The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster
"I am afraid," said Agnes, unfolding a letter that she had received in the morning, "that things go far from satisfactorily at Cadover."
The three were alone at supper. It was the June of Rickie's second year at Sawston.
"Indeed?" said Herbert, who took a friendly interest. "In what way?
"Do you remember us talking of Stephen—Stephen Wonham, who by an odd coincidence—"
"Yes. Who wrote last year to that miserable failure Varden. I do."
"It is about him."
"I did not like the tone of his letter."
Agnes had made her first move. She waited for her husband to reply to it. But he, though full of a painful curiosity, would not speak. She moved again.
"I don't think, Herbert, that Aunt Emily, much as I like her, is the kind of person to bring a young man up. At all events the results have been disastrous this time."
"What has happened?"
"A tangle of things." She lowered her voice. "Drink."
"Dear! Really! Was Mrs. Failing fond of him?"
"She used to be. She let him live at Cadover ever since he was a little boy. Naturally that cannot continue."
Rickie never spoke.
"And now he has taken to be violent and rude," she went on.
"In short, a beggar on horseback. Who is he? Has he got relatives?"
"She has always been both father and mother to him. Now it must all come to an end. I blame her—and she blames herself—for not being severe enough. He has grown up without fixed principles. He has always followed his inclinations, and one knows the result of that."
Herbert assented. "To me Mrs. Failing's course is perfectly plain. She has a certain responsibility. She must pay the youth's passage to one of the colonies, start him handsomely in some business, and then break off all communications."
"How funny! It is exactly what she is going to do."
"I shall then consider that she has behaved in a thoroughly honourable manner." He held out his plate for gooseberries. "His letter to Varden was neither helpful nor sympathetic, and, if written at all, it ought to have been both. I am not in the least surprised to learn that he has turned out badly. When you write next, would you tell her how sorry I am?"
"Indeed I will. Two years ago, when she was already a little anxious, she did so wish you could undertake him.
"I could not alter a grown man." But in his heart he thought he could, and smiled at his sister amiably. "Terrible, isn't it?" he remarked to Rickie. Rickie, who was trying not to mind anything, assented. And an onlooker would have supposed them a dispassionate trio, who were sorry both for Mrs. Failing and for the beggar who would bestride her horses' backs no longer. A new topic was introduced by the arrival of the evening post.
Herbert took up all the letters, as he often did.
"Jackson?" he exclaimed. "What does the fellow want?" He read, and his tone was mollified, "'Dear Mr. Pembroke,—Could you, Mrs. Elliot, and Mr. Elliot come to supper with us on Saturday next? I should not merely be pleased, I should be grateful. My wife is writing formally to Mrs. Elliot'—(Here, Agnes, take your letter),—but I venture to write as well, and to add my more uncouth entreaties.'—An olive-branch. It is time! But (ridiculous person!) does he think that we can leave the House deserted and all go out pleasuring in term time?—Rickie, a letter for you."
"Mine's the formal invitation," said Agnes. "How very odd! Mr. Ansell will be there. Surely we asked him here! Did you know he knew the Jacksons?"
"This makes refusal very difficult," said Herbert, who was anxious to accept. "At all events, Rickie ought to go."
"I do not want to go," said Rickie, slowly opening his own letter. "As Agnes says, Ansell has refused to come to us. I cannot put myself out for him."
"Who's yours from?" she demanded.
"Mrs. Silt," replied Herbert, who had seen the handwriting. "I trust she does not want to pay us a visit this term, with the examinations impending and all the machinery at full pressure. Though, Rickie, you will have to accept the Jacksons' invitation."
"I cannot possibly go. I have been too rude; with Widdrington we always meet here. I'll stop with the boys—" His voice caught suddenly. He had opened Mrs. Silt's letter.
"The Silts are not ill, I hope?"
"No. But, I say,"—he looked at his wife,—"I do think this is going too far. Really, Agnes."
"What has happened?"
"It is going too far," he repeated. He was nerving himself for another battle. "I cannot stand this sort of thing. There are limits."
He laid the letter down. It was Herbert who picked it up, and read: "Aunt Emily has just written to us. We are so glad that her troubles are over, in spite of the expense. It never does to live apart from one's own relatives so much as she has done up to now. He goes next Saturday to Canada. What you told her about him just turned the scale. She has asked us—"
"No, it's too much," he interrupted. "What I told her—told her about him—no, I will have it out at last. Agnes!"
"Yes?" said his wife, raising her eyes from Mrs. Jackson's formal invitation.
"It's you—it's you. I never mentioned him to her. Why, I've never seen her or written to her since. I accuse you."
Then Herbert overbore him, and he collapsed. He was asked what he meant. Why was he so excited? Of what did he accuse his wife. Each time he spoke more feebly, and before long the brother and sister were laughing at him. He felt bewildered, like a boy who knows that he is right but cannot put his case correctly. He repeated, "I've never mentioned him to her. It's a libel. Never in my life." And they cried, "My dear Rickie, what an absurd fuss!" Then his brain cleared. His eye fell on the letter that his wife had received from his aunt, and he reopened the battle.
"Agnes, give me that letter, if you please."
She put her hand on it, and looked at him doubtfully. She saw that she had failed to bully him.
"My aunt's letter," he repeated, rising to his feet and bending over the table towards her.
"Yes, why indeed?" echoed Herbert. He too had bullied Rickie, but from a purer motive: he had tried to stamp out a dissension between husband and wife. It was not the first time he had intervened.
"The letter. For this reason: it will show me what you have done. I believe you have ruined Stephen. You have worked at it for two years. You have put words into my mouth to 'turn the scale' against him. He goes to Canada—and all the world thinks it is owing to me. As I said before—I advise you to stop smiling—you have gone a little too far."
They were all on their feet now, standing round the little table. Agnes said nothing, but the fingers of her delicate hand tightened upon the letter. When her husband snatched at it she resisted, and with the effect of a harlequinade everything went on the floor—lamb, mint sauce, gooseberries, lemonade, whisky. At once they were swamped in domesticities. She rang the bell for the servant, cries arose, dusters were brought, broken crockery (a wedding present) picked up from the carpet; while he stood wrathfully at the window, regarding the obscured sun's decline.
"I MUST see her letter," he repeated, when the agitation was over. He was too angry to be diverted from his purpose. Only slight emotions are thwarted by an interlude of farce.
"I've had enough of this quarrelling," she retorted. "You know that the Silts are inaccurate. I think you might have given me the benefit of the doubt. If you will know—have you forgotten that ride you took with him?"
"I—" he was again bewildered. "The ride where I dreamt—"
"The ride where you turned back because you could not listen to a disgraceful poem?"
"I don't understand."
"The poem was Aunt Emily. He read it to you and a stray soldier. Afterwards you told me. You said, 'Really it is shocking, his ingratitude. She ought to know about it' She does know, and I should be glad of an apology."
He had said something of the sort in a fit of irritation. Mrs. Silt was right—he had helped to turn the scale.
"Whatever I said, you knew what I meant. You knew I'd sooner cut my tongue out than have it used against him. Even then." He sighed. Had he ruined his brother? A curious tenderness came over him, and passed when he remembered his own dead child. "We have ruined him, then. Have you any objection to 'we'? We have disinherited him."
"I decide against you," interposed Herbert. "I have now heard both sides of this deplorable affair. You are talking most criminal nonsense. 'Disinherit!' Sentimental twaddle. It's been clear to me from the first that Mrs. Failing has been imposed upon by the Wonham man, a person with no legal claim on her, and any one who exposes him performs a public duty—"
"—And gets money."
"Money?" He was always uneasy at the word. "Who mentioned money?"
"Just understand me, Herbert, and of what it is that I accuse my wife." Tears came into his eyes. "It is not that I like the Wonham man, or think that he isn't a drunkard and worse. He's too awful in every way. But he ought to have my aunt's money, because he's lived all his life with her, and is her nephew as much as I am. You see, my father went wrong." He stopped, amazed at himself. How easy it had been to say! He was withering up: the power to care about this stupid secret had died.
When Herbert understood, his first thought was for Dunwood House.
"Why have I never been told?" was his first remark.
"We settled to tell no one," said Agnes. "Rickie, in his anxiety to prove me a liar, has broken his promise."
"I ought to have been told," said Herbert, his anger increasing. "Had I known, I could have averted this deplorable scene."
"Let me conclude it," said Rickie, again collapsing and leaving the dining-room. His impulse was to go straight to Cadover and make a business-like statement of the position to Stephen. Then the man would be armed, and perhaps fight the two women successfully, But he resisted the impulse. Why should he help one power of evil against another? Let them go intertwined to destruction. To enrich his brother would be as bad as enriching himself. If their aunt's money ever did come to him, he would refuse to accept it. That was the easiest and most dignified course. He troubled himself no longer with justice or pity, and the next day he asked his wife's pardon for his behaviour.
In the dining-room the conversation continued. Agnes, without much difficulty, gained her brother as an ally. She acknowledged that she had been wrong in not telling him, and he then declared that she had been right on every other point. She slurred a little over the incident of her treachery, for Herbert was sometimes clearsighted over details, though easily muddled in a general survey. Mrs. Failing had had plenty of direct causes of complaint, and she dwelt on these. She dealt, too, on the very handsome way in which the young man, "though he knew nothing, had never asked to know," was being treated by his aunt.
"'Handsome' is the word," said Herbert. "I hope not indulgently. He does not deserve indulgence."
And she knew that he, like herself, could remember money, and that it lent an acknowledged halo to her cause.
"It is not a savoury subject," he continued, with sudden stiffness. "I understand why Rickie is so hysterical. My impulse"—he laid his hand on her shoulder—"is to abandon it at once. But if I am to be of any use to you, I must hear it all. There are moments when we must look facts in the face."
She did not shrink from the subject as much as he thought, as much as she herself could have wished. Two years before, it had filled her with a physical loathing. But by now she had accustomed herself to it.
"I am afraid, Bertie boy, there is nothing else to bear, I have tried to find out again and again, but Aunt Emily will not tell me. I suppose it is natural. She wants to shield the Elliot name. She only told us in a fit of temper; then we all agreed to keep it to ourselves; then Rickie again mismanaged her, and ever since she has refused to let us know any details."
"A most unsatisfactory position." "So I feel." She sat down again with a sigh. Mrs. Failing had been a great trial to her orderly mind. "She is an odd woman. She is always laughing. She actually finds it amusing that we know no more."
"They are an odd family."
"They are indeed."
Herbert, with unusual sweetness, bent down and kissed her.
She thanked him.
Their tenderness soon passed. They exchanged it with averted eyes. It embarrassed them. There are moments for all of us when we seem obliged to speak in a new unprofitable tongue. One might fancy a seraph, vexed with our normal language, who touches the pious to blasphemy, the blasphemous to piety. The seraph passes, and we proceed unaltered—conscious, however, that we have not been ourselves, and that we may fail in this function yet again. So Agnes and Herbert, as they proceeded to discuss the Jackson's supper-party, had an uneasy memory of spiritual deserts, spiritual streams.