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- HOWARDS END - 60/76 -
bud seem to rustle, swept over the land and then fell silent. "Georgia," sang the thrush. "Cuckoo," came furtively from the cliff of pine-trees. "Georgia, pretty Georgia," and the other birds joined in with nonsense. The hedge was a half-painted picture which would be finished in a few days. Celandines grew on its banks, lords and ladies and primroses in the defended hollows; the wild rose-bushes, still bearing their withered hips, showed also the promise of blossom. Spring had come, clad in no classical garb, yet fairer than all springs; fairer even than she who walks through the myrtles of Tuscany with the graces before her and the zephyr behind.
The two women walked up the lane full of outward civility. But Margaret was thinking how difficult it was to be earnest about furniture on such a day, and the niece was thinking about hats. Thus engaged, they reached Howards End. Petulant cries of "Auntie!" severed the air. There was no reply, and the front door was locked.
"Are you sure that Miss Avery is up here?" asked Margaret.
"Oh yes, Mrs. Wilcox, quite sure. She is here daily."
Margaret tried to look in through the dining-room window, but the curtain inside was drawn tightly. So with the drawing-room and the hall. The appearance of these curtains was familiar, yet she did not remember them being there on her other visit: her impression was that Mr. Bryce had taken everything away. They tried the back. Here again they received no answer, and could see nothing; the kitchen-window was fitted with a blind, while the pantry and scullery had pieces of wood propped up against them, which looked ominously like the lids of packing-cases. Margaret thought of her books, and she lifted up her voice also. At the first cry she succeeded.
"Well, well!" replied someone inside the house. "If it isn't Mrs. Wilcox come at last!"
"Have you got the key, auntie?"
"Madge, go away," said Miss Avery, still invisible.
"Auntie, it's Mrs. Wilcox--"
Margaret supported her. "Your niece and I have come together--"
"Madge, go away. This is no moment for your hat."
The poor woman went red. "Auntie gets more eccentric lately," she said nervously.
"Miss Avery!" called Margaret. "I have come about the furniture. Could you kindly let me in?"
"Yes, Mrs. Wilcox," said the voice, "of course." But after that came silence. They called again without response. They walked round the house disconsolately.
"I hope Miss Avery is not ill," hazarded Margaret.
"Well, if you'll excuse me," said Madge, "perhaps I ought to be leaving you now. The servants need seeing to at the farm. Auntie is so odd at times." Gathering up her elegancies, she retired defeated, and, as if her departure had loosed a spring, the front door opened at once.
Miss Avery said, "Well, come right in, Mrs. Wilcox!" quite pleasantly and calmly.
"Thank you so much," began Margaret, but broke off at the sight of an umbrella-stand. It was her own.
"Come right into the hall first," said Miss Avery. She drew the curtain, and Margaret uttered a cry of despair. For an appalling thing had happened. The hall was fitted up with the contents of the library from Wickham Place. The carpet had been laid, the big work-table drawn up near the window; the bookcases filled the wall opposite the fireplace, and her father's sword--this is what bewildered her particularly--had been drawn from its scabbard and hung naked amongst the sober volumes. Miss Avery must have worked for days.
"I'm afraid this isn't what we meant," she began. "Mr. Wilcox and I never intended the cases to be touched. For instance, these books are my brother's. We are storing them for him and for my sister, who is abroad. When you kindly undertook to look after things, we never expected you to do so much."
"The house has been empty long enough," said the old woman.
Margaret refused to argue. "I dare say we didn't explain," she said civilly. "It has been a mistake, and very likely our mistake."
"Mrs. Wilcox, it has been mistake upon mistake for fifty years. The house is Mrs. Wilcox's, and she would not desire it to stand empty any longer."
To help the poor decaying brain, Margaret said:
"Yes, Mrs. Wilcox's house, the mother of Mr. Charles."
"Mistake upon mistake," said Miss Avery. "Mistake upon mistake."
"Well, I don't know," said Margaret, sitting down in one of her own chairs. "I really don't know what's to be done." She could not help laughing.
The other said: "Yes, it should be a merry house enough."
"I don't know--I dare say. Well, thank you very much, Miss Avery. Yes, that's all right. Delightful."
"There is still the parlour." She went through the door opposite and drew a curtain. Light flooded the drawing-room and the drawing-room furniture from Wickham Place. "And the dining-room." More curtains were drawn, more windows were flung open to the spring. "Then through here--" Miss Avery continued passing and repassing through the hall. Her voice was lost, but Margaret heard her pulling up the kitchen blind. "I've not finished here yet," she announced, returning. "There's still a deal to do. The farm lads will carry your great wardrobes upstairs, for there is no need to go into expense at Hilton."
"It is all a mistake," repeated Margaret, feeling that she must put her foot down. "A misunderstanding. Mr. Wilcox and I are not going to live at Howards End."
"Oh, indeed. On account of his hay fever?"
"We have settled to build a new home for ourselves in Sussex, and part of this furniture--my part--will go down there presently." She looked at Miss Avery intently, trying to understand the kink in her brain. Here was no maundering old woman. Her wrinkles were shrewd and humorous. She looked capable of scathing wit and also of high but unostentatious nobility.
"You think that you won't come back to live here, Mrs. Wilcox, but you will."
"That remains to be seen," said Margaret, smiling. "We have no intention of doing so for the present. We happen to need a much larger house. Circumstances oblige us to give big parties. Of course, some day--one never knows, does one?"
Miss Avery retorted: "Some day! Tcha! tcha! Don't talk about some day. You are living here now."
"You are living here, and have been for the last ten minutes, if you ask me."
It was a senseless remark, but with a queer feeling of disloyalty Margaret rose from her chair. She felt that Henry had been obscurely censured. They went into the dining-room, where the sunlight poured in upon her mother's chiffonier, and upstairs, where many an old god peeped from a new niche. The furniture fitted extraordinarily well. In the central room--over the hall, the room that Helen had slept in four years ago--Miss Avery had placed Tibby's old bassinette.
"The nursery," she said.
Margaret turned away without speaking.
At last everything was seen. The kitchen and lobby were still stacked with furniture and straw, but, as far as she could make out, nothing had been broken or scratched. A pathetic display of ingenuity! Then they took a friendly stroll in the garden. It had gone wild since her last visit. The gravel sweep was weedy, and grass had sprung up at the very jaws of the garage. And Evie's rockery was only bumps. Perhaps Evie was responsible for Miss Avery's oddness. But Margaret suspected that the cause lay deeper, and that the girl's silly letter had but loosed the irritation of years.
"It's a beautiful meadow," she remarked. It was one of those open-air drawing-rooms that have been formed, hundreds of years ago, out of the smaller fields. So the boundary hedge zigzagged down the hill at right angles, and at the bottom there was a little green annex--a sort of powder-closet for the cows.
"Yes, the maidy's well enough," said Miss Avery, "for those that is, who don't suffer from sneezing." And she cackled maliciously. "I've seen Charlie Wilcox go out to my lads in hay time--oh, they ought to do this--they mustn't do that--he'd learn them to be lads. And just then the tickling took him. He has it from his father, with other things. There's not one Wilcox that can stand up against a field in June--I laughed fit to burst while he was courting Ruth."
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