“I feel—never mind.”
He returned to his work.
“Just listen to what I have written to Mrs. Vyse. I said: ‘Dear Mrs. Vyse.'”
“Yes, mother, you told me. A jolly good letter.”
“I said: ‘Dear Mrs. Vyse, Cecil has just asked my permission about it, and I should be delighted, if Lucy wishes it. But—'” She stopped reading, “I was rather amused at Cecil asking my permission at all. He has always gone in for unconventionality, and parents nowhere, and so forth. When it comes to the point, he can’t get on without me.”
“What do you mean?”
“He asked me for my permission also.”
She exclaimed: “How very odd of him!”
“Why so?” asked the son and heir. “Why shouldn’t my permission be asked?”
“What do you know about Lucy or girls or anything? What ever did you say?”
“I said to Cecil, ‘Take her or leave her; it’s no business of mine!'”
“What a helpful answer!” But her own answer, though more normal in its wording, had been to the same effect.
“The bother is this,” began Freddy.
Then he took up his work again, too shy to say what the bother was. Mrs. Honeychurch went back to the window.
“Freddy, you must come. There they still are!”
“I don’t see you ought to go peeping like that.”
“Peeping like that! Can’t I look out of my own window?”
But she returned to the writing-table, observing, as she passed her son, “Still page 322?” Freddy snorted, and turned over two leaves. For a brief space they were silent. Close by, beyond the curtains, the gentle murmur of a long conversation had never ceased.
“The bother is this: I have put my foot in it with Cecil most awfully.” He gave a nervous gulp. “Not content with ‘permission’, which I did give—that is to say, I said, ‘I don’t mind’—well, not content with that, he wanted to know whether I wasn’t off my head with joy. He practically put it like this: Wasn’t it a splendid thing for Lucy and for Windy Corner generally if he married her? And he would have an answer—he said it would strengthen his hand.”
“I hope you gave a careful answer, dear.”
“I answered ‘No'” said the boy, grinding his teeth. “There! Fly into a stew! I can’t help it—had to say it. I had to say no. He ought never to have asked me.”
“Ridiculous child!” cried his mother. “You think you’re so holy and truthful, but really it’s only abominable conceit. Do you suppose that a man like Cecil would take the slightest notice of anything you say? I hope he boxed your ears. How dare you say no?”
“Oh, do keep quiet, mother! I had to say no when I couldn’t say yes. I tried to laugh as if I didn’t mean what I said, and, as Cecil laughed too, and went away, it may be all right. But I feel my foot’s in it. Oh, do keep quiet, though, and let a man do some work.”
“No,” said Mrs. Honeychurch, with the air of one who has considered the subject, “I shall not keep quiet. You know all that has passed between them in Rome; you know why he is down here, and yet you deliberately insult him, and try to turn him out of my house.”
“Not a bit!” he pleaded. “I only let out I didn’t like him. I don’t hate him, but I don’t like him. What I mind is that he’ll tell Lucy.”
He glanced at the curtains dismally.
“Well, I like him,” said Mrs. Honeychurch. “I know his mother; he’s good, he’s clever, he’s rich, he’s well connected—Oh, you needn’t kick the piano! He’s well connected—I’ll say it again if you like: he’s well connected.” She paused, as if rehearsing her eulogy, but her face remained dissatisfied. She added: “And he has beautiful manners.”
“I liked him till just now. I suppose it’s having him spoiling Lucy’s first week at home; and it’s also something that Mr. Beebe said, not knowing.”
“Mr. Beebe?” said his mother, trying to conceal her interest. “I don’t see how Mr. Beebe comes in.”
“You know Mr. Beebe’s funny way, when you never quite know what he means. He said: ‘Mr. Vyse is an ideal bachelor.’ I was very cute, I asked him what he meant. He said ‘Oh, he’s like me—better detached.’ I couldn’t make him say any more, but it set me thinking. Since Cecil has come after Lucy he hasn’t been so pleasant, at least—I can’t explain.”
“You never can, dear. But I can. You are jealous of Cecil because he may stop Lucy knitting you silk ties.”
The explanation seemed plausible, and Freddy tried to accept it. But at the back of his brain there lurked a dim mistrust. Cecil praised one too much for being athletic. Was that it? Cecil made one talk in one’s own way. This tired one. Was that it? And Cecil was the kind of fellow who would never wear another fellow’s cap. Unaware of his own profundity, Freddy checked himself. He must be jealous, or he would not dislike a man for such foolish reasons.
“Will this do?” called his mother. “‘Dear Mrs. Vyse,—Cecil has just asked my permission about it, and I should be delighted if Lucy wishes it.’ Then I put in at the top, ‘and I have told Lucy so.’ I must write the letter out again—’and I have told Lucy so. But Lucy seems very uncertain, and in these days young people must decide for themselves.’ I said that because I didn’t want Mrs. Vyse to think us old-fashioned. She goes in for lectures and improving her mind, and all the time a thick layer of flue under the beds, and the maid’s dirty thumb-marks where you turn on the electric light. She keeps that flat abominably—”
“Suppose Lucy marries Cecil, would she live in a flat, or in the country?”
“Don’t interrupt so foolishly. Where was I? Oh yes—’Young people must decide for themselves. I know that Lucy likes your son, because she tells me everything, and she wrote to me from Rome when he asked her first.’ No, I’ll cross that last bit out—it looks patronizing. I’ll stop at ‘because she tells me everything.’ Or shall I cross that out, too?”
“Cross it out, too,” said Freddy.
Mrs. Honeychurch left it in.
“Then the whole thing runs: ‘Dear Mrs. Vyse.—Cecil has just asked my permission about it, and I should be delighted if Lucy wishes it, and I have told Lucy so. But Lucy seems very uncertain, and in these days young people must decide for themselves. I know that Lucy likes your son, because she tells me everything. But I do not know—'”
“Look out!” cried Freddy.
The curtains parted.
Cecil’s first movement was one of irritation. He couldn’t bear the Honeychurch habit of sitting in the dark to save the furniture. Instinctively he give the curtains a twitch, and sent them swinging down their poles. Light entered. There was revealed a terrace, such as is owned by many villas with trees each side of it, and on it a little rustic seat, and two flower-beds. But it was transfigured by the view beyond, for Windy Corner was built on the range that overlooks the Sussex Weald. Lucy, who was in the little seat, seemed on the edge of a green magic carpet which hovered in the air above the tremulous world.
Appearing thus late in the story, Cecil must be at once described. He was medieval. Like a Gothic statue. Tall and refined, with shoulders that seemed braced square by an effort of the will, and a head that was tilted a little higher than the usual level of vision, he resembled those fastidious saints who guard the portals of a French cathedral. Well educated, well endowed, and not deficient physically, he remained in the grip of a certain devil whom the modern world knows as self-consciousness, and whom the medieval, with dimmer vision, worshipped as asceticism. A Gothic statue implies celibacy, just as a Greek statue implies fruition, and perhaps this was what Mr. Beebe meant. And Freddy, who ignored history and art, perhaps meant the same when he failed to imagine Cecil wearing another fellow’s cap.
Mrs. Honeychurch left her letter on the writing table and moved towards her young acquaintance.
“Oh, Cecil!” she exclaimed—”oh, Cecil, do tell me!”
“I promessi sposi,” said he.
They stared at him anxiously.
“She has accepted me,” he said, and the sound of the thing in English made him flush and smile with pleasure, and look more human.
“I am so glad,” said Mrs. Honeychurch, while Freddy proffered a hand that was yellow with chemicals. They wished that they also knew Italian, for our phrases of approval and of amazement are so connected with little occasions that we fear to use them on great ones. We are obliged to become vaguely poetic, or to take refuge in Scriptural reminiscences.
“Welcome as one of the family!” said Mrs. Honeychurch, waving her hand at the furniture. “This is indeed a joyous day! I feel sure that you will make our dear Lucy happy.”
“I hope so,” replied the young man, shifting his eyes to the ceiling.
“We mothers—” simpered Mrs. Honeychurch, and then realized that she was affected, sentimental, bombastic—all the things she hated most. Why could she not be Freddy, who stood stiff in the middle of the room; looking very cross and almost handsome?
“I say, Lucy!” called Cecil, for conversation seemed to flag.
Lucy rose from the seat. She moved across the lawn and smiled in at them, just as if she was going to ask them to play tennis. Then she saw her brother’s face. Her lips parted, and she took him in her arms. He said, “Steady on!”
“Not a kiss for me?” asked her mother.
Lucy kissed her also.
“Would you take them into the garden and tell Mrs. Honeychurch all about it?” Cecil suggested. “And I’d stop here and tell my mother.”
“We go with Lucy?” said Freddy, as if taking orders.
“Yes, you go with Lucy.”
They passed into the sunlight. Cecil watched them cross the terrace, and descend out of sight by the steps. They would descend—he knew their ways—past the shrubbery, and past the tennis-lawn and the dahlia-bed, until they reached the kitchen garden, and there, in the presence of the potatoes and the peas, the great event would be discussed.
Smiling indulgently, he lit a cigarette, and rehearsed the events that had led to such a happy conclusion.
He had known Lucy for several years, but only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical. He could still remember his depression that afternoon at Rome, when she and her terrible cousin fell on him out of the blue, and demanded to be taken to St. Peter’s. That day she had seemed a typical tourist—shrill, crude, and gaunt with travel. But Italy worked some marvel in her. It gave her light, and—which he held more precious—it gave her shadow. Soon he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things that she will not tell us. The things are assuredly not of this life; no woman of Leonardo’s could have anything so vulgar as a “story.” She did develop most wonderfully day by day.
So it happened that from patronizing civility he had slowly passed if not to passion, at least to a profound uneasiness. Already at Rome he had hinted to her that they might be suitable for each other. It had touched him greatly that she had not broken away at the suggestion. Her refusal had been clear and gentle; after it—as the horrid phrase went—she had been exactly the same to him as before. Three months later, on the margin of Italy, among the flower-clad Alps, he had asked her again in bald, traditional language. She reminded him of a Leonardo more than ever; her sunburnt features were shadowed by fantastic rock; at his words she had turned and stood between him and the light with immeasurable plains behind her. He walked home with her unashamed, feeling not at all like a rejected suitor. The things that really mattered were unshaken.
So now he had asked her once more, and, clear and gentle as ever, she had accepted him, giving no coy reasons for her delay, but simply saying that she loved him and would do her best to make him happy. His mother, too, would be pleased; she had counselled the step; he must write her a long account.
Glancing at his hand, in case any of Freddy’s chemicals had come off on it, he moved to the writing table. There he saw “Dear Mrs. Vyse,” followed by many erasures. He recoiled without reading any more, and after a little hesitation sat down elsewhere, and pencilled a note on his knee.
Then he lit another cigarette, which did not seem quite as divine as the first, and considered what might be done to make Windy Corner drawing-room more distinctive. With that outlook it should have been a successful room, but the trail of Tottenham Court Road was upon it; he could almost visualize the motor-vans of Messrs. Shoolbred and Messrs. Maple arriving at the door and depositing this chair, those varnished book-cases, that writing-table. The table recalled Mrs. Honeychurch’s letter. He did not want to read that letter—his temptations never lay in that direction; but he worried about it none the less. It was his own fault that she was discussing him with his mother; he had wanted her support in his third attempt to win Lucy; he wanted to feel that others, no matter who they were, agreed with him, and so he had asked their permission. Mrs. Honeychurch had been civil, but obtuse in essentials, while as for Freddy—”He is only a boy,” he reflected. “I represent all that he despises. Why should he want me for a brother-in-law?”