Margaret had often wondered at the disturbance that takes place in the world’s waters, when Love, who seems so tiny a pebble, slips in. Whom does Love concern beyond the beloved and the lover? Yet his impact deluges a hundred shores. No doubt the disturbance is really the spirit of the generations, welcoming the new generation, and chafing against the ultimate Fate, who holds all the seas in the palm of her hand. But Love cannot understand this. He cannot comprehend another’s infinity; he is conscious only of his own–flying sunbeam, falling rose, pebble that asks for one quiet plunge below the fretting interplay of space and time. He knows that he will survive at the end of things, and be gathered by Fate as a jewel from the slime, and be handed with admiration round the assembly of the gods. “Men did produce this” they will say, and, saying, they will give men immortality. But meanwhile–what agitations meanwhile! The foundations of Property and Propriety are laid bare, twin rocks; Family Pride flounders to the surface, puffing and blowing and refusing to be comforted; Theology, vaguely ascetic, gets up a nasty ground swell. Then the lawyers are aroused–cold brood–and creep out of their holes. They do what they can; they tidy up Property and Propriety, reassure Theology and Family Pride. Half-guineas are poured on the troubled waters, the lawyers creep back, and, if all has gone well, Love joins one man and woman together in Matrimony.
Margaret had expected the disturbance, and was not irritated by it. For a sensitive woman she had steady nerves, and could bear with the incongruous and the grotesque; and, besides, there was nothing excessive about her love-affair. Good-humour was the dominant note of her relations with Mr. Wilcox, or, as I must now call him, Henry. Henry did not encourage romance, and she was no girl to fidget for it. An acquaintance had become a lover, might become a husband, but would retain all that she had noted in the acquaintance; and love must confirm an old relation rather than reveal a new one.
In this spirit she promised to marry him.
He was in Swanage on the morrow bearing the engagement ring.
They greeted one another with a hearty cordiality that impressed Aunt Juley. Henry dined at The Bays, but had engaged a bedroom in the principal hotel; he was one of those men who know the principal hotel by instinct. After dinner he asked Margaret if she wouldn’t care for a turn on the Parade. She accepted, and could not repress a little tremor; it would be her first real love scene. But as she put on her hat she burst out laughing. Love was so unlike the article served up in books; the joy, though genuine was different; the mystery an unexpected mystery. For one thing, Mr. Wilcox still seemed a stranger.
For a time they talked about the ring; then she said: “Do you remember the Embankment at Chelsea? It can’t be ten days ago.”
“Yes,” he said, laughing. “And you and your sister were head and ears deep in some Quixotic scheme. Ah well!”
“I little thought then, certainly. Did you?”
“I don’t know about that; I shouldn’t like to say.”
“Why, was it earlier?” she cried. “Did you think of me this way earlier! How extraordinarily interesting, Henry! Tell me.”
But Henry had no intention of telling. Perhaps he could not have told, for his mental states became obscure as soon as he had passed through them. He misliked the very word “interesting,” connoting it with wasted energy and even with morbidity. Hard facts were enough for him.
“I didn’t think of it,” she pursued. “No; when you spoke to me in the drawing-room, that was practically the first. It was all so different from what it’s supposed to be. On the stage, or in books, a proposal is–how shall I put it?–a full-blown affair, a hind of bouquet; it loses its literal meaning. But in life a proposal really is a proposal–”
“By the way–”
“Oh, very well.”
“I am so glad,” she answered, a little surprised. “What did you talk about? Me, presumably.”
“About Greece too.”
“Greece was a very good card, Henry. Tibby’s only a boy still, and one has to pick and choose subjects a little. Well done.”
“I was telling him I have shares in a currant-farm near Calamata.”
“What a delightful thing to have shares in! Can’t we go there for our honeymoon?”
“What to do?”
“To eat the currants. And isn’t there marvellous scenery?”
“Moderately, but it’s not the kind of place one could possibly go to with a lady.”
“Some ladies do without hotels. Are you aware that Helen and I have walked alone over the Apennines, with our luggage on our backs?”
“I wasn’t aware, and, if I can manage it, you will never do such a thing again.”
She said more gravely: “You haven’t found time for a talk with Helen yet, I suppose?”
“Do, before you go. I am so anxious you two should be friends.”
“Your sister and I have always hit it off,” he said negligently. “But we’re drifting away from our business. Let me begin at the beginning. You know that Evie is going to marry Percy Cahill.”
“Exactly. The girl’s madly in love with him. A very good sort of fellow, but he demands–and rightly–a suitable provision with her. And in the second place you will naturally understand, there is Charles. Before leaving town, I wrote Charles a very careful letter. You see, he has an increasing family and increasing expenses, and the I. and W. A. is nothing particular just now, though capable of development.”
“Poor fellow!” murmured Margaret, looking out to sea, and not understanding.
“Charles being the elder son, some day Charles will have Howards End; but I am anxious, in my own happiness, not to be unjust to others.”
“Of course not,” she began, and then gave a little cry. “you mean money. How stupid I am! Of course not!”
Oddly enough, he winced a little at the word. “Yes, Money, since you put it so frankly. I am determined to be just to all–just to you, just to them. I am determined that my children shall have me.”
“Be generous to them,” she said sharply. “Bother justice!”
“I am determined–and have already written to Charles to that effect–”
“But how much have you got?”
“How much have you a year? I’ve six hundred.”
“Yes. We must begin with how much you have, before we can settle how much you can give Charles. Justice, and even generosity, depend on that.”
“I must say you’re a downright young woman,” he observed, patting her arm and laughing a little. “What a question to spring on a fellow!”
“Don’t you know your income? Or don’t you want to tell it me?”
“That’s all right”–now she patted him–“don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I can do the sum just as well by proportion. Divide your income into ten parts. How many parts would you give to Evie, how many to Charles, how many to Paul?”
“The fact is, my dear, I hadn’t any intention of bothering you with details. I only wanted to let you know that–well, that something must be done for the others, and you’ve understood me perfectly, so let’s pass on to the next point.”
“Yes, we’ve settled that,” said Margaret, undisturbed by his strategic blunderings. “Go ahead; give away all you can, bearing in mind that I’ve a clear six hundred. What a mercy it is to have all this money about one.”
“We’ve none too much, I assure you; you’re marrying a poor man.”
“Helen wouldn’t agree with me here,” she continued. “Helen daren’t slang the rich, being rich herself, but she would like to. There’s an odd notion, that I haven’t yet got hold of, running about at the back of her brain, that poverty is somehow ‘real.’ She dislikes all organisation, and probably confuses wealth with the technique of wealth. Sovereigns in a stocking wouldn’t bother her; cheques do. Helen is too relentless. One can’t deal in her high-handed manner with the world.”
“There’s this other point, and then I must go back to my hotel and write some letters. What’s to be done now about the house in Ducie Street?”
“Keep it on–at least, it depends. When do you want to marry me?”
She raised her voice, as too often, and some youths, who were also taking the evening air, overheard her. “Getting a bit hot, eh?” said one. Mr. Wilcox turned on them, and said sharply, “I say!” There was silence. “Take care I don’t report you to the police.” They moved away quietly enough, but were only biding their time, and the rest of the conversation was punctuated by peals of ungovernable laughter.
Lowering his voice and infusing a hint of reproof into it, he said: “Evie will probably be married in September. We could scarcely think of anything before then.”
“The earlier the nicer, Henry. Females are not supposed to say such things, but the earlier the nicer.”
“How about September for us too?” he asked, rather dryly.
“Right. Shall we go into Ducie Street ourselves in September? Or shall we try to bounce Helen and Tibby into it? That’s rather an idea. They are so unbusinesslike, we could make them do anything by judicious management. Look here–yes. We’ll do that. And we ourselves could live at Howards End or Shropshire.”
He blew out his cheeks. “Heavens! how you women do fly round! My head’s in a whirl. Point by point, Margaret. Howards End’s impossible. I let it to Hamar Bryce on a three years’ agreement last March. Don’t you remember? Oniton. Well, that is much, much too far away to rely on entirely. You will be able to be down there entertaining a certain amount, but we must have a house within easy reach of Town. Only Ducie Street has huge drawbacks. There’s a mews behind.”
Margaret could not help laughing. It was the first she had heard of the mews behind Ducie Street. When she was a possible tenant it had suppressed itself, not consciously, but automatically. The breezy Wilcox manner, though genuine, lacked the clearness of vision that is imperative for truth. When Henry lived in Ducie Street he remembered the mews; when he tried to let he forgot it; and if any one had remarked that the mews must be either there or not, he would have felt annoyed, and afterwards have found some opportunity of stigmatising the speaker as academic. So does my grocer stigmatise me when I complain of the quality of his sultanas, and he answers in one breath that they are the best sultanas, and how can I expect the best sultanas at that price? It is a flaw inherent in the business mind, and Margaret may do well to be tender to it, considering all that the business mind has done for England.
“Yes, in summer especially, the mews is a serious nuisance. The smoking-room, too, is an abominable little den. The house opposite has been taken by operatic people. Ducie Street’s going down, it’s my private opinion.”
“How sad! It’s only a few years since they built those pretty houses.”
“Shows things are moving. Good for trade.”
“I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst–eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, streaming away–streaming, streaming for ever. That’s why I dread it so. I mistrust rivers, even in scenery. Now, the sea–”
“High tide, yes.”
“Hoy toid”–from the promenading youths.
“And these are the men to whom we give the vote,” observed Mr. Wilcox, omitting to add that they were also the men to whom he gave work as clerks–work that scarcely encouraged them to grow into other men. “However, they have their own lives and interests. Let’s get on.”
He turned as he spoke, and prepared to see her back to The Bays. The business was over. His hotel was in the opposite direction, and if he accompanied her his letters would be late for the post. She implored him not to come, but he was obdurate.
“A nice beginning, if your aunt saw you slip in alone!”
“But I always do go about alone. Considering I’ve walked over the Apennines, it’s common sense. You will make me so angry. I don’t the least take it as a compliment.”
He laughed, and lit a cigar. “It isn’t meant as a compliment, my dear. I just won’t have you going about in the dark. Such people about too! It’s dangerous.”
“Can’t I look after myself? I do wish–”
“Come along, Margaret; no wheedling.”
A younger woman might have resented his masterly ways, but Margaret had too firm a grip of life to make a fuss. She was, in her own way, as masterly. If he was a fortress she was a mountain peak, whom all might tread, but whom the snows made nightly virginal. Disdaining the heroic outfit, excitable in her methods, garrulous, episodical, shrill, she misled her lover much as she had misled her aunt. He mistook her fertility for Weakness. He supposed her “as clever as they make them,” but no more, not realising that she was penetrating to the depths of his soul, and approving of what she found there.
And if insight were sufficient, if the inner life were the whole of life, their happiness had been assured.
They walked ahead briskly. The parade and the road after it were well lighted, but it was darker in Aunt Juley’s garden. As they were going up by the side-paths, through some rhododendrons, Mr. Wilcox, who was in front, said “Margaret” rather huskily, turned, dropped his cigar, and took her in his arms.
She was startled, and nearly screamed, but recovered herself at once, and kissed with genuine love the lips that were pressed against her own. It was their first kiss, and when it was over he saw her safely to the door and rang the bell for her but disappeared into the night before the maid answered it. On looking back, the incident displeased her. It was so isolated. Nothing in their previous conversation had heralded it, and, worse still, no tenderness had ensued. If a man cannot lead up to passion he can at all events lead down from it, and she had hoped, after her complaisance, for some interchange of gentle words. But he had hurried away as if ashamed, and for an instant she was reminded of Helen and Paul.