Tertius Ingpen was the new District Factory Inspector, a man of about thirty-five, neither fair nor dark, neither tall nor short. He was a native of the district, having been born somewhere in the aristocratic regions between Knype and the lordly village of Sneyd, but what first struck the local observer in him was that his speech had none of the local accent. In the pursuit of his vocation he had lived in other places than the Five Towns. For example, in London, where he had become acquainted with Edwin’s friend, Charlie Orgreave, the doctor. When Ingpen received a goodish appointment amid the industrial horrors of his birth, Charlie Orgreave recommended him to Edwin, and Edwin and Ingpen had met once, under arrangement made by Johnnie Orgreave. It was Johnnie who had impulsively suggested in Ingpen’s presence that Ingpen should be invited to the At Home. Edwin, rather intimidated by Ingpen’s other-worldliness, had said: “You’ll run up against a mixed lot.” But Ingpen, though sternly critical of local phenomena, seemed to be ready to meet social adventures in a broad and even eager spirit of curiosity concerning mankind. He was not uncomely, and he possessed a short silky beard of which secretly he was not less proud than of his striking name. He wore a neat blue suit, with the trousers fastened tightly round the ankles for bicycle-riding, and thick kid gloves. He took off one glove to shake hands, and then, having leisurely removed the other, and talking all the time, he bent down with care and loosed his trousers and shook them into shape.
“Now what about this jigger?” he asked, while still bending. “I don’t care to leave it anywhere. It’s a good jigger.”
As it leaned on one pedal against the kerb of Hulton Street, the strange-looking jigger appeared to be at any rate a very dirty jigger. Fastened under the saddle were a roll of paper and a mackintosh.
“There are one or two ordinaries knocking about the place,” said Edwin, “but we haven’t got a proper bicycle-house. I’ll find a place for it somewhere in the garden.” He lifted the front wheel.
“Don’t trouble, please. I’ll take it,” said Ingpen, and before picking up the machine blew out the lamp, whose extinction left a great darkness down the slope of Hulton Street.
“You’ve got a very nice place here. Too central for me, of course!” Ingpen began, after they had insinuated the bicycle through narrow paths to the back of the house.
Edwin was leading him along the side of the lawn furthest away from Trafalgar Road. Certainly the property had the air of being a very nice place. The garden with its screen of high rustling trees seemed spacious and mysterious in the gloom, and the lighted windows of the house produced an effect of much richness — especially the half-open window of the drawing-room. Fearns and Cheswardine were standing in front of it chatting (doubtless of affairs) with that important adult air which Edwin himself could never successfully imitate. Behind them were bright women, and the brilliant chandelier. The piano faintly sounded. Edwin was proud of his very nice place. “How strange!” he thought. “This is all mine! These are my guests! And my wife is mine!”
“Well, you see,” he answered Ingpen’s criticism with false humility. “I’ve no choice. I’ve got to be central.”
Ingpen answered pleasantly.
“I take your word for it; but I don’t see.”
The bicycle was carefully bestowed by its groping owner in a small rustic arbour which, situated almost under the wall that divided the Clayhanger property from the first cottage in Hulton Street, was hidden from the house by a clump of bushes.
In the dark privacy of this shelter Tertius Ingpen said in a reflective tone:
“I understand that you haven’t been married long, and that this is a sort of function to inform the world officially that you’re no longer what you were?”
“It’s something like that?” Edwin admitted with a laugh.
He liked the quiet intimacy of Ingpen’s voice, whose delicate inflections indicated highly cultivated sensibilities. And he thought: “I believe I shall be friends with this chap.” And was glad, and faith in Ingpen was planted in his heart.
“Well,” Ingpen continued, “I wish you happiness. It may seem a strange thing to say to a man in your position, but my opinion is that the proper place for women is — behind the veil. Only my personal opinion, of course! But I’m entitled to hold it, and therefore to express it.” Whatever his matter, his manner was faultless.
“Yes?” Edwin murmured awkwardly. What on earth did Ingpen expect by way of reply to such a proposition? Surely Ingpen should have known that he was putting his host in a disagreeable difficulty. His new-born faith in Ingpen felt the harsh wind of experience and shivered. Nevertheless, there was a part of Edwin that responded to Ingpen’s attitude. “Behind the veil.” Yes, something could be said for the proposition.
They left the arbour in silence. They had not gone more than a few steps when a boy’s shrill voice made itself heard over the wall of the cottage yard.
“Oh Lord, thou ‘ast said ‘If two on ye sh’ll agray on earth as touching onything that they sh’ll ask it sh’ll be done for them of my Father which is in ‘eaven. For where two or three are gathered together i’ my name theer am I in th’ midst of ’em. Oh Lord, George Edwin Clay’anger wants a two-bladed penknife. We all three on us want ye to send George Edwin Clay’anger a two-bladed penknife.”
The words fell with impressive effect on the men in the garden.
“What the —” Edwin exclaimed.
“Hsh!” Ingpen stopped him in an excited whisper. “Don’t disturb them for anything in the world!”
Edwin crept away like a scout towards a swing which he had arranged for his friend George before he became the husband of George’s mother. He climbed into it and over the wall could just see three boys’ heads in the yard illuminated by a lamp in the back-window of the cottage. Tertius Ingpen joined him, but immediately climbed higher on to the horizontal beam of the swing.
“Who are they?” Ingpen asked, restraining his joy in the adventure.
“The one on the right’s my stepson. The other big one is my sister Clara’s child, Bert. I expect the little one’s old Clowes’, the gravedigger’s kid. They say he’s a regular little parson — probably to make up for his parents. I expect they’re out somewhere having a jollification.”
“Well,” Ingpen breathed. “I wouldn’t have missed this for a good deal.” He gave a deep, almost soundless giggle.
Edwin was startled — as much as anything by the extraordinary deceitfulness of George. Who could possibly have guessed from the boy’s demeanour when his Aunt Clara mentioned Bert to him, that he had made an outrageous rendezvous with Bert that very night? Certainly he had blushed, but then he often blushed. Of course, the Benbows would assert that George had seduced the guileless Bert. Fancy them hunting the town for Bert at that instant! As regards Peter Clowes, George, though not positively forbidden to do so, had been warned against associating with him — chiefly because of the bad influence which Peter’s accent would have on George’s accent. His mother had said that she could not understand how George could wish to be friendly with a rough little boy like Peter. Edwin, however, inexperienced as he was, had already comprehended that children, like Eastern women, have no natural class bias; and he could not persuade himself to be the first to inculcate into George ideas which could only be called snobbish. He was a democrat. Nevertheless he did not like George to play with Peter Clowes.
The small Peter, with uplifted face and clasped hands, repeated urgently, passionately:
“O God! We all three on us want ye to send George Edwin Clay’anger a two-bladed penknife. Now lads, kneel, and all three on us together!”
He stood between the taller and better-dressed boys unashamed, fervent, a born religionist. He was not even praying for himself. He was praying out of his profound impersonal interest in the efficacy of prayer.
The three boys, kneeling, and so disappearing from sight behind the wall, repeated together:
“O God! Please send George Edwin Clayhanger a two-bladed penknife.”
Then George and Bert stood up again, shuffling about. Peter Clowes did not reappear.
“I can’t help it,” whispered Ingpen in a strange, moved voice, “I’ve got to be God. Here goes! And it’s practically new, too!”
Edwin in the darkness could see him feeling in his waistcoat pocket, and then raise his arm, and, taking careful aim, throw in the direction of the dimly lighted yard.
“Oh!” came the cry of George, in sudden pain.
The descending penknife had hit him in the face.
There was a scramble on the pavement of the yard, and some muttered talk. The group went to the back window where the lamp was and examined the heavenly penknife. They were more frightened than delighted by the miracle. The unseen watchers in the swing were also rather frightened, as though they had interfered irremediably in a solemn and delicate crisis beyond their competence. In a curious way they were ashamed.
“Yes, and what about me?” said the voice of fat Bert Benbow, sulkily. “This is all very well. But what about me? Ye tried without me and ye couldn’t do anything. Now I’ve come and ye’ve done it. What am I going to get? Ye’ve got to give me something instead of a half-share in that penknife, George.”
“Let’s pray for something for you now. What d’you want?”
“I want a bicycle. Ye know what I want.”
“Oh, no, you don’t, Bert Benbow!” said George. “You’ve got to want something safer than a bike. Suppose it comes tumbling down like the penknife did! We shall be dam well killed.”
Tertius Ingpen could not suppress a snorting giggle.
“I want a bike,” Bert insisted. “And I don’t want nothin’ else.”
The two bigger boys moved vaguely away from the window, and the little religionist followed them in silence, ready to supplicate for whatever they should decide.
“All right,” George agreed. “We’ll pray for a bicycle. But we’d better all stand as close as we can to the wall, under the spouting, in case.”
The ceremonial was recommenced.
“No,” Ingpen murmured. “I’m not being God this time. It won’t run to it.”
Footsteps were heard on the lawn behind the swing. Ingpen slid down and Edwin jumped down. Johnnie Orgreave was approaching.
“Hsh!” Ingpen warned him.
“What are you chaps —”
“Hsh!” Ingpen was more imperative.
All three men walked away out of earshot of the yard, towards the window of the drawing-room — Johnnie Orgreave mystified, the other two smiling but with spirits disturbed. Johnnie heard the story in brief; it was told to him in confidence, as Tertius Ingpen held firmly that eavesdroppers, if they had any honour left, should at least hold their tongues.
When Tertius Ingpen was introduced to Hilda in the drawing-room, the three men having entered by the French window, Edwin was startled and relieved by the deportment of the orientalist who thought that the proper place for women was behind the veil. In his simplicity he had assumed that the orientalist would indicate his attitude by a dignified reserve. Not at all! As soon as Ingpen reached Hilda’s hospitable gaze his whole bearing altered. He bowed, with a deferential bending that to an untravelled native must have seemed exaggerated; his face was transformed by a sweet smile; his voice became the voice of a courtier; he shook hands with chivalrous solicitude for the fragile hand shaken. Hilda was pleased by him, perceiving that this man was more experienced in the world than any of the other worldly guests. She liked that. Ingpen’s new symptoms were modified after a few moments, but when he was presented to Mrs. Fearns he reproduced them in their original intensity, and again when he was introduced to Vera Cheswardine.
“Been out without your cap?” Hilda questioned Edwin, lifting her eyebrows. She said it in order to say something, for the entry of this ceremonious personage, who held all the advantages of the native and of the stranger, had a little overpowered the company.
“Only just to see after Mr. Ingpen’s machine. Give me your cap, Mr. Ingpen. I’ll hang it up.”
When he returned to the drawing-room from the hatstand Ingpen was talking with Janet Orgreave, whom he already knew.
“Have you seen George, Edwin?” Hilda called across the drawing-room.
“Hasn’t he gone to bed?”
“That’s what I want to know. I haven’t seen him lately.”
Everyone, except Johnnie Orgreave and a Swetnam or so, was preoccupied by the thought of children, by the thought of this incalculable and disturbing race that with different standards and ideals lived so mysteriously in and among their adult selves. Nothing was said about the strange disappearance of Bert Benbow, but each woman had it in mind, and coupled it with Hilda’s sudden apprehension concerning George, and imagined weird connections between the one and the other, and felt forebodings about children nearer to her own heart. Children dominated the assemblage and, made restless, the assemblage collectively felt that the moment for separation approached. The At Home was practically over.
Hilda rang the bell, and as she did so Johnnie Orgreave winked dangerously at Edwin, who with sternness responded. He wondered why he should thus deceive his wife, with whom he was so deliciously intimate. He thought also that women were capricious in their anxieties, and yet now and then their moods — once more by the favour of hazard — displayed a marvellous appositeness. Hilda had no reason whatever for worrying more about George on this night than on any other night. Nevertheless this night happened to be the night on which anxiety would be justified.
“Ada,” said Hilda to the entering servant. “Have you seen Master George?”
“No’m,” Ada replied, almost defiantly.
“When did you see him last?”
“I don’t remember, m’m.”
“Is he in bed?”
“I don’t know, m’m.”
“Just go and see, will you?”
The company waited with gentle, concealed excitement for the returning Ada, who announced:
“His bedroom door’s locked, m’m.”
“He will lock it sometimes, although I’ve positively forbidden him to. But what are you to do?” said Hilda, smilingly to the other mothers.
“Take the key away, obviously,” Tertius Ingpen answered the question, turning quickly and interrupting his chat with Janet Orgreave.
“That ought not to be necessary,” said Fearns, as an expert father.
Ada departed, thankful to be finished with the ordeal of cross-examination in a full drawing-room.
“Don’t you know anything about him?” Hilda addressed Johnnie Orgreave suddenly.
“Me? About your precious? No. Why should I know?”
“Because you’re getting such friends, you two.”
“Oh! Are we?” Johnnie said carelessly. Nevertheless he was flattered by a certain nascent admiration on the part of George, which was then beginning to be noticeable.
A quarter of an hour later, when several guests had gone, Hilda murmured to Edwin:
“I’m not easy about that boy. I’ll just run upstairs.”
“I shouldn’t,” said Edwin.
But she did. And the distant sound of knocking, and “George, George,” could be heard even down in the hall.
“I can’t wake him,” said Hilda, back in the drawing-room.
“What do you want to wake him for, foolish girl?” Edwin demanded.
She enjoyed being called “foolish girl,” but she was not to be tranquillised.
“Do you think he is in bed?” she questioned, before the whole remaining company, and the dread suspicion was out!
After more journeys upstairs, and more bangings, and essays with keys, and even attempts at lock-picking, Hilda announced that George’s room must be besieged from its window. A ladder was found, and interested visitors went into the back-entry, by the kitchen, to see it reared and hear the result. Edwin thought that the cook in the kitchen looked as guilty as he himself felt, though she more than once asseverated her belief that Master George was safely in bed. The ladder was too short. Edwin mounted it, and tried to prise himself on to the window-sill, but could not.
“Here, let me try!” said Ingpen, joyous.
Ingpen easily succeeded. He glanced through the open window into George’s bedroom, and then looked down at the upturned faces, and Ada’s apron, whitely visible in the gloom.
“He’s here all right.”
“Oh, good!” said Hilda. “Is he asleep?”
“He deserves to be wakened,” she laughed.
“You see what a foolish girl you’ve been,” said Edwin affectionately.
“Never mind!” she retorted. “You couldn’t get on the window. And you were just as upset as anybody. Do you think I don’t know? Thank you, Mr. Ingpen.”
“Is he really there?” Edwin whispered to Ingpen as soon as he could.
“Yes. And asleep, too!”
“I wonder how the deuce he slipped in. I’ll bet anything those servants have been telling a lot of lies for him. He pulls their hair down and simply does what he likes with them.”
Edwin was now greatly reassured, but he could not quite recover from the glimpse he had had of George’s capacity for leading a double life. Sardonically he speculated whether the heavenly penknife would be brought to his notice by its owner, and if so by what ingenious method.
The final sensation was caused by the arrival, in a nearly empty drawing-room, of plump Maggie, nervous, constrained, and somewhat breathless.
“Bert has turned up,” she said. “Clara thought I’d better come along and tell you. She felt sure you’d like to know.”
“Well, that’s all right then,” Hilda replied perfunctorily, indicating that Clara’s conceited assumption of a universal interest in her dull children was ridiculous.
“Did the kid say where he’d been?”
“Been running about the streets. They don’t know what’s come over him — because, you see, he’d actually gone to bed once. Albert is quite puzzled; but he says he’ll have it out of him before he’s done.”
“When he does get it out of him,” thought Edwin again, “there will be a family row and George will be indicted as the corrupter of innocence.”
Maggie would not stay a single moment. Hilda attentively accompanied her to the hall. The former and the present mistress of the house kissed with the conventional signs of affection. But the fact that one had succeeded the other seemed to divide them. Hilda was always lying in wait for criticism from Maggie, ready to resent it; Maggie divined this and said never a word. The silence piqued Hilda as much as outspoken criticism would have annoyed her. She could not bear it.
“How do you like my new stair-carpet?” she demanded defiantly.
“Very nice! Very nice, I’m sure!” Maggie replied without conviction. And added, just as she stepped outside the front-door, “You’ve made a lot of changes.” This was the mild, good-natured girl’s sole thrust, and it was as effective as she could have wished.
Everybody had gone except the two Orgreaves and Tertius Ingpen.
“I don’t know about you, Johnnie, but I must go,” said Janet Orgreave when Hilda came back.
“Hold on, Jan!” Johnnie protested. “You’re forgetting those duets you are to try with Ingpen.”
“Duets!” cried Hilda, instantly uplifted and enthusiastic. “Oh, do let’s have some music!”
Ingpen by arrangement with the Orgreaves had brought some pianoforte duets. They were tied to his bicycle. He was known as an amateur of music. Edwin, bidding Ingpen not to move, ran out into the garden to get the music from the bicycle. Johnnie ran after him through the French window.
“I say!” Johnnie called in a low voice.
“What’s up?” Edwin stopped for him.
“I’ve a piece of news for you. About that land you’ve set your heart on, down at Shawport! . . . It can be bought cheap — at least the old man says it’s cheap — whatever his opinion may be worth. I was telling him about your scheme for having a new printing works altogether. Astonishing how keen he is! If I’d had a plan of the land, I believe he’d have sat down and made sketches at once.”
Johnnie (with his brother Jimmie) was in partnership with old Orgreave as an architect.
“‘Set my heart on?’” Edwin mumbled, intimidated as usual by a nearer view of an enterprise which he had himself conceived and which had enchanted him from afar. “‘Set my heart on?’”
“Well, had you, or hadn’t you?”
“I suppose I had,” Edwin admitted. “Look here, I’ll drop in and see you tomorrow morning.”
Together they detached the music from the bicycle, and, as Edwin unrolled it and rolled it the other side out to flatten it, they returned silently through the dark wind-stirred garden into the drawing-room.
There were now the two Orgreaves, Tertius Ingpen, and Hilda and Edwin in the drawing-room.
“We will now begin the evening,” said Ingpen, as he glanced at the music.
All five were conscious of the pleasant feeling of freedom, intimacy, and mutual comprehension which animates a small company that by self-selection has survived out of a larger one. The lateness of the hour aided their zest. Even the more staid among them perceived as by a revelation that it did not in fact matter, once in a way, if they were tired and inefficient on the morrow, and that too much regularity of habit was bad for the soul. Edwin had brought in a tray from the dining-room, and rearranged the chairs according to Hilda’s caprice, and was providing cushions to raise the bodies of the duet-players to the proper height. Janet began to excuse herself, asserting that if there was one member of her family who could not play duets, she was that member, that she had never seen this Dvorak music before, and that if they had got her brother Tom, or her elder sister Marion, or even Alicia — etc., etc.
“We are quite accustomed to these formal preliminaries from duet-players, Miss Orgreave,” said Ingpen. “I never do them myself — not because I can play well, but because I am hardened. Now shall we start? Will you take the treble or the bass?”
Janet answered with eager modesty that she would take the bass.
“It’s all one to me,” said Ingpen, putting on spectacles; “I play either equally badly. You’ll soon regret leaving the most important part to me. However . . .! Clayhanger, will you turn over?”
“Er — yes,” said Edwin boldly. “But you’d better give me the tip.”
He knew a little about printed music, from his experiences as a boy when his sisters used to sing two-part songs. That is to say, he had a vague idea “where a player was” on a page. But the enterprise of turning over Dvorak’s “Legends” seemed to him critically adventurous. Dvorak was nothing but a name to him; beyond the correct English method of pronouncing that name, he had no knowledge whatever of the subject in hand.
Then the performance of the “Legends” began. Despite halts, hesitations, occasional loud insistent chanting of the time, explanations between the players, many wrong notes by Ingpen, and a few wrong notes by Janet, and one or two enormous misapprehensions by Edwin, the performance was a success, in that it put a spell on its public, and permitted the loose and tender genius of Dvorak to dominate the room.
“Play that again, will you?” said Hilda, in a low dramatic voice, at the third “Legend.”
“We will,” Ingpen answered. “And we’ll play it better.”
Edwin had the exquisite sensation of partially comprehending music whose total beauty was beyond the limitations of his power to enjoy — power, nevertheless, which seemed to grow each moment. Passages entirely intelligible and lovely would break at intervals through the veils of general sound and ravish him. All his attention was intensely concentrated on the page. He could hear Ingpen breathing hard. Out of the corner of his eye he was aware of Johnnie Orgreave on the sofa making signs to Hilda about drinks, and pouring out something for her, and something for himself, without the faintest noise. And he was aware of Ada coming to the open door and being waved away to bed by her mistress.
“Well,” he said, when the last “Legend” was played. “That’s a bit of the right sort — no mistake.” He was obliged to be banal and colloquial.
Hilda said nothing at all. Johnnie, who had waited for the end in order to strike a match, showed by two words that he was an expert listener to duets. Tertius Ingpen was very excited and pleased. “More tricky than difficult, isn’t it — to read?” he said privately to his fellow-performer, who concurred. Janet also was excited in her fashion. But even amid the general excitement Ingpen had to be judicious.
“Delightful stuff, of course,” he said, pulling his beard. “But he’s not a great composer you know, all the same.”
“He’ll do to be going on with,” Johnnie murmured.
“Oh, yes! Delightful! Delightful!” Ingpen repeated warmly, removing his spectacles. “What a pity we can’t have musical evenings regularly!”
“But we can!” said Hilda positively. “Let’s have them here. Every week!”
“A great scheme!” Edwin agreed with enthusiasm, admiring his wife’s initiative. He had been a little afraid that the episode of George had upset her for the night, but he now saw that she had perfectly recovered from it.
“Oh!” Ingpen paused. “I doubt if I could come every week. I could come once a fortnight.”
“Well, once a fortnight then!” said Hilda.
“I suppose Sunday wouldn’t suit you?”
Edwin challenged him almost fiercely:
“Why won’t it suit us? It will suit us first-class.”
Ingpen merely said, with quiet delicacy:
“So much the better. . . . We might go all through the Mozart fiddle sonatas.”
“And who’s your violinist?” asked Johnnie.
“I am, if you don’t mind.” Ingpen smiled. “If your sister will take the piano part.”
Hilda exclaimed admiringly:
“Do you play the violin, too, Mr. Ingpen?”
“I scrape it. Also the tenor. But my real instrument is the clarinet.” He laughed. “It seems odd,” he went on with genuine scientific unegotistic interest in himself. “But d’you know I thoroughly enjoy playing the clarinet in a bad orchestra whenever I get the chance. When I happen to have a free evening I often wish I could drop in at a theatre and play rotten music in the band. It’s better than nothing. Some of us are born mad.”
“But Mr. Ingpen,” said Janet Orgreave anxiously, after this speech had been appreciated. “I have never played those Mozart sonatas.”
“I am glad to hear it,” he replied with admirable tranquillity. “Neither have I. I’ve often meant to. It’ll be quite a sporting event. But of course we can have a rehearsal if you like.”
The project of the musical evenings was discussed and discussed until Janet, having vanished silently upstairs, reappeared with her hat and cloak on.
“I can go alone if you aren’t ready, Johnnie,” said she.
“No. I’m coming.”
“I also must go — I suppose,” said Ingpen.
They all went into the hall. Through the open door of the dining-room, where one gas-jet burned, could be seen the rich remains of what had been “light refreshments” in the most generous interpretation of the term.
Ingpen stopped to regard the spectacle, fingering his beard.
“I was just wondering,” he remarked, with that strange eternal curiosity about himself, “whether I’d had enough to eat. I’ve got to ride home.”
“Well, what have you had?” Johnnie quizzed him.
“I haven’t had anything,” said Ingpen, “except drink.”
“Oh! You poor sufferer! I am ashamed!” And led him familiarly to the table.
Edwin was kept at the front-door some time by Johnnie Orgreave, who resumed as he was departing the subject of the proposed new works, and maintained it at such length that Janet, tired of waiting on the pavement, said that she would walk on. When he returned to the dining-room, Ingpen and Hilda were sitting side by side at the littered table, and the first words that Edwin heard were from Ingpen:
“It cost me a penknife. But it was dirt cheap at the price. You can’t expect to be the Almighty for much less than a penknife.” Seeing Edwin, he added with a nonchalant smile: “I’ve told Mrs. Clayhanger all about the answer to prayer. I thought she ought to know.”
Edwin laughed awkwardly, saying to himself:
“Ingpen, my boy, you ought to have thought of my position first. You’ve been putting your finger into a rather delicate piece of mechanism. Supposing she cuts up rough with me afterwards for hiding it from her all this time! . . . I’m living with her. You aren’t.”
“Of course,” Ingpen added. “I’ve sworn the lady to secrecy.”
“I knew all the time there was something wrong.”
And Edwin thought:
“No, you didn’t. And if he hadn’t happened to tell you about the thing, you’d have been convinced that you’d been alarming yourself for nothing.”
But he only said, not certain of Hilda’s humour, and anxious to placate her:
“There’s no doubt George ought to be punished.”
“Nothing of the kind! Nothing of the kind!” Ingpen vivaciously protested. “Why, bless my soul! The kids were engaged in a religious work. They were busy with someone far more important than any parents.” And after a pause, reflectively: “Curious thing, the mentality of a child! I doubt if we understand anything about it.”
Hilda smiled, but said naught.
“May I enquire what there is in that bottle?” Ingpen asked.
“Have some, Mr. Ingpen.”
“I will if you will, Mrs. Clayhanger.”
Edwin raised his eyebrows at his wife.
“You needn’t look at me!” said Hilda. “I’m going to have some.”
Ingpen smacked his lips over the liqueur.
“It’s a very bad thing late at night, of course. But I believe in giving your stomach something to think about. I never allow my digestive apparatus to boss me.”
“Quite right, Mr. Ingpen.”
They touched glasses, without a word, almost instinctively.
“Well,” thought Edwin, “for a chap who thinks women ought to be behind the veil . . .!”
“Be a man, Clayhanger, and have some.”
Edwin shook his head.
With a scarcely perceptible movement of her glass, Hilda greeted her husband, peeping out at him as it were for a fraction of a second in a glint of affection. He was quite happy. They were all seated close together, Edwin opposite the other two at the large table. The single gas-jet, by the very inadequacy with which it lighted the scene of disorder, produced an effect of informal homeliness and fellowship that warmed the heart. Each of the three realised with pleasure that a new and promising friendship was in the making. They talked at length about the Musical Evenings, and Edwin said that he should buy some music, and Hilda asked him to obtain a history of music that Ingpen described with some enthusiasm, and the date of the first evening was settled — Sunday week. And after uncounted minutes Ingpen remarked that he presumed he had better go.
“I have to cycle home,” he announced once more.
“To-night?” Hilda exclaimed.
“No. This morning.”
“All the way to Axe?”
“Oh, no! I’m three miles this side of Axe. It’s only six and a half miles.”
“But all those hills!”
“Pooh! Excellent for the muscles of the calf.”
“Do you live alone, Mr. Ingpen?”
“I have a sort of housekeeper.”
“In a cottage?”
“In a cottage.”
“But what do you do— all alone?”
“I cultivate myself.”
And Hilda, in a changed tone, said:
“How wise you are!”
“Rather inconvenient, being out there, isn’t it?” Edwin suggested.
“It may be inconvenient sometimes for my job. But I can’t help that. I give the State what I consider fair value for the money it pays me, and not a grain more. I’ve got myself to think about. There are some things I won’t do, and one of them is to live all the time in a vile hole like the Five Towns. I won’t do it. I’d sooner be a blooming peasant on the land.”
As he was a native he had the right to criticise the district without protest from other natives.
“You’re quite right as to the vile hole,” said Hilda with conviction.
“I don’t know ——” Edwin muttered. “I think old Bosley isn’t so bad.”
“Yes. But you’re an old stick-inthe-mud, dearest,” said Hilda. “Mr. Ingpen has lived away from the district, and so have I. You haven’t. You’re no judge. We know, don’t we, Mr. Ingpen?”
When, Ingpen having at last accumulated sufficient resolution to move and get his cap, they went through the drawing-room to the garden, they found that rain was falling.
“Never mind!” said Ingpen, lifting his head sardonically in a mute indictment of the heavens. “I have my mack.”
Edwin searched out the bicycle and brought it to the window, and Hilda stuck a hat on his head. Leisurely Ingpen clipped his trousers at the ankle, and unstrapped a mackintosh cape from the machine, and folded the strap. Leisurely he put on the cape, and gazed at the impenetrable heavens again.
“I can make you up a bed, Mr. Ingpen.”
“No, thanks. Oh, no, thanks! The fact is, I rather like rain.”
Leisurely he took a box of fusees from his pocket, and lighted his lamp, examining it as though it contained some hidden and perilous defect. Then he pressed the tyres.
“The back tyre’ll do with a little more air,” he said thoughtfully. “I don’t know if my pump will work.”
It did work, but slowly. After which, gloves had to be assumed.
“I suppose I can get out this way. Oh! My music! Never mind, I’ll leave it.”
Then with a sudden access of ceremoniousness he bade adieu to Hilda; no detail of punctilio was omitted from the formality.
“Good-bye. Many thanks.”
“Good-bye. Thank you!”
Edwin preceded the bicyclist and the bicycle round the side of the house to the front-gate at the corner of Hulton Street and Trafalgar Road.
In the solemn and chill nocturnal solitude of rain-swept Hulton Street, Ingpen straddled the bicycle, with his left foot on one raised pedal and the other on the pavement; and then held out a gloved hand to Edwin.
“Good-bye, old chap. See you soon.”
Much good-will and appreciation and hope was implicit in that rather casual handshake.
He sheered off strongly down the dark slope of Hulton Street in the rain, using his ankles with skill in the pedal-stroke. The man’s calves seemed to be enormously developed. The cape ballooned out behind his swiftness, and in a moment he had swerved round the flickering mournful gas-lamp at the bottom of the mean new street and was gone.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05