A Room With a View

Page 20

Mrs. Honeychurch might have flamed out. She did not. She said: “Come here, old lady—thank you for putting away my bonnet—kiss me.” And, though nothing is perfect, Lucy felt for the moment that her mother and Windy Corner and the Weald in the declining sun were perfect.

So the grittiness went out of life. It generally did at Windy Corner. At the last minute, when the social machine was clogged hopelessly, one member or other of the family poured in a drop of oil. Cecil despised their methods—perhaps rightly. At all events, they were not his own.

Dinner was at half-past seven. Freddy gabbled the grace, and they drew up their heavy chairs and fell to. Fortunately, the men were hungry. Nothing untoward occurred until the pudding. Then Freddy said:

“Lucy, what’s Emerson like?”

“I saw him in Florence,” said Lucy, hoping that this would pass for a reply.

“Is he the clever sort, or is he a decent chap?”

“Ask Cecil; it is Cecil who brought him here.”

“He is the clever sort, like myself,” said Cecil.

Freddy looked at him doubtfully.

“How well did you know them at the Bertolini?” asked Mrs. Honeychurch.

“Oh, very slightly. I mean, Charlotte knew them even less than I did.”

“Oh, that reminds me—you never told me what Charlotte said in her letter.”

“One thing and another,” said Lucy, wondering whether she would get through the meal without a lie. “Among other things, that an awful friend of hers had been bicycling through Summer Street, wondered if she’d come up and see us, and mercifully didn’t.”

“Lucy, I do call the way you talk unkind.”

“She was a novelist,” said Lucy craftily. The remark was a happy one, for nothing roused Mrs. Honeychurch so much as literature in the hands of females. She would abandon every topic to inveigh against those women who (instead of minding their houses and their children) seek notoriety by print. Her attitude was: “If books must be written, let them be written by men”; and she developed it at great length, while Cecil yawned and Freddy played at “This year, next year, now, never,” with his plum-stones, and Lucy artfully fed the flames of her mother’s wrath. But soon the conflagration died down, and the ghosts began to gather in the darkness. There were too many ghosts about. The original ghost—that touch of lips on her cheek—had surely been laid long ago; it could be nothing to her that a man had kissed her on a mountain once. But it had begotten a spectral family—Mr. Harris, Miss Bartlett’s letter, Mr. Beebe’s memories of violets—and one or other of these was bound to haunt her before Cecil’s very eyes. It was Miss Bartlett who returned now, and with appalling vividness.

“I have been thinking, Lucy, of that letter of Charlotte’s. How is she?”

“I tore the thing up.”

“Didn’t she say how she was? How does she sound? Cheerful?”

“Oh, yes I suppose so—no—not very cheerful, I suppose.”

“Then, depend upon it, it IS the boiler. I know myself how water preys upon one’s mind. I would rather anything else—even a misfortune with the meat.”

Cecil laid his hand over his eyes.

“So would I,” asserted Freddy, backing his mother up—backing up the spirit of her remark rather than the substance.

“And I have been thinking,” she added rather nervously, “surely we could squeeze Charlotte in here next week, and give her a nice holiday while the plumbers at Tunbridge Wells finish. I have not seen poor Charlotte for so long.”

It was more than her nerves could stand. And she could not protest violently after her mother’s goodness to her upstairs.

“Mother, no!” she pleaded. “It’s impossible. We can’t have Charlotte on the top of the other things; we’re squeezed to death as it is. Freddy’s got a friend coming Tuesday, there’s Cecil, and you’ve promised to take in Minnie Beebe because of the diphtheria scare. It simply can’t be done.”

“Nonsense! It can.”

“If Minnie sleeps in the bath. Not otherwise.”

“Minnie can sleep with you.”

“I won’t have her.”

“Then, if you’re so selfish, Mr. Floyd must share a room with Freddy.”

“Miss Bartlett, Miss Bartlett, Miss Bartlett,” moaned Cecil, again laying his hand over his eyes.

“It’s impossible,” repeated Lucy. “I don’t want to make difficulties, but it really isn’t fair on the maids to fill up the house so.”

Alas!

“The truth is, dear, you don’t like Charlotte.”

“No, I don’t. And no more does Cecil. She gets on our nerves. You haven’t seen her lately, and don’t realize how tiresome she can be, though so good. So please, mother, don’t worry us this last summer; but spoil us by not asking her to come.”

“Hear, hear!” said Cecil.

Mrs. Honeychurch, with more gravity than usual, and with more feeling than she usually permitted herself, replied: “This isn’t very kind of you two. You have each other and all these woods to walk in, so full of beautiful things; and poor Charlotte has only the water turned off and plumbers. You are young, dears, and however clever young people are, and however many books they read, they will never guess what it feels like to grow old.”

Cecil crumbled his bread.

“I must say Cousin Charlotte was very kind to me that year I called on my bike,” put in Freddy. “She thanked me for coming till I felt like such a fool, and fussed round no end to get an egg boiled for my tea just right.”

“I know, dear. She is kind to everyone, and yet Lucy makes this difficulty when we try to give her some little return.”

But Lucy hardened her heart. It was no good being kind to Miss Bartlett. She had tried herself too often and too recently. One might lay up treasure in heaven by the attempt, but one enriched neither Miss Bartlett nor any one else upon earth. She was reduced to saying: “I can’t help it, mother. I don’t like Charlotte. I admit it’s horrid of me.”

“From your own account, you told her as much.”

“Well, she would leave Florence so stupidly. She flurried—”

The ghosts were returning; they filled Italy, they were even usurping the places she had known as a child. The Sacred Lake would never be the same again, and, on Sunday week, something would even happen to Windy Corner. How would she fight against ghosts? For a moment the visible world faded away, and memories and emotions alone seemed real.

“I suppose Miss Bartlett must come, since she boils eggs so well,” said Cecil, who was in rather a happier frame of mind, thanks to the admirable cooking.

“I didn’t mean the egg was WELL boiled,” corrected Freddy, “because in point of fact she forgot to take it off, and as a matter of fact I don’t care for eggs. I only meant how jolly kind she seemed.”

Cecil frowned again. Oh, these Honeychurches! Eggs, boilers, hydrangeas, maids—of such were their lives compact. “May me and Lucy get down from our chairs?” he asked, with scarcely veiled insolence. “We don’t want no dessert.”
Chapter XIV: How Lucy Faced the External Situation Bravely

Of course Miss Bartlett accepted. And, equally of course, she felt sure that she would prove a nuisance, and begged to be given an inferior spare room—something with no view, anything. Her love to Lucy. And, equally of course, George Emerson could come to tennis on the Sunday week.

Lucy faced the situation bravely, though, like most of us, she only faced the situation that encompassed her. She never gazed inwards. If at times strange images rose from the depths, she put them down to nerves. When Cecil brought the Emersons to Summer Street, it had upset her nerves. Charlotte would burnish up past foolishness, and this might upset her nerves. She was nervous at night. When she talked to George—they met again almost immediately at the Rectory—his voice moved her deeply, and she wished to remain near him. How dreadful if she really wished to remain near him! Of course, the wish was due to nerves, which love to play such perverse tricks upon us. Once she had suffered from “things that came out of nothing and meant she didn’t know what.” Now Cecil had explained psychology to her one wet afternoon, and all the troubles of youth in an unknown world could be dismissed.

It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, “She loves young Emerson.” A reader in Lucy’s place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome “nerves” or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?

But the external situation—she will face that bravely.

The meeting at the Rectory had passed off well enough. Standing between Mr. Beebe and Cecil, she had made a few temperate allusions to Italy, and George had replied. She was anxious to show that she was not shy, and was glad that he did not seem shy either.

“A nice fellow,” said Mr. Beebe afterwards “He will work off his crudities in time. I rather mistrust young men who slip into life gracefully.”

Lucy said, “He seems in better spirits. He laughs more.”

“Yes,” replied the clergyman. “He is waking up.”

That was all. But, as the week wore on, more of her defences fell, and she entertained an image that had physical beauty. In spite of the clearest directions, Miss Bartlett contrived to bungle her arrival. She was due at the South-Eastern station at Dorking, whither Mrs. Honeychurch drove to meet her. She arrived at the London and Brighton station, and had to hire a cab up. No one was at home except Freddy and his friend, who had to stop their tennis and to entertain her for a solid hour. Cecil and Lucy turned up at four o’clock, and these, with little Minnie Beebe, made a somewhat lugubrious sextette upon the upper lawn for tea.

“I shall never forgive myself,” said Miss Bartlett, who kept on rising from her seat, and had to be begged by the united company to remain. “I have upset everything. Bursting in on young people! But I insist on paying for my cab up. Grant that, at any rate.”

“Our visitors never do such dreadful things,” said Lucy, while her brother, in whose memory the boiled egg had already grown unsubstantial, exclaimed in irritable tones: “Just what I’ve been trying to convince Cousin Charlotte of, Lucy, for the last half hour.”

“I do not feel myself an ordinary visitor,” said Miss Bartlett, and looked at her frayed glove.

“All right, if you’d really rather. Five shillings, and I gave a bob to the driver.”

Miss Bartlett looked in her purse. Only sovereigns and pennies. Could any one give her change? Freddy had half a quid and his friend had four half-crowns. Miss Bartlett accepted their moneys and then said: “But who am I to give the sovereign to?”

“Let’s leave it all till mother comes back,” suggested Lucy.

“No, dear; your mother may take quite a long drive now that she is not hampered with me. We all have our little foibles, and mine is the prompt settling of accounts.”

Here Freddy’s friend, Mr. Floyd, made the one remark of his that need be quoted: he offered to toss Freddy for Miss Bartlett’s quid. A solution seemed in sight, and even Cecil, who had been ostentatiously drinking his tea at the view, felt the eternal attraction of Chance, and turned round.

But this did not do, either.

“Please—please—I know I am a sad spoil-sport, but it would make me wretched. I should practically be robbing the one who lost.”

“Freddy owes me fifteen shillings,” interposed Cecil. “So it will work out right if you give the pound to me.”

“Fifteen shillings,” said Miss Bartlett dubiously. “How is that, Mr. Vyse?”

“Because, don’t you see, Freddy paid your cab. Give me the pound, and we shall avoid this deplorable gambling.”

Miss Bartlett, who was poor at figures, became bewildered and rendered up the sovereign, amidst the suppressed gurgles of the other youths. For a moment Cecil was happy. He was playing at nonsense among his peers. Then he glanced at Lucy, in whose face petty anxieties had marred the smiles. In January he would rescue his Leonardo from this stupefying twaddle.

“But I don’t see that!” exclaimed Minnie Beebe who had narrowly watched the iniquitous transaction. “I don’t see why Mr. Vyse is to have the quid.”

“Because of the fifteen shillings and the five,” they said solemnly. “Fifteen shillings and five shillings make one pound, you see.”

“But I don’t see—”

They tried to stifle her with cake.