If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe. Then system after system of our island would roll together under his feet. Beneath him is the valley of the Frome, and all the wild lands that come tossing down from Dorchester, black and gold, to mirror their gorse in the expanses of Poole. The valley of the Stour is beyond, unaccountable stream, dirty at Blandford, pure at Wimborne--the Stour, sliding out of fat fields, to marry the Avon beneath the tower of Christchurch. The valley of the Avon--invisible, but far to the north the trained eye may see Clearbury Ring that guards it, and the imagination may leap beyond that on to Salisbury Plain itself, and beyond the Plain to all the glorious downs of Central England. Nor is Suburbia absent. Bournemouth's ignoble coast cowers to the right, heralding the pine-trees that mean, for all their beauty, red houses, and the Stock Exchange, and extend to the gates of London itself. So tremendous is the City's trail! But the cliffs of Freshwater it shall never touch, and the island will guard the Island's purity till the end of time. Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner--chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow. And behind the fragment lies Southampton, hostess to the nations, and Portsmouth, a latent fire, and all around it, with double and treble collision of tides, swirls the sea. How many villages appear in this view! How many castles! How many churches, vanished or triumphant! How many ships, railways, and roads! What incredible variety of men working beneath that lucent sky to what final end! The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England.
So Frieda Mosebach, now Frau Architect Liesecke, and mother to her husband's baby, was brought up to these heights to be impressed, and, after a prolonged gaze, she said that the hills were more swelling here than in Pomerania, which was true, but did not seem to Mrs. Munt apposite. Poole Harbour was dry, which led her to praise the absence of muddy foreshore at Friedrich Wilhelms Bad, Rugen, where beech-trees hang over the tideless Baltic, and cows may contemplate the brine. Rather unhealthy Mrs. Munt thought this would be, water being safer when it moved about.
"And your English lakes--Vindermere, Grasmere--are they, then, unhealthy?"
"No, Frau Liesecke; but that is because they are fresh water, and different. Salt water ought to have tides, and go up and down a great deal, or else it smells. Look, for instance, at an aquarium."
"An aquarium! Oh, MEESIS Munt, you mean to tell me that fresh aquariums stink less than salt? Why, when Victor, my brother-in-law, collected many tadpoles--"
"You are not to say 'stink,'" interrupted Helen; "at least, you may say it, but you must pretend you are being funny while you say it."
"Then 'smell.' And the mud of your Pool down there--does it not smell, or may I say 'stink, ha, ha'?"
"There always has been mud in Poole Harbour," said Mrs. Munt, with a slight frown. "The rivers bring it down, and a most valuable oyster-fishery depends upon it."
"Yes, that is so," conceded Frieda; and another international incident was closed.
"'Bournemouth is,'" resumed their hostess, quoting a local rhyme to which she was much attached--" 'Bournemouth is, Poole was, and Swanage is to be the most important town of all and biggest of the three.' Now, Frau Liesecke, I have shown you Bournemouth, and I have shown you Poole, so let us walk backward a little, and look down again at Swanage."
"Aunt Juley, wouldn't that be Meg's train?"
A tiny puff of smoke had been circling the harbour, and now was bearing southwards towards them over the black and the gold.
"Oh, dearest Margaret, I do hope she won't be overtired."
"Oh, I do wonder--I do wonder whether she's taken the house."
"I hope she hasn't been hasty."
"So do I--oh, so do I."
"Will it be as beautiful as Wickham Place?" Frieda asked.
"I should think it would. Trust Mr. Wilcox for doing himself proud. All those Ducie Street houses are beautiful in their modern way, and I can't think why he doesn't keep on with it. But it's really for Evie that he went there, and now that Evie's going to be married--"
"You've never seen Miss Wilcox, Frieda. How absurdly matrimonial you are!"
"But sister to that Paul?"
"And to that Charles," said Mrs. Munt with feeling. "Oh, Helen, Helen, what a time that was!"
Helen laughed. "Meg and I haven't got such tender hearts. If there's a chance of a cheap house, we go for it."
"Now look, Frau Liesecke, at my niece's train. You see, it is coming towards us--coming, coming; and, when it gets to Corfe, it will actually go THROUGH the downs, on which we are standing, so that, if we walk over, as I suggested, and look down on Swanage, we shall see it coming on the other side. Shall we?"
Frieda assented, and in a few minutes they had crossed the ridge and exchanged the greater view for the lesser. Rather a dull valley lay below, backed by the slope of the coastward downs. They were looking across the Isle of Purbeck and on to Swanage, soon to be the most important town of all, and ugliest of the three. Margaret's train reappeared as promised, and was greeted with approval by her aunt. It came to a standstill in the middle distance, and there it had been planned that Tibby should meet her, and drive her, and a tea-basket, up to join them.
"You see," continued Helen to her cousin, "the Wilcoxes collect houses as your Victor collects tadpoles. They have, one, Ducie Street; two, Howards End, where my great rumpus was; three, a country seat in Shropshire; four, Charles has a house in Hilton; and five, another near Epsom; and six, Evie will have a house when she marries, and probably a pied-a-terre in the country--which makes seven. Oh yes, and Paul a hut in Africa makes eight. I wish we could get Howards End. That was something like a dear little house! Didn't you think so, Aunt Juley?"
" I had too much to do, dear, to look at it," said Mrs. Munt, with a gracious dignity. "I had everything to settle and explain, and Charles Wilcox to keep in his place besides. It isn't likely I should remember much. I just remember having lunch in your bedroom."
"Yes so do I. But, oh dear, dear, how dead it all seems! And in the autumn there began this anti-Pauline movement--you, and Frieda, and Meg, and Mrs. Wilcox, all obsessed with the idea that I might yet marry Paul."
"You yet may," said Frieda despondently.
Helen shook her head. "The Great Wilcox Peril will never return. If I'm certain of anything it's of that."
"One is certain of nothing but the truth of one's own emotions."
The remark fell damply on the conversation. But Helen slipped her arm round her cousin, somehow liking her the better for making it. It was not an original remark, nor had Frieda appropriated it passionately, for she had a patriotic rather than a philosophic mind. Yet it betrayed that interest in the universal which the average Teuton possesses and the average Englishman does not. It was, however illogically, the good, the beautiful, the true, as opposed to the respectable, the pretty, the adequate. It was a landscape of Bocklin's beside a landscape of Leader's, strident and ill-considered, but quivering into supernatural life. It sharpened idealism, stirred the soul. It may have been a bad preparation for what followed.
"Look!" cried Aunt Juley, hurrying away from generalities over the narrow summit of the down. "Stand where I stand, and you will see the pony-cart coming. I see the pony-cart coming."
They stood and saw the pony-cart coming. Margaret and Tibby were presently seen coming in it. Leaving the outskirts of Swanage, it drove for a little through the budding lanes, and then began the ascent.
"Have you got the house?" they shouted, long before she could possibly hear.
Helen ran down to meet her. The highroad passed over a saddle, and a track went thence at right angles along the ridge of the down.
"Have you got the house?"
Margaret shook her head.
"Oh, what a nuisance! So we're as we were?"
She got out, looking tired.
"Some mystery," said Tibby. "We are to be enlightened presently."
Margaret came close up to her and whispered that she had had a proposal of marriage from Mr. Wilcox.
Helen was amused. She opened the gate on to the downs so that her brother might lead the pony through. "It's just like a widower," she remarked. "They've cheek enough for anything, and invariably select one of their first wife's friends."
Margaret's face flashed despair.
"That type--" She broke off with a cry. "Meg, not anything wrong with you?"
"Wait one minute," said Margaret, whispering always.
"But you've never conceivably--you've never--" She pulled herself together. "Tibby, hurry up through; I can't hold this gate indefinitely. Aunt Juley! I say, Aunt Juley, make the tea, will you, and Frieda; we've got to talk houses, and I'll come on afterwards." And then, turning her face to her sister's, she burst into tears.
Margaret was stupefied. She heard herself saying, "Oh, really--" She felt herself touched with a hand that trembled.
"Don't," sobbed Helen, "don't, don't, Meg, don't!" She seemed incapable of saying any other word. Margaret, trembling herself, led her forward up the road, till they strayed through another gate on to the down.
"Don't, don't do such a thing! I tell you not to--don't! I know--don't!"
"What do you know?"
"Panic and emptiness," sobbed Helen. "Don't!"
Then Margaret thought, "Helen is a little selfish. I have never behaved like this when there has seemed a chance of her marrying. She said: "But we would still see each other very often, and--"
"It's not a thing like that," sobbed Helen. And she broke right away and wandered distractedly upwards, stretching her hands towards the view and crying.
"What's happened to you?" called Margaret, following through the wind that gathers at sundown on the northern slopes of hills. "But it's stupid!" And suddenly stupidity seized her, and the immense landscape was blurred. But Helen turned back.
"I don't know what's happened to either of us," said Margaret, wiping her eyes. "We must both have gone mad." Then Helen wiped hers, and they even laughed a little.
"Look here, sit down."
"All right; I'll sit down if you'll sit down."
"There. (One kiss.) Now, whatever, whatever is the matter?"
"I do mean what I said. Don't; it wouldn't do."
"Oh, Helen, stop saying 'don't'! It's ignorant. It's as if your head wasn't out of the slime. 'Don't' is probably what Mrs. Bast says all the day to Mr. Bast."
Helen was silent.
"Tell me about it first, and meanwhile perhaps I'll have got my head out of the slime."
"That's better. Well, where shall I begin? When I arrived at Waterloo--no, I'll go back before that, because I'm anxious you should know everything from the first. The
'first' was about ten days ago. It was the day Mr. Bast came to tea and lost his temper. I was defending him, and Mr. Wilcox became jealous about me, however slightly. I thought it was the involuntary thing, which men can't help any more than we can. You know--at least, I know in my own case--when a man has said to me, 'So-and-so's a pretty girl,' I am seized with a momentary sourness against So-and-so, and long to tweak her ear. It's a tiresome feeling, but not an important one, and one easily manages it. But it wasn't only this in Mr. Wilcox's case, I gather now."
"Then you love him?"
Margaret considered. "It is wonderful knowing that a real man cares for you," she said. "The mere fact of that grows more tremendous. Remember, I've known and liked him steadily for nearly three years.
"But loved him?"
Margaret peered into her past. It is pleasant to analyze feelings while they are still only feelings, and unembodied in the social fabric. With her arm round Helen, and her eyes shifting over the view, as if this county or that could reveal the secret of her own heart, she meditated honestly, and said, "No."
"But you will?"
"Yes," said Margaret, "of that I'm pretty sure. Indeed, I began the moment he spoke to me."
"And have settled to marry him?"
"I had, but am wanting a long talk about it now. What is it against him, Helen? You must try and say."
Helen, in her turn, looked outwards. "It is ever since Paul," she said finally.
"But what has Mr. Wilcox to do with Paul?"
"But he was there, they were all there that morning when I came down to breakfast, and saw that Paul was frightened--the man who loved me frightened and all his paraphernalia fallen, so that I knew it was impossible, because personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger."
She poured the sentence forth in one breath, but her sister understood it, because it touched on thoughts that were familiar between them.
"That's foolish. In the first place, I disagree about the outer life. Well, we've often argued that. The real point is that there is the widest gulf between my love-making and yours. Yours--was romance; mine will be prose. I'm not running it down--a very good kind of prose, but well considered, well thought out. For instance, I know all Mr. Wilcox's faults. He's afraid of emotion. He cares too much about success, too little about the past. His sympathy lacks poetry, and so isn't sympathy really. I'd even say"--she looked at the shining lagoons--"that, spiritually, he's not as honest as I am. Doesn't that satisfy you?"
"No, it doesn't," said Helen. "It makes me feel worse and worse. You must be mad."
Margaret made a movement of irritation.
"I don't intend him, or any man or any woman, to be all my life--good heavens, no! There are heaps of things in me that he doesn't, and shall never, understand."
Thus she spoke before the wedding ceremony and the physical union, before the astonishing glass shade had fallen that interposes between married couples and the world. She was to keep her independence more than do most women as yet. Marriage was to alter her fortunes rather than her character, and she was not far wrong in boasting that she understood her future husband. Yet he did alter her character--a little. There was an unforeseen surprise, a cessation of the winds and odours of life, a social pressure that would have her think conjugally.
"So with him," she continued. "There are heaps of things in him--more especially things that he does--that will always be hidden from me. He has all those public qualities which you so despise and enable all this--" She waved her hand at the landscape, which confirmed anything. "If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn't sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No--perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it. There are times when it seems to me--"
"And to me, and to all women. So one kissed Paul."
"That's brutal," said Margaret. "Mine is an absolutely different case. I've thought things out."
"It makes no difference thinking things out. They come to the same."
There was a long silence, during which the tide returned into Poole Harbour. "One would lose something," murmured Helen, apparently to herself. The water crept over the mud-flats towards the gorse and the blackened heather. Branksea Island lost its immense foreshores, and became a sombre episode of trees. Frome was forced inward towards Dorchester, Stour against Wimborne, Avon towards Salisbury, and over the immense displacement the sun presided, leading it to triumph ere he sank to rest. England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity?