Howards End Chapter 17

THE AGE of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push and send toppling into the sea. But there were all their father’s books—they never read them, but they were their father’s, and must be kept. There was the marble-topped chiffonier—their mother had set store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.

It was absurd, if you came to think of it; Helen and Tibby came to think of it: Margaret was too busy with the house-agents. The feudal ownership of land did bring dignity, whereas the modern ownership of movables is reducing us again to a nomadic horde. We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty. The Schlegels were certainly the poorer for the loss of Wickham Place. It had helped to balance their lives, and almost to counsel them. Nor is their ground-landlord spiritually the richer. He has built flats on its site, his motor-cars grow swifter, his exposures of Socialism more trenchant. But he has split the precious distillation of the years, and no chemistry of his can give it back to society again.

Margaret grew depressed; she was anxious to settle on a house before they left town to pay their annual visit to Mrs. Munt. She enjoyed this visit, and wanted to have her mind at ease for it. Swanage, though dull, was stable, and this year she longed more than usual for its fresh air and for the magnificent downs that guard it on the north. But London thwarted her; in its atmosphere she could not concentrate. London only stimulates, it cannot sustain; and Margaret, hurrying over its surface for a house without knowing what sort of a house she wanted, was paying for many a thrilling sensation in the past. She could not even break loose from culture, and her time was wasted by concerts which it would be a sin to miss, and invitations which it would never do to refuse. At last she grew desperate; she resolved that she would go nowhere and be at home to no one until she found a house, and broke the resolution in half an hour.

Once she had humorously lamented that she had never been to Simpson’s restaurant in the Strand. Now a note arrived from Miss Wilcox, asking her to lunch there. Mr. Cahill was coming, and the three would have such a jolly chat, and perhaps end up at the Hippodrome. Margaret had no strong regard for Evie, and no desire to meet her fiancé, and she was surprised that Helen, who had been far funnier about Simpson’s, had not been asked instead. But the invitation touched her by its intimate tone. She must know Evie Wilcox better than she supposed, and declaring that she “simply must,” she accepted.

But when she saw Evie at the entrance of the restaurant, staring fiercely at nothing after the fashion of athletic women, her heart failed her anew. Miss Wilcox had changed perceptibly since her engagement. Her voice was gruffer, her manner more downright, and she was inclined to patronize the more foolish virgin. Margaret was silly enough to be pained at this. Depressed at her isolation, she saw not only houses and furniture, but the vessel of life itself slipping past her, with people like Evie and Mr. Cahill on board.

There are moments when virtue and wisdom fail us, and one of them came to her at Simpson’s in the Strand. As she trod the staircase, narrow but carpeted thickly, as she entered the eating-room, where saddles of mutton were being trundled up to expectant clergymen, she had a strong, if erroneous, conviction of her own futility, and wished she had never come out of her backwater, where nothing happened except art and literature, and where no one ever got married or succeeded in remaining engaged. Then came a little surprise. “Father might be of the party”—yes, Father was. With a smile of pleasure she moved forward to greet him, and her feeling of loneliness vanished.

“I thought I’d get round if I could,” said he. “Evie told me of her little plan, so I just slipped in and secured a table. Always secure a table first. Evie, don’t pretend you want to sit by your old father, because you don’t. Miss Schlegel, come in my side, out of pity. My goodness, but you look tired! Been worrying round after your young clerks?”

“No, after houses,” said Margaret, edging past him into the box. “I’m hungry, not tired; I want to eat heaps.”

“That’s good. What’ll you have?”

“Fish pie,” said she, with a glance at the menu.

“Fish pie! Fancy coming for fish pie to Simpson’s. It’s not a bit the thing to go for here.”

“Go for something for me, then,” said Margaret, pulling off her gloves. Her spirits were rising, and his reference to Leonard Bast had warmed her curiously.

“Saddle of mutton,” said he after profound reflection; “and cider to drink. That’s the type of thing. I like this place, for a joke, once in a way. It is so thoroughly Old English. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” said Margaret, who didn’t. The order was given, the joint rolled up, and the carver, under Mr. Wilcox’s direction, cut the meat where it was succulent, and piled their plates high. Mr. Cahill insisted on sirloin, but admitted that he had made a mistake later on. He and Evie soon fell into a conversation of the “No, I didn’t; yes, you did” type—conversation which, though fascinating to those who are engaged in it, neither desires nor deserves the attention of others.

“It’s a golden rule to tip the carver. Tip everywhere’s my motto.”

“Perhaps it does make life more human.”

“Then the fellows know one again. Especially in the East, if you tip, they remember you from year’s end to year’s end.”

“Have you been in the East?”

“Oh, Greece and the Levant. I used to go out for sport and business to Cyprus; some military society of a sort there. A few piastres, properly distributed, help to keep one’s memory green. But you, of course, think this shockingly cynical. How’s your discussion society getting on? Any new utopias lately?”

“No, I’m house-hunting, Mr. Wilcox, as I’ve already told you once. Do you know of any houses?”

“Afraid I don’t.”

“Well, what’s the point of being practical if you can’t find two distressed females a house? We merely want a small house with large rooms, and plenty of them.”

“Evie, I like that! Miss Schlegel expects me to turn house-agent for her!”

“What’s that, Father?”

“I want a new home in September, and someone must find it. I can’t.”

“Percy, do you know of anything?”

“I can’t say I do,” said Mr. Cahill.

“How like you! You’re never any good.”

“Never any good. Just listen to her! Never any good. Oh, come!”

“Well, you aren’t. Miss Schlegel, is he?”

The torrent of their love, having splashed these drops at Margaret, swept away on its habitual course. She sympathized with it now, for a little comfort had restored her geniality. Speech and silence pleased her equally, and while Mr. Wilcox made some preliminary inquiries about cheese, her eyes surveyed the restaurant and admired its well-calculated tributes to the solidity of our past. Though no more Old English than the works of Kipling, it had selected its reminiscences so adroitly that her criticism was lulled, and the guests whom it was nourishing for imperial purposes bore the outer semblance of Parson Adams or Tom Jones. Scraps of their talk jarred oddly on the ear. “Right you are! I’ll cable out to Uganda this evening,” came from the table behind. “Their Emperor wants war; well, let him have it,” was the opinion of a clergyman. She smiled at such incongruities. “Next time,” she said to Mr. Wilcox, “you shall come to lunch with me at Mr. Eustace Miles’s.”

“With pleasure.”

“No, you’d hate it,” she said, pushing her glass towards him for some more cider. “It’s all proteids and body-buildings, and people come up to you and beg your pardon, but you have such a beautiful aura.”

“A what?”

“Never heard of an aura? Oh, happy, happy man! I scrub at mine for hours. Nor of an astral plane?”

He had heard of astral planes, and censured them.

“Just so. Luckily it was Helen’s aura, not mine, and she had to chaperone it and do the politenesses. I just sat with my handkerchief in my mouth till the man went.”

“Funny experiences seem to come to you two girls. No one’s ever asked me about my—what d’ye call it? Perhaps I’ve not got one.”

“You’re bound to have one, but it may be such a terrible colour that no one dares mention it.”

“Tell me, though, Miss Schlegel, do you really believe in the supernatural and all that?”

“Too difficult a question.”

“Why’s that? Gruyère or Stilton?”

“Gruyère, please.”

“Better have Stilton.”

“Stilton. Because, though I don’t believe in auras, and think Theosophy’s only a halfway-house—”

“—Yet there may be something in it all the same,” he concluded, with a frown.

“Not even that. It may be halfway in the wrong direction. I can’t explain. I don’t believe in all these fads, and yet I don’t like saying that I don’t believe in them.”

He seemed unsatisfied, and said: “So you wouldn’t give me your word that you don’t hold with astral bodies and all the rest of it?”

“I could,” said Margaret, surprised that the point was of any importance to him. “Indeed, I will. When I talked about scrubbing my aura, I was only trying to be funny. But why do you want this settled?”

“I don’t know.”

“Now, Mr. Wilcox, you do know.”

“Yes, I am,” “No, you’re not,” burst from the lovers opposite. Margaret was silent for a moment, and then changed the subject.

“How’s your house?”

“Much the same as when you honoured it last week.”

“I don’t mean Ducie Street. Howards End, of course.”

“Why ‘of course’?”

“Can’t you turn out your tenant and let it to us? We’re nearly demented.”

“Let me think. I wish I could help you. But I thought you wanted to be in town. One bit of advice: fix your district, then fix your price, and then don’t budge. That’s how I got both Ducie Street and Oniton. I said to myself: ‘I mean to be exactly here,’ and I was, and Oniton’s a place in a thousand.”

“But I do budge. Gentlemen seem to mesmerize houses—cow them with an eye, and up they come, trembling. Ladies can’t. It’s the houses that are mesmerizing me. I’ve no control over the saucy things. Houses are alive. No?”

“I’m out of my depth,” he said, and added: “Didn’t you talk rather like that to your office boy?”

“Did I?—I mean I did, more or less. I talk the same way to everyone—or try to.”

“Yes, I know. And how much do you suppose that he understood of it?”

“That’s his lookout. I don’t believe in suiting my conversation to my company. One can doubtless hit upon some medium of exchange that seems to do well enough, but it’s no more like the real thing than money is like food. There’s no nourishment in it. You pass it to the lower classes, and they pass it back to you, and this you call ‘social intercourse’ or ‘mutual endeavour,’ when it’s mutual priggishness if it’s anything. Our friends at Chelsea don’t see this. They say one ought to be at all costs intelligible, and sacrifice—”

“Lower classes,” interrupted Mr. Wilcox, as it were thrusting his hand into her speech. “Well, you do admit that there are rich and poor. That’s something.”

Margaret could not reply. Was he incredibly stupid, or did he understand her better than she understood herself?

“You do admit that, if wealth was divided up equally, in a few years there would be rich and poor again just the same. The hard-working man would come to the top, the wastrel sink to the bottom.”

“Everyone admits that.”

“Your Socialists don’t.”

“My Socialists do. Yours mayn’t; but I strongly suspect yours of being not Socialists, but ninepins which you have constructed for your own amusement. I can’t imagine any living creature who would bowl over quite so easily.”

He would have resented this had she not been a woman. But women may say anything—it was one of his holiest beliefs—and he only retorted, with a gay smile: “I don’t care. You’ve made two damaging admissions, and I’m heartily with you in both.”

In time they finished lunch, and Margaret, who had excused herself from the Hippodrome, took her leave. Evie had scarcely addressed her, and she suspected that the entertainment had been planned by the father. He and she were advancing out of their respective families towards a more intimate acquaintance. It had begun long ago. She had been his wife’s friend, and, as such, he had given her that silver vinaigrette as a memento. It was pretty of him to have given that vinaigrette, and he had always preferred her to Helen—unlike most men. But the advance had been astonishing lately. They had done more in a week than in two years, and were really beginning to know each other.

She did not forget his promise to sample Eustace Miles, and asked him as soon as she could secure Tibby as his chaperon. He came, and partook of body-building dishes with humility.

Next morning the Schlegels left for Swanage. They had not succeeded in finding a new home.