“I propose to speak to him,” said she.
Miss Bartlett uttered a cry of genuine alarm.
“You see, Charlotte, your kindness—I shall never forget it. But—as you said—it is my affair. Mine and his.”
“And you are going to IMPLORE him, to BEG him to keep silence?”
“Certainly not. There would be no difficulty. Whatever you ask him he answers, yes or no; then it is over. I have been frightened of him. But now I am not one little bit.”
“But we fear him for you, dear. You are so young and inexperienced, you have lived among such nice people, that you cannot realize what men can be—how they can take a brutal pleasure in insulting a woman whom her sex does not protect and rally round. This afternoon, for example, if I had not arrived, what would have happened?”
“I can’t think,” said Lucy gravely.
Something in her voice made Miss Bartlett repeat her question, intoning it more vigorously.
“What would have happened if I hadn’t arrived?”
“I can’t think,” said Lucy again.
“When he insulted you, how would you have replied?”
“I hadn’t time to think. You came.”
“Yes, but won’t you tell me now what you would have done?”
“I should have—” She checked herself, and broke the sentence off. She went up to the dripping window and strained her eyes into the darkness. She could not think what she would have done.
“Come away from the window, dear,” said Miss Bartlett. “You will be seen from the road.”
Lucy obeyed. She was in her cousin’s power. She could not modulate out the key of self-abasement in which she had started. Neither of them referred again to her suggestion that she should speak to George and settle the matter, whatever it was, with him.
Miss Bartlett became plaintive.
“Oh, for a real man! We are only two women, you and I. Mr. Beebe is hopeless. There is Mr. Eager, but you do not trust him. Oh, for your brother! He is young, but I know that his sister’s insult would rouse in him a very lion. Thank God, chivalry is not yet dead. There are still left some men who can reverence woman.”
As she spoke, she pulled off her rings, of which she wore several, and ranged them upon the pin cushion. Then she blew into her gloves and said:
“It will be a push to catch the morning train, but we must try.”
“The train to Rome.” She looked at her gloves critically.
The girl received the announcement as easily as it had been given.
“When does the train to Rome go?”
“Signora Bertolini would be upset.”
“We must face that,” said Miss Bartlett, not liking to say that she had given notice already.
“She will make us pay for a whole week’s pension.”
“I expect she will. However, we shall be much more comfortable at the Vyses’ hotel. Isn’t afternoon tea given there for nothing?”
“Yes, but they pay extra for wine.” After this remark she remained motionless and silent. To her tired eyes Charlotte throbbed and swelled like a ghostly figure in a dream.
They began to sort their clothes for packing, for there was no time to lose, if they were to catch the train to Rome. Lucy, when admonished, began to move to and fro between the rooms, more conscious of the discomforts of packing by candlelight than of a subtler ill. Charlotte, who was practical without ability, knelt by the side of an empty trunk, vainly endeavouring to pave it with books of varying thickness and size. She gave two or three sighs, for the stooping posture hurt her back, and, for all her diplomacy, she felt that she was growing old. The girl heard her as she entered the room, and was seized with one of those emotional impulses to which she could never attribute a cause. She only felt that the candle would burn better, the packing go easier, the world be happier, if she could give and receive some human love. The impulse had come before to-day, but never so strongly. She knelt down by her cousin’s side and took her in her arms.
Miss Bartlett returned the embrace with tenderness and warmth. But she was not a stupid woman, and she knew perfectly well that Lucy did not love her, but needed her to love. For it was in ominous tones that she said, after a long pause:
“Dearest Lucy, how will you ever forgive me?”
Lucy was on her guard at once, knowing by bitter experience what forgiving Miss Bartlett meant. Her emotion relaxed, she modified her embrace a little, and she said:
“Charlotte dear, what do you mean? As if I have anything to forgive!”
“You have a great deal, and I have a very great deal to forgive myself, too. I know well how much I vex you at every turn.”
Miss Bartlett assumed her favourite role, that of the prematurely aged martyr.
“Ah, but yes! I feel that our tour together is hardly the success I had hoped. I might have known it would not do. You want someone younger and stronger and more in sympathy with you. I am too uninteresting and old-fashioned—only fit to pack and unpack your things.”
“My only consolation was that you found people more to your taste, and were often able to leave me at home. I had my own poor ideas of what a lady ought to do, but I hope I did not inflict them on you more than was necessary. You had your own way about these rooms, at all events.”
“You mustn’t say these things,” said Lucy softly.
She still clung to the hope that she and Charlotte loved each other, heart and soul. They continued to pack in silence.
“I have been a failure,” said Miss Bartlett, as she struggled with the straps of Lucy’s trunk instead of strapping her own. “Failed to make you happy; failed in my duty to your mother. She has been so generous to me; I shall never face her again after this disaster.”
“But mother will understand. It is not your fault, this trouble, and it isn’t a disaster either.”
“It is my fault, it is a disaster. She will never forgive me, and rightly. For instance, what right had I to make friends with Miss Lavish?”
“When I was here for your sake? If I have vexed you it is equally true that I have neglected you. Your mother will see this as clearly as I do, when you tell her.”
Lucy, from a cowardly wish to improve the situation, said:
“Why need mother hear of it?”
“But you tell her everything?”
“I suppose I do generally.”
“I dare not break your confidence. There is something sacred in it. Unless you feel that it is a thing you could not tell her.”
The girl would not be degraded to this.
“Naturally I should have told her. But in case she should blame you in any way, I promise I will not, I am very willing not to. I will never speak of it either to her or to any one.”
Her promise brought the long-drawn interview to a sudden close. Miss Bartlett pecked her smartly on both cheeks, wished her good-night, and sent her to her own room.
For a moment the original trouble was in the background. George would seem to have behaved like a cad throughout; perhaps that was the view which one would take eventually. At present she neither acquitted nor condemned him; she did not pass judgement. At the moment when she was about to judge him her cousin’s voice had intervened, and, ever since, it was Miss Bartlett who had dominated; Miss Bartlett who, even now, could be heard sighing into a crack in the partition wall; Miss Bartlett, who had really been neither pliable nor humble nor inconsistent. She had worked like a great artist; for a time—indeed, for years—she had been meaningless, but at the end there was presented to the girl the complete picture of a cheerless, loveless world in which the young rush to destruction until they learn better—a shamefaced world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good, if we may judge from those who have used them most.
Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul.
The door-bell rang, and she started to the shutters. Before she reached them she hesitated, turned, and blew out the candle. Thus it was that, though she saw someone standing in the wet below, he, though he looked up, did not see her.
To reach his room he had to go by hers. She was still dressed. It struck her that she might slip into the passage and just say that she would be gone before he was up, and that their extraordinary intercourse was over.
Whether she would have dared to do this was never proved. At the critical moment Miss Bartlett opened her own door, and her voice said:
“I wish one word with you in the drawing-room, Mr. Emerson, please.”
Soon their footsteps returned, and Miss Bartlett said: “Good-night, Mr. Emerson.”
His heavy, tired breathing was the only reply; the chaperon had done her work.
Lucy cried aloud: “It isn’t true. It can’t all be true. I want not to be muddled. I want to grow older quickly.”
Miss Bartlett tapped on the wall.
“Go to bed at once, dear. You need all the rest you can get.”
In the morning they left for Rome.
Chapter VIII: Medieval
The drawing-room curtains at Windy Corner had been pulled to meet, for the carpet was new and deserved protection from the August sun. They were heavy curtains, reaching almost to the ground, and the light that filtered through them was subdued and varied. A poet—none was present—might have quoted, “Life like a dome of many coloured glass,” or might have compared the curtains to sluice-gates, lowered against the intolerable tides of heaven. Without was poured a sea of radiance; within, the glory, though visible, was tempered to the capacities of man.
Two pleasant people sat in the room. One—a boy of nineteen—was studying a small manual of anatomy, and peering occasionally at a bone which lay upon the piano. From time to time he bounced in his chair and puffed and groaned, for the day was hot and the print small, and the human frame fearfully made; and his mother, who was writing a letter, did continually read out to him what she had written. And continually did she rise from her seat and part the curtains so that a rivulet of light fell across the carpet, and make the remark that they were still there.
“Where aren’t they?” said the boy, who was Freddy, Lucy’s brother. “I tell you I’m getting fairly sick.”
“For goodness’ sake go out of my drawing-room, then?” cried Mrs. Honeychurch, who hoped to cure her children of slang by taking it literally.
Freddy did not move or reply.
“I think things are coming to a head,” she observed, rather wanting her son’s opinion on the situation if she could obtain it without undue supplication.
“Time they did.”
“I am glad that Cecil is asking her this once more.”
“It’s his third go, isn’t it?”
“Freddy I do call the way you talk unkind.”
“I didn’t mean to be unkind.” Then he added: “But I do think Lucy might have got this off her chest in Italy. I don’t know how girls manage things, but she can’t have said ‘No’ properly before, or she wouldn’t have to say it again now. Over the whole thing—I can’t explain—I do feel so uncomfortable.”
“Do you indeed, dear? How interesting!”