“Poor Lucy—” She stretched out her hand. “I seem to bring nothing but misfortune wherever I go.” Lucy nodded. She remembered their last evening at Florence—the packing, the candle, the shadow of Miss Bartlett’s toque on the door. She was not to be trapped by pathos a second time. Eluding her cousin’s caress, she led the way downstairs.
“Try the jam,” Freddy was saying. “The jam’s jolly good.”
George, looking big and dishevelled, was pacing up and down the dining-room. As she entered he stopped, and said:
“No—nothing to eat.”
“You go down to the others,” said Lucy; “Charlotte and I will give Mr. Emerson all he wants. Where’s mother?”
“She’s started on her Sunday writing. She’s in the drawing-room.”
“That’s all right. You go away.”
He went off singing.
Lucy sat down at the table. Miss Bartlett, who was thoroughly frightened, took up a book and pretended to read.
She would not be drawn into an elaborate speech. She just said: “I can’t have it, Mr. Emerson. I cannot even talk to you. Go out of this house, and never come into it again as long as I live here—” flushing as she spoke and pointing to the door. “I hate a row. Go please.”
“But I can’t—”
She shook her head. “Go, please. I do not want to call in Mr. Vyse.”
“You don’t mean,” he said, absolutely ignoring Miss Bartlett—”you don’t mean that you are going to marry that man?”
The line was unexpected.
She shrugged her shoulders, as if his vulgarity wearied her. “You are merely ridiculous,” she said quietly.
Then his words rose gravely over hers: “You cannot live with Vyse. He’s only for an acquaintance. He is for society and cultivated talk. He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman.”
It was a new light on Cecil’s character.
“Have you ever talked to Vyse without feeling tired?”
“I can scarcely discuss—”
“No, but have you ever? He is the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things—books, pictures—but kill when they come to people. That’s why I’ll speak out through all this muddle even now. It’s shocking enough to lose you in any case, but generally a man must deny himself joy, and I would have held back if your Cecil had been a different person. I would never have let myself go. But I saw him first in the National Gallery, when he winced because my father mispronounced the names of great painters. Then he brings us here, and we find it is to play some silly trick on a kind neighbour. That is the man all over—playing tricks on people, on the most sacred form of life that he can find. Next, I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for YOU to settle whether you were shocked or no. Cecil all over again. He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own. So it was at the Rectory, when I met you both again; so it has been the whole of this afternoon. Therefore—not ‘therefore I kissed you,’ because the book made me do that, and I wish to goodness I had more self-control. I’m not ashamed. I don’t apologize. But it has frightened you, and you may not have noticed that I love you. Or would you have told me to go, and dealt with a tremendous thing so lightly? But therefore—therefore I settled to fight him.”
Lucy thought of a very good remark.
“You say Mr. Vyse wants me to listen to him, Mr. Emerson. Pardon me for suggesting that you have caught the habit.”
And he took the shoddy reproof and touched it into immortality. He said:
“Yes, I have,” and sank down as if suddenly weary. “I’m the same kind of brute at bottom. This desire to govern a woman—it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together before they shall enter the garden. But I do love you surely in a better way than he does.” He thought. “Yes—really in a better way. I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms.” He stretched them towards her. “Lucy, be quick—there’s no time for us to talk now—come to me as you came in the spring, and afterwards I will be gentle and explain. I have cared for you since that man died. I cannot live without you, ‘No good,’ I thought; ‘she is marrying someone else’; but I meet you again when all the world is glorious water and sun. As you came through the wood I saw that nothing else mattered. I called. I wanted to live and have my chance of joy.”
“And Mr. Vyse?” said Lucy, who kept commendably calm. “Does he not matter? That I love Cecil and shall be his wife shortly? A detail of no importance, I suppose?”
But he stretched his arms over the table towards her.
“May I ask what you intend to gain by this exhibition?”
He said: “It is our last chance. I shall do all that I can.” And as if he had done all else, he turned to Miss Bartlett, who sat like some portent against the skies of the evening. “You wouldn’t stop us this second time if you understood,” he said. “I have been into the dark, and I am going back into it, unless you will try to understand.”
Her long, narrow head drove backwards and forwards, as though demolishing some invisible obstacle. She did not answer.
“It is being young,” he said quietly, picking up his racquet from the floor and preparing to go. “It is being certain that Lucy cares for me really. It is that love and youth matter intellectually.”
In silence the two women watched him. His last remark, they knew, was nonsense, but was he going after it or not? Would not he, the cad, the charlatan, attempt a more dramatic finish? No. He was apparently content. He left them, carefully closing the front door; and when they looked through the hall window, they saw him go up the drive and begin to climb the slopes of withered fern behind the house. Their tongues were loosed, and they burst into stealthy rejoicings.
“Oh, Lucia—come back here—oh, what an awful man!”
Lucy had no reaction—at least, not yet. “Well, he amuses me,” she said. “Either I’m mad, or else he is, and I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. One more fuss through with you, Charlotte. Many thanks. I think, though, that this is the last. My admirer will hardly trouble me again.”
And Miss Bartlett, too, essayed the roguish:
“Well, it isn’t everyone who could boast such a conquest, dearest, is it? Oh, one oughtn’t to laugh, really. It might have been very serious. But you were so sensible and brave—so unlike the girls of my day.”
“Let’s go down to them.”
But, once in the open air, she paused. Some emotion—pity, terror, love, but the emotion was strong—seized her, and she was aware of autumn. Summer was ending, and the evening brought her odours of decay, the more pathetic because they were reminiscent of spring. That something or other mattered intellectually? A leaf, violently agitated, danced past her, while other leaves lay motionless. That the earth was hastening to re-enter darkness, and the shadows of those trees over Windy Corner?
“Hullo, Lucy! There’s still light enough for another set, if you two’ll hurry.”
“Mr. Emerson has had to go.”
“What a nuisance! That spoils the four. I say, Cecil, do play, do, there’s a good chap. It’s Floyd’s last day. Do play tennis with us, just this once.”
Cecil’s voice came: “My dear Freddy, I am no athlete. As you well remarked this very morning, ‘There are some chaps who are no good for anything but books’; I plead guilty to being such a chap, and will not inflict myself on you.”
The scales fell from Lucy’s eyes. How had she stood Cecil for a moment? He was absolutely intolerable, and the same evening she broke off her engagement.
Chapter XVII: Lying to Cecil
He was bewildered. He had nothing to say. He was not even angry, but stood, with a glass of whiskey between his hands, trying to think what had led her to such a conclusion.
She had chosen the moment before bed, when, in accordance with their bourgeois habit, she always dispensed drinks to the men. Freddy and Mr. Floyd were sure to retire with their glasses, while Cecil invariably lingered, sipping at his while she locked up the sideboard.
“I am very sorry about it,” she said; “I have carefully thought things over. We are too different. I must ask you to release me, and try to forget that there ever was such a foolish girl.”
It was a suitable speech, but she was more angry than sorry, and her voice showed it.
“I haven’t had a really good education, for one thing,” she continued, still on her knees by the sideboard. “My Italian trip came too late, and I am forgetting all that I learnt there. I shall never be able to talk to your friends, or behave as a wife of yours should.”
“I don’t understand you. You aren’t like yourself. You’re tired, Lucy.”
“Tired!” she retorted, kindling at once. “That is exactly like you. You always think women don’t mean what they say.”
“Well, you sound tired, as if something has worried you.”
“What if I do? It doesn’t prevent me from realizing the truth. I can’t marry you, and you will thank me for saying so some day.”
“You had that bad headache yesterday—All right”—for she had exclaimed indignantly: “I see it’s much more than headaches. But give me a moment’s time.” He closed his eyes. “You must excuse me if I say stupid things, but my brain has gone to pieces. Part of it lives three minutes back, when I was sure that you loved me, and the other part—I find it difficult—I am likely to say the wrong thing.”
It struck her that he was not behaving so badly, and her irritation increased. She again desired a struggle, not a discussion. To bring on the crisis, she said:
“There are days when one sees clearly, and this is one of them. Things must come to a breaking-point some time, and it happens to be to-day. If you want to know, quite a little thing decided me to speak to you—when you wouldn’t play tennis with Freddy.”
“I never do play tennis,” said Cecil, painfully bewildered; “I never could play. I don’t understand a word you say.”
“You can play well enough to make up a four. I thought it abominably selfish of you.”
“No, I can’t—well, never mind the tennis. Why couldn’t you—couldn’t you have warned me if you felt anything wrong? You talked of our wedding at lunch—at least, you let me talk.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” said Lucy quite crossly. “I might have known there would have been these dreadful explanations. Of course, it isn’t the tennis—that was only the last straw to all I have been feeling for weeks. Surely it was better not to speak until I felt certain.” She developed this position. “Often before I have wondered if I was fitted for your wife—for instance, in London; and are you fitted to be my husband? I don’t think so. You don’t like Freddy, nor my mother. There was always a lot against our engagement, Cecil, but all our relations seemed pleased, and we met so often, and it was no good mentioning it until—well, until all things came to a point. They have to-day. I see clearly. I must speak. That’s all.”
“I cannot think you were right,” said Cecil gently. “I cannot tell why, but though all that you say sounds true, I feel that you are not treating me fairly. It’s all too horrible.”
“What’s the good of a scene?”
“No good. But surely I have a right to hear a little more.”
He put down his glass and opened the window. From where she knelt, jangling her keys, she could see a slit of darkness, and, peering into it, as if it would tell him that “little more,” his long, thoughtful face.
“Don’t open the window; and you’d better draw the curtain, too; Freddy or any one might be outside.” He obeyed. “I really think we had better go to bed, if you don’t mind. I shall only say things that will make me unhappy afterwards. As you say it is all too horrible, and it is no good talking.”
But to Cecil, now that he was about to lose her, she seemed each moment more desirable. He looked at her, instead of through her, for the first time since they were engaged. From a Leonardo she had become a living woman, with mysteries and forces of her own, with qualities that even eluded art. His brain recovered from the shock, and, in a burst of genuine devotion, he cried: “But I love you, and I did think you loved me!”
“I did not,” she said. “I thought I did at first. I am sorry, and ought to have refused you this last time, too.”
He began to walk up and down the room, and she grew more and more vexed at his dignified behaviour. She had counted on his being petty. It would have made things easier for her. By a cruel irony she was drawing out all that was finest in his disposition.
“You don’t love me, evidently. I dare say you are right not to. But it would hurt a little less if I knew why.”