Mr. Beebe, who was an adept at relieving situations, invited Miss Bartlett to accompany them to this mild festivity.
“Yes, Charlotte, I don’t want you—do go; there’s nothing to stop about for, either in the house or out of it.”
Miss Bartlett said that her duty lay in the dahlia bed, but when she had exasperated everyone, except Minnie, by a refusal, she turned round and exasperated Minnie by an acceptance. As they walked up the garden, the orange cactus fell, and Mr. Beebe’s last vision was of the garden-child clasping it like a lover, his dark head buried in a wealth of blossom.
“It is terrible, this havoc among the flowers,” he remarked.
“It is always terrible when the promise of months is destroyed in a moment,” enunciated Miss Bartlett.
“Perhaps we ought to send Miss Honeychurch down to her mother. Or will she come with us?”
“I think we had better leave Lucy to herself, and to her own pursuits.”
“They’re angry with Miss Honeychurch because she was late for breakfast,” whispered Minnie, “and Floyd has gone, and Mr. Vyse has gone, and Freddy won’t play with me. In fact, Uncle Arthur, the house is not AT ALL what it was yesterday.”
“Don’t be a prig,” said her Uncle Arthur. “Go and put on your boots.”
He stepped into the drawing-room, where Lucy was still attentively pursuing the Sonatas of Mozart. She stopped when he entered.
“How do you do? Miss Bartlett and Minnie are coming with me to tea at the Beehive. Would you come too?”
“I don’t think I will, thank you.”
“No, I didn’t suppose you would care to much.”
Lucy turned to the piano and struck a few chords.
“How delicate those Sonatas are!” said Mr. Beebe, though at the bottom of his heart, he thought them silly little things.
Lucy passed into Schumann.
“I met them on the hill. Your brother told me.”
“Oh he did?” She sounded annoyed. Mr. Beebe felt hurt, for he had thought that she would like him to be told.
“I needn’t say that it will go no further.”
“Mother, Charlotte, Cecil, Freddy, you,” said Lucy, playing a note for each person who knew, and then playing a sixth note.
“If you’ll let me say so, I am very glad, and I am certain that you have done the right thing.”
“So I hoped other people would think, but they don’t seem to.”
“I could see that Miss Bartlett thought it unwise.”
“So does mother. Mother minds dreadfully.”
“I am very sorry for that,” said Mr. Beebe with feeling.
Mrs. Honeychurch, who hated all changes, did mind, but not nearly as much as her daughter pretended, and only for the minute. It was really a ruse of Lucy’s to justify her despondency—a ruse of which she was not herself conscious, for she was marching in the armies of darkness.
“And Freddy minds.”
“Still, Freddy never hit it off with Vyse much, did he? I gathered that he disliked the engagement, and felt it might separate him from you.”
“Boys are so odd.”
Minnie could be heard arguing with Miss Bartlett through the floor. Tea at the Beehive apparently involved a complete change of apparel. Mr. Beebe saw that Lucy—very properly—did not wish to discuss her action, so after a sincere expression of sympathy, he said, “I have had an absurd letter from Miss Alan. That was really what brought me over. I thought it might amuse you all.”
“How delightful!” said Lucy, in a dull voice.
For the sake of something to do, he began to read her the letter. After a few words her eyes grew alert, and soon she interrupted him with “Going abroad? When do they start?”
“Next week, I gather.”
“Did Freddy say whether he was driving straight back?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Because I do hope he won’t go gossiping.”
So she did want to talk about her broken engagement. Always complaisant, he put the letter away. But she, at once exclaimed in a high voice, “Oh, do tell me more about the Miss Alans! How perfectly splendid of them to go abroad!”
“I want them to start from Venice, and go in a cargo steamer down the Illyrian coast!”
She laughed heartily. “Oh, delightful! I wish they’d take me.”
“Has Italy filled you with the fever of travel? Perhaps George Emerson is right. He says that ‘Italy is only an euphuism for Fate.'”
“Oh, not Italy, but Constantinople. I have always longed to go to Constantinople. Constantinople is practically Asia, isn’t it?”
Mr. Beebe reminded her that Constantinople was still unlikely, and that the Miss Alans only aimed at Athens, “with Delphi, perhaps, if the roads are safe.” But this made no difference to her enthusiasm. She had always longed to go to Greece even more, it seemed. He saw, to his surprise, that she was apparently serious.
“I didn’t realize that you and the Miss Alans were still such friends, after Cissie Villa.”
“Oh, that’s nothing; I assure you Cissie Villa’s nothing to me; I would give anything to go with them.”
“Would your mother spare you again so soon? You have scarcely been home three months.”
“She MUST spare me!” cried Lucy, in growing excitement. “I simply MUST go away. I have to.” She ran her fingers hysterically through her hair. “Don’t you see that I HAVE to go away? I didn’t realize at the time—and of course I want to see Constantinople so particularly.”
“You mean that since you have broken off your engagement you feel—”
“Yes, yes. I knew you’d understand.”
Mr. Beebe did not quite understand. Why could not Miss Honeychurch repose in the bosom of her family? Cecil had evidently taken up the dignified line, and was not going to annoy her. Then it struck him that her family itself might be annoying. He hinted this to her, and she accepted the hint eagerly.
“Yes, of course; to go to Constantinople until they are used to the idea and everything has calmed down.”
“I am afraid it has been a bothersome business,” he said gently.
“No, not at all. Cecil was very kind indeed; only—I had better tell you the whole truth, since you have heard a little—it was that he is so masterful. I found that he wouldn’t let me go my own way. He would improve me in places where I can’t be improved. Cecil won’t let a woman decide for herself—in fact, he daren’t. What nonsense I do talk! But that is the kind of thing.”
“It is what I gathered from my own observation of Mr. Vyse; it is what I gather from all that I have known of you. I do sympathize and agree most profoundly. I agree so much that you must let me make one little criticism: Is it worth while rushing off to Greece?”
“But I must go somewhere!” she cried. “I have been worrying all the morning, and here comes the very thing.” She struck her knees with clenched fists, and repeated: “I must! And the time I shall have with mother, and all the money she spent on me last spring. You all think much too highly of me. I wish you weren’t so kind.” At this moment Miss Bartlett entered, and her nervousness increased. “I must get away, ever so far. I must know my own mind and where I want to go.”
“Come along; tea, tea, tea,” said Mr. Beebe, and bustled his guests out of the front-door. He hustled them so quickly that he forgot his hat. When he returned for it he heard, to his relief and surprise, the tinkling of a Mozart Sonata.
“She is playing again,” he said to Miss Bartlett.
“Lucy can always play,” was the acid reply.
“One is very thankful that she has such a resource. She is evidently much worried, as, of course, she ought to be. I know all about it. The marriage was so near that it must have been a hard struggle before she could wind herself up to speak.”
Miss Bartlett gave a kind of wriggle, and he prepared for a discussion. He had never fathomed Miss Bartlett. As he had put it to himself at Florence, “she might yet reveal depths of strangeness, if not of meaning.” But she was so unsympathetic that she must be reliable. He assumed that much, and he had no hesitation in discussing Lucy with her. Minnie was fortunately collecting ferns.
She opened the discussion with: “We had much better let the matter drop.”
“It is of the highest importance that there should be no gossip in Summer Street. It would be DEATH to gossip about Mr. Vyse’s dismissal at the present moment.”
Mr. Beebe raised his eyebrows. Death is a strong word—surely too strong. There was no question of tragedy. He said: “Of course, Miss Honeychurch will make the fact public in her own way, and when she chooses. Freddy only told me because he knew she would not mind.”
“I know,” said Miss Bartlett civilly. “Yet Freddy ought not to have told even you. One cannot be too careful.”
“I do implore absolute secrecy. A chance word to a chattering friend, and—”
“Exactly.” He was used to these nervous old maids and to the exaggerated importance that they attach to words. A rector lives in a web of petty secrets, and confidences and warnings, and the wiser he is the less he will regard them. He will change the subject, as did Mr. Beebe, saying cheerfully: “Have you heard from any Bertolini people lately? I believe you keep up with Miss Lavish. It is odd how we of that pension, who seemed such a fortuitous collection, have been working into one another’s lives. Two, three, four, six of us—no, eight; I had forgotten the Emersons—have kept more or less in touch. We must really give the Signora a testimonial.”
And, Miss Bartlett not favouring the scheme, they walked up the hill in a silence which was only broken by the rector naming some fern. On the summit they paused. The sky had grown wilder since he stood there last hour, giving to the land a tragic greatness that is rare in Surrey. Grey clouds were charging across tissues of white, which stretched and shredded and tore slowly, until through their final layers there gleamed a hint of the disappearing blue. Summer was retreating. The wind roared, the trees groaned, yet the noise seemed insufficient for those vast operations in heaven. The weather was breaking up, breaking, broken, and it is a sense of the fit rather than of the supernatural that equips such crises with the salvos of angelic artillery. Mr. Beebe’s eyes rested on Windy Corner, where Lucy sat, practising Mozart. No smile came to his lips, and, changing the subject again, he said: “We shan’t have rain, but we shall have darkness, so let us hurry on. The darkness last night was appalling.”
They reached the Beehive Tavern at about five o’clock. That amiable hostelry possesses a verandah, in which the young and the unwise do dearly love to sit, while guests of more mature years seek a pleasant sanded room, and have tea at a table comfortably. Mr. Beebe saw that Miss Bartlett would be cold if she sat out, and that Minnie would be dull if she sat in, so he proposed a division of forces. They would hand the child her food through the window. Thus he was incidentally enabled to discuss the fortunes of Lucy.
“I have been thinking, Miss Bartlett,” he said, “and, unless you very much object, I would like to reopen that discussion.” She bowed. “Nothing about the past. I know little and care less about that; I am absolutely certain that it is to your cousin’s credit. She has acted loftily and rightly, and it is like her gentle modesty to say that we think too highly of her. But the future. Seriously, what do you think of this Greek plan?” He pulled out the letter again. “I don’t know whether you overheard, but she wants to join the Miss Alans in their mad career. It’s all—I can’t explain—it’s wrong.”
Miss Bartlett read the letter in silence, laid it down, seemed to hesitate, and then read it again.
“I can’t see the point of it myself.”
To his astonishment, she replied: “There I cannot agree with you. In it I spy Lucy’s salvation.”
“Really. Now, why?”
“She wanted to leave Windy Corner.”
“I know—but it seems so odd, so unlike her, so—I was going to say—selfish.”
“It is natural, surely—after such painful scenes—that she should desire a change.”
Here, apparently, was one of those points that the male intellect misses. Mr. Beebe exclaimed: “So she says herself, and since another lady agrees with her, I must own that I am partially convinced. Perhaps she must have a change. I have no sisters or—and I don’t understand these things. But why need she go as far as Greece?”
“You may well ask that,” replied Miss Bartlett, who was evidently interested, and had almost dropped her evasive manner. “Why Greece? (What is it, Minnie dear—jam?) Why not Tunbridge Wells? Oh, Mr. Beebe! I had a long and most unsatisfactory interview with dear Lucy this morning. I cannot help her. I will say no more. Perhaps I have already said too much. I am not to talk. I wanted her to spend six months with me at Tunbridge Wells, and she refused.”