THE PRICE OF LOVE
I. MONEY IN THE HOUSE
II. LOUIS’ DISCOVERY
III. THE FEAST
IV. IN THE NIGHT
V. NEWS OF THE NIGHT
VI. THEORIES OF THE THEFT
VII. THE CINEMA
VIII. END AND BEGINNING
IX. THE MARRIED WOMAN
X. THE CHASM
XI. JULIAN’S DOCUMENT
XII. RUNAWAY HORSES
XIV. THE MARKET
XV. THE CHANGED MAN
XVI. THE LETTER
XVII. IN THE MONASTERY
XVIII. MRS. TAMS’S STRANGE BEHAVIOUR
XIX. RACHEL AND MR. HORROCLEAVE
MONEY IN THE HOUSE
In the evening dimness of old Mrs. Maldon’s sitting-room stood the youthful virgin, Rachel Louisa Fleckring. The prominent fact about her appearance was that she wore an apron. Not one of those white, waist-tied aprons, with or without bibs, worn proudly, uncompromisingly, by a previous generation of unaspiring housewives and housegirls! But an immense blue pinafore-apron, covering the whole front of the figure except the head, hands, and toes. Its virtues were that it fully protected the most fragile frock against all the perils of the kitchen; and that it could be slipped on or off in one second, without any manipulation of tapes, pins, or buttons and buttonholes–for it had no fastenings of any sort and merely yawned behind. In one second the drudge could be transformed into the elegant infanta of boudoirs, and _vice versa_. To suit the coquetry of the age the pinafore was enriched with certain flouncings, which, however, only intensified its unshapen ugliness.
On a plain, middle-aged woman such a pinafore would have been intolerable to the sensitive eye. But on Rachel it simply had a piquant and perverse air, because she was young, with the incomparable, the unique charm of comely adolescence; it simply excited the imagination to conceive the exquisite treasures of contour and tint and texture which it veiled. Do not infer that Rachel was a coquette. Although comely, she was homely–a “downright” girl, scorning and hating all manner of pretentiousness. She had a fine best dress, and when she put it on everybody knew that it was her best; a stranger would have known. Whereas of a coquette none but her intimate companions can say whether she is wearing best or second-best on a given high occasion. Rachel used the pinafore-apron only with her best dress, and her reason for doing so was the sound, sensible reason that it was the usual and proper thing to do.
She opened a drawer of the new Sheraton sideboard, and took from it a metal tube that imitated brass, about a foot long and an inch in diameter, covered with black lettering. This tube, when she had removed its top, showed a number of thin wax tapers in various colours. She chose one, lit it neatly at the red fire, and then, standing on a footstool in the middle of the room, stretched all her body and limbs upward in order to reach the gas. If the tap had been half an inch higher or herself half an inch shorter, she would have had to stand on a chair instead of a footstool; and the chair would have had to be brought out of the kitchen and carried back again. But Heaven had watched over this detail. The gas-fitting consisted of a flexible pipe, resembling a thick black cord, and swinging at the end of it a specimen of that wonderful and blessed contrivance, the inverted incandescent mantle within a porcelain globe: the whole recently adopted by Mrs. Maldon as the dangerous final word of modern invention. It was safer to ignite the gas from the orifice at the top of the globe; but even so there was always a mild disconcerting explosion, followed by a few moments’ uncertainty as to whether or not the gas had “lighted properly.”
When the deed was accomplished and the room suddenly bright with soft illumination, Mrs. Maldon murmured–
She was sitting in her arm-chair by the glitteringly set table, which, instead of being in the centre of the floor under the gas, had a place near the bow-window–advantageous in the murky daytime of the Five Towns, and inconvenient at night. The table might well have been shifted at night to a better position in regard to the gas. But it never was. Somehow for Mrs. Maldon the carpet was solid concrete, and the legs of the table immovably embedded therein.
Rachel, gentle-footed, kicked the footstool away to its lair under the table, and simultaneously extinguished the taper, which she dropped with a scarce audible click into a vase on the mantelpiece. Then she put the cover on the tube with another faintest click, restored the tube to its drawer with a rather louder click, and finally, with a click still louder, pushed the drawer home. All these slight sounds were familiar to Mrs. Maldon; they were part of her regular night life, part of an unconsciously loved ritual, and they contributed in their degree to her placid happiness.
“Now the blinds, my dear!” said she.
The exhortation was ill-considered, and Rachel controlled a gesture of amicable impatience. For she had not paused after closing the drawer; she was already on her way across the room to the window when Mrs. Maldon said, “Now the blinds, my dear!” The fact was that Mrs. Maldon measured the time between the lighting of gas and the drawing down of blinds by tenths of a second–such was her fear lest in that sinister interval the whole prying town might magically gather in the street outside and peer into the secrets of her inculpable existence.
When the blinds and curtains had been arranged for privacy, Mrs. Maldon sighed securely and picked up her crocheting. Rachel rested her hands on the table, which was laid for a supper for four, and asked in a firm, frank voice whether there was anything else.
“Because, if not,” Rachel added, “I’ll just take off my pinafore and wash my hands.”
Mrs. Maldon looked up benevolently and nodded in quick agreement. It was such apparently trifling gestures, eager and generous, that endeared the old lady to Rachel, giving her the priceless sensation of being esteemed and beloved. Her gaze lingered on her aged employer with affection and with profound respect. Mrs. Maldon made a striking, tall, slim figure, sitting erect in tight black, with the right side of her long, prominent nose in the full gaslight and the other heavily shadowed. Her hair was absolutely black at over seventy; her eyes were black and glowing, and she could read and do coarse crocheting without spectacles. All her skin, especially round about the eyes, was yellowish brown and very deeply wrinkled indeed; a decrepit, senile skin, which seemed to contradict the youth of her pose and her glance. The cast of her features was benign. She had passed through desolating and violent experiences, and then through a long, long period of withdrawn tranquillity; and from end to end of her life she had consistently thought the best of all men, refusing to recognize evil and assuming the existence of good. Every one of the millions of her kind thoughts had helped to mould the expression of her countenance. The expression was definite now, fixed, intensely characteristic after so many decades, and wherever it was seen it gave pleasure and by its enchantment created goodness and goodwill–even out of their opposites. Such was the life-work of Mrs. Maldon.
Her eyes embraced the whole room. They did not, as the phrase is, “beam” approval; for the act of beaming involves a sort of ecstasy, and Mrs. Maldon was too dignified for ecstasy. But they displayed a mild and proud contentment as she said–
“I’m sure it’s all very nice.”
It was. The table crowded with porcelain, crystal, silver, and flowers, and every object upon it casting a familiar curved shadow on the whiteness of the damask toward the window! The fresh crimson and blues of the everlasting Turkey carpet (Turkey carpet being the _ne plus ultra_ of carpetry in the Five Towns, when that carpet was bought, just as sealskin was the _ne plus ultra_ of all furs)! The silken-polished sideboard, strange to the company, but worthy of it, and exhibiting a due sense of its high destiny! The sombre bookcase and corner cupboard, darkly glittering! The Chesterfield sofa, broad, accepting, acquiescent! The flashing brass fender and copper scuttle! The comfortably reddish walls, with their pictures–like limpets on the face of precipices! The new-whitened ceiling! In the midst the incandescent lamp that hung like the moon in heaven!… And then the young, sturdy girl, standing over the old woman and breathing out the very breath of life, vitalizing everything, rejuvenating the old woman!
Mrs. Maldon’s sitting-room had a considerable renown among her acquaintance, not only for its peculiar charm, which combined and reconciled the tastes of two very different generations, but also for its radiant cleanness. There are many clean houses in the Five Towns, using the adjective in the relative sense in which the Five Towns is forced by chimneys to use it. But Mrs. Maldon’s sitting-room (save for the white window-curtains, which had to accept the common grey fate of white window-curtains in the district) was clean in the country-side sense, almost in the Dutch sense. The challenge of its cleanness gleamed on every polished surface, victorious in the unending battle against the horrible contagion of foul industries. Mrs. Maldon’s friends would assert that the state of that sitting-room “passed” them, or “fair passed” them, and she would receive their ever-amazed compliments with modesty. But behind her benevolent depreciation she would be blandly saying to herself: “Yes, I’m scarcely surprised it passes you–seeing the way you housewives let things go on here.” The word “here” would be faintly emphasized in her mind, as no native would have emphasized it.
Rachel shared the general estimate of the sitting-room. She appreciated its charm, and admitted to herself that her first vision of it, rather less than a month before, had indeed given her a new and startling ideal of cleanliness. On that occasion it had been evident, from Mrs. Maldon’s physical exhaustion, that the housemistress had made an enormous personal effort to _dazzle_ and inspire her new “lady companion,” which effort, though detected and perhaps scorned by Rachel, had nevertheless succeeded in its aim. With a certain presence of mind Rachel had feigned to remark nothing miraculous in the condition of the room. Appropriating the new ideal instantly, she had on the first morning of her service “turned out” the room before breakfast, well knowing that it must have been turned out on the previous day. Dumbfounded for a few moments, Mrs. Maldon had at length said, in her sweet and cordial benevolence, “I’m glad to see we think alike about cleanliness.” And Rachel had replied with an air at once deferential, sweet, and yet casual, “Oh, of course, Mrs. Maldon!” Then they measured one another in a silent exchange. Mrs. Maldon was aware that she had by chance discovered a pearl–yes, a treasure beyond pearls. And Rachel, too, divined the high value of her employer, and felt within the stirrings of a passionate loyalty to her.
And yet, during the three weeks and a half of their joint existence, Rachel’s estimate of Mrs. Maldon had undergone certain subtle modifications.
At first, somewhat overawed, Rachel had seen in her employer the Mrs. Maldon of the town’s legend, which legend had travelled to Rachel as far as Knype, whence she sprang. That is to say, one of the great ladies of Bursley, ranking in the popular regard with Mrs. Clayton-Vernon, the leader of society, Mrs. Sutton, the philanthropist, and Mrs. Hamps, the powerful religious bully. She had been impressed by her height (Rachel herself being no lamp-post), her carriage, her superlative dignity, her benevolence of thought, and above all by her aristocratic Southern accent. After eight-and-forty years of the Five Towns, Mrs. Maldon had still kept most of that Southern accent–so intimidating to the rough, broad talkers of the district, who take revenge by mocking it among themselves, but for whom it will always possess the thrilling prestige of high life.
And then day by day Rachel had discovered that great ladies are, after all, human creatures, strangely resembling other human creatures. And Mrs. Maldon slowly became for her an old woman of seventy-two, with unquestionably wondrous hair, but failing in strength and in faculties; and it grew merely pathetic to Rachel that Mrs. Maldon should force herself always to sit straight upright. As for Mrs. Maldon’s charitableness, Rachel could not deny that she refused to think evil, and yet it was plain that at bottom Mrs. Maldon was not much deceived about people: in which apparent inconsistency there hid a slight disturbing suggestion of falseness that mysteriously fretted the downright Rachel.
Again, beneath Mrs. Maldon’s modesty concerning the merits of her sitting-room Rachael soon fancied that she could detect traces of an ingenuous and possibly senile “house-pride,” which did more than fret the lady companion; it faintly offended her. That one should be proud of a possession or of an achievement was admissible, but that one should fail to conceal the pride absolutely was to Rachel, with her Five Towns character, a sign of weakness, a sign of the soft South. Lastly, Mrs. Maldon had, it transpired, her “ways”; for example, in the matter of blinds and in the matter of tapers. She would actually insist on the gas being lighted with a taper; a paper spill, which was just as good and better, seemed to ruffle her benign placidity: and she was funnily economical with matches. Rachel had never seen a taper before, and could not conceive where the old lady managed to buy the things.
In short, with admiration almost undiminished, and with a rapidly growing love and loyalty, Rachel had arrived at the point of feeling glad that she, a mature, capable, sagacious, and strong woman, was there to watch over the last years of the waning and somewhat peculiar old lady.
Mrs. Maldon did not see the situation from quite the same angle. She did not, for example, consider herself to be in the least peculiar, but, on the contrary, a very normal woman. She had always used tapers; she could remember the period when every one used tapers. In her view tapers were far more genteel and less dangerous than the untidy, flaring spill, which she abhorred as a vulgarity. As for matches, frankly it would not have occurred to her to waste a match when fire was available. In the matter of her sharp insistence on drawn blinds at night, domestic privacy seemed to be one of the fundamental decencies of life–simply that! And as for house-pride, she considered that she locked away her fervent feeling for her parlour in a manner marvellous and complete.
No one could or ever would guess the depth of her attachment to that sitting-room, nor the extent to which it engrossed her emotional life. And yet she had only occupied the house for fourteen years out of the forty-five years of her widowhood, and the furniture had at intervals been renewed (for Mrs. Maldon would on no account permit herself to be old-fashioned). Indeed, she had had five different sitting-rooms in five different houses since her husband’s death. No matter. They were all the same sitting-room, all rendered identical by the mysterious force of her dreamy meditations on the past. And, moreover, sundry important articles had remained constant to preserve unbroken the chain that linked her to her youth. The table which Rachel had so nicely laid was the table at which Mrs. Maldon had taken her first meal as mistress of a house. Her husband had carved mutton at it, and grumbled about the consistency of toast; her children had spilt jam on its cloth. And when on Sunday nights she wound up the bracket-clock on the mantelpiece, she could see and hear a handsome young man in a long frock-coat and a large shirt-front and a very thin black tie winding it up too–her husband–on Sunday nights. And she could simultaneously see another handsome young man winding it up–her son.
Her pictures were admired.
“Your son painted this water-colour, did he not, Mrs. Maldon?”
“Yes, my son Athelstan.”
“How gifted he must have been!”
“Yes, the best judges say he showed very remarkable promise. It’s fading, I fear. I ought to cover it up, but somehow I can’t fancy covering it up–“
The hand that had so remarkably promised had lain mouldering for a quarter of a century. Mrs. Maldon sometimes saw it, fleshless, on a cage-like skeleton in the dark grave. The next moment she would see herself tending its chilblains.
And if she was not peculiar, neither was she waning. No! Seventy-two–but not truly old! How could she be truly old when she could see, hear, walk a mile without stopping, eat anything whatever, and dress herself unaided? And that hair of hers! Often she was still a young wife, or a young widow. She was not preparing for death; she had prepared for death in the seventies. She expected to live on in calm satisfaction through indefinite decades. She savoured life pleasantly, for its daily security was impregnable. She had forgotten grief.
When she looked up at Rachel and benevolently nodded to her, she saw a girl of line character, absolutely trustworthy, very devoted, very industrious, very capable, intelligent, cheerful–in fact, a splendid girl, a girl to be enthusiastic about! But such a mere girl! A girl with so much to learn! So pathetically young and inexperienced and positive and sure of herself! The looseness of her limbs, the unconscious abrupt freedom of her gestures, the waviness of her auburn hair, the candour of her glance, the warmth of her indignation against injustice and dishonesty, the capricious and sensitive flowings of blood to her smooth cheeks, the ridiculous wise compressings of her lips, the rise and fall of her rich and innocent bosom–these phenomena touched Mrs. Maldon and occasionally made her want to cry.
Thought she: “_I_ was never so young as that at twenty-two! At twenty-two I had had Mary!” The possibility that in spite of having had Mary (who would now have been fifty, but for death) she had as a fact been approximately as young as that at twenty-two did not ever present itself to the waning and peculiar old lady. She was glad that she, a mature and profoundly experienced woman, in full possession of all her faculties, was there to watch over the development of the lovable, affectionate, and impulsive child.
“Oh! Here’s the paper, Mrs. Maldon,” said Rachel, as, turning away to leave the room, she caught sight of the extra special edition of the _Signal_, which lay a pale green on the dark green of the Chesterfield.
Mrs. Maldon answered placidly–
“When did you bring it in? I never heard the boy come. But my hearing’s not quite what it used to be, that’s true. Open it for me, my dear. I can’t stretch my arms as I used to.”
She was one of the few women in the Five Towns who deigned to read a newspaper regularly, and one of the still fewer who would lead the miscellaneous conversation of drawing-rooms away from domestic chatter and discussions of individualities, to political and municipal topics and even toward general ideas. She seldom did more than mention a topic and then express a hope for the best, or explain that this phenomenon was “such a pity,” or that phenomenon “such a good thing,” or that about another phenomenon “one really didn’t know what to think.” But these remarks sufficed to class her apart among her sex as “a very up-to-date old lady, with a broad outlook upon the world,” and to inspire sundry other ladies with a fearful respect for her masculine intellect and judgment. She was aware of her superiority, and had a certain kind disdain for the increasing number of women who took in a daily picture-paper, and who, having dawdled over its illustrations after breakfast, spoke of what they had seen in the “newspaper.” She would not allow that a picture-paper was a newspaper.
Rachel stood in the empty space under the gas. Her arms were stretched out and slightly upward as she held the _Signal_ wide open and glanced at the newspaper, frowning. The light fell full on her coppery hair. Her balanced body, though masked in front by the perpendicular fall of the apron as she bent somewhat forward, was nevertheless the image of potential vivacity and energy; it seemed almost to vibrate with its own consciousness of physical pride.
Left alone, Rachel would never have opened a newspaper, at any rate for the news. Until she knew Mrs. Maldon she had never seen a woman read a newspaper for aught except the advertisements relating to situations, houses, and pleasures. But, much more than she imagined, she was greatly under the influence of Mrs. Maldon. Mrs. Maldon made a nightly solemnity of the newspaper, and Rachel naturally soon persuaded herself that it was a fine and a superior thing to read the newspaper–a proof of unusual intelligence. Moreover, just as she felt bound to show Mrs. Maldon that her notion of cleanliness was as advanced as anybody’s, so she felt bound to indicate, by an appearance of casualness, that for her to read the paper was the most customary thing in the world. Of course she read the paper! And that she should calmly look at it herself before handing it to her mistress proved that she had already established a very secure position in the house.
She said, her eyes following the lines, and her feet moving in the direction of Mrs. Maldon–“Those burglaries are still going on … Hillport now!”
“Oh, dear, dear!” murmured Mrs. Maldon, as Rachel spread the newspaper lightly over the tea-tray and its contents. “Oh, dear, dear! I do hope the police will catch some one soon. I’m sure they’re doing their best, but really–!”
Rachel bent with confident intimacy over the old lady’s shoulder, and they read the burglary column together, Rachel interrupting herself for an instant to pick up Mrs. Maldon’s ball of black wool which had slipped to the floor. The _Signal_ reporter had omitted none of the classic _cliches_ proper to the subject, and such words and phrases as “jemmy,” “effected an entrance,” “the servant, now thoroughly alarmed,” “stealthy footsteps,” “escaped with their booty,” seriously disquieted both of the women–caused a sudden sensation of sinking in the region of the heart. Yet neither would put the secret fear into speech, for each by instinct felt that a fear once uttered is strengthened and made more real. Living solitary and unprotected by male sinews, in a house which, though it did not stand alone, was somewhat withdrawn from the town, they knew themselves the ideal prey of conventional burglars with masks, dark lanterns, revolvers, and jemmies. They were grouped together like some symbolic sculpture, and with all their fortitude and common sense they still in unconscious attitude expressed the helpless and resigned fatalism of their sex before certain menaces of bodily danger, the thrilled, expectant submission of women in a city about to be sacked.
Nothing could save them if the peril entered the house. But they would not say aloud: “Suppose they came _here_! How terrible!” They would not even whisper the slightest apprehension. They just briefly discussed the matter with a fine air of indifferent aloofness, remaining calm while the brick walls and the social system which defended that bright and delicate parlour from the dark, savage universe without seemed to crack and shiver.
Mrs. Maldon, suddenly noticing that one blind was half an inch short of the bottom of the window, rose nervously and pulled it down farther.
“Why didn’t you ask me to do that?” said Rachel, thinking what a fidgety person the old lady was.
Mrs. Maldon replied–“It’s all right, my dear. Did you fasten the window on the upstairs landing?”
“As if burglars would try to get in by an upstairs window–and on the street!” thought Rachel, pityingly impatient. “However, it’s her house, and I’m paid to do what I’m told,” she added to herself, very sensibly. Then she said, aloud, in a soothing tone–
“No, I didn’t. But I will do it.”
She moved towards the door, and at the same moment a knock on the front door sent a vibration through the whole house. Nearly all knocks on the front door shook the house; and further, burglars do not generally knock as a preliminary to effecting an entrance. Nevertheless, both women started–and were ashamed of starting.
“Surely he’s rather early!” said Mrs. Maldon with an exaggerated tranquillity.
And Rachel, with a similar lack of conviction in her calm gait, went audaciously forth into the dark lobby.
On the glass panels of the front door the street lamp threw a faint, distorted shadow of a bowler hat, two rather protruding ears, and a pair of long, outspreading whiskers whose ends merged into broad shoulders. Any one familiar with the streets of Bursley would have instantly divined that Councillor Thomas Batchgrew stood between the gas-lamp and the front door. And even Rachel, whose acquaintance with Bursley was still slight, at once recognized the outlines of the figure. She had seen Councillor Batchgrew one day conversing with Mrs. Maldon in Moorthorne Road, and she knew that he bore to Mrs. Maldon the vague but imposing relation of “trustee.”
There are many–indeed perhaps too many–remarkable men in the Five Towns. Thomas Batchgrew was one of them. He had begun life as a small plumber in Bursley market-place, living behind and above the shop, and begetting a considerable family, which exercised itself in the back yard among empty and full turpentine-cans. The original premises survived, as a branch establishment, and Batchgrew’s latest-married grandson condescended to reside on the first floor, and to keep a motor-car and a tri-car in the back yard, now roofed over (in a manner not strictly conforming to the building by-laws of the borough). All Batchgrew’s sons and daughters were married, and several of his grandchildren also. And all his children, and more than one of the grandchildren, kept motor-cars. Not a month passed but some Batchgrew, or some Batchgrew’s husband or child, bought a motor-car, or sold one, or exchanged a small one for a larger one, or had an accident, or was gloriously fined in some distant part of the country for illegal driving. Nearly all of them had spacious detached houses, with gardens and gardeners, and patent slow-combustion grates, and porcelain bathrooms comprising every appliance for luxurious splashing. And, with the exception of one son who had been assisted to Valparaiso in order that he might there seek death in the tankard without outraging the family, they were all teetotallers–because the old man, “old Jack,” was a teetotaller. The family pyramid was based firm on the old man. The numerous relatives held closely together like an alien oligarchical caste in a conquered country. If they ever did quarrel, it must have been in private.
The principal seat of business–electrical apparatus, heating apparatus, and decorating and plumbing on a grandiose scale–in Hanbridge, had over its immense windows the sign: “John Batchgrew & Sons.” The sign might well have read: “John Batchgrew & Sons, Daughters, Daughters-in-law, Sons-in-law, Grandchildren, and Great-grandchildren.” The Batchgrew partners were always tendering for, and often winning, some big contract or other for heating and lighting and embellishing a public building or a mansion or a manufactory. (They by no means confined their activities to the Five Towns, having an address in London–and another in Valparaiso.) And small private customers were ever complaining of the inaccuracy of their accounts for small jobs. People who, in the age of Queen Victoria’s earlier widowhood, had sent for Batchgrew to repair a burst spout, still by force of habit sent for Batchgrew to repair a burst spout, and still had to “call at Batchgrew’s” about mistakes in the bills, which mistakes, after much argument and asseveration, were occasionally put right. In spite of their prodigious expenditures, and of a certain failure on the part of the public to understand “where all the money came from,” the financial soundness of the Batchgrews was never questioned. In discussing the Batchgrews no bank-manager and no lawyer had ever by an intonation or a movement of the eyelid hinted that earthquakes had occurred before in the history of the world and might occur again.
And yet old Batchgrew–admittedly the cleverest of the lot, save possibly the Valparaiso soaker–could not be said to attend assiduously to business. He scarcely averaged two hours a day on the premises at Hanbridge. Indeed the staff there had a sense of the unusual, inciting to unusual energy and devotion, when word went round: “Guv’nor’s in the office with Mr. John.” The Councillor was always extremely busy with something other than his main enterprise. It was now reported, for example, that he was clearing vast sums out of picture-palaces in Wigan and Warrington. Also he was a religionist, being Chairman of the local Church of England Village Mission Fund. And he was a politician, powerful in municipal affairs. And he was a reformer, who believed that by abolishing beer he could abolish the poverty of the poor–and acted accordingly. And lastly he liked to enjoy himself.
Everybody knew by sight his flying white whiskers and protruding ears. And he himself was well aware of the steady advertising value of those whiskers–of always being recognizable half a mile off. He met everybody unflinchingly, for he felt that he was invulnerable at all points and sure of a magnificent obituary. He was invariably treated with marked deference and respect. But he was not an honest man. He knew it. All his family knew it. In business everybody knew it except a few nincompoops. Scarcely any one trusted him. The peculiar fashion in which, when he was not present, people “old Jacked” him–this alone was enough to condemn a man of his years. Lastly, everybody knew that most of the Batchgrew family was of a piece with its head.
Now Rachel had formed a prejudice against old Batchgrew. She had formed it, immutably, in a single second of time. One glance at him in the street–and she had tried and condemned him, according to the summary justice of youth. She was in that stage of plenary and unhesitating wisdom when one not only can, but one must, divide the whole human race sharply into two categories, the sheep and the goats; and she had sentenced old Batchgrew to a place on the extreme left. It happened that she knew nothing against him. But she did not require evidence. She simply did “not like _that man_”–(she italicized the end of the phrase bitingly to herself)–and there was no appeal against the verdict. Angels could not have successfully interceded for him in the courts of her mind. He never guessed, in his aged self-sufficiency, that his case was hopeless with Rachel, nor even that the child had dared to have any opinion about him at all.
She was about to slip off the pinafore-apron and drop it on to the oak chest that stood in the lobby. But she thought with defiance: “Why should I take my pinafore off for him? I won’t. He shan’t see my nice frock. Let him see my pinafore. I am an independent woman, earning my own living, and why should I be ashamed of my pinafore? My pinafore is good enough for him!” She also thought: “Let him wait!” and went off into the kitchen to get the modern appliance of the match for lighting the gas in the lobby. When she had lighted the gas she opened the front door with audacious but nervous deliberation, and the famous character impatiently walked straight in. He wore prominent loose black kid gloves and a thin black overcoat.
Looking coolly at her, he said–
“So you’re the new lady companion, young miss! Well, I’ve heard rare accounts on ye–rare accounts on ye! Missis is in, I reckon?”
His voice was extremely low, rich, and heavy. It descended on the silence like a thick lubricating oil that only reluctantly abandons the curves in which it falls.
And Rachel answered, faintly, tremulously–“Yes.”
No longer was she the independent woman, censorious and scornful, but a silly, timid little thing. Though she condemned herself savagely for school-girlishness, she could do nothing to arrest the swift change in her. The fact was, she was abashed, partly by the legendary importance of the renowned Batchgrew, but more by his physical presence. His mere presence was always disturbing; for when he supervened into an environment he had always the air of an animal on a voyage of profitable discovery. His nose was an adventurous, sniffing nose, a true nose, which exercised the original and proper functions of a nose noisily. His limbs were restless, his boots like hoofs. His eyes were as restless as his limbs, and seemed ever to be seeking for something upon which they could definitely alight, and not finding it. He performed eructations with the disarming naturalness of a baby. He was tall but not stout, and yet he filled the lobby; he was the sole fact in the lobby, and it was as though Rachel had to crush herself against the wall in order to make room for him.
His glance at Rachel now became inquisitive, calculating, It seemed to be saying: “One day I may be able to make use of this piece of goods.” But there was a certain careless good-humour in it, too. What he saw was a naive young maid, with agreeable features, and a fine, fresh complexion, and rather reddish hair. (He did not approve of the colour of the hair.) He found pleasure in regarding her, and in the perception that he had abashed her. Yes, he liked to see her timid and downcast before him. He was an old man, but like most old men–such as statesmen–who have lived constantly at the full pressure of following their noses, he was also a young man. He creaked, but he was not gravely impaired.
“Is it Mr. Batchgrew?” Rachel softly murmured the unnecessary question, with one hand on the knob ready to open the sitting-room door.
He had flopped his stiff, flat-topped felt hat on the oak chest, and was taking off his overcoat. He paused and, lifting his chin–and his incredible white whiskers with it–gazed at Rachel almost steadily for a couple of seconds.
“It is,” he said, as it were challengingly–“it is, young miss.”
Then he finished removing his overcoat and thrust it roughly down on the hat.
Rachel blushed as she modestly turned the knob and pushed the door so that he might pass in front of her.
“Here’s Mr. Batchgrew, Mrs. Maldon,” she announced, feebly endeavouring to raise and clear her voice.
“Bless us!” The astonished exclamation of Mrs. Maldon was heard.
And Councillor Batchgrew, with his crimson shiny face, and the vermilion rims round his unsteady eyes, and his elephant ears, and the absurd streaming of his white whiskers, and his multitudinous noisiness, and his black kid gloves, strode half theatrically past her, sniffing.
To Rachel he was an object odious, almost obscene. In truth, she had little mercy on old men in general, who as a class struck her as fussy, ridiculous, and repulsive. And beyond all the old men she had ever seen, she disliked Councillor Batchgrew. And about Councillor Batchgrew what she most detested was, perhaps strangely, his loose, wrinkled black kid gloves. They were ordinary, harmless black kid gloves, but she counted them against him as a supreme offence.
“Conceited, self-conscious, horrid old brute!” she thought, discreetly drawing the door to, and then going into the kitchen. “He’s interested in nothing and nobody but himself.” She felt protective towards Mrs. Maldon, that simpleton who apparently could not see through a John Batchgrew!… So Mrs. Maldon had been giving him good accounts of the new lady companion, had she!
“Well, Lizzie Maldon,” said Councillor Batchgrew as he crossed the sitting-room, “how d’ye find yourself?… Sings!” he went on, taking Mrs. Maldon’s hand with a certain negligence and at the same time fixing an unfriendly eye on the gas.
Mrs. Maldon had risen to welcome him with the punctilious warmth due to an old gentleman, a trustee, and a notability. She told him as to her own health and inquired about his. But he ignored her smooth utterances, in the ardour of following his nose.
“Sings worse than ever! Very unhealthy too! Haven’t I told ye and told ye? You ought to let me put electricity in for you. It isn’t as if it wasn’t your own house…. Pay ye! Pay ye over and over again!”
He sat down in a chair by the table, drew off his loose black gloves, and after letting them hover irresolutely over the encumbered table, deposited them for safety in the china slop-basin.
“I dare say you’re quite right,” said Mrs. Maldon with grave urbanity. “But really gas suits me very well. And you know the gas-manager complains so much about the competition of electricity. Truly it does seem unfair, doesn’t it, as they both belong to the town! If I gave up gas for electricity I don’t think I could look the poor man in the face at church. And all these changes cost money! How is dear Enid?”
Mr. Batchgrew had now stretched out his legs and crossed one over the other; and he was twisting his thumbs on his diaphragm.
“Enid? Oh! Enid! Well, I did hear she’s able to nurse the child at last.” He spoke of his grand-daughter-in-law as of one among a multiplicity of women about whose condition vague rumours reached him at intervals.
Mrs. Maldon breathed fervently–“I’m so thankful! What a blessing that is, isn’t it?”
“As for costing money, Elizabeth,” Mr. Batchgrew proceeded, “you’ll be all right now for money.” He paused, sat up straight with puffings, and leaned sideways against the table. Then he said, half fiercely– “I’ve settled up th’ Brougham Street mortgage.”
“You don’t say so!” Mrs. Maldon was startled.
“That’s what I stepped in for.”
Mrs. Maldon feebly murmured, with obvious emotion–
“You can’t imagine what a relief it is to me!” Tears shone in her dark, mild eyes.
“Look ye!” exclaimed the trustee curtly.
He drew from his breast pocket a bank envelope of linen, and then, glancing at the table, pushed cups and saucers abruptly away to make a clear space on the white cloth. The newspaper slipped rustling to the floor on the side near the window. Already his gloves were abominable in the slop-basin, and now with a single gesture he had destroyed the symmetry of the set table. Mrs. Maldon with surpassing patience smiled sweetly, and assured herself that Mr. Batchgrew could not help it. He was a coarse male creature at large in a room highly feminized. It was his habit thus to pass through orderly interiors, distributing havoc, like a rough soldier. You might almost hear a sword clanking in the scabbard.
“Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty,” he began in his heavily rolling voice to count out one by one a bundle of notes which he had taken from the envelope. He generously licked his thick, curved-back thumb for the separating of the notes, and made each note sharply click, in the manner of a bank cashier, to prove to himself that it was not two notes stuck together. “… Five-seventy, five-eighty, five-ninety, six hundred. These are all tens. Now the fives: Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five.” He counted up to three hundred and sixty-five. “That’s nine-sixty-five altogether. The odd sixty-five’s arrear of interest. I’m investing nine hundred again to-morrow, and th’ interest on th’ new investment is to start from th’ first o’ this month. So instead of being out o’pocket, you’ll be in pocket, missis.”
The notes lay in two irregular filmy heaps on the table.
Having carefully returned the empty envelope to his pocket, Mr. Batchgrew sat back, triumphant, and his eye met the delighted yet disturbed eye of Mrs. Maldon, and then wavered and dodged.
Mr. Batchgrew with all his romantic qualities, lacked any perception of the noble and beautiful in life, and it could be positively asserted that his estimate of Mrs. Maldon was chiefly disdainful. But of Mrs. Maldon’s secret opinion about John Batchgrew nothing could be affirmed with certainty. Nobody knew it or ever would know it. I doubt whether Mrs. Maldon had whispered it even to herself. In youth he had been the very intimate friend of her husband. Which fact would scarcely tally with Mrs. Maldon’s memory of her husband as the most upright and perspicacious of men–unless on the assumption that John Batchgrew’s real characteristics had not properly revealed themselves until after his crony’s death; this assumption was perhaps admissible. Mrs. Maldon invariably spoke of John Batchgrew with respect and admiration. She probably had perfect confidence in him as a trustee, and such confidence was justified, for the Councillor knew as well as anybody in what fields rectitude was a remunerative virtue, and in what fields it was not.
Indeed, as a trustee his sense of honour and of duty was so nice that in order to save his ward from loss in connection with a depreciating mortgage security, he had invented, as a Town Councillor, the “Improvement” known as the “Brougham Street Scheme.” If this was not said outright, it was hinted. At any rate, the idea was fairly current that had not Councillor Batchgrew been interested in Brougham Street property, the Brougham Street Scheme, involving the compulsory purchase of some of that property at the handsome price naturally expected from the munificence of corporations, would never have come into being.
Mrs. Maldon knew of the existence of the idea, which had been obscurely referred to by a licensed victualler (inimically prejudiced against the teetotaller in Mr. Batchgrew) at a Council meeting reported in the _Signal_. And it was precisely this knowledge which had imparted to her glance the peculiar disturbed quality that had caused Mr. Batchgrew to waver and dodge.
The occasion demanded the exercise of unflinching common sense, and Mrs. Maldon was equal to it. She very wisely decided that she ought not to concern herself, and could not concern herself, with an aspect of the matter which concerned her trustee alone. And therefore she gave her heart entirely up to an intense gladness at the integral recovery of the mortgage money.
For despite her faith in the efficiency of her trustee, Mrs. Maldon would worry about finance; she would yield to an exquisitely painful dread lest “anything should happen”–happen, that is, to prevent her from dying in the comfortable and dignified state in which she had lived. Her income was not large–a little under three hundred pounds a year–but with care it sufficed for her own wants, and for gifts, subscriptions, and an occasional carriage. There would have been a small margin but for the constant rise in prices. As it was, there was no permanent margin. And to have cut off a single annual subscription, or lessened a single customary gift, would have mortally wounded her pride. The gradual declension of property values in Brougham Street had been a danger that each year grew more menacing. The moment had long ago come when the whole rents of the mortgaged cottages would not cover her interest. The promise of the Corporation Improvement Scheme had only partially reassured her; it seemed too good to be true. She could not believe without seeing. She now saw, suddenly, blindingly. And her relief, beneath that stately deportment of hers, was pathetic in its simple intensity. It would have moved John Batchgrew, had he been in any degree susceptible to the thrill of pathos.
“I doubt if I’ve seen so much money all at once before,” said Mrs. Maldon, smiling weakly.
“Happen not!” said Mr. Batchgrew, proud, with insincere casualness, and he added in exactly the same tone: “I’m leaving it with ye to-night.”
Mrs. Maldon was aghast, but she feigned sprightliness as she exclaimed–
“You’re not leaving all this money here to-night?”
“I am,” said the trustee. “That’s what I came for. Evans’s were three hours late in completing, and the bank was closed. I have but just got it. I’m not going home.” (He lived eight miles off, near Axe.) “I’ve got to go to a Church meeting at Red Cow, and I’m sleeping there. John’s Ernest is calling here for me presently. I don’t fancy driving over them moors with near a thousand pun in my pocket–and colliers out on strike–not at my age, missis! If you don’t know what Red Cow is, I reckon I do. It’s your money. Put it in a drawer and say nowt, and I’ll fetch it to-morrow. What’ll happen to it, think ye, seeing as it hasn’t got legs?” He spoke with the authority of a trustee. And Mrs. Maldon felt that her reputation for sensible equanimity was worth preserving. So she said bravely–
“I suppose it will be all right.”
“Of course!” snapped the trustee patronizingly.
“But I must tell Rachel.”
“Rachel? Rachel? Oh! _Her_! Why tell any one?” Mr. Batchgrew sniffed very actively.
“Oh! I shouldn’t be easy if I didn’t tell Rachel,” insisted Mrs. Maldon with firmness.
Before the trustee could protest anew she had rung the bell.
It was another and an apronless Rachel that entered the room, a Rachel transformed, magnificent in light green frock with elaborate lacy ruchings and ornamentations, and the waist at the new fashionable height. Her ruddy face and hands were fresh from water, her hair very glossy and very neat: she was in high array. This festival attire Mrs. Maldon now fully beheld for the first time. It, indeed, honoured herself, for she had ordained a festive evening: but at the same time she was surprised and troubled by it. As for Mr. Batchgrew, he entirely ignored the vision. Stretched out in one long inclined plane from the back of his chair down to the brass fender, he contemplated the fire, while picking his teeth with a certain impatience, and still sniffing actively. The girl resented this disregard. But, though she remained hostile to the grotesque old man with his fussy noises, the mantle of Mrs. Maldon’s moral protection was now over Councillor Batchgrew, and Rachel’s mistrustful scorn of him had lost some of its pleasing force.
Mrs. Maldon gave a hesitating cough.
“Yes, Mrs. Maldon?” said Rachel questioningly deferential, and smiling faintly into Mrs. Maldon’s apprehensive eyes. Against the background of the aged pair she seemed dramatically young, lithe, living, and wistful. She was nervous, but she thought with strong superiority: “What are those old folks planning together? Why do they ring for me?”
At length Mrs. Maldon proceeded–“I think I ought to tell you, dear, Mr. Batchgrew is obliged to leave this money in my charge to-night.”
“What money?” asked Rachel.
Mr. Batchgrew put in sharply, drawing up his legs–“This!… Here, young miss! Step this way, if ye please. I’ll count it. Ten, twenty, thirty–” With new lickings and clickings he counted the notes all over again. “There!” When he had finished his pride had become positively naive.
“Oh, my word!” murmured Rachel, awed and astounded.
“It is rather a lot, isn’t it?” said Mrs. Maldon, with a timid laugh.
At once fascinated and repelled, the two women looked at the money as at a magic. It represented to Mrs. Maldon a future free from financial embarrassment; it represented to Rachel more than she could earn in half a century at her wage of eighteen pounds a year, an unimaginable source of endless gratifications; and yet the mere fact that it was to stay in the house all night changed it for them into something dire and formidable, so that it inspired both of them–the ancient dame and the young girl–with naught but a mystic dread. Mr. Batchgrew eyed the affrighted creatures with satisfaction, appearing to take a perverse pleasure in thus imposing upon them the horrid incubus.
“I was only thinking of burglars;” said Mrs. Maldon apologetically. “There’ve been so many burglaries lately–” She ceased, uncertain of her voice. The forced lightness of her tone was almost tragic.
“There won’t be any more,” said Mr. Batchgrew condescendingly.
“Why?” demanded Mrs. Maldon with an eager smile of hope. “Have they caught them, then? Has Superintendent Snow–“
“They have their hands on them. To-morrow there’ll be some arrests,” Mr. Batchgrew answered, exuding authority. For he was not merely a Town Councillor, he was brother-in-law to the Superintendent of the Borough Police. “Caught ’em long ago if th’ county police had been a bit more reliable!”
“Oh!” Mrs. Maldon breathed happily. “I knew it couldn’t be Mr. Snow’s fault. I felt sure of that. I’m so glad.”
And Rachel also was conscious of gladness. In fact, it suddenly seemed plain to both women that no burglar, certain of arrest on the morrow, would dare to invade the house of a lady whose trustee had married the sister of the Superintendent of Police. The house was invisibly protected.
“And we mustn’t forget we shall have a man sleeping here to-night,” said Rachel confidently.
“Of course! Of course! I was quite overlooking that!” exclaimed Mrs. Maldon.
Mr. Batchgrew threw a curt and suspicious question–“What man?”
“My nephew Julian–I should say my grand-nephew.” Mrs. Maldon’s proud tone rebuked the strange tone of Mr. Batchgrew. “It is his birthday. He and Louis are having supper with me. And Julian is staying the night.”
“Well, if you take my advice, missis, ye’ll say nowt to nobody. Lock the brass up in a drawer in that wardrobe of yours, and keep a still tongue in your head.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Mrs. Maldon agreed–“as a matter of general principle, I mean. And it might make Julian uneasy.”
“Take it and lock it up,” Mr. Batchgrew repeated.
“I don’t know about my wardrobe–” Mrs. Maldon began.
“Anywhere!” Mr. Batchgrew stopped her.
“Only,” said Rachel with careful gentleness, “please don’t forget where you _have_ put it.”
But her precaution of manner was futile. Twice within a minute she had employed the word “forget.” Twice was too often. Mrs. Maldon’s memory was most capriciously uncertain. Its lapses astonished sometimes even herself. And naturally she was sensitive on the point. She nourished the fiction, and she expected others to nourish it, that her memory was quite equal to younger memories. Indeed, she would admit every symptom of old age save an unreliable memory.
Composing a dignified smile, she said with reproving blandness–
“I am not in the habit of forgetting where I put valuables, Rachel.”
And her prominently veined fingers, clasping the notes as a preliminary to hiding them away, seemed in their nervous primness to be saying to Rachael: “I have deep confidence in you, and I think that to-night I have shown it. But oblige me by not presuming. I am Mrs. Maldon and you are Rachel. After all, I have not yet known you for a month.”
A very loud rasping noise, like a vicious menace, sounded from the street, shivering instantaneously the delicate placidity of Mrs. Maldon’s home. Mrs. Maldon gave a start.
“That’ll be John’s Ernest with the car,” said Mr. Batchgrew, amused; and he began to get up from the chair. As soon as he was on his feet his nose grew active again. “You’ve nothing to be afraid of, missis,” he added in a tone roughly reassuring and good-natured.
“Oh no! Of course not!” concurred Mrs. Maldon, further enforcing intrepidity on herself. “Of course not! I only just mentioned burglars because they’re so much in the paper.” And she stooped to pick up the _Signal_ and folded it carefully, as if to prove that her mind was utterly collected.
Councillor Batchgrew, leaning over the table, peered into various vessels in search of his gloves. At length he took them finickingly from the white slop-basin as though fishing them out of a puddle. He began to put them on, and then, half-way through the process, abruptly shook hands with Mrs. Maldon.
“Then you’ll call in the morning?” she asked.
“Aye! Ye may count on me. I’ll relieve ye on [of] it afore ten o’clock. It’ll be on my way to Hanbridge, ye see.”
Mrs. Maldon ceremoniously accompanied her trustee as far as the sitting-room door, where she recommended him to the careful attention of Rachel. No woman in the Five Towns could take leave of a guest with more impressive dignity than old Mrs. Maldon, whose fine Southern accent always gave a finish to her farewells. In the lobby Mr. Batchgrew kept Rachel waiting with his overcoat in her outstretched hands while he completed the business of his gloves. As, close behind him, she coaxed his stiff arms into the overcoat, she suddenly felt that after all he was nothing but a decrepit survival; and his offensiveness seemed somehow to have been increased–perhaps by the singular episode of the gloves and the slop-basin. She opened the front door, and without a word to her he departed down the steps.
Two lamps like lighthouses glared fiercely along the roadway, dulling the municipal gas and giving to each loose stone on the macadam a long shadow. In the gloom behind the lamps the low form of an open automobile showed, and a dim, cloaked figure beside it. A boyish voice said with playful bullying sharpness, above the growling, irregular pulsation of the engine–“Here, grandad, you’ve got to put this on.”
“Have I?” demanded uncertainly the thick, heavy voice of the old man.
“Yes, you have–on the top of your other coat. If I don’t look after you I shall get myself into a row!… Here, let me put your fist in the armhole. It’s your blooming glove that stops it…. There! Now, up with you, grandad!… All right! I’ve got you. I sha’n’t drop you.”
A door snapped to; then another. The car shot violently forward, with shrieks and a huge buzzing noise, and leaped up the slope of the street. Rachel, still in the porch, could see Mr. Batchgrew’s head wagging rather helplessly from side to side, just above the red speck of the tail-lamp. Then the whole vision was swiftly blotted out, and the warning shrieks of the invisible car grew fainter on the way to Red Cow. It pleased Rachel to think of the old man being casually bullied and shaken by John’s Ernest.
She leaned forward and gazed down the street, not up it. When she turned into the house Mrs. Maldon was descending the stairs, which, being in a line with the lobby, ended opposite the front door. Judging by the fixity of the old lady’s features, Rachel decided that she was not yet quite pardoned for the slight she had put upon the memory of her employer. So she smiled pleasantly.
“Don’t close the front door, dear,” said Mrs. Maldon stiffly. “There’s some one there.”
Rachel looked round. She had actually, in sheer absent-mindedness or negligence or deafness, been shutting the door in the face of the telegraph-boy!
“Oh, dear! I do hope–!” Mrs. Maldon muttered as she hastily tugged at the envelope.
Having read the message, she passed it on to Rachel, and at the same time forgivingly responded to her smile. The excitement of the telegram had sufficed to dissipate Mrs. Maldon’s trifling resentment.
“Train hour late. Julian.”
The telegraph boy was dismissed: “No answer, thank you.”
During the next half-hour excitement within the dwelling gradually increased. It grew out of nothing–out of Mrs. Maldon’s admirable calm in receiving the message of the telegram–until it affected like an atmospheric disturbance the ground floor–the sitting-room where Mrs. Maldon was spending nervous force in the effort to preserve an absolutely tranquil mind, the kitchen where Rachel was “putting back” the supper, the lobby towards which Rachel’s eye and Mrs. Maiden’s ear were strained to catch any sign of an arrival, and the unlighted, unused room behind the sitting-room which seemed to absorb and even intensify the changing moods of the house.
The fact was that Mrs. Maldon, in her relief at finding that Julian was not killed or maimed for life in a railway accident, had begun by treating a delay of one hour in all her arrangements for the evening as a trifle. But she had soon felt that, though a trifle, it was really very upsetting and annoying. It gave birth to irrational yet real forebodings as to the non-success of her little party. It meant that the little party had “started badly.” And then her other grand-nephew, Louis Fores, did not arrive. He had been invited for supper at seven, and should have appeared at five minutes to seven at the latest. But at five minutes to seven he had not come; nor at seven, nor at five minutes past–he who had barely a quarter of a mile to walk! There was surely a fate against the party! And Rachel strangely persisted in not leaving the kitchen! Even after Mrs. Maldon had heard her fumbling for an interminable time with the difficult window on the first-floor landing, she went back to the kitchen instead of presenting herself to her expectant mistress.
At last Rachel entered the sitting-room, faintly humming an air. Mrs. Maldon thought that she looked self-conscious. But Mrs. Maldon also was self-conscious, and somehow could not bring her lips to utter the name of Louis Fores to Rachel. For the old lady had divined a connection of cause and effect between Louis Fores and the apparition of Rachel’s superlative frock. And she did not like the connection; it troubled her, and offended the extreme nicety of her social code.
There was a constrained silence, which was broken by the lobby clock striking the first quarter after seven. This harsh announcement on the part of the inhuman clock seemed to render the situation intolerable. Fifteen minutes past seven, and Louis not come, and not a word of comment thereon! Mrs. Maldon had to admit privately that she was in a high state of agitation.
Then Rachel, bending delicately to sweep the hearth with the brass-handled brush proper to it, remarked with an obvious affectation of nonchalance–
“Your other guest’s late too.”
If Mrs. Maldon had not been able to speak his name, neither could Rachel! Mrs. Maldon read with painful certainty all the girl’s symptoms.
“Yes, indeed!” said Mrs. Maldon.
“It’s like as if what must be!” Rachel murmured, employing a local phrase which Mrs. Maldon had ever contemned as meaningless and ungrammatical.
“Fortunately it doesn’t matter, as Julian is late too,” said Mrs. Maldon insincerely, for it was mattering very much. “But still–I wonder–“
Rachel broke out upon her hesitation in a very startling manner–
“I’ll just see if he’s coming.”
And she abruptly quitted the room, almost slamming the door.
Mrs. Maldon was dumbfounded. Scared and attentive, she listened in a maze for the sound of the front door. She heard it open. But was it possible that she heard also the creak of the gate? She sprang to the bow window with surprising activity, and pulled aside a blind, one inch…. There was Rachel tripping hatless and in her best frock down the street! Inconceivable vision, affecting Mrs. Maldon with palpitation! A girl so excellent, so lovable, so trustworthy, to be guilty of the wanton caprice of a minx! Supposing Louis were to see her, to catch her in the brazen act of looking for him! Mrs. Maldon was grieved; and her gentle sorrow for Rachel’s incalculable lapse was so dignified, affectionate, and jealous for the good repute of human nature that it mysteriously ennobled instead of degrading the young creature.
Going down Bycars Lane amid the soft wandering airs of the September night, Rachel had the delicious and exciting sensation of being unyoked, of being at liberty for a space to obey the strong, free common sense of youth instead of conforming to the outworn and tiresome code of another age. Mrs. Maldon’s was certainly a house that put a strain on the nerves. It did not occur to Rachel that she was doing aught but a very natural and proper thing. The non-appearance of Louis Fores was causing disquiet, and her simple aim was to shorten the period of anxiety. Nor did it occur to her that she was impulsive. Something had to be done, and she had done something. Not much longer could she have borne the suspense. All that day she had lived forward towards supper-time, when Louis Fores would appear. Over and over again she had lived right through the moment of opening the front door for him at a little before seven o’clock. The moments between seven o’clock and a quarter past had been a crescendo of torment, intolerable at last. His lateness was inexplicable, and he was so close to that not to look for him would have been ridiculous.
She was apprehensive, and yet she was obscurely happy in her fears. The large, inviting, dangerous universe was about her–she had escaped from the confining shelter of the house. And the night was about her. It was not necessary for her to wear three coats, like the gross Batchgrew, in order to protect herself from the night! She could go forth into it with no precaution. She was young. Her vigorous and confident body might challenge perils.
When she had proceeded a hundred yards she stopped and turned to look back at the cluster of houses collectively called Bycars.
The distinctive bow-window of Mrs. Maldon’s shone yellow. Within the sacred room was still the old lady, sitting expectant, and trying to interest herself in the paper. Strange thought!
Bycars Lane led in a north-easterly direction over the broad hill whose ridge separates the lane from the moorlands honeycombed with coal and iron mines. Above the ridge showed the fire and vapour of the first mining villages, on the way to Red Cow, proof that not all colliers were yet on strike. And above that pyrotechny hung the moon. The municipal park, of which Bycars Lane was the north-western boundary, lay in mysterious and forbidden groves behind its spiked red wall and locked gates, and beyond it a bright tram-car was leaping down from lamp to lamp of Moorthorne Road towards the town. Between the masses of the ragged hedge on the north side of the lane there was the thin gleam of Bycars Pool, lost in a vague, unoccupied region of shawdrucks and dirty pasture–the rendezvous of skaters when the frost held, Louis Fores had told her, and she had heard from another source that he skated divinely. She could believe it, too.
She resumed her way more slowly. She had only stopped because, though burned with the desire to see him, she yet had an instinct to postpone the encounter. She was almost minded to return. But she went on. The town was really very near. The illuminated clock of the Town Hall had dominion over it; the golden shimmer above the roofs to the left indicated the electrical splendour of the new Cinema in Moorthorne Road next to the new Primitive Methodist Chapel. He had told her about that, too. In two minutes, in less than two minutes, she was among houses again, and approaching the corner of Friendly Street. He would come from the Moorthorne Road end of Friendly Street. She would peep round the corner of Friendly Street to see if he was coming….
But before she reached the corner, her escapade suddenly presented itself to her as childish madness, silly, inexcusable; and she thought self-reproachfully, “How impulsive I am!” and sharply turned back towards Mrs. Maldon’s house, which seemed to be about ten miles off.
A moment later she heard hurried footfalls behind her on the narrow brick pavement, and, after one furtive glance over her shoulder, she quickened her pace. Louis Fores in all his elegance was pursuing her! Nothing had happened to him. He was not ill; he was merely a little late! After all, she would sit by his side at the supper-table! She had a spasm of shame that was excruciating. But at the same time she was wildly glad. And already this inebriating illusion of an ingenuous girl concerning a common male was helping to shape monstrous events.
Louis Fores was late at his grand-aunt’s because he had by a certain preoccupation, during a period of about an hour, been rendered oblivious of the passage of time. The real origin of the affair went back nearly sixty years, to an indecorous episode in the history of the Maldon family.
At that date–before Mrs. Maldon had even met Austin Maldon, her future husband–Austin’s elder brother Athelstan, who was well established as an earthenware broker in London, had a conjugal misfortune, which reached its climax in the Matrimonial Court, and left the injured and stately Athelstan with an incomplete household, a spoiled home, and the sole care of two children, a boy and a girl. These children were, almost of necessity, clumsily brought up. The girl married the half-brother of a Lieutenant-General Fores, and Louis Fores was their son. The boy married an American girl, and had issue, Julian Maldon and some daughters.
At the age of eighteen, Louis Fores, amiable, personable, and an orphan, was looking for a career. He had lived in the London suburb of Barnes, and under the influence of a father whose career had chiefly been to be the stepbrother of Lieutenant-General Fores. He was in full possession of the conventionally snobbish ideals of the suburb, reinforced by more than a tincture of the stupendous and unsurpassed snobbishness of the British Army. He had no money, and therefore the liberal professions and the higher division of the Civil Service were closed to him. He had the choice of two activities: he might tout for wine, motor-cars, or mineral-waters on commission (like his father), or he might enter a bank; his friends were agreed that nothing else was conceivable. He chose the living grave. It is not easy to enter the living grave, but, august influences aiding, he entered it with _eclat_ at a salary of seventy pounds a year, and it closed over him. He would have been secure till his second death had he not defiled the bier. The day of judgment occurred, the grave opened, and he was thrown out with ignominy, but ignominy unpublished. The august influences, by simple cash, and for their own sakes, had saved him from exposure and a jury.
In order to get rid of him his protectors spoke well of him, emphasizing his many good qualities, and he was deported to the Five Towns (properly enough, since his grandfather had come thence) and there joined the staff of Batchgrew & Sons, thanks to the kind intervention of Mrs. Maldon. At the end of a year John Batchgrew told him to go, and told Mrs. Maldon that her grand-nephew had a fault. Mrs. Maldon was very sorry. At this juncture Louis Fores, without intending to do so, would certainly have turned Mrs. Maldon’s last years into a tragedy, had he not in the very nick of time inherited about a thousand pounds. He was rehabilitated. He “had money” now. He had a fortune; he had ten thousand pounds; he had any sum you like, according to the caprice of rumour. He lived on his means for a little time, frequenting the Municipal School of Art at the Wedgwood Institution at Bursley, and then old Batchgrew had casually suggested to Mrs. Maldon that there ought to be an opening for him with Jim Horrocleave, who was understood to be succeeding with his patent special processes for earthenware manufacture. Mr. Horrocleave, a man with a chin, would not accept him for a partner, having no desire to share profits with anybody; but on the faith of his artistic tendency and Mrs. Maldon’s correct yet highly misleading catalogue of his virtues, he took him at a salary, in return for which Louis was to be the confidential employee who could and would do anything, including design.
And now Louis was the step-nephew of a Lieutenant-General, a man of private means and of talent, and a trusted employee with a fine wage–all under one skin! He shone in Bursley, and no wonder! He was very active at Horrocleave’s. He not only designed shapes for vases, and talked intimately with Jim Horrocleave about fresh projects, but he controlled the petty cash. The expenditure of petty cash grew, as was natural in a growing business. Mr. Horrocleave soon got accustomed to that, and apparently gave it no thought, signing cheques instantly upon request. But on the very day of Mrs. Maldon’s party, after signing a cheque and before handing it to Louis, he had somewhat lengthily consulted his private cash-book, and, as he handed over the cheque, had said: “Let’s have a squint at the petty-cash book to-morrow morning, Louis.” He said it gruffly, but he was a gruff man. He left early. He might have meant anything or nothing. Louis could not decide which; or rather, from five o’clock to seven he had come to alternating decisions every five minutes.
It was just about at the time when Louis ought to have been removing his paper cuff-shields in order to start for Mrs. Maldon’s that he discovered the full extent of his debt to the petty-cash box. He sat alone at a rough and dirty desk in the inner room of the works “office,” surrounded by dust-covered sample vases and other vessels of all shapes, sizes, and tints–specimens of Horrocleave’s “Art Lustre Ware,” a melancholy array of ingenious ugliness that nevertheless filled with pride its creators. He looked through a dirt-obscured window and with unseeing gaze surveyed a muddy, littered quadrangle whose twilight was reddened by gleams from the engine-house. In this yard lay flat a sign that had been blown down from the facade of the manufactory six months before: “Horrocleave. Art Lustre Ware.” Within the room was another sign, itself fashioned in lustre-ware: “Horrocleave. Art Lustre Ware.” And the envelopes and paper and bill-heads on the desk all bore the same legend: “Horrocleave. Art Lustre Ware.”
He owed seventy-three pounds to the petty-cash box, and he was startled and shocked. He was startled because for weeks past he had refrained from adding up the columns of the cash-book–partly from idleness and partly from a desire to remain in ignorance of his own doings. He had hoped for the best. He had faintly hoped that the deficit would not exceed ten pounds, or twelve; he had been prepared for a deficit of twenty-five, or even thirty. But seventy-three really shocked. Nay, it staggered. It meant that in addition to his salary, some thirty shillings a week had been mysteriously trickling through the incurable hole in his pocket. Not to mention other debts! He well knew that to Shillitoe alone (his admirable tailor) he owed eighteen pounds.
It may be asked how a young bachelor, with private means and a fine salary, living in a district where prices are low and social conventions not costly, could have come to such a pass. The answer is that Louis had no private means, and that his salary was not fine. The thousand pounds had gradually vanished, as a thousand pounds will, in the refinements of material existence and in the pursuit of happiness. His bank-account had long been in abeyance. His salary was three pounds a week. Many a member of the liberal professions–many a solicitor, for example–brings up a family on three pounds a week in the provinces. But for a Lieutenant-General’s nephew, who had once had a thousand pounds in one lump, three pounds a week was inadequate. As a fact, Louis conceived himself “Art Director” of Horrocleave’s, and sincerely thought that as such he was ill-paid. Herein was one of his private excuses for eccentricity with the petty cash. It may also be asked what Louis had to show for his superb expenditure. The answer is, nothing.
With the seventy-three pounds desolatingly clear in his mind, he quitted his desk in order to reconnoitre the outer and larger portion of the counting-house. He went as far as the archway, and saw black smoke being blown downwards from heaven into Friendly Street. A policeman was placidly regarding the smoke as he strolled by. And Louis, though absolutely sure that the officer would not carry out his plain duty of summoning Horrocleave’s for committing a smoke-nuisance, did not care for the spectacle of the policeman. He returned to the inner office, and locked the door. The “staff” and the “hands” had all gone, save one or two piece-workers in the painting-shop across the yard.
The night watchman, fresh from bed, was moving fussily about the yard. He nodded with respect to Louis through the grimy window. Louis lit the gas, and spread a newspaper in front of the window by way of blind. And then he began a series of acts on the petty-cash book. The office clock indicated twenty past six. He knew that time was short, but he had a natural gift for the invention and execution of these acts, and he calculated that under half an hour would suffice for them. But when he next looked at the clock, the acts being accomplished, one hour had elapsed; it had seemed to him more like a quarter of an hour. Yet as blotting-paper cannot safely be employed in such delicate calligraphic feats as those of Louis’, even an hour was not excessive for what he had done. An operator clumsier, less cool, less cursory, more cautious than himself might well have spent half a night over the job. He locked up the book, washed his hands and face with remarkable celerity in a filthy lavatory basin, brushed his hair, removed his cuff-shields, changed his coat, and fled at speed, leaving the key of the office with the watchman.
“I suppose the old lady was getting anxious?” said he brightly (but in a low tone so that the old lady should not hear), as he shook hands with Rachel in the lobby. He had recognized her in front of him up the lane–had, in fact, nearly overtaken her; and she was standing at the open door when he mounted the steps. She had had just time to prove to Mrs. Maldon, by a “He’s coming” thrown through the sitting-room doorway, that she had not waited for Louis Fores and walked up with him.
“Yes,” Rachel replied in the same tone, most deceitfully leaving him under the false impression that it was the old lady’s anxiety that had sent her out. She had, then, emerged scathless in reputation from the indiscreet adventure!
The house was animated by the arrival of Louis; at once it seemed to live more keenly when he had crossed the threshold. And Louis found pleasure in the house–in the welcoming aspect of its interior, in Rachel’s evident excited gladness at seeing him, in her honest and agreeable features, and in her sheer girlishness. A few minutes earlier he had been in the sordid and dreadful office. Now he was in another and a cleaner, prettier world. He yielded instantly and fully to its invitation, for he had the singular faculty of being able to cast off care like a garment. He felt sympathetic towards women, and eager to employ for their contentment all the charm which he knew he possessed. He gave himself, generously, in every gesture and intonation.
“Office, auntie, office!” he exclaimed, elegantly entering the parlour. “Sack-cloth! Ashes! Hallo! where’s Julian? Is he late too?”
When he had received the news about Julian Maldon he asked to see the telegram, and searched out its place of origin, and drew forth a pocket time-table, and remarked in a wise way that he hoped Julian would “make the connection” at Derby. Lastly he predicted the precise minute at which Julian “ought” to be knocking at the front door. And both women felt their ignorant, puzzled inferiority in these recondite matters of travel, and the comfort of having an omniscient male in the house.
Then slightly drawing up his dark blue trousers with an accustomed movement, he carefully sat down on the Chesterfield, and stroked his soft black moustache (which was estimably long for a fellow of twenty-three) and patted his black hair.
“Rachel, you didn’t fasten that landing window, after all!” said Mrs. Maldon, looking over Louis’ head at the lady companion, who hesitated modestly near the door. “I’ve tried, but I couldn’t.”
“Neither could I, Mrs. Maldon,” said Rachel. “I was thinking perhaps Mr. Fores wouldn’t mind–“
She did not explain that her failure to fasten the window had been more or less deliberate, since, while actually tugging at the window, she had been visited by the sudden delicious thought: “How nice it would be to ask Louis Fores to do this hard thing for me!”
And now she had asked him.
“Certainly!” Louis jumped to his feet, and off he went upstairs. Most probably, if the sudden delicious thought had not skipped into Rachel’s brain, he would never have made that critical ascent to the first floor.
A gas-jet burned low on the landing.
“Let’s have a little light on the subject,” he cheerfully muttered to himself, as he turned on the gas to the full.
Then in the noisy blaze of yellow and blue light he went to the window and with a single fierce wrench he succeeded in pulling the catch into position. He was proud of his strength. It pleased him to think of the weakness of women; it pleased him to anticipate the impressed thanks of the weak women for this exertion of his power on their behalf. “Have you managed it so soon?” his aunt would exclaim, and he would answer in a carefully offhand way, “Of course. Why not?”
He was about to descend, but he remembered that he must not leave the gas at full. With his hand on the tap, he glanced perfunctorily around the little landing. The door of Mrs. Maldon’s bedroom was in front of him, at right angles to the window. By the door, which was ajar, stood a cane-seated chair. Underneath the chair he perceived a whitish package or roll that seemed to be out of place there on the floor. He stooped and picked it up. And as the paper rustled peculiarly in his hand, he could feel his heart give a swift bound. He opened the roll. It consisted of nothing whatever but bank-notes. He listened intently, with ear cocked and rigid limbs, and he could just catch the soothing murmur of women’s voices in the parlour beneath the reverberating, solemn pulse of the lobby clock.
Louis Fores had been intoxicated into a condition of poesy. He was deliciously incapable of any precise thinking; he could not formulate any theory to account for the startling phenomenon of a roll of bank-notes loose under a chair on a first-floor landing of his great-aunt’s house; he could not even estimate the value of the roll–he felt only that it was indefinitely prodigious. But he had the most sensitive appreciation of the exquisite beauty of those pieces of paper. They were not merely beautiful because they stood for delight and indulgence, raising lovely visions of hosiers’ and jewellers’ shops and the night interiors of clubs and restaurants–raising one clear vision of himself clasping a watch-bracelet on the soft arm of Rachel who had so excitingly smiled upon him a moment ago. They were beautiful in themselves; the aspect and very texture of them were beautiful–surpassing pictures and fine scenery. They were the most poetic things in the world. They transfigured the narrow, gaslit first-floor landing of his great-aunt’s house into a secret and unearthly grove of bliss. He was drunk with quivering emotion.
And then, as he gazed at the divine characters printed in sable on the rustling whiteness, he was aware of a stab of ugly, coarse pain. Up to the instant of beholding those bank-notes he had been convinced that his operations upon the petty-cash book would be entirely successful and that the immediate future of Horrocleave’s was assured of tranquillity; he had been blandly certain that Horrocleave held no horrid suspicion against him, and that even if Horrocleave’s pate did conceal a dark thought, it would be conjured at once away by the superficial reasonableness of the falsified accounts. But now his mind was terribly and inexplicably changed, and it seemed to him impossible to gull the acute and mighty Horrocleave. Failure, exposure, disgrace, ruin, seemed inevitable–and also intolerable. It was astonishing that he should have deceived himself into an absurd security. The bank-notes, by some magic virtue which they possessed, had opened his eyes to the truth. And they presented themselves as absolutely indispensable to him. They had sprung from naught, they belonged to nobody, they existed without a creative cause in the material world–and they were indispensable to him! Could it be conceived that he should lose his high and brilliant position in the town, that two policemen should hustle him into the black van, that the gates of a prison should clang behind him? It could not be conceived. It was monstrously inconceivable…. The bank-notes … he saw them wavy, as through a layer of hot air.
A heavy knock on the front door below shook him and the floor and the walls. He heard the hurried feet of Rachel, the opening of the door, and Julian’s harsh, hoarse voice. Julian, then, was not quite an hour late, after all. The stir in the lobby seemed to be enormous, and very close to him; Mrs. Maldon had come forth from the parlour to greet Julian on his birthday…. Louis stuck the bank-notes into the side pocket of his coat. And as it were automatically his mood underwent a change, violent and complete. “I’ll teach the old lady to drop notes all over the place,” he said to himself. “I’ll just teach her!” And he pictured his triumph as a wise male when, during the course of the feast, his great-aunt should stumble on her loss and yield to senile feminine agitation, and he should remark superiorly, with elaborate calm: “Here is your precious money, auntie. A good thing it was I and not burglars who discovered it. Let this be a lesson to you!… Where was it? It was on the landing carpet, if you please! That’s where it was!” And the nice old creature’s pathetic relief!
As he went jauntily downstairs there remained nothing of his mood of intoxication except a still thumping heart.
The dramatic moment of the birthday feast came nearly at the end of the meal when Mrs. Maldon, having in mysterious silence disappeared for a space to the room behind, returned with due pomp bearing a parcel in her dignified hands. During her brief absence Louis, Rachel, and Julian–hero of the night–had sat mute and somewhat constrained round the debris of the birthday pudding. The constraint was no doubt due partly to Julian’s characteristic and notorious grim temper, and partly to mere anticipation of a solemn event.
Julian Maldon in particular was self-conscious. He hated intensely to be self-conscious, and his feeling towards every witness of his self-consciousness partook always of the homicidal. Were it not that civilization has the means to protect itself, Julian might have murdered defenceless aged ladies and innocent young girls for the simple offence of having seen him blush.
He was a perfect specimen of a throw-back to original ancestry. He had been born in London, of an American mother, and had spent the greater part of his life in London. Yet London and his mother seemed to count for absolutely nothing at all in his composition. At the age of seventeen his soul, quitting the exile of London, had come to the Five Towns with a sigh of relief as if at the assuagement of a long nostalgia, and had dropped into the district as into a socket. In three months he was more indigenous than a native. Any experienced observer who now chanced at a week-end to see him board the Manchester express at Euston would have been able to predict from his appearance that he would leave the train at Knype. He was an undersized man, with a combative and suspicious face. He regarded the world with crafty pugnacity from beneath frowning eyebrows. His expression said: “Woe betide the being who tries to get the better of me!” His expression said: “Keep off!” His expression said: “I am that I am. Take me or leave me, but preferably leave me. I loathe fuss, pretence, flourishes–any and every form of damned nonsense.”
He had an excellent heart, but his attitude towards it was the attitude of his great-grandmother towards her front parlour–he used it as little as possible, and kept it locked up like a shame. In brief, he was more than a bit of a boor. And boorishness being his chief fault, he was quite naturally proud of it, counted it for the finest of all qualities, and scorned every manifestation of its opposite. To prove his inward sincerity he deemed it right to flout any form of external grace–such as politeness, neatness, elegance, compliments, small-talk, smooth words, and all ceremonial whatever. He would have died in torment sooner than kiss. He was averse even from shaking hands, and when he did shake hands he produced a carpenter’s vice, crushed flesh and bone together, and flung the intruding pulp away. His hat was so heavy on his head that only by an exhausting and supreme effort could he raise it to a woman, and after the odious accident he would feel as humiliated as a fox-terrier after a bath. By the kind hazard of fate he had never once encountered his great-aunt in the street. He was superb in enmity–a true hero. He would quarrel with a fellow and say, curtly, “I’ll never speak to you again”; and he never would speak to that fellow again. Were the last trump to blow and all the British Isles to be submerged save the summit of Snowdon, and he and that fellow to find themselves alone and safe together on the peak, he could still be relied upon never to speak to that fellow again. Thus would he prove that he was a man of his word and that there was no nonsense about him.
Strange though it may appear to the thoughtless, he was not disliked–much less ostracised. Codes differ. He conformed to one which suited the instincts of some thirty thousand other adult males in the Five Towns. Two strapping girls in the warehouse of his manufactory at Knype quarrelled over him in secret as the Prince Charming of those parts. Yet he had never addressed them except to inform them that if they didn’t mind their p’s and q’s he would have them flung off the “bank” [manufactory]. Rachel herself had not yet begun to be prejudiced against him.
This monster of irascible cruelty regarded himself as a middle-aged person. But he was only twenty-five that day, and he did not look more, either, despite a stiff, strong moustache. He too, like Louis and Rachel, had the gestures of youth–the unconsidered, lithe movements of limb, the wistful, unteachable pride of his age, the touching self-confidence. Old Mrs. Maldon was indeed old among them.
She sat down in all her benevolent stateliness and with a slightly irritating deliberation undid the parcel, displaying a flattish leather case about seven inches by four, which she handed formally to Julian Maldon, saying as she did so–
“From your old auntie, my dear boy, with her loving wishes. You have now lived just a quarter of a century.”
And as Julian, awkwardly grinning, fumbled with the spring-catch of the case, she was aware of having accomplished a great and noble act of surrender. She hoped the best from it. In particular, she hoped that she had saved the honour of her party and put it at last on a secure footing of urbane convivial success. For that a party of hers should fail in giving pleasure to every member of it was a menace to her legitimate pride. And so far fate had not been propitious. The money in the house had been, and was, on her mind. Then the lateness of the guests had disturbed her. And then Julian had aggrieved her by a piece of obstinacy very like himself. Arriving straight from a train journey, he had wanted to wash. But he would not go to the specially prepared bedroom, where a perfect apparatus awaited him. No, he must needs take off his jacket in the back room and roll up his sleeves and stamp into the scullery and there splash and rub like a stableman, and wipe himself on the common rough roller-towel. He said he preferred the “sink.” (Offensive word! He would not even say “slop-stone,” which was the proper word. He said “sink,” and again “sink.”)
And then, when the meal finally did begin Mrs. Maldon’s serviette and silver serviette-ring had vanished. Impossible to find them! Mr. Batchgrew had of course horribly disarranged the table, and in the upset the serviette and ring might have fallen unnoticed into the darkness beneath the table. But no search could discover them. Had the serviette and ring ever been on the table at all? Had Rachael perchance forgotten them? Rachael was certain that she had put them on the table. She remembered casting away a soiled serviette and replacing it with a clean one in accordance with Mrs. Maldon’s command for the high occasion. She produced the soiled serviette in proof. Moreover, the ring was not in the serviette drawer of the sideboard. Renewed search was equally sterile…. At one moment Mrs. Maldon thought that she herself had seen the serviette and ring on the table early in the evening; but at the next she thought she had not. Conceivably Mr. Batchgrew had taken them in mistake. Yes, assuredly, he had taken them in mistake–somehow! And yet it was inconceivable that he had taken a serviette and ring in mistake. In mistake for what? No!…
Mystery! Excessively disconcerting for an old lady! In the end Rachel provided another clean serviette, and the meal commenced. But Mrs. Maldon had not been able to “settle down” in an instant. The wise, pitying creatures in their twenties considered that it was absurd for her to worry herself about such a trifle. But was it a trifle? It was rather a denial of natural laws, a sinister miracle. Serviette-rings cannot walk, nor fly, nor be annihilated. And further, she had used that serviette-ring for more than twenty years. However, the hostess in her soon triumphed over the foolish old lady, and taken the head of the board with aplomb.
And indeed aplomb had been required. For the guests behaved strangely–unless it was that the hostess was in a nervous mood for fancying trouble! Julian Maldon was fidgety and preoccupied. And Louis himself–usually a model guest–was also fidgety and preoccupied. As for Rachel, the poor girl had only too obviously lost her head about Louis. Mrs. Maldon had never seen anything like it, never!
Julian, having opened the case, disclosed twin brier pipes, silver-mounted, with alternative stems of various lengths and diverse mouthpieces–all reposing on soft couches of fawn-tinted stuff, with a crimson, silk-lined lid to serve them for canopy. A rich and costly array! Everybody was impressed, even startled. For not merely was the gift extremely handsome–it was more than a gift; it symbolized the end of an epoch in those lives. Mrs. Maldon had been no friend of tobacco. She had lukewarmly permitted cigarettes, which Louis smoked, smoking naught else. But cigars she had discouraged, and pipes she simply would not have! Now, Julian smoked nothing but a pipe. Hence in his great-aunt’s parlour he had not smoked; in effect he had been forbidden to smoke there. The theory that a pipe was vulgar had been stiffly maintained in that sacred parlour. In the light of these facts did not Mrs. Maldon’s gift indeed shine as a great and noble act of surrender? Was it not more than a gift, and entitled to stagger beholders? Was it not a sublime proof that the earth revolves and the world moves?
Mrs. Maldon was as susceptible as any one to the drama of the moment, perhaps more than any one. She thrilled and became happy as Julian in silence minutely examined the pipes. She had taken expert advice before purchasing, and she was tranquil as to the ability of the pipes to withstand criticism. They bore the magic triple initials of the first firm of brier-pipe makers in the world–initials as famous and as welcome on the plains of Hindustan as in the Home Counties or the frozen zone. She gazed round the table with increasing satisfaction. Louis, who was awkwardly fixed with regard to the light, the shadow of his bust falling always across his plate, had borne that real annoyance with the most charming good-humour. He was a delight to the eye; he had excellent qualities, especially social qualities. Rachel sat opposite to the hostess–an admirable girl in most ways, a splendid companion, and a sound cook. The meal had been irreproachable, and in the phrase of the _Signal_ “ample justice had been done” to it. Julian was on the hostess’s left, with his back to the window and to the draught. A good boy, a sterling boy, if peculiar! And there they were all close together, intimate, familiar, mutually respecting; and the perfect parlour was round about them: a domestic organism, honest, dignified, worthy, more than comfortable. And she, Elizabeth Maldon, in her old age, was the head of it, and the fount of good things.
“Thank ye!” ejaculated Julian, with a queer look askance at his benefactor. “Thank ye, aunt!”
It was all he could get out of his throat, and it was all that was expected of him. He hated to give thanks–and he hated to be thanked. The grandeur of the present flattered him. Nevertheless he regarded it as essentially absurd in its pretentiousness. The pipes were A1, but could a man carry about a huge contraption like that? All a man needed was an A1 pipe, which, if he had any sense, he would carry loose in his pocket with his pouch–and be hanged to morocco cases and silk linings!
“Stoke up, my hearties!” said Louis, drawing forth a gun-metal cigarette-case, which was chained to his person by a kind of cable.
Undoubtedly the case of pipes represented for Julian a triumph over Louis, or, at least, justice against Louis. For obvious reasons Julian had not quarrelled with a rich and affectionate great-aunt because she had accorded to Louis the privilege of smoking in her parlour what he preferred to smoke, while refusing a similar privilege to himself. But he had resented the distinction. And his joy in the spectacular turn of the wheel was vast. For that very reason he hid it with much care. Why should he bubble over with gratitude for having been at last treated fairly? It would be pitiful to do so. Leaving the case open upon the table, he pulled a pouch and an old pipe from his pocket, and began to fill the pipe. It was inexcusable, but it was like him–he had to do it.
“But aren’t you going to try one of the new ones?” asked Mrs. Maldon, amiably but uncertainly.
“No,” said he, with cold nonchalance. Upon nobody in the world had the sweet magic of Mrs. Maldon’s demeanour less influence than upon himself. “Not now. I want to enjoy my smoke, and the first smoke out of a new pipe is never any good.”
It was very true, but far more wanton than true. Mrs. Maldon in her ignorance could not appreciate the truth, but she could appreciate its wantonness. She was wounded–silly, touchy old thing! She was wounded, and she hid the wound.
Rachel flushed with ire against the boor.
“By the way,” Mrs. Maldon remarked in a light, indifferent tone, just as though the glory of the moment had not been suddenly rent and shrivelled. “I didn’t see your portmanteau in the back room just now, Julian. Has any one carried it upstairs? I didn’t hear any one go upstairs.”
“I didn’t bring one, aunt,” said Julian.
“I was forgetting to tell ye. I can’t sleep here to-night. I’m off to South Africa to-morrow, and I’ve got a lot of things to fix up at my digs to-night.” He lit the old pipe from a match which Louis passed to him.
“To South Africa?” murmured Mrs. Maldon, aghast. And she repeated, “South Africa?” To her it was an incredible distance. It was not a place–it was something on the map. Perhaps she had never imaginatively realized that actual people did in fact go to South Africa. “But this is the first I have heard of this!” she said. Julian’s extraordinary secretiveness always disturbed her.
“I only got the telegram about my berth this morning,” said Julian, rather sullenly on the defensive.
“Is it business?” Mrs. Maldon asked.
“You may depend it isn’t pleasure, aunt,” he answered, and shut his lips tight on the pipe.
After a pause Mrs. Maldon tried again.
“Where do you sail from?”
There was another pause. Louis and Rachel exchanged a glance of sympathetic dismay at the situation.
Mrs. Maldon then smiled with plaintive courage.
“Of course if you can’t sleep here, you can’t,” said she benignly. “I can see that. But we were quite counting on having a man in the house to-night–with all these burglars about–weren’t we, Rachel?” Her grimace became, by an effort, semi-humorous.
Rachel diplomatically echoed the tone of Mrs. Maldon, but more brightly, with a more frankly humorous smile–
“We were, indeed!”
But her smile was a masterpiece of duplicity, somewhat strange in a girl so downright; for beneath it burned hotly her anger against the brute Julian.
“Well, there it is!” Julian gruffly and callously summed up the situation, staring at the inside of his teacup.
“Propitious moment for getting a monopoly of door-knobs at the Cape, I suppose?” said Louis quizzically. His cousin manufactured, among other articles, white and jet door-knobs.
“No need for you to be so desperately funny!” snapped Julian, who detested Louis’ brand of facetiousness. It was the word “propitious” that somehow annoyed him–it had a sarcastic flavour, and it was “Louis all over.”
“No offence, old man!” Louis magnanimously soothed him. “On the contrary, many happy returns of the day.” In social intercourse the younger cousin’s good-humour and suavity were practically indestructible.
But Julian still scowled.
Rachel, to make a tactful diversion, rose and began to collect plates. The meal was at an end, and for Mrs. Maldon it had closed in ignominy. From her quarter of the table she pushed crockery towards Rachel with a gesture of disillusion; the courage to smile had been but momentary. She felt old–older than she had ever felt before. The young generation presented themselves to her as almost completely enigmatic. She admitted that they were foreign to her, that she could not comprehend them at all. Each of the three at her table was entirely free and independent–each could and did act according to his or her whim, and none could say them nay. Such freedom seemed unreal. They were children playing at life, and playing dangerously. Hundreds of times, in conversation with her coevals, she had cheerfully protested against the banal complaint that the world had changed of late years. But now she felt grievously that the world was different–that it had indeed deteriorated since her young days. She was fatigued by the modes of thought of these youngsters, as a nurse or mother is fatigued by too long a spell of the shrillness and the _naivete_ of a family of infants. She wanted repose…. Was it conceivable that when, with incontestable large-mindedness, she had given a case of pipes to Julian, he should first put a slight on her gift and then, brusquely leaving her in the lurch, announce his departure for South Africa, with as much calm as though South Africa were in the next street?… And the other two were guilty in other ways, perhaps more subtly, of treason against forlorn old age.
And then Louis, in taking the slop-basin from her trembling fingers, to pass it to Rachel, gave her one of his adorable, candid, persuasive, sympathetic smiles. And lo! she was enheartened once more. And she remembered that dignity and kindliness had been the watchwords of her whole life, and that it would be shameful to relinquish the struggle for an ideal at the very threshold of the grave. She began to find excuses for Julian. The dear lad must have many business worries. He was very young to be at the head of a manufacturing concern. He had a remarkable brain–worthy of the family. Allowances must be made for him. She must not be selfish…. And assuredly that serviette and ring would reappear on the morrow.
“I’ll take that out,” said Louis, indicating the tray which Rachel had drawn from concealment under the Chesterfield, and which was now loaded. Mrs. Maldon employed an old and valued charwoman in the mornings. Rachel accomplished all the rest of the housework herself, including cookery, and she accomplished it with the stylistic smartness of a self-respecting lady-help.
“Oh no!” said she. “I can carry it quite easily, thanks.”
Louis insisted masculinely–
“I’ll take that tray out.”