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- HOWARDS END - 30/76 -
"I thought an insurance company never smashed," was Helen's contribution. "Don't the others always run in and save them?"
"You're thinking of reinsurance," said Mr. Wilcox mildly. "It is exactly there that the Porphyrion is weak. It has tried to undercut, has been badly hit by a long series of small fires, and it hasn't been able to reinsure. I'm afraid that public companies don't save one another for love."
"'Human nature,' I suppose," quoted Helen, and he laughed and agreed that it was. When Margaret said that she supposed that clerks, like every one else, found it extremely difficult to get situations in these days, he replied, "Yes, extremely," and rose to rejoin his friends. He knew by his own office--seldom a vacant post, and hundreds of applicants for it; at present no vacant post.
"And how's Howards End looking?" said Margaret, wishing to change the subject before they parted. Mr. Wilcox was a little apt to think one wanted to get something out of him.
"Really. And you wandering homeless in long-haired Chelsea? How strange are the ways of Fate!"
"No; it's let unfurnished. We've moved."
"Why, I thought of you both as anchored there for ever. Evie never told me."
"I dare say when you met Evie the thing wasn't settled. We only moved a week ago. Paul has rather a feeling for the old place, and we held on for him to have his holiday there; but, really, it is impossibly small. Endless drawbacks. I forget whether you've been up to it?"
"As far as the house, never."
"Well, Howards End is one of those converted farms. They don't really do, spend what you will on them. We messed away with a garage all among the wych-elm roots, and last year we enclosed a bit of the meadow and attempted a mockery. Evie got rather keen on Alpine plants. But it didn't do--no, it didn't do. You remember, or your sister will remember, the farm with those abominable guinea-fowls, and the hedge that the old woman never would cut properly, so that it all went thin at the bottom. And, inside the house, the beams--and the staircase through a door--picturesque enough, but not a place to live in." He glanced over the parapet cheerfully. "Full tide. And the position wasn't right either. The neighbourhood's getting suburban. Either be in London or out of it, I say; so we've taken a house in Ducie Street, close to Sloane Street, and a place right down in Shropshire--Oniton Grange. Ever heard of Oniton? Do come and see us--right away from everywhere, up towards Wales. "
"What a change!" said Margaret. But the change was in her own voice, which had become most sad. "I can't imagine Howards End or Hilton without you."
"Hilton isn't without us," he replied. "Charles is there still."
"Still?" said Margaret, who had not kept up with the Charles'. "But I thought he was still at Epsom. They were furnishing that Christmas--one Christmas. How everything alters! I used to admire Mrs. Charles from our windows very often. Wasn't it Epsom?"
"Yes, but they moved eighteen months ago. Charles, the good chap"--his voice dropped--"thought I should be lonely. I didn't want him to move, but he would, and took a house at the other end of Hilton, down by the Six Hills. He had a motor, too. There they all are, a very jolly party--he and she and the two grandchildren."
"I manage other people's affairs so much better than they manage them themselves," said Margaret as they shook hands. "When you moved out of Howards End, I should have moved Mr. Charles Wilcox into it. I should have kept so remarkable a place in the family."
"So it is," he replied. "I haven't sold it, and don't mean to."
"No; but none of you are there."
"Oh, we've got a splendid tenant--Hamar Bryce, an invalid. If Charles ever wanted it--but he won't. Dolly is so dependent on modern conveniences. No, we have all decided against Howards End. We like it in a way, but now we feel that it is neither one thing nor the other. One must have one thing or the other."
"And some people are lucky enough to have both. You're doing yourself proud, Mr. Wilcox. My congratulations."
"And mine," said Helen.
"Do remind Evie to come and see us--two, Wickham Place. We shan't be there very long, either."
"You, too, on the move?"
"Next September," Margaret sighed.
"Every one moving! Good-bye."
The tide had begun to ebb. Margaret leant over the parapet and watched it sadly. Mr. Wilcox had forgotten his wife, Helen her lover; she herself was probably forgetting. Every one moving. Is it worth while attempting the past when there is this continual flux even in the hearts of men?
Helen roused her by saying: "What a prosperous vulgarian Mr. Wilcox has grown! I have very little use for him in these days. However, he did tell us about the Porphyrion. Let us write to Mr. Bast as soon as ever we get home, and tell him to clear out of it at once."
"Do; yes, that's worth doing. Let us."
"Let's ask him to tea."
Leonard accepted the invitation to tea next Saturday. But he was right; the visit proved a conspicuous failure.
"Sugar?" said Margaret.
"Cake?" said Helen. "The big cake or the little deadlies? I'm afraid you thought my letter rather odd, but we'll explain--we aren't odd, really--not affected, really. We're over-expressive: that's all. "
As a lady's lap-dog Leonard did not excel. He was not an Italian, still less a Frenchman, in whose blood there runs the very spirit of persiflage and of gracious repartee. His wit was the Cockney's; it opened no doors into imagination, and Helen was drawn up short by "The more a lady has to say, the better," administered waggishly.
"Oh, yes," she said.
"Yes, I know. The darlings are regular sunbeams. Let me give you a plate."
"How do you like your work?" interposed Margaret.
He, too, was drawn up short. He would not have these women prying into his work. They were Romance, and so was the room to which he had at last penetrated, with the queer sketches of people bathing upon its walls, and so were the very tea-cups, with their delicate borders of wild strawberries. But he would not let Romance interfere with his life. There is the devil to pay then.
"Oh, well enough," he answered.
"Your company is the Porphyrion, isn't it?"
"Yes, that's so"--becoming rather offended. "It's funny how things get round."
"Why funny?" asked Helen, who did not follow the workings of his mind. "It was written as large as life on your card, and considering we wrote to you there, and that you replied on the stamped paper--"
"Would you call the Porphyrion one of the big Insurance Companies?" pursued Margaret.
"It depends what you call big."
"I mean by big, a solid, well-established concern, that offers a reasonably good career to its employes."
"I couldn't say--some would tell you one thing and others another," said the employe uneasily. "For my own part"--he shook his head--"I only believe half I hear. Not that even; it's safer. Those clever ones come to the worse grief, I've often noticed. Ah, you can't be too careful."
He drank, and wiped his moustache, which was going to be one of those moustaches that always droop into tea-cups--more bother than they're worth, surely, and not fashionable either.
"I quite agree, and that's why I was curious to know: is it a solid, well-established concern?"
Leonard had no idea. He understood his own corner of the machine, but nothing beyond it. He desired to confess
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