The tragedy began quietly enough, and like many another talk, by the man's deft assertion of his superiority. Henry heard her arguing with the driver, stepped out and settled the fellow, who was inclined to be rude, and then led the way to some chairs on the lawn. Dolly, who had not been "told," ran out with offers of tea. He refused them, and ordered her to wheel baby's perambulator away, as they desired to be alone.
"But the diddums can't listen; he isn't nine months old," she pleaded.
"That's not what I was saying," retorted her father-in-law.
Baby was wheeled out of earshot, and did not hear about the crisis till later years. It was now the turn of Margaret.
"Is it what we feared?" he asked.
"Dear girl," he began, "there is a troublesome business ahead of us, and nothing but the most absolute honesty and plain speech will see us through." Margaret bent her head. "I am obliged to question you on subjects we'd both prefer to leave untouched. As you know, I am not one of your Bernard Shaws who consider nothing sacred. To speak as I must will pain me, but there are occasions— We are husband and wife, not children. I am a man of the world, and you are a most exceptional woman."
All Margaret's senses forsook her. She blushed, and looked past him at the Six Hills, covered with spring herbage. Noting her colour, he grew still more kind.
"I see that you feel as I felt when— My poor little wife! Oh, be brave! Just one or two questions, and I have done with you. Was your sister wearing a wedding-ring?"
Margaret stammered a "No."
There was an appalling silence.
"Henry, I really came to ask a favour about Howards End."
"One point at a time. I am now obliged to ask for the name of her seducer."
She rose to her feet and held the chair between them. Her colour had ebbed, and she was grey. It did not displease him that she should receive his question thus.
"Take your time," he counselled her. "Remember that this is far worse for me than for you."
She swayed; he feared she was going to faint. Then speech came, and she said slowly: "Seducer? No; I do not know her seducer's name."
"Would she not tell you?"
"I never even asked her who seduced her," said Margaret, dwelling on the hateful word thoughtfully.
"That is singular." Then he changed his mind. "Natural perhaps, dear girl, that you shouldn't ask. But until his name is known, nothing can be done. Sit down. How terrible it is to see you so upset! I knew you weren't fit for it. I wish I hadn't taken you."
Margaret answered, "I like to stand, if you don't mind, for it gives me a pleasant view of the Six Hills."
"As you like."
"Have you anything else to ask me, Henry?"
"Next you must tell me whether you have gathered anything. I have often noticed your insight, dear. I only wish my own was as good. You may have guessed something, even though your sister said nothing. The slightest hint would help us."
"Who is 'we'?"
"I thought it best to ring up Charles."
"That was unnecessary," said Margaret, growing warmer. "This news will give Charles disproportionate pain."
"He has at once gone to call on your brother."
"That too was unnecessary."
"Let me explain, dear, how the matter stands. You don't think that I and my son are other than gentlemen? It is in Helen's interests that we are acting. It is still not too late to save her name."
Then Margaret hit out for the first time. "Are we to make her seducer marry her?" she asked.
"If possible. Yes."
"But, Henry, suppose he turned out to be married already? One has heard of such cases."
"In that case he must pay heavily for his misconduct, and be thrashed within an inch of his life."
So her first blow missed. She was thankful of it. What had tempted her to imperil both of their lives? Henry's obtuseness had saved her as well as himself. Exhausted with anger, she sat down again, blinking at him as he told her as much as he thought fit. At last she said: "May I ask you my question now?"
"Certainly, my dear."
"Tomorrow Helen goes to Munich—"
"Well, possibly she is right."
"Henry, let a lady finish. Tomorrow she goes; tonight, with your permission, she would like to sleep at Howards End."
It was the crisis of his life. Again she would have recalled the words as soon as they were uttered. She had not led up to them with sufficient care. She longed to warn him that they were far more important than he supposed. She saw him weighing them, as if they were a business proposition.
"Why Howards End?" he said at last. "Would she not be more comfortable, as I suggested, at the hotel?"
Margaret hastened to give him reasons. "It is an odd request, but you know what Helen is and what women in her state are." He frowned, and moved irritably. "She has the idea that one night in your house would give her pleasure and do her good. I think she's right. Being one of those imaginative girls, the presence of all our books and furniture soothes her. This is a fact. It is the end of her girlhood. Her last words to me were, 'A beautiful ending.'"
"She values the old furniture for sentimental reasons, in fact."
"Exactly. You have quite understood. It is her last hope of being with it."
"I don't agree there, my dear! Helen will have her share of the goods wherever she goes—possibly more than her share, for you are so fond of her that you'd give her anything of yours that she fancies, wouldn't you? and I'd raise no objection. I could understand it if it was her old home, because a home, or a house"—he changed the word, designedly; he had thought of a telling point—"because a house in which one has once lived becomes in a sort of way sacred, I don't know why. Associations and so on. Now Helen has no associations with Howards End, though I and Charles and Evie have. I do not see why she wants to stay the night there. She will only catch cold."
"Leave it that you don't see," cried Margaret. "Call it fancy. But realize that fancy is a scientific fact. Helen is fanciful, and wants to."
Then he surprised her—a rare occurrence. He shot an unexpected bolt. "If she wants to sleep one night, she may want to sleep two. We shall never get her out of the house, perhaps."
"Well?" said Margaret, with the precipice in sight. "And suppose we don't get her out of the house? Would it matter? She would do no one any harm."
Again the irritated gesture.
"No, Henry," she panted, receding. "I didn't mean that. We will only trouble Howards End for this one night. I take her to London tomorrow—"
"Do you intend to sleep in a damp house, too?"
"She cannot be left alone."
"That's quite impossible! Madness. You must be here to meet Charles."
"I have already told you that your message to Charles was unnecessary, and I have no desire to meet him."
"What has this business to do with Charles? If it concerns me little, it concerns you less, and Charles not at all."
"As the future owner of Howards End," said Mr. Wilcox, arching his fingers, "I should say that it did concern Charles."
"In what way? Will Helen's condition depreciate the property?"
"My dear, you are forgetting yourself."
"I think you yourself recommended plain speaking."
They looked at each other in amazement. The precipice was at their feet now.
"Helen commands my sympathy," said Henry. "As your husband, I shall do all for her that I can, and I have no doubt that she will prove more sinned against than sinning. But I cannot treat her as if nothing has happened. I should be false to my position in society if I did."
She controlled herself for the last time. "No, let us go back to Helen's request," she said. "It is unreasonable, but the request of an unhappy girl. Tomorrow she will go to Germany, and trouble society no longer. Tonight she asks to sleep in your empty house—a house which you do not care about, and which you have not occupied for over a year. May she? Will you give my sister leave? Will you forgive her—as you hope to be forgiven, and as you have actually been forgiven? Forgive her for one night only. That will be enough."
"As I have actually been forgiven—?"
"Never mind for the moment what I mean by that," said Margaret. "Answer my question."
Perhaps some hint of her meaning did dawn on him. If so, he blotted it out. Straight from his fortress he answered: "I seem rather unaccommodating, but I have some experience of life, and know how one thing leads to another. I am afraid that your sister had better sleep at the hotel. I have my children and the memory of my dear wife to consider. I am sorry, but see that she leaves my house at once."
"You mentioned Mrs. Wilcox."
"I beg your pardon?"
"A rare occurrence. In reply, may I mention Mrs. Bast?"
"You have not been yourself all day," said Henry, and rose from his seat with face unmoved. Margaret rushed at him and seized both his hands. She was transfigured.
"Not any more of this!" she cried. "You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible! —a man who insults his wife when she's alive and cants with her memory when she's dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These, man, are you. You can't recognize them, because you cannot connect. I've had enough of your unweeded kindness. I've spoilt you long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told what you are—muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don't repent. Only say to yourself, 'What Helen has done, I've done.'"
"The two cases are different," Henry stammered. His real retort was not quite ready. His brain was still in a whirl, and he wanted a little longer.
"In what way different? You have betrayed Mrs. Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can't. You have had only pleasure, she may die. You have the insolence to talk to me of differences, Henry?"
Oh, the uselessness of it! Henry's retort came.
"I perceive you are attempting blackmail. It is scarcely a pretty weapon for a wife to use against her husband. My rule through life has been never to pay the least attention to threats, and I can only repeat what I said before: I do not give you and your sister leave to sleep at Howards End."
Margaret loosed his hands. He went into the house, wiping first one and then the other on his handkerchief. For a little she stood looking at the Six Hills, tombs of warriors, breasts of the spring. Then she passed out into what was now the evening.