Leonard accepted the invitation to tea next Saturday. But he was right; the visit proved a conspicuous failure.
"Sugar?" said Margaret.
"Cake?" said Helen. "The big cake or the little deadlies? I'm afraid you thought my letter rather odd, but we'll explain--we aren't odd, really--not affected, really. We're over-expressive: that's all. "
As a lady's lap-dog Leonard did not excel. He was not an Italian, still less a Frenchman, in whose blood there runs the very spirit of persiflage and of gracious repartee. His wit was the Cockney's; it opened no doors into imagination, and Helen was drawn up short by "The more a lady has to say, the better," administered waggishly.
"Oh, yes," she said.
"Yes, I know. The darlings are regular sunbeams. Let me give you a plate."
"How do you like your work?" interposed Margaret.
He, too, was drawn up short. He would not have these women prying into his work. They were Romance, and so was the room to which he had at last penetrated, with the queer sketches of people bathing upon its walls, and so were the very tea-cups, with their delicate borders of wild strawberries. But he would not let Romance interfere with his life. There is the devil to pay then.
"Oh, well enough," he answered.
"Your company is the Porphyrion, isn't it?"
"Yes, that's so"--becoming rather offended. "It's funny how things get round."
"Why funny?" asked Helen, who did not follow the workings of his mind. "It was written as large as life on your card, and considering we wrote to you there, and that you replied on the stamped paper--"
"Would you call the Porphyrion one of the big Insurance Companies?" pursued Margaret.
"It depends what you call big."
"I mean by big, a solid, well-established concern, that offers a reasonably good career to its employes."
"I couldn't say--some would tell you one thing and others another," said the employe uneasily. "For my own part"--he shook his head--"I only believe half I hear. Not that even; it's safer. Those clever ones come to the worse grief, I've often noticed. Ah, you can't be too careful."
He drank, and wiped his moustache, which was going to be one of those moustaches that always droop into tea-cups--more bother than they're worth, surely, and not fashionable either.
"I quite agree, and that's why I was curious to know: is it a solid, well-established concern?"
Leonard had no idea. He understood his own corner of the machine, but nothing beyond it. He desired to confess neither knowledge nor ignorance, and under these circumstances, another motion of the head seemed safest. To him, as to the British public, the Porphyrion was the Porphyrion of the advertisement--a giant, in the classical style, but draped sufficiently, who held in one hand a burning torch, and pointed with the other to St. Paul's and Windsor Castle. A large sum of money was inscribed below, and you drew your own conclusions. This giant caused Leonard to do arithmetic and write letters, to explain the regulations to new clients, and re-explain them to old ones. A giant was of an impulsive morality--one knew that much. He would pay for Mrs. Munt's hearth-rug with ostentatious haste, a large claim he would repudiate quietly, and fight court by court. But his true fighting weight, his antecedents, his amours with other members of the commercial Pantheon--all these were as uncertain to ordinary mortals as were the escapades of Zeus. While the gods are powerful, we learn little about them. It is only in the days of their decadence that a strong light beats into heaven.
"We were told the Porphyrion's no go," blurted Helen. "We wanted to tell you; that's why we wrote."
"A friend of ours did think that it is unsufficiently reinsured," said Margaret.
Now Leonard had his clue. He must praise the Porphyrion. "You can tell your friend," he said, "that he's quite wrong."
The young man coloured a little. In his circle to be wrong was fatal. The Miss Schlegels did not mind being wrong. They were genuinely glad that they had been misinformed. To them nothing was fatal but evil.
"Wrong, so to speak," he added.
"How 'so to speak'?"
"I mean I wouldn't say he's right altogether."
But this was a blunder. "Then he is right partly," said the elder woman, quick as lightning.
Leonard replied that every one was right partly, if it came to that.
"Mr. Bast, I don't understand business, and I dare say my questions are stupid, but can you tell me what makes a concern 'right' or 'wrong'?"
Leonard sat back with a sigh.
"Our friend, who is also a business man, was so positive. He said before Christmas--"
"And advised you to clear out of it," concluded Helen. "But I don't see why he should know better than you do."
Leonard rubbed his hands. He was tempted to say that he knew nothing about the thing at all. But a commercial training was too strong for him. Nor could he say it was a bad thing, for this would be giving it away; nor yet that it was good, for this would be giving it away equally. He attempted to suggest that it was something between the two, with vast possibilities in either direction, but broke down under the gaze of four sincere eyes. As yet he scarcely distinguished between the two sisters. One was more beautiful and more lively, but "the Miss Schlegels" still remained a composite Indian god, whose waving arms and contradictory speeches were the product of a single mind.
"One can but see," he remarked, adding, "as Ibsen says, 'things happen.'" He was itching to talk about books and make the most of his romantic hour. Minute after minute slipped away, while the ladies, with imperfect skill, discussed the subject of reinsurance or praised their anonymous friend. Leonard grew annoyed--perhaps rightly. He made vague remarks about not being one of those who minded their affairs being talked over by others, but they did not take the hint. Men might have shown more tact. Women, however tactful elsewhere, are heavy-handed here. They cannot see why we should shroud our incomes and our prospects in a veil. "How much exactly have you, and how much do you expect to have next June?" And these were women with a theory, who held that reticence about money matters is absurd, and that life would be truer if each would state the exact size of the golden island upon which he stands, the exact stretch of warp over which he throws the woof that is not money. How can we do justice to the pattern otherwise?
And the precious minutes slipped away, and Jacky and squalor came nearer. At last he could bear it no longer, and broke in, reciting the names of books feverishly. There was a moment of piercing joy when Margaret said, "So YOU like Carlyle," and then the door opened, and "Mr. Wilcox, Miss Wilcox" entered, preceded by two prancing puppies.
"Oh, the dears! Oh, Evie, how too impossibly sweet!" screamed Helen, falling on her hands and knees.
"We brought the little fellows round," said Mr. Wilcox.
"I bred 'em myself."
"Oh, really! Mr. Bast, come and play with puppies."
"I've got to be going now," said Leonard sourly.
"But play with puppies a little first."
"This is Ahab, that's Jezebel," said Evie, who was one of those who name animals after the less successful characters of Old Testament history.
"I've got to be going."
Helen was too much occupied with puppies to notice him.
"Mr. Wilcox, Mr. Ba--Must you be really? Good-bye!"
"Come again," said Helen from the floor.
Then Leonard's gorge arose. Why should he come again? What was the good of it? He said roundly: "No, I shan't; I knew it would be a failure."
Most people would have let him go. "A little mistake. We tried knowing another class--impossible." But the Schlegels had never played with life. They had attempted friendship, and they would take the consequences. Helen retorted, "I call that a very rude remark. What do you want to turn on me like that for?" and suddenly the drawing-room re-echoed to a vulgar row.
"You ask me why I turn on you?"
"What do you want to have me here for?"
"To help you, you silly boy!" cried Helen. "And don't shout."
"I don't want your patronage. I don't want your tea. I was quite happy. What do you want to unsettle me for?" He turned to Mr. Wilcox. "I put it to this gentleman. I ask you, sir, am to have my brain picked?"
Mr. Wilcox turned to Margaret with the air of humorous strength that he could so well command. "Are we intruding, Miss Schlegel? Can we be of any use or shall we go?"
But Margaret ignored him.
"I'm connected with a leading insurance company, sir. I receive what I take to be an invitation from these--ladies" (he drawled the word). "I come, and it's to have my brain picked. I ask you, is it fair?"
"Highly unfair," said Mr. Wilcox, drawing a gasp from Evie, who knew that her father was becoming dangerous.
"There, you hear that? Most unfair, the gentleman says. There! Not content with"--pointing at Margaret--"you can't deny it." His voice rose: he was falling into the rhythm of a scene with Jacky. "But as soon as I'm useful it's a very different thing. 'Oh yes, send for him. Cross-question him. Pick his brains.' Oh yes. Now, take me on the whole, I'm a quiet fellow: I'm law-abiding, I don't wish any unpleasantness; but I--I--"
"You," said Margaret--"you--you--"
Laughter from Evie, as at a repartee.
"You are the man who tried to walk by the Pole Star."
"You saw the sunrise."
"You tried to get away from the fogs that are stifling us all--away past books and houses to the truth. You were looking for a real home. "
"I fail to see the connection," said Leonard, hot with stupid anger.
"So do I." There was a pause. "You were that last Sunday--you are this today. Mr. Bast! I and my sister have talked you over. We wanted to help you; we also supposed you might help us. We did not have you here out of charity--which bores us--but because we hoped there would be a connection between last Sunday and other days. What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives? They have never entered into mine, but into yours, we thought--Haven't we all to struggle against life's daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion? I struggle by remembering my friends; others I have known by remembering some place--some beloved place or tree--we thought you one of these."
"Of course, if there's been any misunderstanding," mumbled Leonard, "all I can do is to go. But I beg to state--" He paused. Ahab and Jezebel danced at his boots and made him look ridiculous. "You were picking my brain for official information--I can prove it--I--He blew his nose and left them.
"Can I help you now?" said Mr. Wilcox, turning to Margaret. "May I have one quiet word with him in the hall?"
"Helen, go after him--do anything--ANYTHING--to make the noodle understand."
"But really--" said their visitor. "Ought she to?"
At once she went.
He resumed. "I would have chimed in, but I felt that you could polish him off for yourselves--I didn't interfere. You were splendid, Miss Schlegel--absolutely splendid. You can take my word for it, but there are very few women who could have managed him."
"Oh yes," said Margaret distractedly.
"Bowling him over with those long sentences was what fetched me," cried Evie.
"Yes, indeed," chuckled her father; "all that part about 'mechanical cheerfulness'--oh, fine!"
"I'm very sorry," said Margaret, collecting herself. "He's a nice creature really. I cannot think what set him off. It has been most unpleasant for you."
"Oh, I didn't mind." Then he changed his mood. He asked if he might speak as an old friend, and, permission given, said: "Oughtn't you really to be more careful?"
Margaret laughed, though her thoughts still strayed after Helen. "Do you realize that it's all your fault?" she said. "You're responsible."
"This is the young man whom we were to warn against the Porphyrion. We warn him, and--look!"
Mr. Wilcox was annoyed. "I hardly consider that a fair deduction," he said.
"Obviously unfair," said Margaret. "I was only thinking how tangled things are. It's our fault mostly--neither yours nor his."
"Miss Schlegel, you are too kind."
"Yes, indeed," nodded Evie, a little contemptuously.
"You behave much too well to people, and then they impose on you. I know the world and that type of man, and as soon as I entered the room I saw you had not been treating him properly. You must keep that type at a distance. Otherwise they forget themselves. Sad, but true. They aren't our sort, and one must face the fact."
"Do admit that we should never have had the outburst if he was a gentleman."
"I admit it willingly," said Margaret, who was pacing up and down the room. "A gentleman would have kept his suspicions to himself."
Mr. Wilcox watched her with a vague uneasiness.
"What did he suspect you of?"
"Of wanting to make money out of him."
"Intolerable brute! But how were you to benefit?"
"Exactly. How indeed! Just horrible, corroding suspicion. One touch of thought or of goodwill would have brushed it away. Just the senseless fear that does make men intolerable brutes."
"I come back to my original point. You ought to be more careful, Miss Schlegel. Your servants ought to have orders not to let such people in."
She turned to him frankly. "Let me explain exactly why we like this man, and want to see him again."
"That's your clever way of thinking. I shall never believe you like him."
"I do. Firstly, because he cares for physical adventure, just as you do. Yes, you go motoring and shooting; he would like to go camping out. Secondly, he cares for something special IN adventure. It is quickest to call that special something poetry--"
"Oh, he's one of that writer sort."
"No--oh no! I mean he may be, but it would be loathsome stiff. His brain is filled with the husks of books, culture--horrible; we want him to wash out his brain and go to the real thing. We want to show him how he may get upsides with life. As I said, either friends or the country, some"--she hesitated--"either some very dear person or some very dear place seems necessary to relieve life's daily grey, and to show that it is grey. If possible, one should have both."
Some of her words ran past Mr. Wilcox. He let them run past. Others he caught and criticized with admirable lucidity.
"Your mistake is this, and it is a very common mistake. This young bounder has a life of his own. What right have you to conclude it is an unsuccessful life, or, as you call it, 'grey'?"
"One minute. You know nothing about him. He probably has his own joys and interests--wife, children, snug little home. That's where we practical fellows"--he smiled--"are more tolerant than you intellectuals. We live and let live, and assume that things are jogging on fairly well elsewhere, and that the ordinary plain man may be trusted to look after his own affairs. I quite grant--I look at the faces of the clerks in my own office, and observe them to be dull, but I don't know what's going on beneath. So, by the way, with London. I have heard you rail against London, Miss Schlegel, and it seems a funny thing to say but I was very angry with you. What do you know about London? You only see civilization from the outside. I don't say in your case, but in too many cases that attitude leads to morbidity, discontent, and Socialism."
She admitted the strength of his position, though it undermined imagination. As he spoke, some outposts of poetry and perhaps of sympathy fell ruining, and she retreated to what she called her "second line"--to the special facts of the case.
"His wife is an old bore," she said simply. "He never came home last Saturday night because he wanted to be alone, and she thought he was with us."
"Yes." Evie tittered. "He hasn't got the cosy home that you assumed. He needs outside interests."
"Naughty young man!" cried the girl.
"Naughty?" said Margaret, who hated naughtiness more than sin. "When you're married, Miss Wilcox, won't you want outside interests?"
"He has apparently got them," put in Mr. Wilcox slyly.
"Yes, indeed, Father."
"He was tramping in Surrey, if you mean that," said Margaret, pacing away rather crossly.
"Oh, I dare say!"
"Miss Wilcox, he was!"
"M-m-m-m!" from Mr. Wilcox, who thought the episode amusing, if risque. With most ladies he would not have discussed it, but he was trading on Margaret's reputation as an emanicipated woman.
"He said so, and about such a thing he wouldn't lie."
They both began to laugh.
"That's where I differ from you. Men lie about their positions and prospects, but not about a thing of that sort."
He shook his head. "Miss Schlegel, excuse me, but I know the type."
"I said before--he isn't a type. He cares about adventures rightly. He's certain that our smug existence isn't all. He's vulgar and hysterical and bookish, but I don't think that sums him up. There's manhood in him as well. Yes, that's what I'm trying to say. He's a real man."
As she spoke their eyes met, and it was as if Mr. Wilcox's defences fell. She saw back to the real man in him. Unwittingly she had touched his emotions. A woman and two men--they had formed the magic triangle of sex, and the male was thrilled to jealousy, in case the female was attracted by another male. Love, say the ascetics, reveals our shameful kinship with the beasts. Be it so: one can bear that; jealousy is the real shame. It is jealousy, not love, that connects us with the farmyard intolerably, and calls up visions of two angry cocks and a complacent hen. Margaret crushed complacency down because she was civilized. Mr. Wilcox, uncivilized, continued to feel anger long after he had rebuilt his defences, and was again presenting a bastion to the world.
"Miss Schlegel, you're a pair of dear creatures, but you really MUST be careful in this uncharitable world. What does your brother say?"
"Surely he has some opinion?"
"He laughs, if I remember correctly."
"He's very clever, isn't he?" said Evie, who had met and detested Tibby at Oxford.
"Yes, pretty well--but I wonder what Helen's doing."
"She is very young to undertake this sort of thing," said Mr. Wilcox.
Margaret went out into the landing. She heard no sound, and Mr. Bast's topper was missing from the hall.
"Helen!" she called.
"Yes!" replied a voice from the library.
"You in there?"
"Yes--he's gone some time."
Margaret went to her. "Why, you're all alone," she said.
"Yes--it's all right, Meg--Poor, poor creature--"
"Come back to the Wilcoxes and tell me later--Mr. W. much concerned, and slightly titillated."
"Oh, I've no patience with him. I hate him. Poor dear Mr. Bast! he wanted to talk literature, and we would talk business. Such a muddle of a man, and yet so worth pulling through. I like him extraordinarily. "
"Well done," said Margaret, kissing her, "but come into the drawing-room now, and don't talk about him to the Wilcoxes. Make light of the whole thing."
Helen came and behaved with a cheerfulness that reassured their visitor--this hen at all events was fancy-free.
"He's gone with my blessing," she cried, "and now for puppies."
As they drove away, Mr. Wilcox said to his daughter:
"I am really concerned at the way those girls go on. They are as clever as you make 'em, but unpractical--God bless me! One of these days they'll go too far. Girls like that oughtn't to live alone in London. Until they marry, they ought to have someone to look after them. We must look in more often--we're better than no one. You like them, don't you, Evie?"
Evie replied: "Helen's right enough, but I can't stand the toothy one. And I shouldn't have called either of them girls."
Evie had grown up handsome. Dark-eyed, with the glow of youth under sunburn, built firmly and firm-lipped, she was the best the Wilcoxes could do in the way of feminine beauty. For the present, puppies and her father were the only things she loved, but the net of matrimony was being prepared for her, and a few days later she was attracted to a Mr. Percy Cahill, an uncle of Mrs. Charles, and he was attracted to her.