When Hilda knocked at the door of Auntie Hamps’s house, in King Street, a marvellously dirty and untidy servant answered the summons, and a smell of greengage jam in the making surged out through the doorway into the street. The servant wore an apron of rough sacking.
“Is Miss Clayhanger in?” coldly asked Hilda, offended by the sight and the smell.
The servant looked suspicious and mysterious.
“No, mum. Her’s gone out.”
“Mrs. Hamps, then?”
“Missis is up yon,” said the servant, jerking her tousled head back towards the stairs.
“Will you tell her I’m here?”
The servant left the visitor on the doorstep, and with an elephantine movement of the knees ran upstairs.
Hilda walked into the passage towards the kitchen. On the kitchen fire was the brilliant copper pan sacred to “preserving.” Rows of earthenware and glass jars stood irregularly on the table.
“Her’ll be down,” said the brusque servant, returning, and glared open-mouthed.
“Shall I wait in the sitting-room?”
The house, about seventy years old, was respectably situated in the better part of King Street, at the bottom of the slope near St. Luke’s Church. It had once been occupied by a dentist of a certain grandeur, and possessed a garden, of which, however, Auntie Hamps had made a wilderness. The old lady was magnificent, but her magnificence was limited to herself. She could be sublimely generous, gorgeously hospitable, but only upon special occasions. Her teas, at which a fresh and costly pineapple and wonderful confectionery and pickled salmon and silver plate never lacked, were renowned, but the general level of her existence was very mean. Her servants, of whom she had many, though never more than one at a time, were not only obliged to be Wesleyan Methodists and to attend the Sunday night service, and in the week to go to class-meeting for the purpose of confessing sins and proving the power of Christ — they were obliged also to eat dripping instead of butter. The mistress sometimes ate dripping, if butter ran short or went up in price. She considered herself a tremendous housewife. She was a martyr to her housewifely ideals. Her private career was chiefly an endless struggle to keep the house clean — to get forward with the work. The house was always going to be clean and never was, despite eternal soap, furniture-polish, scrubbing, rubbing. Auntie Hamps never changed her frowsy house-dress for rich visiting attire without the sad thought that she was “leaving something undone.” The servant never went to bed without hearing the discontented phrase: “Well, we must do it tomorrow.” Spring-cleaning in that house lasted for six weeks. On days of hospitality the effort to get the servant “dressed” for tea-time was simply desperate, and not always successful.
Auntie Hamps had no sense of comfort and no sense of beauty. She was incapable of leaning back in a chair, and she regarded linoleum as one of the most satisfactory inventions of the modern age. She “saved” her carpets by means of patches of linoleum, often stringy at the edges, and in some rooms there was more linoleum than anything else. In the way of renewals she bought nothing but linoleum — unless some chapel bazaar forced her to purchase a satin cushion or a hand-painted grate-screen. All her furniture was old, decrepit and ugly; it belonged to the worst Victorian period, when every trace of the eighteenth century had disappeared. The abode was always oppressive. It was oppressive even amid hospitality, for then the mere profusion on the tables accused the rest of the interior, creating a feeling of discomfort; and moreover Mrs. Hamps could not be hospitable naturally. She could be nothing and do nothing naturally. She could no more take off her hypocrisy than she could take off her skin. Her hospitality was altogether too ruthless. And to satisfy that ruthlessness, the guests had always to eat too much. She was so determined to demonstrate her hospitality to herself, that she would never leave a guest alone until he had reached the bursting point.
Hilda sat grimly in the threadbare sitting-room amid morocco-bound photograph albums, oleographs, and beady knickknacks, and sniffed the strong odour of jam; and in the violence of her revolt against that wide-spread messy idolatrous eternal domesticity of which Auntie Hamps was a classic example, she protested that she would sooner buy the worst jam than make the best, and that she would never look under a table for dust, and that naught should induce her to do any housework after midday, and that she would abolish spring-cleaning utterly.
The vast mediocre respectability of the district weighed on her heart. She had been a mistress-drudge in Brighton during a long portion of her adult life; she knew the very depths of domesticity; but at Brighton the eye could find large, rich, luxurious, and sometimes beautiful things for its distraction; and there was the sea. In the Five Towns there was nothing. You might walk from one end of the Five Towns to the other, and not see one object that gave a thrill — unless it was a pair of lovers. And when you went inside the houses you were no better off — you were even worse off, because you came at once into contact with an ignoble race of slatternly imprisoned serfs driven by narrow-minded women who themselves were serfs with the mentality of serfs and the prodigious conceit of virtue. . . . Talk to Auntie Hamps at home of lawn-tennis or a musical evening, and she would set you down as flighty, and shift the conversation on to soaps or chapels. And there were hundreds of houses in the Five Towns into which no ideas save the ideas of Auntie Hamps had ever penetrated, and tens and hundreds of thousands of such houses all over the industrial districts of Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, and Yorkshire — houses where to keep bits of wood clean and to fulfil the ceremonies of pietism, and to help the poor to help themselves, was the highest good, the sole good. Hilda in her mind saw every house, and shuddered. She turned for relief to the thought of her own house, and in a constructive spirit of rebellion she shaped instantaneously a conscious policy for it. . . . Yes, she took oath that her house should at any rate be intelligent and agreeable before it was clean. She pictured Auntie Hamps gazing at a layer of dust in the Clayhanger hall, and heard herself saying: “Oh, yes, Auntie, it’s dust right enough. I keep it there on purpose, to remind me of something I want to remember.” She looked round Auntie Hamps’s sitting-room and revelled grimly in the monstrous catalogue of its mean ugliness.
And then Auntie Hamps came in, splendidly and yet soberly attired in black to face the world, with her upright, vigorous figure, her sparkling eye, and her admirable complexion; self-content, smiling hospitably; quite unconscious that she was dead, and that her era was dead, and that Hilda was not guiltless of the murder.
“This is nice of you, Hilda. It’s quite an honour.” And then, archly: “I’m making jam.”
“So I see,” said Hilda, meaning that so she smelt. “I just looked in on the chance of seeing Maggie.”
“Maggie went out about half-an-hour ago.”
Auntie Hamps’s expression had grown mysterious. Hilda thought: “What’s she hiding from me?”
“Oh, well, it doesn’t matter,” said she. “You’re going out too, Auntie.”
“I do wish I’d known you were coming, dear. Will you stay and have a cup of tea?”
“No, no! I won’t keep you.”
“But it will be a pleasure, dear,” Auntie Hamps protested warmly.
“No, no! Thanks! I’ll just walk along with you a little of the way. Which direction are you going?”
Auntie Hamps hesitated, she was in a dilemma.
“What is she hiding from me?” thought Hilda.
“The truth is,” said Auntie Hamps, “I’m just popping over to Clara’s.”
“Well, I’ll go with you, Auntie.”
“Oh, do!” exclaimed Mrs. Hamps almost passionately. “Do! I’m sure Clara will be delighted!” She added in a casual tone: “Maggie’s there.”
“She evidently doesn’t want me to go.”
After Mrs. Hamps had peered into the grand copper pan and most particularly instructed the servant, they set off.
“I shan’t be easy in my mind until I get back,” said Auntie Hamps. “Unless you look after them all the time they always forget to stir it.”
When they turned in at the gate of the Benbows’ house the front-door was already open, and Clara, holding Rupert — her youngest — by the hand, stood smiling to receive them. Obviously they had been descried up the street from one of the bow-windows. This small fact, strengthening in Hilda’s mind the gradually-formed notion that the Benbows were always lying in wait and that their existence was a vast machination for getting the better of other people, enlivened her prejudice against her sister-in-law. Moreover Clara was in one of her best dresses, and her glance had a peculiar self-conscious expression, partly guilty and partly cunning. Nevertheless, the fair fragility of Clara’s face, with its wonderful skin, and her manner, at once girlish and maternal, of holding fast the child’s hand, reacted considerably against Hilda’s prejudice.
Rupert was freshly all in white, stitched and embroidered with millions of plain and fancy stitches; he had had time neither to tear nor to stain; only on his bib there was a spot of jam. His obese right arm was stretched straight upwards to attain the immense height of the hand of the protective giantess his mother, and this reaching threw the whole balance of his little body over towards the left, and gave him a comical and wistful appearance. He was a pretty and yet sturdy child, with a look indicating a nice disposition, and he had recently been acquiring the marvellous gift of speech. . . . Astounding how the infantile brain added word to word and phrase to phrase, and (as though there were not enough) actually invented delicious words and graphic droll phrases! Nobody could be surprised that he became at once the centre of greetings. His grand-aunt snatched him up, and without the slightest repugnance he allowed the ancient woman to bury her nose in his face and neck.
And then Hilda embraced him with not less pleasure, for the contact of his delicate flesh, and his flushed timid smile, were exquisite. She wished for a moment that George was only two and a half again, and that she could bathe him, and wipe him, and nurse him close. Clara’s pride, though the visitors almost forgot to shake hands with her, was ecstatic. At length Rupert was safely on the step once more. He had made no remark whatever. Shyness prevented him from showing off his new marvellous gift, but his mother, gazing at him, said that in ordinary life he never stopped chattering.
“Come this way, will you?” said Clara effusively, and yet conspiratorially, pointing to the drawing-room, which was to the left of the front-door. From the dining-room, which was to the right of the front-door, issued confused sounds. “Albert’s here. I’m so glad you’ve come,” she added to Hilda.
Auntie Hamps murmured warningly into Hilda’s ear:
“It’s Bert’s birthday party.”
A fortnight earlier Hilda had heard rumours of Bert’s approaching birthday — his twelfth, and therefore a high solemnity — but she had very wrongly forgotten about it. “I’m so glad you’ve come,” Clara repeated in the drawing-room. “I was afraid you might be hurt. I thought I’d just bring you in here first and explain it all to you.”
“Oh! Bless me!” exclaimed Auntie Hamps — interrupting, as she glanced round the drawing-room. “We are grand! Well I never! We are grand!”
“Do you like it?” said Clara, blushing.
Auntie Hamps in reply told one of the major lies of her career. She said with rapture that she did like the new drawing-room suite. This suite was a proof, disagreeable to Auntie Hamps, that the world would never stand still. It quite ignored all the old Victorian ideals of furniture; and in ignoring the past, it also ignored the future. Victorian furniture had always sought after immortality; in Bursley there were thousands of Victorian chairs and tables that defied time and that nothing but an axe or a conflagration could destroy. But this new suite thought not of the morrow; it did not even pretend to think of the morrow. Nobody believed that it would last, and the owners of it simply forbore to reflect upon what it would be after a few years of family use. They contemplated with joy its first state of dainty freshness, and were content therein. Whereas the old Victorians lived in the future (in so far as they truly lived at all), the neo-Victorians lived careless in the present.
The suite was of apparent rosewood, with salmon-tinted upholstery ending in pleats and bows. But white also entered considerably into the scheme, for enamel paint had just reached Bursley and was destined to become the rage. Among the items of the suite was a three-legged milking-stool in deal covered with white enamel paint heightened by salmon-tinted bows of imitation silk. Society had recently been thunderstruck by the originality of putting a milking-stool in a drawing-room; its quaintness appealed with tremendous force to nearly all hearts; nearly every house-mistress on seeing a milking-stool in a friend’s drawing-room, decided that she must have a milking-stool in her drawing-room, and took measures to get one. Clara was among the earlier possessors, the pioneers. Ten years — five years — before, Clara had appropriated the word “æsthetic” as a term of sneering abuse, with but a vague idea of its meaning; and now — such is the miraculous effect of time — she was caught up in the movement as it had ultimately spread to the Five Towns, a willing convert and captive, and nothing could exceed her scorn for that which once she had admired to the exclusion of all else. Into that mid-Victorian respectable house, situate in a rather old-fashioned street leading from Shawport Lane to the Canal, and whose boast (even when inhabited by non-conformists) was that it overlooked the Rectory garden, the new ideals of brightness, freshness, eccentricity, brittleness and impermanency had entered, and Auntie Hamps herself was intimidated by them.
Hilda gave polite but perfunctory praise. Left alone, she might not have been averse from the new ideals in their more expensive forms, but the influence of Edwin had taught her to despise them. Edwin’s tastes in furniture, imbibed from the Orgreaves, neglected the modern, and went even further back than earliest Victorian. Much of the ugliness bought by his father remained in the Clayhanger house, but all Edwin’s own purchases were either antique, or, if new, careful imitations of the preVictorian. Had England been peopled by Edwins, all original artists in furniture might have died of hunger. Yet he encouraged original literature. What, however, put Hilda against Clara’s drawing-room suite, was not its style, nor its enamel, nor its frills, nor the obviously inferior quality of its varnish, but the mere fact that it had been exposed for sale in Nixon’s shop-window in Duck Bank, with the price marked. Hilda did not like this. Now Edwin might see an old weather-glass in some frowsy second-hand shop at Hanbridge or Turnhill, and from indecision might leave it in the second-hand shop for months, and then buy it and hang it up at home — and instantly it was somehow transformed into another weather-glass, a superior and personal weather-glass. But Clara’s suite was not — for Hilda — thus transformed. Indeed, as she sat there in Clara’s drawing-room, she had the illusion of sitting in Nixon’s shop.
Further, Nixon had now got in his window another suite precisely like Clara’s. It was astonishing to Hilda that Clara was not ashamed of the publicity and the wholesale reproduction of her suite. But she was not. On the contrary she seemed to draw a mysterious satisfaction from the very fact that suites precisely similar to hers were to be found or would soon be found in unnumbered other drawing-rooms. Nor did she mind that the price was notorious. And in the matter of the price the phrase “hire-purchase” flitted about in Hilda’s brain. She felt sure that Albert Benbow had not paid cash to Nixon. She regarded the hire-purchase system as unrespectable, if not immoral, and this opinion was one of the very few she shared with Auntie Hamps. Both ladies in their hearts, and in the security of their financial positions, blamed the Benbows for imprudence. Nobody, not even his wife, knew just how Albert “stood,” but many took leave to guess — and guessed unfavourably.
“Do sit down,” said Clara, too urgently. She was so preoccupied that Hilda’s indifference to her new furniture did not affect her.
They all sat down, primly, in the pretty primness of the drawing-room, and Rupert leaned as if tired against his mother’s fine skirt.
Hilda, expectant, glanced vaguely about her. Auntie Hamps did the same. On the central table lay a dictionary of the English language, open and leaves downwards; and near it a piece of paper containing a long list of missing words in pencil. Auntie Hamps, as soon as her gaze fell on these objects, looked quickly away, as though she had by accident met the obscene. Clara caught the movement, flushed somewhat, and recovered herself.
“I’m so glad you’ve come,” she repeated yet again to Hilda, with a sickly-sweet smile. “I did so want to explain to you how it was we didn’t ask George — I was afraid you might be vexed.”
“What an idea!” Hilda murmured as naturally as she could, her nostrils twitching uneasily in the atmosphere of small feuds and misunderstandings which Clara breathed with such pleasure. She laughed, to reassure Clara, and also in enjoyment of the thought that for days Clara had pictured her as wondering sensitively why no invitation to the party had come for George, while in fact the party had never crossed her mind. She regretted that she had no gift for Bert, but decided to give him half-a-crown for his savings-bank account, of which she had heard a lot.
“To tell ye the truth,” said Clara, launching herself, “we’ve had a lot of trouble with Bert. Albert’s been quite put about. It was only the day before yesterday Albert got out of him the truth about the night of your At Home, Hilda, when he ran away after he’d gone to bed. Albert said to him: ‘I shan’t whip you, and I shan’t put you on bread and water. Only if you don’t tell me what you were doing that night there’ll be no birthday and no birthday party — that’s all.’ So at last Bert gave in. And d’you know what he was doing? Holding a prayer-meeting with your George and that boy of Clowes’s next door to your house down Hulton Street. Did you know?”
Hilda shook her head bravely. Officially she did not know.
“Did you ever hear of such a thing?” exclaimed Auntie Hamps.
“Yes,” proceeded Clara, taking breath for a new start. “And Bert’s story is that they prayed for a penknife for your George, and it came. And then they prayed for a bicycle for our Bert, but the bicycle didn’t come, and then Bert and George had a fearful quarrel, and George gave him the penknife — made him have it — and then said he’d never speak to him any more as long as he lived. At first Albert was inclined to thrash Bert for telling lies and being irreverent, but in the end he came to the conclusion that at any rate Bert was telling what he thought to be the truth. . . . And that Clowes boy is so little! . . . Bert wanted his birthday party of course, but he begged and prayed us not to ask George. So in the end we decided we’d better not, and we let him have his own way. That’s all there is to it. . . . So George has said nothing?”
“Not a word,” replied Hilda.
“And the Clowes boy is so little!” said Clara again. She went suddenly to the mantelpiece and picked up a penknife and offered it to Hilda.
“Here’s the penknife. Of course Albert took it off him.”
“Why?” said Hilda ingenuously.
But Clara detected satire and repelled it with a glance.
“It’s not Edwin’s penknife, I suppose?” she queried, in a severe tone.
“No, it isn’t. I’ve never seen it before. Why?”
“We were only thinking Edwin might have overheard the boys and thrown a knife over the wall. It would be just like Edwin, that would.”
“Oh, no!” The deceitful Hilda blew away such a possibility.
“I’m quite sure he didn’t,” said she, and added mischievously as she held out the penknife: “I thought all you folks believed in the efficacy of prayer.”
These simple words were never forgiven by Clara.
The next moment, having restored the magic penknife to the mantelpiece, and gathered up her infant, she was leading the way to the dining-room.
“Come along, Rupy, my darling,” said she.
“‘Rupy!’” Hilda privately imitated her, deriding the absurdity of the diminutive.
“If you ask me,” said Auntie Hamps, determined to save the honour of the family, “it’s that little Clowes monkey that is responsible. I’ve been thinking it over since you told me about it last night, Clara, and I feel almost sure it must have been that little Clowes monkey.”
She was magnificent. She was no longer a house-keeper worried about the processes of jam-making, but a grandiose figure out in the world, a figure symbolic, upon whom had devolved the duty of keeping up appearances on behalf of all mankind.
The dining-room had not yet begun to move with the times. It was rather a shabby apartment, accustomed to daily ill-treatment, and its contents dated from different periods, the most ancient object of all stretching backwards in family history to the epoch of Albert’s great-grandfather. This was an oak arm-chair, occupied usually by Albert, but on the present occasion by his son and heir, Bert. Bert, spectacled, was at the head of the table; and at the foot was his auntie Maggie in front of a tea-tray. Down the sides of the table were his sisters, thin Clara, fat Amy, and little Lucy — the first nearly as old as Bert — and his father; two crumb-strewn plates showed that the mother and Rupert had left the meal to greet the visitors. And there were two other empty places. In a tiny vase in front of Amy was a solitary flower. The room was nearly full; it had an odour of cake, tea, and children.
“Well, here we are,” said Clara, entering with the guests and Rupert, very cheerfully. “Getting on all right?” (She gave Albert a glance which said: “I have explained everything, but Hilda is a very peculiar creature.”)
“A1,” Albert answered. “Hello, all you aunties!”
“Albert left the works early on purpose,” Clara explained her husband’s presence.
He was a happy man. In early adolescence he had taken to Sunday Schools as some youths take to vice. He loved to exert authority over children, and experience had taught him all the principal dodges. Under the forms of benevolent autocracy, he could exercise a ruthless discipline upon youngsters. He was not at all ashamed at being left in charge of a tableful of children while his wife went forth to conduct diplomatic interviews. At the same time he had his pride. Thus he would express no surprise, nor even pleasure, at the presence of Hilda, his theory being that it ought to be taken as a matter of course. Indeed he was preoccupied by the management of the meal, and he did not conceal the fact. He shook hands with the ladies in a perfunctory style, which seemed to say: “Now the supreme matter is this birthday repast. I am running it, and I am running it very well. Slip inobtrusively into your places in the machine, and let me continue my work of direction.”
Nevertheless, he saw to it that all the children rose politely and saluted according to approved precedents. His eye was upon them. He attached importance to every little act in any series of little acts. If he cut the cake, he had the air of announcing to the world: “This is a beautiful cake. I have carefully estimated the merits of this cake, and mother has carefully estimated them; we have in fact all come to a definite and favourable conclusion about this cake — namely that it is a beautiful cake. I will now cut it. The operation of cutting it is a major operation. Watch me cut it, and then watch me distribute it. Wisdom and justice shall preside over the distribution.” Even if he only passed the salt, he passed it as though he were passing extreme unction.
Auntie Hamps with apparent delight adapted herself to his humour. She said she would “squeeze in” anywhere, and was soon engaged in finding perfection in everything that appertained to the Benbow family. Hilda, not being quite so intimate with the household, was installed with more ceremony. She could not keep out of her eye the idea that it was droll to see a stoutish, somewhat clay-dusted man neglecting his business in order to take charge of a birthday-party of small children; and Albert, observing this, could not keep out of his eye the rebutting assertion that it was not in the least droll, but entirely proper and laudable.
The first mention of birthday presents came from Auntie Hamps, who remarked with enthusiasm that Bert looked a regular little man in his beautiful new spectacles. Bert, glowering, gloomy and yet proud, and above all self-conscious, grew even more self-conscious at this statement. Spectacles had been ordained for him by the oculist, and his parents had had the hardihood to offer him his first pair for a birthday present. They had so insisted on the beauty and originality of the scheme that Bert himself had almost come to believe that to get a pair of spectacles for a birthday present was a great thing in a boy’s life. He was now wearing the spectacles for the first time. On the whole, gloom outbalanced pride in his demeanour, and Bert’s mysterious soul, which had flabbergasted his father for about a week, peeped out sidelong occasionally through those spectacles in bitter criticism of the institution of parents. He ate industriously. Soon Auntie Hamps, leaning over, rapped half-a-sovereign down on his sticky plate. Everybody pretended to be overwhelmed, though nobody entitled to prophesy had expected less. Almost simultaneously with the ring of the gold on the plate, Clara said:
“Now what do you say?”
But Albert was judiciously benevolent:
“Leave him alone, mother — he’ll say it all right.”
“I’m sure he will,” his mother agreed.
And Bert said it, blushing, and fingering the coin nervously. And Auntie Hamps sat like an antique goddess, bland, superb, morally immense. And even her dirty and broken finger-nails detracted naught from her grandiosity. She might feed servants on dripping, but when the proper moment came she could fling half-sovereigns about with anybody.
And then, opening her purse, Hilda added five shillings to the half-sovereign, amid admiring exclamations sincere and insincere. Beside Auntie Hamps’s gold the two half-crowns cut a poor figure, and therefore Hilda, almost without discontinuing the gesture of largesse, said:
“That is from Uncle Edwin. And this,” putting a florin and three shillings more to the treasure, “is from Auntie Hilda.”
Somehow she was talking as the others talked, and she disliked herself for yielding to the spirit of the Benbow home, but she could not help it; the pervading spirit conquered everybody. She felt self-conscious; and Bert’s self-consciousness was still further increased as the exclamations grew in power and sincerity. Though he experienced the mournful pride of rich possessions, he knew well that the money would be of no real value. His presents, all useful (save a bouquet of flowers from Rupert), were all useless to him. Thus the prim young Clara had been parentally guided to give him a comb. If all the combs in the world had been suddenly annihilated Bert would not have cared — would indeed have rejoiced. And as to the spectacles, he would have preferred the prospect of total blindness in middle age to the compulsion of wearing them. Who can wonder that his father had not fathomed the mind of the strange creature?
Albert gazed rapt at the beautiful sight of the plate. It reminded him pleasantly of a collection-plate at the Sunday School Anniversary sermons. In a moment the conversation ran upon savings-bank accounts. Each child had a savings-bank account, and their riches were astounding. Rupert had an account and was getting interest at the rate of two and a half per cent on six pounds ten shillings. The thriftiness of the elder children had reached amounts which might be mentioned with satisfaction even to the luxurious wife of the richest member of the family. Young Clara was the wealthiest of the band. “I’ve got the most, haven’t I, fardy?” she said with complacency. “I’ve got more than Bert, haven’t I?” Nobody seemed to know how it was that she had surpassed Bert, who had had more birthdays and more Christmases. The inferiority of the eldest could not be attributed to dissipation or improvidence, for none of the children was allowed to spend a cent. The savings-bank devoured all, and never rendered back. However, Bert was now creeping up, and his mother exhorted him to do his best in future. She then took the money from the plate, and promised Bert for the morrow the treat of accompanying her to the Post Office in order to bury it.
A bell rang within the house, and at once young Clara exclaimed:
“Oh! There’s Flossie! Oh, my word, she is late, isn’t she, fardy? What a good thing we didn’t wait tea for her! . . . Move up, miss.” This to Lucy.
“People who are late must take the consequences, especially little girls,” said Albert in reply.
And presently Flossie entered, tripping, shrugging up her shoulders and throwing back her mane, and wonderfully innocent.
“This is Flossie, who is always late,” Albert introduced her to Hilda.
“Am I really?” said Flossie, in a very low, soft voice, with a bright and apparently frightened smile.
Dark Flossie was of Amy’s age and supposed to be Amy’s particular friend. She was the daughter of young Clara’s music mistress. The little girl’s prestige in the Benbow house was due to two causes. First she was graceful and rather stylish in movement — qualities which none of the Benbow children had, though young Clara was pretty enough; and second her mother had rather more pupils than she could comfortably handle, and indeed sometimes refused a pupil.
Flossie with her physical elegance was like a foreigner among the Benbows. She had a precocious demeanour. She shook hands and embraced like a woman, and she gave her birthday gift to Bert as if she were distributing a prize. It was a lead-pencil, with a patent sharpener. Bert would have preferred a bicycle, but the patent sharpener made an oasis in his day. His father pointed out to him that as the pencil was already sharpened he could not at present use the sharpener. Amy thereupon furtively passed him the stump of a pencil to operate upon, and then his mother told him that he had better postpone his first sharpening until he got into the garden, where bits of wood would not be untidy. Flossie carefully settled her very short white skirts on a chair, smiling all the time, and enquired about two brothers whom she had been told were to be among the guests. Albert informed her with solemnity that these two brothers were both down with measles, and that Auntie Hamps and Auntie Hilda had come to make up for their absence.
“Poor things!” murmured Flossie sympathetically.
Hilda laughed, and Flossie screwing up her eyes and shrugging up her shoulders laughed too, as if saying: “You and I alone understand me.”
“What a pretty flower!” Flossie exclaimed, in her low soft voice, indicating the flower in the vase in front of Amy.
“There’s half a crumb left,” said Albert, passing the cake-plate to Flossie carefully. “We thought we’d better keep it for you, though we don’t reckon to keep anything for little girls that come late.”
“Amy,” whispered her mother, leaning towards the fat girl. “Wouldn’t it be nice of you to give your flower to Flossie?” Amy started.
“I don’t want to,” she whispered back, flushing.
The flower was a gift to Amy from Bert, out of the birthday bunch presented to him by Rupert. Mysterious relations existed between Bert and the benignant, acquiescent Amy.
“Oh! Amy!” her mother protested, still whispering, but shocked.
Tears came into Amy’s eyes. These tears Amy at length wiped away, and, straightening her face, offered the flower with stiff outstretched arm to her friend Flossie. And Flossie smilingly accepted it.
“It is kind of you, you darling!” said Flossie, and stuck the flower in an interstice of her embroidered pinafore.
Amy, gravely lacking in self-control, began to whimper again.
“That’s my good little girl!” muttered Clara to her, exhibiting pride in her daughter’s victory over self, and rubbed the child’s eyes with her handkerchief. The parents were continually thus “bringing up” their children. Hilda pressed her lips together.
Immediately afterwards it was noticed that Flossie was no longer eating.
“I’ve had quite enough, thank you,” said she in answer to expostulations.
“No jam, even? And you’ve not finished your tea!”
“I’ve had quite enough, thank you,” said she, and folded up her napkin.
“Please, father, can we go and play in the garden now?” Bert asked.
Albert looked at his wife.
“Yes, I think they might,” said Clara. “Go and play nicely.” They all rose.
“Now quietly, qui-etly!” Albert warned them.
And they went from the room quietly, each in his own fashion — Flossie like a modest tsarina, young Clara full of virtue and holding Rupert by the hand, Amy lumpily, tiny Lucy as one who had too soon been robbed of the privilege of being the youngest, and Bert in the rear like a criminal who is observed in a suspicious act. And Albert blew out wind, as if getting rid of a great weight.
“Finished your greengage, auntie?” asked Clara, after the pause which ensued while the adults were accustoming themselves to the absence of the children.
And it was Maggie who answered, rather eagerly:
“No, she hasn’t. She’s left it to the tender mercies of that Maria. She wouldn’t let me stay, and she wouldn’t stay herself.”
These were almost the first words, save murmurings as to cups of tea, quantities of sugar and of milk, etc., that the taciturn Maggie had uttered since Hilda’s arrival. She was not sulky, she had merely been devoting herself and allowing herself to be exploited, in the vacuous manner customary to her — and listening receptively — or perhaps not even receptively — offering no remark. Save that the smooth-working mechanism of the repast would have creaked and stopped at her departure, she might have slipped from the room unnoticed as a cat. But now she spoke as one capable of enthusiasm and resentment on behalf of an ideal. To her it was scandalous that greengage jam should be jeopardised for the sake of social pleasures, and suddenly it became evident she and her auntie had had a difference on the matter.
Mrs. Hamps said stoutly and defiantly, with grandeur:
“Well, I wasn’t going to have my eldest grand-nephew’s twelfth birthday party interfered with for any jam.”
“Hear, hear!” said Hilda, liking the terrific woman for an instant.
But mild Maggie was inflexible.
Clara, knowing that in Maggie very slight symptoms had enormous significance, at once changed the subject. Albert went to the back window, whence by twisting his neck he could descry a corner of the garden.
Said Clara, smiling:
“I hear you’re going to have some musical evenings, Hilda . . . on Sunday nights.”
Malice and ridicule were in Clara’s tone. On the phrase “musical evenings” she put a strange disdainful emphasis, as though a musical evening denoted something not only unrighteous but snobbish, new-fangled, and absurd. Yet envy also was in her tone.
Hilda was startled.
“Ah! Who told you that?”
“Never mind! I heard,” said Clara darkly.
Hilda wondered where the Benbows, from whom seemingly naught could be concealed, had in fact got this tit-bit of news. By tacit consent she and Edwin had as yet said nothing to anybody except the Orgreaves, who alone, with Tertius Ingpen and one or two more intimates, were invited, or were to be invited, to the first evening. Relations between the Orgreaves and the Benbows scarcely existed.
“We’re having a little music on Sunday night,” said Hilda, as it were apologetically, and scorning herself for being apologetic. Why should she be apologetic to these base creatures? But she couldn’t help it; the public opinion of the room was too much for her. She even added: “We’re hoping that old Mrs. Orgreave will come. It will be the first time she’s been out in the evening for ever so long.” The name of Mrs. Orgreave was calculated by Hilda to overawe them and stop their mouths.
No name, however, could overawe Mrs. Hamps. She smiled kindly, and with respect for the caprices of others; she spoke in a tone exceptionally polite — but what she said was: “I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry.”
The deliverance was final. Auntie Hamps was almost as deeply moved about the approaching desecration of the Sabbath as Maggie had been about the casual treatment of jam. In earlier years she would have said a great deal more — just as in earlier years she would have punctuated Bert’s birthday mouthfuls with descants upon the excellence of his parents and moral exhortations to himself; but Auntie Hamps was growing older, and quieter, and “I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry” meant much from her.
Hilda became sad, disgusted, indignant, moody. The breach which separated her and Edwin from the rest of the family was enormous, as might be seen in the mere fact that they had never for a moment contemplated asking anybody in the family to the musical evening, nor had the family ever dreamed of an invitation. It was astonishing that Edwin should be so different from the others. But after all, was he? She could see in him sometimes bits of Maggie, of Clara, and even of the Unspeakable. She was conscious of her grievances against Edwin. Among these was that he never, or scarcely ever, praised her. At moments, when she had tried hard, she felt a great need of praise. But Edwin would watch her critically, with the damnable grim detachment of the Five Towns towards a stranger or a returned exile.
As she sat in the stuffy dining-room of the Benbows, surrounded by hostilities and incomprehensions, she had a sensation of unreality, or at any rate of a vast mistake. Why was she there? Was she not tied by intimate experience to a man at that very instant in prison? (She had a fearful vision of him in prison — she, sitting there in the midst of Maggie, Clara, and Auntie Hamps!) Was she not the mother of an illegitimate boy? Victimised or not, innocent or not, she, a guest at Bert’s intensely legitimate birthday fête, was the mother of an illegitimate boy. Incredible! She ought never to have married into the Clayhangers, never to have come back to this cackling provincial district. All these people were inimical towards her — because she represented the luxury and riches and worldly splendour of the family, and because her illegitimate boy had tempted the heir of the Benbows to blasphemous wickedness, and because she herself had tempted a weak Edwin to abandon chapel and to desecrate the Sabbath, and again because she, without a penny of her own, had stepped in and now represented the luxury and riches and worldly splendour of the family. And all the family’s grievances against Edwin were also grievances against her. Once, long ago, when he was yet a bachelor, and had no hope of Hilda, Edwin had prevented his father, in dotage, from lending a thousand pounds to Albert upon no security. The interference was unpardonable, and Hilda would not be pardoned for it.
Such was marriage into a family. Such was family life. . . . Yes, she felt unreal there, and also unsafe. She had prevaricated about George and the penknife; and she had allowed Clara to remain under the impression that her visit to the house was a birthday visit. Auntie Hamps and destiny, between them, would lay bare all this lying. The antipathy against her would increase. But let it increase never so much, it still would not equal Hilda’s against the family, as she thrilled to it then. Their narrow ignorance, their narrow self-conceit, their detestation of beauty, their pietism, their bigotry — revolted her. In what century had they been living all those years? Was this married life? Had Albert and Clara ever felt a moment of mutual passion? They were nothing but parents, eternally preoccupied with “oughts” and “ought nots” and forbiddances and horrid reluctant permissions. They did not know what joy was, and they did not want anybody else to know what joy was. Even on the outskirts of such a family, a musical evening on a Sunday night appeared a forlorn enterprise. And all the families in all the streets were the same. Hilda was hard enough on George sometimes, but in that moment she would have preferred George to be a thoroughly bad rude boy and to go to the devil, and herself to be a woman abandoned to every licence, rather than that he and she should resemble Clara and her offspring. All her wrath centred upon Clara as the very symbol of what she loathed.
“Hello!” cried the watchful Albert from the window. “What’s happening, I wonder?”
In a moment Rupert ran into the room, and without a word scrambled on his mother’s lap, absolutely confident in her goodness and power.
“What’s amiss, tuppenny?” asked his father.
“Tired,” answered Rupert, with a faint, endearing smile.
He laid himself close against his mother’s breast, and drew up his knees, and Clara held his body in her arms, and whispered to him.
“Amy ‘udn’t play with me,” he murmured.
“Wouldn’t she? Naughty Amy!”
“Mammy tired too,” he glanced upwards at his mother’s eyes in sympathy.
And immediately he was asleep. Clara kissed him, bending her head down and with difficulty reaching his cheek with her lips.
Auntie Hamps enquired fondly:
“What does he mean —‘mother tired too’?”
“Well,” said Clara, “the fact is some of ’em were so excited they stopped my afternoon sleep this afternoon. I always do have my nap, you know,”— she looked at Hilda. “In here! When this door’s closed they know mother mustn’t be disturbed. Only this afternoon Lucy or Amy — I don’t know which, and I didn’t enquire too closely — forgot. . . . He’s remembered it, the little Turk.”
“Is he asleep?” Hilda demanded in a low voice.
“Fast. He’s been like that lately. He’ll play a bit, and then he’ll stop, and say he’s tired, and sometimes cry, and he’ll come to me and be asleep in two jiffs. I think he’s been a bit run down. He said he had toothache yesterday. It was nothing but a little cold; they’ve all had colds; but I wrapped his face up to please him. He looked so sweet in his bandage, I assure you I didn’t want to take it off again. No, I didn’t. . . . I wonder why Amy wouldn’t play with him? She’s such a splendid playmate — when she likes. Full of imagination! Simply full of it!”
Albert had approached from the window.
With an air of important conviction, he said to Hilda:
“Yes, Amy’s imagination is really remarkable.” As no one responded to this statement, he drummed on the table to ease the silence, and then suddenly added: “Well, I suppose I must be getting on with my dictionary reading! I’m only at S; and there’s bound to be a lot of words under U— beginning with un, you know. I saw at once there would be.” He spoke rather defiantly, as though challenging public opinion to condemn his new dubious activity.
“Oh!” said Clara. “Albert’s quite taken up with missing words nowadays.”
But instead of conning his dictionary, Albert returned to the window, drawn by his inexhaustible paternal curiosity, and he even opened the window and leaned out, so that he might more effectively watch the garden. And with the fresh air there entered the high, gay, inspiriting voices of the children.
Clara smiled down at the boy sleeping in her lap. She was happy. The child was happy. His flushed face, with its expression of loving innocence, was exquisitely touching. Clara’s face was full of proud tenderness. Everybody gazed at the picture with secret and profound pleasure. Hilda wished once more that George was only two and a half years old again. George’s infancy, and her early motherhood, had been very different from all this. She had never been able to shut a dining-room door, or any other door, as a sign that she must not be disturbed. And certainly George had never sympathetically remarked that she was tired. . . . She was envious. . . . And yet a minute ago she had been execrating the family life of the Benbows. The complexity of the tissue of existence was puzzling.
When Albert brought his head once more into the room he suddenly discovered the stuffiness of the atmosphere, and with the large, free gestures of a mountaineer and a sanitarian threw open both windows as wide as possible. The bleak wind from the moorlands surged in, fluttering curtains, and lowering the temperature at a run.
“Won’t Rupert catch cold?” Hilda suggested, chilled.
“He’s got to be hardened, Rupert has!” Albert replied easily. “Fresh air! Nothing like it! Does ’em good to feel it!”
“Pity you didn’t think so a bit earlier!”
Her countenance was too expressive. Albert divined some ironic thought in her brain, and turned on her with a sort of parrying jeer:
“And how’s the great man getting along?”
In this phrase, which both he and Clara employed with increasing frequency, Albert let out not only his jealousy of, but his respect for, the head of the family. Hilda did not like it, but it flattered her on Edwin’s behalf, and she never showed her resentment of the attitude which prompted it.
“Edwin? Oh, he’s all right. He’s working.” She put a slight emphasis on the last pronoun, in order revengefully to contrast Edwin’s industry with Albert’s presence during business hours at a children’s birthday party. “He said to me as he went out that he must go and earn something towards Maggie’s rent.” She laughed softly.
Clara smiled cautiously; Maggie smiled and blushed a little; Albert did not commit himself; only Auntie Hamps laughed without reserve.
“Edwin will have his joke,” said she.
Although Hilda had audaciously gone forth that afternoon with the express intention of opening negotiations, on her own initiative, with Maggie for the purchase of the house, she had certainly not meant to discuss the matter in the presence of the entire family. But she was seized by one of her characteristic impulses, and she gave herself up to it with the usual mixture of glee and apprehension. She said:
“I suppose you wouldn’t care to sell us the house, would you, Maggie?”
Everybody became alert, and as it grew apparent that the company was assisting at the actual birth of a family episode or incident, a peculiar feeling of eager pleasure spread through the room, and the appetite for history-making leapt up.
“Indeed I should!” Maggie answered, with a deepening flush, and all were astonished at her decisiveness, and at the warmth of her tone. “I never wanted the house. Only it was arranged that I should have it, so of course I took it.” The long-silent victim was speaking. Money was useless to her, for she was incapable of turning it into happiness; but she had her views on finance and property, nevertheless; and though in all such matters she did as she was told, submissively accepting the decisions of brother or brother-in-law as decrees of fate, yet she was quite aware of the victimhood. The assemblage was surprised and even a little intimidated by her mild outburst.
“But you’ve got a very good tenant, Maggie,” said Auntie Hamps enthusiastically.
“She’s got a very good tenant, admitted!” Albert said judicially and almost sternly. “But she’d never have any difficulty in finding a very good tenant for that house. That’s not the point. The point is that the investment really isn’t remunerative. Maggie could do much better for herself than that. Very much better. Why, if she went the right way about it she could get ten per cent on her money! I know of things. . . . And I bet she doesn’t get three and a half per cent clear from the house. Not three and a half.” He glanced reproachfully at Hilda.
“Do you mean the rent’s too low?” Hilda questioned boldly.
He hesitated, losing courage.
“I don’t say it’s too low. But Maggie perhaps took the house over at too big a figure.”
Maggie looked up at her brother-in-law.
“And whose fault was that?” she asked sharply. The general surprise was intensified. No one could understand Maggie. No one had the wit to perceive that she had been truly annoyed by Auntie Hamps’s negligence in regard to jam, and was momentarily capable of bitterness. “Whose fault was that?” she repeated. “You and Clara and Edwin settled it between you. You yourself said over and over again it was a fair figure.”
“I thought so at the time! I thought so at the time!” said Albert quickly. “We all acted for the best.”
“I’m sure you did,” murmured Auntie Hamps.
“I should think so, indeed!” murmured Clara, seeking to disguise her constraint by attentions to the sleeping Rupert.
“Is Edwin thinking of buying, then?” Albert asked Hilda in a quiet, studiously careless voice.
“We’ve discussed it,” responded Hilda.
“Because if he is, he ought to take it over at the price Mag took it at. She oughtn’t to lose on it. That’s only fair.”
“I’m sure Edwin would never do anything unfair,” said Auntie Hamps.
Hilda made no reply. She had already heard the argument from Edwin, and Albert now seemed to her more tedious and unprincipled than usual. Her reason admitted the force of the argument as regards Maggie, but instinct opposed it.
Nevertheless she was conscious of sudden sympathy for Maggie, and of a weakening of her prejudice against her.
“Hadn’t we better be going, Auntie?” Maggie curtly and reproachfully suggested. “You know quite well that jam stands a good chance of being ruined.”
“I suppose we had,” Auntie Hamps concurred with a sigh, and rose.
“I shall be able to carry out my plan,” thought Hilda, full of wisdom and triumph. And she saw Edwin, owner of the house, with his wild lithographic project scotched. And the realisation of her own sagacity thus exercised on behalf of those she loved, made her glad.
At the same moment, just as Albert was recommencing his flow, the door opened and Edwin entered. He had glimpsed the children in the garden and had come into the house by the back way. There were cries of stupefaction and bliss. Both Albert and Clara were unmistakably startled and flattered. Indeed, several seconds elapsed before Albert could assume the proper grim, casual air. Auntie Hamps rejoiced and sat down again. Maggie disclosed no feeling, and she would not sit down again. Hilda had a serious qualm. She was obliged to persuade herself that in opening the negotiations for the house she had not committed an enormity. She felt less sagacious and less dominant. Who could have dreamt that Edwin would pop in just then? It was notorious, it was even a subject of complaint, that he never popped in. In reply to enquiries he stammered in his customary hesitating way that he happened to be in the neighbourhood on business and that it had occurred to him, etc., etc. In short, there he was.
“Aren’t you coming, Auntie?” Maggie demanded.
“Let me have a look at Edwin, child,” said Auntie Hamps, somewhat nettled. “How set you are!”
“Then I shall go alone,” said Maggie.
“Yes. But what about this house business?” Albert tried to stop her.
He could not stop her. Finance, houses, rents, were not real to her. She owned but did not possess such things. But the endangered jam was real to her. She did not own it, but she possessed it. She departed.
“What’s amiss with her today?” murmured Mrs. Hamps. “I must go too, or I shall be catching it; my word I shall!”
“What house business?” Edwin asked.
“Well,” said Albert. “I like that! Aren’t you trying to buy her house from her? We’ve just been talking it over.”
Edwin glanced swiftly at Hilda, and Hilda knew from the peculiar constrained, almost shamefaced, expression on his features, that he was extremely annoyed. He gave a little nervous laugh.
“Oh! Have ye?” he muttered.
Although Edwin discussed the purchase of the house quite calmly with Albert, and appeared to regard it as an affair practically settled, Hilda could perceive from a single gesture of his in the lobby as they were leaving, that his resentment against herself had not been diminished by the smooth course of talking. Nevertheless she was considerably startled by his outburst in the street.
“It’s a pity Maggie went off like that,” she said quietly. “You might have fixed everything up immediately.”
Then it was that he turned on her, glowering angrily.
“Why on earth did you go talking about it, without telling me first?” he demanded, furious.
“But it was understood, dear ——” She smiled, affecting not to perceive his temper, and thereby aggravating it.
He almost shouted:
“Nothing of the kind! Nothing of the kind!”
“Maggie was there. I just happened to mention it.” Hilda was still quite placid.
“You went down on purpose to tell her, so you needn’t deny it. Do you take me for a fool?”
Her placidity was undiminished.
“Of course I don’t take you for a fool, dear. I assure you I hadn’t the slightest idea you’d be annoyed.”
“Yes, you had. I could see it on your face when I came in. Don’t try to stuff me up. You go blundering into a thing, without the least notion — without the least notion! I’ve told you before, and I tell you again — I won’t have you interfering in my business affairs. You know nothing of business. You’ll make my life impossible. All you women are the same. You will poke your noses in. There’ll have to be a clear understanding between you and me on one or two points, before we go much further.”
“But you told me I could mention it to her.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You did, Edwin. Do be just.”
“I didn’t say you could go and plunge right into it at once. These things have to be thought out. Houses aren’t bought like that. A house isn’t a pound of tea, and it isn’t a hat.”
“I’m very sorry.”
“No, you aren’t. And you know jolly well you aren’t. Your scheme was simply to tie my hands.”
She knew the truth of this, and her smile became queer. Nevertheless the amiable calm which she maintained astonished even herself. She was not happy, but certainly she was not unhappy. She had got, or she was going to get, what she wanted; and here was the only fact important to her; the means by which she had got it, or was going to get it, were negligible now. It cost her very little to be magnanimous. She wondered at Edwin. Was this furious brute the timid, worshipping boy who had so marvellously kissed her a dozen years earlier — before she had fallen into the hands of a scoundrel? Were these scenes what the exquisite romance of marriage had come to? . . . Well, and if it was so, what then? If she was not happy she was elated, and she was philosophic, and she had the terrific sense of realities of some of her sex. She was out of the Benbow house; she breathed free, she had triumphed, and she had her man to herself. He might be a brute — the Five Towns (she had noticed as a returned exile) were full of brutes whose passions surged and boiled beneath the phlegmatic surface — but he existed, and their love existed. And a peep into the depth of the cauldron was exciting. . . . The injustice or the justice of his behaviour did not make a live question.
Moreover, she did not in truth seriously regard him as a brute. She regarded him as an unreasonable creature, something like a baby, to be humoured in the inessentials of a matter of which the essentials were now definitely in her favour. His taunt that she went blundering into a thing, and that she knew naught of business, amused her. She knew her own business, and knew it profoundly. The actual situation was a proof of that. As for abstract principles of business, the conventions and etiquette of it — her lips condescendingly curled. After all, what had she done to merit this fury? Nothing! Nothing! What could it matter whether the negotiations were begun instantly or in a week’s or a month’s time? (Edwin would have dilly-dallied probably for three months, or six). She had merely said a few harmless words, offered a suggestion. And now he desired to tear her limb from limb and eat her alive. It was comical! Impossible for her to be angry, in her triumph! It was too comical! She had married an astounding personage. . . . But she had married him. He was hers. She exulted in the possession of him. His absurd peculiarities did not lower him in her esteem. She had a perfect appreciation of his points, including his general wisdom. But she was convinced that she had a special and different and superior kind of wisdom.
“And a nice thing you’ve let Maggie in for!” Edwin broke out afresh after a spell of silent walking.
“Let Maggie in for?” she exclaimed lightly.
“Albert ought never to have known anything of it until it was all settled. He will be yarning away to her about how he can use her money for her, and what he gets hold of she’ll never see again — you may bet your boots on that. If you’d left it to me I could have fixed things up for her in advance. But no! In you must go! Up to the neck! And ruin everything!”
“Oh!” she said reassuringly. “You’ll be able to look after Maggie all right.”
He sniffed, and settled down into embittered disgust, quickening somewhat his speed up the slope of Acre Lane.
“Please don’t walk so fast, Edwin,” she breathed, just like a nice little girl. “I can’t keep up with you.”
In spite of his enormous anger he could not refuse such a request. She was getting the better of him again. He knew it; he could see through the devices. With an irritated swing of his body he slowed down to suit her.
She had a glimpse of his set, gloomy, savage, ruthless face, the lower lip bulging out. Really it was grotesque! Were they grown up, he and she? She smiled almost self-consciously, fearing that passers-by might notice his preposterous condition. All the way up Acre Lane and across by St. Luke’s Churchyard into Trafalgar Road they walked thus side by side in silence. By strange good luck they did not meet a single acquaintance, and as Edwin had a latchkey, no servant had to come and open the door and behold them.
Edwin, throwing his hat on the stand, ran immediately upstairs. Hilda passed idly into the drawing-room. She was glad to be in her own drawing-room again. It was a distinguished apartment, after Clara’s. There lay the Dvorak music on the piano. . . . The atmosphere seemed full of ozone. She rang for Ada and spoke to her with charming friendliness about Master George. Master George had returned from an informal cricket match in the Manor Fields, and was in the garden. Yes, Ada had seen to his school-clothes. Everything was in order for the new term shortly to commence. But Master George had received a blow from the cricket-ball on his shin, which was black and blue. . . . Had Ada done anything to the shin? No, Master George would not let her touch it, but she had been allowed to see it. . . . Very well, Ada. . . . There was something beatific about the state of being mistress of a house. Without the mistress, the house would simply crumble to pieces.
Hilda went upstairs; she was apprehensive, but her apprehensiveness was agreeable to her. . . . No, Edwin was not in the bedroom. . . . She could hear him in the bathroom. She tried the door. It was bolted. He always bolted it.
“What is it?”
He opened the door. He was in his shirt sleeves and had just finished with the towel. She entered, and shut the door and bolted it. And then she began to kiss him. She kissed him time after time, on his cheek so damp and fresh.
“Poor dear!” she murmured.
She knew that he could not altogether resist those repeated kisses. They were more effective than the best arguments or the most graceful articulate surrenders. Thus she completed her triumph. But whether the virtue of the kisses lay in their sensuousness or in their sentiment, neither he nor she knew. And she did not care. . . . She did not kiss him with abandonment. There was a reserve in her kisses, and in her smile. Indeed she went on kissing him rather sternly. Her glance, when their eyes were very close together, was curious. It seemed to imply: “We are in love. And we love. I am yours. You are mine. Life is very fine after all. I am a happy woman. But still —each is for himself in this world, and that’s the bedrock of marriage as of all other institutions.” Her sense of realities again! And she went on kissing, irresistibly.
And he had to kiss her.
Whereupon she softened to him, and abandoned herself to the emanations of his charm, and her lips became almost liquid as she kissed him again; nevertheless there was still a slight reserve in her kisses.
At tea she chattered like a magpie, as the saying is. Between her and George there seemed to be a secret instinctive understanding that Edwin had to be humoured, enlivened, drawn into talk — for although he had kissed her, his mood was yet by no means restored to the normal. He would have liked to remain, majestic, within the tent of his soul. But they were too clever for him. Then, to achieve his discomfiture, entered Johnnie Orgreave, with a suggestion that they should all four — Edwin, Hilda, Janet, and himself — go to the theatre at Hanbridge that night. Hilda accepted the idea instantly. Since her marriage, her appetite for pleasure had developed enormously. At moments she was positively greedy for pleasure. She was incapable of being bored at the theatre, she would sooner be in the theatre of a night than out of it.
“Oh! Do let’s go!” she cried.
Edwin did not want to go, but he had to concur. He did not want to be pleasant to Johnnie Orgreave or to anybody, but he had to be pleasant.
“Be on the first car that goes up after seven fifteen,” said Johnnie as he was departing.
“You understand, Teddy? The first car that goes up after seven fifteen.”
“All right! All right!”
Blithely Hilda went to beautify herself. And when she had beautified herself and made herself into a queen of whom the haughtiest master-printer might be proud, she despatched Ada for Master George. And Master George had to come to her bedroom.
“Let me look at that leg,” she said. “Sit down.”
Devious creature! During tea she had not even divulged that she had heard of the damaged shin. Master George was taken by surprise. He sat down. She knelt, and herself unloosed the stocking and exposed the little calf. The place was black and blue, but it had a healthy look.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
And then, all in her splendid finery, she kissed the dirty discoloured shin. Strange! He was only two years old and just learning to talk.
“Now then, missis! Here’s the tram!” Edwin yelled out loudly, roughly, from below. He would have given a sovereign to see her miss the car, but his inconvenient sense of justice forced him to warn her.
She kissed Master George on the mouth eagerly, and George seemed, unusually, to return the eagerness. She ran down the darkening stairs, ecstatic.
In the dusky road, Edwin curtly signalled to the vast ascending steam-car, and it stopped. Those were in the old days, when people did what they liked with the cars, stopping them here and stopping them there according to their fancy. The era of electricity and fixed stopping-places, and soulless, conscienceless control from London had not set in. Edwin and Hilda mounted. Two hundred yards further on the steam-tram was once more arrested, and Johnnie and Janet joined them. Hilda was in the highest spirits. The great affair of the afternoon had not been a quarrel, but an animating experience which, though dangerous, intensified her self-confidence and her zest.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47