The friendship between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox, which was to develop so quickly and with such strange results, may perhaps have had its beginnings at Speyer, in the spring. Perhaps the elder lady, as she gazed at the vulgar, ruddy cathedral, and listened to the talk of her husband and Helen, may have detected in the other and less charming of the sisters a deeper sympathy, a sounder judgment. She was capable of detecting such things. Perhaps it was she who had desired the Miss Schlegels to be invited to Howards End, and Margaret whose presence she had particularly desired. All this is speculation; Mrs. Wilcox has left few clear indications behind her. It is certain that she came to call at Wickham Place a fortnight later, the very day that Helen was going with her cousin to Stettin.
"Helen!" cried Fraulein Mosebach in awestruck tones (she was now in her cousin's confidence)--"his mother has forgiven you!" And then, remembering that in England the new-comer ought not to call before she is called upon, she changed her tone from awe to disapproval, and opined that Mrs. Wilcox was keine Dame.
"Bother the whole family!" snapped Margaret. "Helen, stop giggling and pirouetting, and go and finish your packing. Why can't the woman leave us alone?"
"I don't know what I shall do with Meg," Helen retorted, collapsing upon the stairs. She's got Wilcox and Box upon the brain. Meg, Meg, I don't love the young gentleman; I don't love the young gentleman, Meg, Meg. Can a body speak plainer?"
"Most certainly her love has died," asserted Fraulein Mosebach.
"Most certainly it has, Frieda, but that will not prevent me from being bored with the Wilcoxes if I return the call."
Then Helen simulated tears, and Fraulein Mosebach, who thought her extremely amusing, did the same. "Oh, boo hoo! boo hoo hoo! Meg's going to return the call, and I can't. 'Cos why? 'Cos I'm going to German-eye."
"If you are going to Germany, go and pack; if you aren't, go and call on the Wilcoxes instead of me."
"But, Meg, Meg, I don't love the young gentleman; I don't love the young--O lud, who's that coming down the stairs? I vow 'tis my brother. O crimini!"
A male--even such a male as Tibby--was enough to stop the foolery. The barrier of sex, though decreasing among the civilised, is still high, and higher on the side of women. Helen could tell her sister all, and her cousin much about Paul; she told her brother nothing. It was not prudishness, for she now spoke of "the Wilcox ideal" with laughter, and even with a growing brutality. Nor was it precaution, for Tibby seldom repeated any news that did not concern himself. It was rather the feeling that she betrayed a secret into the camp of men, and that, however trivial it was on this side of the barrier, it would become important on that. So she stopped, or rather began to fool on other subjects, until her long-suffering relatives drove her upstairs. Fraulein Mosebach followed her, but lingered to say heavily over the banisters to Margaret, "It is all right-- she does not love the young man--he has not been worthy of her."
"Yes, I know; thanks very much."
"I thought I did right to tell you."
"Ever so many thanks."
"What's that?" asked Tibby. No one told him, and he proceeded into the dining-room, to eat plums.
That evening Margaret took decisive action. The house was very quiet, and the fog--we are in November now--pressed against the windows like an excluded ghost. Frieda and Helen and all their luggages had gone. Tibby, who was not feeling well, lay stretched on a sofa by the fire. Margaret sat by him, thinking. Her mind darted from impulse to impulse, and finally marshalled them all in review. The practical person, who knows what he wants at once, and generally knows nothing else, will accuse her of indecision. But this was the way her mind worked. And when she did act, no one could accuse her of indecision then. She hit out as lustily as if she had not considered the matter at all. The letter that she wrote Mrs. Wilcox glowed with the native hue of resolution. The pale cast of thought was with her a breath rather than a tarnish, a breath that leaves the colours all the more vivid when it has been wiped away.
"Dear Mrs. Wilcox,
"I have to write something discourteous. It would be better if we did not meet. Both my sister and my aunt have given displeasure to your family, and, in my sister's case, the grounds for displeasure might recur. So far as I know she no longer occupies her thoughts with your son. But it would not be fair, either to her or to you, if they met, and it is therefore right that our acquaintance, which began so pleasantly, should end.
"I fear that you will not agree with this; indeed, I know that you will not, since you have been good enough to call on us. It is only an instinct on my part, and no doubt the instinct is wrong. My sister would, undoubtedly, say that it is wrong. I write without her knowledge, and I hope that you will not associate her with my discourtesy.
"Believe me,"Yours truly,"M. J. Schlegel."
Margaret sent this letter round by the post. Next morning she received the following reply by hand:
"Dear Miss Schlegel,
"You should not have written me such a letter. I called to tell you that Paul has gone abroad.
Margaret's cheeks burnt. She could not finish her breakfast. She was on fire with shame. Helen had told her that the youth was leaving England, but other things had seemed more important, and she had forgotten. All her absurd anxieties fell to the ground, and in their place arose the certainty that she had been rude to Mrs. Wilcox. Rudeness affected Margaret like a bitter taste in the mouth. It poisoned life. At times it is necessary, but woe to those who employ it without due need. She flung on a hat and shawl, just like a poor woman, and plunged into the fog, which still continued. Her lips were compressed, the letter remained in her hand, and in this state she crossed the street, entered the marble vestibule of the flats, eluded the concierges, and ran up the stairs till she reached the second floor. She sent in her name, and to her surprise was shown straight into Mrs. Wilcox's bedroom.
"Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, I have made the baddest blunder. I am more, more ashamed and sorry than I can say."
Mrs. Wilcox bowed gravely. She was offended, and did not pretend to the contrary. She was sitting up in bed, writing letters on an invalid table that spanned her knees. A breakfast tray was on another table beside her. The light of the fire, the light from the window, and the light of a candle-lamp, which threw a quivering halo round her hands combined to create a strange atmosphere of dissolution.
"I knew he was going to India in November, but I forgot."
"He sailed on the 17th for Nigeria, in Africa."
"I knew--I know. I have been too absurd all through. I am very much ashamed."
Mrs. Wilcox did not answer.
"I am more sorry than I can say, and I hope that you will forgive me."
"It doesn't matter, Miss Schlegel. It is good of you to have come round so promptly."
"It does matter," cried Margaret. "I have been rude to you; and my sister is not even at home, so there was not even that excuse."
"She has just gone to Germany."
"She gone as well," murmured the other. "Yes, certainly, it is quite safe--safe, absolutely, now."
"You've been worrying too!" exclaimed Margaret, getting more and more excited, and taking a chair without invitation. "How perfectly extraordinary! I can see that you have. You felt as I do; Helen mustn't meet him again."
"I did think it best."
"That's a most difficult question," said Mrs. Wilcox, smiling, and a little losing her expression of annoyance. "I think you put it best in your letter--it was an instinct, which may be wrong."
"It wasn't that your son still--"
"Oh no; he often--my Paul is very young, you see."
"Then what was it?"
She repeated: "An instinct which may be wrong."
"In other words, they belong to types that can fall in love, but couldn't live together. That's dreadfully probable. I'm afraid that in nine cases out of ten Nature pulls one way and human nature another."
"These are indeed 'other words,'" said Mrs. Wilcox. "I had nothing so coherent in my head. I was merely alarmed when I knew that my boy cared for your sister."
"Ah, I have always been wanting to ask you. How did you know? Helen was so surprised when our aunt drove up, and you stepped forward and arranged things. Did Paul tell you?"
"There is nothing to be gained by discussing that," said Mrs. Wilcox after a moment's pause.
"Mrs. Wilcox, were you very angry with us last June? I wrote you a letter and you didn't answer it."
"I was certainly against taking Mrs. Matheson's flat. I knew it was opposite your house."
"But it's all right now?"
"I think so."
"You only think? You aren't sure? I do love these little muddles tidied up?"
"Oh yes, I'm sure," said Mrs. Wilcox, moving with uneasiness beneath the clothes. "I always sound uncertain over things. It is my way of speaking."
"That's all right, and I'm sure, too."
Here the maid came in to remove the breakfast-tray. They were interrupted, and when they resumed conversation it was on more normal lines.
"I must say good-bye now--you will be getting up."
"No--please stop a little longer--I am taking a day in bed. Now and then I do."
"I thought of you as one of the early risers."
"At Howards End--yes; there is nothing to get up for in London."
"Nothing to get up for?" cried the scandalised Margaret. "When there are all the autumn exhibitions, and Ysaye playing in the afternoon! Not to mention people."
"The truth is, I am a little tired. First came the wedding, and then Paul went off, and, instead of resting yesterday, I paid a round of calls."
"Yes; Charles, my elder son, is married."
"We took the flat chiefly on that account, and also that Paul could get his African outfit. The flat belongs to a cousin of my husband's, and she most kindly offered it to us. So before the day came we were able to make the acquaintance of Dolly's people, which we had not yet done."
Margaret asked who Dolly's people were.
"Fussell. The father is in the Indian army--retired; the brother is in the army. The mother is dead."
So perhaps these were the "chinless sunburnt men" whom Helen had espied one afternoon through the window. Margaret felt mildly interested in the fortunes of the Wilcox family. She had acquired the habit on Helen's account, and it still clung to her. She asked for more information about Miss Dolly Fussell that was, and was given it in even, unemotional tones. Mrs. Wilcox's voice, though sweet and compelling, had little range of expression. It suggested that pictures, concerts, and people are all of small and equal value. Only once had it quickened--when speaking of Howards End.
"Charles and Albert Fussell have known one another some time. They belong to the same club, and are both devoted to golf. Dolly plays golf too, though I believe not so well; and they first met in a mixed foursome. We all like her, and are very much pleased. They were married on the 11th, a few days before Paul sailed. Charles was very anxious to have his brother as best man, so he made a great point of having it on the 11th. The Fussells would have preferred it after Christmas, but they were very nice about it. There is Dolly's photograph--in that double frame."
"Are you quite certain that I'm not interrupting, Mrs. Wilcox?"
"Then I will stay. I'm enjoying this."
Dolly's photograph was now examined. It was signed "For dear Mims," which Mrs. Wilcox interpreted as "the name she and Charles had settled that she should call me." Dolly looked silly, and had one of those triangular faces that so often prove attractive to a robust man. She was very pretty. From her Margaret passed to Charles, whose features prevailed opposite. She speculated on the forces that had drawn the two together till God parted them. She found time to hope that they would be happy.
"They have gone to Naples for their honeymoon."
"I can hardly imagine Charles in Italy."
"Doesn't he care for travelling?"
"He likes travel, but he does see through foreigners so. What he enjoys most is a motor tour in England, and I think that would have carried the day if the weather had not been so abominable. His father gave him a car for a wedding present, which for the present is being stored at Howards End."
"I suppose you have a garage there?"
"Yes. My husband built a little one only last month, to the west of the house, not far from the wych-elm, in what used to be the paddock for the pony."
The last words had an indescribable ring about them.
"Where's the pony gone?" asked Margaret after a pause.
"The pony? Oh, dead, ever so long ago."
"The wych-elm I remember. Helen spoke of it as a very splendid tree."
"It is the finest wych-elm in Hertfordshire. Did your sister tell you about the teeth?"
"Oh, it might interest you. There are pigs' teeth stuck into the trunk, about four feet from the ground. The country people put them in long ago, and they think that if they chew a piece of the bark, it will cure the toothache. The teeth are almost grown over now, and no one comes to the tree."
"I should. I love folklore and all festering superstitions."
"Do you think that the tree really did cure toothache, if one believed in it?"
"Of course it did. It would cure anything--once."
"Certainly I remember cases--you see I lived at Howards End long, long before Mr. Wilcox knew it. I was born there."
The conversation again shifted. At the time it seemed little more than aimless chatter. She was interested when her hostess explained that Howards End was her own property. She was bored when too minute an account was given of the Fussell family, of the anxieties of Charles concerning Naples, of the movements of Mr. Wilcox and Evie, who were motoring in Yorkshire. Margaret could not bear being bored. She grew inattentive, played with the photograph frame, dropped it, smashed Dolly's glass, apologised, was pardoned, cut her finger thereon, was pitied, and finally said she must be going--there was all the housekeeping to do, and she had to interview Tibby's riding-master.
Then the curious note was struck again.
"Good-bye, Miss Schlegel, good-bye. Thank you for coming. You have cheered me up."
"I'm so glad!"
"I--I wonder whether you ever think about yourself?"
"I think of nothing else," said Margaret, blushing, but letting her hand remain in that of the invalid.
"I wonder. I wondered at Heidelberg."
"I almost think--"
"Yes?" asked Margaret, for there was a long pause--a pause that was somehow akin to the flicker of the fire, the quiver of the reading-lamp upon their hands, the white blur from the window; a pause of shifting and eternal shadows.
"I almost think you forget you're a girl."
Margaret was startled and a little annoyed. "I'm twenty-nine," she remarked. "That's not so wildly girlish."
Mrs. Wilcox smiled.
"What makes you say that? Do you mean that I have been gauche and rude?"
A shake of the head. "I only meant that I am fifty-one, and that to me both of you-- Read it all in some book or other; I cannot put things clearly."
"Oh, I've got it--inexperience. I'm no better than Helen, you mean, and yet I presume to advise her."
"Yes. You have got it. Inexperience is the word."
"Inexperience," repeated Margaret, in serious yet buoyant tones.
"Of course, I have everything to learn--absolutely everything --just as much as Helen. Life's very difficult and full of surprises. At all events, I've got as far as that. To be humble and kind, to go straight ahead, to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged--well, one can't do all these things at once, worse luck, because they're so contradictory. It's then that proportion comes in--to live by proportion. Don't begin with proportion. Only prigs do that. Let proportion come in as a last resource, when the better things have failed, and a deadlock-- Gracious me, I've started preaching!"
"Indeed, you put the difficulties of life splendidly," said Mrs. Wilcox, withdrawing her hand into the deeper shadows. "It is just what I should have liked to say about them myself."