A Room With a View

Page 21

“No, thank you. I’m done. I don’t see why—Freddy, don’t poke me. Miss Honeychurch, your brother’s hurting me. Ow! What about Mr. Floyd’s ten shillings? Ow! No, I don’t see and I never shall see why Miss What’s-her-name shouldn’t pay that bob for the driver.”

“I had forgotten the driver,” said Miss Bartlett, reddening. “Thank you, dear, for reminding me. A shilling was it? Can any one give me change for half a crown?”

“I’ll get it,” said the young hostess, rising with decision.

“Cecil, give me that sovereign. No, give me up that sovereign. I’ll get Euphemia to change it, and we’ll start the whole thing again from the beginning.”

“Lucy—Lucy—what a nuisance I am!” protested Miss Bartlett, and followed her across the lawn. Lucy tripped ahead, simulating hilarity. When they were out of earshot Miss Bartlett stopped her wails and said quite briskly: “Have you told him about him yet?”

“No, I haven’t,” replied Lucy, and then could have bitten her tongue for understanding so quickly what her cousin meant. “Let me see—a sovereign’s worth of silver.”

She escaped into the kitchen. Miss Bartlett’s sudden transitions were too uncanny. It sometimes seemed as if she planned every word she spoke or caused to be spoken; as if all this worry about cabs and change had been a ruse to surprise the soul.

“No, I haven’t told Cecil or any one,” she remarked, when she returned. “I promised you I shouldn’t. Here is your money—all shillings, except two half-crowns. Would you count it? You can settle your debt nicely now.”

Miss Bartlett was in the drawing-room, gazing at the photograph of St. John ascending, which had been framed.

“How dreadful!” she murmured, “how more than dreadful, if Mr. Vyse should come to hear of it from some other source.”

“Oh, no, Charlotte,” said the girl, entering the battle. “George Emerson is all right, and what other source is there?”

Miss Bartlett considered. “For instance, the driver. I saw him looking through the bushes at you, remember he had a violet between his teeth.”

Lucy shuddered a little. “We shall get the silly affair on our nerves if we aren’t careful. How could a Florentine cab-driver ever get hold of Cecil?”

“We must think of every possibility.”

“Oh, it’s all right.”

“Or perhaps old Mr. Emerson knows. In fact, he is certain to know.”

“I don’t care if he does. I was grateful to you for your letter, but even if the news does get round, I think I can trust Cecil to laugh at it.”

“To contradict it?”

“No, to laugh at it.” But she knew in her heart that she could not trust him, for he desired her untouched.

“Very well, dear, you know best. Perhaps gentlemen are different to what they were when I was young. Ladies are certainly different.”

“Now, Charlotte!” She struck at her playfully. “You kind, anxious thing. What WOULD you have me do? First you say ‘Don’t tell’; and then you say, ‘Tell’. Which is it to be? Quick!”

Miss Bartlett sighed “I am no match for you in conversation, dearest. I blush when I think how I interfered at Florence, and you so well able to look after yourself, and so much cleverer in all ways than I am. You will never forgive me.”

“Shall we go out, then. They will smash all the china if we don’t.”

For the air rang with the shrieks of Minnie, who was being scalped with a teaspoon.

“Dear, one moment—we may not have this chance for a chat again. Have you seen the young one yet?”

“Yes, I have.”

“What happened?”

“We met at the Rectory.”

“What line is he taking up?”

“No line. He talked about Italy, like any other person. It is really all right. What advantage would he get from being a cad, to put it bluntly? I do wish I could make you see it my way. He really won’t be any nuisance, Charlotte.”

“Once a cad, always a cad. That is my poor opinion.”

Lucy paused. “Cecil said one day—and I thought it so profound—that there are two kinds of cads—the conscious and the subconscious.” She paused again, to be sure of doing justice to Cecil’s profundity. Through the window she saw Cecil himself, turning over the pages of a novel. It was a new one from Smith’s library. Her mother must have returned from the station.

“Once a cad, always a cad,” droned Miss Bartlett.

“What I mean by subconscious is that Emerson lost his head. I fell into all those violets, and he was silly and surprised. I don’t think we ought to blame him very much. It makes such a difference when you see a person with beautiful things behind him unexpectedly. It really does; it makes an enormous difference, and he lost his head: he doesn’t admire me, or any of that nonsense, one straw. Freddy rather likes him, and has asked him up here on Sunday, so you can judge for yourself. He has improved; he doesn’t always look as if he’s going to burst into tears. He is a clerk in the General Manager’s office at one of the big railways—not a porter! and runs down to his father for week-ends. Papa was to do with journalism, but is rheumatic and has retired. There! Now for the garden.” She took hold of her guest by the arm. “Suppose we don’t talk about this silly Italian business any more. We want you to have a nice restful visit at Windy Corner, with no worriting.”

Lucy thought this rather a good speech. The reader may have detected an unfortunate slip in it. Whether Miss Bartlett detected the slip one cannot say, for it is impossible to penetrate into the minds of elderly people. She might have spoken further, but they were interrupted by the entrance of her hostess. Explanations took place, and in the midst of them Lucy escaped, the images throbbing a little more vividly in her brain.

 

Chapter XV: The Disaster Within

The Sunday after Miss Bartlett’s arrival was a glorious day, like most of the days of that year. In the Weald, autumn approached, breaking up the green monotony of summer, touching the parks with the grey bloom of mist, the beech-trees with russet, the oak-trees with gold. Up on the heights, battalions of black pines witnessed the change, themselves unchangeable. Either country was spanned by a cloudless sky, and in either arose the tinkle of church bells.

The garden of Windy Corners was deserted except for a red book, which lay sunning itself upon the gravel path. From the house came incoherent sounds, as of females preparing for worship. “The men say they won’t go”—”Well, I don’t blame them”—Minnie says, “need she go?”—”Tell her, no nonsense”—”Anne! Mary! Hook me behind!”—”Dearest Lucia, may I trespass upon you for a pin?” For Miss Bartlett had announced that she at all events was one for church.

The sun rose higher on its journey, guided, not by Phaethon, but by Apollo, competent, unswerving, divine. Its rays fell on the ladies whenever they advanced towards the bedroom windows; on Mr. Beebe down at Summer Street as he smiled over a letter from Miss Catharine Alan; on George Emerson cleaning his father’s boots; and lastly, to complete the catalogue of memorable things, on the red book mentioned previously. The ladies move, Mr. Beebe moves, George moves, and movement may engender shadow. But this book lies motionless, to be caressed all the morning by the sun and to raise its covers slightly, as though acknowledging the caress.

Presently Lucy steps out of the drawing-room window. Her new cerise dress has been a failure, and makes her look tawdry and wan. At her throat is a garnet brooch, on her finger a ring set with rubies—an engagement ring. Her eyes are bent to the Weald. She frowns a little—not in anger, but as a brave child frowns when he is trying not to cry. In all that expanse no human eye is looking at her, and she may frown unrebuked and measure the spaces that yet survive between Apollo and the western hills.

“Lucy! Lucy! What’s that book? Who’s been taking a book out of the shelf and leaving it about to spoil?”

“It’s only the library book that Cecil’s been reading.”

“But pick it up, and don’t stand idling there like a flamingo.”

Lucy picked up the book and glanced at the title listlessly, Under a Loggia. She no longer read novels herself, devoting all her spare time to solid literature in the hope of catching Cecil up. It was dreadful how little she knew, and even when she thought she knew a thing, like the Italian painters, she found she had forgotten it. Only this morning she had confused Francesco Francia with Piero della Francesca, and Cecil had said, “What! you aren’t forgetting your Italy already?” And this too had lent anxiety to her eyes when she saluted the dear view and the dear garden in the foreground, and above them, scarcely conceivable elsewhere, the dear sun.

“Lucy—have you a sixpence for Minnie and a shilling for yourself?”

She hastened in to her mother, who was rapidly working herself into a Sunday fluster.

“It’s a special collection—I forget what for. I do beg, no vulgar clinking in the plate with halfpennies; see that Minnie has a nice bright sixpence. Where is the child? Minnie! That book’s all warped. (Gracious, how plain you look!) Put it under the Atlas to press. Minnie!”

“Oh, Mrs. Honeychurch—” from the upper regions.

“Minnie, don’t be late. Here comes the horse”—it was always the horse, never the carriage. “Where’s Charlotte? Run up and hurry her. Why is she so long? She had nothing to do. She never brings anything but blouses. Poor Charlotte—How I do detest blouses! Minnie!”

Paganism is infectious—more infectious than diphtheria or piety—and the Rector’s niece was taken to church protesting. As usual, she didn’t see why. Why shouldn’t she sit in the sun with the young men? The young men, who had now appeared, mocked her with ungenerous words. Mrs. Honeychurch defended orthodoxy, and in the midst of the confusion Miss Bartlett, dressed in the very height of the fashion, came strolling down the stairs.

“Dear Marian, I am very sorry, but I have no small change—nothing but sovereigns and half crowns. Could any one give me—”

“Yes, easily. Jump in. Gracious me, how smart you look! What a lovely frock! You put us all to shame.”

“If I did not wear my best rags and tatters now, when should I wear them?” said Miss Bartlett reproachfully. She got into the victoria and placed herself with her back to the horse. The necessary roar ensued, and then they drove off.

“Good-bye! Be good!” called out Cecil.

Lucy bit her lip, for the tone was sneering. On the subject of “church and so on” they had had rather an unsatisfactory conversation. He had said that people ought to overhaul themselves, and she did not want to overhaul herself; she did not know it was done. Honest orthodoxy Cecil respected, but he always assumed that honesty is the result of a spiritual crisis; he could not imagine it as a natural birthright, that might grow heavenward like flowers. All that he said on this subject pained her, though he exuded tolerance from every pore; somehow the Emersons were different.

She saw the Emersons after church. There was a line of carriages down the road, and the Honeychurch vehicle happened to be opposite Cissie Villa. To save time, they walked over the green to it, and found father and son smoking in the garden.

“Introduce me,” said her mother. “Unless the young man considers that he knows me already.”

He probably did; but Lucy ignored the Sacred Lake and introduced them formally. Old Mr. Emerson claimed her with much warmth, and said how glad he was that she was going to be married. She said yes, she was glad too; and then, as Miss Bartlett and Minnie were lingering behind with Mr. Beebe, she turned the conversation to a less disturbing topic, and asked him how he liked his new house.

“Very much,” he replied, but there was a note of offence in his voice; she had never known him offended before. He added: “We find, though, that the Miss Alans were coming, and that we have turned them out. Women mind such a thing. I am very much upset about it.”

“I believe that there was some misunderstanding,” said Mrs. Honeychurch uneasily.

“Our landlord was told that we should be a different type of person,” said George, who seemed disposed to carry the matter further. “He thought we should be artistic. He is disappointed.”

“And I wonder whether we ought to write to the Miss Alans and offer to give it up. What do you think?” He appealed to Lucy.

“Oh, stop now you have come,” said Lucy lightly. She must avoid censuring Cecil. For it was on Cecil that the little episode turned, though his name was never mentioned.

“So George says. He says that the Miss Alans must go to the wall. Yet it does seem so unkind.”

“There is only a certain amount of kindness in the world,” said George, watching the sunlight flash on the panels of the passing carriages.

“Yes!” exclaimed Mrs. Honeychurch. “That’s exactly what I say. Why all this twiddling and twaddling over two Miss Alans?”

“There is a certain amount of kindness, just as there is a certain amount of light,” he continued in measured tones. “We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm—yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”