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At the head of the table sat his mother; long, straight, and grave. She was in the seat of authority, the one with its back to the windows and its face to the door, from whence she could see what everybody did, especially Amanda. Having seen what Amanda did, she then complained to Edith. She didn't complain direct to Amanda, because Amanda could and did give notice.
Her eyes were fixed on the door. Between it and her was the table, covered with admirable things to eat, it being supper and therefore, according to a Twist tradition surviving from penurious days, all the food, hot and cold, sweet and salt, being brought in together, and Amanda only attending when rung for. Half-eaten oyster patties lay on Mrs. Twist's plate. In her glass neglected champagne had bubbled itself flat. Her hand still held her fork, but loosely, as an object that had lost its interest, and her eyes and ears for the last five minutes had not departed from the door.
At first she had felt mere resigned annoyance that Amanda shouldn't have answered the bell, but she didn't wish to cast a shadow over Edward's homecoming by drawing poor Edith's attention before him to how very badly she trained the helps, and therefore she said nothing at the moment; then, when Edith, going in search of Amanda, had opened the door and let in sounds of argument, she was surprised, for she knew no one so intimately that they would be likely to call at such an hour; but when Edward too leapt up, and went out and stayed out and failed to answer her repeated calls, she was first astonished, then indignant, and then suddenly was overcome by a cold foreboding.
Mrs. Twist often had forebodings, and they were always cold. They seized her with bleak fingers; and one of Edith's chief functions was to comfort and reassure her for as long a while each time as was required to reach the stage of being able to shake them off. Here was one, however, too icily convincing to be shaken off. It fell upon her with the swiftness of a revelation. Something unpleasant was going to happen to her; something perhaps worse than unpleasant,--disastrous. And something immediate.
Those excited voices out in the hall,--they were young, surely, and they were feminine. Also they sounded most intimate with Edward. What had he been concealing from her? What disgracefulness had penetrated through him, through the son the neighbourhood thought so much of, into her very home? She was a widow. He was her only son. Impossible to believe he would betray so sacred a position, that he whom she had so lovingly and proudly welcomed a few hours before would allow his--well, she really didn't know what to call them, but anyhow female friends of whom she had been told nothing, to enter that place which to every decent human being is inviolable, his mother's home. Yet Mrs. Twist did instantly believe it.
Then Edward's voice, raised and defiant--surely defiant?--came through the crack in the door, and every word he said was quite distinct. Anna; supper; affection ... Mrs. Twist sat frozen. And then the door was flung open and Edward tumultuously entered, his ears crimson, his face as she had never seen it and in each hand, held tightly by the arm, a girl.
Edward had been deceiving her.
"Mother--" he began.
"How do you do," said the girls together, and actually with smiles.
Edward had been deceiving her. That whole afternoon how quiet he had been, how listless. Quite gentle, quite affectionate, but listless and untalkative. She had thought he must be tired; worn out with his long journey across from Europe. She had made allowances for him; been sympathetic, been considerate. And look at him now. Never had she seen him with a face like that. He was--Mrs. Twist groped for the word and reluctantly found it--rollicking. Yes; that was the word that exactly described him--rollicking. If she hadn't observed his languor up to a few minutes ago at supper, and seen him with her own eyes refuse champagne and turn his back on cocktails, she would have been forced to the conclusion, dreadful though it was to a mother, that he had been drinking. And the girls! Two of them. And so young.
Mrs. Twist had known Edward, as she sometimes informed Edith, all his life, and had not yet found anything in his morals which was not blameless. Watch him with what loving care she might she had found nothing; and she was sure her mother's instinct would not have failed her. Nevertheless, even with that white past before her--he hadn't told her about "Madame Bovary"--she now instantly believed the worst.
It was the habit of Clark to believe the worst. Clark was very small, and therefore also very virtuous. Each inhabitant was the careful guardian of his neighhour's conduct. Nobody there ever did anything that was wrong; there wasn't a chance. But as Nature insists on a balance, the minds of Clark dwelt curiously on evil. They were minds active in suspicion. They leapt with an instantaneous agility at the worst conclusions. Nothing was ever said in Clark, but everything was thought. The older inhabitants, made fast prisoners in their mould of virtue by age, watched with jealous care the behaviour of those still young enough to attract temptation. The younger ones, brought up in inhibitions, settled down to wakefulness in regard to each other. Everything was provided and encouraged in Clark, a place of pleasant orchards and gentle fields, except the things that had to do with love. Husbands were there; and there was a public library, and social afternoons, and an Emerson society. The husbands died before the wives, being less able to cope with virtue; and a street in Clark of smaller houses into which their widows gravitated had been christened by the stationmaster--a more worldly man because of his three miles off and all the trains--Lamentation Lane.
In this village Mrs. Twist had lived since her marriage, full of dignity and honour. As a wife she had been full of it, for the elder Mr. Twist had been good even when alive, and as a widow she had been still fuller, for the elder Mr. Twist positively improved by being dead. Not a breath had ever touched her and her children. Not the most daring and distrustful Clark mind had ever thought of her except respectfully. And now here was this happening to her; at her age; when she was least able to bear it.
She sat in silence, staring with sombre eyes at the three figures.
"Mother--" began Edward again; but was again interrupted by the twins, who said together, as they had now got into the habit of saying when confronted by silent and surprised Americans, "We've come."
It wasn't that they thought it a particularly good conversational opening, it was because silence and surprise on the part of the other person seemed to call for explanation on theirs, and they were constitutionally desirous of giving all the information in their power.
"How do you do," they then repeated, loosening themselves from Mr. Twist and advancing down the room with outstretched hands.
Mr. Twist came with them. "Mother," he said, "these are the Twinkler girls. Their name's Twinkler. They---"
Freed as he felt he was from his old bonds, determined as he felt he was on emulating the perfect candour and simplicity of the twins and the perfect candour and simplicity of his comrades in France, his mother's dead want of the smallest reaction to this announcement tripped him up for a moment and prevented his going on.
But nothing ever prevented the twins going on. If they were pleased and excited they went on with cheerful gusto, and if they were unnerved and frightened they still went on,--perhaps even more volubly, anxiously seeking cover behind a multitude of words.
Mrs. Twist had not yet unnerved and frightened them, because they were too much delighted that they had got to her at all. The relief Anna-Rose experienced at having safely piloted that difficult craft, the clumsy if adorable Columbus, into a respectable Port was so immense that it immediately vented itself in words of warmest welcome to the lady in the chair to her own home.
"We're so glad to see you here," she said, smiling till her dimple seemed to be everywhere at once hardly able to refrain from giving the lady a welcome hug instead of just inhospitably shaking her hand. She couldn't even shake her hand, however, because it still held, immovably, the fork. "It would have been too awful," Anna-Rose therefore finished, putting the heartiness of the handshake she wanted to give into her voice instead, "if you had happened to have run away too."
"As Mrs. Sack has done from her husband," Anna-Felicitas explained, smiling too, benevolently, at the black lady who actually having got oyster patties on her plate hadn't bothered to eat them. "But of course you couldn't," she went on, remembering in time to be tactful and make a Sympathetic reference to the lady's weeds; which, indeed, considering Mr. Twist had told her and Anna-Rose that his father had died when he was ten, nearly a quarter of a century ago, seemed to have kept their heads up astonishingly and stayed very fresh. And true to her German training, and undaunted by the fork, she did that which Anna-Rose in her contentment had forgotten, and catching up Mrs. Twist's right hand, fork and all, to her lips gave it the brief ceremonious kiss of a well brought up Junker.
Like Amanda's, Mrs. Twist's life had been up to this empty of Junkers. She had never even heard of them till the war, and pronounced their name, and so did the rest of Clark following her lead, as if it had been junket, only with an r instead of a t at the end. She didn't therefore recognize the action; but even she, outraged as she was, could not but see its grace. And looking up in sombre hostility at the little head bent over her hand and at the dark line of eyelashes on the the flushed face, she thought swiftly, "She's the one."
"You see, mother," said Mr. Twist, pulling a chair vigorously and sitting on it with determination, "it's like this. (Sit down, you two, and get eating. Start on anything you see in this show that hits your fancy. Edith'll be fetching you something hot, I expect--soup, or something--but meanwhile here's enough stuff to go on with.) You see, mother--" he resumed, turning squarely to her, while the twins obeyed him with immense alacrity and sat down and began to eat whatever happened to be nearest them, "these two girls--well, to start with they're twins--"
Mr. Twist was stopped again by his mother's face. She couldn't conceive why he should lie. Twins the world over matched in size and features; it was notorious that they did. Also, it was the custom for them to match in age, and the tall one of these was at least a year older than the other one. But still, thought Mrs. Twist, let that pass. She would suffer whatever it was she had to suffer in silence.
The twins too were silent, because they were so busy eating. Perfectly at home under the wing they knew so well, they behaved with an easy naturalness that appeared to Mrs. Twist outrageous. But still--let that too pass. These strangers helped themselves and helped each other, as if everything belonged to them; and the tall one actually asked her--her, the mistress of the house--if she could get her anything. Well, let that pass too.
"You see, mother--" began Mr. Twist again.
He was finding it extraordinarily difficult. What a tremendous hold one's early training had on one, he reflected, casting about for words; what a deeply rooted fear there was in one, subconscious, lurking in one's foundations, of one's mother, of her authority, of her quickly wounded affection. Those Jesuits, with their conviction that they could do what they liked with a man if they had had the bringing up of him till he was seven, were pretty near the truth. It took a lot of shaking off, the unquestioning awe, the habit of obedience of one's childhood.
Mr. Twist sat endeavouring to shake it off. He also tried to bolster himself up by thinking he might perhaps be able to assist his mother to come out from her narrowness, and discover too how warm and glorious the sun shone outside, where people loved and helped each other. Then he rejected that as priggish.
"You see, mother," he started again, "I came across them--across these two girls--they're both called Anna, by the way, which seems confusing but isn't really--I came across them on the boat----"
He again stopped dead.
Mrs. Twist had turned her dark eyes to him. They had been fixed on Anna-Felicitas, and on what she was doing with the dish of oyster patties in front of her. What she was doing was not what Mrs. Twist was accustomed to see done at her table. Anna-Felicitas was behaving badly with the patties, and not even attempting to conceal, as the decent do, how terribly they interested her.
"You came across them on the boat," repeated Mrs. Twist, her eyes on her son, moved in spite of her resolution to speech. And he had told her that very afternoon that he had spoken to nobody except men. Another lie. Well, let that pass too ...
Mr. Twist sat staring back at her through his big gleaming spectacles. He well knew the weakness of his position from his mother's point of view; but why should she have such a point of view, such a niggling, narrow one, determined to stay angry and offended because he had been stupid enough to continue, under the influence of her presence, the old system of not being candid with her, of being slavishly anxious to avoid offending? Let her try for once to understand and forgive. Let her for once take the chance offered her of doing a big, kind thing. But as he stared at her it entered his mind that he couldn't very well start moving her heart on behalf of the twins in their presence. He couldn't tell her they were orphans, alone in the world, helpless, poor, and so unfortunately German, with them sitting there. If he did, there would be trouble. The twins seemed absorbed for the moment in getting fed, but he had no doubt their ears were attentive, and at the first suggestion of sympathy being invoked for them they would begin to say a few of those things he was so much afraid his mother mightn't be able to understand. Or, if she understood, appreciate.
He decided that he would be quiet until Edith came back, and then ask his mother to go to the drawing-room with him, and while Edith was looking after the Annas he would, well out of earshot, explain them to his mother, describe their situation, commend them to her patience and her love. He sat silent therefore, wishing extraordinarily hard that Edith would be quick.
But Anna-Felicitas's eyes were upon him now, as well as his mother's. "Is it possible," she asked with her own peculiar gentleness, balancing a piece of patty on her fork, "that you haven't yet mentioned us to your mother?"
And Anna-Rose, struck in her turn at such an omission, paused too with food on the way to her mouth, and said, "And we such friends?"
"Almost, as it were, still red-not from being with you?" said Anna-Felicitas.
Both the twins looked at Mrs. Twist in their surprise.
"I thought the first thing everybody did when they got back to their mother," said Anna-Rose, addressing her, "was to tell her everything from the beginning."
Mrs. Twist, after an instant's astonishment at this unexpected support, bowed her head--it could hardly be called a nod--in her son's direction. "You see--" the movement seemed to say, "even these ..."
"And ever since the first day at sea," said Anna-Felicitas, also addressing Mrs. Twist, "up to as recently as eleven o'clock last night, he has been what I think can be quite accurately described as our faithful two-footed companion."
"Yes," said Anna-Rose. "As much as that we've been friends. Practically inseparable."
"So that it really is very surprising," said Anna-Felicitas to Mr. Twist, "that you didn't tell your mother about us."
Mr. Twist got up. He wouldn't wait for Edith. It was unhealthy in that room.
He took his mother's arm and helped her to get up. "You're very wise, you two," he flung at the twins in the voice of the goaded, "but you may take it from me you don't know everything yet. Mother, come into the drawing-room, and we'll talk. Edith'll see to these girls. I expect I ought to have talked sooner," he went on, as he led her to the door, "but confound it all, I've only been home about a couple of hours."
"Five," said Mrs. Twist.
"Five then. What's five? No time at all."
"Ample," said Mrs Twist; adding icily, "and did I you say confound, Edward?"
"Well, damn then," said Edward very loud, in a rush of rank rebellion.
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