips; to the simple and powerful Stephen Cheswardine; to Vera, the delicious and elegant cat; to Doctor Stirling with his Scotch mysticism, and to Tertius Ingpen the connoisseur and avowed bachelor. She spoke to Hilda, Janet and Daisy Marrion as one member of a secret sisterhood to other members, to Annunciata as a young girl, and to George as an initiated sister. She left them to turn to Edwin with a trustful glance as to one whose special reliability she had divined from the first. “Have a liqueur, Miss Höst,” Edwin enjoined her. In a moment she was sipping Chartreuse. “I love it!” she murmured.
But somehow beneath all such freedoms and frankness she did not cease to be a maiden with reserves of mystery. Her assumption that nobody could misinterpret her demeanour was remarkable to the English observers, and far more so to Renée Souchon. All gazed at her piquant blonde face, scarcely pretty, with its ardent restless eyes, and felt the startling compliment of her quick, searching sympathy. And she, tinglingly aware of her success, proved easily equal to the ordeal of it. Only at rare intervals did she give a look at the betrothed, as if for confirmation of her security. As for Tom, he was positively somewhat unnerved by the brilliance of the performance. He left her alone, without guidance, as a ring-master who should stand aside during a turn and say: “See this marvel! I am no longer necessary.” When people glanced at him after one of her effects, he would glance modestly away, striving to hide from them his illusion that he himself had created the bewitching girl. At half past eleven, when the entire assemblage passed into the drawing-room, she dropped on to the piano-stool and began a Waldteufel waltz with irresistible seductiveness.
Hilda’s heart leaped. In a minute the carpet was up, and the night, which all had supposed to be at an end, began.
At nearly one o’clock in the morning the party was moving strongly by its own acquired momentum and needed neither the invigoration nor the guidance which hosts often are compelled to give. Hilda, having finished a schottische with Dr. Stirling, missed Janet from the drawing-room. Leaving the room in search of her, she saw Edwin with Tom Swetnam and the glowing Manna at the top of the stairs.
“Hello!” she called out. “What are you folks doing?”
Manna’s light laugh descended like a shower of crystals.
“Just taking a constitutional,” Edwin answered.
Hilda waved to them in passing. She was extremely elated. Among other agreeable incidents was the success of her new black lace frock. Edwin’s voice pleased her — it was so calm, wise, and kind, and at the same time mysteriously ironical. She occasionally admitted, at the sound of that voice when Edwin was in high spirits, that she had never been able to explore completely the more withdrawn arcana of his nature. He had behaved with perfection that evening. She admitted that he was the basis of the evening, that without him she could never have such triumphs. It was strange that a man by spending so many hours per day at a works could create the complicated ease and luxury of a home. She perceived how steadily and surely he had progressed since their marriage, and how his cautiousness always justified itself, and how he had done all that he had said he would do. And she had a vision of that same miraculous creative force of his at work, by her volition, in the near future upon Ladderedge Hall. Her mood became a strange compound of humility before him and of self-confident pride in her own power to influence him.
In the boudoir Janet was reclining in the sole easy chair. Dressed in grey (she had abandoned white), she was as slim as ever, and did not look her age. With face flushed, eyes glinting under drooping lids, and bosom heaving rather quickly, she might have passed in the half-light for a young married woman still under the excitement of matrimony, instead of a virgin of forty.
“I was so done up I had to come and hide myself!” she murmured in a dreamy tone.
“Well, of course you’ve had the journey today and everything . . . ”
“I never did come across such a dancer as Charles Fearns!” Janet went on.
“Yes,” said Hilda, standing with her back to the fire, with one hand on the mantelpiece. “He’s a great dancer — or at least he makes you think so. But I’m sure he’s a bad man.”
“Yes, I suppose he is!” Janet agreed with a sigh.
Neither of the women spoke for a moment, and each looked away.
Through the closed door came the muffled sound o£ the piano, played by Annunciata. No melody was distinguishable — only the percussion of the bass chords beating out the time of a new mazurka. It was as if the whole house faintly but passionately pulsed in the fever of the dance.
“I see you’ve got a Rossetti,” said Janet at last, fingering a blue volume that lay on the desk.
“Edwin gave it me,” Hilda replied. “He’s gradually giving me all my private poets. But somehow I haven’t been able to read much lately. I expect it’s the idea of moving into the country that makes me restless.”
“But is it settled, all that?”
“Of course it’s settled, my dear. I’m determined to take him away —” Hilda spoke of her husband as of a parcel or an intelligent bear on a chain, as loving wives may —“right out of all this. I’m sure it will be a good thing for him. He doesn’t mind, really. He’s promised me. Only he wants to make sure of either selling or letting this house first. He’s always very cautious, Edwin is. He simply hates doing a thing straight off.”
“Yes, he is rather that way inclined,” said Janet.
“I wanted him to take Ladderedge at once, even if we didn’t move into it. Anyhow we couldn’t move into it immediately, because of the repairs and things. They’ll take a fine time, I know. We can get it for sixty pounds a year. And what’s sixty pounds more or less to Edwin? It’s no more than what the rent of this house would be. But no, he wouldn’t! He must see where he stands with this house before he does anything else! You can’t alter him, you know!”
The door was cautiously pushed, and Ingpen entered.
“So you’re discussing her!” he said, low, with a satiric grin.
“Discussing who?” Hilda sharply demanded.
“Tertius,” said Hilda, “you’re worse than a woman.”
He giggled with delight.
“I suppose you mean that to be very severe.”
“If you want to know, we were talking about Ladderedge.”
“So apologise!” added Janet, sitting up.
Ingpen’s face straightened, and he began to tap his teeth with his thumb.
“Curious! That’s just what I came in about. I’ve been trying to get a chance to tell you all the evening. There’s somebody else after Ladderedge, a man from Axe. He’s been to look over it twice this week. I thought I’d tip you the wink.”
Hilda stood erect, putting her shoulders back.
“Have you told Edwin?” she asked very curtly.
“What did he say?”
“He said it was only a dodge of the house-agent’s to quicken things up.”
“And do you think it is?”
“Well, I doubt it,” Ingpen answered apprehensively. “That’s why I wanted to warn you — his lordship being what he is.”
Voices, including Edwin’s, could be heard in the hall.
“Here, I’m not going to be caught conspiring with you!” Ingpen whispered. “It’s more than my place is worth.” And he departed.
The voices receded, and Hilda noiselessly shut the door. Everything was now changed for her by a tremendous revulsion. The beating of the measure of the mazurka seemed horrible and maddening. Her thought was directed upon Edwin with the cold fury of which only love is capable. It was not his fault that some rival was nibbling at Ladderedge, but it was his fault that Ladderedge should still be in peril. She saw all her grandiose plan ruined. She felt sure that the rival was powerful and determined, and that Edwin would let him win, either by failing to bid against him, or by mere shilly-shallying. Ladderedge was not the only suitable country residence in the county; there were doubtless many others; but Ladderedge was just what she wanted, and — more important with her — it had become a symbol. She had a misgiving that if they did not get Ladderedge they would remain in Trafalgar Road, Bursley, for ever and ever. Yet, angry and desperate though she was, she somehow did not accuse and arraign Edwin — any more than she would have accused and arraigned a climate. He was in fact the climate in which she lived. A moment ago she had said: “You can’t alter him!” But now all the energy of her volition cried out that he must be altered.
“My girl,” she said, turning to Janet, “do you think you can stand a scene tomorrow?”
“A scene?” Janet repeated the word guardedly. The look on Hilda’s face somewhat alarmed her.
“Between Edwin and me. I’m absolutely determined that we shall take Ladderedge, and I don’t care how much of a row we have over it.”
“It isn’t as bad as all that?” Janet softly murmured, with her skill to soothe.
“Yes it is!” said Hilda violently.
“I was wondering the other day, after one of your letters,” Janet proceeded gently, “why after all you were so anxious to go into the country. I thought you wanted Edwin to be on the Town Council or something of that kind. How can he do that if you’re right away at a place like Stockbrook?”
“So I should like him to be on the Town Council! But all I really want is to get him away from his business. You don’t know, Janet!” she spoke bitterly, and with emotion. “Nobody knows except me. He’ll soon be the slave of his business if he keeps on. Oh! I don’t mean he stays at nights at it. He scarcely ever does. But he’s always thinking about it. He simply can’t bear being a minute late for it, everything must give way to it — he takes that as a matter of course, and that’s what annoys me, especially as there’s no reason for it, seeing how much he trusts Big James and Simpson. I believe he’d do anything for Big James. He’d listen to Big James far sooner than he’d listen to me. . . . Disagreeable fawning old man, and quite stupid. Simpson isn’t so bad. I tell you Edwin only looks on his home as a nice place to be quiet in when he isn’t at the works. I’ve never told him so, and I don’t think he suspects it, but I will tell him one of these days. He’s very good, Edwin is, in all the little things. He always tries to be just. But he isn’t just in the big thing. He’s most frightfully unjust. I sometimes wonder where he imagines I come in. Of course he’d do any mortal thing for me — except spare half a minute from the works. . . . What do I care about money? I don’t care that much about money. When there’s money I can spend it, that’s all. But I’d prefer to be poor, and him to be rude and cross and impatient — which he scarcely ever is — than have this feeling all the time that it’s the works first, and everything else second. I don’t mind for myself — no, really I don’t, at least very little! But I do mind for him. I call it humiliating for a man to get like that. It puts everything upside down. Look at Stephen Cheswardine, for instance. There’s a pretty specimen! And Edwin’ll be as bad as him soon.”
“But everyone says how fond Stephen is of his wife!”
“And isn’t Edwin fond of me? Stephen Cheswardine despises his wife — only he can’t do without her. That’s all. And he treats her accordingly. And I shall be the same.”
“Yes, I shall. Yes, I shall. But I won’t have it. I’d as lief be married to a man like Charles Fearns. He isn’t a slave to his business anyhow. I shall get Edwin further away. And when I’ve got him away I shall see he doesn’t go to the works on Saturdays, too. I’ve quite made up my mind about that. And if he isn’t on the Town Council he can be on the County Council — that’s quite as good, I hope!”
Never before had Hilda spoken so freely to anyone, not even to Janet. Fierce pride had always kept her self-contained. But now she had no feeling of shame at her outburst. Tears stood in her eyes — and yet she faced Janet, making no effort to hide them.
“My dear!” breathed the deprecating Janet, shocked out of her tepid virginal calm by a revelation of conjugal misery such as had never been vouchsafed to her. She was thinking: “How can the poor thing face her guests after this? Everybody will see that something’s happened — it will be awful! She really ought to think of her position.”
There was a silence.
The door opened with a sharp sound, and Hilda turned away her head as from the suddenly visible mouth of a cannon. The music could be heard plainly, and beneath it the dull shuffling of feet on the bare boards of the drawing-room. Manna Höst came in radiant, followed by Edwin and Tom Swetnam.
“Well, Hilda,” said Edwin, with a slight timid constraint. “I’ve got rid of your house for you. Here are the deluded victims.”
“We have seen every corner of it, Mrs. Clayhanger,” said Manna Höst, enthusiastically. “It is lovely. But how can you wish to leave it? It is so practical!”
Perceiving the agitation of Hilda’s face, Edwin added in a lower voice to his wife:
“I thought I wouldn’t say anything until it was settled, for fear you might be let in for a disappointment. He’ll buy it if I leave fifteen hundred on mortgage. So I shall. But of course he wanted her to have a good look at it first.”
“How unfair I am!” thought Hilda, as she made some banal remark to Miss Höst. “Don’t I know I can always rely on him?”
“Mr. Clayhanger made us promise not to ——” Miss Höst began to explain.
“It was just like him!” Hilda interrupted, smiling.
She had a strong desire to jump at Edwin and kiss him. She was saved. Her grandiose plan would proceed. The house sold, Edwin was bound to secure Ladderedge Hall against no matter what rival; and he would do it. But it was the realisation of her power over her husband that gave her the profoundest joy.
About an hour later, when everyone felt that the party was over, the guests, reluctant to leave, and excited afresh by the news that the house had changed hands during the revel, were all assembled in the drawing-room. A few were seated on the chairs which, with the tables, had been pushed against the walls. George had squatted on the carpet rolled up into the hearth, where the fire was extinct; he was not wearing his green shade. The rest were grouped around Manna Höst in the middle of the room.
Miss Höst, the future mistress of the abode, was now more than ever the centre of regard. Apparently as fresh as at the start, and picking delicately at a sweet biscuit, the flushed blonde stood answering questions about her views on England and especially on the Five Towns. She was quite sure of herself, and utterly charming in her confidence. Annunciata Fearns envied her acutely. The other women were a little saddened by the thought of all the disillusions that inevitably lay before her. It was touching to see her glance at Tom Swetnam, convinced that she understood him to the core, and in him all the psychology of his sex.
“Everybody knows,” she was saying, “that the English are the finest nation, and I think the Five Towns are much more English than London. That’s why I adore the Five Towns. You do not know how English you are here. It makes me laugh because you are so English, and you do not know it. I love you.”
“You’re flattering us,” said Stephen Cheswardine, enchanted with the girl.
Everybody waited in eager delight for her next words. Such tit-bits of attention and laudation did not often fall to the district. It occurred to people that after all the local self-conceit might not be entirely unjustified.
“Ah!” Manna pouted. “But you have spots!”
“Spots!” repeated young Paul Swetnam, amid a general laugh.
She turned to him: “You said there were no spots on Knype Football Club, did you not? Well, there is a spot on you English. You are dreadfully exasperating to us Danes. Oh, I mean it! You are exasperating because you will not show your feelings!”
“Tom, that must be one for you,” said Charlie Fearns.
“We’re too proud,” said Dr. Stirling.
“No,” replied Manna maliciously. “It is not pride. You are afraid to show your feelings. It is because you are cowards — in that!”
“We aren’t!” cried Hilda, inspired. And yielding to the temptation which had troubled her incessantly ever since she left the boudoir, she put her arms round Edwin and kissed him. “So there!”
“Loud applause!” said young George on the roll of carpet. He said it kindly, but with a certain superiority, perhaps due to the facts that he was wearing a man’s “long trousers” for the first time that night, and that he regarded himself as already almost a Londoner. There was some handclapping.
Edwin’s eyes had seduced Hilda. Looking at them surreptitiously she had suddenly recalled another of his tricks — tricks of goodness. When she had told him one evening that Minnie was prematurely the mother of a girl, he had said: “Well, we’ll put £130 in the savings bank for the kid.” “£130? Whatever are you talking about?” “£130. I received it from America this very morning as ever is.” And he showed her a draft on Brown, Shipley & Co. He said ‘from America.’ He was too delicate to say ‘from George Cannon.’ It had been a triumphant moment for him. And now, as before them all Hilda held him to her, the delicious thought that she had power over him, that she was shaping the large contours of his existence, made her feel solemn in her bliss. And yet simultaneously she was reflecting with a scarcely perceptible hardness: “It’s each for himself in marriage after all, and I’ve got my own way.” And then she noticed the whiteness of his shirt-front under her chin, and that reminded her of his mania for arranging his linen according to his own ideas in his own drawer, and the absurd tidiness of his linen; and she wanted to laugh.
“What a romance she has made of my life!” thought Edwin, confused and blushing, as she loosed him. And though he looked round with affection at the walls which would soon no longer be his, the greatness of the adventure of existence with this creature, to him unique, and the eternal expectation of some new ecstasy, left no room in his heart for a regret.
He caught sight of Ingpen alone in a corner by the piano, nervously stroking his silky beard. The memory of the secret woman in Ingpen’s room came back to him. Without any process of reasoning, he felt very sorry for both of them, and he was aware of a certain condescension in himself towards Ingpen.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51