The entering guests were Edwin’s younger sister Clara with her husband Albert Benbow, his elder sister Maggie, Auntie Hamps, and Mr. Peartree. They had arrived together, and rather unfashionably soon after the hour named in the invitation, because the Benbows had called at Auntie Hamps’s on the way up, and the Benbows were always early, both in arriving and in departing, “on account of the children.” They called themselves “early birds.” Whenever they were out of the nest in the evening they called themselves early birds. They used the comparison hundreds, thousands, of times, and never tired of it; indeed each time they were convinced that they had invented it freshly for the occasion.
Said Auntie Hamps, magnificent in jetty black, handsome, and above all imposing:
“I knew you would be delighted to meet Mr. Peartree again, Edwin. He is staying the night at my house — I can be so much more hospitable now Maggie is with me — and I insisted he should come up with us. But it needed no insisting.”
The old erect lady looked from Mr. Peartree with pride towards her nephew.
Mr. Peartree was a medium-sized man of fifty, with greying sandy hair. Twenty years before, he had been second minister in the Bursley Circuit of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion. He was now Superintendent Minister in a Cheshire circuit. The unchangeable canons of Wesleyanism permit its ministers to marry, and celibacy is even discouraged, for the reason that wives and daughters are expected to toil in the cause, and their labour costs the circuit not a halfpenny. But the canons forbid ministers to take root and found a home. Eleven times in thirty years Mr. Peartree had been forced to migrate to a strange circuit and to adapt his much-travelled furniture and family to a house which he had not chosen, and which his wife generally did not like. During part of the period he had secretly resented the autocracy of Superintendent Ministers, and during the remainder he had learnt that Superintendent Ministers are not absolute autocrats.
He was neither overworked nor underpaid. He belonged to the small tradesman class, and, keeping a shop in St. Luke’s Square, he might well have worked harder for less money than he now earned. His vocation, however, in addition to its desolating nomadic quality, had other grave drawbacks. It gave him contact with a vast number of human beings, but the abnormal proportion among them of visionaries, bigots, hypocrites, and petty office-seekers falsified his general estimate of humanity. Again, the canons rigorously forbade him to think freely for himself on the subjects which in theory most interested him; with the result that he had remained extremely ignorant through the very fear of knowledge, that he was a warm enemy of freedom, and that he habitually carried intellectual dishonesty to the verge of cynicism. Thirdly, he was obliged always to be diplomatic (except of course with his family), and nature had not meant him for the diplomatic career. He was so sick of being all things to all men that he even dreamed diplomatic dreams as a galley-slave will dream of the oar; and so little gifted for the rôle that he wore insignificant tight turned-down collars, never having perceived the immense moral advantage conferred on the diplomatist by a high, loose, wide-rolling collar. Also he was sick of captivity, and this in no wise lessened his objection to freedom. He had lost all youthful enthusiasm, and was in fact equally bored with earth and with heaven.
Nevertheless, he had authority and security. He was accustomed to the public gaze and to the forms of deference. He knew that he was as secure as a judge — and far more secure than a cabinet-minister. Nothing but the inconceivable collapse of a powerful and wealthy sect could affect his position or his livelihood to the very end of life. Hence, beneath his weariness and his professional attitudinarianism there was a hint of the devil-may-care that had its piquancy. He could foresee with indifference even the distant but approaching day when he would have to rise in the pulpit and assert that the literal inspiration of the Scriptures was not and never had been an essential article of Wesleyan faith.
Edwin blenched at the apparition of Mr. Peartree. That even Auntie Hamps should dare uninvited to bring a Wesleyan Minister to the party was startling; but that the minister should be Mr. Peartree staggered him. For twenty years and more Edwin had secretly, and sometimes in public, borne a tremendous grudge against Mr. Peartree. He had execrated, anathematised, and utterly excommunicated Mr. Peartree, and had extended the fearful curse to his family, all his ancestors, and all his descendants. When Mr. Peartree was young and fervent in the service of heaven he had had the monstrous idea of instituting a Saturday Afternoon Bible Class for schoolboys. Abetted by parents weak-minded and cruel, he had caught and horribly tortured some score of miserable victims, of whom Edwin was one. The bitter memory of those weekly half-holidays thieved from him and made desolate by a sanctimonious crank had never softened, nor had Edwin ever forgiven Mr. Peartree.
It was at the sessions of the Bible Class that Edwin, while silently perfecting himself in the art of profanity and blasphemy, had in secret fury envenomed his instinctive mild objection to the dogma, the ritual, and the spirit of conventional Christianity, especially as exemplified in Wesleyan Methodism. He had left Mr. Peartree’s Bible Class a convinced anti-religionist, a hater and despiser of all that the Wesleyan Chapel and Mr. Peartree stood for. He deliberately was not impartial, and he took a horrid pleasure in being unfair. He knew well that Methodism had produced many fine characters, and played a part in the moral development of the race; but he would not listen to his own knowledge. Nothing could extenuate, for him, the noxiousness of Methodism. On the other hand he was full of glee if he could add anything to the indictment against it and Christianity. Huxley’s controversial victories over Gladstone were then occurring in the monthly press, and he acclaimed them with enormous gusto. When he first read that the Virgin Birth was a feature of sundry creeds more ancient than Christianity, his private satisfaction was intense and lasted acutely for days. When he heard that Methodism had difficulty in maintaining its supply of adequately equipped ministers, he rejoiced with virulence. His hostility was the more significant in that it was concealed — embedded like a foreign substance in the rather suave gentleness of his nature. At intervals — increasingly frequent, it is true — he would carry it into the chapel itself; for through mingled cowardice and sharp prudence, he had not formally left the Connexion. To compensate himself for such bowings-down he would now and then assert, judicially to a reliable male friend, or with ferocious contempt to a scandalised defenceless sister, that, despite all parsons, religion was not a necessity of the human soul, and that he personally had never felt the need of it and never would. In which assertion he was profoundly sincere.
And yet throughout he had always thought of himself as a rebel against authority; and — such is the mysterious intimidating prestige of the past — he was outwardly an apologetic rebel. Neither his intellectual pride nor his cold sustained resentment, nor his axiomatic conviction of the crude and total falseness of Christian theology, nor all three together, had ever sufficed to rid him of the self-excusing air. When Auntie Hamps spoke with careful reverence of “the Super” (short for “superintendent minister”), the word had never in thirty years quite failed to inspire in him some of the awe with which he had heard it as an infant. Just as a policeman was not an employee but a policeman, so a minister was not a person of the trading-class who happened to have been through a certain educational establishment, subscribed to certain beliefs, submitted to certain ceremonies and adopted a certain costume — but a minister, a being inexplicably endowed with authority — in fact a sort of arch-policeman. And thus, while detesting and despising him, Edwin had never thought of Abel Peartree as merely a man.
Now, in the gas-lit bustle of the hall, after an interval of about twenty years, he beheld again his enemy, his bugbear, his loathed oppressor, the living symbol of all that his soul condemned.
Said Mrs. Hamps:
“I reminded Mr. Peartree that you used to attend his Bible-class, Edwin. Do you remember? I hope you do.”
“Oh, yes!” said Edwin, with a slight nervous laugh, blushing. His eye caught Clara’s, but there was no sign whatever of the old malicious grin on her maternal face. Nor did Maggie’s show a tremor. And, of course, the majestic duplicity of Auntie Hamps did not quiver under the strain. So that the Rev. Mr. Peartree, protesting honestly that he should have recognised his old pupil Mr. Clayhanger anywhere, never suspected the terrific drama of the moment.
And the next moment there was no drama. . . . Teacher and pupil shook hands. The recognition was mutual. To Edwin, Mr. Peartree, save for the greying of his hair, had not changed. His voice, his form, his gestures, were absolutely the same. Only, instead of being Mr. Peartree, he was a man like another man — a commonplace, hard-featured, weary man; a spare little man, with a greenish-black coat and bluish-white low collar; a perfunctory, listless man with an unpleasant voice; a man with the social code of the Benbows and Auntie Hamps; a man the lines of whose face disclosed a narrow and self-satisfied ignorance; a man whose destiny had forbidden him ever to be natural; the usual snobbish man, who had heard of the importance and the success and the wealth of Edwin Clayhanger and who kowtowed thereto and was naïvely impressed thereby, and proud that Edwin Clayhanger had once been his pupil; and withal an average decent fellow.
Edwin rather liked the casual look in Mr. Peartree’s eyes that said: “My being here is part of my job. I’m indifferent. I do what I have to do, and I really don’t care. I have paid tens of thousands of calls and I shall pay tens of thousands more. If I am bored I am paid to be bored, and I repeat I really don’t care.” This was the human side of Mr. Peartree showing itself. It endeared him to Edwin.
“Not a bad sort of cuss, after all!” thought Edwin.
All the carefully tended rage and animosity of twenty years evaporated out of his heart and was gone. He did not forgive Mr. Peartree, because there was no Mr. Peartree — there was only this man. And there was no Wesleyan chapel either, but only an ugly forlorn three-quarters-empty building at the top of Duck Bank. And Edwin was no longer an apologetic rebel, nor even any kind of a rebel. It occurred to nobody, not even to the mighty Edwin, that in those few seconds the history of dogmatic religion had passed definitely out of one stage into another.
Abel Peartree nonchalantly, and with a practised aplomb which was not disturbed even by the vision of George’s heroic stallion, said the proper things to Edwin and Hilda; and it became known, somehow, that the parson was revisiting Bursley in order to deliver his well-known lecture entitled “The Mantle and Mission of Elijah,”— the sole lecture of his repertoire, but it had served to raise him ever so slightly out of the ruck of ‘Supers.’ Hilda patronised him. Against the rich background of her home, she assumed the pose of the grand lady. Abel Peartree seemed to like the pose, and grew momentarily vivacious in knightly response. “And why not?” said Edwin to himself, justifying his wife after being a little critical of her curtness.
Then, when the conversation fell, Auntie Hamps discreetly suggested that she and the girls should “go upstairs.” The negligent Hilda had inexcusably forgotten in her nervous excitement that on these occasions arriving ladies should be at once escorted to the specially-titivated best bedroom, there to lay their things on the best counterpane. She perhaps ought to have atoned for her negligence by herself leading Auntie Hamps to the bedroom. But instead she deputed Ada. “And why not?” said Edwin to himself again. As the ladies mounted Mr. Peartree laughed genuinely at one of Albert Benbow’s characteristic pleasantries, which always engloomed Edwin. “Kindred spirits, those two!” thought the superior sardonic Edwin, and privately raised his eyebrows to his wife, who answered the signal.
Somewhat later, various other guests having come and distributed themselves over the reception-rooms, the chandeliers glinted down their rays upon light summer frocks and some jewellery and coats of black and dark grey and blue; and the best counterpanes in the best bedroom were completely hidden by mantles and cloaks, and the hatstand in the hall heavily clustered with hats and caps. The reception was in being, and the interior full of animation. Edwin, watchful and hospitably anxious, wandered out of the drawing-room into the hall. The door of the breakfast-room was ajar, and he could hear Clara’s voice behind it. He knew that the Benbows and Maggie and Auntie Hamps were all in the breakfast-room, and he blamed chiefly Clara for this provincial clannishness, which was so characteristic of her. Surely Auntie Hamps at any rate ought to have realised that the duty of members of the family was to spread themselves among the other guests!
“No,” Clara was saying, “we don’t know what’s happened to him since he came out of prison. He got two years.” She was speaking in what Edwin called her ‘scandal’ tones, low, clipped, intimate, eager, blissful.
And then Albert Benbow’s voice:
“He’s had the good sense not to bother us.”
Edwin, while resenting the conversation, and the Benbows’ use of “we” and “us” in a matter which did not concern them, was grimly comforted by the thought of their ignorance of a detail which would have interested them passionately. None but Hilda and himself knew that the bigamist was at that moment in prison again for another and a later offence. Everything had been told but that.
“Of course,” said Clara, “they needn’t have said anything about the bigamy at all, and nobody outside the family need have known that poor Hilda was not just an ordinary widow. But we all thought —”
“I don’t know so much about that, Clary,” Albert Benbow interrupted his wife; “you mustn’t forget his real wife came to Turnhill to make enquiries. That started a hare.”
“Well, you know what I mean,” said Clara vaguely.
Mr. Peartree’s voice came in:
“But surely the case was in the papers?”
“I expect it was in the Sussex papers,” Albert replied. “You see, they went through the ceremony of marriage at Lewes. But it never got into the local rag, because he got married in his real name — Cannon wasn’t his real name; and he’d no address in the Five Towns, then. He was just a boarding-house keeper at Brighton. It was a miracle it didn’t get into the Signal, if you ask me; but it didn’t. I happen to know”— his voice grew important —“that the Signal people have an arrangement with the Press Association for a full report of all matrimonial cases that ‘ud be likely to interest the district. However, the Press Association weren’t quite on the spot that time. And it’s not surprising they weren’t, either.”
“No. It never came out. Still, as I say, we all thought it best not to conceal anything. Albert strongly advised Edwin not to attempt any such thing.” (“What awful rot!” thought Edwin.) “So we just mentioned it quietly like to a few friends. After all, poor Hilda was perfectly innocent. Of course she felt her position keenly when she came to live here after the wedding.” (“Did she indeed!” thought Edwin.) “Edwin would have the wedding in London. We did so feel for her.” (“Did you indeed!” thought Edwin.) “She wouldn’t have an At Home. I knew it was a mistake not to. We all knew. But no, she would not. Folks began to talk. They thought it strange she didn’t have an At Home like other folks. Many young married women have two At Homes nowadays. So in the end she was persuaded. She fixed it for August because she thought so many people would be away at the seaside. But they aren’t — at least not so many as you’d think. Albert says it’s owing to the General Election upset. And she wouldn’t have it in the afternoon like other folks. Mrs. Edwin isn’t like other folks, and you can’t alter her.”
“What’s the matter with the evening for an At Home, anyhow?” asked Benbow the breezy and consciously broad-minded.
“Oh, of course, I quite agree. I like it. But folks are so funny.”
After a momentary pause, Mr. Peartree said uncertainly:
“And there’s a little boy?”
“Yes, the one you’ve seen.”
Said Auntie Hamps:
“Poor little thing! I do feel so sorry for him — when he grows up —”
“You needn’t, Auntie,” said Maggie curtly, expressing her attitude to George in that mild curtness.
“Of course,” said Clara quickly. “We never let it make any difference. In fact our Bert and he are rather friends, aren’t they, Albert?”
At this moment George himself opened the door of the dining-room, letting out a faint buzz of talk and clink of vessels. His mouth was not empty.
Precipitately Edwin plunged into the breakfast-room.
“Hello! You people!” he murmured. “Well, Mr. Peartree.”
There they were — all of them, including the parson — grouped together, lusciously bathing in the fluid of scandal.
Clara turned, and without the least constraint said sweetly:
“Oh, Edwin! There you are! I was just telling Mr. Peartree about you and Hilda, you know. We thought it would be better.”
“You see,” said Auntie Hamps impressively, “Mr. Peartree will be about the town tomorrow, and a word from him —”
Mr. Peartree tried unsuccessfully to look as if he was nobody in particular.
“That’s all right,” said Edwin. “Perhaps the door might as well be shut.” He thought, as many a man has thought: “My relations take the cake!”
Clara occupied the only easy chair in the room. Mrs. Hamps and the parson were seated. Maggie stood. Albert Benbow, ever uxorious, was perched sideways on the arm of his wife’s chair. Clara, centre of the conclave and of all conclaves in which she took part, was the mother of five children — and nearing thirty-five years of age. Maternity had ruined her once slim figure, but neither she nor Albert seemed to mind that — they seemed rather to be proud of her unshapeliness. Her face was unspoiled. She was pretty and had a marvellously fair complexion. In her face Edwin could still always plainly see the pert, charming, malicious girl of fourteen who loathed Auntie Hamps and was rude to her behind her back. But Clara and Auntie Hamps were fast friends nowadays. Clara’s brood had united them. They thought alike on all topics. Clara had accepted Auntie Hamps’s code practically entire; but on the other hand she had dominated Auntie Hamps. The respect which Auntie Hamps showed for Clara and for Edwin, and in a slightly less degree for Maggie, was a strange phenomenon in the old age of that grandiose and vivacious pillar of Wesleyanism and the conventions.
Edwin did not like Clara; he objected to her domesticity, her motherliness, her luxuriant fruitfulness, the intonations of her voice, her intense self-satisfaction and her remarkable duplicity; and perhaps more than anything to her smug provinciality. He did not positively dislike his brother-in-law, but he objected to him for his uxoriousness, his cheerful assurance of Clara’s perfection, his contented and conceited ignorance of all intellectual matters, his incorrigible vulgarity of a small manufacturer who displays everywhere the stigmata of petty commerce, and his ingenuous love of office. As for Maggie, the plump spinster of forty, Edwin respected her when he thought of her, but reproached her for social gawkiness and taciturnity. As for Auntie Hamps, he could not respect, but he was forced to admire, her gorgeous and sustained hypocrisy, in which no flaw had ever been found, and which victimised even herself; he was always invigorated by her ageless energy and the sight of her handsome, erect, valiant figure.
Edwin’s absence had stopped the natural free course of conversation. But there were at least three people in the room whom nothing could abash: Mrs. Hamps, Clara, and Mr. Peartree.
Mr. Peartree, sitting up with his hands on his baggy knees, said:
“Everything seems to have turned out very well in the end, Mr. Clayhanger — very well, indeed.” His features showed less of the tedium of life.
“Eh, yes! Eh, yes!” breathed Auntie Hamps in ecstasy.
Edwin, diffident and ill-pleased, was about to suggest that the family might advantageously separate, when George came after him into the room.
“Oh!” cried George.
“Well, little jockey!” Clara began instantly to him with an exaggerated sweetness that Edwin thought must nauseate the child, “would you like Bert to come up and play with you one of these afternoons?”
George stared at her, and slowly flushed.
“Yes,” said George. “Only —”
“Supposing I was doing something else when he came?”
Without waiting for possible developments George turned to leave the room again.
“You’re a caution, you are!” said Albert Benbow; and to the adults: “Hates to be disturbed, I suppose.”
“That’s it,” said Edwin responsively, as brother-in-law to brother-in-law. But he felt that he, with a few months’ experience of another’s child, appreciated the exquisite strange sensibility of children infinitely better than Albert were he fifty times a father.
“What is a caution, Uncle Albert?” asked George, peeping back from the door.
Auntie Hamps good-humouredly warned the child of the danger of being impertinent to his elders:
“A caution is a caution to snakes,” said Albert. “Shoo!” Making a noise like a rocket, he feinted to pursue the boy with violence.
Mr. Peartree laughed rather loudly, and rather like a human being, at the word “snakes.” Albert Benbow’s flashes of humour, indeed, seemed to surprise him, if only for an instant, out of his attitudinarianism.
Clara smiled, flattered by the power of her husband to reveal the humanity of the parson.
“Albert’s so good with children,” she said. “He always knows exactly . . . ” She stopped, leaving what he knew exactly to the listeners’ imagination.
Uncle Albert and George could be heard scuffling in the hall.
Auntie Hamps rose with a gentle sigh, saying:
“I suppose we ought to join the others.”
Her social sense, which was pretty well developed, had at last prevailed.
The sisters Maggie and Clara, one in light and the other in dark green, walked out of the room. Maggie’s face had already stiffened into mute constraint, and Clara’s into self-importance, at the prospect of meeting the general company.
Auntie Hamps held back, and Edwin at once perceived from the conspiratorial glance in her splendid eyes that in suggesting a move she had intended to deceive her fellow-conspirator in life, Clara. But Auntie Hamps could not live without chicane. And she was happiest when she had superimposed chicane upon chicane in complex folds.
She put a ringed hand softly but arrestingly upon Edwin’s arm, and pushed the door to. Alone with her and the parson, Edwin felt himself to be at bay, and he drew back before an unknown menace.
“Edwin, dear,” said she, “Mr. Peartree has something to suggest to you. I was going to say ‘a favour to ask,’ but I won’t put it like that. I’m sure my nephew will look upon it as a privilege. You know how much Mr. Peartree has at heart the District Additional Chapels Fund —”
Edwin did not know how much; but he had heard of the Macclesfield District Additional Chapels Fund, Bursley being one of the circuits in the Macclesfield District. Wesleyanism finding itself confronted with lessening congregations and with a shortage of ministers, the Macclesfield District had determined to prove that Wesleyanism was nevertheless spiritually vigorous by the odd method of building more chapels. Mr. Peartree, inventor of Saturday afternoon Bible–Classes for schoolboys, was one of the originators of the bricky scheme, and in fact his lecture upon the “Mantle and Mission of Elijah” was to be in aid of it. The next instant Mr. Peartree had invited Edwin to act as District Treasurer of the Fund, the previous treasurer having died.
More chicane! The parson’s visit, then, was not a mere friendly call, inspired by the moment. It was part of a scheme. It had been planned against him. Did they (he seemed to be asking himself) think him so ingenuous, so simple, as not to see through their dodge? If not, then why the preliminary pretences? He did not really ask himself these questions, for the reason that he knew the answers to them. When a piece of chicane had succeeded Auntie Hamps forgot it, and expected others to forget it — or at any rate she dared, by her magnificent front, anybody on earth to remind her of it. She was quite indifferent whether Edwin saw through her dodge or not.
“You’re so good at business,” said she.
Ah! She would insist on the business side of the matter, affecting to ignore the immense moral significance which would be attached to Edwin’s acceptance of the office! Were he to yield, the triumph for Methodism would ring through the town. He read all her thoughts. Nothing could break down her magnificent front. She had cornered him by a device; she had him at bay; and she counted on his weak good-nature, on his easy-going cowardice, for a victory.
Mr. Peartree talked. Mr. Peartree expressed his certitude that Edwin was “with them at heart,” and his absolute reliance upon Edwin’s sense of the responsibilities of a man in his, Edwin’s, position. Auntie Hamps recalled with fervour Edwin’s early activities in Methodism — the Young Men’s Debating Society, for example, which met at six o’clock on frosty winter mornings for the proving of the faith by dialectics.
And Edwin faltered in his speech.
“You ought to get Albert,” he feebly suggested.
“Oh, no!” said Auntie. “Albert is grand in his own line. But for this, we want a man like you.”
It was a master-stroke. Edwin had the illusion of trembling, and yet he knew that he did not tremble, even inwardly. He seemed to see the forces of evolution and the forces of reaction ranged against each other in a supreme crisis. He seemed to see the alternative of two futures for himself — and in one he would be a humiliated and bored slave, and in the other a fine, reckless ensign of freedom. He seemed to be doubtful of his own courage. But at the bottom of his soul he was not doubtful. He remembered all the frightful and degrading ennui which when he was young he had suffered as a martyr to Wesleyanism and dogma, all the sinister deceptions which he had had to practise and which had been practised upon him. He remembered his almost life-long intense hatred of Mr. Peartree. And he might have clenched his hands bitterly and said with homicidal animosity: “Now I will pay you out! And I will tell you the truth! And I will wither you up and incinerate you, and be revenged for everything in one single sentence!” But he felt no bitterness, and his animosity was dead. At the bottom of his soul there was nothing but a bland indifference that did not even scorn.
“No,” he said quietly. “I shan’t be your treasurer. You must ask somebody else.”
A vast satisfaction filled him. The refusal was so easy, the opposing forces so negligible.
Auntie Hamps and Mr. Peartree knew nothing of the peculiar phenomena induced in Edwin’s mind by the first sight of the legendary Abel Peartree after twenty years. But Auntie Hamps, though puzzled for an explanation, comprehended that she was decisively beaten. The blow was hard. Nevertheless she did not wince. The superb pretence must be kept up, and she kept it up. She smiled and, tossing her curls, checked Edwin with cheerful, indomitable rapidity.
“Now, now! Don’t decide at once. Think it over very carefully, and we shall ask you again. Mr. Peartree will write to you. I feel sure . . . ”
Appearances were preserved.
The colloquy was interrupted by Hilda, who came in excited, gay, with sparkling eyes, humming an air. She had protested vehemently against an At Home. She had said again and again that the idea of an At Home was abhorrent to her, and that she hated all such wholesale formal hospitalities and could not bear “people.” And yet now she was enchanted with her situation as hostess — delighted with herself and her rich dress, almost ecstatically aware of her own attractiveness and domination. The sight of her gave pleasure and communicated zest. Mature, she was yet only beginning life. And as she glanced with secret condescension at the listless Mr. Peartree she seemed to say: “What is all this talk of heaven and hell? I am in love with life and the senses, and everything is lawful to me, and I am above you.” And even Auntie Hamps, though one of the most self-sufficient creatures that ever lived, envied in her glorious decay the young maturity of sensuous Hilda.
“Well,” said Hilda. “What’s going on here? They’re all gone mad about missing words in the drawing-room.”
She smiled splendidly at Edwin, whose pride in her thrilled him. Her superiority to other women was patent. She made other women seem negative. In fact, she was a tingling woman before she was anything else — that was it! He compared her with Clara, who was now nothing but a mother, and to Maggie, who had never been anything at all.
Mr. Peartree made the mistake of telling her the subject of the conversation. She did not wait to hear what Edwin’s answer had been.
She said curtly, and with finality:
“Oh, no! I won’t have it.”
Edwin did not quite like this. The matter concerned him alone, and he was an absolutely free agent. She ought to have phrased her objection differently. For example, she might have said: “I hope he has refused.”
Still, his annoyance was infinitesimal.
“The poor boy works quite hard enough as it is,” she added, with delicious caressing intonation of the first words.
He liked that. But she was confusing the issue. She always would confuse the issue. It was not because the office would involve extra work for him that he had declined the invitation, as she well knew.
Of course Auntie Hamps said in a flash:
“If it means overwork for him I shouldn’t dream —” She was putting the safety of appearances beyond doubt.
“By the way, Auntie,” Hilda continued. “What’s the trouble about the pew down at chapel? Both Clara and Maggie have mentioned it.”
“Trouble, my dear?” exclaimed Auntie Hamps, justifiably shocked that Hilda should employ such a word in the presence of Mr. Peartree. But Hilda was apt to be headlong.
To the pew originally taken by Edwin’s father, and since his death standing in Edwin’s name, Clara had brought her husband; and although it was a long pew, the fruits of the marriage had gradually filled it, so that if Edwin chanced to go to chapel there was not too much room for him in the pew, which presented the appearance of a second-class railway carriage crowded with season-ticket holders. Albert Benbow had suggested that Edwin should yield up the pew to the Benbows, and take a smaller pew for himself and Hilda and George. But the women had expressed fear lest Edwin “might not like” this break in a historic tradition, and Albert Benbow had been forbidden to put forward the suggestion until the diplomatic sex had examined the ground.
“We shall be only too pleased for Albert to take over the pew,” said Hilda.
“But have you chosen another pew?” Mrs. Hamps looked at Edwin.
“Oh, no!” said Hilda lightly.
“Now, Auntie,” the tingling woman warned Auntie Hamps as one powerful individuality may warn another, “don’t worry about us. You know we’re not great chapel-goers.”
She spoke the astounding words gaily, but firmly. She could be firm, and even harsh, in her triumphant happiness. Edwin knew that she detested Auntie Hamps. Auntie Hamps no doubt also knew it. In their mutual smilings, so affable, so hearty, so appreciative, apparently so impulsive, the hostility between them gleamed mysteriously like lightning in sunlight.
“Mrs. Edwin’s family were Church of England,” said Auntie Hamps, in the direction of Mr. Peartree.
“Nor great church-goers, either,” Hilda finished cheerfully.
No woman had ever made such outrageous remarks in the Five Towns before. A quarter of a century ago a man might have said as much, without suffering in esteem — might indeed have earned a certain intellectual prestige by the declaration; but it was otherwise with a woman. Both Mrs. Hamps and the minister thought that Hilda was not going the right way to live down her dubious past. Even Edwin in his pride was flurried. Great matters, however, had been accomplished. Not only had the attack of Auntie Hamps and Mr. Peartree been defeated, but the defence had become an onslaught. Not only was he not the treasurer of the District Additional Chapels Fund, but he had practically ceased to be a member of the congregation. He was free with a freedom which he had never had the audacity to hope for. It was incredible! Yet there it was! A word said, bravely, in a particular tone — and a new epoch was begun. The pity was that he had not done it all himself. Hilda’s courage had surpassed his own. Women were astounding. They were disconcerting too. His manly independence was ever so little wounded by Hilda’s boldness in initiative on their joint behalf.
“Do come and take something, Auntie,” said Hilda, with the most winning, the most loving inflection.
Auntie Hamps passed out.
Hilda turned back into the room: “Do go with Auntie, Mr. Peartree. I must just —” She affected to search for something on the mantelpiece.
Mr. Peartree passed out. He was unmoved. He did not care in his heart. And as Edwin caught his indifferent eye, with that “it’s-all-one-to-me” glint in it, his soul warmed again slightly to Mr. Peartree. And further, Mr. Peartree’s aloof unworldliness, his personal practical unconcern with money, feasting, ambition, and all the grosser forms of self-satisfaction, made Edwin feel somewhat a sensual average man and accordingly humiliated him.
As soon as, almost before, Mr. Peartree was beyond the door, Hilda leaped at Edwin, and kissed him violently. The door was not closed. He could hear the varied hum of the party.
“I had to kiss you while it’s all going on,” she whispered. Ardent vitality shimmered in her eyes.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51