And then the disaster of Hilda's career! He felt, more than ever, that he had failed in sympathy with her overwhelming misfortune. In the secrecy of his heart a full imaginative sympathy had been lacking. He had not realised, as he seemed to realise then, in front of the fire in the drawing-room of the Orgreaves, what it must be to be the wife of a convict. Janet, sitting there as innocent as a doe, knew that Hilda was the wife of a convict. But did her parents know? And was she aware that he knew? He wondered, drinking his tea.
Then the servant—not the Martha who had been privileged to smile on duty if she felt so inclined—came with a tawny gold telegram on a silver plate, and hesitated a moment as to where she should bestow it.
"Give it to me, Selina," said Janet.
Selina impassively obeyed, imitating as well as she could the deportment of an automaton; and went away.
"That's my telegram," said Mr Orgreave. "How is it addressed?"
"Orgreave, Bleakridge, Bursley."
"Then it's mine."
"Oh no, it isn't!" Janet archly protested. "If you have your business telegrams sent here you must take the consequences. I always open all telegrams that come here, don't I, mother?"
Mrs Orgreave made no reply, but waited with candid and fretful impatience, thinking of her five absent children, and her ten grandchildren, for the telegram to be opened.
Janet opened it.
Her lips parted to speak, and remained so in silent astonishment. "Just read that!" she said to Edwin, passing the telegram to him; and she added to her father: "It was for me, after all."
Edwin read, aloud: "Am sending George down to-day. Please meet 6:30 train at Knype. Love. Hilda."
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Mrs Orgreave. "You don't mean to tell me she's letting that boy travel alone! What next?"
"Where's the telegram sent from?" asked Mr Orgreave.
Edwin examined the official indications: "Victoria."
"Then she's brought him up to London, and she's putting him in a train at Euston. That's it."
"Only there is no London train that gets to Knype at half-past six," Edwin said. "It's 7:12, or 7:14—I forget."
"Oh! That's near enough for Hilda," Janet smiled, looking at her watch.
"She doesn't mean any other train?" Mrs Orgreave fearfully suggested.
"She can't mean any other train. There is no other. Only probably she's been looking at the wrong time-table," Janet reassured her mother.
"Because if the poor little thing found no one to meet him at Knype—"
"Don't worry, dear," said Janet. "The poor little thing would soon be engaging somebody's attention. Trust him!"
"But has she been writing to you lately?" Mrs Orgreave questioned.
"Don't ask me!" said Janet. "No doubt I shall get a letter to-morrow, after George has come and told us everything! Poor dear, I'm glad she's doing so much better now."
"Is she?" Edwin murmured, surprised.
"Oh yes!" said Janet. "She's got a regular bustling partner, and they're that busy they scarcely know what to do. But they only keep one little servant."
In the ordinary way Janet and Edwin never mentioned Hilda to one another. Each seemed to be held back by a kind of timid shame and by a cautious suspicion. Each seemed to be inquiring: "What does he know?" "What does she know?"
"If I thought it wasn't too cold, I'd go with you to Knype," said Mr Orgreave.
"Now, Osmond!" Mrs Orgreave sat up.
"Shall I go?" said Edwin.
"Well," said Janet, with much kindliness, "I'm sure he'd be delighted to see you."
Mrs Orgreave rang the bell.
"What do you want, mother?"
"There'll be the bed—"
"Don't you trouble with those things, dear," said Janet, very calmly. "There's heaps of time."
But Janet was just as excited as her parents. In two minutes the excitement had spread through the whole house, like a piquant and agreeable odour. The place was alive again.
"I'll just step across and ask Maggie to alter supper," said Edwin, "and then I'll call for you. I suppose we'll go down by train."
"I'm thankful he's had influenza," observed Mrs Orgreave, implying that thus there would be less chance of George catching the disease under her infected roof.
That George had been down with influenza before Christmas was the sole information about him that Edwin obtained. Nobody appeared to consider it worth while to discuss the possible reasons for his sudden arrival. Hilda's caprices were accepted in that house like the visitations of heaven.
Edwin and Janet stood together on the windy and bleak down-platform of Knype Station, awaiting the express, which had been signalled. Edwin was undoubtedly very nervous and constrained, and it seemed to him that Janet's demeanour lacked naturalness.
"It's just occurred to me how she made that mistake about the time of the train," said Edwin, chiefly because he found the silence intolerably irksome. "It stops at Lichfield, and in running her eye across the page she must have mixed up the Lichfield figures with the Knype figures—you know how awkward it is in a time-table. As a matter of fact, the train does stop at Lichfield about 6:30."
"I see," said Janet reflectively.
And Edwin was saying to himself—
"It's a marvel to me how I can talk to her at all. What made me offer to come with her? How much does she know about me and Hilda? Hilda may have told her everything. If she's told her about her husband why shouldn't she have told her about me? And here we are both pretending that there's never been anything at all between me and Hilda!"
Then the train appeared, obscure round the curve, and bore down formidable and dark upon them, growing at every instant in stature and in noise until it deafened and seemed to fill the station; and the platform was suddenly in an uproar.
And almost opposite Janet and Edwin, leaning forth high above them from the door of a third-class carriage, the head and the shoulders of George Cannon were displayed in the gaslight. He seemed to dominate the train and the platform. At the windows on either side of him were adult faces, excited by his excitement, of the people who had doubtless been friendly to him during the journey. He distinguished Janet and Edwin almost at once, and shouted, and then waved.
"Hello, young son of a gun!" Edwin greeted him, trying to turn the handle of the door. But the door was locked, and it was necessary to call a porter, who tarried.
"I made mamma let me come!" George cried victoriously. "I told you I should!" He was far too agitated to think of shaking hands, and seemed to be in a state of fever. All his gestures were those of a proud, hysterical conqueror, and like a conqueror he gazed down at Edwin and Janet, who stood beneath him with upturned faces. He had absolutely forgotten the existence of his acquaintances in the carriage. "Did you know I've had the influenza? My temperature was up to 104 once—but it didn't stay long," he added regretfully.
When the door was at length opened, he jumped headlong, and Edwin caught him. He shook hands with Edwin and allowed Janet to kiss him.
"How hot you are!" Janet murmured.
The people in the compartment passed down his luggage, and after one of them had shouted good-bye to him twice, he remembered them, as it were by an effort, and replied, "Good-bye, good-bye," in a quick, impatient tone.
It was not until his anxious and assiduous foster-parents had bestowed him and his goods in the tranquillity of an empty compartment of the Loop Line train that they began to appreciate the morbid unusualness of his condition. His eyes glittered with extraordinary brilliance. He talked incessantly, not listening to their answers. And his skin was burning hot.
"Why, whatever's the matter with you, my dear?" asked Janet, alarmed. "You're like an oven!"
"I'm thirsty," said George. "If I don't have something to drink soon, I don't know what I shall do."
Janet looked at Edwin.
"There won't be time to get something at the refreshment room?"
They both felt heavily responsible.
"I might—" Edwin said irresolutely.
But just then the guard whistled.
"Never mind!" Janet comforted the child. "In twenty minutes we shall be in the house... No! you must keep your overcoat buttoned."
"How long have you been like that, George?" Edwin asked. "You weren't like that when you started, surely?"
"No," said George judicially. "It came on in the train."
After this, he appeared to go to sleep.
"He's certainly not well," Janet whispered.
Edwin shrugged his shoulders. "Don't you think he's grown?" he observed.
"Oh yes!" said Janet. "It's astonishing, isn't it, how children shoot up in a few weeks!"
They might have been parents exchanging notes, instead of celibates playing at parenthood for a hobby.
"Mamma says I've grown an inch." George opened his eyes. "She says it's about time I had! I dare say I shall be very tall. Are we nearly there?" His high, curt, febrile tones were really somewhat alarming.
When the train threw them out into the sodden waste that surrounds Bleakridge Station, George could scarcely stand. At any rate he showed no wish to stand. His protectors took him strongly by either arm, and thus bore him to Lane End House, with irregular unwilling assistance from his own feet. A porter followed with the luggage. It was an extremely distressing passage. Each protector in secret was imagining for George some terrible fever, of swift onslaught and fatal effect. At length they entered the garden, thanking their gods.
"He's not well," said Janet to her mother, who was fussily awaiting them in the hall. Her voice showed apprehension, and she was not at all convincing when she added: "But it's nothing serious. I shall put him straight to bed and let him eat there."
Instantly George became the centre of the house. The women disappeared with him, and Edwin had to recount the whole history of the arrival to Osmond Orgreave in the drawing-room. This recital was interrupted by Mrs Orgreave.
"Mr Edwin, Janet thinks if we sent for the doctor, just to be sure. As Johnnie isn't in, would you mind—"
"Stirling, I suppose?" said Edwin.
Stirling was the young Scottish doctor who had recently come into the town and taken it by storm.
When Edwin at last went home to a much-delayed meal, he was in a position to tell Maggie that young George Cannon had thought fit to catch influenza a second time in a couple of months. And Maggie, without a clear word, contrived to indicate that it was what she would have expected from a boy of George's violent temperament.
VOLUME FOUR, CHAPTER TEN.
GEORGE AND THE VICAR.
On the Tuesday evening Edwin came home from business at six o'clock, and found that he was to eat alone. The servant anxiously explained that Miss Clayhanger had gone across to the Orgreaves' to assist Miss Orgreave. It was evident that before going Miss Clayhanger had inspired the servant with a full sense of the importance of Mr Clayhanger's solitary meal, and of the terrible responsibility lying upon the person in charge of it. The girl was thrillingly alive; she would have liked some friend or other of the house to be always seriously ill, so that Miss Clayhanger might often leave her to the voluptuous savouring of this responsibility whose formidableness surpassed words. Edwin, as he went upstairs and as he came down again, was conscious of her excited presence somewhere near him, half-visible in the warm gas-lit house, spying upon him in order to divine the precise moment for the final service of the meal.
And in the dining-room the table was laid differently, so that he might be well situated, with regard to the light, for reading. And by the side of his plate were the newspaper, the magazines, and the book, among which Maggie had well guessed that he would make his choice for perusal. He was momentarily touched. He warmed his hands at the splendid fire, and then he warmed his back, watching the servant as with little flouncings and perkings she served, and he was touched by the placid and perfect efficiency of Maggie as a housekeeper. Maggie gave him something that no money could buy.
The servant departed and shut the door.
When he sat down he minutely changed the situation of nearly everything on the table, so that his magazine might be lodged at exactly the right distance and angle, and so that each necessary object might be quite handy. He was in luxury, and he yielded himself to it absolutely. The sense that unusual events were happening, that the course of social existence was disturbed while his comfort was not disturbed, that danger hung cloudy on the horizon—this sense somehow intensified the appreciation of the hour, and positively contributed to his pleasure. Moreover, he was agreeably excited by a dismaying anticipation affecting himself alone.
The door opened again, and Auntie Hamps was shown in by the servant. Before he could move the old lady had with overwhelming sweet supplications insisted that he should not move—no, not even to shake hands! He rose only to shake hands, and then fell back into his comfort. Auntie Hamps fixed a chair for herself opposite him, and drummed her black-gloved hands on the white table-cloth. She was steadily becoming stouter, and those chubby little hands seemed impossibly small against the vast mountain of fur which was crowned by her smirking crimson face and the supreme peak of her bonnet.
"They keep very friendly—those two," she remarked, with a strangely significant air, when he told her where Maggie was. She had shown no surprise at finding him alone, for the reason that she had already learnt everything from the servant in the hall.
"Janet and Maggie? They're friendly enough when they can be of use to each other."
"How kind Miss Janet was when your father was ill! I'm sure Maggie feels she must do all she can to return her kindness," Mrs Hamps murmured, with emotion. "I shall always be grateful for her helpfulness! She's a grand girl, a grand girl!"
"Yes," said Edwin awkwardly.
"She's still waiting for you," said Mrs Hamps, not archly, but sadly.
Edwin restively poohed. At the first instant of her arrival he had been rather glad to see her, for unusual events create a desire to discuss them; but if she meant to proceed in that strain unuttered curses would soon begin to accumulate for her in his heart.
"I expect the kid must be pretty bad," he said.
"Yes," sighed Mrs Hamps. "And probably poor Mrs Orgreave is more in the way than anything else. And Mr Orgreave only just out of bed, as you may say! ... That young lady must have her hands full! My word! What a blessing it is she has made such friends with Maggie!"
Mrs Hamps had the peculiar gift, which developed into ever-increasing perfection as her hair grew whiter, of being able to express ideas by means of words which had no relation to them at all. Within three minutes, by three different remarks whose occult message no stranger could have understood but which forced itself with unpleasant clearness upon Edwin, Mrs Hamps had conveyed, "Janet Orgreave only cultivates Maggie because Maggie is the sister of Edwin Clayhanger."
"You're all very devoted to that child," she said, meaning, "There is something mysterious in that quarter which sooner or later is bound to come out." And the meaning was so clear that Edwin was intimidated. What did she guess? Did she know anything? To-night Auntie Hamps was displaying her gift at its highest.
"I don't know that Maggie's so desperately keen on the infant!" he said.
"She's not like you about him, that's sure!" Mrs Hamps admitted. And she went on, in a tone that was only superficially casual, "I wonder the mother doesn't come down to him!"
Not 'his' mother—'the' mother. Odd, the effect of that trifle! Mrs Hamps was a great artist in phrasing.
"Oh!" said Edwin. "It's not serious enough for that."
"Well, I'm not so sure," Auntie Hamps gravely replied. "The Vicar is dead."
The emphasis which she put on these words was tremendous.
"Is he," Edwin stammered. "But what's that got to do with it?"
He tried to be condescending towards her absurdly superstitious assumption that the death of the Vicar of Saint Peter's could increase the seriousness of George's case. And he feebly succeeded in being condescending. Nevertheless he could not meet his auntie's gaze without self-consciousness. For her emphasis had been double, and he knew it. It had implied, secondly, that the death of the Vicar was an event specially affecting Edwin's household. The rough sketch of a romance between the Vicar and Maggie had never been completed into a picture, but on the other hand it had never been destroyed. The Vicar and Maggie had been supposed to be still interested in each other, despite the Vicar's priestliness, which latterly had perhaps grown more marked, just as his church had grown more ritualistic. It was a strange affair, thin, elusive; but an affair it was. The Vicar and Maggie had seldom met of recent years, they had never—so far as anyone knew—met alone; and yet, upon the news of the Vicar's death, the first thought of nearly everybody was for Maggie Clayhanger.
Mrs Hamps's eyes, swimming in the satisfaction of several simultaneous woes, said plainly, "What about poor Maggie?"
"When did you hear?" Edwin asked. "It isn't in this afternoon's paper."
"I've only just heard. He died at four o'clock."
She had come up immediately with the news as fresh as orchard fruit.
"And the Duke of Clarence is no better," she said, in a luxurious sighing gloom. "And I'm afraid it's all over with Cardinal Manning." She made a peculiar noise in her throat, not quite a sigh; rather a brave protest against the general fatality of things, stiffened by a determination to be strong though melancholy in misfortune.
Maggie suddenly entered, hatted, with a jacket over her arm.
"Hello, auntie, you here!" They had already met that morning.
"I just called," said Mrs Hamps guiltily. Edwin felt as though Maggie had surprised them both in some criminal act. They knew that Mr Heve was dead. She did not know. She had to be told. He wished violently that Auntie Hamps had been elsewhere.
"Everything all right?" Maggie asked Edwin, surveying the table. "I gave particular orders about the eggs."
"As right as rain," said Edwin, putting into his voice a note of true appreciation. He saw that her sense of duty towards him had brought her back to the house. She had taken every precaution to ensure his well-being, but she could not be content without seeing for herself that the servant had not betrayed the trust.
"How are things—across?" he inquired.
"Well," said Maggie, frowning, "that's one reason why I came back sooner than I meant. The doctor's just been. His temperature is getting higher and higher. I wish you'd go over as soon as you've finished. If you ask me, I think they ought to telegraph to his mother. But Janet doesn't seem to think so. Of course it's enough when Mrs Orgreave begins worrying about telegraphing for Janet to say there's no need to telegraph. She's rather trying, Mrs Orgreave is, I must admit. All that I've been doing is to keep her out of the bedroom. Janet has everything on her shoulders. Mr Orgreave is just about as fidgety as Mrs And of course the servants have their own work to do. Naturally Johnnie isn't in!" Her tone grew sarcastic and bitter.
"What does Stirling say about telegraphing?" Edwin demanded. He had intended to say 'telegraphing for Mrs Cannon,' but he could not utter the last words; he could not compel his vocal organs to utter them. He became aware of the beating of his heart. For twenty-four hours he had been contemplating the possibility of a summons to Hilda. Now the possibility had developed into a probability. Nay, a certainty! Maggie was the very last person to be alarmist.
Maggie replied: "He says it might be as well to wait till to-morrow. But then you know he is like that—a bit."
"So they say," Auntie Hamps agreed.
"Have you seen the kid?" Edwin asked.
"About two minutes," said Maggie. "It's pitiable to watch him."
"Why? Is he in pain?"
"Not what you'd call pain. No! But he's so upset. Worried about himself. He's got a terrific fever on him. I'm certain he's delirious sometimes. Poor little thing!"
Tears gleamed in her eyes. The plight of the boy had weakened her prejudices against him. Assuredly he was not 'rough' now.
Astounded and frightened by those shimmering tears, Edwin exclaimed, "You don't mean to say there's actual danger?"
"Well—" Maggie hesitated, and stopped.
There was silence for a moment. Edwin felt that the situation was now further intensified.
"I expect you've heard about the poor Vicar," Mrs Hamps funereally insinuated. Edwin mutely damned her.
Maggie looked up sharply. "No! ... He's not—"
Mrs Hamps nodded twice.
The tears vanished from Maggie's eyes, forced backwards by all the secret pride that was in her. It was obvious that not the news of the Vicar had originally caused those tears; but nevertheless there should be no shadow of misunderstanding. The death of the Vicar must be associated with no more serious sign of distress in Maggie than in others. She must be above suspicion. For one acute moment, as he read her thoughts and as the profound sacrificial tragedy of her entire existence loomed less indistinctly than usual before him, Edwin ceased to think about himself and Hilda.
She made a quick hysterical movement.
"I wish you'd go across, Edwin," she said harshly.
"I'll go now," he answered, with softness. And he was glad to go.
It was Osmond Orgreave who opened to him the front door of Lane End House. Maggie had told the old gentleman that she should send Edwin over, and he was wandering vaguely about in nervous expectation. In an instant they were discussing George's case, and the advisability of telegraphing to Hilda. Mrs Orgreave immediately joined them in the hall. Both father and mother clearly stood in awe of the gentle but powerful Janet. And somehow the child was considered as her private affair, into which others might not thrust themselves save on sufferance. Perceiving that Edwin was slightly inclined to the course of telegraphing, they drew him towards them as a reinforcement, but while Mrs Orgreave frankly displayed her dependence on him, Mr Orgreave affected to be strong, independent, and judicial.
"I wish you'd go and speak to her," Mrs Orgreave entreated.
"It won't do any harm, anyhow," said Osmond, finely indifferent.
They went up the stairs in a procession. Edwin did not wish to tell them about the Vicar. He could see no sense in telling them about the Vicar. And yet, before they reached the top of the stairs, he heard himself saying in a concerned whisper—
"You know about the Vicar of Saint Peter's?"
"Died at four o'clock."
"Oh dear me! Dear me!" murmured Mrs Orgreave, agonised.
Most evidently George's case was aggravated by the Vicar's death—and not only in the eyes of Mrs Orgreave and her falsely stoic husband, but in Edwin's eyes too! Useless for him to argue with himself about idiotic superstitiousness! The death of the Vicar had undoubtedly influenced his attitude towards George.
They halted on the landing, outside a door that was ajar. Near them burned a gas jet, and beneath the bracket was a large framed photograph of the bridal party at Alicia's wedding. Farther along the landing were other similar records of the weddings of Marion, Tom, and Jimmie.
Mr Orgreave pushed the door half open.
"Janet," said Mr Orgreave conspiratorially.
"Well?" from within the bedroom.
Janet appeared in the doorway, pale. She was wearing an apron with a bib.
"I—I thought I'd just look in and inquire," Edwin said awkwardly, fiddling with his hat and a pocket of his overcoat. "What's he like now?"
Janet gave details. The sick-room lay hidden behind the face of the door, mysterious and sacred.
"Mr Edwin thinks you ought to telegraph," said Mrs Orgreave timidly.
"Do you?" demanded Janet. Her eyes seemed to pierce him. Why did she gaze at him with such particularity, as though he possessed a special interest in Hilda?
"Well—" he muttered. "You might just wire how things are, and leave it to her to come as she thinks fit."
"Just so," said Mr Orgreave quickly, as if Edwin had expressed his own thought.
"But the telegram couldn't be delivered to-night," Janet objected. "It's nearly half-past seven now."
It was true. Yet Edwin was more than ever conscious of a keen desire to telegraph at once.
"But it would be delivered first thing in the morning," he said. "So that she'd have more time to make arrangements if she wanted to."
"Well, if you think like that," Janet acquiesced.
The visage of Mrs Orgreave lightened.
"I'll run down and telegraph myself, if you like," said Edwin. "Of course you've written to her. She knows—"
In a minute he was walking rapidly, with his ungainly, slouching stride, down Trafalgar Road, his overcoat flying loose. Another crisis was approaching, he thought. As he came to Duck Square, he met a newspaper boy shouting shrilly and wearing the contents bill of a special edition of the "Signal" as an apron: "Duke of Clarence. More serious bulletin." The scourge and fear of influenza was upon the town, upon the community, tangible, oppressive, tragic.
In the evening calm of the shabby, gloomy post-office, holding a stubby pencil that was chained by a cable to the wall, he stood over a blank telegraph-form, hesitating how to word the message. Behind the counter an instrument was ticking unheeded, and far within could be discerned the vague bodies of men dealing with parcels. He wrote, "Cannon, 59 Preston Street, Brighton. George's temperature 104." Then he paused, and added, "Edwin." It was sentimental. He ought to have signed Janet's name. And, if he was determined to make the telegram personal, he might at least have put his surname. He knew it was sentimental, and he loathed sentimentality. But that evening he wanted to be sentimental.
He crossed to the counter, and pushed the form under the wire-netting.
A sleepy girl accepted it, and glanced mechanically at the clock, and then wrote the hour 7:42.
"It won't be delivered to-night," she said, looking up, as she counted the words.
"No, I know," said Edwin.
As he paid the sixpence he felt as though he had accomplished some great, critical, agitating deed. And his heart asserted itself again, thunderously beating.
VOLUME FOUR, CHAPTER ELEVEN.
BEGINNING OF THE NIGHT.
The next day was full of strange suspense; it was coloured throughout with that quality of strangeness which puts a new light on all quotidian occupations and exposes their fundamental unimportance. Edwin arose to the fact that a thick grey fog was wrapping the town. When he returned home to breakfast at nine the fog was certainly more opaque than it had been an hour earlier. The steam-cars passed like phantoms, with a continuous clanging of bells. He breakfasted under gas—and alone. Maggie was invisible, or only to be seen momentarily, flying across the domestic horizon. She gave out that she was very busy in the attics, cleaning those shockingly neglected rooms. "Please, sir," said the servant, "Miss Clayhanger says she's been across to Mr Orgreave's, and Master George is about the same." Maggie would not come and tell him herself. On the previous evening he had not seen her after the reception of the news about the Vicar. She had gone upstairs when he came back from the post office. Beyond doubt, she was too disturbed, emotionally, to be able to face him with her customary tranquillity. She was getting over the shock with brush and duster up in the attics. He was glad that she had not attempted to be as usual. The ordeal of attempting to be as usual would have tried him perhaps as severely as her.
He went forth again into the fog in a high state of agitation, constricted with sympathetic distress on Maggie's account, apprehensive for the boy, and painfully expectant of the end of the day. The whole day slipped away so, hour after monotonous hour, while people talked about influenza and about distinguished patients, and doctors hurried from house to house, and the fog itself seemed to be the visible mantle of the disease. And the end of the day brought nothing to Edwin save an acuter expectancy. George varied; on the whole he was worse; not much worse, but worse. Dr Stirling saw him twice. No message arrived from Hilda, nor did she come in person. Maggie watched George for five hours in the late afternoon and evening, while Janet rested.
At eight o'clock, when there was no further hope of a telegram from Hilda, everybody pretended to concur in the view that Hilda, knowing her boy better than anybody else, and having already seen him through an attack of influenza, had not been unduly alarmed by the telegraphic news of his temperature, and was content to write. She might probably be arranging to come on the morrow. After all, George's temperature had reached 104 in the previous attack. Then there was the fog. The fog would account for anything.
Nevertheless, nobody was really satisfied by these explanations of Hilda's silence and absence. In every heart lay the secret and sinister thought of the queerness and the incalculableness of Hilda.
Edwin called several times on the Orgreaves. He finally left their house about ten o'clock, with some difficulty tracing his way home from gas lamp to gas lamp through the fog. Mr Orgreave himself had escorted him with a lantern round the wilderness of the lawn to the gates. "We shall have a letter in the morning," Mr Orgreave had said. "Bound to!" Edwin had replied. And they had both superiorly puffed away into the fog the absurd misgivings of women.
Knowing that he was in no condition to sleep, Edwin mended the drawing-room fire, and settled down on the sofa to read. But he could no more read than sleep. He seemed to lie on the sofa for hours while his thoughts jigged with fatiguing monotony in his head. He was extraordinarily wakeful and alive, every sense painfully sharpened. At last he decided to go to bed. In his bedroom he gazed idly out at the blank density of the fog. And then his heart leapt as his eye distinguished a moving glimmer below in the garden of the Orgreaves. He threw up the window in a tumult of anticipation. The air was absolutely still. Then he heard a voice say, "Good night." It was undoubtedly Dr Stirling's voice. The Scotch accent was unmistakable. Was the boy worse? Not necessarily, for the doctor had said that he might look in again 'last thing,' if chance favoured. And the Scotch significance of 'last thing' was notoriously comprehensive; it might include regions beyond midnight. Then Edwin heard another voice: "Thanks ever so much!" At first it puzzled him. He knew it, and yet! Could it be the Sunday's voice? Assuredly it was not the voice of Mr Orgreave, nor of any one living in the house. It reminded him of the Sunday's voice.
He went out of his bedroom, striking a match, and going downstairs lit the gas in the hall, which he had just extinguished. Then he put on a cap, found a candlestick in the kitchen, unbolted the garden door as quietly as he could, and passed into the garden. The flame of the candle stood upright in the fog. He blundered along to the dividing wall, placed the candle on the top of it, and managed to climb over. Leaving the candle on the wall to guide his return, he approached the house, which showed gleams at several windows, and rang the bell. And in fact it was Charlie Orgreave himself who opened the door. And a lantern, stuck carelessly on the edge of a chair, was still burning in the hall.
In a moment he had learnt the chief facts. Hilda had gone up to London, dragged Charlie out of Ealing, and brought him down with her to watch over her child. Once more she had done something which nobody could have foreseen. The train—not the London express, but the loop—was late. The pair had arrived about half-past ten, and a little later Dr Stirling had fulfilled his promise to look in if he could. The two doctors had conferred across the child's bed, and had found themselves substantially in agreement. Moreover, the child was if anything somewhat better. The Scotsman had gone. Charles and Hilda had eaten. Hilda meant to sit up, and had insisted that Janet should go to bed; it appeared that Janet had rested but not slept in the afternoon.
Charlie took Edwin into the small breakfast-room, where Osmond Orgreave was waiting, and the three men continued to discuss the situation. They were all of them too excited to sit down, though Osmond and—in a less degree—Charlie affected the tranquillity of high philosophers. At first Edwin knew scarcely what he did. His speech and gestures were not the result of conscious volition. He seemed suddenly to have two individualities, and the new one, which was the more intimate one, watched the other as in a dim-lighted dream... She was there in a room above! She had come in response to the telegram signed 'Edwin!' Last night she was far away. Tonight she was in the very house with him. Miracle! He asked himself: "Why should I get myself into this state simply because she is here? It would have been mighty strange if she had not come. I must take myself in hand better than this. I mustn't behave like a blooming girl." He frowned and coughed.
"Well," said Osmond Orgreave to his son, thrusting out his coat-tails with his hands towards the fire, and swaying slightly to and fro on his heels and toes, "so you've had your consultation, you eminent specialists! What's the result?"
He looked at his elegant son with an air half-quizzical and half-deferential.
"I've told you he's evidently a little better, dad," Charlie answered casually. His London deportment was more marked than ever. The bracingly correct atmosphere of Ealing had given him a rather obvious sense of importance. He had developed into a man with a stake in the country, and he twisted his moustache like such a man, and took out a cigarette like such a man.
"Yes, I know," said Osmond, with controlled impatience. "But what sort of influenza is it? I'm hoping to learn something now you've come. Stirling will talk about anything except influenza."
"What sort of influenza is it? What do you mean?" And Charlie's twinkling glance said condescendingly: "What's the old cock got hold of now? This is just like him."
"But is there any real danger?" Edwin murmured.
"Well," said Osmond, bringing up his regiments, "as I understand it, there are three types of influenza—the respiratory, the gastro-intestinal, and the nervous. Which one is it?"
Charlie laughed, and prodded his father with a forefinger in a soft region near the shoulder, disturbing his balance. "You've been reading the 'BMJ,'" he said, "and so you needn't pretend you haven't!"
Osmond paused an instant to consider the meaning of these initials.
"What if I have?" he demanded, raising his eyebrows, "I say there are three types—"
"Thirty; you might be nearer the mark with thirty," Charlie interrupted him. "The fact is that this division into types is all very well in theory," he proceeded, with easy disdain. "But in practice it won't work out. Now for instance, what this kid has won't square with any of your three types. It's purely febrile, that's what it is. Rare, decidedly rare, but less rare in children than in adults—at any rate in my experience—in my experience. If his temperature wasn't so high, I should say the thing might last for days—weeks even. I've known it. The first question I put was—has he been in a stupor? He had. It may recur. That, and headache, and the absence of localised nervous symptoms—" He stopped, leaving the sentence in the air, grandiose and formidable, but of no purport.
Charlie shrugged his shoulders, allowing the beholder to choose his own interpretation of the gesture.
"You're a devilish wonderful fellow," said Osmond grimly to his son. And Charlie winked grimly at Edwin, who grimly smiled.
"You and your 'British Medical Journal'!" Charlie exclaimed, with an irony from which filial affection was not absent, and again prodded his father in the same spot.
"Of course I know I'm an old man," said Osmond, condescendingly rejecting Charlie's condescension. He thought he did not mean what he said; nevertheless, it was the expression of the one idea which latterly beyond all other ideas had possessed him.
Janet came into the room, and was surprised to see Edwin. She was in a state of extreme fatigue—pale, with burning eyes, and hair that has lost the gracefulness of its curves.
"So you know?" she said.
"It seems I've got to go to bed," she went on. "Father, you must go to bed too. Mother's gone. It's frightfully late. Come along now!"
She was insistent. She had been worried during the greater part of the day by her restless parents, and she was determined not to leave either of them at large.
"Charlie, you might run upstairs and see that everything's all right before I go. I shall get up again at four."
"I'll be off," said Edwin.
"Here! Hold on a bit," Charlie objected. "Wait till I come down. Let's have a yarn. You don't want to go to bed yet."
Edwin agreed to the suggestion, and was left alone in the breakfast-room. What struck him was that the new situation created by Hilda's strange caprice had instantly been accepted by everybody, and had indeed already begun to seem quite natural. He esteemed highly the demeanour of all the Orgreaves. Neither he himself nor Maggie could have surpassed them in their determination not to exaggerate the crisis, in their determination to bear themselves simply and easily, and to speak with lightness, even with occasional humour. There were few qualities that he admired more than this.
And what was her demeanour, up there in the bedroom?
Suddenly the strangeness of Hilda's caprice presented itself to him as even more strange. She had merely gone to Ealing and captured Charlie. Charlie was understood to have a considerable practice. At her whim all his patients had been abandoned. What an idea, to bring him down like this! What tremendous faith in him she must have! And Edwin remembered distinctly that the first person who had ever spoken to him of Hilda was Charlie! And in what terms of admiration! Was there a long and secret understanding between these two? They must assuredly be far more intimate than he had ever suspected. Edwin hated to think that Hilda would depend more upon Charlie than upon himself in a grave difficulty. The notion caused him acute discomfort. He was resentful against Charlie as against a thief who had robbed him of his own, but who could not be apprehended and put to shame.
The acute discomfort was jealousy; but this word did not occur to him.
"I say," Edwin began, in a new intimate tone, when after what seemed a very long interval Charlie Orgreave returned to the breakfast-room with the information that for the present all had been done that could be done.
"What's up?" said Charlie, responding quite eagerly to the appeal for intimacy in Edwin's voice. He had brought in a tray with whisky and its apparatus, and he set this handily on a stool in front of the fire, and poked the fire, and generally made the usual ritualistic preparations for a comfortable talkative night.
"Rather delicate, wasn't it, you coming down and taking Stirling's case off him?"
Edwin smiled idly as he lolled far back in an old easy chair. His two individualities had now merged again into one.
"My boy," Charlie answered, pausing impressively with his curly head held forward, before dropping into an arm-chair by the stool, "you may take it from me that 'delicate' is not the word!"
Edwin nodded sympathetically, perceiving with satisfaction that beneath his Metropolitan mannerism, and his amusing pomposities, and his perfectly dandiacal clothes, Charlie still remained the Sunday, possibly more naive than ever. This naivete of Charlie's was particularly pleasing to him, for the reason that it gave him a feeling of superiority to the more brilliant being and persuaded him that the difference between London and the provinces was inessential and negligible. Charlie's hair still curled like a boy's, and he had not outgrown the naivete of boyhood. Against these facts the fact that Charlie was a partner in a fashionable and dashing practice at Ealing simply did not weigh. The deference which in thought Edwin had been slowly acquiring for this Charlie, as to whom impressive news reached Bursley from time to time, melted almost completely away. In fundamentals he was convinced that Charlie was an infant compared to himself.
"Have a drop?"
"Well, it's not often I do, but I will to-night. Steady on with the whisky, old chap."
Each took a charged glass and sipped. Edwin, by raising his arm, could just lodge his glass on the mantelpiece. Charlie then opened his large gun-metal cigarette case, and one match lighted two cigarettes.
"Yes, my boy," Charlie resumed, as he meditatively blew out the match and threw it on the fire, "you may well say 'delicate.' The truth is that if I hadn't seen at once that Stirling was a very decent sort of chap, and very friendly here, I might have funked it. Yes, I might. He came in just after we'd arrived. So I saw him alone—here. I made a clean breast of it, and put myself in his hands. Of course he appreciated the situation at once; and considering he'd never seen her, it was rather clever of him... I suppose people rather like that Scotch accent of his, down here?"
"They say he makes over a thousand a year already," Edwin replied. He was thinking. "Is she likely to be coming downstairs? No."
"The deuce he does!" Charlie murmured, with ingenuous animation, foolishly betraying by an instant's lack of self-control the fact that Ealing was not Utopia. Envy was in his voice as he continued: "It's astonishing how some chaps can come along and walk straight into anything they want—whatever it happens to be!"
"What do you think of him as a doctor?" Edwin questioned.
"Seems all right," said Charlie, with a fine brief effort to be patronising.
"He's got a great reputation down here," Edwin said quietly.
"Yes, yes. I should say he's quite all right."
"How came it that Mrs Cannon came and rummaged you out?" Edwin knew that he would blush, and so he reached up for his whisky, and drank, adding: "The old man still clings to his old brand of Scotch."
"My dear fellow, I know no more than you. I was perfectly staggered—I can tell you that. I hadn't seen her since before she was married. Only heard of her again just lately through Janet. I suppose it was Janet who told her I was at Ealing. It's an absolute fact that just at the first blush I didn't even recognise her."
"Didn't you?" Edwin wondered how this could be.
"I did not. She came into our surgery, as if she'd come out of the next room and I'd seen her only yesterday, and she just asked me to come away with her at once to Bursley. I thought she was off her nut, but she wasn't. She showed me your telegram."
"The dickens she did!" Edwin was really startled.
"Yes. I told her there was nothing absolutely fatal in a temperature of 104. It happened in thousands of cases. Then she explained to me exactly how he'd been ill before, seemingly in the same way, and I could judge from what she said that he wasn't a boy who would stand a high temperature for very long."
"By the way, what's his temperature to-night?" Edwin interrupted.
"102 point 7," said Charlie.
"Yes," he resumed, "she did convince me it might be serious. But what then? I told her I couldn't possibly leave. She asked me why not. She kept on asking me why not. I said, What about my patients here? She asked if any of them were dying. I said no, but I couldn't leave them all to my partner. I don't think she realised, before that, that I was in partnership. She stuck to it worse than ever then. I asked her why she wanted just me. I said all we doctors were much about the same, and so on. But it was no use. The fact is, you know, Hilda always had a great notion of me as a doctor. Can't imagine why! Kept it to herself of course, jolly close, as she did most things, but I'd noticed it now and then. You know—one of those tremendous beliefs she has. You're another of her beliefs, if you want to know."
"How do you know? Give us another cigarette." Edwin was exceedingly uneasy, and yet joyous. One of his fears was that the Sunday might inquire how it was that he signed telegrams to Hilda with only his Christian name. The Sunday, however, made no such inquiry.
"How do I know!" Charlie exclaimed. "I could tell in a second by the way she showed me your telegram. Oh! And besides, that's an old story, my young friend. You needn't flatter yourself it wasn't common property at one time."
"Oh! Rot!" Edwin muttered. "Well, go on!"
"Well, then I explained that there was such a thing as medical etiquette... Ah! you should have heard Hilda on medical etiquette. You should just have heard her on that lay—medical etiquette versus the dying child. I simply had to chuck that. I said to her, 'But suppose you hadn't caught me at home? I might have been out for the day—a hundred things.' It was sheer accident she had caught me. At last she said: 'Look here, Charlie, will you come, or won't you?'"
"Well, and what did you say?"
"I should tell you she went down on her knees. What should you have said, eh, my boy? What could I say? They've got you when they put it that way. Especially a woman like she is! I tell you she was simply terrific. I tell you I wouldn't go through it again—not for something."
Edwin responsively shook.
"I just threw up the sponge and came. I told Huskisson a thundering lie, to save my face, and away I came, and I've been with her ever since. Dashed if I haven't!"
"My partner. If anybody had told me beforehand that I should do such a thing I should have laughed. Of course, if you look at it calmly, it's preposterous. Preposterous—there's no other word—from my point of view. But when they begin to put it the way she put it—well, you've got to decide quick whether you'll be sensible and a brute, or whether you'll sacrifice yourself and be a damned fool... What good am I here? No more good than anybody else. Supposing there is danger? Well, there may be. But I've left twenty or thirty influenza cases at Ealing. Every influenza case is dangerous, if it comes to that."
"Exactly," breathed Edwin.
"I wouldn't have done it for any other woman," Charlie recommenced. "Not much!"
"Then why did you do it for her?"
Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "There's something about her... I don't know—" He lifted his nostrils fastidiously and gazed at the fire. "There's not many women knocking about like her... She gets hold of you. She's nothing at all for about six months at a stretch, and then she has one minute of the grand style... That's the sort of woman she is. Understand? But I expect you don't know her as we do."
"Oh yes, I understand," said Edwin. "She must be tremendously fond of the kid."
"You bet she is! Absolute passion. What sort is he?"
"Oh! He's all right. But I've never seen them together, and I never thought she was so particularly keen on him."
"Don't you make any mistake," said Charlie loftily. "I believe women often are like that about an only child when they've had a rough time. And by the look of her she must have had a pretty rough time. I've never made out why she married that swine, and I don't think anyone else has either."
"Did you know him?" Edwin asked, with sudden eagerness.
"Not a bit. But I've sort of understood he was a regular outsider. Do you know how long she's been a widow?"
"No," said Edwin. "I've barely seen her."
At these words he became so constrained, and so suspicious of the look on his own face, that he rose abruptly and began to walk about the room.
"What's the matter?" demanded Charlie. "Got pins and needles?"
"Only fidgets," said Edwin.
"I hope this isn't one of your preliminaries for clearing out and leaving me alone," Charlie complained. "Here—where's that glass of yours? Have another cigarette."
There was a sound that seemed to resemble a tap on the door.
"What's that noise?" said Edwin, startled. The whole of his epidermis tingled, and he stood still. They both listened.
The sound was repeated. Yes, it was a tap on the door; but in the night, and in the repose of the house, it had the character of some unearthly summons.
Edwin was near the door. He hesitated for an instant afraid, and then with an effort brusquely opened the door and looked forth beyond the shelter of the room. A woman's figure was disappearing down the passage in the direction of the stairs. It was she.
"Did you—" he began. But Hilda had gone. Agitated, he said to Charlie, his hand still on the knob: "It's Mrs Cannon. She just knocked and ran off. I expect she wants you."
Charlie jumped up and scurried out of the room exactly like a boy, despite his tall, mature figure of a man of thirty-five.
VOLUME FOUR, CHAPTER TWELVE.
END OF THE NIGHT.
For the second time that night Edwin was left alone for a long period in the little breakfast-room. Charlie's phrase, 'You're another of her beliefs,' shone like a lamp in his memory, beneficent. And though he was still jealous of Charlie, with whom Hilda's relations were obviously very intimate; although he said to himself, 'She never made any appeal to me, she would scarcely have my help at any price;' nevertheless he felt most singularly uplifted and, without any reason, hopeful. So much so that the fate of the child became with him a matter of secondary importance. He excused this apparent callousness by making sure in his own mind that the child was in no real danger. On the other hand he blamed himself for ever having fancied that Hilda was indifferent to George. She, indifferent to her own son! What a wretched, stupid slander! He ought to have known better than that. He ought to have known that a Hilda would bring to maternity the mightiest passions. All that Charlie had said confirmed him in his idolisation of her. 'One minute of the grand style.' That was it. Charlie had judged her very well—damn him! And the one minute was priceless, beyond all estimation.
The fire sank, with little sounds of decay; and he stared at it, prevented as if by a spell from stooping to make it up, prevented even from looking at his watch. At length he shivered slightly, and the movement broke the trance. He wandered to the door, which Charlie had left ajar, and listened. No sign of life! He listened intently, but his ear could catch nothing whatever. What were those two doing upstairs with the boy? Cautiously he stepped out into the passage, and went to the foot of the stairs, where a gas jet was burning. He was reminded of the nights preceding his father's death.
Another gas jet showed along the corridor at the head of the stairs. He put his foot on the first step; it creaked with a noise comparable to the report of a pistol in the dead silence. But there was no responsive sound to show that anyone had been alarmed by this explosion. Impelled by nervous curiosity, and growing careless, he climbed the reverberating, complaining stairs, and, entering the corridor, stood exactly in front of the closed door of the sick-room, and listened again, and heard naught. His heart was obstreperously beating. Part of the household slept; the other part watched; and he was between the two, like a thief, like a spy. Should he knock, discreetly, and ask if he could be of help? The strange romance of his existence, and of all existence, flowed around him in mysterious currents, obsessing him.
Suddenly the door opened, and Charlie, barely avoiding a collision, started back in alarm. Then Charlie recovered his self-possession and carefully shut the door.
"I was just wondering whether I could be any use," Edwin stammered in a whisper.
Charlie whispered: "It's all right, but I must run round to Stirling's, and get a drug I want."
"Is he worse?"
"Yes. That is—yes. You never know with a child. They're up and down and all over the place inside of an hour."
"Can I go?" Edwin suggested.
"No. I can explain to him quicker than you."
"You'll never find your way in this fog."
"Bosh, man! D'you think I don't know the town as well as you? Besides, it's lifted considerably."
By a common impulse they tiptoed to the window at the end of the corridor. Across the lawn could be dimly discerned a gleam through the trees.
"I'll come with you," said Edwin.
"You'd much better stay here—in case."
"Shall I go into the bedroom?"
Charlie turned to descend the stairs.
"I say," Edwin called after him in a loud whisper, "when you get to the gate—you know the house—you go up the side entry. The night bell's rather high up on the left hand."
"All right! All right!" Charlie replied impatiently. "Just come and shut the front door after me. I don't want to bang it."
When Edwin crept into the bedroom he was so perturbed by continually growing excitement that he saw nothing clearly except the central group of objects: that is to say, a narrow bed, whose burden was screened from him by its foot, a table, an empty chair, the gas-globe luminous against a dark-green blind, and Hilda in black, alert and erect beneath the down-flowing light. The rest of the chamber seemed to stretch obscurely away into no confines. Not for several seconds did he even notice the fire. This confusing excitement was not caused by anything external such as the real or supposed peril of the child; it had its source within.
As soon as Hilda identified him her expression changed from the intent frowning stare of inquiry to a smile. Edwin had never before seen her smile in that way. The smile was weak, resigned, almost piteous; and it was extraordinarily sweet. He closed the door quietly, and moved in silence towards the bed. She nodded an affectionate welcome. He returned her greeting eagerly, and all his constraint was loosed away, and he felt at ease, and happy. Her face was very pale indeed against the glittering blackness of her eyes, and her sombre disordered hair and untidy dress; but it did not show fatigue nor extreme anxiety; it was a face of calm meekness. The sleeves of her dress were reversed, showing the forearms, which gave her an appearance of deshabille, homely, intimate, confiding. "So it was common property at one time," Edwin thought, recalling a phrase of Charlie's in the breakfast-room. Strange: he wanted her in all her disarray, with all her woes, anxieties, solicitudes; he wanted her, piteous, meek, beaten by destiny, weakly smiling; he wanted her because she stood so, after the immense, masterful effort of the day, watching in acquiescence by that bed!
"Has he gone?" she asked, in a voice ordinarily loud, but, for her, unusually tender.
"Yes," said Edwin. "He's gone. He told me I'd better come in here. So I came."
She nodded again. "Have that chair."
Without arguing, he took the chair. She remained standing.
The condition of George startled him. Evidently the boy was in a heavy stupor. His body was so feverish that it seemed to give off a perceptible heat. There was no need to touch the skin in order to know that it burned: one divined this. The hair was damp. About the pale lips an irregular rash had formed, purplish, patchy, and the rash seemed to be the mark and sign of some strange dreadful disease that nobody had ever named: a plague. Worse than all this was the profound, comprehensive discomfort of the whole organism, showing itself in the unnatural pose of the limbs, and in multitudinous faint instinctive ways of the inert but complaining body. And the child was so slight beneath the blanket, so young, so helpless, spiritually so alone. How could even Hilda communicate her sympathy to that spirit, withdrawn and inaccessible? During the illness of his father Edwin had thought that he was looking upon the extreme tragic limit of pathos, but this present spectacle tightened more painfully the heart. It was more shameful: a more excruciating accusation against the order of the universe. To think of George in his pride, strong, capricious, and dominant, while gazing at this victim of malady ... the contrast was intolerable!
George was very ill. And yet Hilda, despite the violence of her nature, could stand there calm, sweet, and controlled. What power! Edwin was humbled. "This is the sort of thing that women of her sort can do," he said to himself. "Why, Maggie and I are simply nothing to her!" Maggie and he could be self-possessed in a crisis; they could stand a strain; but the strain would show itself either in a tense harshness, or in some unnatural lightness, or even flippancy. Hilda was the very image of soft caressing sweetness. He felt that he must emulate her.
"Surely his temperature's gone up?" he said quietly.
"Yes," Hilda replied, fingering absently the clinical thermometer that with a lot of other gear lay on the table. "It's nearly 105. It can't last like this. It won't. I've been through it with him before, but not quite so bad."
"I didn't think anyone could have influenza twice, so soon," Edwin murmured.
"Neither did I," said she. "Still, he must have been sickening for it before he came down here." There was a pause. She wiped the boy's forehead. "This change has come on quite suddenly," she said, in a different voice. "Two hours ago—less than two hours ago—there was scarcely a sign of that rash."
"What is it?"
"Charlie says it's nothing particular."
"What's Charlie gone for?"
"I don't know." She shook her head; then smiled. "Isn't it a good thing I brought him?"
Indubitably it was. Her caprice, characterised as preposterous by males, had been justified. Thus chance often justifies women, setting at naught the high priests of reason.
Looking at the unconscious and yet tormented child, Edwin was aware of a melting protective pity for him, of an immense desire to watch over his rearing with all insight, sympathy, and help, so that in George's case none of the mistakes and cruelties and misapprehensions should occur which had occurred in his own. This feeling was intense to the point of being painful.
"I don't know whether you know or not," he said, "but we're great pals, the infant and I."
Hilda smiled, and in the very instant of seeing the smile its effect upon him was such that he humiliated himself before her in secret for ever having wildly suspected that she was jealous of the attachment. "Do you think I don't know all about that?" she murmured. "He wouldn't be here now if it hadn't been for that." After a silence she added: "You're the only person that he ever has really cared for, and I can tell you he likes you better than he likes me."
"How do you know that?"
"I know by the way he talks and looks."
"If he takes after his mother, that's no sign," Edwin retorted, without considering what he said.
"What do you mean—'if he takes after his mother'?" She seemed puzzled.
"Could anyone tell your real preferences from the way you talked and looked?" His audacious rashness astounded him. Nevertheless he stared her in the eyes, and her glance fell.
"No one but you could have said a thing like that," she observed mildly, yieldingly.
And what he had said suddenly acquired a mysterious and wise significance and became oracular. She alone had the power of inspiring him to be profound. He had noticed that before, years ago, and first at their first meeting. Or was it that she saw in him an oracle, and caused him to see with her?
Slowly her face coloured, and she walked away to the fireplace, and cautiously tended it. Constraint had seized him again, and his heart was loud.
"Edwin," she summoned him, from the fireplace.
He rose, shaking with emotion, and crossed the undiscovered spaces of the room to where she was. He had the illusion that they were by themselves not in the room but in the universe. She was leaning with one hand on the mantelpiece.
"I must tell you something," she said, "that nobody at all knows except George's father, and probably nobody ever will know. His sister knew, but she's dead."
"Yes!" he muttered, in an exquisite rush of happiness. After all, it was not with Charlie, nor even with Janet, that she was most intimate; it was with himself!
"George's father was put in prison for bigamy. George is illegitimate." She spoke with her characteristic extreme clearness of enunciation, in a voice that showed no emotion.
"You don't mean it!" He gasped foolishly.
She nodded. "I'm not a married woman. I once thought I was, but I wasn't. That's all."
"You—you said six or seven years, didn't you? Surely they don't give that long for bigamy?"
"Oh!" she replied mildly. "That was for something else. When he came out of prison the first time they arrested him again instantly—so I was told. It was in Scotland."
There was a rattle as of hailstones on the window. They both started.
"That must be Charlie!" she exclaimed, suddenly loosing her excitement under this pretext. "He doesn't want to ring and wake the house."
Edwin ran out of the room, sliding and slipping down the deserted stairs that waited patiently through the night for human feet.
"Forgot to take a key," said Charlie, appearing, breathless, just as the door opened. "I meant to take the big key, and then I forgot." He had a little round box in his hand. He mounted the stairs two and three at a time.
Edwin slowly closed the door. He could not bring himself to follow Charlie and, after a moment's vacillation, he went back into the breakfast-room.
Amazing, incalculable woman, wrapped within fold after fold of mystery! He understood better now, but even now there were things that he did not understand; and the greatest enigma of all remained unsolved, the original enigma of her treachery to himself... And she had chosen just that moment, just that crisis, to reveal to him that sinister secret which by some unguessed means she had been able to hide from her acquaintance. Naturally, if she wished to succeed with a boarding-house in Brighton she would be compelled to conceal somehow the fact that she was the victim of a bigamist and her child without a lawful name! The merest prudence would urge her to concealment so long as concealment was possible; yes, even from Janet! Her other friends deemed her a widow; Janet thought her the wife of a convict; he alone knew that she was neither wife nor widow. Through what scathing experience she must have passed! An unfamiliar and disconcerting mood gradually took complete possession of him. At first he did not correctly analyse it. It was sheer, exuberant, instinctive, unreasoning, careless joy.
Then, after a long period of beatific solitude in the breakfast-room, he heard stealthy noises in the hall, and his fancy jumped to the idea of burglary. Excited, unreflecting, he hurried into the hall. Johnnie Orgreave, who had let himself in with a latchkey, was shutting and bolting the front door. Johnnie's surprise was the greater. He started violently on seeing Edwin, and then at once assumed the sang-froid of a hero of romance. When Edwin informed him that Hilda had come, and Charlie with her, and that those two were watching by the boy, the rest of the household being in bed, Johnnie permitted himself a few verbal symptoms of astonishment.
"How is Georgie?" he asked with an effort, as if ashamed.
"He isn't much better," said Edwin evasively.
Johnnie made a deprecatory sound with his tongue against his lips, and frowned, determined to take his proper share in the general anxiety.
With careful, dignified movements, he removed his silk hat and his heavy ulster, revealing evening-dress, and a coloured scarf that overhung a crumpled shirt-front.
"Where've you been?" Edwin asked.
"Tennis dance. Didn't you know?"
"No," said Edwin.
"Really!" Johnnie murmured, with a falsely ingenuous air. After a pause he said: "They've left you all alone, then?"
"I was in the breakfast-room," said Edwin, when he had given further information.
They walked into the breakfast-room together. Charlie's cigarette-case lay on the tray.
"Those your cigarettes?" Johnnie inquired.
"No. They're Charlie's."
"Oh! Master Charlie's, are they? I wonder if they're any good." He took one fastidiously. Between two enormous outblowings of smoke he said: "Well, I'm dashed! So Charlie's come with her! I hope the kid'll soon be better... I should have been back long ago, only I took Mrs Chris Hamson home."
"Who's Mrs Chris Hamson?"
"Don't you know her? She's a ripping woman."
He stood there in all the splendour of thirty years, with more than Charlie's naivete, politely trying to enter into the life of the household, but failing to do so because of his preoccupation with the rippingness of Mrs Chris Hamson. The sight of him gave pleasure to Edwin. It did not occur to him to charge the young man with being callous.
When the cigarette was burnt, Johnnie said—
"Well, I think I shall leave seeing Charlie till breakfast."
And he went to bed. On reaching the first-floor corridor he wished that he had gone to bed half a minute sooner; for in the corridor he encountered Janet, who had risen and was returning to her post; and Janet's face, though she meant it not, was an accusation. Four o'clock had struck.
It was nearly half-past seven before Edwin left the house. In the meantime he had seen Charlie briefly twice, and Janet once, but he had not revisited the sick-room nor seen Hilda again. The boy's condition was scarcely altered; if there was any change, it was for the better.
Dawn had broken. The fog was gone, but a faint mist hung in the trees over the damp lawn. The air was piercingly chill. Yawning and glancing idly about him, he perceived a curious object on the dividing wall. It was the candlestick which he had left there on the previous night. The candle was entirely consumed. "I may as well get over the wall," he said to himself, and he scrambled up it with adventurous cheerfulness, and took the candlestick with him; it was covered with drops of moisture. He deposited it in the kitchen, where the servant was cleaning the range. On the oak chest in the hall lay the "Manchester Guardian," freshly arrived. He opened it with another heavy yawn. At the head of one column he read, "Death of the Duke of Clarence," and at the head of another, "Death of Cardinal Manning." The double news shocked him strangely. He thought of what those days had been to others beside himself. And he thought: "Supposing after all the kid doesn't come through?"
VOLUME FOUR, CHAPTER THIRTEEN.
After having been to business and breakfasted as usual, Edwin returned to the shop at ten o'clock. He did not feel tired, but his manner was very curt, even with Stifford, and melancholy had taken the place of his joy. The whole town was gloomy, and seemed to savour its gloom luxuriously. But Edwin wondered why he should be melancholy. There was no reason for it. There was less reason for it than there had been for ten years. Yet he was; and, like the town, he found pleasure in his state. He had no real desire to change it. At noon he suddenly went off home, thus upsetting Stifford's arrangements for the dinner-hour. "I shall lie down for a bit," he said to Maggie. He slept till a little after one o'clock, and he could have slept longer, but dinner was ready. He said to himself, with an extraordinary sense of satisfaction, "I have had a sleep." After dinner he lay down again, and slept till nearly three o'clock. It was with the most agreeable sensations that he awakened. His melancholy was passing; it had not entirely gone, but he could foresee the end of it as of an eclipse. He made the discovery that he had only been tired. Now he was somewhat reposed. And as he lay in repose he was aware of an intensified perception of himself as a physical organism. He thought calmly, "What a fine thing life is!"
"I was just going to bring you some tea up," said Maggie, who met him on the stairs as he came down. "I heard you moving. Will you have some?"
He rubbed his eyes. His head seemed still to be distended with sleep, and this was a part of his well-being. "Aye!" he replied, with lazy satisfaction. "That'll just put me right."
"George is much better," said Maggie.
"Good!" he said heartily.
Joy, wild and exulting, surged through him once more; and it was of such a turbulent nature that it would not suffer any examination of its origin. It possessed him by its might. As he drank the admirable tea he felt that he still needed a lot more sleep. There were two points of pressure at the top of his head. But he knew that he could sleep, and sleep well, whenever he chose; and that on the morrow his body would be perfectly restored.
He walked briskly back to the shop, intending to work, and he was a little perturbed to find that he could not work. His head refused. He sat in the cubicle vaguely staring. Then he was startled by a tremendous yawn, which seemed to have its inception in the very centre of his being, and which by the pang of its escape almost broke him in pieces. "I've never yawned like that before," he thought, apprehensive. Another yawn of the same seismic kind succeeded immediately, and these frightful yawns continued one after another for several minutes, each leaving him weaker than the one before. "I'd better go home while I can," he thought, intimidated by the suddenness and the mysteriousness of the attack. He went home. Maggie at once said that he would be better in bed, and to his own astonishment he agreed. He could not eat the meal that Maggie brought to his room.
"There's something the matter with you," said Maggie.
"No. I'm only tired." He knew it was a lie.
"You're simply burning," she said, but she refrained from any argument, and left him.
He could not sleep. His anticipations in that respect were painfully falsified.
Later, Maggie came back.
"Here's Dr Heve," she said briefly, in the doorway. She was silhouetted against the light from the landing. The doctor, in mourning, stood behind her.
"Dr Heve? What the devil—" But he did not continue the protest.
Maggie advanced into the room and turned up the gas, and the glare wounded his eyes.
"Yes," said Dr Heve, at the end of three minutes. "You've got it. Not badly, I hope. But you've got it all right."
Humiliating! For the instinct of the Clayhangers was always to assume that by virtue of some special prudence, or immunity, or resisting power, peculiar to them alone, they would escape any popular affliction such as an epidemic. In the middle of the night, amid feverish tossings and crises of thirst, and horrible malaise, it was more than humiliating! Supposing he died? People did die of influenza. The strangest, the most monstrous things did happen. For the first time in his life he lay in the genuine fear of death. He had never been ill before. And now he was ill. He knew what it was to be ill. The stupid, blundering clumsiness of death aroused his angry resentment. No! It was impossible that he should die! People did not die of influenza.
The next day the doctor laughed. But Edwin said to himself: "He may have laughed only to cheer me up. They never tell their patients the truth." And every cell of his body was vitiated, poisoned, inefficient, profoundly demoralised. Ordinary health seemed the most precious and the least attainable boon.
After wildernesses of time that were all but interminable, the attack was completely over. It had lasted a hundred hours, of which the first fifty had each been an age. It was a febrile attack similar to George's, but less serious. Edwin had possibly caught the infection at Knype Railway Station: yet who could tell? Now he was in the drawing-room, shaved, clothed, but wearing slippers for a sign that he was only convalescent, and because the doctor had forbidden him the street. He sat in front of the fire, in the easy chair that had been his father's favourite. On his left hand were an accumulation of newspapers and a book; on his right, some business letters and documents left by the assiduous Stifford after a visit of sympathy and of affairs. The declining sun shone with weak goodwill on the garden.
"Please, sir, there's a lady," said the servant, opening the door.
He was startled. His first thought naturally was, "It's Hilda!" in spite of the extreme improbability of it being Hilda. Hilda had never set foot in his house. Nevertheless, supposing it was Hilda, Maggie would assuredly come into the drawing-room—she could not do otherwise— and the three-cornered interview would, he felt, be very trying. He knew that Maggie, for some reason inexplicable by argument, was out of sympathy with Hilda, as with Hilda's son. She had given him regular news of George, who was now at about the same stage of convalescence as him sell, but she scarcely mentioned the mother, and he had not dared to inquire. These thoughts flashed through his brain in an instant.
"Who is it?" he asked gruffly.
"I—I don't know, sir. Shall I ask?" replied the servant, blushing as she perceived that once again she had sinned. She had never before been in a house where aristocratic ceremony was carried to such excess as at Edwin's. Her unconquerable instinct, upon opening the front door to a well-dressed stranger, was to rush off and publish the news that somebody mysterious and grand had come, leaving the noble visitor on the door-mat. She had been instructed in the ritual proper to these crises, but with little good result, for the crises took her unawares.
"Yes. Go and ask the name, and then tell my sister," said Edwin shortly.
"Miss Clayhanger is gone out, sir."
"Well, run along," he told her impatiently.
He was standing anxiously near the door when she returned to the room.
"Please, sir, it's a Mrs Cannon, and it's you she wants."
"Show her in," he said, and to himself: "My God!"
In the ten seconds that elapsed before Hilda appeared he glanced at himself in the mantel mirror, fidgeted with his necktie, and walked to the window and back again to his chair. She had actually called to see him! ... His agitation was extreme... But how like her it was to call thus boldly! ... Maggie's absence was providential.
Hilda entered, to give him a lesson in blandness. She wore a veil, and carried a muff—outworks of her self-protective, impassive demeanour. She was pale, and as calm as pale. She would not take the easy chair which he offered her. Useless to insist—she would not take it. He brushed away letters and documents from the small chair to his right, and she took that chair... Having taken it, she insisted that he should resume the easy chair.
"I called just to say good-bye," she said. "I knew you couldn't come out, and I'm going to-night."
"But surely he isn't fit to travel?" Edwin exclaimed.
"George? Not yet. I'm leaving him behind. You see I mustn't stay away longer than's necessary."
She smiled, and lifted her veil as far as her nose. She had not smiled before.
"Charlie's gone back?"
"Oh yes. Two days ago. He left a message for you."
"Yes. Maggie gave it me. By the way, I'm sorry she's not in."
"I've just seen her," said Hilda.
"She came in to see Janet. They're having a cup of tea in George's bedroom. So I put my things on and walked round here at once."
As Hilda made this surprising speech she gazed full at Edwin.
A blush slowly covered his face. They both sat silent. Only the fire crackled lustily. Edwin thought, as his agitation increased and entirely confused him, "No other woman was ever like this woman!" He wanted to rise masterfully, to accomplish some gesture splendid and decisive, but he was held in the hollow of the easy chair as though by paralysis. He looked at Hilda; he might have been looking at a stranger. He tried to read her face, and he could not read it. He could only see in it vague trouble. He was afraid of her. The idea even occurred to him that, could he be frank with himself, he would admit that he hated her. The moments were intensely painful; the suspense exasperating and excruciating. Ever since their last encounter he had anticipated this scene; his fancy had been almost continuously busy in fashioning this scene. And now the reality had swept down upon him with no warning, and he was overwhelmed.
She would not speak. She had withdrawn her gaze, but she would not speak. She would force him to speak.
"I say," he began gruffly, in a resentful tone, careless as to what he was saying, "you might have told me earlier what you told me on Wednesday night. Why didn't you tell me when I was at Brighton?"
"I wanted to," she said meekly. "But I couldn't. I really couldn't bring myself to do it."
"Instead of telling me a lie," he went on. "I think you might have trusted me more than that."
"A lie?" she muttered. "I told you the truth. I told you he was in prison."
"You told me your husband was in prison," he corrected her, in a voice meditative and judicial. He knew not in the least why he was talking in this strain.
She began to cry. At first he was not sure that she was crying. He glanced surreptitiously, and glanced away as if guilty. But at the next glance he was sure. Her eyes glistened behind the veil, and tear-drops appeared at its edge and vanished under her chin.
"You don't know how much I wanted to tell you!" she wept.
She hid her half-veiled face in her hands. And then he was victimised by the blackest desolation. His one desire was that the scene should finish, somehow, anyhow.
"I never wrote to you because there was nothing to say. Nothing!" She sobbed, still covering her face.
"Never wrote to me—do you mean—"
She nodded violently twice. "Yes. Then!" He divined that suddenly she had begun to talk of ten years ago. "I knew you'd know it was because I couldn't help it." She spoke so indistinctly through her emotion and her tears, and her hands, that he could not distinguish the words.
"What do you say?"
"I say I couldn't help doing what I did. I knew you'd know I couldn't help it. I couldn't write. It was best for me to be silent. What else was there for me to do except be silent? I knew you'd know I couldn't help it. It was a—" Sobs interrupted her.
"Of course I knew that," he said. He had to control himself very carefully, or he too would have lost command of his voice. Such was her power of suggestion over him that her faithlessness seemed now scarcely to need an excuse.
(Somewhere within himself he smiled as he reflected that he, in his father's place, in his father's very chair, was thus under the spell of a woman whose child was nameless. He smiled grimly at the thought of Auntie Hamps, of Clara, of the pietistic Albert! They were of a different race, a different generation! They belonged to a dead world!)
"I shall tell you," Hilda recommenced mournfully, but in a clear and steady voice, at last releasing her face, which was shaken like that of a child in childlike grief. "You'll never understand what I had to go through, and how I couldn't help myself"—she was tragically plaintive—"but I shall tell you... You must understand!"
She raised her eyes. Already for some moments his hands had been desiring the pale wrists between her sleeve and her glove. They fascinated his hands, which, hesitatingly, went out towards them. As soon as she felt his touch, she dropped to her knees, and her chin almost rested on the arm of his chair. He bent over a face that was transfigured.
"My heart never kissed any other man but you!" she cried. "How often and often and often have I kissed you, and you never knew! ... It was for a message that I sent George down here—a message to you! I named him after you... Do you think that if dreams could make him your child—he wouldn't be yours?"
Her courage, and the expression of it, seemed to him to be sublime.
"You don't know me!" she sighed, less convulsively.
"Don't I!" he said, with lofty confidence.
After a whole decade his nostrils quivered again to the odour of her olive skin. Drowning amid the waves of her terrible devotion, he was recompensed in the hundredth part of a second for all that through her he had suffered or might hereafter suffer. The many problems and difficulties which marriage with her would raise seemed trivial in the light of her heart's magnificent and furious loyalty. He thought of the younger Edwin whom she had kissed into rapture, as of a boy too inexperienced in sorrow to appreciate this Hilda. He braced himself to the exquisite burden of life.