A Room With a View

Page 10

“What is that?”

There was a voice in the wood, in the distance behind them. The voice of Mr. Eager? He shrugged his shoulders. An Italian’s ignorance is sometimes more remarkable than his knowledge. She could not make him understand that perhaps they had missed the clergymen. The view was forming at last; she could discern the river, the golden plain, other hills.

“Eccolo!” he exclaimed.

At the same moment the ground gave way, and with a cry she fell out of the wood. Light and beauty enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end.

“Courage!” cried her companion, now standing some six feet above. “Courage and love.”

She did not answer. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man. But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.

George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.

Before she could speak, almost before she could feel, a voice called, “Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!” The silence of life had been broken by Miss Bartlett who stood brown against the view.

 

Chapter VII: They Return

Some complicated game had been playing up and down the hillside all the afternoon. What it was and exactly how the players had sided, Lucy was slow to discover. Mr. Eager had met them with a questioning eye. Charlotte had repulsed him with much small talk. Mr. Emerson, seeking his son, was told whereabouts to find him. Mr. Beebe, who wore the heated aspect of a neutral, was bidden to collect the factions for the return home. There was a general sense of groping and bewilderment. Pan had been amongst them—not the great god Pan, who has been buried these two thousand years, but the little god Pan, who presides over social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics. Mr. Beebe had lost everyone, and had consumed in solitude the tea-basket which he had brought up as a pleasant surprise. Miss Lavish had lost Miss Bartlett. Lucy had lost Mr. Eager. Mr. Emerson had lost George. Miss Bartlett had lost a mackintosh square. Phaethon had lost the game.

That last fact was undeniable. He climbed on to the box shivering, with his collar up, prophesying the swift approach of bad weather. “Let us go immediately,” he told them. “The signorino will walk.”

“All the way? He will be hours,” said Mr. Beebe.

“Apparently. I told him it was unwise.” He would look no one in the face; perhaps defeat was particularly mortifying for him. He alone had played skilfully, using the whole of his instinct, while the others had used scraps of their intelligence. He alone had divined what things were, and what he wished them to be. He alone had interpreted the message that Lucy had received five days before from the lips of a dying man. Persephone, who spends half her life in the grave—she could interpret it also. Not so these English. They gain knowledge slowly, and perhaps too late.

The thoughts of a cab-driver, however just, seldom affect the lives of his employers. He was the most competent of Miss Bartlett’s opponents, but infinitely the least dangerous. Once back in the town, he and his insight and his knowledge would trouble English ladies no more. Of course, it was most unpleasant; she had seen his black head in the bushes; he might make a tavern story out of it. But after all, what have we to do with taverns? Real menace belongs to the drawing-room. It was of drawing-room people that Miss Bartlett thought as she journeyed downwards towards the fading sun. Lucy sat beside her; Mr. Eager sat opposite, trying to catch her eye; he was vaguely suspicious. They spoke of Alessio Baldovinetti.

Rain and darkness came on together. The two ladies huddled together under an inadequate parasol. There was a lightning flash, and Miss Lavish who was nervous, screamed from the carriage in front. At the next flash, Lucy screamed also. Mr. Eager addressed her professionally:

“Courage, Miss Honeychurch, courage and faith. If I might say so, there is something almost blasphemous in this horror of the elements. Are we seriously to suppose that all these clouds, all this immense electrical display, is simply called into existence to extinguish you or me?”

“No—of course—”

“Even from the scientific standpoint the chances against our being struck are enormous. The steel knives, the only articles which might attract the current, are in the other carriage. And, in any case, we are infinitely safer than if we were walking. Courage—courage and faith.”

Under the rug, Lucy felt the kindly pressure of her cousin’s hand. At times our need for a sympathetic gesture is so great that we care not what exactly it signifies or how much we may have to pay for it afterwards. Miss Bartlett, by this timely exercise of her muscles, gained more than she would have got in hours of preaching or cross examination.

She renewed it when the two carriages stopped, half into Florence.

“Mr. Eager!” called Mr. Beebe. “We want your assistance. Will you interpret for us?”

“George!” cried Mr. Emerson. “Ask your driver which way George went. The boy may lose his way. He may be killed.”

“Go, Mr. Eager,” said Miss Bartlett, “don’t ask our driver; our driver is no help. Go and support poor Mr. Beebe—, he is nearly demented.”

“He may be killed!” cried the old man. “He may be killed!”

“Typical behaviour,” said the chaplain, as he quitted the carriage. “In the presence of reality that kind of person invariably breaks down.”

“What does he know?” whispered Lucy as soon as they were alone. “Charlotte, how much does Mr. Eager know?”

“Nothing, dearest; he knows nothing. But—” she pointed at the driver-“HE knows everything. Dearest, had we better? Shall I?” She took out her purse. “It is dreadful to be entangled with low-class people. He saw it all.” Tapping Phaethon’s back with her guide-book, she said, “Silenzio!” and offered him a franc.

“Va bene,” he replied, and accepted it. As well this ending to his day as any. But Lucy, a mortal maid, was disappointed in him.

There was an explosion up the road. The storm had struck the overhead wire of the tramline, and one of the great supports had fallen. If they had not stopped perhaps they might have been hurt. They chose to regard it as a miraculous preservation, and the floods of love and sincerity, which fructify every hour of life, burst forth in tumult. They descended from the carriages; they embraced each other. It was as joyful to be forgiven past unworthinesses as to forgive them. For a moment they realized vast possibilities of good.

The older people recovered quickly. In the very height of their emotion they knew it to be unmanly or unladylike. Miss Lavish calculated that, even if they had continued, they would not have been caught in the accident. Mr. Eager mumbled a temperate prayer. But the drivers, through miles of dark squalid road, poured out their souls to the dryads and the saints, and Lucy poured out hers to her cousin.

“Charlotte, dear Charlotte, kiss me. Kiss me again. Only you can understand me. You warned me to be careful. And I—I thought I was developing.”

“Do not cry, dearest. Take your time.”

“I have been obstinate and silly—worse than you know, far worse. Once by the river—Oh, but he isn’t killed—he wouldn’t be killed, would he?”

The thought disturbed her repentance. As a matter of fact, the storm was worst along the road; but she had been near danger, and so she thought it must be near to everyone.

“I trust not. One would always pray against that.”

“He is really—I think he was taken by surprise, just as I was before. But this time I’m not to blame; I want you to believe that. I simply slipped into those violets. No, I want to be really truthful. I am a little to blame. I had silly thoughts. The sky, you know, was gold, and the ground all blue, and for a moment he looked like someone in a book.”

“In a book?”

“Heroes—gods—the nonsense of schoolgirls.”

“And then?”

“But, Charlotte, you know what happened then.”

Miss Bartlett was silent. Indeed, she had little more to learn. With a certain amount of insight she drew her young cousin affectionately to her. All the way back Lucy’s body was shaken by deep sighs, which nothing could repress.

“I want to be truthful,” she whispered. “It is so hard to be absolutely truthful.”

“Don’t be troubled, dearest. Wait till you are calmer. We will talk it over before bed-time in my room.”

So they re-entered the city with hands clasped. It was a shock to the girl to find how far emotion had ebbed in others. The storm had ceased, and Mr. Emerson was easier about his son. Mr. Beebe had regained good humour, and Mr. Eager was already snubbing Miss Lavish. Charlotte alone she was sure of—Charlotte, whose exterior concealed so much insight and love.

The luxury of self-exposure kept her almost happy through the long evening. She thought not so much of what had happened as of how she should describe it. All her sensations, her spasms of courage, her moments of unreasonable joy, her mysterious discontent, should be carefully laid before her cousin. And together in divine confidence they would disentangle and interpret them all.

“At last,” thought she, “I shall understand myself. I shan’t again be troubled by things that come out of nothing, and mean I don’t know what.”

Miss Alan asked her to play. She refused vehemently. Music seemed to her the employment of a child. She sat close to her cousin, who, with commendable patience, was listening to a long story about lost luggage. When it was over she capped it by a story of her own. Lucy became rather hysterical with the delay. In vain she tried to check, or at all events to accelerate, the tale. It was not till a late hour that Miss Bartlett had recovered her luggage and could say in her usual tone of gentle reproach:

“Well, dear, I at all events am ready for Bedfordshire. Come into my room, and I will give a good brush to your hair.”

With some solemnity the door was shut, and a cane chair placed for the girl. Then Miss Bartlett said “So what is to be done?”

She was unprepared for the question. It had not occurred to her that she would have to do anything. A detailed exhibition of her emotions was all that she had counted upon.

“What is to be done? A point, dearest, which you alone can settle.”

The rain was streaming down the black windows, and the great room felt damp and chilly, One candle burnt trembling on the chest of drawers close to Miss Bartlett’s toque, which cast monstrous and fantastic shadows on the bolted door. A tram roared by in the dark, and Lucy felt unaccountably sad, though she had long since dried her eyes. She lifted them to the ceiling, where the griffins and bassoons were colourless and vague, the very ghosts of joy.

“It has been raining for nearly four hours,” she said at last.

Miss Bartlett ignored the remark.

“How do you propose to silence him?”

“The driver?”

“My dear girl, no; Mr. George Emerson.”

Lucy began to pace up and down the room.

“I don’t understand,” she said at last.

She understood very well, but she no longer wished to be absolutely truthful.

“How are you going to stop him talking about it?”

“I have a feeling that talk is a thing he will never do.”

“I, too, intend to judge him charitably. But unfortunately I have met the type before. They seldom keep their exploits to themselves.”

“Exploits?” cried Lucy, wincing under the horrible plural.

“My poor dear, did you suppose that this was his first? Come here and listen to me. I am only gathering it from his own remarks. Do you remember that day at lunch when he argued with Miss Alan that liking one person is an extra reason for liking another?”

“Yes,” said Lucy, whom at the time the argument had pleased.

“Well, I am no prude. There is no need to call him a wicked young man, but obviously he is thoroughly unrefined. Let us put it down to his deplorable antecedents and education, if you wish. But we are no farther on with our question. What do you propose to do?”

An idea rushed across Lucy’s brain, which, had she thought of it sooner and made it part of her, might have proved victorious.