“Indeed you may!” he cried. “Here we are with the difficulty solved already. How delightful it is! Extra facilities—please tell them they shall have extra facilities, for I shall have no agents’ fees. Oh, the agents! The appalling people they have sent me! One woman, when I wrote—a tactful letter, you know—asking her to explain her social position to me, replied that she would pay the rent in advance. As if one cares about that! And several references I took up were most unsatisfactory—people swindlers, or not respectable. And oh, the deceit! I have seen a good deal of the seamy side this last week. The deceit of the most promising people. My dear Lucy, the deceit!”
“My advice,” put in Mrs. Honeychurch, “is to have nothing to do with Lucy and her decayed gentlewomen at all. I know the type. Preserve me from people who have seen better days, and bring heirlooms with them that make the house smell stuffy. It’s a sad thing, but I’d far rather let to some one who is going up in the world than to someone who has come down.”
“I think I follow you,” said Sir Harry; “but it is, as you say, a very sad thing.”
“The Misses Alan aren’t that!” cried Lucy.
“Yes, they are,” said Cecil. “I haven’t met them but I should say they were a highly unsuitable addition to the neighbourhood.”
“Don’t listen to him, Sir Harry—he’s tiresome.”
“It’s I who am tiresome,” he replied. “I oughtn’t to come with my troubles to young people. But really I am so worried, and Lady Otway will only say that I cannot be too careful, which is quite true, but no real help.”
“Then may I write to my Misses Alan?”
But his eye wavered when Mrs. Honeychurch exclaimed:
“Beware! They are certain to have canaries. Sir Harry, beware of canaries: they spit the seed out through the bars of the cages and then the mice come. Beware of women altogether. Only let to a man.”
“Really—” he murmured gallantly, though he saw the wisdom of her remark.
“Men don’t gossip over tea-cups. If they get drunk, there’s an end of them—they lie down comfortably and sleep it off. If they’re vulgar, they somehow keep it to themselves. It doesn’t spread so. Give me a man—of course, provided he’s clean.”
Sir Harry blushed. Neither he nor Cecil enjoyed these open compliments to their sex. Even the exclusion of the dirty did not leave them much distinction. He suggested that Mrs. Honeychurch, if she had time, should descend from the carriage and inspect “Cissie” for herself. She was delighted. Nature had intended her to be poor and to live in such a house. Domestic arrangements always attracted her, especially when they were on a small scale.
Cecil pulled Lucy back as she followed her mother.
“Mrs. Honeychurch,” he said, “what if we two walk home and leave you?”
“Certainly!” was her cordial reply.
Sir Harry likewise seemed almost too glad to get rid of them. He beamed at them knowingly, said, “Aha! young people, young people!” and then hastened to unlock the house.
“Hopeless vulgarian!” exclaimed Cecil, almost before they were out of earshot.
“I can’t help it. It would be wrong not to loathe that man.”
“He isn’t clever, but really he is nice.”
“No, Lucy, he stands for all that is bad in country life. In London he would keep his place. He would belong to a brainless club, and his wife would give brainless dinner parties. But down here he acts the little god with his gentility, and his patronage, and his sham aesthetics, and every one—even your mother—is taken in.”
“All that you say is quite true,” said Lucy, though she felt discouraged. “I wonder whether—whether it matters so very much.”
“It matters supremely. Sir Harry is the essence of that garden-party. Oh, goodness, how cross I feel! How I do hope he’ll get some vulgar tenant in that villa—some woman so really vulgar that he’ll notice it. GENTLEFOLKS! Ugh! with his bald head and retreating chin! But let’s forget him.”
This Lucy was glad enough to do. If Cecil disliked Sir Harry Otway and Mr. Beebe, what guarantee was there that the people who really mattered to her would escape? For instance, Freddy. Freddy was neither clever, nor subtle, nor beautiful, and what prevented Cecil from saying, any minute, “It would be wrong not to loathe Freddy”? And what would she reply? Further than Freddy she did not go, but he gave her anxiety enough. She could only assure herself that Cecil had known Freddy some time, and that they had always got on pleasantly, except, perhaps, during the last few days, which was an accident, perhaps.
“Which way shall we go?” she asked him.
Nature—simplest of topics, she thought—was around them. Summer Street lay deep in the woods, and she had stopped where a footpath diverged from the highroad.
“Are there two ways?”
“Perhaps the road is more sensible, as we’re got up smart.”
“I’d rather go through the wood,” said Cecil, With that subdued irritation that she had noticed in him all the afternoon. “Why is it, Lucy, that you always say the road? Do you know that you have never once been with me in the fields or the wood since we were engaged?”
“Haven’t I? The wood, then,” said Lucy, startled at his queerness, but pretty sure that he would explain later; it was not his habit to leave her in doubt as to his meaning.
She led the way into the whispering pines, and sure enough he did explain before they had gone a dozen yards.
“I had got an idea—I dare say wrongly—that you feel more at home with me in a room.”
“A room?” she echoed, hopelessly bewildered.
“Yes. Or, at the most, in a garden, or on a road. Never in the real country like this.”
“Oh, Cecil, whatever do you mean? I have never felt anything of the sort. You talk as if I was a kind of poetess sort of person.”
“I don’t know that you aren’t. I connect you with a view—a certain type of view. Why shouldn’t you connect me with a room?”
She reflected a moment, and then said, laughing:
“Do you know that you’re right? I do. I must be a poetess after all. When I think of you it’s always as in a room. How funny!”
To her surprise, he seemed annoyed.
“A drawing-room, pray? With no view?”
“Yes, with no view, I fancy. Why not?”
“I’d rather,” he said reproachfully, “that you connected me with the open air.”
She said again, “Oh, Cecil, whatever do you mean?”
As no explanation was forthcoming, she shook off the subject as too difficult for a girl, and led him further into the wood, pausing every now and then at some particularly beautiful or familiar combination of the trees. She had known the wood between Summer Street and Windy Corner ever since she could walk alone; she had played at losing Freddy in it, when Freddy was a purple-faced baby; and though she had been to Italy, it had lost none of its charm.
Presently they came to a little clearing among the pines—another tiny green alp, solitary this time, and holding in its bosom a shallow pool.
She exclaimed, “The Sacred Lake!”
“Why do you call it that?”
“I can’t remember why. I suppose it comes out of some book. It’s only a puddle now, but you see that stream going through it? Well, a good deal of water comes down after heavy rains, and can’t get away at once, and the pool becomes quite large and beautiful. Then Freddy used to bathe there. He is very fond of it.”
He meant, “Are you fond of it?” But she answered dreamily, “I bathed here, too, till I was found out. Then there was a row.”
At another time he might have been shocked, for he had depths of prudishness within him. But now? with his momentary cult of the fresh air, he was delighted at her admirable simplicity. He looked at her as she stood by the pool’s edge. She was got up smart, as she phrased it, and she reminded him of some brilliant flower that has no leaves of its own, but blooms abruptly out of a world of green.
“Who found you out?”
“Charlotte,” she murmured. “She was stopping with us. Charlotte—Charlotte.”
She smiled gravely. A certain scheme, from which hitherto he had shrunk, now appeared practical.
“Yes, I suppose we ought to be going,” was her reply.
“Lucy, I want to ask something of you that I have never asked before.”
At the serious note in his voice she stepped frankly and kindly towards him.
“Hitherto never—not even that day on the lawn when you agreed to marry me—”
He became self-conscious and kept glancing round to see if they were observed. His courage had gone.
“Up to now I have never kissed you.”
She was as scarlet as if he had put the thing most indelicately.
“No—more you have,” she stammered.
“Then I ask you—may I now?”
“Of course, you may, Cecil. You might before. I can’t run at you, you know.”
At that supreme moment he was conscious of nothing but absurdities. Her reply was inadequate. She gave such a business-like lift to her veil. As he approached her he found time to wish that he could recoil. As he touched her, his gold pince-nez became dislodged and was flattened between them.
Such was the embrace. He considered, with truth, that it had been a failure. Passion should believe itself irresistible. It should forget civility and consideration and all the other curses of a refined nature. Above all, it should never ask for leave where there is a right of way. Why could he not do as any labourer or navvy—nay, as any young man behind the counter would have done? He recast the scene. Lucy was standing flowerlike by the water, he rushed up and took her in his arms; she rebuked him, permitted him and revered him ever after for his manliness. For he believed that women revere men for their manliness.
They left the pool in silence, after this one salutation. He waited for her to make some remark which should show him her inmost thoughts. At last she spoke, and with fitting gravity.
“Emerson was the name, not Harris.”
“The old man’s.”
“What old man?”
“That old man I told you about. The one Mr. Eager was so unkind to.”
He could not know that this was the most intimate conversation they had ever had.
Chapter X: Cecil as a Humourist
The society out of which Cecil proposed to rescue Lucy was perhaps no very splendid affair, yet it was more splendid than her antecedents entitled her to. Her father, a prosperous local solicitor, had built Windy Corner, as a speculation at the time the district was opening up, and, falling in love with his own creation, had ended by living there himself. Soon after his marriage the social atmosphere began to alter. Other houses were built on the brow of that steep southern slope and others, again, among the pine-trees behind, and northward on the chalk barrier of the downs. Most of these houses were larger than Windy Corner, and were filled by people who came, not from the district, but from London, and who mistook the Honeychurches for the remnants of an indigenous aristocracy. He was inclined to be frightened, but his wife accepted the situation without either pride or humility. “I cannot think what people are doing,” she would say, “but it is extremely fortunate for the children.” She called everywhere; her calls were returned with enthusiasm, and by the time people found out that she was not exactly of their milieu, they liked her, and it did not seem to matter. When Mr. Honeychurch died, he had the satisfaction—which few honest solicitors despise—of leaving his family rooted in the best society obtainable.