"You would have known I was coming if you'd been calling here recently." She pushed her feet near the fender, and gazed into the fire.
"Ah! But you see I haven't been calling recently."
She raised her eyes to his. "I suppose you've never thought about me once since I left!" she fired at him. An audacious and discomposing girl!
"Oh yes, I have," he said weakly. What could you reply to such speeches? Nevertheless he was flattered.
"Really? But you've never inquired about me."
"Yes, I have."
"How do you know?"
"I asked Janet."
"Damn her!" he said to himself, but pleased with her. And aloud, in a tone suddenly firm, "That's nothing to go by."
"The number of times I've inquired." He was blushing.
In the smallness of the room, sitting as it were at his feet on the sofa, surrounded and encaged by a hundred domestic objects and by the glow of the fire and the radiance of the gas, she certainly did seem to Edwin to be an organism exceedingly mysterious. He could follow with his eye every fold of her black dress, he could trace the waving of her hair, and watch the play of light in her eyes. He might have physically hurt her, he might have killed her, she was beneath his hand—and yet she was most bafflingly withdrawn, and the essence of her could not be touched nor got at. Why did she challenge him by her singular attitude? Why was she always saying such queer things to him? No other girl (he thought, in the simplicity of his inexperience) would ever talk as she talked. He wanted to test her by being rude to her. "Damn her!" he said to himself again. "Supposing I took hold of her and kissed her—I wonder what sort of a face she'd pull then!" (And a moment ago he had been appraising her as nobly beautiful! A moment ago he had been dwelling on the lovely compassion of her gesture with Mr Shushions!) This quality of daring and naughty enterprise had never before shown itself in Edwin, and he was surprised to discover in himself such impulses. But then the girl was so provocative. And somehow the sight of the girl delivered him from an excessive fear of consequences. He said to himself, "I'll do something or I'll say something, before I leave her to-night, just to show her!" He screwed up his resolution to the point of registering a private oath that he would indeed do or say something. Without a solemn oath he could not rely upon his valour. He knew that whatever he said or did in the nature of a bold advance would be accomplished clumsily. He knew that it would be unpleasant. He knew that inaction suited much better his instinct for tranquillity. No matter! All that was naught. She had challenged, and he had to respond. Besides, she allured... And, after her scene with him in the porch of the new house, had he not the right? ... A girl who had behaved as she did that night cannot effectively contradict herself!
"I was just reading about this strike," she said, rustling the newspaper.
"You've soon got into local politics."
"Well," she said, "I saw a lot of the men as we were driving from the station. I should think I saw two thousand of them. So of course I was interested. I made Mr Orgreave tell me all about it. Will they win?"
"It depends on the weather." He smiled.
She remained silent, and grave. "I see!" she said, leaning her chin on her hand. At her tone he ceased smiling. She said "I see," and she actually had seen.
"You see," he repeated. "If it was June instead of November! But then it isn't June. Wages are settled every year in November. So if there is to be a strike it can only begin in November."
"But didn't the men ask for the time of year to be changed?"
"Yes," he said. "But you don't suppose the masters were going to agree to that, do you?" He sneered masculinely.
"Because it gives them such a pull."
"What a shame!" Hilda exclaimed passionately. "And what a shame it is that the masters want to make the wages depend on selling prices! Can't they see that selling prices ought to depend on wages?"
Edwin said nothing. She had knocked suddenly out of his head all ideas of flirting, and he was trying to reassemble them.
"I suppose you're like all the rest?" she questioned gloomily.
"How like all the rest?"
"Against the men. Mr Orgreave is, and he says your father is very strongly against them."
"Look here," said Edwin, with an air of resentment as to which he himself could not have decided whether it was assumed or genuine, "what earthly right have you to suppose that I'm like all the rest?"
"I'm very sorry," she surrendered. "I knew all the time you weren't." With her face still bent downwards, she looked up at him, smiling sadly, smiling roguishly.
"Father's against them," he proceeded, somewhat deflated. And he thought of all his father's violent invective, and of Maggie's bland acceptance of the assumption that workmen on strike were rascals—how different the excellent simple Maggie from this feverish creature on the sofa! "Father's against them, and most people are, because they broke the last arbitration award. But I'm not my father. If you ask me, I'll tell you what I think—workmen on strike are always in the right; at bottom I mean. You've only got to look at them in a crowd together. They don't starve themselves for fun."
He was not sure if he was convinced of the truth of these statements; but she drew them out of him by her strange power. And when he had uttered them, they appeared fine to him.
"What does your father say to that?"
"Oh!" said Edwin uneasily. "Him—and me—we don't argue about these things."
"Well, we don't."
"You aren't ashamed of your own opinions, are you?" she demanded, with a hint in her voice that she was ready to be scornful.
"You know all the time I'm not." He repeated the phrase of her previous confession with a certain acrimonious emphasis. "Don't you?" he added curtly.
She remained silent.
"Don't you?" he said more loudly. And as she offered no reply, he went on, marvelling at what was coming out of his mouth. "I'll tell you what I am ashamed of. I'm ashamed of seeing my father lose his temper. So you know!"
"I never met anybody like you before. No, never!"
At this he really was astounded, and most exquisitely flattered.
"I might say the same of you," he replied, sticking his chin out.
"Oh no!" she said. "I'm nothing."
The fact was that he could not foretell their conversation even ten seconds in advance. It was full of the completely unexpected. He thought to himself, "You never know what a girl like that will say next." But what would he say next?
They were interrupted by Osmond Orgreave, with his, "Well, Edwin," jolly, welcoming, and yet slightly quizzical. Edwin could not look him in the face without feeling self-conscious. Nor dared he glance at Hilda to see what her demeanour was like under the good-natured scrutiny of her friend's father.
"We thought you'd forgotten us," said Mr Orgreave. "But that's always the way with neighbours." He turned to Hilda. "It's true," he continued, jerking his head at Edwin. "He scarcely ever comes to see us, except when you're here."
"Steady on!" Edwin murmured. "Steady on, Mr Orgreave!" And hastily he asked a question about Mrs Orgreave's asthma; and from that the conversation passed to the doings of the various absent members of the family.
"You've been working, as usual, I suppose," said Edwin.
"Working!" laughed Mr Orgreave. "I've done what I could, with Hilda there! Instead of going up to Hillport with Janet, she would stop here and chatter about strikes."
Hilda smiled at him benevolently as at one to whom she permitted everything.
"Mr Clayhanger agrees with me," she said.
"Oh! You needn't tell me!" protested Mr Orgreave. "I could see you were as thick as thieves over it." He looked at Edwin. "Has she told you she wants to go over a printing works?"
"No," said Edwin. "But I shall be very pleased to show her over ours, any time."
She made no observation.
"Look here," said Edwin suddenly, "I must be off. I only slipped in for a minute, really." He did not know why he said this, for his greatest wish was to probe more deeply into the tantalising psychology of Hilda Lessways. His tongue, however, had said it, and his tongue reiterated it when Mr Orgreave urged that Janet and Alicia would be back soon and that food would then be partaken of. He would not stay. Desiring to stay, he would not. He wished to be alone, to think. Clearly Hilda had been talking about him to Mr Orgreave, and to Janet. Did she discuss him and his affairs with everybody?
Nor would he, in response to Mr Orgreave's suggestion, promise definitely to call again on the next evening. He said he would try. Hilda took leave of him nonchalantly. He departed.
And as he made the half-circuit of the misty lawn, on his way to the gates, he muttered in his heart, where even he himself could scarcely hear: "I swore I'd do something, and I haven't. Well, of course, when she talked seriously like that, what could I do?" But he was disgusted with himself and ashamed of his namby-pambiness.
He strolled thoughtfully up Oak Street, and down Trafalgar Road; and when he was near home, another wayfarer saw him face right about and go up Trafalgar Road and disappear at the corner of Oak Street.
The Orgreave servant was surprised to see him at the front door again when she answered a discreet ring.
"I wish you'd tell Miss Lessways I want to speak to her a moment, will you?"
"Yes." What an adventure!
"Certainly, sir. Will you come in?" She shut the door.
"Ask her to come here," he said, smiling with deliberate confidential persuasiveness. She nodded, with a brighter smile.
The servant vanished, and Hilda came. She was as red as fire. He began hurriedly.
"When will you come to look over our works? To-morrow? I should like you to come." He used a tone that said: "Now don't let's have any nonsense! You know you want to come."
She frowned frankly. There they were in the hall, like a couple of conspirators, but she was frowning; she would not meet him half-way. He wished he had not permitted himself this caprice. What importance had a private oath? He felt ridiculous.
"What time?" she demanded, and in an instant transformed his disgust into delight.
"Any time." His heart was beating with expectation.
"Oh no! You must fix the time."
"Well, after tea. Say between half-past six and a quarter to seven. That do?"
"Good," he murmured. "That's all! Thanks, Goodnight!"
He hastened away, with a delicate photograph of the palm of her hand printed in minute sensations on the palm of his.
"I did it, anyhow!" he muttered loudly, in his heart. At any rate he was not shamed. At any rate he was a man. The man's face was burning, and the damp noxious chill of the night only caressed him agreeably.
VOLUME TWO, CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.
He was afraid that, from some obscure motive of propriety or self-protection, she would bring Janet with her, or perhaps Alicia. On the other hand, he was afraid that she would come alone. That she should come alone seemed to him, in spite of his reason, too brazen. Moreover, if she came alone would he be equal to the situation? Would he be able to carry the thing off in a manner adequate? He lacked confidence. He desired the moment of her arrival, and yet he feared it. His heart and his brain were all confused together in a turmoil of emotion which he could not analyse nor define.
He was in love. Love had caught him, and had affected his vision so that he no longer saw any phenomenon as it actually was; neither himself, nor Hilda, nor the circumstances which were uniting them. He could not follow a train of thought. He could not remain of one opinion nor in one mind. Within himself he was perpetually discussing Hilda, and her attitude. She was marvellous! But was she? She admired him! But did she? She had shown cunning! But was it not simplicity? He did not even feel sure whether he liked her. He tried to remember what she looked like, and he positively could not. The one matter upon which he could be sure was that his curiosity was hotly engaged. If he had had to state the case in words to another he would not have gone further than the word 'curiosity.' He had no notion that he was in love. He did not know what love was; he had not had sufficient opportunity of learning. Nevertheless the processes of love were at work within him. Silently and magically, by the force of desire and of pride, the refracting glass was being specially ground which would enable him, which would compel him, to see an ideal Hilda when he gazed at the real Hilda. He would not see the real Hilda any more unless some cataclysm should shatter the glass. And he might be likened to a prisoner on whom the gate of freedom is shut for ever, or to a stricken sufferer of whom it is known that he can never rise again and go forth into the fields. He was as somebody to whom the irrevocable had happened. And he knew it not. None knew. None guessed. All day he went his ways, striving to conceal the whirring preoccupation of his curiosity (a curiosity which he thought showed a fine masculine dash), and succeeded fairly well. The excellent, simple Maggie alone remarked in secret that he was slightly nervous and unnatural. But even she, with all her excellent simplicity, did not divine his victimhood.
At six o'clock he was back at the shop from his tea. It was a wet, chill night. On the previous evening he had caught cold, and he was beginning to sneeze. He said to himself that Hilda could not be expected to come on such a night. But he expected her. When the shop clock showed half-past six, he glanced at his watch, which also showed half-past six. Now at any instant she might arrive. The shop door opened, and simultaneously his heart ceased to beat. But the person who came in, puffing and snorting, was his father, who stood within the shop while shaking his soaked umbrella over the exterior porch. The draught from the shiny dark street and square struck cold, and Edwin responsively sneezed; and Darius Clayhanger upbraided him for not having worn his overcoat, and he replied with foolish unconvincingness that he had got a cold, that it was nothing. Darius grunted his way into the cubicle. Edwin remained in busy idleness at the right-hand counter; Stifford was tidying the contents of drawers behind the fancy-counter. And the fizzing gas-burners, inevitable accompaniment of night at the period, kept watch above. Under the heat of the stove, the damp marks of Darius Clayhanger's entrance disappeared more quickly than the minutes ran. It grew almost impossible for Edwin to pass the time. At moments when his father was not stirring in the cubicle, and Stifford happened to be in repose, he could hear the ticking of the clock, which he could not remember ever having heard before, except when he mounted the steps to wind it.
At a quarter to seven he said to himself that he gave up hope, while pretending that he never had hoped, and that Hilda's presence was indifferent to him. If she came not that day she would probably come some other day. What could it matter? He was very unhappy. He said to himself that he should have a long night's reading, but the prospect of reading had no savour. He said: "No, I shan't go in to see them to-night, I shall stay in and nurse my cold, and read." This was mere futile bravado, for the impartial spectator in him, though far less clear-sighted and judicial now than formerly, foresaw with certainty that if Hilda did not come he would call at the Orgreaves'. At five minutes to seven he was miserable: he had decided to hope until five minutes to seven. He made it seven in despair. Then there were signs of a figure behind the misty glass of the door. The door opened. It could not be she! Impossible that it should be she! But it was she; she had the air of being a miracle.
His feelings were complex and contradictory, flitting about and crossing each other in his mind with astounding rapidity. He wished she had not come, because his father was there, and the thought of his father would intensify his self-consciousness. He wondered why he should care whether she came or not; after all she was only a young woman who wanted to see a printing works; at best she was not so agreeable as Janet, at worst she was appalling, and moreover he knew nothing about her. He had a glimpse of her face as, with a little tightening of the lips, she shut her umbrella. What was there in that face judged impartially? Why should he be to so absurd a degree curious about her? He thought how exquisitely delicious it would be to be walking with her by the shore of a lovely lake on a summer evening, pale hills in the distance. He had this momentary vision by reason of a coloured print of the "Silver Strand" of a Scottish loch which was leaning in a gilt frame against the artists' materials cabinet and was marked twelve-and-six. During the day he had imagined himself with her in all kinds of beautiful spots and situations. But the chief of his sensations was one of exquisite relief... She had come. He could wreak his hungry curiosity upon her.
Yes, she was alone. No Janet! No Alicia! How had she managed it? What had she said to the Orgreaves? That she should have come alone, and through the November rain, in the night, affected him deeply. It gave her the quality of a heroine of high adventure. It was as though she had set sail unaided, in a frail skiff, on a formidable ocean, to meet him. It was inexpressibly romantic and touching. She came towards him, her face sedately composed. She wore a small hat, a veil, and a mackintosh, and black gloves that were splashed with wet. Certainly she was a practical woman. She had said she would come, and she had come, sensibly, but how charmingly, protected against the shocking conditions of the journey. There is naught charming in a mackintosh. And yet there was, in this mackintosh! ... Something in the contrast between its harshness and her fragility... The veil was supremely charming. She had half lifted it, exposing her mouth; the upper part of her flushed face was caged behind the bars of the veil; behind those bars her eyes mysteriously gleamed... Spanish! ... No exaggeration in all this! He felt every bit of it honestly, as he stood at the counter in thrilled expectancy. By virtue of his impassioned curiosity, the terraces of Granada and the mantillas of senoritas were not more romantic than he had made his father's shop and her dripping mackintosh. He tried to see her afresh; he tried to see her as though he had never seen her before; he tried desperately once again to comprehend what it was in her that piqued him. And he could not. He fell back from the attempt. Was she the most wondrous? Or was she commonplace? Was she deceiving him? Or did he alone possess the true insight? ... Useless! He was baffled. Far from piercing her soul, he could scarcely even see her at all; that is, with intelligence. And it was always so when he was with her: he was in a dream, a vapour; he had no helm, his faculties were not under control. She robbed him of judgement.
And then the clear tones of her voice fell on the listening shop: "Good evening, Mr Clayhanger. What a night, isn't it? I hope I'm not too late."
Firm, business-like syllables... And she straightened her shoulders. He suffered. He was not happy. Whatever his feelings, he was not happy in that instant. He was not happy because he was wrung between hope and fear, alike divine. But he would not have exchanged his sensations for the extremest felicity of any other person.
They shook hands. He suggested that she should remove her mackintosh. She consented. He had no idea that the effect of the removal of the mackintosh would be so startling as it was. She stood intimately revealed in her frock. The mackintosh was formal and defensive; the frock was intimate and acquiescent.
Darius blundered out of the cubicle and Edwin had a dreadful moment introducing her to Darius and explaining their purpose. Why had he not prepared the ground in advance? His pusillanimous cowardice again! However, the directing finger of God sent a customer into the shop, and Edwin escaped with his Hilda through the aperture in the counter.
The rickety building at the back of the premises, which was still the main theatre of printing activities, was empty save for Big James, the hour of seven being past. Big James was just beginning to roll his apron round his waist, in preparation for departure. This happened to be one of the habits of his advancing age. Up till a year or two previously he would have taken off his apron and left it in the workshop; but now he could not confide it to the workshop; he must carry it about him until he reached home and a place of safety for it. When he saw Edwin and a young lady appear in the doorway, he let the apron fall over his knees again. As the day was only the second of the industrial week, the apron was almost clean; and even the office towel, which hung on a roller somewhat conspicuously near the door, was not offensive. A single gas jet burned. The workshop was in the languor of repose after toil which had officially commenced at 8 a.m.
The perfection of Big James's attitude, an attitude symbolised by the letting down of his apron, helped to put Edwin at ease in the original and difficult circumstances. "Good evening, Mr Edwin. Good evening, miss," was all that the man actually said with his tongue, but the formality of his majestic gestures indicated in the most dignified way his recognition of a sharp difference of class and his exact comprehension of his own role in the affair. He stood waiting: he had been about to depart, but he was entirely at the disposal of the company.
"This is Mr Yarlett, our foreman," said Edwin, and to Big James: "Miss Lessways has just come to look round."
Hilda smiled. Big James suavely nodded his head.
"Here are some of the types," said Edwin, because a big case was the object nearest him, and he glanced at Big James.
In a moment the foreman was explaining to Hilda, in his superb voice, the use of the composing-stick, and he accompanied the theory by a beautiful exposition of the practice; Edwin could stand aside and watch. Hilda listened and looked with an extraordinary air of sympathetic interest. And she was so serious, so adult. But it was the quality of sympathy, he thought, that was her finest, her most attractive. It was either that or her proud independence, as of a person not accustomed to bend to the will of others or to go to others for advice. He could not be sure... No! Her finest quality was her mystery. Even now, as he gazed at her comfortably, she baffled him; all her exquisite little movements and intonations baffled him. Of one thing, however, he was convinced: that she was fundamentally different from other women. There was she, and there was the rest of the sex.
For appearance's sake he threw in short phrases now and then, to which Big James, by his mere deportment, gave the importance of the words of a master.
"I suppose you printers did something special among yourselves to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing?" said Hilda suddenly, glancing from Edwin to Big James. And Big James and Edwin glanced at one another. Neither had ever heard of the four-hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing. In a couple of seconds Big James's downcast eye had made it clear that he regarded this portion of the episode as master's business.
"When was that?—let me see," Edwin foolishly blurted out.
"Oh! Some years ago. Two or three—perhaps four."
"I'm afraid we didn't," said Edwin, smiling.
"Oh!" said Hilda slowly. "I think they made a great fuss of it in London." She relented somewhat. "I don't really know much about it. But the other day I happened to be reading the new history of printing, you know—Cranswick's, isn't it?"
"Oh yes!" Edwin concurred, though he had never heard of Cranswick's new history of printing either.
He knew that he was not emerging creditably from this portion of the episode. But he did not care. The whole of his body went hot and then cold as his mind presented the simple question: "Why had she been reading the history of printing?" Could the reason be any other than her interest in himself? Or was she a prodigy among young women, who read histories of everything in addition to being passionate about verse? He said that it was ridiculous to suppose that she would read a history of printing solely from interest in himself. Nevertheless he was madly happy for a few moments, and as it were staggered with joy. He decided to read a history of printing at once.
Big James came to the end of his expositions of the craft. The stove was dying out, and the steam-boiler cold. Big James regretted that the larger machines could not be seen in action, and that the place was getting chilly. Edwin began to name various objects that were lying about, with their functions, but it was evident that the interest of the workshop was now nearly exhausted. Big James suggested that if Miss could make it convenient to call, say, on the next afternoon, she could see the large new Columbia in motion. Edwin seized the idea and beautified it. And on this he wavered towards the door, and she followed, and Big James in dignity bowed them forth to the elevated porch, and began to rewind his flowing apron once more. They pattered down the dark steps (now protected with felt roofing) and ran across six feet of exposed yard into what had once been Mrs Nixon's holy kitchen.
After glancing at sundry minor workshops in delicious propinquity and solitude, they mounted to the first floor, where there was an account-book ruling and binding shop: the site of the old sitting-room and the girls' bedroom. In each chamber Edwin had to light a gas, and the corridors and stairways were traversed by the ray of matches. It was excitingly intricate. Then they went to the attics, because Edwin was determined that she should see all. There he found a forgotten candle.
"I used to work here," he said, holding high the candle. "There was no other place for me to work in."
They were in his old work attic, now piled with stocks of paper wrapped up in posters.
"Work? What sort of work?"
"Well—reading, drawing, you know... At that very table." To be sure, there the very table was, thick with dust! It had been too rickety to deserve removal to the heights of Bleakridge. He was touched by the sight of the table now, though he saw it at least once every week. His existence at the corner of Duck Square seemed now to have been beautiful and sad, seemed to be far off and historic. And the attic seemed unhappy in its present humiliation.
"But there's no fireplace," murmured Hilda.
"I know," said Edwin.
"But how did you do in winter?"
"I did without."
He had in fact been less of a martyr than those three telling words would indicate. Nevertheless it appeared to him that he really had been a martyr; and he was glad. He could feel her sympathy and her quiet admiration vibrating through the air towards him. Had she not said that she had never met anybody like him? He turned and looked at her. Her eyes glittered in the candle-light with tears too proud to fall. Solemn and exquisite bliss! Profound anxiety and apprehension! He was an arena where all the sensations of which a human being is capable struggled in blind confusion.
Afterwards, he could recall her visit only in fragments. The next fragment that he recollected was the last. She stood outside the door in her mackintosh. The rain had ceased. She was going. Behind them he could feel his father in the cubicle, and Stifford arranging the toilette of the shop for the night.
"Please don't come out here," she enjoined, half in entreaty, half in command. Her solicitude thrilled him. He was on the step, she was on the pavement: so that he looked down at her, with the sodden, light-reflecting slope of Duck Square for a background to her.
"Oh! I'm all right. Well, you'll come to-morrow afternoon?"
"No, you aren't all right. You've got a cold and you'll make it worse, and this isn't the end of winter, it's the beginning; I think you're very liable to colds."
"N-no!" he said, enchanted, beside himself in an ecstasy of pleasure. "I shall expect you to-morrow about three."
"Thank you," she said simply. "I'll come."
They shook hands.
"Now do go in!"
She vanished round the corner.
All the evening he neither read nor spoke.
VOLUME TWO, CHAPTER NINETEEN.
At half-past two on the following afternoon he was waiting for the future in order to recommence living. During this period, to a greater extent even than the average individual in average circumstances, he was incapable of living in the present. Continually he looked either forward or back. All that he had achieved, or that had been achieved for him—the new house with its brightness and its apparatus of luxury, his books, his learning, his friends, his experience: not long since regarded by him as the precious materials of happiness—all had become negligible trifles, nothings, devoid of import. The sole condition precedent to a tolerable existence was now to have sight and speech of Hilda Lessways. He was intensely unhappy in the long stretches of time which separated one contact with her from the next. And in the brief moments of their companionship he was far too distraught, too apprehensive, too desirous, too puzzled, to be able to call himself happy. Seeing her apparently did naught to assuage the pain of his curiosity about her—not his curiosity concerning the details of her life and of her person, for these scarcely interested him, but his curiosity concerning the very essence of her being. At seven o'clock on the previous day, he had esteemed her visit as possessing a decisive importance which covered the whole field of his wishes. The visit had occurred, and he was not a whit advanced; indeed he had retrograded, for he was less content and more confused, and more preoccupied. The medicine had aggravated the disease. Nevertheless, he awaited a second dose of it in the undestroyed illusion of its curative property.
In the interval he had behaved like a very sensible man. Without appetite, he had still forced himself to eat, lest his relatives should suspect. Short of sleep, he had been careful to avoid yawning at breakfast, and had spoken in a casual tone of Hilda's visit. He had even said to his father: "I suppose the big Columbia will be running off those overseer notices this afternoon?" And on the old man asking why he was thus interested, he had answered: "Because that girl, Miss Lessways, thought of coming down to see it. For some reason or other she's very keen on printing, and as she's such a friend of the Orgreaves—"
Nobody, he considered, could have done that better than he had done it.
And now that girl, Miss Lessways, was nearly due. He stood behind the counter again, waiting, waiting. He could not apply himself to anything; he could scarcely wait. He was in a state that approached fever, if not agony. To exist from half-past two to three o'clock equalled in anguish the dreadful inquietude that comes before a surgical operation.
He said to himself: "If I keep on like this I shall be in love with her one of these days." He would not and could not believe that he already was in love with her, though the possibility presented itself to him. "No," he said, "you don't fall in love in a couple of days. You mustn't tell me—" in a wise, superior, slightly scornful manner. "I dare say there's nothing in it at all," he said uncertainly, after having strongly denied throughout that there was anything in it.
The recollection of his original antipathy to Hilda troubled him. She was the same girl. She was the same girl who had followed him at night into his father's garden and merited his disdain. She was the same girl who had been so unpleasant, so sharp, so rudely disconcerting in her behaviour. And he dared not say that she had altered. And yet now he could not get her out of his head. And although he would not admit that he constantly admired her, he did admit that there were moments when he admired her passionately and deemed her unique and above all women. Whence the change in himself? How to justify it? The problem was insoluble, for he was intellectually too honest to say lightly that originally he had been mistaken.
He did not pretend to solve the problem. He looked at it with perturbation, and left it. The consoling thing was that the Orgreaves had always expressed high esteem for Hilda. He leaned on the Orgreaves.
He wondered how the affair would end? It could not indefinitely continue on its present footing. How indeed would it end? Marriage... He apologised to himself for the thought... But just for the sake of argument ... supposing... well, supposing the affair went so far that one day he told her ... men did such things, young men! No! ... Besides, she wouldn't... It was absurd... No such idea really! ... And then the frightful worry there would be with his father about money, and so on... And the telling of Clara, and of everybody. No! He simply could not imagine himself married, or about to be married. Marriage might happen to other young men, but not to him. His case was special, somehow... He shrank from such formidable enterprises. The mere notion of them made him tremble.
He brushed all that away impatiently, pettishly. The intense and terrible longing for her arrival persisted. It was now twenty-five to three. His father would be down soon from his after-dinner nap. Suddenly the door opened, and he saw the Orgreaves' servant, with a cloak over her white apron, and hands red with cold. And also he saw disaster like a ghostly figure following her. His heart sickeningly sank. Martha smiled and gave him a note, which he smilingly accepted. "Miss Lessways asked me to come down with this," she said confidentially. She was a little breathless, and she had absolutely the manner of a singing chambermaid in light opera. He opened the note, which said: "Dear Mr Clayhanger, so sorry I can't come to-day.—Yours, H.L." Nothing else. It was scrawled. "It's all right, thanks," he said, with an even brighter smile to the messenger, who nodded and departed.
It all occurred in an instant.
A catastrophe! He suffered then as he had never suffered.
His was no state approaching agony; it was agony itself, black and awful. She was not coming. She had not troubled herself to give a reason, nor to offer an excuse. She merely was not coming. She had showed no consideration for his feelings. It had not happened to her to reflect that she would be causing him disappointment. Disappointment was too mild a word. He had been building a marvellously beautiful castle, and with a thoughtless, careless stroke of the pen she had annihilated all his labour; she had almost annihilated him. Surely she owed him some reason, some explanation! Had she the right to play fast and loose with him like that? "What a shame!" he sobbed violently in his heart, with an excessive and righteous resentment. He was innocent; he was blameless; and she tortured him thus! He supposed that all women were like her... "What a shame!" He pitied himself for a victim. And there was no glint of hope anywhere. In half an hour he would have been near her, with her, guiding her to the workshop, discussing the machine with her; and savouring her uniqueness; feasting on her delicious and adorable personality! ... 'So sorry I can't come to-day!' "She doesn't understand. She can't understand!" he said to himself. "No woman, however cruel, would ever knowingly be so cruel as she has been. It isn't possible!" Then he sought excuse for her, and then he cast the excuse away angrily. She was not coming. There was no ground beneath his feet. He was so exquisitely miserable that he could not face a future of even ten hours ahead. He could not look at what his existence would be till bedtime. The blow had deprived him of all force, all courage. It was a wanton blow. He wished savagely that he had never seen her... No! no! He could not call on the Orgreaves that night. He could not do it. She might be out. And then...
His father entered, and began to grumble. Both Edwin and Maggie had known since the beginning of dinner that Darius was quaking on the precipice of a bad bilious attack. Edwin listened to the rising storm of words. He had to resume the thread of his daily life. He knew what affliction was.
VOLUME TWO, CHAPTER TWENTY.
But he was young. Indeed to men of fifty, men just twice his age, he seemed a mere boy and incapable of grief. He was so slim, and his limbs were so loose, and his hair so fair, and his gestures often so naive, that few of the mature people who saw him daily striding up and down Trafalgar Road could have believed him to be acquainted with sorrow like their sorrows. The next morning, as it were in justification of these maturer people, his youth arose and fought with the malady in him, and, if it did not conquer, it was not defeated. On the previous night, after hours of hesitation, he had suddenly walked forth and gone down Oak Street, and pushed open the garden gates of the Orgreaves, and gazed at the facade of the house—not at her window, because that was at the side—and it was all dark. The Orgreaves had gone to bed: he had expected it. Even this perfectly futile reconnaissance had calmed him. While dressing in the bleak sunrise he had looked at the oval lawn of the Orgreaves' garden, and had seen Johnnie idly kicking a football on it. Johnnie had probably spent the evening with her; and it was nothing to Johnnie! She was there, somewhere between him and Johnnie, within fifty yards of both of them, mysterious and withdrawn as ever, busy at something or other. And it was naught to Johnnie! By the thought of all this the woe in him was strengthened and embittered. Nevertheless his youth, aided by the astringent quality of the clear dawn, still struggled sturdily against it. And he ate six times more breakfast than his suffering and insupportable father.
At half-past one—it was Thursday, and the shop closed at two o'clock— he had put on courage like a garment, and decided that he would see her that afternoon or night, 'or perish in the attempt.' And as the remembered phrase of the Sunday passed through his mind, he inwardly smiled and thought of school; and felt old and sure.
At five minutes to two, as he stood behind the eternal counter in his eternal dream, he had the inexpressible and delectable shock of seeing her. He was shot by the vision of her as by a bullet. She came in, hurried and preoccupied, apparently full of purpose.
"Have you got a Bradshaw?" she inquired, after the briefest greeting, gazing at him across the counter through her veil, as though imploring him for Bradshaw.
"I'm afraid we haven't one left," he said. "You see it's getting on for the end of the month. I could—No, I suppose you want it at once?"
"I want it now," she replied. "I'm going to London by the six express, and what I want to know is whether I can get on to Brighton to-night. They actually haven't a Bradshaw up there," half in scorn and half in levity, "and they said you'd probably have one here. So I ran down."
"They'd be certain to have one at the Tiger," he murmured, reflecting.
"The Tiger!" Evidently she did not care for the idea of the Tiger. "What about the railway station?"
"Yes, or the railway station. I'll go up there with you now if you like, and find out for you. I know the head porter. We're just closing. Father's at home. He's not very well."
She thanked him, relief in her voice.
In a minute he had put his hat and coat on and given instructions to Stifford, and he was climbing Duck Bank with Hilda at his side. He had forgiven her. Nay, he had forgotten her crime. The disaster, with all its despair, was sponged clean from his mind like writing off a slate, and as rapidly. It was effaced. He tried to collect his faculties and savour the new sensations. But he could not. Within him all was incoherent, wild, and distracting. Five minutes earlier, and he could not have conceived the bliss of walking with her to the station. Now he was walking with her to the station; and assuredly it was bliss, and yet he did not fully taste it. Though he would not have loosed her for a million pounds, her presence gave an even crueller edge to his anxiety and apprehension. London! Brighton! Would she be that night in Brighton? He felt helpless, and desperate. And beneath all this was the throbbing of a strange, bitter joy. She asked about his cold and about his father's indisposition. She said nothing of her failure to appear on the previous day, and he knew not how to introduce it neatly: he was not in control of his intelligence.
They passed Snaggs' Theatre, and from its green, wooden walls came the obscure sound of humanity in emotion. Before the mean and shabby portals stood a small crowd of ragged urchins. Posters printed by Darius Clayhanger made white squares on the front.
"It's a meeting of the men," said Edwin.
"They're losing, aren't they?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I expect they are."
She asked what the building was, and he explained.
"They used to call it the Blood Tub," he said.
She shivered. "The Blood Tub?"
"Yes. Melodrama and murder and gore—you know."
"How horrible!" she exclaimed. "Why are people like that in the Five Towns?"
"It's our form of poetry, I suppose," he muttered, smiling at the pavement, which was surprisingly dry and clean in the feeble sunshine.
"I suppose it is!" she agreed heartily, after a pause.
"But you belong to the Five Towns, don't you?" he asked.
"Oh yes! I used to."
At the station the name of Bradshaw appeared to be quite unknown. But Hilda's urgency impelled them upwards from the head porter to the ticket clerk, and from the ticket clerk to the stationmaster; and at length they discovered, in a stuffy stove-heated room with a fine view of a shawd-ruck and a pithead, that on Thursday evenings there was a train from Victoria to Brighton at eleven-thirty. Hilda seemed to sigh relief, and her demeanour changed. But Edwin's uneasiness was only intensified. Brighton, which he had never seen, was in another hemisphere for him. It was mysterious, like her. It was part of her mystery. What could he do? His curse was that he had no initiative. Without her relentless force, he would never have penetrated even as far as the stuffy room where the unique Bradshaw lay. It was she who had taken him to the station, not he her. How could he hold her back from Brighton?
When they came again to the Blood Tub, she said—
"Couldn't we just go and look in? I've got plenty of time, now I know exactly how I stand."
She halted, and glanced across the road. He could only agree to the proposition. For himself, a peculiar sense of delicacy would have made it impossible for him to intrude his prosperity upon the deliberations of starving artisans on strike and stricken; and he wondered what the potters might think or say about the invasion by a woman. But he had to traverse the street with her and enter, and he had to do so with an air of masculine protectiveness. The urchins stood apart to let them in.
Snaggs', dimly lit by a few glazed apertures in the roof, was nearly crammed by men who sat on the low benches and leaned standing against the sidewalls. In the small and tawdry proscenium, behind a worn picture of the Bay of Naples, were silhouetted the figures of the men's leader and of several other officials. The leader was speaking in a quiet, mild voice, the other officials were seated on Windsor chairs. The smell of the place was nauseating, and yet the atmosphere was bitingly cold. The warm-wrapped visitors could see rows and rows of discoloured backs and elbows, and caps, and stringy kerchiefs. They could almost feel the contraction of thousands of muscles in an involuntary effort to squeeze out the chill from all these bodies; not a score of overcoats could be discerned in the whole theatre, and many of the jackets were thin and ragged; but the officials had overcoats. And the visitors could almost see, as it were in rays, the intense fixed glances darting from every part of the interior, and piercing the upright figure in the centre of the stage.
"Some method of compromise," the leader was saying in his persuasive tones.
A young man sprang up furiously from the middle benches.
"To hell wi' compromise!" he shouted in a tigerish passion. "Haven't us had forty pound from Ameriky?"
"Order! Order!" some protested fiercely. But one voice cried: "Pitch the bastard awt, neck and crop!"
Hands clawed at the interrupter and dragged him with extreme violence to the level of the bench, where he muttered like a dying volcano. Angry growls shot up here and there, snappish, menacing, and bestial.
"It is quite true," said the leader soothingly, "that our comrades at Trenton have collected forty pounds for us. But forty pounds would scarcely pay for a loaf of bread for one man in every ten on strike."
There was more interruption. The dangerous growls continued in running explosions along the benches. The leader, ignoring them, turned to consult with his neighbour, and then faced his audience and called out more loudly—
"The business of the meeting is at an end."
The entire multitude jumped up, and there was stretching of arms and stamping of feet. The men nearest to the door now perceived Edwin and Hilda, who moved backwards as before a flood. Edwin seized Hilda's arm to hasten her.
"Lads," bawled an old man's voice from near the stage, "Let's sing 'Rock of Ages.'"
A frowning and hirsute fellow near the door, with the veins prominent on his red forehead, shouted hoarsely, "'Rock of Ages' be buggered!" and shifting his hands into his pockets he plunged for the street, head foremost and chin sticking out murderously. Edwin and Hilda escaped at speed and recrossed the road. The crowd came surging out of the narrow neck of the building and spread over the pavements like a sinister liquid. But from within the building came the lusty song of "Rock of Ages."
"It's terrible!" Hilda murmured, after a silence. "Just to see them is enough. I shall never forget what you said."
"What was that?" he inquired. He knew what it was, but he wished to prolong the taste of her appreciation.
"That you've only got to see the poor things to know they're in the right! Oh! I've lost my handkerchief, unless I've left it in your shop. It must have dropped out of my muff."
The shop was closed. As with his latchkey he opened the private door and then stood on one side for her to precede him into the corridor that led to the back of the shop, he watched the stream of operatives scattering across Duck Bank and descending towards the Square. It was as if he and Hilda, being pursued, were escaping. And as Hilda, stopping an instant on the step, saw what he saw, her face took a troubled expression. They both went in and he shut the door.
"Turn to the left," he said, wondering whether the big Columbia machine would be running, for her to see if she chose.
"Oh! This takes you to the shop, does it? How funny to be behind the counter!"
He thought she spoke self-consciously, in the way of small talk: which was contrary to her habit.
"Here's my handkerchief!" she cried, with pleasure. It was on the counter, a little white wisp in the grey-sheeted gloom. Stifford must have found it on the floor and picked it up.
The idea flashed through Edwin's head: "Did she leave her handkerchief on purpose, so that we should have to come back here?"
The only illumination of the shop was from three or four diamond-shaped holes in the upper part of as many shutters. No object was at first quite distinct. The corners were very dark. All merchandise not in drawers or on shelves was hidden in pale dust cloths. A chair wrong side up was on the fancy-counter, its back hanging over the front of the counter. Hilda had wandered behind the other counter, and Edwin was in the middle of the shop. Her face in the twilight had become more mysterious than ever. He was in a state of emotion, but he did not know to what category the emotion belonged. They were alone. Stifford had gone for the half-holiday. Darius, sickly, would certainly not come near. The printers were working as usual in their place, and the clanking whirr of a treadle-machine overhead agitated the ceiling. But nobody would enter the shop. His excitement increased, but did not define itself. There was a sudden roar in Duck Square, and then cries.
"What can that be?" Hilda asked, low.
"Some of the strikers," he answered, and went through the doors to the letter-hole in the central shutter, lifted the flap, and looked through.
A struggle was in progress at the entrance to the Duck Inn. One man was apparently drunk; others were jeering on the skirts of the lean crowd.
"It's some sort of a fight among them," said Edwin loudly, so that she could hear in the shop. But at the same instant he felt the wind of the door swinging behind him, and Hilda was silently at his elbow.
"Let me look," she said.
Assuredly her voice was trembling. He moved, as little as possible, and held the flap up for her. She bent and gazed. He could hear various noises in the Square, but she described nothing to him. After a long while she withdrew from the hole.
"A lot of them have gone into the public-house," she said. "The others seem to be moving away. There's a policeman. What a shame," she burst out passionately, "that they have to drink to forget their trouble!" She made no remark upon the strangeness of starving workmen being able to pay for beer sufficient to intoxicate themselves. Nor did she comment, as a woman, on the misery of the wives and children at home in the slums and the cheap cottage-rows. She merely compassionated the men in that they were driven to brutishness. Her features showed painful pity masking disgust.
She stepped back into the shop.
"Do you know," she began, in a new tone, "you've quite altered my notion of poetry—what you said as we were going up to the station."
"Really!" He smiled nervously. He was very pleased. He would have been astounded by this speech from her, a professed devotee of poetry, if in those instants the capacity for astonishment had remained to him.
"Yes," she said, and continued, frowning and picking at her muff: "But you do alter my notions, I don't know how it is... So this is your little office!"
The door of the cubicle was open.
"Yes, go in and have a look at it."
"Shall I?" She went in.
He followed her.
And no sooner was she in than she muttered, "I must hurry off now." Yet a moment before she seemed to have infinite leisure.
"Shall you be at Brighton long?" he demanded, and scarcely recognised his own accents.
"Oh! I can't tell! I've no idea. It depends."
"How soon shall you be down our way again?"
She only shook her head.
"I say—you know—" he protested.
"Good-bye," she said, quavering. "Thanks very much." She held out her hand.
"But—" He took her hand.
His suffering was intolerable. It was torture of the most exquisite kind. Her hand pressed his. Something snapped in him. His left hand hovered shaking over her shoulder, and then touched her shoulder, and he could feel her left hand on his arm. The embrace was clumsy in its instinctive and unskilled violence, but its clumsiness was redeemed by all his sincerity and all hers. His eyes were within six inches of her eyes, full of delicious shame, anxiety, and surrender. They kissed... He had amorously kissed a woman. All his past life sank away, and he began a new life on the impetus of that supreme and final emotion. It was an emotion that in its freshness, agitating and divine, could never be renewed. He had felt the virgin answer of her lips on his. She had told him everything, she had yielded up her mystery, in a second of time. Her courage in responding to his caress ravished and amazed him. She was so unaffected, so simple, so heroic. And the cool, delicate purity of those lips! And the faint feminine odour of her flesh and even of her stuffs! Dreams and visions were surpassed. He said to himself, in the flood-tide of masculinity—
"My God! She's mine."
And it seemed incredible.
She was sitting in the office chair; he on the desk. She said in a trembling voice—
"I should never have come to the Five Towns again, if you hadn't—"
"I couldn't have stood it. I couldn't." She spoke almost bitterly, with a peculiar smile on her twitching lips.
To him it seemed that she had resumed her mystery, that he had only really known her for one instant, that he was bound to a woman entrancing, noble, but impenetrable. And this, in spite of the fact that he was close to her, touching her, tingling to her in the confined, crepuscular intimacy of the cubicle. He could trace every movement of her breast as she breathed, and yet she escaped the inward searching of his gaze. But he was happy. He was happy enough to repel all anxieties and inquietudes about the future. He was steeped in the bliss of the miracle. This was but the fourth day, and they were vowed.
"It was only Monday," he began.
"Monday!" she exclaimed. "I have thought of you for over a year." She leaned towards him. "Didn't you know? Of course you did! ... You couldn't bear me at first."
He denied this, blushing, but she insisted.
"You don't know how awful it was for me yesterday when you didn't come!" he murmured.
"Was it?" she said, under her breath. "I had some very important letters to write." She clasped his hand.
There it was again! She spoke just like a man of business, immersed in secret schemes.
"It's awfully funny," he said. "I scarcely know anything about you, and yet—"
"I'm Janet's friend!" she answered. Perhaps it was the delicatest reproof of imagined distrust.
"And I don't want to," he went on. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-four," she answered sweetly, acknowledging his right to put such questions.
"I thought you were."
"I suppose you know I've got no relatives," she said, as if relenting from her attitude of reproof. "Fortunately, father left just enough money for me to live on."
"Must you go to Brighton?"
"Where can I write to?"
"It will depend," she said. "But I shall send you the address to-morrow. I shall write you before I go to bed whether it's to-night or to-morrow morning."
"I wonder what people will say!"
"Please tell no one, yet," she pleaded. "Really, I should prefer not! Later on, it won't seem so sudden; people are so silly."
"But shan't you tell Janet?"
She hesitated. "No! Let's keep it to ourselves till I come back."
"When shall you come back?"
"Oh! Very soon. I hope in a few days, now. But I must go to this friend at Brighton. She's relying on me."
It was enough for him, and indeed he liked the idea of a secret. "Yes, yes," he agreed eagerly.
There was the sound of another uproar in Duck Square. It appeared to roll to and fro thunderously.
She shivered. The fire was dead out in the stove, and the chill of night crept in from the street.
"It's nearly dark," she said. "I must go! I have to pack... Oh dear, dear—those poor men! Somebody will be hurt!"
"I'll walk up with you," he whispered, holding her, in owner ship.
"No. It will be better not. Let me out."
"But who'll take you to Knype Station?"
"Janet will go with me."
She rose reluctantly. In the darkness they were now only dim forms to each other. He struck a match, that blinded them and expired as they reached the passage...
When she had gone, he stood hatless at the open side door. Right at the top of Duck Bank, he could discern, under the big lamp there, a knot of gesticulating and shouting strikers, menacing two policemen; and farther off, in the direction of Moorthorne Road, other strikers were running. The yellow-lit blinds of the Duck Inn across the Square seemed to screen a house of impenetrable conspiracies and debaucheries. And all that grim, perilous background only gave to his emotions a further intensity, troubling them to still stranger ecstasy. He thought: "It has happened to me, too, now—this thing that is at the bottom of everybody's mind! I've kissed her! I've got her! She's marvellous, marvellous! I couldn't have believed it. But is it true? Has it happened?" It passed his credence... "By Jove! I absolutely forgot about the ring! That's a nice how d'ye do!" ... He saw himself married. He thought of Clara's grotesque antics with her tedious babe. And he thought of his father and of vexatious. But that night he was a man. She, Hilda, with her independence and her mystery, had inspired him with a full pride of manhood. And he discovered that one of the chief attributes of a man is an immense tenderness.
VOLUME TWO, CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
He was more proud and agitated than happy. The romance of the affair, and its secrecy, made him proud; the splendid qualities of Hilda made him proud. It was her mysteriousness that agitated him, and her absence rendered him unhappy in his triumph. During the whole of Friday he was thinking: "To-morrow is Saturday and I shall have her address and a letter from her." He decided that there was no hope of a letter by the last post on Friday, but as the hour of the last post drew nigh he grew excited, and was quite appreciably disappointed when it brought nothing. The fear, which had always existed in little, then waxed into enormous dread, that Saturday's post also would bring nothing. His manoeuvres in the early twilight of Saturday morning were complicated by the fact that it had not been arranged whether she should write to the shop or to the house. However, he prepared for either event by having his breakfast at seven o'clock, on the plea of special work in the shop. He had finished it at half-past seven, and was waiting for the postman, whose route he commanded from the dining-room window. The postman arrived. Edwin with false calm walked into the hall, saying to himself that if the letter was not in the box it would be at the shop. But the letter was in the box. He recognised her sprawling hand on the envelope through the wirework. He snatched the letter and slipped upstairs with it like a fox with a chicken. It had come, then! The letter safely in his hands he admitted more frankly that he had been very doubtful of its promptitude.
"59 Preston Street, Brighton, 1 a.m.
"Dearest,—This is my address. I love you. Every bit of me is absolutely yours. Write me.—H.L."
That was all. It was enough. Its tone enchanted him. Also it startled him. But it reminded him of her lips. He had begun a letter to her. He saw now that what he had written was too cold in the expression of his feelings. Hilda's note suddenly and completely altered his views upon the composition of love-letters. "Every bit of me is absolutely yours." How fine, how untrammelled, how like Hilda! What other girl could or would have written such a phrase? More than ever was he convinced that she was unique. The thrill divine quickened in him again, and he rose eagerly to her level of passion. The romance, the secrecy, the mystery, the fever! He walked down Trafalgar Road with the letter in his pocket, and once he pulled it out to read it in the street. His discretion objected to this act, but Edwin was not his own master. Stifford, hurrying in exactly at eight, was somewhat perturbed to find his employer's son already installed in the cubicle, writing by the light of gas, as the shutters were not removed. Edwin had finished and stamped his first love-letter just as his father entered the cubicle. Owing to dyspeptic accidents Darius had not set foot in the cubicle since it had been sanctified by Hilda. Edwin, leaving it, glanced at the old man's back and thought disdainfully: "Ah! You little know, you rhinoceros, that less than two days ago, she and I, on that very spot—"
As soon as his father had gone to pay the morning visit to the printing shops, he ran out to post the letter himself. He could not be contented until it was in the post. Now, when he saw men of about his own class and age in the street, he would speculate upon their experiences in the romance of women. And it did genuinely seem to him impossible that anybody else in a town like Bursley could have passed through an episode so exquisitely strange and beautiful as that through which he was passing. Yet his reason told him that he must be wrong there. His reason, however, left him tranquil in the assurance that no girl in Bursley had ever written to her affianced: "I love you. Every bit of me is absolutely yours."
Hilda's second letter did not arrive till the following Tuesday, by which time he had become distracted by fears and doubts. Yes, doubts! No rational being could have been more loyal than Edwin, but these little doubts would keep shooting up and withering away. He could not control them. The second letter was nearly as short as the first. It told him nothing save her love and that she was very worried by her friend's situation, and that his letters were a joy. She had had a letter from him each day. In his reply to her second he gently implied, between two lines, that her letters lacked quantity and frequency. She answered: "I simply cannot write letters. It isn't in me. Can't you tell that from my handwriting? Not even to you! You must take me as I am." She wrote each day for three days. Edwin was one of those who learn quickly, by the acceptance of facts. And he now learnt that profound lesson that an individual must be taken or left in entirety, and that you cannot change an object merely because you love it. Indeed he saw in her phrase, "You must take me as I am," the accents of original and fundamental wisdom, springing from the very roots of life. And he submitted. At intervals he would say resentfully: "But surely she could find five minutes each day to drop me a line! What's five minutes?" But he submitted. Submission was made easier when he co-ordinated with Hilda's idiosyncrasy the fact that Maggie, his own unromantic sister, could never begin to write a letter with less than from twelve to twenty-four hours' bracing of herself to the task. Maggie would be saying and saying: "I really must write that letter... Dear me! I haven't written that letter yet."
His whole life seemed to be lived in the post, and postmen were the angels of the creative spirit. His unhappiness increased with the deepening of the impression that the loved creature was treating him with cruelty. Time dragged. At length he had been engaged a fortnight. On Thursday a letter should have come. It came not. Nor on Friday nor Saturday. On Sunday it must come. But it did not come on Sunday. He determined to telegraph to her on the Monday morning. His loyalty, though valorous, needed aid against all those pricking battalions of ephemeral doubts. On the Sunday evening he suddenly had the idea of strengthening himself by a process that resembled boat-burning. He would speak to his father. His father's mentality was the core of a difficulty that troubled him exceedingly, and he took it into his head to attack the difficulty at once, on the spot.
For years past Darius Clayhanger had not gone to chapel on Sunday evening. In the morning he still went fairly regularly, but in the evening he would now sit in the drawing-room, generally alone, to read. On weekdays he never used the drawing-room, where indeed there was seldom a fire. He had been accustomed to only one living-room, and save on Sunday, when he cared to bend the major part of his mind to the matter, he scorned to complicate existence by utilising all the resources of the house which he had built. His children might do so; but not he. He was proud enough to see to it that his house had a drawing-room, and too proud to employ the drawing-room except on the ceremonious day. After tea, at about a quarter to six, when chapel-goers were hurriedly pulling gloves on, he would begin to establish himself in a saddle-backed, ear-flapped easy-chair with "The Christian News" and an ivory paper-knife as long and nearly as deadly as a scimitar. "The Christian News" was a religious weekly of a new type. It belonged to a Mr James Bott, and it gave to God and to the mysteries of religious experience a bright and breezy actuality. Darius's children had damned it for ever on its first issue, in which Clara had found, in a report of a very important charitable meeting, the following words: "Among those present were the Prince of Wales and Mr James Bott." Such is the hasty and unjudicial nature of children that this single sentence finished the career of "The Christian News" with the younger generation. But Darius liked it, and continued to like it. He enjoyed it. He would spend an hour and a half in reading it. And further, he enjoyed cutting open the morsel. Once when Edwin, in hope of more laughter, had cut the pages on a Saturday afternoon, and his father had found himself unable to use the paper-knife on Sunday evening, there had been a formidable inquiry: "Who's been meddling with my paper?" Darius saved the paper even from himself until Sunday evening; not till then would he touch it. This habit had flourished for several years. It appeared never to lose its charm. And Edwin did not cease to marvel at his father's pleasure in a tedious monotony.
It was the hallowed rite of reading "The Christian News" that Edwin disturbed in his sudden and capricious resolve. Maggie and Mrs Nixon had gone to chapel, for Mrs Nixon, by reason of her years, bearing, mantle and reputation, could walk down Trafalgar Road by the side of her mistress on a Sunday night without offence to the delicate instincts of the town. The niece, engaged to be married at an age absurdly youthful, had been permitted by Mrs Nixon the joy of attending evensong at the Bleakridge Church on the arm of a male, but under promise to be back at a quarter to eight to set supper. The house was perfectly still when Edwin came all on fire out of his bedroom and slid down the stairs. The gas burnt economically low within its stained-glass cage in the hall. The drawing-room door was unlatched. He hesitated a moment on the mat, and he could hear the calm ticking of the clock in the kitchen and see the red glint of the kitchen fire against the wall. Then he entered, looking and feeling apologetic.
His father was all curtained in; his slippered feet on the fender of the blazing hearth, his head cushioned to a nicety, the long paper-knife across his knees. And the room was really hot and in a glow of light. Darius turned and, lowering his face, gazed at Edwin over the top of his new gold-rimmed spectacles.
"Not gone to chapel?" he frowned.
"No! ... I say, father, I just wanted to speak to you."
Darius made no reply, but shifted his glance from Edwin to the fire, and maintained his frown. He was displeased at the interruption. Edwin failed to shut the door at the first attempt, and then banged it in his nervousness. In spite of himself he felt like a criminal. Coming forward, he leaned his loose, slim frame against a corner of the old piano.
"Well?" Darius growled impatiently, even savagely. They saw each other, not once a week, but at nearly every hour of every day, and they were surfeited of the companionship.
"Supposing I wanted to get married?" This sentence shot out of Edwin's mouth like a bolt. And as it flew, he blushed very red. In the privacy of his mind he was horribly swearing.
"So that's it, is it?" Darius growled again. And he leaned forward and picked up the poker, not as a menace, but because he too was nervous. As an opposer of his son he had never had quite the same confidence in himself since Edwin's historic fury at being suspected of theft, though apparently their relations had resumed the old basis of bullying and submission.
"Well—" Edwin hesitated. He thought, "After all, people do get married. It won't be a crime."
"Who'st been running after?" Darius demanded inimically. Instead of being softened by this rumour of love, by this hint that his son had been passing through wondrous secret hours, he instinctively and without any reason hardened himself and transformed the news into an offence. He felt no sympathy, and it did not occur to him to recall that he too had once thought of marrying. He was a man whom life had brutalised about half a century earlier.
"I was only thinking," said Edwin clumsily—the fool had not sense enough even to sit down—"I was only thinking, suppose I did want to get married."
"Who'st been running after?"
"Well, I can't rightly say there's anything—what you may call settled. In fact, nothing was to be said about it at all at present. But it's Miss Lessways, father—Hilda Lessways, you know."
"Her as came in the shop the other day?"
"How long's this been going on?"
Edwin thought of what Hilda had said. "Oh! Over a year." He could not possibly have said "four days." "Mind you this is strictly q.t! Nobody knows a word about it, nobody! But of course I thought I'd better tell you. You'll say nothing." He tried wistfully to appeal as one loyal man to another. But he failed. There was no ray of response on his father's gloomy features, and he slipped back insensibly into the boy whose right to an individual existence had never been formally admitted.
Something base in him—something of that baseness which occasionally actuates the oppressed—made him add: "She's got an income of her own. Her father left money." He conceived that this would placate Darius.
"I know all about her father," Darius sneered, with a short laugh. "And her father's father! ... Well, lad, ye'll go your own road." He appeared to have no further interest in the affair. Edwin was not surprised, for Darius was seemingly never interested in anything except his business; but he thought how strange, how nigh to the incredible, the old man's demeanour was.
"But about money, I was thinking," he said, uneasily shifting his pose.
"What about money?"
"Well," said Edwin, endeavouring, and failing, to find courage to put a little sharpness into his tone, "I couldn't marry on seventeen-and-six a week, could I?"
At the age of twenty-five, at the end of nine years' experience in the management and the accountancy of a general printing and stationery business, Edwin was receiving seventeen shillings and sixpence for a sixty-five-hour week's work, the explanation being that on his father's death the whole enterprise would be his, and that all money saved was saved for him. Out of this sum he had to pay ten shillings a week to Maggie towards the cost of board and lodging, so that three half-crowns remained for his person and his soul. Thus he could expect no independence of any kind until his father's death, and he had a direct and powerful interest in his father's death. Moreover, all his future, and all unpaid reward of his labours in the past, hung hazardous on his father's goodwill. If he quarrelled with him, he might lose everything. Edwin was one of a few odd-minded persons who did not regard this arrangement as perfectly just, proper, and in accordance with sound precedent. But he was helpless. His father would tell him, and did tell him, that he had fought no struggles, suffered no hardship, had no responsibility, and that he was simply coddled from head to foot in cotton-wool.
"I say you must go your own road," said his father.
"But at this rate I should never be able to marry!"
"Do you reckon," asked Darius, with mild cold scorn, "as you getting married will make your services worth one penny more to my business?" And he waited an answer with the august calm of one who is aware that he is unanswerable. But he might with equal propriety have tied his son's hands behind him and then diverted himself by punching his head.
"I do all I can," said Edwin meekly.
"And what about getting orders?" Darius questioned grimly. "Didn't I offer you two and a half per cent on all new customers you got yourself? And how many have you got? Not one. I give you a chance to make extra money and you don't take it. Ye'd sooner go running about after girls."
This was a particular grievance of the father against the son: that the son brought no grist to the mill in the shape of new orders.
"But how can I get orders?" Edwin protested.
"How did I get 'em? How do I get 'em? Somebody has to get 'em." The old man's lips were pressed together, and he waved "The Christian News" slightly in his left hand.
In a few minutes both their voices had risen. Darius, savage, stooped to replace with the shovel a large burning coal that had dropped on the tiles and was sending up a column of brown smoke.
"I tell you what I shall do," he said, controlling himself bitterly. "It's against my judgement, but I shall put you up to a pound a week at the New Year, if all goes well, of course. And it's good money, let me add."
He was entirely serious, and almost sincere. He loathed paying money over to his son. He was convinced that in an ideal world sons would toil gratis for their fathers who lodged and fed them and gifted them with the reversion of excellent businesses.
"But what good's a pound a week?" Edwin demanded, with the querulousness of one who is losing hope.
"What good's a pound a week!" Darius repeated, hurt and genuinely hurt. "Let me tell you that in my time young men married on a pound a week, and glad to! A pound a week!" He finished with a sardonic exclamation.
"I couldn't marry Miss Lessways on a pound a week," Edwin murmured, in despair, his lower lip hanging. "I thought you might perhaps be offering me a partnership by this time!" Possibly in some mad hour a thought so wild had indeed flitted through his brain.
"Did you?" rejoined Darius. And in the fearful grimness of the man's accents was concealed all his intense and egoistic sense of possessing in absolute ownership the business which the little boy out of the Bastille had practically created. Edwin did not and could not understand the fierce strength of his father's emotion concerning the business. Already in tacitly agreeing to leave Edwin the business after his own death, Darius imagined himself to be superbly benevolent.
"And then there would be house-furnishing, and so on," Edwin continued.
"What about that fifty pounds?" Darius curtly inquired.
Edwin was startled. Never since the historic scene had Darius made the slightest reference to the proceeds of the Building Society share.
"I haven't spent all of it," Edwin muttered.
Do what he would with his brain, the project of marriage and house-tenancy and a separate existence obstinately presented itself to him as fantastic and preposterous. Who was he to ask so much from destiny? He could not feel that he was a man. In his father's presence he never could feel that he was a man. He remained a boy, with no rights, moral or material.
"And if as ye say she's got money of her own—" Darius remarked, and was considerably astonished when the boy walked straight out of the room and closed the door.
It was his last grain of common sense that took Edwin in silence out of the room.
Miserable, despicable baseness! Did the old devil suppose that he would be capable of asking his wife to find the resources which he himself could not bring? He was to say to his wife: "I can only supply a pound a week, but as you've got money it won't matter." The mere notion outraged him so awfully that if he had stayed in the room there would have been an altercation and perhaps a permanent estrangement.
As he stood furious and impotent in the hall, he thought, with his imagination quickened by the memory of Mr Shushions: "When you're old, and I've got you"—he clenched his fists and his teeth—"when I've got you and you can't help yourself, by God it'll be my turn!"
And he meant it.
He seized his overcoat and hat, and putting them on anyhow, strode out. The kitchen clock struck half-past seven as he left. Chapel-goers would soon be returning in a thin procession of twos and threes up Trafalgar Road. To avoid meeting acquaintances he turned down the side street, towards the old road which was a continuation of Aboukir Street. There he would be safe. Letting his overcoat fly open, he thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers. It was a cold night of mist. Humanity was separated from him by the semi-transparent blinds of the cottage windows, bright squares in the dark and enigmatic facades of the street. He was alone.
All along he had felt and known that this disgusting crisis would come to pass. He had hoped against it, but not with faith. And he had no remedy for it. What could he immediately and effectively do? He was convinced that his father would not yield. There were frequent occasions when his father was proof against reason, when his father seemed genuinely unable to admit the claim of justice, and this occasion was one of them. He could tell by certain peculiarities of tone and gesture. A pound a week! Assuming that he cut loose from his father, in a formal and confessed separation, he might not for a long time be in a position to earn more than a pound a week. A clerk was worth no more. And, except as responsible manager of a business, he could only go into the market as a clerk. In the Five Towns how many printing offices were there that might at some time or another be in need of a manager? Probably not one. They were all of modest importance, and directed personally by their proprietary heads. His father's was one of the largest... No! His father had nurtured and trained, in him, a helpless slave.
And how could he discuss such a humiliating question with Hilda? Could he say to Hilda: "See here, my father won't allow me more than a pound a week. What are we to do?" In what terms should he telegraph to her to-morrow?
He heard the rapid firm footsteps of a wayfarer overtaking him. He had no apprehension of being disturbed in his bitter rage. But a hand was slapped on his shoulder, and a jolly voice said—
"Now, Edwin, where's this road leading you to on a Sunday night?"
It was Osmond Orgreave who, having been tramping for exercise in the high regions beyond the Loop railway line, was just going home.
"Oh! Nowhere particular," said Edwin feebly.
"Working off Sunday dinner, eh?"
"Yes." And Edwin added casually, to prove that there was nothing singular in his mood: "Nasty night!"
"You must come in a bit," said Mr Orgreave.
"Oh no!" He shrank away.
"Now, now!" said Mr Orgreave masterfully. "You've got to come in, so you may as well give up first as last. Janet's in. She's like you and me, she's a bad lot,—hasn't been to church." He took Edwin by the arm, and they turned into Oak Street at the lower end.
Edwin continued to object, but Mr Orgreave, unable to scrutinise his face in the darkness, and not dreaming of an indiscretion, rode over his weak negatives, horse and foot, and drew him by force into the garden; and in the hall took his hat away from him and slid his overcoat from his shoulders. Mr Orgreave, having accomplished a lot of forbidden labour on that Sabbath, was playful in his hospitality.
"Prisoner! Take charge of him!" exclaimed Mr Orgreave shortly, as he pushed Edwin into the breakfast-room and shut the door from the outside. Janet was there, exquisitely welcoming, unconsciously pouring balm from her eyes. But he thought she looked graver than usual. Edwin had to enact the part of a man to whom nothing has happened. He had to behave as though his father was the kindest and most reasonable of fathers, as though Hilda wrote fully to him every day, as though he were not even engaged to Hilda. He must talk, and he scarcely knew what he was saying.
"Heard lately from Miss Lessways?" he asked lightly, or as lightly as he could. It was a splendid effort. Impossible to expect him to start upon the weather or the strike! He did the best he could.
Janet's eyes became troubled. Speaking in a low voice she said, with a glance at the door—
"I suppose you've not heard. She's married."
He did not move.
"Yes. It is rather sudden, isn't it?" Janet tried to smile, but she was exceedingly self-conscious. "To a Mr Cannon. She's known him for a very long time, I think."
"Yesterday. I had a note this morning. It's quite a secret yet. I haven't told father and mother. But she asked me to tell you if I saw you."
He thought her eyes were compassionate.
Mrs Orgreave came smiling into the room.
"Well, Mr Edwin, it seems we can only get you in here by main force."
"Are you quite better, Mrs Orgreave?" he rose to greet her.
He had by some means or other to get out.
"I must just run in home a second," he said, after a moment. "I'll be back in three minutes."
But he had no intention of coming back. He would have told any lie in order to be free.
In his bedroom, looking at himself in the glass, he could detect on his face no sign whatever of suffering or of agitation. It seemed just an ordinary mild, unmoved face.
And this, too, he had always felt and known would come to pass: that Hilda would not be his. All that romance was unreal; it was not true; it had never happened. Such a thing could not happen to such as he was... He could not reflect. When he tried to reflect, the top of his head seemed as though it would fly off... Cannon! She was with Cannon somewhere at that very instant... She had specially asked that he should be told. And indeed he had been told before even Mr and Mrs Orgreave... Cannon! She might at that very instant be in Cannon's arms.
It could be said of Edwin that he fully lived that night. Fate had at any rate roused him from the coma which most men called existence.
Simple Maggie was upset because, from Edwin's absence and her father's demeanour at supper, she knew that her menfolk had had another terrible discussion. And since her father offered no remark as to it, she guessed that this one must be even more serious that the last.
There was one thing that Edwin could not fit into any of his theories of the disaster which had overtaken him, and that was his memory of Hilda's divine gesture as she bent over Mr Shushions on the morning of the Centenary.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER ONE.
BOOK THREE—HIS FREEDOM.
AFTER A FUNERAL.
Four and a half years later, on a Tuesday night in April 1886, Edwin was reading in an easy-chair in his bedroom. He made a very image of solitary comfort. The easy-chair had been taken from the dining-room, silently, without permission, and Darius had apparently not noticed its removal. A deep chair designed by some one learned in the poses natural to the mortal body, it was firm where it ought to be firm, and where it ought to yield, there it yielded. By its own angles it threw the head slightly back, and the knees slightly up. Edwin's slippered feet rested on a hassock, and in front of the hassock was a red-glowing gas-stove. That stove, like the easy-chair, had been acquired by Edwin at his father's expense without his father's cognisance. It consumed gas whose price swelled the quarterly bill three times a year, and Darius observed nothing. He had not even entered his son's bedroom for several years. Each month seemed to limit further his interest in surrounding phenomena, and to centralise more completely all his faculties in his business. Over Edwin's head the gas jet flamed through one of Darius's special private burners, lighting the page of a little book, one of Cassell's "National Library," a new series of sixpenny reprints which had considerably excited the book-selling and the book-reading worlds, but which Darius had apparently quite ignored, though confronted in his house and in his shop by multitudinous examples of it. Sometimes Edwin would almost be persuaded to think that he might safely indulge any caprice whatever under his father's nose, and then the old man would notice some unusual trifle, of no conceivable importance, and go into a passion about it, and Maggie would say quietly, "I told you what would be happening one of these days," which would annoy Edwin. His annoyance was caused less by Maggie's 'I told you so,' than by her lack of logic. If his father had ever overtaken him in some large and desperate caprice, such as the purchase of the gas-stove on the paternal account, he would have submitted in meekness to Maggie's triumphant reminder; but his father never did. It was always upon some perfectly innocent nothing, which the timidest son might have permitted himself, that the wrath of Darius overwhelmingly burst.
Maggie and Edwin understood each other on the whole very well. Only in minor points did their sympathy fail. And as Edwin would be exasperated because Maggie's attitude towards argument was that of a woman, so would Maggie resent a certain mulishness in him characteristic of the unfathomable stupid sex. Once a week, for example, when his room was 'done out,' there was invariably a skirmish between them, because Edwin really did hate anybody to 'meddle among his things.' The derangement of even a brush on the dressing-table would rankle in his mind. Also he was very 'crotchety about his meals,' and on the subject of fresh air. Unless he was sitting in a perceptible draught, he thought he was being poisoned by nitrogen: but when he could see the curtain or blind trembling in the wind he was hygienically at ease. His existence was a series of catarrhal colds, which, however, as he would learnedly explain to Maggie, could not be connected, in the brain of a reasonable person, with currents of fresh air. Maggie mutely disdained his science. This, too, fretted him. Occasionally she would somewhat tartly assert that he was a regular old maid. The accusation made no impression on him at all. But when, more than ordinarily exacerbated, she sang out that he was 'exactly like his father,' he felt wounded.
The appearance of his bedroom, and the fact that he enjoyed being in it alone, gave some ground for Maggie's first accusation. A screen hid the bed, and this screen was half covered with written papers of memoranda; roughly, it divided the room into dormitory and study. The whole chamber was occupied by Edwin's personal goods, great and small, ranged in the most careful order; it was full; in the occupation of a young man who was not precociously an old maid, it would have been littered. It was a complex and yet practical apparatus for daily use, completely organised for the production of comfort. Edwin would move about in it with the loving and assured gestures of a creator; and always he was improving its perfection. His bedroom was his passion.
Often, during the wilderness of the day, he would think of his bedroom as of a refuge, to which in the evening he should hasten. Ascending the stairs after the meal, his heart would run on in advance of his legs, and be within the room before his hand had opened the door. And then he would close the door, as upon the whole tedious world, and turn up the gas, and light the stove with an explosive plop, and settle himself. And in the first few minutes of reading he would with distinct, conscious pleasure, allow his attention to circle the room, dwelling upon piled and serried volumes, and delighting in orderliness and in convenience. And he would reflect: "This is my life. This is what I shall always live for. This is the best. And why not?" It seemed to him when he was alone in his bedroom and in the night, that he had respectably well solved the problem offered to him by destiny. He insisted to himself sharply that he was not made for marriage, that he had always known marriage to be impossible for him, that what had happened was bound to have happened. For a few weeks he had lived in a fool's paradise: that was all... Fantastic scheme, mad self-deception! In such wise he thought of his love-affair. His profound satisfaction was that none except his father knew of it, and even his father did not know how far it had gone. He felt that if the town had been aware of his jilting, he could not have borne the humiliation. To himself he had been horribly humiliated; but he had recovered in his own esteem.
It was only by very slow processes, by insensible degrees, that he had arrived at the stage of being able to say to his mirror, "I've got over that!" And who could judge better than he? He could trace no mark of the episode in his face. Save for the detail of a moustache, it seemed to him that he had looked on precisely the same unchangeable face for a dozen years. Strange, that suffering had left no sign! Strange, that, in the months just after Hilda's marriage, no acquaintance had taken him on one side and said, "What is the tragedy I can read on your features?"
And indeed the truth was that no one suspected. The vision of his face would remain with people long after he had passed them in the street, or spoken to them in the shop. The charm of his sadness persisted in their memory. But they would easily explain it to themselves by saying that his face had a naturally melancholy cast—a sort of accident that had happened to him in the beginning! He had a considerable reputation, of which he was imperfectly aware, for secretiveness, timidity, gentleness, and intellectual superiority. Sundry young women thought of him wistfully when smiling upon quite other young men, and would even kiss him while kissing them, according to the notorious perversity of love.
He was reading Swift's "Tale of a Tub" eagerly, tasting with a palate consciously fastidious and yet catholic, the fine savour of a masterpiece. By his secret enthusiasm, which would escape from him at rare intervals in a word to a friend, he was continuing the reputation of the "Tale of a Tub" from one century towards the next. A classic remains a classic only because a few hundred Edwins up and down England enjoy it so heartily that their pleasure becomes religious. Edwin, according to his programme, had no right to be amusing himself with Swift at that hour. The portly Hallam, whom he found tedious, ought to have been in his hands. But Swift had caught him and would not let him go. Herein was one of the consequences of the pocketableness of Cassell's new series. Edwin had been obliged to agree with Tom Orgreave (now a married man) that the books were not volumes for a collector; but they were so cheap, and they came from the press so often—once a week, and they could be carried so comfortably over the heart, that he could not resist most of them. His professed idea was that by their aid he could read smaller works in odd moments, at any time, thus surpassing his programme. He had not foreseen that Swift would make a breach in his programme, which was already in a bad way.
But he went on reading tranquilly, despite the damage to it; for in the immediate future shone the hope of the new life, when programmes would never be neglected. In less than a month he would be thirty years of age. At twenty, it had seemed a great age, an age of absolute maturity. Now, he felt as young and as boyish as ever, especially before his father, and he perceived that his vague early notion about the finality of such an age as thirty had been infantile. Nevertheless, the entry into another decade presented itself to him as solemn, and he meant to signalise it by new and mightier resolutions to execute vaster programmes. He was intermittently engaged, during these weeks, in the delicious, the enchanting business of constructing the ideal programme and scheming the spare hours to ensure its achievement. He lived in a dream and illusion of ultimate perfection.
Several times, despite the spell of Swift, he glanced at his watch. The hand went from nine to ten minutes past ten. And then he thought he heard the sound for which he had been listening. He jumped up, abandoned the book with its marker, opened the window wide, and lifting the blind by its rod, put his head out. Yes, he could hear the yelling afar off, over the hill, softened by distance into something gentle and attractive.
"'Signal!' 'Signal!' Special edition! 'Signal!'" And then words incomprehensible.
It came nearer in the night.
He drew down the window, and left the room. The mere distant sound of the newsboys' voices had roused him to a pleasing excitement. He fumbled in his pockets. He had neither a halfpenny nor a penny—it was just like him—and those newsboys with their valuable tidings would not care to halt and weigh out change with a balance.
"Got a halfpenny? Quick!" he cried, running into the kitchen, where Maggie and Mrs Nixon were engaged in some calm and endless domestic occupation amid linen that hung down whitely.
"What for?" Maggie mechanically asked, feeling the while under her apron.
"Paper," he said.
"At this time of night? You'll never get one at this time of night!" she said, in her simplicity.
He stamped his foot with impatience. It was absolutely astonishing, the ignorance in which Maggie lived, and lived efficiently and in content. Edwin filled the house with newspapers, and she never looked at them, never had the idea of looking at them, unless occasionally at the 'Signal' for an account of a wedding or a bazaar. In which case she would glance at the world for an instant with mild naivete, shocked by the horrible things that were apparently going on there, and in five minutes would forget all about it again. Here the whole of England, Ireland, and Scotland was at its front doors that night waiting for newsboys, and to her the night was like any other night! Yet she read many books.
"Here's a penny," she said. "Don't forget to give it me back."
He ran out bareheaded. At the corner of the street somebody else was expectant. He could distinguish all the words now—
"'Signal!' Special edition! Mester Gladstone's Home Rule Bill. Full report. Gladstone's speech. Special!"
The dark running figures approached, stopping at frequent gates, and their hoarse voices split the night. The next moment they had gone by, in a flying column, and Edwin and the other man found themselves with fluttering paper in their hands, they knew not how! It was the most unceremonious snatch-and-thrust transaction that could be imagined. Bleakridge was silent again, and its gates closed, and the shouts were descending violently into Bursley.
"Where's father?" Maggie called out when she heard Edwin in the hall.
"Hasn't he come in yet?" Edwin replied negligently, as he mounted the stairs with his desire.
In his room he settled himself once more under the gas, and opened the flimsy newspaper with joy. Yes, there it was—columns, columns, in small type! An hour or two previously Gladstone had been speaking in Parliament, and by magic the whole of his speech, with all the little convolutions of his intricate sentences, had got into Edwin's bedroom. Edwin began to read, as it were voluptuously. Not that he had a peculiar interest in Irish politics! What he had was a passion for great news, for news long expected. He could thrill responsively to a fine event. I say that his pleasure had the voluptuousness of an artistic sensation.
Moreover, the attraction of politics in general was increasing for him. Politics occupied his mind, often obsessing it. And this was so in spite of the fact that he had done almost nothing in the last election, and that the pillars of the Liberal Club were beginning to suspect him of being a weakling who might follow his father into the wilderness between two frontiers.
As he read the speech, slowly disengaging its significance from the thicket of words, it seemed incredible. A parliament in Dublin! The Irish taxing themselves according to their own caprices! The Irish controlling the Royal Irish Constabulary! The Irish members withdrawn from Westminster! A separate nation! Surely Gladstone could not mean it! The project had the same air of unreality as that of his marriage with Hilda. It did not convince. It was too good to be true. It could not materialise itself. And yet, as his glance, flitting from left to right and right to left, eagerly, reached the bottom of one column and jumped with a crinkling of paper to the top of the next, and then to the next after that, the sense of unreality did depart. He agreed with the principles of the Bill, and with all its details. Whatever Gladstone had proposed would have received his sympathy. He was persuaded in advance; he concurred in advance. All he lacked was faith. And those sentences, helped by his image of the aged legislator dominating the House, and by the wondrous legend of the orator's divine power—those long stretching, majestic, misty sentences gave him faith. Henceforward he was an ardent Home Ruler. Reason might or might not have entered into the affair had the circumstances of it been other; but in fact reason did not. Faith alone sufficed. For ever afterwards argument about Home Rule was merely tedious to him, and he had difficulty in crediting that opponents of it were neither stupid nor insincere. Home Rule was part of his religion, beyond and above argument.