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   Chapter 4 AN INTIMACY

Leonora By Arnold Bennett Characters: 26507

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


'Does father really mean it about me going to the works to-morrow?' Ethel asked that night.

'I suppose so, my dear,' replied Leonora, and she added: 'You must do all you can to help him.'

Ethel's clear gift of interpreting even the most delicate modulations in her mother's voice, instantly gave her the first faint sense of alarm.

'Why, mamma! what do you mean?'

'What I say, dear,' Leonora murmured with neutral calm. 'You must do all you can to help him. We look on you as a woman now.'

'You don't, you don't!' Ethel thought passionately as she went upstairs. 'And you never will. Never!'

The profound instinctive sympathy which existed between her mother and herself was continually being disturbed by the manifest insincerity of that assertion contained in Leonora's last sentence. The girl was in arms, without knowing it, against a whole order of things. She could scarcely speak to Millicent in the bedroom. She was disgusted with her father, and she was disgusted with Leonora for pretending that her father was sagacious and benevolent, for not admitting that he was merely a trial to be endured. She was disgusted with Fred Ryley because he was not as other young men were-Harry Burgess for instance. The startling hint from Leonora that perhaps all was not well at the works exasperated her. She held the works in abhorrence. With her sisters, she had always regarded the works as a vague something which John Stanway went to and came away from, as the mysterious source of food, raiment, warmth. But she was utterly ignorant of its mechanism, and she wished to remain ignorant. That its mechanism should be in danger of breaking down, that it should even creak, was to her at first less a disaster than a matter for resentment. She hated the works as one is sometimes capable of unreasonably hating a benefactor.

On Monday morning, rising a little earlier than usual, she was surprised to find her mother alone at a disordered breakfast-table.

'Has dad finished his breakfast already?' she inquired, determined to be cheerful. Sleep, and her fundamental good-nature, had modified her mood, and for the moment she meant to play the r?le of dutiful daughter as well as she could.

'He has had to go off to Manchester by the first train,' said Leonora. 'He'll be away all day. So you won't begin till to-morrow.' She smiled gravely.

'Oh, good!' Ethel exclaimed with intense momentary relief.

But now again in Leonora's voice, and in her eye, there was the soft warning, which Ethel seized, and which, without a relevant word spoken, she communicated to her sisters. John Stanway's young women began to reflect apprehensively upon the sudden irregularities of his recent movements, his conferences with his lawyer, his bluffing air; a hundred trifles too insignificant for separate notice collected themselves together and became formidable. A certain atmosphere of forced and false cheerfulness spread through the house.

'Not gone to bed!' said Stanway briskly, when he returned home by the late train and discovered his three girls in the drawing-room. They allowed him to imagine that his jaunty air deceived them; they were jaunty too; but all the while they read his soul and pitied him with the intolerable condescension of youth towards age.

The next day Ethel had a further reprieve of several hours, for Stanway said that he must go over to Hanbridge in the morning, and would come back to Hillport for dinner, and escort Ethel to the works immediately afterwards. None asked a question, but everyone knew that he could only be going to Hanbridge to consult with David Dain. This time the programme was in fact executed. At two o'clock Ethel found herself in her father's office.

As she took off her hat and jacket in the hard sinister room, she looked like a violet roughly transplanted and bidden to blossom in the mire. She knew that amid that environment she could be nothing but incapable, dull, stupid, futile, and plain. She knew that she had no brains to comprehend and no energy to prevail. Every detail repelled her-the absence of fire-irons in the hearth, the business almanacs on the discoloured walls, the great flat table-desk, the dusty samples of tea-pots in the window, the vast green safe in the corner, the glimpses of industrial squalor in the yard, the sound of uncouth voices from the clerks' office, the muffled beat of machinery under the floor, and the strange uninhabited useless appearance of a small room seen through a half-open door near the safe. She would have given a year of life, in that first moment, to be helping her mother in some despised monotonous household task at Hillport.

She felt that she was being outrageously deprived of a natural right, hitherto enjoyed without let, to have the golden fruits of labour brought to her in discreet silence as to their origin.

Stanway struck a bell with determination, and the manager appeared, a tall, thin, sandy-haired man of middle age, who wore a grey tailed-coat and a white apron.

'Ha! Mayer! That you?'

'Yes, sir.... Good afternoon, miss.'

'Good afternoon,' Ethel simpered foolishly, and she had it in her to have slain both men because she felt such a silly schoolgirl.

'I wanted Ryley. Where is he?'

'He's somewhere on the bank,[3] sir-speaking to the mouldmaker, I think.'

[3]Bank = earthenware manufactory. But here the word is used in a limited sense, meaning the industrial, as distinguished from the bureaucratic, part of the manufactory.

'Well, just bring me in that letter from Paris that came on Saturday, will you?' Stanway requested.

'I've several things to speak to you about,' said Mr. Mayer, when he had brought the letter.

'Directly,' Stanway answered, waving him away, and then turning to Ethel: 'Now, young lady, I want this letter translating.' He placed it before her on the table, together with some blank paper.

'Yes, father,' she said humbly.

Three hours a week for seven years she had sat in front of French manuals at the school at Oldcastle; but she knew that, even if the destiny of nations turned on it, she could not translate that letter of ten lines. Nevertheless she was bound to make a pretence of doing so.

'I don't think I can without a dictionary,' she plaintively murmured, after a few minutes.

'Oh! Here's a French dictionary,' he replied, producing one from a drawer, much to her chagrin; she had hoped that he would not have a dictionary.

Then Stanway began to look through a pile of correspondence, and to scribble in a large saffron-coloured diary. He went out to Mr. Mayer; Mr. Mayer came in to him; they called to each other from room to room. The machinery stopped beneath and started again. A horse fell down in the yard, and Stanway, watching from the window, exclaimed: 'Tsh! That carter!'

Various persons unceremoniously entered and asked questions, all of which Stanway answered with equal dryness and certainty. At intervals he poked the fire with an old walking-stick, Ethel never glanced up. In a dream she handled the dictionary, the letter, the blank paper, and wrote unfinished phrases with the thick office pen.

'Done it?' he inquired at last.

'I-I-can't make out the figures,' she stammered. 'Is that a 5 or a 7?' She pushed the letter across.

'Oh! That's a French 7,' he replied, and proceeded to make shots at the meaning of sentences with a flair far surpassing her own skill, though it was notorious that he knew no French whatever. She had a sudden perception of his cleverness, his capacity, his force, his mysterious hold on all kinds of things which eluded her grasp and dismayed her.

'Let's see what you've done,' he demanded. She sighed in despair, hesitating to give up the paper.

'Mr. Twemlow, by appointment,' announced a clerk, and Arthur Twemlow walked into the office.

'Hallo, Twemlow!' said Stanway, meeting him gaily. 'I was just expecting you. My new confidential clerk. Eh?' He pointed to Ethel, who flushed to advantage. 'You've plenty of them over there, haven't you-girl-clerks?'

Twemlow assented, and remarked that he himself employed a 'lady secretary.'

'Yes,' Stanway eagerly went on. 'That's what I mean to do. I mean to buy a type-writer, and Miss shall learn shorthand and type-writing.'

Ethel was astounded at the glibness of invention which could instantly bring forth such an idea. She felt quite sure that until that moment her father had had no plan at all in regard to her attendance at the office.

'I'm sure I can't learn,' she said with genuine modesty, and as she spoke she became very attractive to Twemlow, who said nothing, but smiled at her sympathetically, protectively. She returned the smile. By a swift miracle the violet was back again in its native bed.

'You can go in there and finish your work, we shall disturb you,' said her father, pointing to the little empty room, and she meekly disappeared with the letter, the dictionary, and the piece of paper.

* * *

'Well, how's business, Twemlow? By the way, have a cigar.'

Ethel, at the dusty table in the little room, could just see her father's broad back through the door which, in her nervousness, she had forgotten to close. She felt that the door ought to have been latched, but she could not find courage deliberately to get up and latch it now.

'Thanks,' said Arthur Twemlow. 'Business is going right along.'

She heard the striking of a match, and the pleasant twang of cigar-smoke greeted her nostrils. The two men seemed splendidly masculine, important, self-sufficient. The triviality of feminine atoms like herself, Rose, and Millicent, occurred to her almost as a new fact, and she was ashamed of her existence.

'Buying much this trip?' asked Stanway.

'Not much, and not your sort,' said Twemlow. 'The truth is, I'm fixing up a branch in London.'

'But, my dear fellow, surely there's no American business done through London in English goods?'

'No, perhaps not,' said Twemlow. 'But that don't say there isn't going to be. Besides, I've got a notion of coming in for a share of your colonial shipping trade. And let me tell you there's a lot of business done through London between the United States and the Continent, in glass and fancy goods.'

'Oh, yes, I know there is,' Stanway conceded. 'And so you think you're going to teach the old country a thing or two?'

'That depends.'

'On what?'

'On whether the old country's made up her mind yet to sit down and learn.' He laughed.

Ethel saw by the change of colour in her father's neck that the susceptibilities of his patriotism had been assailed.

'What do you mean?' Stanway asked pugnaciously.

'I mean that you are falling behind here,' said Twemlow with cold, nonchalant firmness. 'Every one knows that. You're getting left. Look how you're being cut out in cheap toilet stuff. In ten years you won't be shipping a hundred dollars' worth per annum of cheap toilet to the States.'

'But listen, Twemlow,' said Stanway impressively.

Twemlow continued, imperturbable: 'You in the Five Towns stick to old-fashioned methods. You can't cut it fine enough.'

'Old-fashioned? Not cut it fine enough?' Stanway exclaimed, rising.

Twemlow laughed with real mirth. 'Yes,' he said.

'Give me one instance-one instance,' cried Stanway.

'Well,' said Twemlow, 'take firing. I hear you still pay your firemen by the oven, and your placers by the day, instead of settling all oven-work by scorage.'

'Tell me about that-the Trenton system. I'd like to hear about that. It's been mentioned once or twice,' said Stanway, resuming his chair.

'Mentioned!'

Ethel perceived vaguely that the forceful man who held her in the hollow of his hand had met more than his match. Over that spectacle she rejoiced like a small child; but at the same time Arthur Twemlow's absolute conviction that the Five Towns was losing ground frightened her, made her feel that life was earnest, and stirred faint longings for the serious way. It seemed to her that she was weighed down by knowledge of the world, whereas gay Millicent, and Rose with her silly examinations.... She plunged again into the actuality of the letter from Paris....

'I called really to speak to you about my father's estate.'

Ethel was startled into attention by the sudden careful politeness in Arthur Twemlow's manner and by a quivering in his voice.

'What of it?' said Stanway. 'I've forgotten all the details. Fifteen years since, you know.'

'Yes. But it's on behalf of my sister, and I haven't been over before. Besides, it wasn't till she heard I was coming to England that she-asked me.'

'Well,' said Stanway. 'Of course I was the sole executor, and it's my duty--'

'That's it,' Twemlow broke in. 'That's what makes it a little awkward. No one's got the right to go behind you as executor. But the fact is, my sister-we-my sister was surprised at the smallness of the estate. We want to know what he did with his money, that is, how much he really received before he died. Perhaps you won't mind letting me look at the annual balance-sheets of the old firm, say for 1875, 6, and 7. You see--'

Twemlow stopped as Stanway half-turned to look at the door between the two room

s.

'Go on, go on,' said Stanway in his grandiose manner. 'That's all right.'

Ethel knew in a flash that her father would have given a great deal to have had the door shut, and equally that nothing on earth would have induced him to shut it.

'That's all right,' he repeated. 'Go on.'

Twemlow's voice regained steadiness. 'You can perhaps understand my sister's feelings.' Then a long pause. 'Naturally, if you don't care to show me the balance-sheets--'

'My dear Twemlow,' said John stiffly, 'I shall be delighted to show you anything you wish to see.'

'I only want to know--'

'Certainly, certainly. Quite justifiable and proper. I'll have them looked up.'

'Any time will do.'

'Well, we're rather busy. Say a week to-day-if you're to be here that long.'

'I guess that'll suit me,' said Twemlow.

His tone had a touch of cynical cruel patience.

The intangible and shapeless suspicions which Ethel had caught from Leonora took a misty form and substance, only to be immediately dispelled in that inconstant mind by the sudden refreshing sound of Milly's voice: 'We've called to take Ethel home, papa-oh, mother, here's Mr. Twemlow!'

In another moment the office was full of chatter and scent, and Milly had run impulsively to Ethel: 'What has father given you to do?'

'Oh dear!' Ethel sighed, with a fatigued gesture of knowing nothing whatever.

'It's half-past five,' said Leonora, glancing into the inner room, after she had spoken to Mr. Twemlow.

Three hours and a half had Ethel been in thrall! It was like a century to her. She could have dropped into her mother's arms.

'What have you come in, Nora?' asked Stanway, 'the trap?'

'No, the four-wheeled dog-cart, dear.'

'Well, Twemlow, drive up and have tea with us. Come along and have a Five Towns high-tea.'

'Oh, Mr. Twemlow, do!' said Milly, nearly drowning Leonora's murmured invitation.

Arthur hesitated.

'Come along,' Stanway insisted genially. 'Of course you will.'

'Thank you,' was the rather feeble answer. 'But I shall have to leave pretty early.'

'We'll see about that,' said Stanway. 'You can take Mr. Twemlow and the girls, Nora, and I'll follow as quick as I can. I must dictate a letter or two.'

The three women, Twemlow in the midst, escaped like a pretty cloud out of the rude, dingy office, and their bright voices echoed diminuendo down the stair. Stanway rang his bell fiercely. The dictionary and the letter and Ethel's paper lay forgotten on the dusty table of the inner room.

* * *

Arthur Twemlow felt that he ought to have been annoyed, but he could do no more than keep up a certain reserve of manner. Neither the memory of his humiliating clumsy lies about his sister in broaching the matter of his father's estate to Stanway, nor his clear perception that Stanway was a dishonest and a frightened man, nor his strong theoretical objection to Stanway's tactics in so urgently inviting him to tea, could overpower the sensation of spiritual comfort and complacency which possessed him as he sat between Leonora and Ethel at Leonora's splendidly laden table. He fought doggedly against this sensation. He tried to assume the attitude of a philosopher observing humanity, of a spider watching flies; he tried to be critical, cold, aloof. He listened as one set apart, and answered in monosyllables. But despite his own volition the monosyllables were accompanied by a smile that destroyed the effect of their curtness. The intimate charm of the domesticity subdued his logical antipathies. He knew that he was making a good impression among these women, that for them there was something romantic and exciting about his history and personality. And he liked them all. He liked even Rose, so pale, strange, and contentious. In regard to Milly, whom he had begun by despising, he silently admitted that a girl so vivacious, supple, sparkling, and pretty, had the right to be as pertly foolish as she chose. He took a direct fancy to Ethel. And he decided once for ever that Leonora was a magnificent creature.

In the play of conversation on domestic trifles, the most ordinary phrases seemed to him to be charged with a peculiar fascination. The little discussions about Milly's attempts at housekeeping, about the austere exertions of Rose, Ethel's first day at the office, Bran's new biscuits, the end of the lawn-tennis season, the propriety of hockey for girls, were so mysteriously pleasant to his ears that he felt it a sort of privilege to have been admitted to them. And yet he clearly perceived the shortcomings of each person in this little world of which the totality was so delightful. He knew that Ethel was languidly futile, Rose cantankerous, Milly inane, Stanway himself crafty and meretricious, and Leonora often supine when she should not be. He dwelt specially on the more odious aspects of Stanway's character, and swore that, had Stanway forty womenfolk instead of four, he, Arthur Twemlow, should still do his obvious duty of finishing what he had begun. In chatting with his host after tea, he marked his own attitude with much care, and though Stanway pretended not to observe it, he knew that Stanway observed it well enough.

The three girls disappeared and returned in street attire. Rose was going to the science classes at the Wedgwood Institution, Ethel and Millicent to the rehearsal of the Amateur Operatic Society. Again, in this distribution of the complex family energy, there reappeared the suggestion of a mysterious domestic charm.

'Don't be late to-night,' said Stanway severely to Millicent.

'Now, grumbler,' retorted the intrepid child, putting her gloved hand suddenly over her father's mouth; Stanway submitted. The picture of the two in this delicious momentary contact remained long in Twemlow's mind; and he thought that Stanway could not be such a brute after all.

'Play something for us, Nora,' said the august paterfamilias, spreading at ease in his chair in the drawing-room, when the girls were gone. Leonora removed her bangles and began to play 'The Bees' Wedding.' But she had not proceeded far before Milly ran in again.

'A note from Mr. Dain, pa.'

Milly had vanished in an instant, and Leonora continued to play as if nothing had happened, but Arthur was conscious of a change in the atmosphere as Stanway opened the letter and read it.

'I must just go over the way and speak to a neighbour,' said Stanway carelessly when Leonora had struck the final chord. 'You'll excuse me, I know. Sha'n't be long.'

'Don't mention it,' Arthur replied with politeness, and then, after Stanway had gone, leaving the door open, he turned to Leonora at the piano, and said: 'Do play something else.'

Instead of answering, she rose, resumed her jewellery, and took the chair which Stanway had left. She smiled invitingly, evasively, inscrutably at her guest.

'Tell me about American women,' she said: 'I've always wanted to know.'

He thought her attitude in the great chair the most enchanting thing he had ever seen.

* * *

Leonora had watched Twemlow's demeanour from the moment when she met him in her husband's office. She had guessed, but not certainly, that it was still inimical at least to John, and the exact words of Uncle Meshach's warning had recurred to her time after time as she met his reluctant, cautious eyes. Nevertheless, it was by the sudden uprush of an instinct, rather than by a calculated design, that she, in her home and surrounded by her daughters, began the process of enmeshing him in the web of influences which she spun ceaselessly from the bright threads of her own individuality. Her mind had food for sombre preoccupation-the lost battle with Milly during the day about Milly's comic-opera housekeeping; the tale told by John's nervous, effusive, guilty manner; and especially the episode of the letter from Dain and John's disappearance: these things were grave enough to the mother and wife. But they receded like negligible trifles into the distance as she rose so suddenly and with such a radiant impulse from the piano. In the new enterprise of consciously arousing the sympathy of a man, she had almost forgotten even the desperate motive which had decided her to undertake it should she get the chance.

'Tell me about American women,' she said. All her person was a challenge. And then: 'Would you mind shutting the door after Jack?' She followed him with her gaze as he crossed and recrossed the room.

'What about American women?' he said, dropping all his previous reserve like a garment. 'What do you want to know?'

'I've never seen one. I want to know what makes them so charming.'

The fresh desirous interest in her voice flattered him, and he smiled his content.

'Oh!' he drawled, leaning back in his chair, which faced hers by the fire. 'I never noticed they were so specially charming. Some of them are pretty nice, I expect, but most of the young ones put on too much lugs, at any rate for an Englishman.'

'But they're always marrying Englishmen. So how do you explain that? I did think you'd be able to tell me about the American women.'

'Perhaps I haven't met enough of just the right sort,' he said.

'You're too critical,' she remarked, as though his case was a peculiarly interesting one and she was studying it on its merits.

'You only say that because I'm over forty and unmarried, Mrs. Stanway. I'm not at all critical.'

'Over forty!' she exclaimed, and left a pause. He nodded. 'But you are too critical,' she went on. 'It isn't that women don't interest you-they do--'

'I should think they did,' he murmured, gratified.

'But you expect too much from them.'

'Look here!' he said, 'how do you know?'

She smiled with an assumption of the sadness of all knowledge; she made him feel like a boy again: 'If you didn't expect too much from them, you would have married long ago. It isn't as if you hadn't seen the world.'

'Seen the world!' he repeated. 'I've never seen anything half so charming as your home, Mrs. Stanway.'

Both were extremely well satisfied with the course of the conversation. Both wished that the interview might last for indefinite hours, for they had slipped, as into a socket, into the supreme topic, and into intimacy. They were happy and they knew it. The egotism of each tingled sensitively with eager joy. They felt that this was 'life,' one of the justifications of existence.

She shook her head slowly.

'Yes,' he continued, 'it's you who stay quietly at home that are to be envied.'

'And you, a free bachelor, say that! Why, I should have thought--'

'That's just it. You're quite wrong, if you'll let me say so. Here am I, a free bachelor, as you call it. Can do what I like. Go where I like. And yet I would sell my soul for a home like this. Something ... you know. No, you don't. People say that women understand men and what men feel, but they can't-they can't.'

'No,' said Leonora seriously, 'I don't think they can-still, I have a notion of what you mean.' She spoke with modest sympathy.

'Have you?' he questioned.

She nodded. For a fraction of an instant she thought of her husband, stolid with all his impulsiveness, over at David Dain's.

'People say to me, "Why don't you get married?"' Twemlow went on, drawn by the subtle invitation of her manner. 'But how can I get married? I can't get married by taking thought. They make me tired. I ask them sometimes whether they imagine I keep single for the fun of the thing.... Do you know that I've never yet been in love-no, not the least bit.'

He presented her with this fact as with a jewel, and she so accepted it.

'What a pity!' she said, gently.

'Yes, it's a pity,' he admitted. 'But look here. That's the worst of me. When I get talking about myself I'm likely to become a bore.'

Offering him the cigarette cabinet she breathed the old, effective, sincere answer: 'Not at all, it's very interesting.'

'Let me see, this house belongs to you, doesn't it?' he said in a different casual tone as he lighted a cigarette.

Shortly afterwards he departed. John had not returned from Dain's, but Twemlow said that he could not possibly stay, as he had an appointment at Hanbridge. He shook hands with restrained ardour. Her last words to him were: 'I'm so sorry my husband isn't back,' and even these ordinary words struck him as a beautiful phrase. Alone in the drawing-room, she sighed happily and examined herself in the large glass over the mantelpiece. The shaded lights left her loveliness unimpaired; and yet, as she gazed at the mirror, the worm gnawing at the root of her happiness was not her husband's precarious situation, nor his deviousness, nor even his mere existence, but the one thought: 'Oh! That I were young again!'

* * *

'Mother, whatever do you think?' cried Millicent, running in eagerly in advance of Ethel at ten o'clock. 'Lucy Turner's sister died to-day, and so she can't sing in the opera, and I am to have her part if I can learn it in three weeks.'

'What is her part?' Leonora asked, as though waking up.

'Why, mother, you know! Patience, of course! Isn't it splendid?'

'Where are father and Mr. Twemlow? Ethel inquired, falling into a chair.

* * *

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