Howards End Chapter 9

MRS. WILCOX cannot be accused of giving Margaret much information about life. And Margaret, on the other hand, has made a fair show of modesty, and has pretended to an inexperience that she certainly did not feel. She had kept house for over ten years; she had entertained, almost with distinction; she had brought up a charming sister, and was bringing up a brother. Surely, if experience is attainable, she had attained it.

Yet the little luncheon-party that she gave in Mrs. Wilcox’s honour was not a success. The new friend did not blend with the “one or two delightful people” who had been asked to meet her, and the atmosphere was one of polite bewilderment. Her tastes were simple, her knowledge of culture slight, and she was not interested in the New English Art Club, nor in the dividing-line between Journalism and Literature, which was started as a conversational hare. The delightful people darted after it with cries of joy, Margaret leading them, and not till the meal was half over did they realize that the principal guest had taken no part in the chase. There was no common topic. Mrs. Wilcox, whose life had been spent in the service of husband and sons, had little to say to strangers who had never shared it, and whose age was half her own. Clever talk alarmed her, and withered her delicate imaginings; it was the social counterpart of a motor-car, all jerks, and she was a wisp of hay, a flower. Twice she deplored the weather, twice criticized the train service on the Great Northern Railway. They vigorously assented, and rushed on, and when she inquired whether there was any news of Helen, her hostess was too much occupied in placing Rothenstein to answer. The question was repeated: “I hope that your sister is safe in Germany by now.” Margaret checked herself and said: “Yes, thank you; I heard on Tuesday.” But the demon of vociferation was in her, and the next moment she was off again.

“Only on Tuesday, for they live right away at Stettin. Did you ever know any one living at Stettin?”

“Never,” said Mrs. Wilcox gravely, while her neighbour, a young man low down in the Education Office, began to discuss what people who lived at Stettin ought to look like. Was there such a thing as Stettininity? Margaret swept on.

“People at Stettin drop things into boats out of over-hanging warehouses. At least, our cousins do, but aren’t particularly rich. The town isn’t interesting, except for a clock that rolls its eyes, and the view of the Oder, which truly is something special. Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, you would love the Oder! The river, or rather rivers—there seem to be dozens of them—are intense blue, and the plain they run through an intensest green.”

“Indeed! That sounds like a most beautiful view, Miss Schlegel.”

“So I say, but Helen, who will muddle things, says no, it’s like music. The course of the Oder is to be like music. It’s obliged to remind her of a symphonic poem. The part by the landing-stage is in B minor, if I remember rightly, but lower down things get extremely mixed. There is a slodgy theme in several keys at once, meaning mud-banks, and another for the navigable canal, and the exit into the Baltic is in C sharp major, pianissimo.”

“What do the overhanging warehouses make of that?” asked the man, laughing.

“They make a great deal of it,” replied Margaret, unexpectedly rushing off on a new track. “I think it’s affectation to compare the Oder to music, and so do you, but the over-hanging warehouses of Stettin take beauty seriously, which we don’t, and the average Englishman doesn’t, and despises all who do. Now don’t say, ‘Germans have no taste,’ or I shall scream. They haven’t. But—but—such a tremendous but!—they take poetry seriously. They do take poetry seriously.”

“Is anything gained by that?”

“Yes, yes. The German is always on the lookout for beauty. He may miss it through stupidity, or misinterpret it, but he is always asking beauty to enter his life, and I believe that in the end it will come. At Heidelberg I met a fat veterinary surgeon whose voice broke with sobs as he repeated some mawkish poetry. So easy for me to laugh—I, who never repeat poetry good, or bad, and cannot remember one fragment of verse to thrill myself with. My blood boils—well, I’m half German, so put it down to patriotism—when I listen to the tasteful contempt of the average islander for things Teutonic, whether they’re Böcklin or my veterinary surgeon. ‘Oh, Böcklin,’ they say; ‘he strains after beauty, he peoples Nature with gods too consciously.’ Of course Böcklin strains, because he wants something—beauty and all the other intangible gifts that are floating about the world. So his landscapes don’t come off, and Leader’s do.”

“I am not sure that I agree. Do you?” said he, turning to Mrs. Wilcox.

She replied: “I think Miss Schlegel puts everything splendidly”; and a chill fell on the conversation.

“Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, say something nicer than that. It’s such a snub to be told you put things splendidly.”

“I do not mean it as a snub. Your last speech interested me so much. Generally people do not seem quite to like Germany. I have long wanted to hear what is said on the other side.”

“The other side? Then you do disagree. Oh, good! Give us your side.”

“I have no side. But my husband”—her voice softened, the chill increased—“has very little faith in the Continent, and our children have all taken after him.”

“On what grounds? Do they feel that the Continent is in bad form?”

Mrs. Wilcox had no idea; she paid little attention to grounds. She was not intellectual, nor even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she should give the idea of greatness. Margaret, zig-zagging with her friends over Thought and Art, was conscious of a personality that transcended their own and dwarfed their activities. There was no bitterness in Mrs. Wilcox; there was not even criticism; she was lovable, and no ungracious or uncharitable word had passed her lips. Yet she and daily life were out of focus: one or the other must show blurred. And at lunch she seemed more out of focus than usual, and nearer the line that divides daily life from a life that may be of greater importance.

“You will admit, though, that the Continent—it seems silly to speak of ‘the Continent,’ but really it is all more like itself than any part of it is like England. England is unique. Do have another jelly first. I was going to say that the Continent, for good or for evil, is interested in ideas. Its literature and art have what one might call the kink of the unseen about them, and this persists even through decadence and affectation. There is more liberty of action in England, but for liberty of thought go to bureaucratic Prussia. People will there discuss with humility vital questions that we here think ourselves too good to touch with tongs.”

“I do not want to go to Prussia,” said Mrs. Wilcox—“not even to see that interesting view that you were describing. And for discussing with humility I am too old. We never discuss anything at Howards End.”

“Then you ought to!” said Margaret. “Discussion keeps a house alive. It cannot stand by bricks and mortar alone.”

“It cannot stand without them,” said Mrs. Wilcox, unexpectedly catching on to the thought, and rousing, for the first and last time, a faint hope in the breasts of the delightful people. “It cannot stand without them, and I sometimes think—But I cannot expect your generation to agree, for even my daughter disagrees with me here.”

“Never mind us or her. Do say!”

“I sometimes think that it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men.”

There was a little silence.

“One admits that the arguments against the suffrage are extraordinarily strong,” said a girl opposite, leaning forward and crumbling her bread.

“Are they? I never follow any arguments. I am only too thankful not to have a vote myself.”

“We didn’t mean the vote, though, did we?” supplied Margaret. “Aren’t we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may. I would even admit a biological change.”

“I don’t know, I don’t know.”

“I must be getting back to my overhanging warehouse,” said the man. “They’ve turned disgracefully strict.”

Mrs. Wilcox also rose.

“Oh, but come upstairs for a little. Miss Quested plays. Do you like MacDowell? Do you mind him only having two noises? If you must really go, I’ll see you out. Won’t you even have coffee?”

They left the dining-room, closing the door behind them, and as Mrs. Wilcox buttoned up her jacket, she said: “What an interesting life you all lead in London!”

“No, we don’t,” said Margaret, with a sudden revulsion. “We lead the lives of gibbering monkeys, Mrs. Wilcox—really—We have something quiet and stable at the bottom. We really have. All my friends have. Don’t pretend you enjoyed lunch, for you loathed it, but forgive me by coming again, alone, or by asking me to you.”

“I am used to young people,” said Mrs. Wilcox, and with each word she spoke, the outlines of known things grew dim. “I hear a great deal of chatter at home, for we, like you, entertain a great deal. With us it is more sport and politics, but—I enjoyed my lunch very much, Miss Schlegel, dear, and am not pretending, and only wish I could have joined in more. For one thing, I’m not particularly well just today. For another, you younger people move so quickly that it dazes me. Charles is the same, Dolly the same. But we are all in the same boat, old and young. I never forget that.”

They were silent for a moment. Then, with a new-born emotion, they shook hands. The conversation ceased suddenly when Margaret re-entered the dining-room: her friends had been talking over her new friend, and had dismissed her as uninteresting.