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- HOWARDS END - 4/76 -
Mrs. Munt's attention. "I was just tooling my father over to catch the down train."
"You see, we heard from Helen this morning."
Young Wilcox was pouring in petrol, starting his engine, and performing other actions with which this story has no concern. The great car began to rock, and the form of Mrs. Munt, trying to explain things, sprang agreeably up and down among the red cushions. "The mater will be very glad to see you," he mumbled. "Hi! I say. Parcel for Howards End. Bring it out. Hi!"
A bearded porter emerged with the parcel in one hand and an entry book in the other. With the gathering whir of the motor these ejaculations mingled: "Sign, must I? Why the--should I sign after all this bother? Not even got a pencil on you? Remember next time I report you to the station-master. My time's of value, though yours mayn't be. Here"--here being a tip.
"Extremely sorry, Mrs. Munt."
"Not at all, Mr. Wilcox."
"And do you object to going through the village? It is rather a longer spin, but I have one or two commissions."
"I should love going through the village. Naturally I am very anxious to talk things over with you."
As she said this she felt ashamed, for she was disobeying Margaret's instructions. Only disobeying them in the letter, surely. Margaret had only warned her against discussing the incident with outsiders. Surely it was not "uncivilized or wrong" to discuss it with the young man himself, since chance had thrown them together.
A reticent fellow, he made no reply. Mounting by her side, he put on gloves and spectacles, and off they drove, the bearded porter--life is a mysterious business--looking after them with admiration.
The wind was in their faces down the station road, blowing the dust into Mrs. Munt's eyes. But as soon as they turned into the Great North Road she opened fire. "You can well imagine," she said, "that the news was a great shock to us."
"Mr. Wilcox," she said frankly. "Margaret has told me everything--everything. I have seen Helen's letter."
He could not look her in the face, as his eyes were fixed on his work; he was travelling as quickly as he dared down the High Street. But he inclined his head in her direction, and said, "I beg your pardon; I didn't catch."
"About Helen. Helen, of course. Helen is a very exceptional person--I am sure you will let me say this, feeling towards her as you do--indeed, all the Schlegels are exceptional. I come in no spirit of interference, but it was a great shock."
They drew up opposite a draper's. Without replying, he turned round in his seat, and contemplated the cloud of dust that they had raised in their passage through the village. It was settling again, but not all into the road from which he had taken it. Some of it had percolated through the open windows, some had whitened the roses and gooseberries of the wayside gardens, while a certain proportion had entered the lungs of the villagers. "I wonder when they'll learn wisdom and tar the roads," was his comment. Then a man ran out of the draper's with a roll of oilcloth, and off they went again.
"Margaret could not come herself, on account of poor Tibby, so I am here to represent her and to have a good talk."
"I'm sorry to be so dense," said the young man, again drawing up outside a shop. "But I still haven't quite understood."
"Helen, Mr. Wilcox--my niece and you."
He pushed up his goggles and gazed at her, absolutely bewildered. Horror smote her to the heart, for even she began to suspect that they were at cross-purposes, and that she had commenced her mission by some hideous blunder.
"Miss Schlegel and myself." he asked, compressing his lips.
"I trust there has been no misunderstanding," quavered Mrs. Munt. "Her letter certainly read that way."
"That you and she--" She paused, then drooped her eyelids.
"I think I catch your meaning," he said stickily. "What an extraordinary mistake!"
"Then you didn't the least--" she stammered, getting blood-red in the face, and wishing she had never been born.
"Scarcely, as I am already engaged to another lady." There was a moment's silence, and then he caught his breath and exploded with, "Oh, good God! Don't tell me it's some silliness of Paul's."
"But you are Paul."
"Then why did you say so at the station?"
"I said nothing of the sort."
"I beg your pardon, you did."
"I beg your pardon, I did not. My name is Charles."
"Younger" may mean son as opposed to father, or second brother as opposed to first. There is much to be said for either view, and later on they said it. But they had other questions before them now.
"Do you mean to tell me that Paul--"
But she did not like his voice. He sounded as if he was talking to a porter, and, certain that he had deceived her at the station, she too grew angry.
"Do you mean to tell me that Paul and your niece--"
Mrs. Munt--such is human nature--determined that she would champion the lovers. She was not going to be bullied by a severe young man. "Yes, they care for one another very much indeed," she said. "I dare say they will tell you about it by-and-by. We heard this morning."
And Charles clenched his fist and cried, "The idiot, the idiot, the little fool!"
Mrs. Munt tried to divest herself of her rugs. "If that is your attitude, Mr. Wilcox, I prefer to walk."
"I beg you will do no such thing. I'll take you up this moment to the house. Let me tell you the thing's impossible, and must be stopped."
Mrs. Munt did not often lose her temper, and when she did it was only to protect those whom she loved. On this occasion she blazed out. "I quite agree, sir. The thing is impossible, and I will come up and stop it. My niece is a very exceptional person, and I am not inclined to sit still while she throws herself away on those who will not appreciate her."
Charles worked his jaws.
"Considering she has only known your brother since Wednesday, and only met your father and mother at a stray hotel--"
"Could you possibly lower your voice? The shopman will overhear."
"Esprit de classe"--if one may coin the phrase--was strong in Mrs. Munt. She sat quivering while a member of the lower orders deposited a metal funnel, a saucepan, and a garden squirt beside the roll of oilcloth.
"Yes, sir." And the lower orders vanished in a cloud of dust.
"I warn you: Paul hasn't a penny; it's useless."
"No need to warn us, Mr. Wilcox, I assure you. The warning is all the other way. My niece has been very foolish, and I shall give her a good scolding and take her back to London with me."
"He has to make his way out in Nigeria. He couldn't think of marrying for years and when he does it must be a woman who can stand the climate, and is in other ways--Why hasn't he told us? Of course he's ashamed. He knows he's been a fool. And so he has--a damned fool."
She grew furious.
"Whereas Miss Schlegel has lost no time in publishing the news."
"If I were a man, Mr. Wilcox, for that last remark I'd box your ears. You're not fit to clean my niece's boots, to sit in the same room with her, and you dare--you actually dare--I decline to argue with such a person."
"All I know is, she's spread the thing and he hasn't, and my father's away and I--"
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