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- HOWARDS END - 20/76 -
remained without an eye to witness it. Clouds drifted over it from the west; or the church may have been a ship, high-prowed, steering with all its company towards infinity. Towards morning the air grew colder, the sky clearer, the surface of the earth hard and sparkling above the prostrate dead. The wood-cutter, returning after a night of joy, reflected: "They lilies, they chrysants; it's a pity I didn't take them all."
Up at Howards End they were attempting breakfast. Charles and Evie sat in the dining-room, with Mrs. Charles. Their father, who could not bear to see a face, breakfasted upstairs. He suffered acutely. Pain came over him in spasms, as if it was physical, and even while he was about to eat, his eyes would fill with tears, and he would lay down the morsel untasted.
He remembered his wife's even goodness during thirty years. Not anything in detail--not courtship or early raptures--but just the unvarying virtue, that seemed to him a woman's noblest quality. So many women are capricious, breaking into odd flaws of passion or frivolity. Not so his wife. Year after year, summer and winter, as bride and mother, she had been the same, he had always trusted her. Her tenderness! Her innocence! The wonderful innocence that was hers by the gift of God. Ruth knew no more of worldly wickedness and wisdom than did the flowers in her garden, or the grass in her field. Her idea of business--"Henry, why do people who have enough money try to get more money?" Her idea of politics--"I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars." Her idea of religion--ah, this had been a cloud, but a cloud that passed. She came of Quaker stock, and he and his family, formerly Dissenters, were now members of the Church of England. The rector's sermons had at first repelled her, and she had expressed a desire for "a more inward light," adding, "not so much for myself as for baby" (Charles). Inward light must have been granted, for he heard no complaints in later years. They brought up their three children without dispute. They had never disputed.
She lay under the earth now. She had gone, and as if to make her going the more bitter, had gone with a touch of mystery that was all unlike her. "Why didn't you tell me you knew of it?" he had moaned, and her faint voice had answered: "I didn't want to, Henry--I might have been wrong--and every one hates illnesses." He had been told of the horror by a strange doctor, whom she had consulted during his absence from town. Was this altogether just? Without fully explaining, she had died. It was a fault on her part, and--tears rushed into his eyes--what a little fault! It was the only time she had deceived him in those thirty years.
He rose to his feet and looked out of the window, for Evie had come in with the letters, and he could meet no one's eye. Ah yes--she had been a good woman--she had been steady. He chose the word deliberately. To him steadiness included all praise.
He himself, gazing at the wintry garden, is in appearance a steady man. His face was not as square as his son's, and, indeed, the chin, though firm enough in outline, retreated a little, and the lips, ambiguous, were curtained by a moustache. But there was no external hint of weakness. The eyes, if capable of kindness and goodfellowship, if ruddy for the moment with tears, were the eyes of one who could not be driven. The forehead, too, was like Charles's. High and straight, brown and polished, merging abruptly into temples and skull, it has the effect of a bastion that protected his head from the world. At times it had the effect of a blank wall. He had dwelt behind it, intact and happy, for fifty years.
"The post's come, Father," said Evie awkwardly.
"Thanks. Put it down."
"Has the breakfast been all right?"
The girl glanced at him and at it with constraint. She did not know what to do.
"Charles says do you want the TIMES?"
"No, I'll read it later."
"Ring if you want anything, Father, won't you?"
"I've all I want."
Having sorted the letters from the circulars, she went back to the dining-room.
"Father's eaten nothing," she announced, sitting down with wrinkled brows behind the tea-urn--
Charles did not answer, but after a moment he ran quickly upstairs, opened the door, and said: "Look here, Father, you must eat, you know"; and having paused for a reply that did not come, stole down again. "He's going to read his letters first, I think," he said evasively; "I dare say he will go on with his breakfast afterwards." Then he took up the TIMES, and for some time there was no sound except the clink of cup against saucer and of knife on plate.
Poor Mrs. Charles sat between her silent companions, terrified at the course of events, and a little bored. She was a rubbishy little creature, and she knew it. A telegram had dragged her from Naples to the death-bed of a woman whom she had scarcely known. A word from her husband had plunged her into mourning. She desired to mourn inwardly as well, but she wished that Mrs. Wilcox, since fated to die, could have died before the marriage, for then less would have been expected of her. Crumbling her toast, and too nervous to ask for the butter, she remained almost motionless, thankful only for this, that her father-in-law was having his breakfast upstairs.
At last Charles spoke. "They had no business to be pollarding those elms yesterday," he said to his sister.
"I must make a note of that," he continued. "I am surprised that the rector allowed it."
"Perhaps it may not be the rector's affair."
"Whose else could it be?"
"The lord of the manor."
"Thank you, Evie dear. Charles--"
"I didn't know one could pollard elms. I thought one only pollarded willows."
"Oh no, one can pollard elms."
"Then why oughtn't the elms in the churchyard to be pollarded?"
Charles frowned a little, and turned again to his sister. "Another point. I must speak to Chalkeley."
"Yes, rather; you must complain to Chalkeley.
"It's no good him saying he is not responsible for those men. He is responsible."
Brother and sister were not callous. They spoke thus, partly because they desired to keep Chalkeley up to the mark--a healthy desire in its way--partly because they avoided the personal note in life. All Wilcoxes did. It did not seem to them of supreme importance. Or it may be as Helen supposed: they realized its importance, but were afraid of it. Panic and emptiness, could one glance behind. They were not callous, and they left the breakfast-table with aching hearts. Their mother never had come in to breakfast. It was in the other rooms, and especially in the garden, that they felt her loss most. As Charles went out to the garage, he was reminded at every step of the woman who had loved him and whom he could never replace. What battles he had fought against her gentle conservatism! How she had disliked improvements, yet how loyally she had accepted them when made! He and his father--what trouble they had had to get this very garage! With what difficulty had they persuaded her to yield them to the paddock for it--the paddock that she loved more dearly than the garden itself! The vine--she had got her way about the vine. It still encumbered the south wall with its unproductive branches. And so with Evie, as she stood talking to the cook. Though she could take up her mother's work inside the house, just as the man could take it up without, she felt that something unique had fallen out of her life. Their grief, though less poignant than their father's, grew from deeper roots, for a wife may be replaced; a mother never.
Charles would go back to the office. There was little to do at Howards End. The contents of his mother's will had been long known to them. There were no legacies, no annuities, none of the posthumous bustle with which some of the dead prolong their activities. Trusting her husband, she had left him everything without reserve. She was quite a poor woman--the house had been all her dowry, and the house would come to Charles in time. Her water-colours Mr. Wilcox intended to reserve for Paul, while Evie would take the jewellery and lace. How easily she slipped out of life! Charles thought the habit laudable, though he did not intend to adopt it himself, whereas Margaret would have seen
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