E. M. Forster
"Only Connect," Forster's key aphorism, informs this novel about an English country house, Howards End, and its influence on the lives of the wealthy and materialistic Wilcoxes; the cultured, idealistic Schlegel sisters; and the poor bank clerk Leonard Bast. Bringing together people from different classes and nations by way of sympathetic insight and understanding, Howards End eloquently addresses the question "Who shall inherit England?" (Lionel Trilling).
One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.
“It isn’t going to be what we expected. It is old and little, and altogether delightful—red brick. We can scarcely pack in as it is, and the dear knows what will happen when Paul (younger son) arrives to-morrow. From hall you go right or left into dining-room or drawing-room. Hall itself is practically a room. You open another door in it, and there are the stairs going up in a sort of tunnel to the first-floor. Three bed-rooms in a row there, and three attics in a row above. That isn’t all the house really, but it’s all that one notices—nine windows as you look up from the front garden.
“Then there’s a very big wych-elm—to the left as you look up—leaning a little over the house, and standing on the boundary between the garden and meadow. I quite love that tree already. Also ordinary elms, oaks—no nastier than ordinary oaks—pear-trees, apple-trees, and a vine. No silver birches, though. However, I must get on to my host and hostess. I only wanted to show that it isn’t the least what we expected. Why did we settle that their house would be all gables and wiggles, and their garden all gamboge-coloured paths? I believe simply because we associate them with expensive hotels—Mrs. Wilcox trailing in beautiful dresses down long corridors, Mr. Wilcox bullying porters, etc. We females are that unjust.
“I shall be back Saturday; will let you know train later. They are as angry as I am that you did not come too; really Tibby is too tiresome, he starts a new mortal disease every month. How could he have got hay fever in London? and even if he could, it seems hard that you should give up a visit to hear a schoolboy sneeze. Tell him that Charles Wilcox (the son who is here) has hay fever too, but he’s brave, and gets quite cross when we inquire after it. Men like the Wilcoxes would do Tibby a power of good. But you won’t agree, and I’d better change the subject.
“This long letter is because I’m writing before breakfast. Oh, the beautiful vine leaves! The house is covered with a vine. I looked out earlier, and Mrs. Wilcox was already in the garden. She evidently loves it. No wonder she sometimes looks tired. She was watching the large red poppies come out. Then she walked off the lawn to the meadow, whose corner to the right I can just see. Trail, trail, went her long dress over the sopping grass, and she came back with her hands full of the hay that was cut yesterday—I suppose for rabbits or something, as she kept on smelling it. The air here is delicious. Later on I heard the noise of croquet balls, and looked out again, and it was Charles Wilcox practising; they are keen on all games. Presently he started sneezing and had to stop. Then I hear more clicketing, and it is Mr. Wilcox practising, and then, ‘a-tissue, a-tissue’: he has to stop too. Then Evie comes out, and does some calisthenic exercises on a machine that is tacked on to a green-gage-tree—they put everything to use—and then she says ‘a-tissue,’ and in she goes. And finally Mrs. Wilcox reappears, trail, trail, still smelling hay and looking at the flowers. I inflict all this on you because once you said that life is sometimes life and sometimes only a drama, and one must learn to distinguish tother from which, and up to now I have always put that down as ‘Meg’s clever nonsense.’ But this morning, it really does seem not life but a play, and it did amuse me enormously to watch the W’s. Now Mrs. Wilcox has come in.
“I am going to wear [omission]. Last night Mrs. Wilcox wore an [omission], and Evie [omission]. So it isn’t exactly a go-as-you-please place, and if you shut your eyes it still seems the wiggly hotel that we expected. Not if you open them. The dog-roses are too sweet. There is a great hedge of them over the lawn—magnificently tall, so that they fall down in garlands, and nice and thin at the bottom, so that you can see ducks through it and a cow. These belong to the farm, which is the only house near us. There goes the breakfast gong. Much love. Modified love to Tibby. Love to Aunt Juley; how good of her to come and keep you company, but what a bore. Burn this. Will write again Thursday.
“I am having a glorious time. I like them all. Mrs. Wilcox, if quieter than in Germany, is sweeter than ever, and I never saw anything like her steady unselfishness, and the best of it is that the others do not take advantage of her. They are the very happiest, jolliest family that you can imagine. I do really feel that we are making friends. The fun of it is that they think me a noodle, and say so—at least, Mr. Wilcox does—and when that happens, and one doesn’t mind, it’s a pretty sure test, isn’t it? He says the most horrid things about woman’s suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I’ve never had. Meg, shall we ever learn to talk less? I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. I couldn’t point to a time when men had been equal, nor even to a time when the wish to be equal had made them happier in other ways. I couldn’t say a word. I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book—probably from poetry, or you. Anyhow, it’s been knocked into pieces, and, like all people who are really strong, Mr. Wilcox did it without hurting me. On the other hand, I laugh at them for catching hay fever. We live like fighting-cocks, and Charles takes us out every day in the motor—a tomb with trees in it, a hermit’s house, a wonderful road that was made by the Kings of Mercia—tennis—a cricket match—bridge and at night we squeeze up in this lovely house. The whole clan’s here now—it’s like a rabbit warren. Evie is a dear. They want me to stop over Sunday—I suppose it won’t matter if I do. Marvellous weather and the views marvellous—views westward to the high ground. Thank you for your letter. Burn this.
“Dearest, dearest Meg,—I do not know what you will say: Paul and I are in love—the younger son who only came here Wednesday.”
Margaret glanced at her sister’s note and pushed it over the breakfast-table to her aunt. There was a moment’s hush, and then the flood-gates opened.
“I can tell you nothing, Aunt Juley. I know no more than you do. We met—we only met the father and mother abroad last spring. I know so little that I didn’t even know their son’s name. It’s all so—” She waved her hand and laughed a little.
“In that case it is far too sudden.”
“Who knows, Aunt Juley, who knows?”
“But, Margaret, dear, I mean, we mustn’t be unpractical now that we’ve come to facts. It is too sudden, surely.”
“But, Margaret, dear—”
“I’ll go for her other letters,” said Margaret. “No, I won’t, I’ll finish my breakfast. In fact, I haven’t them. We met the Wilcoxes on an awful expedition that we made from Heidelberg to Speyer. Helen and I had got it into our heads that there was a grand old cathedral at Speyer—the Archbishop of Speyer was one of the seven electors—you know—‘Speyer, Maintz, and Koln.’ Those three sees once commanded the Rhine Valley and got it the name of Priest Street.”
“I still feel quite uneasy about this business, Margaret.”
“The train crossed by a bridge of boats, and at first sight it looked quite fine. But oh, in five minutes we had seen the whole thing. The cathedral had been ruined, absolutely ruined, by restoration; not an inch left of the original structure. We wasted a whole day, and came across the Wilcoxes as we were eating our sandwiches in the public gardens. They too, poor things, had been taken in—they were actually stopping at Speyer—and they rather liked Helen’s insisting that they must fly with us to Heidelberg. As a matter of fact, they did come on next day. We all took some drives together. They knew us well enough to ask Helen to come and see them—at least, I was asked too, but Tibby’s illness prevented me, so last Monday she went alone. That’s all. You know as much as I do now. It’s a young man out of the unknown. She was to have come back Saturday, but put off till Monday, perhaps on account of—I don’t know.”
She broke off, and listened to the sounds of a London morning. Their house was in Wickham Place, and fairly quiet, for a lofty promontory of buildings separated it from the main thoroughfare. One had the sense of a backwater, or rather of an estuary, whose waters flowed in from the invisible sea, and ebbed into a profound silence while the waves without were still beating. Though the promontory consisted of flats—expensive, with cavernous entrance halls, full of concierges and palms—it fulfilled its purpose, and gained for the older houses opposite a certain measure of peace.
These, too, would be swept away in time, and another promontory would arise upon their site, as humanity piled itself higher and higher on the precious soil of London.
Mrs. Munt had her own method of interpreting her nieces. She decided that Margaret was a little hysterical, and was trying to gain time by a torrent of talk. Feeling very diplomatic, she lamented the fate of Speyer, and declared that never, never should she be so misguided as to visit it, and added of her own accord that the principles of restoration were ill understood in Germany. “The Germans,” she said, “are too thorough, and this is all very well sometimes, but at other times it does not do.”
“Exactly,” said Margaret; “Germans are too thorough.” And her eyes began to shine.
“Of course I regard you Schlegels as English,” said Mrs. Munt hastily—“English to the backbone.”
Margaret leaned forward and stroked her hand.
“And that reminds me—Helen’s letter.”
“Oh yes, Aunt Juley, I am thinking all right about Helen’s letter. I know—I must go down and see her. I am thinking about her all right. I am meaning to go down.”
“But go with some plan,” said Mrs. Munt, admitting into her kindly voice a note of exasperation. “Margaret, if I may interfere, don’t be taken by surprise. What do you think of the Wilcoxes? Are they our sort? Are they likely people? Could they appreciate Helen, who is to my mind a very special sort of person? Do they care about Literature and Art? That is most important when you come to think of it. Literature and Art. Most important. How old would the son be? She says ‘younger son.’ Would he be in a position to marry? Is he likely to make Helen happy? Did you gather—”
“I gathered nothing.”
They began to talk at once.
“Then in that case—”
“In that case I can make no plans, don’t you see.”
“On the contrary—”
“I hate plans. I hate lines of action. Helen isn’t a baby.”
“Then in that case, my dear, why go down?”
Margaret was silent. If her aunt could not see why she must go down, she was not going to tell her. She was not going to say, “I love my dear sister; I must be near her at this crisis of her life.” The affections are more reticent than the passions, and their expression more subtle. If she herself should ever fall in love with a man, she, like Helen, would proclaim it from the housetops, but as she loved only a sister she used the voiceless language of sympathy.
“I consider you odd girls,” continued Mrs. Munt, “and very wonderful girls, and in many ways far older than your years. But—you won’t be offended? frankly, I feel you are not up to this business. It requires an older person. Dear, I have nothing to call me back to Swanage.” She spread out her plump arms. “I am all at your disposal. Let me go down to this house whose name I forget instead of you.”
“Aunt Juley”—she jumped up and kissed her—“I must, must go to Howards End myself. You don’t exactly understand, though I can never thank you properly for offering.”
“I do understand,” retorted Mrs. Munt, with immense confidence. “I go down in no spirit of interference, but to make inquiries. Inquiries are necessary. Now, I am going to be rude. You would say the wrong thing; to a certainty you would. In your anxiety for Helen’s happiness you would offend the whole of these Wilcoxes by asking one of your impetuous questions—not that one minds offending them.”
“I shall ask no questions. I have it in Helen’s writing that she and a man are in love. There is no question to ask as long as she keeps to that. All the rest isn’t worth a straw. A long engagement if you like, but inquiries, questions, plans, lines of action—no, Aunt Juley, no.”
Away she hurried, not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities—something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered in her path through life.
“If Helen had written the same to me about a shop assistant or a penniless clerk—”
“Dear Margaret, do come into the library and shut the door. Your good maids are dusting the banisters.”
“—or if she had wanted to marry the man who calls for Carter Paterson, I should have said the same.” Then, with one of those turns that convinced her aunt that she was not mad really, and convinced observers of another type that she was not a barren theorist, she added: “Though in the case of Carter Paterson I should want it to be a very long engagement indeed, I must say.”
“I should think so,” said Mrs. Munt; “and, indeed, I can scarcely follow you. Now, just imagine if you said anything of that sort to the Wilcoxes. I understand it, but most good people would think you mad. Imagine how disconcerting for Helen! What is wanted is a person who will go slowly, slowly in this business, and see how things are and where they are likely to lead to.”
Margaret was down on this.
“But you implied just now that the engagement must be broken off.”
“I think probably it must; but slowly.”
“Can you break an engagement off slowly?” Her eyes lit up. “What’s an engagement made of, do you suppose? I think it’s made of some hard stuff that may snap, but can’t break. It is different to the other ties of life. They stretch or bend. They admit of degree. They’re different.”
“Exactly so. But won’t you let me just run down to Howards House, and save you all the discomfort? I will really not interfere, but I do so thoroughly understand the kind of thing you Schlegels want that one quiet look round will be enough for me.”
Margaret again thanked her, again kissed her, and then ran upstairs to see her brother.
He was not so well.
The hay fever had worried him a good deal all night. His head ached, his eyes were wet, his mucous membrane, he informed her, in a most unsatisfactory condition. The only thing that made life worth living was the thought of Walter Savage Landor, from whose Imaginary Conversations she had promised to read at frequent intervals during the day.
It was rather difficult. Something must be done about Helen. She must be assured that it is not a criminal offence to love at first sight. A telegram to this effect would be cold and cryptic, a personal visit seemed each moment more impossible. Now the doctor arrived, and said that Tibby was quite bad. Might it really be best to accept Aunt Juley’s kind offer, and to send her down to Howards End with a note?
Certainly Margaret was impulsive. She did swing rapidly from one decision to another. Running downstairs into the library, she cried: “Yes, I have changed my mind; I do wish that you would go.”
There was a train from King’s Cross at eleven. At half-past ten Tibby, with rare self-effacement, fell asleep, and Margaret was able to drive her aunt to the station.
“You will remember, Aunt Juley, not to be drawn into discussing the engagement. Give my letter to Helen, and say whatever you feel yourself, but do keep clear of the relatives. We have scarcely got their names straight yet, and, besides, that sort of thing is so uncivilised and wrong.”
“So uncivilised?” queried Mrs. Munt, fearing that she was losing the point of some brilliant remark.
“Oh, I used an affected word. I only meant would you please talk the thing over only with Helen.”
“Only with Helen.”
“Because—” But it was no moment to expound the personal nature of love. Even Margaret shrank from it, and contented herself with stroking her good aunt’s hand, and with meditating, half sensibly and half poetically, on the journey that was about to begin from King’s Cross.
Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo. Italians realise this, as is natural; those of them who are so unfortunate as to serve as waiters in Berlin call the Anhalt Bahnhof the Stazione d’Italia, because by it they must return to their homes. And he is a chilly Londoner who does not endow his stations with some personality, and extend to them, however shyly, the emotions of fear and love.
To Margaret—I hope that it will not set the reader against her—the station of King’s Cross had always suggested Infinity. Its very situation—withdrawn a little behind the facile splendours of St. Pancras—implied a comment on the materialism of life. Those two great arches, colourless, indifferent, shouldering between them an unlovely clock, were fit portals for some eternal adventure, whose issue might be prosperous, but would certainly not be expressed in the ordinary language of prosperity. If you think this ridiculous, remember that it is not Margaret who is telling you about it; and let me hasten to add that they were in plenty of time for the train; that Mrs. Munt, though she took a second-class ticket, was put by the guard into a first (only two “seconds” on the train, one smoking and the other babies—one cannot be expected to travel with babies); and that Margaret, on her return to Wickham Place, was confronted with the following telegram:
“All over. Wish I had never written. Tell no one—, HELEN.”
But Aunt Juley was gone—gone irrevocably, and no power on earth could stop her.
Most complacently did Mrs. Munt rehearse her mission. Her nieces were independent young women, and it was not often that she was able to help them. Emily’s daughters had never been quite like other girls. They had been left motherless when Tibby was born, when Helen was five and Margaret herself but thirteen. It was before the passing of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill, so Mrs. Munt could without impropriety offer to go and keep house at Wickham Place. But her brother-in-law, who was peculiar and a German, had referred the question to Margaret, who with the crudity of youth had answered, “No, they could manage much better alone.” Five years later Mr. Schlegel had died too, and Mrs. Munt had repeated her offer. Margaret, crude no longer, had been grateful and extremely nice, but the substance of her answer had been the same. “I must not interfere a third time,” thought Mrs. Munt. However, of course she did. She learnt, to her horror, that Margaret, now of age, was taking her money out of the old safe investments and putting it into Foreign Things, which always smash. Silence would have been criminal. Her own fortune was invested in Home Rails, and most ardently did she beg her niece to imitate her. “Then we should be together, dear.” Margaret, out of politeness, invested a few hundreds in the Nottingham and Derby Railway, and though the Foreign Things did admirably and the Nottingham and Derby declined with the steady dignity of which only Home Rails are capable, Mrs. Munt never ceased to rejoice, and to say, “I did manage that, at all events. When the smash comes poor Margaret will have a nest-egg to fall back upon.” This year Helen came of age, and exactly the same thing happened in Helen’s case; she also would shift her money out of Consols, but she, too, almost without being pressed, consecrated a fraction of it to the Nottingham and Derby Railway. So far so good, but in social matters their aunt had accomplished nothing. Sooner or later the girls would enter on the process known as throwing themselves away, and if they had delayed hitherto, it was only that they might throw themselves more vehemently in the future. They saw too many people at Wickham Place—unshaven musicians, an actress even, German cousins (one knows what foreigners are), acquaintances picked up at Continental hotels (one knows what they are too). It was interesting, and down at Swanage no one appreciated culture more than Mrs. Munt; but it was dangerous, and disaster was bound to come. How right she was, and how lucky to be on the spot when the disaster came!
The train sped northward, under innumerable tunnels. It was only an hour’s journey, but Mrs. Munt had to raise and lower the window again and again. She passed through the South Welwyn Tunnel, saw light for a moment, and entered the North Welwyn Tunnel, of tragic fame. She traversed the immense viaduct, whose arches span untroubled meadows and the dreamy flow of Tewin Water. She skirted the parks of politicians. At times the Great North Road accompanied her, more suggestive of infinity than any railway, awakening, after a nap of a hundred years, to such life as is conferred by the stench of motor-cars, and to such culture as is implied by the advertisements of antibilious pills. To history, to tragedy, to the past, to the future, Mrs. Munt remained equally indifferent; hers but to concentrate on the end of her journey, and to rescue poor Helen from this dreadful mess.
The station for Howards End was at Hilton, one of the large villages that are strung so frequently along the North Road, and that owe their size to the traffic of coaching and pre-coaching days. Being near London, it had not shared in the rural decay, and its long High Street had budded out right and left into residential estates. For about a mile a series of tiled and slated houses passed before Mrs. Munt’s inattentive eyes, a series broken at one point by six Danish tumuli that stood shoulder to shoulder along the highroad, tombs of soldiers. Beyond these tumuli, habitations thickened, and the train came to a standstill in a tangle that was almost a town.
The station, like the scenery, like Helen’s letters, struck an indeterminate note. Into which country will it lead, England or Suburbia? It was new, it had island platforms and a subway, and the superficial comfort exacted by business men. But it held hints of local life, personal intercourse, as even Mrs. Munt was to discover.
“I want a house,” she confided to the ticket boy. “Its name is Howards Lodge. Do you know where it is?”
“Mr. Wilcox!” the boy called.
A young man in front of them turned around.
“She’s wanting Howards End.”
There was nothing for it but to go forward, though Mrs. Munt was too much agitated even to stare at the stranger. But remembering that there were two brothers, she had the sense to say to him, “Excuse me asking, but are you the younger Mr. Wilcox or the elder?”
“The younger. Can I do anything for you?”
“Oh, well”—she controlled herself with difficulty. “Really. Are you? I—” She moved; away from the ticket boy and lowered her voice. “I am Miss Schlegel’s aunt. I ought to introduce myself, oughtn’t I? My name is Mrs. Munt.”
She was conscious that he raised his cap and said quite coolly, “Oh, rather; Miss Schlegel is stopping with us. Did you want to see her?”
“I’ll call you a cab. No; wait a mo—” He thought. “Our motor’s here. I’ll run you up in it.”
“That is very kind.”
“Not at all, if you’ll just wait till they bring out a parcel from the office. This way.”
“My niece is not with you by any chance?”
“No; I came over with my father. He has gone on north in your train. You’ll see Miss Schlegel at lunch. You’re coming up to lunch, I hope?”
“I should like to come UP,” said Mrs. Munt, not committing herself to nourishment until she had studied Helen’s lover a little more. He seemed a gentleman, but had so rattled her round that her powers of observation were numbed. She glanced at him stealthily.
To a feminine eye there was nothing amiss in the sharp depressions at the corners of his mouth, or in the rather box-like construction of his forehead. He was dark, clean-shaven, and seemed accustomed to command.
“In front or behind? Which do you prefer? It may be windy in front.”
“In front if I may; then we can talk.”
“But excuse me one moment—I can’t think what they’re doing with that parcel.” He strode into the booking-office, and called with a new voice: “Hi! hi, you there! Are you going to keep me waiting all day? Parcel for Wilcox, Howards End. Just look sharp!”
Emerging, he said in quieter tones: “This station’s abominably organised; if I had my way, the whole lot of ’em should get the sack. May I help you in?”
“This is very good of you,” said Mrs. Munt, as she settled herself into a luxurious cavern of red leather, and suffered her person to be padded with rugs and shawls. She was more civil than she had intended, but really this young man was very kind. Moreover, she was a little afraid of him; his self-possession was extraordinary. “Very good indeed,” she repeated, adding: “It is just what I should have wished.”
“Very good of you to say so,” he replied, with a slight look of surprise, which, like most slight looks, escaped Mrs. Munt’s attention. “I was just tooling my father over to catch the down train.”
“You see, we heard from Helen this morning.”
Young Wilcox was pouring in petrol, starting his engine, and performing other actions with which this story has no concern. The great car began to rock, and the form of Mrs. Munt, trying to explain things, sprang agreeably up and down among the red cushions. “The mater will be very glad to see you,” he mumbled. “Hi! I say. Parcel. Parcel for Howards End. Bring it out. Hi!”
A bearded porter emerged with the parcel in one hand and an entry book in the other. With the gathering whir of the motor these ejaculations mingled: “Sign, must I? Why the — should I sign after all this bother? Not even got a pencil on you? Remember next time I report you to the station-master. My time’s of value, though yours mayn’t be. Here”—here being a tip.
“Extremely sorry, Mrs. Munt.”
“Not at all, Mr. Wilcox.”
“And do you object to going through the village? It is rather a longer spin, but I have one or two commissions.”
“I should love going through the village. Naturally I am very anxious to talk things over with you.”
As she said this she felt ashamed, for she was disobeying Margaret’s instructions. Only disobeying them in the letter, surely. Margaret had only warned her against discussing the incident with outsiders. Surely it was not “uncivilised or wrong” to discuss it with the young man himself, since chance had thrown them together.
A reticent fellow, he made no reply. Mounting by her side, he put on gloves and spectacles, and off they drove, the bearded porter—life is a mysterious business—looking after them with admiration.
The wind was in their faces down the station road, blowing the dust into Mrs. Munt’s eyes. But as soon as they turned into the Great North Road she opened fire. “You can well imagine,” she said, “that the news was a great shock to us.”
“Mr. Wilcox,” she said frankly, “Margaret has told me everything—everything. I have seen Helen’s letter.”
He could not look her in the face, as his eyes were fixed on his work; he was travelling as quickly as he dared down the High Street. But he inclined his head in her direction, and said: “I beg your pardon; I didn’t catch.”
“About Helen. Helen, of course. Helen is a very exceptional person—I am sure you will let me say this, feeling towards her as you do—indeed, all the Schlegels are exceptional. I come in no spirit of interference, but it was a great shock.”
They drew up opposite a draper’s. Without replying, he turned round in his seat, and contemplated the cloud of dust that they had raised in their passage through the village. It was settling again, but not all into the road from which he had taken it. Some of it had percolated through the open windows, some had whitened the roses and gooseberries of the wayside gardens, while a certain proportion had entered the lungs of the villagers. “I wonder when they’ll learn wisdom and tar the roads,” was his comment. Then a man ran out of the draper’s with a roll of oilcloth, and off they went again.
“Margaret could not come herself, on account of poor Tibby, so I am here to represent her and to have a good talk.”
“I’m sorry to be so dense,” said the young man, again drawing up outside a shop. “But I still haven’t quite understood.”
“Helen, Mr. Wilcox—my niece and you.”
He pushed up his goggles and gazed at her, absolutely bewildered. Horror smote her to the heart, for even she began to suspect that they were at cross-purposes, and that she had commenced her mission by some hideous blunder.
“Miss Schlegel and myself?” he asked, compressing his lips.
“I trust there has been no misunderstanding,” quavered Mrs. Munt. “Her letter certainly read that way.”
“That you and she—” She paused, then drooped her eyelids.
“I think I catch your meaning,” he said stickily. “What an extraordinary mistake!”
“Then you didn’t the least—” she stammered, getting blood-red in the face, and wishing she had never been born.
“Scarcely, as I am already engaged to another lady.” There was a moment’s silence, and then he caught his breath and exploded with, “Oh, good God! Don’t tell me it’s some silliness of Paul’s.”
“But you are Paul.”
“Then why did you say so at the station?”
“I said nothing of the sort.”
“I beg your pardon, you did.”
“I beg your pardon, I did not. My name is Charles.”
“Younger” may mean son as opposed to father, or second brother as opposed to first. There is much to be said for either view, and later on they said it. But they had other questions before them now.
“Do you mean to tell me that Paul—”
But she did not like his voice. He sounded as if he was talking to a porter, and, certain that he had deceived her at the station, she too grew angry.
“Do you mean to tell me that Paul and your niece—”
Mrs. Munt—such is human nature—determined that she would champion the lovers. She was not going to be bullied by a severe young man. “Yes, they care for one another very much indeed,” she said. “I dare say they will tell you about it by-and-by. We heard this morning.”
And Charles clenched his fist and cried, “The idiot, the idiot, the little fool!”
Mrs. Munt tried to divest herself of her rugs. “If that is your attitude, Mr. Wilcox, I prefer to walk.”
“I beg you will do no such thing. I take you up this moment to the house. Let me tell you the thing’s impossible, and must be stopped.”
Mrs. Munt did not often lose her temper, and when she did it was only to protect those whom she loved. On this occasion she blazed out. “I quite agree, sir. The thing is impossible, and I will come up and stop it. My niece is a very exceptional person, and I am not inclined to sit still while she throws herself away on those who will not appreciate her.”
Charles worked his jaws.
“Considering she has only known your brother since Wednesday, and only met your father and mother at a stray hotel—”
“Could you possibly lower your voice? The shopman will overhear.”
Esprit de classe—if one may coin the phrase—was strong in Mrs. Munt. She sat quivering while a member of the lower orders deposited a metal funnel, a saucepan, and a garden squirt beside the roll of oilcloth.
“Yes, sir.” And the lower orders vanished in a cloud of dust.
“I warn you: Paul hasn’t a penny; it’s useless.”
“No need to warn us, Mr. Wilcox, I assure you. The warning is all the other way. My niece has been very foolish, and I shall give her a good scolding and take her back to London with me.”
“He has to make his way out in Nigeria. He couldn’t think of marrying for years, and when he does it must be a woman who can stand the climate, and is in other ways—Why hasn’t he told us? Of course he’s ashamed. He knows he’s been a fool. And so he has—a downright fool.”
She grew furious.
“Whereas Miss Schlegel has lost no time in publishing the news.”
“If I were a man, Mr. Wilcox, for that last remark I’d box your ears. You’re not fit to clean my niece’s boots, to sit in the same room with her, and you dare—you actually dare—I decline to argue with such a person.”
“All I know is, she’s spread the thing and he hasn’t, and my father’s away and I—”
“And all that I know is—”
“Might I finish my sentence, please?”
Charles clenched his teeth and sent the motor swerving all over the lane.
So they played the game of Capping Families, a round of which is always played when love would unite two members of our race. But they played it with unusual vigour, stating in so many words that Schlegels were better than Wilcoxes, Wilcoxes better than Schlegels. They flung decency aside. The man was young, the woman deeply stirred; in both a vein of coarseness was latent. Their quarrel was no more surprising than are most quarrels—inevitable at the time, incredible afterwards. But it was more than usually futile. A few minutes, and they were enlightened. The motor drew up at Howards End, and Helen, looking very pale, ran out to meet her aunt.
“Aunt Juley, I have just had a telegram from Margaret; I—I meant to stop your coming. It isn’t—it’s over.”
The climax was too much for Mrs. Munt. She burst into tears.
“Aunt Juley dear, don’t. Don’t let them know I’ve been so silly. It wasn’t anything. Do bear up for my sake.”
“Paul,” cried Charles Wilcox, pulling his gloves off.
“Don’t let them know. They are never to know.”
“Oh, my darling Helen—”
A very young man came out of the house.
“Paul, is there any truth in this?”
“I didn’t—I don’t—”
“Yes or no, man; plain question, plain answer. Did or didn’t Miss Schlegel—”
“Charles, dear,” said a voice from the garden. “Charles, dear Charles, one doesn’t ask plain questions. There aren’t such things.”
They were all silent. It was Mrs. Wilcox.
She approached just as Helen’s letter had described her, trailing noiselessly over the lawn, and there was actually a wisp of hay in her hands. She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her—that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy. High born she might not be. But assuredly she cared about her ancestors, and let them help her. When she saw Charles angry, Paul frightened, and Mrs. Munt in tears, she heard her ancestors say, “Separate those human beings who will hurt each other most. The rest can wait.” So she did not ask questions. Still less did she pretend that nothing had happened, as a competent society hostess would have done. She said: “Miss Schlegel, would you take your aunt up to your room or to my room, whichever you think best. Paul, do find Evie, and tell her lunch for six, but I’m not sure whether we shall all be downstairs for it.” And when they had obeyed her, she turned to her elder son, who still stood in the throbbing, stinking car, and smiled at him with tenderness, and without saying a word, turned away from him towards her flowers.
“Mother,” he called, “are you aware that Paul has been playing the fool again?”
“It is all right, dear. They have broken off the engagement.”
“They do not love any longer, if you prefer it put that way,” said Mrs. Wilcox, stooping down to smell a rose.