“And little Augustus Pelham said to me, ‘It’s the younger generation knocking at the door,’ and I said to him, ‘Oh, but the younger generation comes in without knocking, Mr. Pelham.’ Such a feeble little joke, wasn’t it, but down it went into his notebook all the same.”
“Let us congratulate ourselves that we shall be in the grave before that work is published,” said Mr. Hilbery.
The elderly couple were waiting for the dinner-bell to ring and for their daughter to come into the room. Their arm-chairs were drawn up on either side of the fire, and each sat in the same slightly crouched position, looking into the coals, with the expressions of people who have had their share of experiences and wait, rather passively, for something to happen. Mr. Hilbery now gave all his attention to a piece of coal which had fallen out of the grate, and to selecting a favorable position for it among the lumps that were burning already. Mrs. Hilbery watched him in silence, and the smile changed on her lips as if her mind still played with the events of the afternoon.
When Mr. Hilbery had accomplished his task, he resumed his crouching position again, and began to toy with the little green stone attached to his watch-chain. His deep, oval-shaped eyes were fixed upon the flames, but behind the superficial glaze seemed to brood an observant and whimsical spirit, which kept the brown of the eye still unusually vivid. But a look of indolence, the result of skepticism or of a taste too fastidious to be satisfied by the prizes and conclusions so easily within his grasp, lent him an expression almost of melancholy. After sitting thus for a time, he seemed to reach some point in his thinking which demonstrated its futility, upon which he sighed and stretched his hand for a book lying on the table by his side.
Directly the door opened he closed the book, and the eyes of father and mother both rested on Katharine as she came towards them. The sight seemed at once to give them a motive which they had not had before. To them she appeared, as she walked towards them in her light evening dress, extremely young, and the sight of her refreshed them, were it only because her youth and ignorance made their knowledge of the world of some value.
“The only excuse for you, Katharine, is that dinner is still later than you are,” said Mr. Hilbery, putting down his spectacles.
“I don’t mind her being late when the result is so charming,” said Mrs. Hilbery, looking with pride at her daughter. “Still, I don’t know that I LIKE your being out so late, Katharine,” she continued. “You took a cab, I hope?”
Here dinner was announced, and Mr. Hilbery formally led his wife downstairs on his arm. They were all dressed for dinner, and, indeed, the prettiness of the dinner-table merited that compliment. There was no cloth upon the table, and the china made regular circles of deep blue upon the shining brown wood. In the middle there was a bowl of tawny red and yellow chrysanthemums, and one of pure white, so fresh that the narrow petals were curved backwards into a firm white ball. From the surrounding walls the heads of three famous Victorian writers surveyed this entertainment, and slips of paper pasted beneath them testified in the great man’s own handwriting that he was yours sincerely or affectionately or for ever. The father and daughter would have been quite content, apparently, to eat their dinner in silence, or with a few cryptic remarks expressed in a shorthand which could not be understood by the servants. But silence depressed Mrs. Hilbery, and far from minding the presence of maids, she would often address herself to them, and was never altogether unconscious of their approval or disapproval of her remarks. In the first place she called them to witness that the room was darker than usual, and had all the lights turned on.
“That’s more cheerful,” she exclaimed. “D’you know, Katharine, that ridiculous goose came to tea with me? Oh, how I wanted you! He tried to make epigrams all the time, and I got so nervous, expecting them, you know, that I spilt the tea—and he made an epigram about that!”
“Which ridiculous goose?” Katharine asked her father.
“Only one of my geese, happily, makes epigrams—Augustus Pelham, of course,” said Mrs. Hilbery.
“I’m not sorry that I was out,” said Katharine.
“Poor Augustus!” Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed. “But we’re all too hard on him. Remember how devoted he is to his tiresome old mother.”
“That’s only because she is his mother. Any one connected with himself—”
“No, no, Katharine—that’s too bad. That’s—what’s the word I mean, Trevor, something long and Latin—the sort of word you and Katharine know—”
Mr. Hilbery suggested “cynical.”
“Well, that’ll do. I don’t believe in sending girls to college, but I should teach them that sort of thing. It makes one feel so dignified, bringing out these little allusions, and passing on gracefully to the next topic. But I don’t know what’s come over me—I actually had to ask Augustus the name of the lady Hamlet was in love with, as you were out, Katharine, and Heaven knows what he mayn’t put down about me in his diary.”
“I wish,” Katharine started, with great impetuosity, and checked herself. Her mother always stirred her to feel and think quickly, and then she remembered that her father was there, listening with attention.
“What is it you wish?” he asked, as she paused.
He often surprised her, thus, into telling him what she had not meant to tell him; and then they argued, while Mrs. Hilbery went on with her own thoughts.
“I wish mother wasn’t famous. I was out at tea, and they would talk to me about poetry.”
“Thinking you must be poetical, I see—and aren’t you?”
“Who’s been talking to you about poetry, Katharine?” Mrs. Hilbery demanded, and Katharine was committed to giving her parents an account of her visit to the Suffrage office.
“They have an office at the top of one of the old houses in Russell Square. I never saw such queer-looking people. And the man discovered I was related to the poet, and talked to me about poetry. Even Mary Datchet seems different in that atmosphere.”
“Yes, the office atmosphere is very bad for the soul,” said Mr. Hilbery.
“I don’t remember any offices in Russell Square in the old days, when Mamma lived there,” Mrs. Hilbery mused, “and I can’t fancy turning one of those noble great rooms into a stuffy little Suffrage office. Still, if the clerks read poetry there must be something nice about them.”
“No, because they don’t read it as we read it,” Katharine insisted.
“But it’s nice to think of them reading your grandfather, and not filling up those dreadful little forms all day long,” Mrs. Hilbery persisted, her notion of office life being derived from some chance view of a scene behind the counter at her bank, as she slipped the sovereigns into her purse.
“At any rate, they haven’t made a convert of Katharine, which was what I was afraid of,” Mr. Hilbery remarked.
“Oh no,” said Katharine very decidedly, “I wouldn’t work with them for anything.”
“It’s curious,” Mr. Hilbery continued, agreeing with his daughter, “how the sight of one’s fellow-enthusiasts always chokes one off. They show up the faults of one’s cause so much more plainly than one’s antagonists. One can be enthusiastic in one’s study, but directly one comes into touch with the people who agree with one, all the glamor goes. So I’ve always found,” and he proceeded to tell them, as he peeled his apple, how he committed himself once, in his youthful days, to make a speech at a political meeting, and went there ablaze with enthusiasm for the ideals of his own side; but while his leaders spoke, he became gradually converted to the other way of thinking, if thinking it could be called, and had to feign illness in order to avoid making a fool of himself—an experience which had sickened him of public meetings.
Katharine listened and felt as she generally did when her father, and to some extent her mother, described their feelings, that she quite understood and agreed with them, but, at the same time, saw something which they did not see, and always felt some disappointment when they fell short of her vision, as they always did. The plates succeeded each other swiftly and noiselessly in front of her, and the table was decked for dessert, and as the talk murmured on in familiar grooves, she sat there, rather like a judge, listening to her parents, who did, indeed, feel it very pleasant when they made her laugh.
Daily life in a house where there are young and old is full of curious little ceremonies and pieties, which are discharged quite punctually, though the meaning of them is obscure, and a mystery has come to brood over them which lends even a superstitious charm to their performance. Such was the nightly ceremony of the cigar and the glass of port, which were placed on the right hand and on the left hand of Mr. Hilbery, and simultaneously Mrs. Hilbery and Katharine left the room. All the years they had lived together they had never seen Mr. Hilbery smoke his cigar or drink his port, and they would have felt it unseemly if, by chance, they had surprised him as he sat there. These short, but clearly marked, periods of separation between the sexes were always used for an intimate postscript to what had been said at dinner, the sense of being women together coming out most strongly when the male sex was, as if by some religious rite, secluded from the female. Katharine knew by heart the sort of mood that possessed her as she walked upstairs to the drawing-room, her mother’s arm in hers; and she could anticipate the pleasure with which, when she had turned on the lights, they both regarded the drawing-room, fresh swept and set in order for the last section of the day, with the red parrots swinging on the chintz curtains, and the arm-chairs warming in the blaze. Mrs. Hilbery stood over the fire, with one foot on the fender, and her skirts slightly raised.
“Oh, Katharine,” she exclaimed, “how you’ve made me think of Mamma and the old days in Russell Square! I can see the chandeliers, and the green silk of the piano, and Mamma sitting in her cashmere shawl by the window, singing till the little ragamuffin boys outside stopped to listen. Papa sent me in with a bunch of violets while he waited round the corner. It must have been a summer evening. That was before things were hopeless….”
As she spoke an expression of regret, which must have come frequently to cause the lines which now grew deep round the lips and eyes, settled on her face. The poet’s marriage had not been a happy one. He had left his wife, and after some years of a rather reckless existence, she had died, before her time. This disaster had led to great irregularities of education, and, indeed, Mrs. Hilbery might be said to have escaped education altogether. But she had been her father’s companion at the season when he wrote the finest of his poems. She had sat on his knee in taverns and other haunts of drunken poets, and it was for her sake, so people said, that he had cured himself of his dissipation, and become the irreproachable literary character that the world knows, whose inspiration had deserted him. As Mrs. Hilbery grew old she thought more and more of the past, and this ancient disaster seemed at times almost to prey upon her mind, as if she could not pass out of life herself without laying the ghost of her parent’s sorrow to rest.
Katharine wished to comfort her mother, but it was difficult to do this satisfactorily when the facts themselves were so much of a legend. The house in Russell Square, for example, with its noble rooms, and the magnolia-tree in the garden, and the sweet-voiced piano, and the sound of feet coming down the corridors, and other properties of size and romance—had they any existence? Yet why should Mrs. Alardyce live all alone in this gigantic mansion, and, if she did not live alone, with whom did she live? For its own sake, Katharine rather liked this tragic story, and would have been glad to hear the details of it, and to have been able to discuss them frankly. But this it became less and less possible to do, for though Mrs. Hilbery was constantly reverting to the story, it was always in this tentative and restless fashion, as though by a touch here and there she could set things straight which had been crooked these sixty years. Perhaps, indeed, she no longer knew what the truth was.
“If they’d lived now,” she concluded, “I feel it wouldn’t have happened. People aren’t so set upon tragedy as they were then. If my father had been able to go round the world, or if she’d had a rest cure, everything would have come right. But what could I do? And then they had bad friends, both of them, who made mischief. Ah, Katharine, when you marry, be quite, quite sure that you love your husband!”
The tears stood in Mrs. Hilbery’s eyes.
While comforting her, Katharine thought to herself, “Now this is what Mary Datchet and Mr. Denham don’t understand. This is the sort of position I’m always getting into. How simple it must be to live as they do!” for all the evening she had been comparing her home and her father and mother with the Suffrage office and the people there.
“But, Katharine,” Mrs. Hilbery continued, with one of her sudden changes of mood, “though, Heaven knows, I don’t want to see you married, surely if ever a man loved a woman, William loves you. And it’s a nice, rich-sounding name too—Katharine Rodney, which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that he’s got any money, because he hasn’t.”
The alteration of her name annoyed Katharine, and she observed, rather sharply, that she didn’t want to marry any one.
“It’s very dull that you can only marry one husband, certainly,” Mrs. Hilbery reflected. “I always wish that you could marry everybody who wants to marry you. Perhaps they’ll come to that in time, but meanwhile I confess that dear William—” But here Mr. Hilbery came in, and the more solid part of the evening began. This consisted in the reading aloud by Katharine from some prose work or other, while her mother knitted scarves intermittently on a little circular frame, and her father read the newspaper, not so attentively but that he could comment humorously now and again upon the fortunes of the hero and the heroine. The Hilberys subscribed to a library, which delivered books on Tuesdays and Fridays, and Katharine did her best to interest her parents in the works of living and highly respectable authors; but Mrs. Hilbery was perturbed by the very look of the light, gold-wreathed volumes, and would make little faces as if she tasted something bitter as the reading went on; while Mr. Hilbery would treat the moderns with a curious elaborate banter such as one might apply to the antics of a promising child. So this evening, after five pages or so of one of these masters, Mrs. Hilbery protested that it was all too clever and cheap and nasty for words.
“Please, Katharine, read us something REAL.”
Katharine had to go to the bookcase and choose a portly volume in sleek, yellow calf, which had directly a sedative effect upon both her parents. But the delivery of the evening post broke in upon the periods of Henry Fielding, and Katharine found that her letters needed all her attention.