Margaret bolted the door on the inside. Then she would have kissed her sister, but Helen, in a dignified voice, that came strangely from her, said:
“Convenient! You did not tell me that the books were unpacked. I have found nearly everything that I want.”
“I told you nothing that was true.”
“It has been a great surprise, certainly. Has Aunt Juley been ill?”
“Helen, you wouldn’t think I’d invent that?”
“I suppose not,” said Helen, turning away, and crying a very little. “But one loses faith in everything after this.”
“We thought it was illness, but even then–I haven’t behaved worthily.”
Helen selected another book.
“I ought not to have consulted any one. What would our father have thought of me?”
She did not think of questioning her sister, or of rebuking her. Both might be necessary in the future, but she had first to purge a greater crime than any that Helen could have committed–that want of confidence that is the work of the devil.
“Yes, I am annoyed,” replied Helen. “My wishes should have been respected. I would have gone through this meeting if it was necessary, but after Aunt Juley recovered, it was not necessary. Planning my life, as I now have to do.”
“Come away from those books,” called Margaret. “Helen, do talk to me.”
“I was just saying that I have stopped living haphazard. One can’t go through a great deal of–“she left out the noun– “without planning one’s actions in advance. I am going to have a child in June, and in the first place conversations, discussions, excitement, are not good for me. I will go through them if necessary, but only then. In the second place I have no right to trouble people. I cannot fit in with England as I know it. I have done something that the English never pardon. It would not be right for them to pardon it. So I must live where I am not known.”
“But why didn’t you tell me, dearest?”
“Yes,” replied Helen judicially. “I might have, but decided to wait.”
“I believe you would never have told me.”
“Oh yes, I should. We have taken a flat in Munich.”
Margaret glanced out of the window.
“By ‘we’ I mean myself and Monica. But for her, I am and have been and always wish to be alone.”
“I have not heard of Monica.”
“You wouldn’t have. She’s an Italian–by birth at least. She makes her living by journalism. I met her originally on Garda. Monica is much the best person to see me through.”
“You are very fond of her, then.”
“She has been extraordinarily sensible with me.”
Margaret guessed at Monica’s type–“Italiano Inglesiato” they had named it–the crude feminist of the South, whom one respects but avoids. And Helen had turned to it in her need!
“You must not think that we shall never meet,” said Helen, with a measured kindness. “I shall always have a room for you when you can be spared, and the longer you can be with me the better. But you haven’t understood yet, Meg, and of course it is very difficult for you. This is a shock to you. It isn’t to me, who have been thinking over our futures for many months, and they won’t be changed by a slight contretemps, such as this. I cannot live in England.”
“Helen, you’ve not forgiven me for my treachery. You couldn’t talk like this to me if you had.”
“Oh, Meg dear, why do we talk at all?” She dropped a book and sighed wearily. Then, recovering herself, she said: “Tell me, how is it that all the books are down here?”
“Series of mistakes.”
“And a great deal of furniture has been unpacked.”
“Who lives here, then?”
“I suppose you are letting it, though.”
“The house is dead,” said Margaret, with a frown. “Why worry on about it?”
“But I am interested. You talk as if I had lost all my interest in life. I am still Helen, I hope. Now this hasn’t the feel of a dead house. The hall seems more alive even than in the old days, when it held the Wilcoxes’ own things.”
“Interested, are you? Very well, I must tell you, I suppose. My husband lent it on condition we–but by a mistake all our things were unpacked, and Miss Avery, instead of–” She stopped. “Look here, I can’t go on like this. I warn you I won’t. Helen, why should you be so miserably unkind to me, simply because you hate Henry?”
“I don’t hate him now,” said Helen. “I have stopped being a schoolgirl, and, Meg, once again, I’m not being unkind. But as for fitting in with your English life–no, put it out of your head at once. Imagine a visit from me at Ducie Street! It’s unthinkable.”
Margaret could not contradict her. It was appalling to see her quietly moving forward with her plans, not bitter or excitable, neither asserting innocence nor confessing guilt, merely desiring freedom and the company of those who would not blame her. She had been through–how much? Margaret did not know. But it was enough to part her from old habits as well as old friends.
“Tell me about yourself,” said Helen, who had chosen her books, and was lingering over the furniture.
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“But your marriage has been happy, Meg?”
“Yes, but I don’t feel inclined to talk.”
“You feel as I do.”
“Not that, but I can’t.”
“No more can I. It is a nuisance, but no good trying.”
Something had come between them. Perhaps it was Society, which henceforward would exclude Helen. Perhaps it was a third life, already potent as a spirit. They could find no meeting-place. Both suffered acutely, and were not comforted by the knowledge that affection survived.
“Look here, Meg, is the coast clear?”
“You mean that you want to go away from me?”
“I suppose so–dear old lady! it isn’t any use. I knew we should have nothing to say. Give my love to Aunt Juley and Tibby, and take more yourself than I can say. Promise to come and see me in Munich later.”
“For that is all we can do.”
It seemed so. Most ghastly of all was Helen’s common sense; Monica had been extraordinarily good for her.
“I am glad to have seen you and the things.” She looked at the bookcase lovingly, as if she was saying farewell to the past.
Margaret unbolted the door. She remarked: “The car has gone, and here’s your cab.”
She led the way to it, glancing at the leaves and the sky. The spring had never seemed more beautiful. The driver, who was leaning on the gate, called out, “Please, lady, a message,” and handed her Henry’s visiting-card through the bars.
“How did this come?” she asked.
Crane had returned with it almost at once.
She read the card with annoyance. It was covered with instructions in domestic French. When she and her sister had talked she was to come back for the night to Dolly’s. Il faut dormir sur ce sujet.” while Helen was to be found une comfortable chambre a l’hotel. The final sentence displeased her greatly until she remembered that the Charles’s had only one spare room, and so could not invite a third guest.
“Henry would have done what he could,” she interpreted.
Helen had not followed her into the garden. The door once open, she lost her inclination to fly. She remained in the hall, going from bookcase to table. She grew more like the old Helen, irresponsible and charming.
“This is Mr. Wilcox’s house?” she inquired.
“Surely you remember Howards End?”
“Remember? I who remember everything! But it looks to be ours now.”
“Miss Avery was extraordinary,” said Margaret, her own spirits lightening a little. Again she was invaded by a slight feeling of disloyalty. But it brought her relief, and she yielded to it. “She loved Mrs. Wilcox, and would rather furnish her home with our things than think of it empty. In consequence here are all the library books.”
“Not all the books. She hasn’t unpacked the Art books, in which she may show her sense. And we never used to have the sword here.”
“The sword looks well, though.”
“Yes, doesn’t it?”
“Where’s the piano, Meg?”
“I warehoused that in London. Why?”
“Curious, too, that the carpet fits.”
“The carpet’s a mistake,” announced Helen. “I know that we had it in London, but this floor ought to be bare. It is far too beautiful.”
“You still have a mania for under-furnishing. Would you care to come into the dining-room before you start? There’s no carpet there. They went in, and each minute their talk became more natural.
“Oh, what a place for mother’s chiffonier!” cried Helen.
“Look at the chairs, though.”
“Oh, look at them! Wickham Place faced north, didn’t it?”
“Anyhow, it is thirty years since any of those chairs have felt the sun. Feel. Their dear little backs are quite warm.”
“But why has Miss Avery made them set to partners? I shall just–”
“Over here, Meg. Put it so that any one sitting will see the lawn.”
Margaret moved a chair. Helen sat down in it.
“Ye–es. The window’s too high.”
“Try a drawing-room chair.”
“No, I don’t like the drawing-room so much. The beam has been match-boarded. It would have been so beautiful otherwise.”
“Helen, what a memory you have for some things! You’re perfectly right. It’s a room that men have spoilt through trying to make it nice for women. Men don’t know what we want–,I
“And never will.”
“I don’t agree. In two thousand years they’ll know. Look where Tibby spilt the soup.”
“Coffee. It was coffee surely.”
Helen shook her head. “Impossible. Tibby was far too young to be given coffee at that time.”
“Was father alive?”
“Then you’re right and it must have been soup. I thinking of much later–that unsuccessful visit of Aunt Juley’s, when she didn’t realise that Tibby had grown up. It was coffee then, for he threw it down on purpose. There was some rhyme, ‘Tea, coffee–coffee tea,’ that she said to him every morning at breakfast. Wait a minute–how did it go?”
“I know–no, I don’t. What a detestable boy Tibby was!”
“But the rhyme was simply awful. No decent person could put up with it.”
“Ah, that greengage-tree,” cried Helen, as if the garden was also part of their childhood. Why do I connect it with dumb-bells? And there come the chickens. The grass wants cutting. I love yellowhammers.”
Margaret interrupted her. “I have got it,” she announced.
“‘Tea, tea, coffee, tea, Or chocolaritee.'”That every morning for three weeks. No wonder Tibby was wild.”
“Tibby is moderately a dear now,” said Helen.
“There! I knew you’d say that in the end. Of course he’s a dear.”
A bell rang.
“Listen! what’s that?”
Helen said, “Perhaps the Wilcoxes are beginning the siege.”
And the triviality faded from their faces, though it left something behind–the knowledge that they never could be parted because their love was rooted in common things. Explanations and appeals had failed; they had tried for a common meeting-ground, and had only made each other unhappy. And all the time their salvation was lying round them–the past sanctifying the present; the present, with wild heart-throb, declaring that there would after all be a future with laughter and the voices of children. Helen, still smiling, came up to her sister. She said, “It is always Meg.” They looked into each other’s eyes. The inner life had paid.
Solemnly the clapper tolled. No one was in the front. Margaret went to the kitchen, and struggled between packing-cases to the window. Their visitor was only a little boy with a tin can. And triviality returned.
“Little boy, what do you want?”
“Please, I am the milk.”
“Did Miss Avery send you?” said Margaret, rather sharply.
“Then take it back and say we require no milk.” While she called to Helen, “No, it’s not the siege, but possibly an attempt to provision us against one.”
“But I like milk,” cried Helen. “Why send it away?”
“Do you? Oh, very well. But we’ve nothing to put it in, and he wants the can.”
“Please, I’m to call in the morning for the can,” said the boy.
“The house will be locked up then.”
“In the morning would I bring eggs too?”
“Are you the boy whom I saw playing in the stacks last week?”
The child hung his head.
“Well, run away and do it again.”
“Nice little boy,” whispered Helen. “I say, what’s your name? Mine’s Helen.”
That was Helen all over. The Wilcoxes, too, would ask a child its name, but they never told their names in return.
“Tom, this one here is Margaret. And at home we’ve another called Tibby. ”
“Mine are lop-eareds,” replied Tom, supposing Tibby to be a rabbit.
“You’re a very good and rather a clever little boy. Mind you come again.–Isn’t he charming?”
“Undoubtedly,” said Margaret. “He is probably the son of Madge, and Madge is dreadful. But this place has wonderful powers.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because I probably agree with you.”
“It kills what is dreadful and makes what is beautiful live.”
“I do agree,” said Helen, as she sipped the milk. “But you said that the house was dead not half an hour ago.”
“Meaning that I was dead. I felt it.”
“Yes, the house has a surer life than we, even if it was empty, and, as it is, I can’t get over that for thirty years the sun has never shone full on our furniture. After all, Wickham Place was a grave. Meg, I’ve a startling idea.”
“What is it?”
“Drink some milk to steady you.”
“No, I won’t tell you yet,” said Helen, “because you may laugh or be angry. Let’s go upstairs first and give the rooms an airing.”
They opened window after window, till the inside, too, was rustling to the spring. Curtains blew, picture frames tapped cheerfully. Helen uttered cries of excitement as she found this bed obviously in its right place, that in its wrong one. She was angry with Miss Avery for not having moved the wardrobes up. “Then one would see really.” She admired the view. She was the Helen who had written the memorable letters four years ago. As they leant out, looking westward, she said: “About my idea. Couldn’t you and I camp out in this house for the night?”
“I don’t think we could well do that,” said Margaret.
“Here are beds, tables, towels–”
“I know; but the house isn’t supposed to be slept in, and Henry’s suggestion was–”
“I require no suggestions. I shall not alter anything in my plans. But it would give me so much pleasure to have one night here with you. It will be something to look back on. Oh, Meg lovey, do let’s!”
“But, Helen, my pet,” said Margaret, “we can’t without getting Henry’s leave. Of course, he would give it, but you said yourself that you couldn’t visit at Ducie Street now, and this is equally intimate.”
“Ducie Street is his house. This is ours. Our furniture, our sort of people coming to the door. Do let us camp out, just one night, and Tom shall feed us on eggs and milk. Why not? It’s a moon.”
Margaret hesitated. “I feel Charles wouldn’t like it,” she said at last. “Even our furniture annoyed him, and I was going to clear it out when Aunt Juley’s illness prevented me. I sympathise with Charles. He feels it’s his mother’s house. He loves it in rather an untaking way. Henry I could answer for–not Charles.”
“I know he won’t like it,” said Helen. “But I am going to pass out of their lives. What difference will it make in the long run if they say, ‘And she even spent the night at Howards End’?”
“How do you know you’ll pass out of their lives? We have thought that twice before.”
“Because my plans–”
“–which you change in a moment.”
“Then because my life is great and theirs are little,” said Helen, taking fire. “I know of things they can’t know of, and so do you. We know that there’s poetry. We know that there’s death. They can only take them on hearsay. We know this is our house, because it feels ours. Oh, they may take the title-deeds and the door-keys, but for this one night we are at home.”
“It would be lovely to have you once more alone,” said Margaret. “It may be a chance in a thousand.”
“Yes, and we could talk.” She dropped her voice. “It won’t be a very glorious story. But under that wych-elm–honestly, I see little happiness ahead. Cannot I have this one night with you?”
“I needn’t say how much it would mean to me.”
“Then let us.”
“It is no good hesitating. Shall I drive down to Hilton now and get leave?”
“Oh, we don’t want leave.”
But Margaret was a loyal wife. In spite of imagination and poetry–perhaps on account of them–she could sympathise with the technical attitude that Henry would adopt. If possible, she would be technical, too. A night’s lodging–and they demanded no more– need not involve the discussion of general principles.
“Charles may say no,” grumbled Helen.
“We shan’t consult him.”
“Go if you like; I should have stopped without leave.”
It was the touch of selfishness, which was not enough to mar Helen’s character, and even added to its beauty. She would have stopped without leave and escaped to Germany the next morning. Margaret kissed her.
“Expect me back before dark. I am looking forward to it so much. It is like you to have thought of such a beautiful thing.”
“Not a thing, only an ending,” said Helen rather sadly; and the sense of tragedy closed in on Margaret again as soon as she left the house.
She was afraid of Miss Avery. It is disquieting to fulfil a prophecy, however superficially. She was glad to see no watching figure as she drove past the farm, but only little Tom, turning somersaults in the straw.