The Honeychurches were a worthy family, but he began to realize that Lucy was of another clay; and perhaps—he did not put it very definitely—he ought to introduce her into more congenial circles as soon as possible.
“Mr. Beebe!” said the maid, and the new rector of Summer Street was shown in; he had at once started on friendly relations, owing to Lucy’s praise of him in her letters from Florence.
Cecil greeted him rather critically.
“I’ve come for tea, Mr. Vyse. Do you suppose that I shall get it?”
“I should say so. Food is the thing one does get here—Don’t sit in that chair; young Honeychurch has left a bone in it.”
“I know,” said Cecil. “I know. I can’t think why Mrs. Honeychurch allows it.”
For Cecil considered the bone and the Maples’ furniture separately; he did not realize that, taken together, they kindled the room into the life that he desired.
“I’ve come for tea and for gossip. Isn’t this news?”
“News? I don’t understand you,” said Cecil. “News?”
Mr. Beebe, whose news was of a very different nature, prattled forward.
“I met Sir Harry Otway as I came up; I have every reason to hope that I am first in the field. He has bought Cissie and Albert from Mr. Flack!”
“Has he indeed?” said Cecil, trying to recover himself. Into what a grotesque mistake had he fallen! Was it likely that a clergyman and a gentleman would refer to his engagement in a manner so flippant? But his stiffness remained, and, though he asked who Cissie and Albert might be, he still thought Mr. Beebe rather a bounder.
“Unpardonable question! To have stopped a week at Windy Corner and not to have met Cissie and Albert, the semi-detached villas that have been run up opposite the church! I’ll set Mrs. Honeychurch after you.”
“I’m shockingly stupid over local affairs,” said the young man languidly. “I can’t even remember the difference between a Parish Council and a Local Government Board. Perhaps there is no difference, or perhaps those aren’t the right names. I only go into the country to see my friends and to enjoy the scenery. It is very remiss of me. Italy and London are the only places where I don’t feel to exist on sufferance.”
Mr. Beebe, distressed at this heavy reception of Cissie and Albert, determined to shift the subject.
“Let me see, Mr. Vyse—I forget—what is your profession?”
“I have no profession,” said Cecil. “It is another example of my decadence. My attitude—quite an indefensible one—is that so long as I am no trouble to any one I have a right to do as I like. I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about, but somehow, I’ve not been able to begin.”
“You are very fortunate,” said Mr. Beebe. “It is a wonderful opportunity, the possession of leisure.”
His voice was rather parochial, but he did not quite see his way to answering naturally. He felt, as all who have regular occupation must feel, that others should have it also.
“I am glad that you approve. I daren’t face the healthy person—for example, Freddy Honeychurch.”
“Oh, Freddy’s a good sort, isn’t he?”
“Admirable. The sort who has made England what she is.”
Cecil wondered at himself. Why, on this day of all others, was he so hopelessly contrary? He tried to get right by inquiring effusively after Mr. Beebe’s mother, an old lady for whom he had no particular regard. Then he flattered the clergyman, praised his liberal-mindedness, his enlightened attitude towards philosophy and science.
“Where are the others?” said Mr. Beebe at last, “I insist on extracting tea before evening service.”
“I suppose Anne never told them you were here. In this house one is so coached in the servants the day one arrives. The fault of Anne is that she begs your pardon when she hears you perfectly, and kicks the chair-legs with her feet. The faults of Mary—I forget the faults of Mary, but they are very grave. Shall we look in the garden?”
“I know the faults of Mary. She leaves the dust-pans standing on the stairs.”
“The fault of Euphemia is that she will not, simply will not, chop the suet sufficiently small.”
They both laughed, and things began to go better.
“The faults of Freddy—” Cecil continued.
“Ah, he has too many. No one but his mother can remember the faults of Freddy. Try the faults of Miss Honeychurch; they are not innumerable.”
“She has none,” said the young man, with grave sincerity.
“I quite agree. At present she has none.”
“I’m not cynical. I’m only thinking of my pet theory about Miss Honeychurch. Does it seem reasonable that she should play so wonderfully, and live so quietly? I suspect that one day she will be wonderful in both. The water-tight compartments in her will break down, and music and life will mingle. Then we shall have her heroically good, heroically bad—too heroic, perhaps, to be good or bad.”
Cecil found his companion interesting.
“And at present you think her not wonderful as far as life goes?”
“Well, I must say I’ve only seen her at Tunbridge Wells, where she was not wonderful, and at Florence. Since I came to Summer Street she has been away. You saw her, didn’t you, at Rome and in the Alps. Oh, I forgot; of course, you knew her before. No, she wasn’t wonderful in Florence either, but I kept on expecting that she would be.”
“In what way?”
Conversation had become agreeable to them, and they were pacing up and down the terrace.
“I could as easily tell you what tune she’ll play next. There was simply the sense that she had found wings, and meant to use them. I can show you a beautiful picture in my Italian diary: Miss Honeychurch as a kite, Miss Bartlett holding the string. Picture number two: the string breaks.”
The sketch was in his diary, but it had been made afterwards, when he viewed things artistically. At the time he had given surreptitious tugs to the string himself.
“But the string never broke?”
“No. I mightn’t have seen Miss Honeychurch rise, but I should certainly have heard Miss Bartlett fall.”
“It has broken now,” said the young man in low, vibrating tones.
Immediately he realized that of all the conceited, ludicrous, contemptible ways of announcing an engagement this was the worst. He cursed his love of metaphor; had he suggested that he was a star and that Lucy was soaring up to reach him?
“Broken? What do you mean?”
“I meant,” said Cecil stiffly, “that she is going to marry me.”
The clergyman was conscious of some bitter disappointment which he could not keep out of his voice.
“I am sorry; I must apologize. I had no idea you were intimate with her, or I should never have talked in this flippant, superficial way. Mr. Vyse, you ought to have stopped me.” And down the garden he saw Lucy herself; yes, he was disappointed.
Cecil, who naturally preferred congratulations to apologies, drew down his mouth at the corners. Was this the reception his action would get from the world? Of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement. But he was sensitive to the successive particles of it which he encountered.
Occasionally he could be quite crude.
“I am sorry I have given you a shock,” he said dryly. “I fear that Lucy’s choice does not meet with your approval.”
“Not that. But you ought to have stopped me. I know Miss Honeychurch only a little as time goes. Perhaps I oughtn’t to have discussed her so freely with any one; certainly not with you.”
“You are conscious of having said something indiscreet?”
Mr. Beebe pulled himself together. Really, Mr. Vyse had the art of placing one in the most tiresome positions. He was driven to use the prerogatives of his profession.
“No, I have said nothing indiscreet. I foresaw at Florence that her quiet, uneventful childhood must end, and it has ended. I realized dimly enough that she might take some momentous step. She has taken it. She has learnt—you will let me talk freely, as I have begun freely—she has learnt what it is to love: the greatest lesson, some people will tell you, that our earthly life provides.” It was now time for him to wave his hat at the approaching trio. He did not omit to do so. “She has learnt through you,” and if his voice was still clerical, it was now also sincere; “let it be your care that her knowledge is profitable to her.”
“Grazie tante!” said Cecil, who did not like parsons.
“Have you heard?” shouted Mrs. Honeychurch as she toiled up the sloping garden. “Oh, Mr. Beebe, have you heard the news?”
Freddy, now full of geniality, whistled the wedding march. Youth seldom criticizes the accomplished fact.
“Indeed I have!” he cried. He looked at Lucy. In her presence he could not act the parson any longer—at all events not without apology. “Mrs. Honeychurch, I’m going to do what I am always supposed to do, but generally I’m too shy. I want to invoke every kind of blessing on them, grave and gay, great and small. I want them all their lives to be supremely good and supremely happy as husband and wife, as father and mother. And now I want my tea.”
“You only asked for it just in time,” the lady retorted. “How dare you be serious at Windy Corner?”
He took his tone from her. There was no more heavy beneficence, no more attempts to dignify the situation with poetry or the Scriptures. None of them dared or was able to be serious any more.
An engagement is so potent a thing that sooner or later it reduces all who speak of it to this state of cheerful awe. Away from it, in the solitude of their rooms, Mr. Beebe, and even Freddy, might again be critical. But in its presence and in the presence of each other they were sincerely hilarious. It has a strange power, for it compels not only the lips, but the very heart. The chief parallel to compare one great thing with another—is the power over us of a temple of some alien creed. Standing outside, we deride or oppose it, or at the most feel sentimental. Inside, though the saints and gods are not ours, we become true believers, in case any true believer should be present.
So it was that after the gropings and the misgivings of the afternoon they pulled themselves together and settled down to a very pleasant tea-party. If they were hypocrites they did not know it, and their hypocrisy had every chance of setting and of becoming true. Anne, putting down each plate as if it were a wedding present, stimulated them greatly. They could not lag behind that smile of hers which she gave them ere she kicked the drawing-room door. Mr. Beebe chirruped. Freddy was at his wittiest, referring to Cecil as the “Fiasco”—family honoured pun on fiance. Mrs. Honeychurch, amusing and portly, promised well as a mother-in-law. As for Lucy and Cecil, for whom the temple had been built, they also joined in the merry ritual, but waited, as earnest worshippers should, for the disclosure of some holier shrine of joy.
Chapter IX: Lucy As a Work of Art
A few days after the engagement was announced Mrs. Honeychurch made Lucy and her Fiasco come to a little garden-party in the neighbourhood, for naturally she wanted to show people that her daughter was marrying a presentable man.
Cecil was more than presentable; he looked distinguished, and it was very pleasant to see his slim figure keeping step with Lucy, and his long, fair face responding when Lucy spoke to him. People congratulated Mrs. Honeychurch, which is, I believe, a social blunder, but it pleased her, and she introduced Cecil rather indiscriminately to some stuffy dowagers.
At tea a misfortune took place: a cup of coffee was upset over Lucy’s figured silk, and though Lucy feigned indifference, her mother feigned nothing of the sort but dragged her indoors to have the frock treated by a sympathetic maid. They were gone some time, and Cecil was left with the dowagers. When they returned he was not as pleasant as he had been.
“Do you go to much of this sort of thing?” he asked when they were driving home.
“Oh, now and then,” said Lucy, who had rather enjoyed herself.
“Is it typical of country society?”
“I suppose so. Mother, would it be?”
“Plenty of society,” said Mrs. Honeychurch, who was trying to remember the hang of one of the dresses.
Seeing that her thoughts were elsewhere, Cecil bent towards Lucy and said:
“To me it seemed perfectly appalling, disastrous, portentous.”