The Sea Lady/Chapter 5

The Sea Lady  (1902)  by H. G. Wells
Chapter V

CHAPTER THE FIFTH

THE ABSENCE AND RETURN OF MR. HARRY CHATTERIS

I

These digressions about Parker and the journalists have certainly led me astray from the story a little. You will, however, understand that while the rising young journalist was still in pursuit of information, Hope and Banghurst, and Parker merely a budding perfection, the carriage not even thought of, things were already developing in that bright little establishment beneath the evergreen oaks on the Folkestone Riviera. So soon as the minds of the Buntings ceased to be altogether focused upon this new and amazing social addition, they—of all people—had most indisputably discovered, it became at first faintly and then very clearly evident that their own simple pleasure in the possession of a guest so beautiful as Miss Waters, so solidly wealthy and—in a manner—so distinguished, was not entirely shared by the two young ladies who were to have been their principal guests for the season.

This little rift was perceptible the very first time Mrs. Bunting had an opportunity of talking over her new arrangements with Miss Glendower.

"And is she really going to stay with you all the summer?" said Adeline.

"Surely, dear, you don't mind?"

"It takes me a little by surprise."

"She's asked me, my dear——"

"I'm thinking of Harry. If the general election comes on in September—and every one seems to think it will— You promised you would let us inundate you with electioneering."

"But do you think she——"

"She will be dreadfully in the way."

She added after an interval, "She stops my working."

"But, my dear!"

"She's out of harmony," said Adeline.

Mrs. Bunting looked out of her window at the tamarisk and the sea. "I'm sure I wouldn't do anything to hurt Harry's prospects. You know how enthusiastic we all are. Randolph would do anything. But are you sure she will be in the way?"

"What else can she be?"

"She might help even."

"Oh, help!"

"She might canvass. She's very attractive, you know, dear."

"Not to me," said Miss Glendower. "I don't trust her."

"But to some people. And as Harry says, at election times every one who can do anything must be let do it. Cut them—do anything afterwards, but at the time—you know he talked of it when Mr. Fison and he were here. If you left electioneering only to the really nice people——"

"It was Mr. Fison said that, not Harry. And besides, she wouldn't help."

"I think you misjudge her there, dear. She has been asking——"

"To help?"

"Yes, and all about it," said Mrs. Bunting, with a transient pink. "She keeps asking questions about why we are having the election and what it is all about, and why Harry is a candidate and all that. She wants to go into it quite deeply. I can't answer half the things she asks."

"And that's why she keeps up those long conversations with Mr. Melville, I suppose, and why Fred goes about neglecting Mabel——"

"My dear!" said Mrs. Bunting.

"I wouldn't have her canvassing with us for anything," said Miss Glendower. "She'd spoil everything. She is frivolous and satirical. She looks at you with incredulous eyes, she seems to blight all one's earnestness. . . . I don't think you quite understand, dear Mrs. Bunting, what this election and my studies mean to me—and Harry. She comes across all that—like a contradiction."

"Surely, my dear! I've never heard her contradict."

"Oh, she doesn't contradict. But she— There is something about her— One feels that things that are most important and vital are nothing to her. Don't you feel it? She comes from another world to us."

Mrs. Bunting remained judicial. Adeline dropped to a lower key again. "I think," she said, "anyhow, that we're taking her very easily. How do we know what she is? Down there, out there, she may be anything. She may have had excellent reasons for coming to land——"

"My dear!" cried Mrs. Bunting. "Is that charity?"

"How do they live?"

"If she hadn't lived nicely I'm sure she couldn't behave so nicely."

"Besides—coming here! She had no invitation——"

"I've invited her now," said Mrs. Bunting gently.

"You could hardly help yourself. I only hope your kindness——"

"It's not a kindness," said Mrs. Bunting, "it's a duty. If she were only half as charming as she is. You seem to forget"—her voice dropped—"what it is she comes for."

"That's what I want to know."

"I'm sure in these days, with so much materialism about and such wickedness everywhere, when everybody who has a soul seems trying to lose it, to find any one who hadn't a soul and who is trying to find one——"

"But is she trying to get one?"

"Mr. Flange comes twice every week. He would come oftener, as you know, if there wasn't so much confirmation about."

"And when he comes he sits and touches her hand if he can, and he talks in his lowest voice, and she sits and smiles—she almost laughs outright at the things he says."

"Because he has to win his way with her. Surely Mr. Flange may do what he can to make religion attractive?"

"I don't believe she believes she will get a soul. I don't believe she wants one a bit."

She turned towards the door as if she had done.

Mrs. Bunting's pink was now permanent. She had brought up a son and two daughters, and besides she had brought down a husband to "My dear, how was I to know?" and when it was necessary to be firm—even with Adeline Glendower—she knew how to be firm just as well as anybody.

"My dear," she began in her very firmest quiet manner, "I am positive you misjudge Miss Waters. Trivial she may be—on the surface at any rate. Perhaps she laughs and makes fun a little. There are different ways of looking at things. But I am sure that at bottom she is just as serious, just as grave, as—any one. You judge her hastily. I am sure if you knew her better—as I do——"

Mrs. Bunting left an eloquent pause.

Miss Glendower had two little pink flushes in her cheeks. She turned with her hand on the door.

"At any rate," she said, "I am sure that Harry will agree with me that she can be no help to our cause. We have our work to do and it is something more than just vulgar electioneering. We have to develop and establish ideas. Harry has views that are new and wide-reaching. We want to put our whole strength into this work. Now especially. And her presence——"

She paused for a moment. "It is a digression. She divides things. She puts it all wrong. She has a way of concentrating attention about herself. She alters the values of things. She prevents my being single-minded, she will prevent Harry being single-minded——"

"I think, my dear, that you might trust my judgment a little," said Mrs. Bunting and paused.

Miss Glendower opened her mouth and shut it again, without speaking. It became evident finality was attained. Nothing remained to be said but the regrettable.

The door opened and closed smartly and Mrs. Bunting was alone.

Within an hour they all met at the luncheon table and Adeline's behaviour to the Sea Lady and to Mrs. Bunting was as pleasant and alert as any highly earnest and intellectual young lady's could be. And all that Mrs. Bunting said and did tended with what people call infinite tact—which really, you know, means a great deal more tact than is comfortable—to develop and expose the more serious aspect of the Sea Lady's mind. Mr. Bunting was unusually talkative and told them all about a glorious project he had just heard of, to cut out the rather shrubby and weedy front of the Leas and stick in something between a wine vault and the Crystal Palace as a Winter Garden—which seemed to him a very excellent idea indeed.

II

It is time now to give some impression of the imminent Chatteris, who for all his late appearance is really the chief human being in my cousin Melville's story. It happens that I met him with some frequency in my university days and afterwards ever and again I came upon him. He was rather a brilliant man at the university, smart without being vulgar and clever for all that. He was remarkably good-looking from the very onset of his manhood and without being in any way a showy spendthrift, was quite magnificently extravagant. There was trouble in his last year, something hushed up about a girl or woman in London, but his family had it all over with him, and his uncle, the Earl of Beechcroft, settled some of his bills. Not all—for the family is commendably free from sentimental excesses—but enough to make him comfortable again. The family is not a rich one and it further abounds in an extraordinary quantity of rather frowsy, loose-tongued aunts—I never knew a family quite so rich in old aunts. But Chatteris was so good-looking, easy-mannered, and clever, that they seemed to agree almost without discussion to pull him through. They hunted about for something that would be really remunerative without being laborious or too commercial; and meanwhile—after the extraordinary craving of his aunt, Lady Poynting Mallow, to see him acting had been overcome by the united efforts of the more religious section of his aunts—Chatteris set himself seriously to the higher journalism—that is to say, the journalism that dines anywhere, gets political tips after dinner, and is always acceptable—if only to avoid thirteen articles—in a half-crown review. In addition, he wrote some very passable verse and edited Jane Austen for the only publisher who had not already reprinted the works of that classic lady.

His verse, like himself, was shapely and handsome, and, like his face, it suggested to the penetrating eye certain reservations and indecisions. There was just that touch of refinement that is weakness in the public man. But as yet he was not a public man; he was known to be energetic and his work was gathering attention as always capable and occasionally brilliant. His aunts declared he was ripening, that any defect in vigour he displayed was the incompleteness of the process, and decided he should go to America, where vigour and vigorous opportunities abound, and there, I gather, he came upon something like a failure. Something happened, indeed, quite a lot happened. He came back unmarried—and viâ the South Seas, Australasia and India. And Lady Poynting Mallow publicly told him he was a fool, when he got back.

What happened in America, even if one does not consult contemporary American papers, is still very difficult to determine. There appear to have been the daughter of a millionaire and something like an engagement in the story. According to the New York Yell, one of the smartest, crispest, and altogether most representative papers in America, there was also the daughter of some one else, whom the Yell interviewed, or professed to interview, under the heading:

AN ARISTOCRATIC BRITISHER

TRIFLES WITH

A PURE AMERICAN GIRL

INTERVIEW WITH THE VICTIM

OF HIS

HEARTLESS LEVITY

But this some one else was, I am inclined to think in spite of her excellently executed portrait, merely a brilliant stroke of modern journalism, the Yell having got wind of the sudden retreat of Chatteris and inventing a reason in preference to discovering one. Wensleydale tells me the true impetus to bolt was the merest trifle. The daughter of the millionaire, being a bright and spirited girl, had undergone interviewing on the subject of her approaching marriage, on marriage in general, on social questions of various sorts, and on the relations of the British and American peoples, and he seems to have found the thing in his morning paper. It took him suddenly and he lost his head. And once he started, he seems to have lacked the power of mind to turn about and come back. The affair was a mess, the family paid some more of his bills and shirked others, and Chatteris turned up in London again after a time, with somewhat diminished glory and a series of letters on Imperial Affairs, each headed with the quotation: "What do they know of England who only England know?"

Of course people of England learnt nothing of the real circumstances of the case, but it was fairly obvious that he had gone to America and come back emptyhanded.

And that was how, in the course of some years, he came to Adeline Glendower, of whose special gifts as his helper and inspiration you have already heard from Mrs. Bunting. When he became engaged to her, the family, which had long craved to forgive him—Lady Poynting Mallow as a matter of fact had done so—brightened wonderfully. And after considerable obscure activities he declared himself a philanthropic Liberal with open spaces in his platform, and in a position, and ready as a beginning, to try the quality of the conservative South.

He was away making certain decisive arrangements, in Paris and elsewhere, at the time of the landing of the Sea Lady. Before the matter was finally settled it was necessary that something should be said to a certain great public character, and then he was to return and tell Adeline. And every one was expecting him daily, including, it is now indisputable, the Sea Lady.

III

The meeting of Miss Glendower and her affianced lover on his return from Paris was one of those scenes in this story for which I have scarcely an inkling of the true details. He came to Folkestone and stopped at the Métropole, the Bunting house being full and the Métropole being the nearest hotel to Sandgate; and he walked down in the afternoon and asked for Adeline, which was pretty rather than correct. I gather that they met in the drawing-room, and as Chatteris closed the door behind him, I imagine there was something in the nature of a caress.

I must confess I envy the freedom of the novelist who can take you behind such a locked door as this and give you all that such persons say and do. But with the strongest will in the world to blend the little scraps of fact I have into a continuous sequence of events, I falter at this occasion. After all, I never saw Adeline at all until after all these things were over, and what is she now? A rather tall, a rather restless and active woman, very keen and obvious in public affairs—with something gone out of her. Melville once saw a gleam of that, but for the most part Melville never liked her; she had a wider grasp of things than he, and he was a little afraid of her; she was in some inexplicable way neither a pretty woman nor a "dear lady" nor a grande dame nor totally insignificant, and a heretic therefore in Melville's scheme of things. He gives me small material for that earlier Adeline. "She posed," he says; she was "political," and she was always reading Mrs. Humphry Ward.

The last Melville regarded as the most heinous offence. It is not the least of my cousin's weaknesses that he regards this great novelist as an extremely corrupting influence for intelligent girls. She makes them good and serious in the wrong way, he says. Adeline, he asserts, was absolutely built on her. She was always attempting to be the incarnation of Marcella. It was he who had perverted Mrs. Bunting's mind to adopt this fancy. But I don't believe for a moment in this idea of girls building themselves on heroines in fiction. These are matters of elective affinity, and unless some bullying critic or preacher sends us astray, we take each to our own novelist as the souls in the Swedenborgian system take to their hells. Adeline took to the imaginary Marcella. There was, Melville says, the strongest likeness in their mental atmosphere. They had the same defects, a bias for superiority—to use his expressive phrase—the same disposition towards arrogant benevolence, that same obtuseness to little shades of feeling that leads people to speak habitually of the "Lower Classes," and to think in the vein of that phrase. They certainly had the same virtues, a conscious and conscientious integrity, a hard nobility without one touch of magic, an industrious thoroughness. More than in anything else, Adeline delighted in her novelist's thoroughness, her freedom from impressionism, the patient resolution with which she went into the corners and swept under the mat of every incident. And it would be easy to argue from that, that Adeline behaved as Mrs. Ward's most characteristic heroine behaved, on an analogous occasion.

Marcella we know—at least after her heart was changed—would have clung to him. There would have been a moment of high emotion in which thoughts—of the highest class—mingled with the natural ambition of two people in the prime of life and power. Then she would have receded with a quick movement and listened with her beautiful hand pensive against her cheek, while Chatteris began to sum up the forces against him—to speculate on the action of this group and that. Something infinitely tender and maternal would have spoken in her, pledging her to the utmost help that love and a woman can give. She would have produced in Chatteris that exquisite mingled impression of grace, passion, self-yielding, which in all its infinite variations and repetitions made up for him the constant poem of her beauty.

But that is the dream and not the reality. So Adeline might have dreamt of behaving, but—she was not Marcella, and only wanting to be, and he was not only not Maxwell but he had no intention of being Maxwell anyhow. If he had had an opportunity of becoming Maxwell he would probably have rejected it with extreme incivility. So they met like two unheroic human beings, with shy and clumsy movements and, I suppose, fairly honest eyes. Something there was in the nature of a caress, I believe, and then I incline to fancy she said "Well?" and I think he must have answered, "It's all right." After that, and rather allusively, with a backward jerk of the head at intervals as it were towards the great personage, Chatteris must have told her particulars. He must have told her that he was going to contest Hythe and that the little difficulty with the Glasgow commission agent who wanted to run the Radical ticket as a "Man of Kent" had been settled without injury to the party (such as it is). Assuredly they talked politics, because soon after, when they came into the garden side by side to where Mrs. Bunting and the Sea Lady sat watching the girls play croquet, Adeline was in full possession of all these facts. I fancy that for such a couple as they were, such intimation of success, such earnest topics, replaced, to a certain extent at any rate, the vain repetition of vulgar endearments.

The Sea Lady appears to have been the first to see them. "Here he is," she said abruptly.

"Whom?" said Mrs. Bunting, glancing up at eyes that were suddenly eager, and then following their glance towards Chatteris.

"Your other son," said the Sea Lady, jesting unheeded.

"It's Harry and Adeline!" cried Mrs. Bunting. "Don't they make a handsome couple?"

But the Sea Lady made no reply, and leaned back, scrutinising their advance. Certainly they made a handsome pair. Coming out of the veranda into the blaze of the sun and across the trim lawn towards the shadow of the ilex trees, they were lit, as it were, with a more glorious limelight, and displayed like actors on a stage more spacious than the stage of any theatre. The figure of Chatteris must have come out tall and fair and broad, a little sunburnt, and I gather even then a little preoccupied, as indeed he always seemed to be in those latter days. And beside him Adeline, glancing now up at him and now towards the audience under the trees, dark and a little flushed, rather tall—though not so tall as Marcella seems to have been—and, you know, without any instructions from any novel-writer in the world, glad.

Chatteris did not discover that there was any one but Buntings under the tree until he was close at hand. Then the abrupt discovery of this stranger seems to have checked whatever he was prepared to say for his début, and Adeline took the centre of the stage. Mrs. Bunting was standing up, and all the croquet players—except Mabel, who was winning—converged on Chatteris with cries of welcome. Mabel remained in the midst of what I understand is called a tea-party, loudly demanding that they should see her "play it out." No doubt if everything had gone well she would have given a most edifying exhibition of what croquet can sometimes be.

Adeline swam forward to Mrs. Bunting and cried with a note of triumph in her voice: "It is all settled. Everything is settled. He has won them all and he is to contest Hythe."

Quite involuntarily her eyes must have met the Sea Lady's.

It is of course quite impossible to say what she found there—or indeed what there was to find there then. For a moment they faced riddles, and then the Sea Lady turned her eyes with a long deferred scrutiny to the man's face, which he probably saw now closely for the first time. One wonders whether it is just possible that there may have been something, if it were no more than a gleam of surprise and enquiry, in that meeting of their eyes. Just for a moment she held his regard, and then it shifted enquiringly to Mrs. Bunting.

That lady intervened effusively with an "Oh! I forgot," and introduced them. I think they went through that without another meeting of the foils of their regard.

"You back?" said Fred to Chatteris, touching his arm, and Chatteris confirmed this happy guess.

The Bunting girls seemed to welcome Adeline's enviable situation rather than Chatteris as an individual. And Mabel's voice could be heard approaching. "Oughtn't they to see me play it out, Mr. Chatteris?"

"Hullo, Harry, my boy!" cried Mr. Bunting, who was cultivating a bluff manner. "How's Paris?"

"How's the fishing?" said Harry.

And so they came into a vague circle about this lively person who had "won them all"—except Parker, of course, who remained in her own proper place and was, I am certain, never to be won by anybody.

There was a handing and shifting of garden chairs.

No one seemed to take the slightest notice of Adeline's dramatic announcement. The Buntings were not good at thinking of things to say. She stood in the midst of the group like a leading lady when the other actors have forgotten their parts. Then every one woke up to this, as it were, and they went off in a volley. "So it's really all settled," said Mrs. Bunting; and Betty Bunting said, "There is to be an election then!" and Nettie said, "What fun!" Mr. Bunting remarked with a knowing air, "So you saw him then?" and Fred flung "Hooray!" into the tangle of sounds.

The Sea Lady of course said nothing.

"We'll give 'em a jolly good fight for it, anyhow," said Mr. Bunting.

"Well, I hope we shall do that," said Chatteris.

"We shall do more than that," said Adeline.

"Oh, yes!" said Betty Bunting, "we shall."

"I knew they would let him," said Adeline.

"If they had any sense," said Mr. Bunting.

Then came a pause, and Mr. Bunting was emboldened to lift up his voice and utter politics. "They are getting sense," he said. "They are learning that a party must have men, men of birth and training. Money and the mob—they've tried to keep things going by playing to fads and class jealousies. And the Irish. And they've had their lesson. How? Why,—we've stood aside. We've left 'em to faddists and fomenters—and the Irish. And here they are! It's a revolution in the party. We've let it down. Now we must pick it up again."

He made a gesture with his fat little hand, one of those fat pink little hands that appear to have neither flesh nor bones inside them but only sawdust or horsehair. Mrs. Bunting leaned back in her chair and smiled at him indulgently.

"It is no common election," said Mr. Bunting. "It is a great issue."

The Sea Lady had been regarding him thoughtfully. "What is a great issue?" she asked. "I don't quite understand."

Mr. Bunting spread himself to explain to her. "This," he said to begin with. Adeline listened with a mingling of interest and impatience, attempting ever and again to suppress him and to involve Chatteris by a tactful interposition. But Chatteris appeared disinclined to be involved. He seemed indeed quite interested in Mr. Bunting's view of the case.

Presently the croquet quartette went back—at Mabel's suggestion—to their game, and the others continued their political talk. It became more personal at last, dealing soon quite specifically with all that Chatteris was doing and more particularly all that Chatteris was to do. Mrs. Bunting suddenly suppressed Mr. Bunting as he was offering advice, and Adeline took the burden of the talk again. She indicated vast purposes. "This election is merely the opening of a door," she said. When Chatteris made modest disavowals she smiled with a proud and happy consciousness of what she meant to make of him.

And Mrs. Bunting supplied footnotes to make it all clear to the Sea Lady. "He's so modest," she said at one point, and Chatteris pretended not to hear and went rather pink. Ever and again he attempted to deflect the talk towards the Sea Lady and away from himself, but he was hampered by his ignorance of her position.

And the Sea Lady said scarcely anything but watched Chatteris and Adeline, and more particularly Chatteris in relation to Adeline.