Book Two - Mr. Coote the Chaperon

Chapter the Second

The Walshinghams

H.G. Wells


§ 1

THE COOTES lived in a little house in Bouverie Square, with a tangle of Virginia creeper up the veranda.

Kipps had been troubled in his mind about knocking double or single—it is these things show what a man is made of—but happily there was a bell.

A queer little maid with a big cap admitted Kipps, and took him through a bead curtain and a door into a little drawing-room, with a black and gold piano, a glazed bookcase, a Moorish cosy corner, and a draped looking-glass overmantel, bright with Regent Street ornaments and photographs of various intellectual lights. A number of cards of invitation to meetings and the match list of a Band of Hope cricket club were stuck into the looking-glass frame, with Coote’s name as a Vice-President. There was a bust of Beethoven over the bookcase, and the walls were thick with conscientiously executed but carelessly selected ‘views’ in oil and water colours and gilt frames. At the end of the room, facing the light, was a portrait that struck Kipps at first as being Coote in spectacles and feminine costume, and that he afterwards decided must be Coote’s mother. Then the original appeared, and he discovered that it was Coote’s elder and only sister, who kept house for him. She wore her hair in a knob behind, and the sight of the knob suggested to Kipps an explanation for a frequent gesture of Coote’s, a patting exploratory movement to the back of his head. And then it occurred to him that this was quite an absurd idea altogether.

She said, ‘Mr. Kipps, I believe,’ and Kipps laughed pleasantly, and said, ‘That’s it!’ and then she told him that ‘Chester’ had gone down to the art school to see about sending off some drawings or other, and that he would be back soon. Then she asked Kipps if he painted, and showed him the pictures on the wall. Kipps asked her where each one was ‘of,’ and when she showed him some of the Leas slopes, he said he never would have recognised them. He said it was funny how things looked in a picture very often. ‘But they’re awfully good,’ he said. ‘Did you do them?’ He would look at them with his neck arched like a swan’s, his head back and on one side, and then suddenly peer closely into them. ‘They are good. I wish I could paint.’ ‘That’s what Chester says,’ she answered. ‘I tell him he has better things to do.’ Kipps seemed to get on very well with her.

Then Coote came in, and they left her and went upstairs together, and had a good talk about reading and the rules of Life. Or rather Coote talked, and the praises of thought and reading were in his mouth . . . 

You must figure Coote’s study, a little bedroom put to studious uses, and over the mantel an array of things he had been led to believe indicative of culture and refinement—an autotype of Rossetti’s ‘Annunciation,’ an autotype of Watts’s ‘Minotaur,’ a Swiss carved pipe with many joints, and a photograph of Amiens Cathedral (these two the spoils of travel), a phrenological bust, and some broken fossils from the Warren. A rotating bookshelf carried the Encyclopædia Britannica (tenth edition), and on the top of it a large official-looking, age-grubby envelope, bearing the mystic words, ‘On His Majesty’s Service,’ a number or so of the Bookman, and a box of cigarettes were lying. A table under the window bore a little microscope, some dust in a saucer, some grimy glass slips, and broken cover glasses, for Coote had ‘gone in for’ biology a little. The longer side of the room was given over to bookshelves, neatly edged with pinked American cloth, and with an array of books—no worse an array of books than you find in any public library; an almost haphazard accumulation of obsolete classics, contemporary successes, the Hundred Best Books (including Samuel Warren’s Ten Thousand a Year), old school-books, directories, the Times Atlas, Ruskin in bulk, Tennyson complete in one volume, Longfellow, Charles Kingsley, Smiles, a guide-book or so, several medical pamphlets, odd magazine numbers, and much indescribable rubbish—in fact a compendium of the contemporary British mind. And in front of this array stood Kipps, ill-taught and untrained, respectful, awe-stricken, and, for the moment at any rate, willing to learn, while Coote, the exemplary Coote, talked to him of reading and the virtue in books.

‘Nothing enlarges the mind,’ said Coote, ‘like Travel and Books . . .  And they’re both so easy nowadays, and so cheap!’

‘I’ve often wanted to ’ave a good go in at reading,’ Kipps replied.

‘You’d hardly believe,’ Coote said, ‘how much you can get out of books. Provided you avoid trashy reading, that is. You ought to make a rule, Kipps, and read one Serious Book a week. Of course we can Learn even from Novels, Nace Novels, that is, but it isn’t the same thing as serious reading. I made a rule, One Serious Book and One Novel—no more. There’s some of the Serious Books I’ve been reading lately—on that table: Sartor Resartus, Mrs. Twaddletome’s Pond Life, The Scottish Chiefs, Life and Letters of Dean Farrar . . . ’


§ 2

There came at last the sound of a gong, and Kipps descended to tea in that state of nervous apprehension at the difficulties of eating and drinking that his aunt’s knuckle rappings had implanted in him for ever. Over Coote’s shoulder he became aware of a fourth person in the Moorish cosy corner, and he turned, leaving incomplete something incoherent he was saying to Miss Coote about his modest respect and desire for literature, to discover this fourth person was Miss Helen Walshingham, hatless, and looking very much at home.

She rose at once with an extended hand to meet his hesitation.

‘You’re stopping in Folkestone, Mr. Kipps?’

‘’Ere on a bit of business,’ said Kipps. ‘I thought you was away in Bruges.’

‘That’s later,’ said Miss Walshingham. ‘We’re stopping until my brother’s holiday begins, and we’re trying to let our house. Where are you staying in Folkestone?’

‘I got a ’ouse of mine—on the Leas.’

‘I’ve heard all about your good fortune—this afternoon.’

‘Isn’t it a Go!’ said Kipps. ‘I ’aven’t nearly got to believe it’s reely ’appened yet. When that Mr. Bean told me of it, you could ’ave knocked me down with a feather. It’s a tremenjous change for me.’

He discovered Miss Coote was asking him whether he took milk and sugar. ‘I don’t mind,’ said Kipps. ‘Jest as you like.’

Coote became active, handing tea and bread-and-butter. It was thinly cut, and the bread was rather new, and the half of the slice that Kipps took fell upon the floor. He had been holding it by the edge, for he was not used to this migratory method of taking tea without plates or table. This little incident ruled him out of the conversation for a time, and when he came to attend to it again, they were talking about something or other prodigious—a performer of some sort—that was coming, called, it seemed, ‘Padrooski!’ So Kipps, who had dropped quietly into a chair, ate his bread-and-butter, said ‘no, thank you’ to any more, and by this discreet restraint got more freedom with his cup and saucer.

Apart from the confusion natural to tea, he was in a state of tremulous excitement on account of the presence of Miss Walshingham. He glanced from Miss Coote to her brother, and then at Helen. He regarded her over the top of his cup as he drank. Here she was, solid and real. It was wonderful. He remarked, as he had done at times before, the easy flow of the dark hair back from her brow over her ears, the shapeliness of the white hands that came out from her simple white cuffs, the delicate pencilling of her brow. Presently she turned her face to him almost suddenly, and smiled with the easiest assurance of friendship.

‘You will go, I suppose?’ she said, and added ‘to the Recital.’

‘If I’m in Folkestone I shall,’ said Kipps, clearing away a little hoarseness. ‘I don’t know much about music, but what I do know I like.’

‘I’m sure you’ll like Paderewski,’ she said.

‘If you do,’ he said, ‘I dessay I shall.’

He found Coote very kindly taking his cup.

‘Do you think of living in Folkestone?’ asked Miss Coote in a tone of proprietorship from the hearthrug.

‘No,’ said Kipps. “That’s jest it—I hardly know.’ He also said that he wanted to look round a bit before doing anything. “There’s so much to consider,’ said Coote, smoothing the back of his head.

‘I may go back to New Romney for a bit,’ said Kipps. ‘I got an uncle and aunt there. I reely don’t know.’

Helen regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. ‘You must come and see us,’ she said, ‘before we go to Bruges.’

‘Oo, rather!’ said Kipps. ‘If I may.’

‘Yes, do,’ she said, and suddenly stood up before Kipps could formulate an inquiry when he should call. ‘You’re sure you can spare that drawing-board?’ she said to Miss Coote; and the conversation passed out of range.

And when he had said ‘Good-bye’ to Miss Walshingham, and she had repeated her invitation to call, he went upstairs again with Coote to look out certain initiatory books they had had under discussion. And then Kipps, blowing very resolutely, went back to his own place, bearing in his arm (1) Sesame and Lilies; (2) Sir George Tressady; (3) an anonymous book on Vitality that Coote particularly esteemed. And having got to his own sitting-room, he opened Sesame and Lilies and read with ruthless determination for some time.


§ 3

Presently he leant back and gave himself up to the business of trying to imagine just exactly what Miss Walshingham could have thought of him when she saw him. Doubts about the precise effect of the gray flannel suit began to trouble him. He turned to the mirror over the mantel, and then got into a chair to study the hang of the trousers. It looked all right. Luckily she had not seen the Panama hat. He knew he had the brim turned up wrong, but he could not find out which way the brim was right. However, that she had not seen. He might, perhaps, ask at the shop where he bought it.

He meditated for a while on his reflected face—doubtful whether he liked it or not—and then got down again and flitted across to the sideboard where there lay two little books, one in a cheap magnificent cover of red and gold, and the other in green canvas. The former was called, as its cover witnessed, Manners and Rules of Good Society, by a Member of the Aristocracy, and after the cover had indulged in a band of gilded decoration, light-hearted, but natural under the circumstances, it added, ‘Twenty-First Edition.’ The second was that admirable classic, The Art of Conversing. Kipps returned with these to his seat, placed the two before him, opened the latter with a sigh, and flattened it under his hand.

Then with knitted brows he began to read onward from a mark, his lips moving.

‘Having thus acquired possession of an idea, the little ship should not be abruptly launched into deep waters, but should be first permitted to glide gently and smoothly into the shallows; that is to say, the conversation should not be commenced by broadly and roundly stating a fact, or didactically expressing an opinion, as the subject would be thus virtually or summarily disposed of, or perhaps be met with a “Really” or “Indeed” or some equally brief monosyllabic reply. If an opposite opinion were held by the person to whom the remark were addressed, he might not, if a stranger, care to express it in the form of a direct contradiction or actual dissent. To glide imperceptibly into conversation is the object to be attained—’

At this point Mr. Kipps rubbed his fingers through his hair with an expression of some perplexity, and went back to the beginning.


§ 4

When Kipps made his call on the Walshinghams, it all happened so differently from the Manners and Rules prescription (‘Paying Calls’) that he was quite lost from the very outset. Instead of the footman or maidservant proper in these cases, Miss Walshingham opened the door to him herself. ‘I’m so glad you’ve come,’ she said, with one of her rare smiles.

She stood aside for him to enter the rather narrow passage. ‘I thought I’d call,’ said he, retaining his hat and stick. She closed the door and led the way to a little drawing room, which impressed Kipps as being smaller and less emphatically coloured than that of the Cootes, and in which, at first, only a copper bowl of white poppies upon the brown tablecloth caught his particular attention.

‘You won’t think it unconventional to come in, Mr. Kipps, will you?’ she remarked. ‘Mother is out.’

‘I don’t mind,’ he said, smiling amiably, ‘if you don’t.’

She walked round the table and stood regarding him across it, with that same look between speculative curiosity and appreciation that he remembered from the last of the art-class meetings.

‘I wondered whether you would call or whether you wouldn’t before you left Folkestone.’

‘I’m not leaving Folkestone for a bit, and any’ow I should have called on you.’

‘Mother will be sorry she was out. I’ve told her about you, and she wants, I know, to meet you.’

‘I saw ’er—if that was ’er—in the shop,’ said Kipps.

‘Yes—you did, didn’t you? . . .  She has gone out to make some duty calls, and I didn’t go. I had something to write. I write a little, you know.’

‘Reely,’ said Kipps.

‘It’s nothing much,’ she said, ‘and it comes to nothing.’ She glanced at a little desk near the window, on which there lay some paper. ‘One must do something.’ She broke off abruptly. ‘Have you seen our outlook?’ she asked, and walked to the window, and Kipps came and stood beside her. ‘We look on the Square. It might be worse, you know. That out-porter’s truck there is horrid—and the railings, but it’s better than staring one’s social replica in the face, isn’t it? It’s pleasant in early spring—bright green laid on with a dry brush—and it’s pleasant in autumn.’

‘I like it,’ said Kipps. ‘That laylock there is pretty, isn’t it?’

‘Children come and pick it at times,’ she remarked.

‘I dessay they do,’ said Kipps.

He rested on his hat and stick and looked appreciatively out of the window, and she glanced at him for one swift moment. A suggestion that might have come from The Art of Conversing came into his head. ‘Have you a garden?’ he said.

She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Only a little one,’ she said, and then, ‘Perhaps you would like to see it.’

‘I like gardening,’ said Kipps, with memories of a penny worth of nasturtiums he had once trained over his uncle’s dustbin.

She led the way with a certain relief. They emerged through a four-seasons’ coloured glass door to a little iron veranda, that led by iron steps to a minute walled garden. There was just room for a patch of turf and a flower-bed; one sturdy variegated Euonymus grew in the corner. But the early June flowers, the big narcissus, snow upon the mountains, and a fine show of yellow wallflowers, shone gay.

‘That’s our garden,’ said Helen. ‘It’s not a very big one, is it?’

‘I like it,’ said Kipps.

‘It’s small,’ she said, ‘but this is the day of small things.’

Kipps didn’t follow that. ‘If you were writing when I came,’ he remarked, ‘I’m interrupting you.’

She turned round with her back to the railing and rested, leaning on her hands. ‘I had finished,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t get on.’

‘Were you making up something?’ asked Kipps.

There was a little interval before she smiled. ‘I try—quite vainly—to write stories,’ she said. ‘One must do something. I don’t know whether I shall ever do any good—at that—anyhow. It seems so hopeless. And, of course—one must study the popular taste. But now my brother has gone to London—I get a lot of leisure.’

‘I seen your brother, ’aven’t I?’

‘He came to the class once or twice. Very probably you have. He’s gone to London to pass his examinations and become a solicitor. And then I suppose he’ll have a chance. Not much, perhaps, even then. But he’s luckier than I am.’

‘You got your classes and things.’

‘They ought to satisfy me. But they don’t. I suppose I’m ambitious. We both are. And we hadn’t much of a spring board.’ She glanced over her shoulder at the cramped little garden with an air of reference in her gesture.

‘I should think you could do anything if you wanted to?’ said Kipps.

‘As a matter of fact, I can’t do anything I want to.’

‘You done a good deal.’


‘Well, didn’t you pass one of these here University things?’

‘Oh, I matriculated!’

‘I should think I was no end of a swell if I did—I know that.’

‘Mr. Kipps, do you know how many people matriculate into London University every year?’

‘How many, then?’

‘Between two and three thousand.’

‘Well, just think how many don’t!’

Her smile came again and broke into a laugh. ‘Oh, they don’t count,’ she said; and then realising that might penetrate Kipps if he was left with it, she hurried on to, ‘The fact is, I’m a discontented person, Mr. Kipps. Folkestone, you know, is a Sea Front, and it values people by sheer vulgar prosperity. We’re not prosperous, and we live in a back street. We have to live here because this is our house. It’s a mercy we haven’t to ‘let.’ One feels one hasn’t opportunities. If one had, I suppose one wouldn’t use them. Still—’

Kipps felt he was being taken tremendously into her confidence. ‘That’s jest it,’ he said.

He leant forward on his stick and said very earnestly, ‘I believe you could do anything you wanted to, if you tried.’

She threw out her hands in disavowal.

‘I know,’ said he, very sagely, and nodding his head. ‘I watched you once or twice when you were teaching that woodcarving class.’

For some reason this made her laugh—a rather pleasant laugh, and that made Kipps feel a very witty and successful person. ‘It’s very evident,’ she said, ‘that you’re one of those rare people who believe in me, Mr. Kipps,’ to which he answered, ‘Oo, I do!’ and then suddenly they became aware of Mrs. Walshingham coming along the passage. In another moment she appeared through the four-seasons’ door, bonneted and ladylike, and a little faded, exactly as Kipps had seen her in the shop. Kipps felt a certain apprehension at her appearance, in spite of the reassurances he had had from Coote.

‘Mr. Kipps has called on us,’ said Helen; and Mrs. Walshingham said it was very, very kind of him, and added that new people didn’t call on them very much nowadays. There was nothing of the scandalised surprise Kipps had seen in the shop; she had heard, perhaps, he was a gentleman now. In the shop he had thought her rather jaded and haughty, but he had scarcely taken her hand, which responded to his touch with a friendly pressure, before he knew how mistaken he had been. She then told her daughter that someone called Mrs. Wace had been out, and turned to Kipps again to ask him if he had had tea. Kipps said he had not, and Helen moved towards some mysterious interior. ‘But, I say,’ said Kipps, ‘don’t you on my account—’

Helen vanished, and he found himself alone with Mrs. Walshingham. Which, of course, made him breathless and Boreas-looking for a moment.

‘You were one of Helen’s pupils in the wood-carving class?’ asked Mrs. Walshingham, regarding him with the quiet watchfulness proper to her position.

‘Yes,’ said Kipps; ‘that’s ’ow I ’ad the pleasure—’

‘She took a great interest in her woodcarving class. She is so energetic, you know, and it gives her an Outlet.’

‘I thought she taught something splendid.’

‘Every one says she did very well. Helen, I think, would do anything well that she undertook to do. She’s so very clever. And she throws herself into things so.’

She untied her bonnet-strings with a pleasant informality.

‘She had told me all about her class. She used to be full of it. And about your cut hand.’

‘Lor!’ said Kipps; ‘fancy telling that!’

‘Oh, yes. And how brave you were!’

(Though, indeed, Helen’s chief detail had been his remarkable expedient for checking bloodshed.)

Kipps became bright pink. ‘She said you didn’t seem to feel it a bit.’

Kipps felt he would have to spend weeks over The Art of Conversing.

While he still hung fire, Helen returned with the apparatus for afternoon tea upon a tray.

‘Do you mind pulling out the table?’ asked Mrs. Walshingham.

That again was very homelike. Kipps put down his hat and stick in the corner, and amidst an iron thunder pulled out a little rusty, green-painted, iron table, and then in the easiest manner followed Helen in to get chairs.

So soon as he had got rid of his teacup—he refused all food, of course, and they were merciful—he became wonderfully at his ease. Presently he was talking. He talked quite modestly and simply about his changed condition, and his difficulties and plans. He spread what indeed had an air of being all his simple little soul before their eyes. In a little while his clipped, defective accent had become less perceptible to their ears, and they began to realise, as the girl with the freckles had long since realised, that there were passable aspects of Kipps. He confided, he submitted, and for both of them he had the realest, the most seductively flattering undertone of awe and reverence.

He remained about two hours, having forgotten how terribly incorrect it is to stay at such a length. They did not mind at all.

Kipps - Contents    |     Book Two - Chapter the Third - Engaged

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