"Oh, Margaret," cried her aunt next morning, "such a most unfortunate thing has happened. I could not get you alone."
The most unfortunate thing was not very serious. One of the flats in the ornate block opposite had been taken furnished by the Wilcox family, "coming up, no doubt, in the hope of getting into London society." That Mrs. Munt should be the first to discover the misfortune was not remarkable, for she was so interested in the flats, that she watched their every mutation with unwearying care. In theory she despised them--they took away that old-world look--they cut off the sun--flats house a flashy type of person. But if the truth had been known, she found her visits to Wickham Place twice as amusing since Wickham Mansions had arisen, and would in a couple of days learn more about them than her nieces in a couple of months, or her nephew in a couple of years. She would stroll across and make friends with the porters, and inquire what the rents were, exclaiming for example: "What! a hundred and twenty for a basement? You'll never get it!" And they would answer: "One can but try, madam." The passenger lifts, the provision lifts, the arrangement for coals (a great temptation for a dishonest porter), were all familiar matters to her, and perhaps a relief from the politico-economical-æsthetic atmosphere that reigned at the Schlegels'.
Margaret received the information calmly, and did not agree that it would throw a cloud over poor Helen's life.
"Oh, but Helen isn't a girl with no interests," she explained. "She has plenty of other things and other people to think about. She made a false start with the Wilcoxes, and she'll be as willing as we are to have nothing more to do with them."
"For a clever girl, dear, how very oddly you do talk. Helen'll have to have something more to do with them, now that they're all opposite. She may meet that Paul in the street. She cannot very well not bow."
"Of course she must bow. But look here; let's do the flowers. I was going to say, the will to be interested in him has died, and what else matters? I look on that disastrous episode (over which you were so kind) as the killing of a nerve in Helen. It's dead, and she'll never be troubled with it again. The only things that matter are the things that interest one. Bowing, even calling and leaving cards, even a dinner-party--we can do all those things to the Wilcoxes, if they find it agreeable; but the other thing, the one important thing--never again. Don't you see?"
Mrs. Munt did not see, and indeed Margaret was making a most questionable statement--that any emotion, any interest once vividly aroused, can wholly die.
"I also have the honour to inform you that the Wilcoxes are bored with us. I didn't tell you at the time--it might have made you angry, and you had enough to worry you--but I wrote a letter to Mrs. W., and apologized for the trouble that Helen had given them. She didn't answer it."
"How very rude!"
"I wonder. Or was it sensible?"
"No, Margaret, most rude."
"In either case one can class it as reassuring."
Mrs. Munt sighed. She was going back to Swanage on the morrow, just as her nieces were wanting her most. Other regrets crowded upon her: for instance, how magnificently she would have cut Charles if she had met him face to face. She had already seen him, giving an order to the porter--and very common he looked in a tall hat. But unfortunately his back was turned to her, and though she had cut his back, she could not regard this as a telling snub.
"But you will be careful, won't you?" she exhorted.
"Oh, certainly. Fiendishly careful."
"And Helen must be careful, too,"
"Careful over what?" cried Helen, at that moment coming into the room with her cousin.
"Nothing," said Margaret, seized with a momentary awkwardness.
"Careful over what, Aunt Juley?"
Mrs. Munt assumed a cryptic air. "It is only that a certain family, whom we know by name but do not mention, as you said yourself last night after the concert, have taken the flat opposite from the Mathesons--where the plants are in the balcony."
Helen began some laughing reply, and then disconcerted them all by blushing. Mrs. Munt was so disconcerted that she exclaimed, "What, Helen, you don't mind them coming, do you?" and deepened the blush to crimson.
"Of course I don't mind," said Helen a little crossly. "It is that you and Meg are both so absurdly grave about it, when there's nothing to be grave about at all."
"I'm not grave," protested Margaret, a little cross in her turn.
"Well, you look grave; doesn't she, Frieda?"
"I don't feel grave, that's all I can say; you're going quite on the wrong tack."
"No, she does not feel grave," echoed Mrs. Munt. "I can bear witness to that. She disagrees--"
"Hark!" interrupted Fräulein Mosebach. "I hear Bruno entering the hall."
For Herr Liesecke was due at Wickham Place to call for the two younger girls. He was not entering the hall--in fact, he did not enter it for quite five minutes. But Frieda detected a delicate situation, and said that she and Helen had much better wait for Bruno down below, and leave Margaret and Mrs. Munt to finish arranging the flowers. Helen acquiesced. But, as if to prove that the situation was not delicate really, she stopped in the doorway and said:
"Did you say the Mathesons' flat, Aunt Juley? How wonderful you are! I never knew that the woman who laced too tightly's name was Matheson."
"Come, Helen," said her cousin.
"Go, Helen," said her aunt; and continued to Margaret almost in the same breath: "Helen cannot deceive me, She does mind."
"Oh, hush!" breathed Margaret. "Frieda'll hear you, and she can be so tiresome."
"She minds," persisted Mrs. Munt, moving thoughtfully about the room, and pulling the dead chrysanthemums out of the vases. "I knew she'd mind--and I'm sure a girl ought to! Such an experience! Such awful coarse-grained people! I know more about them than you do, which you forget, and if Charles had taken you that motor drive--well, you'd have reached the house a perfect wreck. Oh, Margaret, you don't know what you are in for. They're all bottled up against the drawing-room window. There's Mrs. Wilcox--I've seen her. There's Paul. There's Evie, who is a minx. There's Charles--I saw him to start with. And who would an elderly man with a moustache and a copper-coloured face be?"
"Mr. Wilcox, possibly."
"I knew it. And there's Mr. Wilcox."
"It's a shame to call his face copper colour," complained Margaret. "He has a remarkably good complexion for a man of his age."
Mrs. Munt, triumphant elsewhere, could afford to concede Mr. Wilcox his complexion. She passed on from it to the plan of campaign that her nieces should pursue in the future. Margaret tried to stop her.
"Helen did not take the news quite as I expected, but the Wilcox nerve is dead in her really, so there's no need for plans."
"It's as well to be prepared."
"No--it's as well not to be prepared."
Her thought drew being from the obscure borderland. She could not explain in so many words, but she felt that those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy. It is necessary to prepare for an examination, or a dinner-party, or a possible fall in the price of stock: those who attempt human relations must adopt another method, or fail. "Because I'd sooner risk it," was her lame conclusion.
"But imagine the evenings," exclaimed her aunt, pointing to the Mansions with the spout of the watering-can. "Turn the electric light on here or there, and it's almost the same room. One evening they may forget to draw their blinds down, and you'll see them; and the next, you yours, and they'll see you. Impossible to sit out on the balconies. Impossible to water the plants, or even speak. Imagine going out of the front-door, and they come out opposite at the same moment. And yet you tell me that plans are unnecessary, and you'd rather risk it."
"I hope to risk things all my life."
"Oh, Margaret, most dangerous."
"But after all," she continued with a smile, "there's never any great risk as long as you have money."
"Oh, shame! What a shocking speech!"
"Money pads the edges of things," said Miss Schlegel. "God help those who have none."
"But this is something quite new!" said Mrs. Munt, who collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts, and was especially attracted by those that are portable.
"New for me; sensible people have acknowledged it for years. You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It's only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin."
"I call that rather cynical."
"So do I. But Helen and I, we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticize others, that we are standing on these islands, and that most of the others, are down below the surface of the sea. The poor cannot always reach those whom they want to love, and they can hardly ever escape from those whom they love no longer. We rich can. Imagine the tragedy last June, if Helen and Paul Wilcox had been poor people, and couldn't invoke railways and motor-cars to part them."
"That's more like Socialism," said Mrs. Munt suspiciously.
"Call it what you like. I call it going through life with one's hand spread open on the table. I'm tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor, and think it shows a nice mind to ignore the piles of money that keep their feet above the waves. I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen upon the same, and Tibby will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed--from the sea, yes, from the sea. And all our thoughts are the thoughts of six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches; and because we don't want to steal umbrellas ourselves, we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them, and do steal them sometimes, and that what's a joke up here is down there reality--"
"There they go--there goes Fräulein Mosebach. Really, for a German she does dress charmingly. Oh--!"
"What is it?"
"Helen was looking up at the Wilcoxes' flat."
"Why shouldn't she?"
"I beg your pardon, I interrupted you. What was it you were saying about reality?"
"I had worked round to myself, as usual," answered Margaret in tones that were suddenly preoccupied.
"Do tell me this, at all events. Are you for the rich or for the poor?"
"Too difficult. Ask me another. Am I for poverty or for riches? For riches. Hurrah for riches!"
"For riches!" echoed Mrs. Munt, having, as it were, at last secured her nut.
"Yes. For riches. Money for ever!"
"So am I, and so, I am afraid, are most of my acquaintances at Swanage, but I am surprised that you agree with us."
"Thank you so much, Aunt Juley. While I have talked theories, you have done the flowers."
"Not at all, dear. I wish you would let me help you in more important things."
"Well, would you be very kind? Would you come round with me to the registry office? There's a housemaid who won't say yes but doesn't say no."
On their way thither they too looked up at the Wilcoxes' flat. Evie was in the balcony, "staring most rudely," according to Mrs. Munt. Oh yes, it was a nuisance, there was no doubt of it. Helen was proof against a passing encounter but--Margaret began to lose confidence. Might it reawake the dying nerve if the family were living close against her eyes? And Frieda Mosebach was stopping with them for another fortnight, and Frieda was sharp, abominably sharp, and quite capable of remarking, "You love one of the young gentlemen opposite, yes?" The remark would be untrue, but of the kind which, if stated often enough, may become true; just as the remark, "England and Germany are bound to fight," renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation. Have the private emotions also their gutter press? Margaret thought so, and feared that good Aunt Juley and Frieda were typical specimens of it. They might, by continual chatter, lead Helen into a repetition of the desires of June. Into a repetition--they could not do more; they could not lead her into lasting love. They were--she saw it clearly--Journalism; her father, with all his defects and wrong-headedness, had been Literature, and had he lived, he would have persuaded his daughter rightly.
The registry office was holding its morning reception. A string of carriages filled the street. Miss Schlegel waited her turn, and finally had to be content with an insidious "temporary," being rejected by genuine housemaids on the ground of her numerous stairs. Her failure depressed her, and though she forgot the failure, the depression remained. On her way home she again glanced up at the Wilcoxes' flat, and took the rather matronly step of speaking about the matter to Helen.
"Helen, you must tell me whether this thing worries you."
"If what?" said Helen, who was washing her hands for lunch.
"The W.'s coming."
"No, of course not."
"Really." Then she admitted that she was a little worried on Mrs. Wilcox's account; she implied that Mrs. Wilcox might reach backward into deep feelings, and be pained by things that never touched the other members of that clan. "I shan't mind if Paul points at our house and says, 'There lives the girl who tried to catch me.' But she might."
"If even that worries you, we could arrange something. There's no reason we should be near people who displease us or whom we displease, thanks to our money. We might even go away for a little."
"Well, I am going away. Frieda's just asked me to Stettin, and I shan't be back till after the New Year. Will that do? Or must I fly the country altogether? Really, Meg, what has come over you to make such a fuss?"
"Oh, I'm getting an old maid, I suppose. I thought I minded nothing, but really I--I should be bored if you fell in love with the same man twice and"--she cleared her throat--"you did go red, you know, when Aunt Juley attacked you this morning. I shouldn't have referred to it otherwise."
But Helen's laugh rang true, as she raised a soapy hand to heaven and swore that never, nowhere and nohow, would she again fall in love with any of the Wilcox family, down to its remotest collaterals.