Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster
At the time of Lilia's death Philip Herriton was just twenty-four years of age--indeed the news reached Sawston on his birthday. He was a tall, weakly-built young man, whose clothes had to be judiciously padded on the shoulders in order to make him pass muster. His face was plain rather than not, and there was a curious mixture in it of good and bad. He had a fine forehead and a good large nose, and both observation and sympathy were in his eyes. But below the nose and eyes all was confusion, and those people who believe that destiny resides in the mouth and chin shook their heads when they looked at him.
Philip himself, as a boy, had been keenly conscious of these defects. Sometimes when he had been bullied or hustled about at school he would retire to his cubicle and examine his features in a looking-glass, and he would sigh and say, "It is a weak face. I shall never carve a place for myself in the world." But as years went on he became either less self-conscious or more self-satisfied. The world, he found, made a niche for him as it did for every one. Decision of character might come later--or he might have it without knowing. At all events he had got a sense of beauty and a sense of humour, two most desirable gifts. The sense of beauty developed first. It caused him at the age of twenty to wear parti-coloured ties and a squashy hat, to be late for dinner on account of the sunset, and to catch art from Burne-Jones to Praxiteles. At twenty-two he went to Italy with some cousins, and there he absorbed into one aesthetic whole olive-trees, blue sky, frescoes, country inns, saints, peasants, mosaics, statues, beggars. He came back with the air of a prophet who would either remodel Sawston or reject it. All the energies and enthusiasms of a rather friendless life had passed into the championship of beauty.
In a short time it was over. Nothing had happened either in Sawston or within himself. He had shocked half-a-dozen people, squabbled with his sister, and bickered with his mother. He concluded that nothing could happen, not knowing that human love and love of truth sometimes conquer where love of beauty fails.
A little disenchanted, a little tired, but aesthetically intact, he resumed his placid life, relying more and more on his second gift, the gift of humour. If he could not reform the world, he could at all events laugh at it, thus attaining at least an intellectual superiority. Laughter, he read and believed, was a sign of good moral health, and he laughed on contentedly, till Lilia's marriage toppled contentment down for ever. Italy, the land of beauty, was ruined for him. She had no power to change men and things who dwelt in her. She, too, could produce avarice, brutality, stupidity--and, what was worse, vulgarity. It was on her soil and through her influence that a silly woman had married a cad. He hated Gino, the betrayer of his life's ideal, and now that the sordid tragedy had come, it filled him with pangs, not of sympathy, but of final disillusion.
The disillusion was convenient for Mrs. Herriton, who saw a trying little period ahead of her, and was glad to have her family united.
"Are we to go into mourning, do you think?" She always asked her children's advice where possible.
Harriet thought that they should. She had been detestable to Lilia while she lived, but she always felt that the dead deserve attention and sympathy. "After all she has suffered. That letter kept me awake for nights. The whole thing is like one of those horrible modern plays where no one is in 'the right.' But if we have mourning, it will mean telling Irma."
"Of course we must tell Irma!" said Philip.
"Of course," said his mother. "But I think we can still not tell her about Lilia's marriage."
"I don't think that. And she must have suspected something by now."
"So one would have supposed. But she never cared for her mother, and little girls of nine don't reason clearly. She looks on it as a long visit. And it is important, most important, that she should not receive a shock. All a child's life depends on the ideal it has of its parents. Destroy that and everything goes--morals, behaviour, everything. Absolute trust in some one else is the essence of education. That is why I have been so careful about talking of poor Lilia before her."
"But you forget this wretched baby. Waters and Adamson write that there is a baby."
"Mrs. Theobald must be told. But she doesn't count. She is breaking up very quickly. She doesn't even see Mr. Kingcroft now. He, thank goodness, I hear, has at last consoled himself with someone else."
"The child must know some time," persisted Philip, who felt a little displeased, though he could not tell with what.
"The later the better. Every moment she is developing."
"I must say it seems rather hard luck, doesn't it?"
"On Irma? Why?"
"On us, perhaps. We have morals and behaviour also, and I don't think this continual secrecy improves them."
"There's no need to twist the thing round to that," said Harriet, rather disturbed.
"Of course there isn't," said her mother. "Let's keep to the main issue. This baby's quite beside the point. Mrs. Theobald will do nothing, and it's no concern of ours."
"It will make a difference in the money, surely," said he.
"No, dear; very little. Poor Charles provided for every kind of contingency in his will. The money will come to you and Harriet, as Irma's guardians."
"Good. Does the Italian get anything?"
"He will get all hers. But you know what that is."
"Good. So those are our tactics--to tell no one about the baby, not even Miss Abbott."
"Most certainly this is the proper course," said Mrs. Herriton, preferring "course" to "tactics" for Harriet's sake. "And why ever should we tell Caroline?"
"She was so mixed up in the affair."
"Poor silly creature. The less she hears about it the better she will be pleased. I have come to be very sorry for Caroline. She, if any one, has suffered and been penitent. She burst into tears when I told her a little, only a little, of that terrible letter. I never saw such genuine remorse. We must forgive her and forget. Let the dead bury their dead. We will not trouble her with them."
Philip saw that his mother was scarcely logical. But there was no advantage in saying so. "Here beginneth the New Life, then. Do you remember, mother, that was what we said when we saw Lilia off.?"
"Yes, dear; but now it is really a New Life, because we are all at accord. Then you were still infatuated with Italy. It may be full of beautiful pictures and churches, but we cannot judge a country by anything but its men."
"That is quite true," he said sadly. And as the tactics were now settled, he went out and took an aimless and solitary walk.
By the time he came back two important things had happened. Irma had been told of her mother's death, and Miss Abbott, who had called for a subscription, had been told also.
Irma had wept loudly, had asked a few sensible questions and a good many silly ones, and had been content with evasive answers. Fortunately the school prize-giving was at hand, and that, together with the prospect of new black clothes, kept her from meditating on the fact that Lilia, who had been absent so long, would now be absent for ever.
"As for Caroline," said Mrs. Herriton, "I was almost frightened. She broke down utterly. She cried even when she left the house. I comforted her as best I could, and I kissed her. It is something that the breach between her and ourselves is now entirely healed."
"Did she ask no questions--as to the nature of Lilia's death, I mean?"
"She did. But she has a mind of extraordinary delicacy. She saw that I was reticent, and she did not press me. You see, Philip, I can say to you what I could not say before Harriet. Her ideas are so crude. Really we do not want it known in Sawston that there is a baby. All peace and comfort would be lost if people came inquiring after it."
His mother knew how to manage him. He agreed enthusiastically. And a few days later, when he chanced to travel up to London with Miss Abbott, he had all the time the pleasant thrill of one who is better informed. Their last journey together had been from Monteriano back across Europe. It had been a ghastly journey, and Philip, from the force of association, rather expected something ghastly now.
He was surprised. Miss Abbott, between Sawston and Charing Cross, revealed qualities which he had never guessed her to possess. Without being exactly original, she did show a commendable intelligence, and though at times she was gauche and even uncourtly, he felt that here was a person whom it might be well to cultivate.
At first she annoyed him. They were talking, of course, about Lilia, when she broke the thread of vague commiseration and said abruptly, "It is all so strange as well as so tragic. And what I did was as strange as anything."
It was the first reference she had ever made to her contemptible behaviour. "Never mind," he said. "It's all over now. Let the dead bury their dead. It's fallen out of our lives."
"But that's why I can talk about it and tell you everything I have always wanted to. You thought me stupid and sentimental and wicked and mad, but you never really knew how much I was to blame."
"Indeed I never think about it now," said Philip gently. He knew that her nature was in the main generous and upright: it was unnecessary for her to reveal her thoughts.
"The first evening we got to Monteriano," she persisted, "Lilia went out for a walk alone, saw that Italian in a picturesque position on a wall, and fell in love. He was shabbily dressed, and she did not even know he was the son of a dentist. I must tell you I was used to this sort of thing. Once or twice before I had had to send people about their business.
"Yes; we counted on you," said Philip, with sudden sharpness. After all, if she would reveal her thoughts, she must take the consequences.
"I know you did," she retorted with equal sharpness. "Lilia saw him several times again, and I knew I ought to interfere. I called her to my bedroom one night. She was very frightened, for she knew what it was about and how severe I could be. 'Do you love this man?' I asked. 'Yes or no?' She said 'Yes.' And I said, 'Why don't you marry him if you think you'll be happy?' "
"Really--really," exploded Philip, as exasperated as if the thing had happened yesterday. "You knew Lilia all your life. Apart from everything else--as if she could choose what could make her happy!"
"Had you ever let her choose?" she flashed out. "I'm afraid that's rude," she added, trying to calm herself.
"Let us rather say unhappily expressed," said Philip, who always adopted a dry satirical manner when he was puzzled.
"I want to finish. Next morning I found Signor Carella and said the same to him. He--well, he was willing. That's all."
"And the telegram?" He looked scornfully out of the window.
Hitherto her voice had been hard, possibly in self-accusation, possibly in defiance. Now it became unmistakably sad. "Ah, the telegram! That was wrong. Lilia there was more cowardly than I was. We should have told the truth. It lost me my nerve, at all events. I came to the station meaning to tell you everything then. But we had started with a lie, and I got frightened. And at the end, when you left, I got frightened again and came with you."
"Did you really mean to stop?"
"For a time, at all events."
"Would that have suited a newly married pair?"
"It would have suited them. Lilia needed me. And as for him--I can't help feeling I might have got influence over him."
"I am ignorant of these matters," said Philip; "but I should have thought that would have increased the difficulty of the situation."
The crisp remark was wasted on her. She looked hopelessly at the raw over-built country, and said, "Well, I have explained."
"But pardon me, Miss Abbott; of most of your conduct you have given a description rather than an explanation."
He had fairly caught her, and expected that she would gape and collapse. To his surprise she answered with some spirit, "An explanation may bore you, Mr. Herriton: it drags in other topics."
"Oh, never mind."
"I hated Sawston, you see."
He was delighted. "So did and do I. That's splendid. Go on."
"I hated the idleness, the stupidity, the respectability, the petty unselfishness."
"Petty selfishness," he corrected. Sawston psychology had long been his specialty.
"Petty unselfishness," she repeated. "I had got an idea that every one here spent their lives in making little sacrifices for objects they didn't care for, to please people they didn't love; that they never learnt to be sincere--and, what's as bad, never learnt how to enjoy themselves. That's what I thought--what I thought at Monteriano."
"Why, Miss Abbott," he cried, "you should have told me this before! Think it still! I agree with lots of it. Magnificent!"
"Now Lilia," she went on, "though there were things about her I didn't like, had somehow kept the power of enjoying herself with sincerity. And Gino, I thought, was splendid, and young, and strong not only in body, and sincere as the day. If they wanted to marry, why shouldn't they do so? Why shouldn't she break with the deadening life where she had got into a groove, and would go on in it, getting more and more--worse than unhappy--apathetic till she died? Of course I was wrong. She only changed one groove for another--a worse groove. And as for him--well, you know more about him than I do. I can never trust myself to judge characters again. But I still feel he cannot have been quite bad when we first met him. Lilia--that I should dare to say it! --must have been cowardly. He was only a boy--just going to turn into something fine, I thought--and she must have mismanaged him. So that is the one time I have gone against what is proper, and there are the results. You have an explanation now."
"And much of it has been most interesting, though I don't understand everything. Did you never think of the disparity of their social position?"
"We were mad--drunk with rebellion. We had no common-sense. As soon as you came, you saw and foresaw everything."
"Oh, I don't think that." He was vaguely displeased at being credited with common-sense. For a moment Miss Abbott had seemed to him more unconventional than himself.
"I hope you see," she concluded, "why I have troubled you with this long story. Women--I heard you say the other day--are never at ease till they tell their faults out loud. Lilia is dead and her husband gone to the bad--all through me. You see, Mr. Herriton, it makes me specially unhappy; it's the only time I've ever gone into what my father calls 'real life'--and look what I've made of it! All that winter I seemed to be waking up to beauty and splendour and I don't know what; and when the spring came, I wanted to fight against the things I hated--mediocrity and dulness and spitefulness and society. I actually hated society for a day or two at Monteriano. I didn't see that all these things are invincible, and that if we go against them they will break us to pieces. Thank you for listening to so much nonsense."
"Oh, I quite sympathize with what you say," said Philip encouragingly; "it isn't nonsense, and a year or two ago I should have been saying it too. But I feel differently now, and I hope that you also will change. Society is invincible--to a certain degree. But your real life is your own, and nothing can touch it. There is no power on earth that can prevent your criticizing and despising mediocrity--nothing that can stop you retreating into splendour and beauty--into the thoughts and beliefs that make the real life--the real you."
"I have never had that experience yet. Surely I and my life must be where I live."
Evidently she had the usual feminine incapacity for grasping philosophy. But she had developed quite a personality, and he must see more of her. "There is another great consolation against invincible mediocrity," he said--"the meeting a fellow-victim. I hope that this is only the first of many discussions that we shall have together."
She made a suitable reply. The train reached Charing Cross, and they parted,--he to go to a matinee, she to buy petticoats for the corpulent poor. Her thoughts wandered as she bought them: the gulf between herself and Mr. Herriton, which she had always known to be great, now seemed to her immeasurable.
These events and conversations took place at Christmas-time. The New Life initiated by them lasted some seven months. Then a little incident--a mere little vexatious incident--brought it to its close.
Irma collected picture post-cards, and Mrs. Herriton or Harriet always glanced first at all that came, lest the child should get hold of something vulgar. On this occasion the subject seemed perfectly inoffensive--a lot of ruined factory chimneys--and Harriet was about to hand it to her niece when her eye was caught by the words on the margin. She gave a shriek and flung the card into the grate. Of course no fire was alight in July, and Irma only had to run and pick it out again.
"How dare you!" screamed her aunt. "You wicked girl! Give it here!"
Unfortunately Mrs. Herriton was out of the room. Irma, who was not in awe of Harriet, danced round the table, reading as she did so, "View of the superb city of Monteriano--from your lital brother."
Stupid Harriet caught her, boxed her ears, and tore the post-card into fragments. Irma howled with pain, and began shouting indignantly, "Who is my little brother? Why have I never heard of him before? Grandmamma! Grandmamma! Who is my little brother? Who is my--"
Mrs. Herriton swept into the room, saying, "Come with me, dear, and I will tell you. Now it is time for you to know."
Irma returned from the interview sobbing, though, as a matter of fact, she had learnt very little. But that little took hold of her imagination. She had promised secrecy--she knew not why. But what harm in talking of the little brother to those who had heard of him already?
"Aunt Harriet!" she would say. "Uncle Phil! Grandmamma! What do you suppose my little brother is doing now? Has he begun to play? Do Italian babies talk sooner than us, or would he be an English baby born abroad? Oh, I do long to see him, and be the first to teach him the Ten Commandments and the Catechism."
The last remark always made Harriet look grave.
"Really," exclaimed Mrs. Herriton, "Irma is getting too tiresome. She forgot poor Lilia soon enough."
"A living brother is more to her than a dead mother," said Philip dreamily. "She can knit him socks."
"I stopped that. She is bringing him in everywhere. It is most vexatious. The other night she asked if she might include him in the people she mentions specially in her prayers."
"What did you say?"
"Of course I allowed her," she replied coldly. "She has a right to mention any one she chooses. But I was annoyed with her this morning, and I fear that I showed it."
"And what happened this morning?"
"She asked if she could pray for her 'new father'--for the Italian!"
"Did you let her?"
"I got up without saying anything."
"You must have felt just as you did when I wanted to pray for the devil."
"He is the devil," cried Harriet.
"No, Harriet; he is too vulgar."
"I will thank you not to scoff against religion!" was Harriet's retort. "Think of that poor baby. Irma is right to pray for him. What an entrance into life for an English child!"
"My dear sister, I can reassure you. Firstly, the beastly baby is Italian. Secondly, it was promptly christened at Santa Deodata's, and a powerful combination of saints watch over--"
"Don't, dear. And, Harriet, don't be so serious--I mean not so serious when you are with Irma. She will be worse than ever if she thinks we have something to hide."
Harriet's conscience could be quite as tiresome as Philip's unconventionality. Mrs. Herriton soon made it easy for her daughter to go for six weeks to the Tirol. Then she and Philip began to grapple with Irma alone.
Just as they had got things a little quiet the beastly baby sent another picture post-card--a comic one, not particularly proper. Irma received it while they were out, and all the trouble began again.
"I cannot think," said Mrs. Herriton, "what his motive is in sending them."
Two years before, Philip would have said that the motive was to give pleasure. Now he, like his mother, tried to think of something sinister and subtle.
"Do you suppose that he guesses the situation--how anxious we are to hush the scandal up?"
"That is quite possible. He knows that Irma will worry us about the baby. Perhaps he hopes that we shall adopt it to quiet her."
"At the same time he has the chance of corrupting the child's morals." She unlocked a drawer, took out the post-card, and regarded it gravely. "He entreats her to send the baby one," was her next remark.
"She might do it too!"
"I told her not to; but we must watch her carefully, without, of course, appearing to be suspicious."
Philip was getting to enjoy his mother's diplomacy. He did not think of his own morals and behaviour any more.
"Who's to watch her at school, though? She may bubble out any moment."
"We can but trust to our influence," said Mrs. Herriton.
Irma did bubble out, that very day. She was proof against a single post-card, not against two. A new little brother is a valuable sentimental asset to a school-girl, and her school was then passing through an acute phase of baby-worship. Happy the girl who had her quiver full of them, who kissed them when she left home in the morning, who had the right to extricate them from mail-carts in the interval, who dangled them at tea ere they retired to rest! That one might sing the unwritten song of Miriam, blessed above all school-girls, who was allowed to hide her baby brother in a squashy place, where none but herself could find him!
How could Irma keep silent when pretentious girls spoke of baby cousins and baby visitors--she who had a baby brother, who wrote her post-cards through his dear papa? She had promised not to tell about him--she knew not why--and she told. And one girl told another, and one girl told her mother, and the thing was out.
"Yes, it is all very sad," Mrs. Herriton kept saying. "My daughter-in-law made a very unhappy marriage, as I dare say you know. I suppose that the child will be educated in Italy. Possibly his grandmother may be doing something, but I have not heard of it. I do not expect that she will have him over. She disapproves of the father. It is altogether a painful business for her."
She was careful only to scold Irma for disobedience--that eighth deadly sin, so convenient to parents and guardians. Harriet would have plunged into needless explanations and abuse. The child was ashamed, and talked about the baby less. The end of the school year was at hand, and she hoped to get another prize. But she also had put her hand to the wheel.
It was several days before they saw Miss Abbott. Mrs. Herriton had not come across her much since the kiss of reconciliation, nor Philip since the journey to London. She had, indeed, been rather a disappointment to him. Her creditable display of originality had never been repeated: he feared she was slipping back. Now she came about the Cottage Hospital--her life was devoted to dull acts of charity--and though she got money out of him and out of his mother, she still sat tight in her chair, looking graver and more wooden than ever.
"I dare say you have heard," said Mrs. Herriton, well knowing what the matter was.
"Yes, I have. I came to ask you; have any steps been taken?"
Philip was astonished. The question was impertinent in the extreme. He had a regard for Miss Abbott, and regretted that she had been guilty of it.
"About the baby?" asked Mrs. Herriton pleasantly.
"As far as I know, no steps. Mrs. Theobald may have decided on something, but I have not heard of it."
"I was meaning, had you decided on anything?"
"The child is no relation of ours," said Philip. "It is therefore scarcely for us to interfere."
His mother glanced at him nervously. "Poor Lilia was almost a daughter to me once. I know what Miss Abbott means. But now things have altered. Any initiative would naturally come from Mrs. Theobald."
"But does not Mrs. Theobald always take any initiative from you?" asked Miss Abbott.
Mrs. Herriton could not help colouring. "I sometimes have given her advice in the past. I should not presume to do so now."
"Then is nothing to be done for the child at all?"
"It is extraordinarily good of you to take this unexpected interest," said Philip.
"The child came into the world through my negligence," replied Miss Abbott. "It is natural I should take an interest in it."
"My dear Caroline," said Mrs. Herriton, "you must not brood over the thing. Let bygones be bygones. The child should worry you even less than it worries us. We never even mention it. It belongs to another world."
Miss Abbott got up without replying and turned to go. Her extreme gravity made Mrs. Herriton uneasy. "Of course," she added, "if Mrs. Theobald decides on any plan that seems at all practicable--I must say I don't see any such--I shall ask if I may join her in it, for Irma's sake, and share in any possible expenses."
"Please would you let me know if she decides on anything. I should like to join as well."
"My dear, how you throw about your money! We would never allow it."
"And if she decides on nothing, please also let me know. Let me know in any case."
Mrs. Herriton made a point of kissing her.
"Is the young person mad?" burst out Philip as soon as she had departed. "Never in my life have I seen such colossal impertinence. She ought to be well smacked, and sent back to Sunday-school."
His mother said nothing.
"But don't you see--she is practically threatening us? You can't put her off with Mrs. Theobald; she knows as well as we do that she is a nonentity. If we don't do anything she's going to raise a scandal--that we neglect our relatives, &c., which is, of course, a lie. Still she'll say it. Oh, dear, sweet, sober Caroline Abbott has a screw loose! We knew it at Monteriano. I had my suspicions last year one day in the train; and here it is again. The young person is mad."
She still said nothing.
"Shall I go round at once and give it her well? I'd really enjoy it."
In a low, serious voice--such a voice as she had not used to him for months--Mrs. Herriton said, "Caroline has been extremely impertinent. Yet there may be something in what she says after all. Ought the child to grow up in that place--and with that father?"
Philip started and shuddered. He saw that his mother was not sincere. Her insincerity to others had amused him, but it was disheartening when used against himself.
"Let us admit frankly," she continued, "that after all we may have responsibilities."
"I don't understand you, Mother. You are turning absolutely round. What are you up to?"
In one moment an impenetrable barrier had been erected between them. They were no longer in smiling confidence. Mrs. Herriton was off on tactics of her own--tactics which might be beyond or beneath him.
His remark offended her. "Up to? I am wondering whether I ought not to adopt the child. Is that sufficiently plain?"
"And this is the result of half-a-dozen idiocies of Miss Abbott?"
"It is. I repeat, she has been extremely impertinent. None the less she is showing me my duty. If I can rescue poor Lilia's baby from that horrible man, who will bring it up either as Papist or infidel--who will certainly bring it up to be vicious--I shall do it."
"You talk like Harriet."
"And why not?" said she, flushing at what she knew to be an insult. "Say, if you choose, that I talk like Irma. That child has seen the thing more clearly than any of us. She longs for her little brother. She shall have him. I don't care if I am impulsive."
He was sure that she was not impulsive, but did not dare to say so. Her ability frightened him. All his life he had been her puppet. She let him worship Italy, and reform Sawston--just as she had let Harriet be Low Church. She had let him talk as much as he liked. But when she wanted a thing she always got it.
And though she was frightening him, she did not inspire him with reverence. Her life, he saw, was without meaning. To what purpose was her diplomacy, her insincerity, her continued repression of vigour? Did they make any one better or happier? Did they even bring happiness to herself? Harriet with her gloomy peevish creed, Lilia with her clutches after pleasure, were after all more divine than this well-ordered, active, useless machine.
Now that his mother had wounded his vanity he could criticize her thus. But he could not rebel. To the end of his days he could probably go on doing what she wanted. He watched with a cold interest the duel between her and Miss Abbott. Mrs. Herriton's policy only appeared gradually. It was to prevent Miss Abbott interfering with the child at all costs, and if possible to prevent her at a small cost. Pride was the only solid element in her disposition. She could not bear to seem less charitable than others.
"I am planning what can be done," she would tell people, "and that kind Caroline Abbott is helping me. It is no business of either of us, but we are getting to feel that the baby must not be left entirely to that horrible man. It would be unfair to little Irma; after all, he is her half-brother. No, we have come to nothing definite."
Miss Abbott was equally civil, but not to be appeased by good intentions. The child's welfare was a sacred duty to her, not a matter of pride or even of sentiment. By it alone, she felt, could she undo a little of the evil that she had permitted to come into the world. To her imagination Monteriano had become a magic city of vice, beneath whose towers no person could grow up happy or pure. Sawston, with its semi-detached houses and snobby schools, its book teas and bazaars, was certainly petty and dull; at times she found it even contemptible. But it was not a place of sin, and at Sawston, either with the Herritons or with herself, the baby should grow up.
As soon as it was inevitable, Mrs. Herriton wrote a letter for Waters and Adamson to send to Gino--the oddest letter; Philip saw a copy of it afterwards. Its ostensible purpose was to complain of the picture postcards. Right at the end, in a few nonchalant sentences, she offered to adopt the child, provided that Gino would undertake never to come near it, and would surrender some of Lilia's money for its education.
"What do you think of it?" she asked her son. "It would not do to let him know that we are anxious for it."
"Certainly he will never suppose that."
"But what effect will the letter have on him?"
"When he gets it he will do a sum. If it is less expensive in the long run to part with a little money and to be clear of the baby, he will part with it. If he would lose, he will adopt the tone of the loving father."
"Dear, you're shockingly cynical." After a pause she added, "How would the sum work out?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. But if you wanted to ensure the baby being posted by return, you should have sent a little sum to him. Oh, I'm not cynical--at least I only go by what I know of him. But I am weary of the whole show. Weary of Italy. Weary, weary, weary. Sawston's a kind, pitiful place, isn't it? I will go walk in it and seek comfort."
He smiled as he spoke, for the sake of not appearing serious. When he had left her she began to smile also.
It was to the Abbotts' that he walked. Mr. Abbott offered him tea, and Caroline, who was keeping up her Italian in the next room, came in to pour it out. He told them that his mother had written to Signor Carella, and they both uttered fervent wishes for her success.
"Very fine of Mrs. Herriton, very fine indeed," said Mr. Abbott, who, like every one else, knew nothing of his daughter's exasperating behaviour. "I'm afraid it will mean a lot of expense. She will get nothing out of Italy without paying."
"There are sure to be incidental expenses," said Philip cautiously. Then he turned to Miss Abbott and said, "Do you suppose we shall have difficulty with the man?"
"It depends," she replied, with equal caution.
"From what you saw of him, should you conclude that he would make an affectionate parent?"
"I don't go by what I saw of him, but by what I know of him."
"Well, what do you conclude from that?"
"That he is a thoroughly wicked man."
"Yet thoroughly wicked men have loved their children. Look at Rodrigo Borgia, for example."
"I have also seen examples of that in my district."
With this remark the admirable young woman rose, and returned to keep up her Italian. She puzzled Philip extremely. He could understand enthusiasm, but she did not seem the least enthusiastic. He could understand pure cussedness, but it did not seem to be that either. Apparently she was deriving neither amusement nor profit from the struggle. Why, then, had she undertaken it? Perhaps she was not sincere. Perhaps, on the whole, that was most likely. She must be professing one thing and aiming at another. What the other thing could be he did not stop to consider. Insincerity was becoming his stock explanation for anything unfamiliar, whether that thing was a kindly action or a high ideal.
"She fences well," he said to his mother afterwards.
"What had you to fence about?" she said suavely. Her son might know her tactics, but she refused to admit that he knew. She still pretended to him that the baby was the one thing she wanted, and had always wanted, and that Miss Abbott was her valued ally.
And when, next week, the reply came from Italy, she showed him no face of triumph. "Read the letters," she said. "We have failed."
Gino wrote in his own language, but the solicitors had sent a laborious English translation, where "Preghiatissima Signora" was rendered as "Most Praiseworthy Madam," and every delicate compliment and superlative--superlatives are delicate in Italian--would have felled an ox. For a moment Philip forgot the matter in the manner; this grotesque memorial of the land he had loved moved him almost to tears. He knew the originals of these lumbering phrases; he also had sent "sincere auguries"; he also had addressed letters--who writes at home? --from the Caffe Garibaldi. "I didn't know I was still such an ass," he thought. "Why can't I realize that it's merely tricks of expression? A bounder's a bounder, whether he lives in Sawston or Monteriano.
"Isn't it disheartening?" said his mother.
He then read that Gino could not accept the generous offer. His paternal heart would not permit him to abandon this symbol of his deplored spouse. As for the picture post-cards, it displeased him greatly that they had been obnoxious. He would send no more. Would Mrs. Herriton, with her notorious kindness, explain this to Irma, and thank her for those which Irma (courteous Miss!) had sent to him?
"The sum works out against us," said Philip. "Or perhaps he is putting up the price."
"No," said Mrs. Herriton decidedly. "It is not that. For some perverse reason he will not part with the child. I must go and tell poor Caroline. She will be equally distressed."
She returned from the visit in the most extraordinary condition. Her face was red, she panted for breath, there were dark circles round her eyes.
"The impudence!" she shouted. "The cursed impudence! Oh, I'm swearing. I don't care. That beastly woman--how dare she interfere--I'll--Philip, dear, I'm sorry. It's no good. You must go."
"Go where? Do sit down. What's happened?" This outburst of violence from his elegant ladylike mother pained him dreadfully. He had not known that it was in her.
"She won't accept--won't accept the letter as final. You must go to Monteriano!"
"I won't!" he shouted back. "I've been and I've failed. I'll never see the place again. I hate Italy."
"If you don't go, she will."
"Yes. Going alone; would start this evening. I offered to write; she said it was 'too late!' Too late! The child, if you please--Irma's brother--to live with her, to be brought up by her and her father at our very gates, to go to school like a gentleman, she paying. Oh, you're a man! It doesn't matter for you. You can laugh. But I know what people say; and that woman goes to Italy this evening."
He seemed to be inspired. "Then let her go! Let her mess with Italy by herself. She'll come to grief somehow. Italy's too dangerous, too--"
"Stop that nonsense, Philip. I will not be disgraced by her. I will have the child. Pay all we've got for it. I will have it."
"Let her go to Italy!" he cried. "Let her meddle with what she doesn't understand! Look at this letter! The man who wrote it will marry her, or murder her, or do for her somehow. He's a bounder, but he's not an English bounder. He's mysterious and terrible. He's got a country behind him that's upset people from the beginning of the world."
"Harriet!" exclaimed his mother. "Harriet shall go too. Harriet, now, will be invaluable!" And before Philip had stopped talking nonsense, she had planned the whole thing and was looking out the trains.