“I am so sorry that you were stranded.”
“Not that, but the congratulations. It is so disgusting, the way an engagement is regarded as public property—a kind of waste place where every outsider may shoot his vulgar sentiment. All those old women smirking!”
“One has to go through it, I suppose. They won’t notice us so much next time.”
“But my point is that their whole attitude is wrong. An engagement—horrid word in the first place—is a private matter, and should be treated as such.”
Yet the smirking old women, however wrong individually, were racially correct. The spirit of the generations had smiled through them, rejoicing in the engagement of Cecil and Lucy because it promised the continuance of life on earth. To Cecil and Lucy it promised something quite different—personal love. Hence Cecil’s irritation and Lucy’s belief that his irritation was just.
“How tiresome!” she said. “Couldn’t you have escaped to tennis?”
“I don’t play tennis—at least, not in public. The neighbourhood is deprived of the romance of me being athletic. Such romance as I have is that of the Inglese Italianato.”
“E un diavolo incarnato! You know the proverb?”
She did not. Nor did it seem applicable to a young man who had spent a quiet winter in Rome with his mother. But Cecil, since his engagement, had taken to affect a cosmopolitan naughtiness which he was far from possessing.
“Well,” said he, “I cannot help it if they do disapprove of me. There are certain irremovable barriers between myself and them, and I must accept them.”
“We all have our limitations, I suppose,” said wise Lucy.
“Sometimes they are forced on us, though,” said Cecil, who saw from her remark that she did not quite understand his position.
“It makes a difference doesn’t it, whether we fully fence ourselves in, or whether we are fenced out by the barriers of others?”
She thought a moment, and agreed that it did make a difference.
“Difference?” cried Mrs. Honeychurch, suddenly alert. “I don’t see any difference. Fences are fences, especially when they are in the same place.”
“We were speaking of motives,” said Cecil, on whom the interruption jarred.
“My dear Cecil, look here.” She spread out her knees and perched her card-case on her lap. “This is me. That’s Windy Corner. The rest of the pattern is the other people. Motives are all very well, but the fence comes here.”
“We weren’t talking of real fences,” said Lucy, laughing.
“Oh, I see, dear—poetry.”
She leant placidly back. Cecil wondered why Lucy had been amused.
“I tell you who has no ‘fences,’ as you call them,” she said, “and that’s Mr. Beebe.”
“A parson fenceless would mean a parson defenceless.”
Lucy was slow to follow what people said, but quick enough to detect what they meant. She missed Cecil’s epigram, but grasped the feeling that prompted it.
“Don’t you like Mr. Beebe?” she asked thoughtfully.
“I never said so!” he cried. “I consider him far above the average. I only denied—” And he swept off on the subject of fences again, and was brilliant.
“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”
“Poor old man! What was his name?”
“Harris,” said Lucy glibly.
“Let’s hope that Mrs. Harris there warn’t no sich person,” said her mother.
Cecil nodded intelligently.
“Isn’t Mr. Eager a parson of the cultured type?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I hate him. I’ve heard him lecture on Giotto. I hate him. Nothing can hide a petty nature. I HATE him.”
“My goodness gracious me, child!” said Mrs. Honeychurch. “You’ll blow my head off! Whatever is there to shout over? I forbid you and Cecil to hate any more clergymen.”
He smiled. There was indeed something rather incongruous in Lucy’s moral outburst over Mr. Eager. It was as if one should see the Leonardo on the ceiling of the Sistine. He longed to hint to her that not here lay her vocation; that a woman’s power and charm reside in mystery, not in muscular rant. But possibly rant is a sign of vitality: it mars the beautiful creature, but shows that she is alive. After a moment, he contemplated her flushed face and excited gestures with a certain approval. He forebore to repress the sources of youth.
Nature—simplest of topics, he thought—lay around them. He praised the pine-woods, the deep lasts of bracken, the crimson leaves that spotted the hurt-bushes, the serviceable beauty of the turnpike road. The outdoor world was not very familiar to him, and occasionally he went wrong in a question of fact. Mrs. Honeychurch’s mouth twitched when he spoke of the perpetual green of the larch.
“I count myself a lucky person,” he concluded, “When I’m in London I feel I could never live out of it. When I’m in the country I feel the same about the country. After all, I do believe that birds and trees and the sky are the most wonderful things in life, and that the people who live amongst them must be the best. It’s true that in nine cases out of ten they don’t seem to notice anything. The country gentleman and the country labourer are each in their way the most depressing of companions. Yet they may have a tacit sympathy with the workings of Nature which is denied to us of the town. Do you feel that, Mrs. Honeychurch?”
Mrs. Honeychurch started and smiled. She had not been attending. Cecil, who was rather crushed on the front seat of the victoria, felt irritable, and determined not to say anything interesting again.
Lucy had not attended either. Her brow was wrinkled, and she still looked furiously cross—the result, he concluded, of too much moral gymnastics. It was sad to see her thus blind to the beauties of an August wood.
“‘Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height,'” he quoted, and touched her knee with his own.
She flushed again and said: “What height?”
“‘Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height, What pleasure lives in height (the shepherd sang). In height and in the splendour of the hills?’ Let us take Mrs. Honeychurch’s advice and hate clergymen no more. What’s this place?”
“Summer Street, of course,” said Lucy, and roused herself.
The woods had opened to leave space for a sloping triangular meadow. Pretty cottages lined it on two sides, and the upper and third side was occupied by a new stone church, expensively simple, a charming shingled spire. Mr. Beebe’s house was near the church. In height it scarcely exceeded the cottages. Some great mansions were at hand, but they were hidden in the trees. The scene suggested a Swiss Alp rather than the shrine and centre of a leisured world, and was marred only by two ugly little villas—the villas that had competed with Cecil’s engagement, having been acquired by Sir Harry Otway the very afternoon that Lucy had been acquired by Cecil.
“Cissie” was the name of one of these villas, “Albert” of the other. These titles were not only picked out in shaded Gothic on the garden gates, but appeared a second time on the porches, where they followed the semicircular curve of the entrance arch in block capitals. “Albert” was inhabited. His tortured garden was bright with geraniums and lobelias and polished shells. His little windows were chastely swathed in Nottingham lace. “Cissie” was to let. Three notice-boards, belonging to Dorking agents, lolled on her fence and announced the not surprising fact. Her paths were already weedy; her pocket-handkerchief of a lawn was yellow with dandelions.
“The place is ruined!” said the ladies mechanically. “Summer Street will never be the same again.”
As the carriage passed, “Cissie’s” door opened, and a gentleman came out of her.
“Stop!” cried Mrs. Honeychurch, touching the coachman with her parasol. “Here’s Sir Harry. Now we shall know. Sir Harry, pull those things down at once!”
Sir Harry Otway—who need not be described—came to the carriage and said “Mrs. Honeychurch, I meant to. I can’t, I really can’t turn out Miss Flack.”
“Am I not always right? She ought to have gone before the contract was signed. Does she still live rent free, as she did in her nephew’s time?”
“But what can I do?” He lowered his voice. “An old lady, so very vulgar, and almost bedridden.”
“Turn her out,” said Cecil bravely.
Sir Harry sighed, and looked at the villas mournfully. He had had full warning of Mr. Flack’s intentions, and might have bought the plot before building commenced: but he was apathetic and dilatory. He had known Summer Street for so many years that he could not imagine it being spoilt. Not till Mrs. Flack had laid the foundation stone, and the apparition of red and cream brick began to rise did he take alarm. He called on Mr. Flack, the local builder,—a most reasonable and respectful man—who agreed that tiles would have made more artistic roof, but pointed out that slates were cheaper. He ventured to differ, however, about the Corinthian columns which were to cling like leeches to the frames of the bow windows, saying that, for his part, he liked to relieve the facade by a bit of decoration. Sir Harry hinted that a column, if possible, should be structural as well as decorative.
Mr. Flack replied that all the columns had been ordered, adding, “and all the capitals different—one with dragons in the foliage, another approaching to the Ionian style, another introducing Mrs. Flack’s initials—every one different.” For he had read his Ruskin. He built his villas according to his desire; and not until he had inserted an immovable aunt into one of them did Sir Harry buy.
This futile and unprofitable transaction filled the knight with sadness as he leant on Mrs. Honeychurch’s carriage. He had failed in his duties to the country-side, and the country-side was laughing at him as well. He had spent money, and yet Summer Street was spoilt as much as ever. All he could do now was to find a desirable tenant for “Cissie”—someone really desirable.
“The rent is absurdly low,” he told them, “and perhaps I am an easy landlord. But it is such an awkward size. It is too large for the peasant class and too small for any one the least like ourselves.”
Cecil had been hesitating whether he should despise the villas or despise Sir Harry for despising them. The latter impulse seemed the more fruitful.
“You ought to find a tenant at once,” he said maliciously. “It would be a perfect paradise for a bank clerk.”
“Exactly!” said Sir Harry excitedly. “That is exactly what I fear, Mr. Vyse. It will attract the wrong type of people. The train service has improved—a fatal improvement, to my mind. And what are five miles from a station in these days of bicycles?”
“Rather a strenuous clerk it would be,” said Lucy.
Cecil, who had his full share of mediaeval mischievousness, replied that the physique of the lower middle classes was improving at a most appalling rate. She saw that he was laughing at their harmless neighbour, and roused herself to stop him.
“Sir Harry!” she exclaimed, “I have an idea. How would you like spinsters?”
“My dear Lucy, it would be splendid. Do you know any such?”
“Yes; I met them abroad.”
“Gentlewomen?” he asked tentatively.
“Yes, indeed, and at the present moment homeless. I heard from them last week—Miss Teresa and Miss Catharine Alan. I’m really not joking. They are quite the right people. Mr. Beebe knows them, too. May I tell them to write to you?”