“Good words, my dear, good words,” Grandmama said to that. For Grandmama had been brought up not to criticise sermons, but had failed to bring up Mrs. Hilary to the same self-abnegation. The trouble with Mrs. Hilary was, and had always been, that she expected (even now) too much of life. Grandmama expected only what she got. And Neville, wisest of all, had not listened, for she too expected what she would get if she did. She was really rather like Grandmama, in her cynically patient acquiescence, only brought up in a different generation, and not to hear sermons. In the gulf of years between these two, Mrs. Hilary’s restless, questing passion fretted like unquiet waves.
“This Barry Briscoe,” said Mrs. Hilary to Neville after lunch, as she watched Nan and he start off for a walk together. “I suppose he’s in love with her?”
“I suppose so. Something of the kind, anyhow.”
Mrs. Hilary said, discontentedly, “Another of Nan’s married men, no doubt. She collects them.”
“No, Barry’s not married.”
Mrs. Hilary looked more interested. “Not? Oh, then it may come to something.... I wish Nan would marry. It’s quite time.”
“Nan isn’t exactly keen to, you know. She’s got so much else to do.”
“Fiddlesticks. You don’t encourage her in such nonsense, I hope, Neville.”
“I? It’s not for me to encourage Nan in anything. She doesn’t need it. But as to marriage—yes, I think I wish she would do it, sometime, whenever she’s ready. It would give her something she hasn’t got; emotional steadiness, perhaps I mean. She squanders a bit, now. On the other hand, her writing would rather go to the wall; if she went on with it it would be against odds all the time.”
“What’s writing?” enquired Mrs. Hilary, with a snap of her finger and thumb. “Writing!”
As this seemed too vague or too large a question for Neville to answer, she did not try to do so, and Mrs. Hilary replied to it herself.
“Mere showing off,” she explained it. “Throwing your paltry ideas at a world which doesn’t want them. Writing like Nan’s I mean. It’s not as if she wrote really good books.”
“Oh well. Who does that, after all? And what is a good book?” Here were two questions which Mrs. Hilary, in her turn, could not answer. Because most of the books which seemed good to her did not, as she well knew, seem good to Neville, or to any of her children, and she wasn’t going to give herself away. She murmured something about Thackeray and Dickens, which Neville let pass.
“Writing’s just a thing to do, as I see it,” Neville went on. “A job, like another. One must have a job, you know. Not for the money, but for the job’s sake. And Nan enjoys it. But I daresay she’d enjoy marriage too.”
“Does she love this man?”
“I don’t know. I shouldn’t be surprised. She hasn’t told me so.”