Margaret greeted her lord with peculiar tenderness on the morrow. Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire. Happy the man who sees from either aspect the glory of these outspread wings. The roads of his soul lie clear, and he and his friends shall find easy-going.
It was hard-going in the roads of Mr. Wilcox's soul. From boyhood he had neglected them. "I am not a fellow who bothers about my own inside." Outwardly he was cheerful, reliable, and brave; but within, all had reverted to chaos, ruled, so far as it was ruled at all, by an incomplete asceticism. Whether as boy, husband, or widower, he had always the sneaking belief that bodily passion is bad, a belief that is desirable only when held passionately. Religion had confirmed him. The words that were read aloud on Sunday to him and to other respectable men were the words that had once kindled the souls of St. Catharine and St. Francis into a white-hot hatred of the carnal. He could-not be as the saints and love the Infinite with a seraphic ardour, but he could be a little ashamed of loving a wife. "Amabat, amare timebat." And it was here that Margaret hoped to help him.
It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Nor was the message difficult to give. It need not take the form of a good "talking." By quiet indications the bridge would be built and span their lives with beauty.
But she failed. For there was one quality in Henry for which she was never prepared, however much she reminded herself of it: his obtuseness. He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said. He never noticed that Helen and Frieda were hostile, or that Tibby was not interested in currant plantations; he never noticed the lights and shades that exist in the grayest conversation, the finger-posts, the milestones, the collisions, the illimitable views. Once--on another occasion--she scolded him about it. He was puzzled, but replied with a laugh: "My motto is Concentrate. I've no intention of frittering away my strength on that sort of thing." "It isn't frittering away the strength," she protested. "It's enlarging the space in which you may be strong." He answered: "You're a clever little woman, but my motto's Concentrate." And this morning he concentrated with a vengeance.
They met in the rhododendrons of yesterday. In the daylight the bushes were inconsiderable and the path was bright in the morning sun. She was with Helen, who had been ominously quiet since the affair was settled. "Here we all are!" she cried, and took him by one hand, retaining her sister's in the other.
"Here we are. Good-morning, Helen."
Helen replied, "Good-morning, Mr. Wilcox."
"Henry, she has had such a nice letter from the queer, cross boy--Do you remember him? He had a sad moustache, but the back of his head was young."
"I have had a letter too. Not a nice one--I want to talk it over with you:" for Leonard Bast was nothing to him now that she had given him her word; the triangle of sex was broken for ever.
"Thanks to your hint, he's clearing out of the Porphyrion."
"Not a bad business that Porphyrion," he said absently, as he took his own letter out of his pocket.
"Not a BAD--" she exclaimed, dropping his hand. "Surely, on Chelsea Embankment--"
"Here's our hostess. Good-morning, Mrs. Munt. Fine rhododendrons. Good morning, Frau Liesecke; we manage to grow flowers in England, don't we?"
"Not a BAD business?"
"No. My letter's about Howards End. Bryce has been ordered abroad, and wants to sublet it. I am far from sure that I shall give him permission. There was no clause in the agreement. In my opinion, subletting is a mistake. If he can find me another tenant, whom I consider suitable, I may cancel the agreement. Morning, Schlegel. Don't you think that's better than subletting?"
Helen had dropped her hand now, and he had steered her past the whole party to the seaward side of the house. Beneath them was the bourgeois little bay, which must have yearned all through the centuries for just such a watering-place as Swanage to be built on its margin. The waves were colourless, and the Bournemouth steamer gave a further touch of insipidity, drawn up against the pier and hooting wildly for excursionists.
"When there is a sublet I find that damage--"
"Do excuse me, but about the Porphyrion. I don't feel easy--might I just bother you, Henry?"
Her manner was so serious that he stopped, and asked her a little sharply what she wanted.
"You said on Chelsea Embankment, surely, that it was a bad concern, so we advised this clerk to clear out. He writes this morning that he's taken our advice, and now you say it's not a bad concern. "
"A clerk who clears out of any concern, good or bad, without securing a berth somewhere else first, is a fool, and I've no pity for him."
"He has not done that. He's going into a bank in Camden Town, he says. The salary's much lower, but he hopes to manage--a branch of Dempster's Bank. Is that all right?"
"Dempster! My goodness me, yes."
"More right than the Porphyrion?"
"Yes, yes, yes; safe as houses--safer."
"Very many thanks. I'm sorry--if you sublet--?"
"If he sublets, I shan't have the same control. In theory there should be no more damage done at Howards End; in practice there will be. Things may be done for which no money can compensate. For instance, I shouldn't want that fine wych-elm spoilt. It hangs--Margaret, we must go and see the old place some time. It's pretty in its way. We'll motor down and have lunch with Charles."
"I should enjoy that," said Margaret bravely.
"What about next Wednesday?"
"Wednesday? No, I couldn't well do that. Aunt Juley expects us to stop here another week at least."
"But you can give that up now."
"Er--no," said Margaret, after a moment's thought.
"Oh, that'll be all right. I'll speak to her."
"This visit is a high solemnity. My aunt counts on it year after year. She turns the house upside down for us; she invites our special friends--she scarcely knows Frieda, and we can't leave her on her hands. I missed one day, and she would be so hurt if I didn't stay the full ten."
"But I'll say a word to her. Don't you bother."
"Henry, I won't go. Don't bully me."
"You want to see the house, though?"
"Very much--I've heard so much about it, one way or the other. Aren't there pigs' teeth in the wych-elm?"
"And you chew the bark for toothache."
"What a rum notion! Of course not!"
"Perhaps I have confused it with some other tree. There are still a great number of sacred trees in England, it seems."
But he left her to intercept Mrs. Munt, whose voice could be heard in the distance: to be intercepted himself by Helen.
"Oh, Mr. Wilcox, about the Porphyrion--" she began, and went scarlet all over her face.
"It's all right," called Margaret, catching them up. "Dempster's Bank's better."
"But I think you told us the Porphyrion was bad, and would smash before Christmas."
"Did I? It was still outside the Tariff Ring, and had to take rotten policies. Lately it came in--safe as houses now."
"In other words, Mr. Bast need never have left it."
"No, the fellow needn't."
"--and needn't have started life elsewhere at a greatly reduced salary."
"He only says 'reduced,'" corrected Margaret, seeing trouble ahead.
"With a man so poor, every reduction must be great. I consider it a deplorable misfortune."
Mr. Wilcox, intent on his business with Mrs. Munt, was going steadily on, but the last remark made him say: "What? What's that? Do you mean that I'm responsible?"
"You're ridiculous, Helen."
"You seem to think--" He looked at his watch. "Let me explain the point to you. It is like this. You seem to assume, when a business concern is conducting a delicate negotiation, it ought to keep the public informed stage by stage. The Porphyrion, according to you, was bound to say,
'I am trying all I can to get into the Tariff Ring. I am not sure that I shall succeed, but it is the only thing that will save me from insolvency, and I am trying.' My dear Helen--"
"Is that your point? A man who had little money has less--that's mine."
"I am grieved for your clerk. But it is all in the day's work. It's part of the battle of life."
"A man who had little money," she repeated, "has less, owing to us. Under these circumstances I do not consider
'the battle of life' a happy expression."
"Oh come, come!" he protested pleasantly. "You're not to blame. No one's to blame."
"Is no one to blame for anything?"
"I wouldn't say that, but you're taking it far too seriously. Who is this fellow?"
"We have told you about the fellow twice already," said Helen. "You have even met the fellow. He is very poor and his wife is an extravagant imbecile. He is capable of better things. We--we, the upper classes--thought we would help him from the height of our superior knowledge--and here's the result!"
He raised his finger. "Now, a word of advice."
"I require no more advice."
"A word of advice. Don't take up that sentimental attitude over the poor. See that she doesn't, Margaret. The poor are poor, and one's sorry for them, but there it is. As civilization moves forward, the shoe is bound to pinch in places, and it's absurd to pretend that anyone is responsible personally. Neither you, nor I, nor my informant, nor the man who informed him, nor the directors of the Porphyrion, are to blame for this clerk's loss of salary. It's just the shoe pinching--no one can help it; and it might easily have been worse."
Helen quivered with indignation.
"By all means subscribe to charities--subscribe to them largely--but don't get carried away by absurd schemes of Social Reform. I see a good deal behind the scenes, and you can take it from me that there is no Social Question--except for a few journalists who try to get a living out of the phrase. There are just rich and poor, as there always have been and always will be. Point me out a time when men have been equal--"
"I didn't say--"
"Point me out a time when desire for equality has made them happier. No, no. You can't. There always have been rich and poor. I'm no fatalist. Heaven forbid! But our civilization is moulded by great impersonal forces" (his voice grew complacent; it always did when he eliminated the personal), "and there always will be rich and poor. You can't deny it" (and now it was a respectful voice)--"and you can't deny that, in spite of all, the tendency of civilization has on the whole been upward."
"Owing to God, I suppose," flashed Helen.
He stared at her.
"You grab the dollars. God does the rest."
It was no good instructing the girl if she was going to talk about God in that neurotic modern way. Fraternal to the last, he left her for the quieter company of Mrs. Munt. He thought, "She rather reminds me of Dolly."
Helen looked out at the sea.
"Don't even discuss political economy with Henry," advised her sister. "It'll only end in a cry."
"But he must be one of those men who have reconciled science with religion," said Helen slowly. "I don't like those men. They are scientific themselves, and talk of the survival of the fittest, and cut down the salaries of their clerks, and stunt the independence of all who may menace their comfort, but yet they believe that somehow good--and it is always that sloppy 'somehow'--will be the outcome, and that in some mystical way the Mr. Basts of the future will benefit because the Mr. Basts of today are in pain."
"He is such a man in theory. But oh, Helen, in theory!"
"But oh, Meg, what a theory!"
"Why should you put things so bitterly, dearie?"
"Because I'm an old maid," said Helen, biting her lip. "I can't think why I go on like this myself." She shook off her sister's hand and went into the house. Margaret, distressed at the day's beginning, followed the Bournemouth steamer with her eyes. She saw that Helen's nerves were exasperated by the unlucky Bast business beyond the bounds of politeness. There might at any minute be a real explosion, which even Henry would notice. Henry must be removed.
"Margaret!" her aunt called. "Magsy! It isn't true, surely, what Mr. Wilcox says, that you want to go away early next week?"
"Not 'want,'" was Margaret's prompt reply; "but there is so much to be settled, and I do want to see the Charles'."
"But going away without taking the Weymouth trip, or even the Lulworth?" said Mrs. Munt, coming nearer. "Without going once more up Nine Barrows Down?"
"I'm afraid so."
Mr. Wilcox rejoined her with, "Good! I did the breaking of the ice."
A wave of tenderness came over her. She put a hand on either shoulder, and looked deeply into the black, bright eyes. What was behind their competent stare? She knew, but was not disquieted.