A Room With a View

Page 3

So Miss Lavish proceeded through the streets of the city of Florence, short, fidgety, and playful as a kitten, though without a kitten’s grace. It was a treat for the girl to be with any one so clever and so cheerful; and a blue military cloak, such as an Italian officer wears, only increased the sense of festivity.

“Buon giorno! Take the word of an old woman, Miss Lucy: you will never repent of a little civility to your inferiors. That is the true democracy. Though I am a real Radical as well. There, now you’re shocked.”

“Indeed, I’m not!” exclaimed Lucy. “We are Radicals, too, out and out. My father always voted for Mr. Gladstone, until he was so dreadful about Ireland.”

“I see, I see. And now you have gone over to the enemy.”

“Oh, please—! If my father was alive, I am sure he would vote Radical again now that Ireland is all right. And as it is, the glass over our front door was broken last election, and Freddy is sure it was the Tories; but mother says nonsense, a tramp.”

“Shameful! A manufacturing district, I suppose?”

“No—in the Surrey hills. About five miles from Dorking, looking over the Weald.”

Miss Lavish seemed interested, and slackened her trot.

“What a delightful part; I know it so well. It is full of the very nicest people. Do you know Sir Harry Otway—a Radical if ever there was?”

“Very well indeed.”

“And old Mrs. Butterworth the philanthropist?”

“Why, she rents a field of us! How funny!”

Miss Lavish looked at the narrow ribbon of sky, and murmured: “Oh, you have property in Surrey?”

“Hardly any,” said Lucy, fearful of being thought a snob. “Only thirty acres—just the garden, all downhill, and some fields.”

Miss Lavish was not disgusted, and said it was just the size of her aunt’s Suffolk estate. Italy receded. They tried to remember the last name of Lady Louisa someone, who had taken a house near Summer Street the other year, but she had not liked it, which was odd of her. And just as Miss Lavish had got the name, she broke off and exclaimed:

“Bless us! Bless us and save us! We’ve lost the way.”

Certainly they had seemed a long time in reaching Santa Croce, the tower of which had been plainly visible from the landing window. But Miss Lavish had said so much about knowing her Florence by heart, that Lucy had followed her with no misgivings.

“Lost! lost! My dear Miss Lucy, during our political diatribes we have taken a wrong turning. How those horrid Conservatives would jeer at us! What are we to do? Two lone females in an unknown town. Now, this is what I call an adventure.”

Lucy, who wanted to see Santa Croce, suggested, as a possible solution, that they should ask the way there.

“Oh, but that is the word of a craven! And no, you are not, not, NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift.”

Accordingly they drifted through a series of those grey-brown streets, neither commodious nor picturesque, in which the eastern quarter of the city abounds. Lucy soon lost interest in the discontent of Lady Louisa, and became discontented herself. For one ravishing moment Italy appeared. She stood in the Square of the Annunziata and saw in the living terra-cotta those divine babies whom no cheap reproduction can ever stale. There they stood, with their shining limbs bursting from the garments of charity, and their strong white arms extended against circlets of heaven. Lucy thought she had never seen anything more beautiful; but Miss Lavish, with a shriek of dismay, dragged her forward, declaring that they were out of their path now by at least a mile.

The hour was approaching at which the continental breakfast begins, or rather ceases, to tell, and the ladies bought some hot chestnut paste out of a little shop, because it looked so typical. It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown. But it gave them strength to drift into another Piazza, large and dusty, on the farther side of which rose a black-and-white facade of surpassing ugliness. Miss Lavish spoke to it dramatically. It was Santa Croce. The adventure was over.

“Stop a minute; let those two people go on, or I shall have to speak to them. I do detest conventional intercourse. Nasty! they are going into the church, too. Oh, the Britisher abroad!”

“We sat opposite them at dinner last night. They have given us their rooms. They were so very kind.”

“Look at their figures!” laughed Miss Lavish. “They walk through my Italy like a pair of cows. It’s very naughty of me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it.”

“What would you ask us?”

Miss Lavish laid her hand pleasantly on Lucy’s arm, as if to suggest that she, at all events, would get full marks. In this exalted mood they reached the steps of the great church, and were about to enter it when Miss Lavish stopped, squeaked, flung up her arms, and cried:

“There goes my local-colour box! I must have a word with him!”

And in a moment she was away over the Piazza, her military cloak flapping in the wind; nor did she slacken speed till she caught up an old man with white whiskers, and nipped him playfully upon the arm.

Lucy waited for nearly ten minutes. Then she began to get tired. The beggars worried her, the dust blew in her eyes, and she remembered that a young girl ought not to loiter in public places. She descended slowly into the Piazza with the intention of rejoining Miss Lavish, who was really almost too original. But at that moment Miss Lavish and her local-colour box moved also, and disappeared down a side street, both gesticulating largely. Tears of indignation came to Lucy’s eyes partly because Miss Lavish had jilted her, partly because she had taken her Baedeker. How could she find her way home? How could she find her way about in Santa Croce? Her first morning was ruined, and she might never be in Florence again. A few minutes ago she had been all high spirits, talking as a woman of culture, and half persuading herself that she was full of originality. Now she entered the church depressed and humiliated, not even able to remember whether it was built by the Franciscans or the Dominicans. Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy. She puzzled out the Italian notices—the notices that forbade people to introduce dogs into the church—the notice that prayed people, in the interest of health and out of respect to the sacred edifice in which they found themselves, not to spit. She watched the tourists; their noses were as red as their Baedekers, so cold was Santa Croce. She beheld the horrible fate that overtook three Papists—two he-babies and a she-baby—who began their career by sousing each other with the Holy Water, and then proceeded to the Machiavelli memorial, dripping but hallowed. Advancing towards it very slowly and from immense distances, they touched the stone with their fingers, with their handkerchiefs, with their heads, and then retreated. What could this mean? They did it again and again. Then Lucy realized that they had mistaken Machiavelli for some saint, hoping to acquire virtue. Punishment followed quickly. The smallest he-baby stumbled over one of the sepulchral slabs so much admired by Mr. Ruskin, and entangled his feet in the features of a recumbent bishop. Protestant as she was, Lucy darted forward. She was too late. He fell heavily upon the prelate’s upturned toes.

“Hateful bishop!” exclaimed the voice of old Mr. Emerson, who had darted forward also. “Hard in life, hard in death. Go out into the sunshine, little boy, and kiss your hand to the sun, for that is where you ought to be. Intolerable bishop!”

The child screamed frantically at these words, and at these dreadful people who picked him up, dusted him, rubbed his bruises, and told him not to be superstitious.

“Look at him!” said Mr. Emerson to Lucy. “Here’s a mess: a baby hurt, cold, and frightened! But what else can you expect from a church?”

The child’s legs had become as melting wax. Each time that old Mr. Emerson and Lucy set it erect it collapsed with a roar. Fortunately an Italian lady, who ought to have been saying her prayers, came to the rescue. By some mysterious virtue, which mothers alone possess, she stiffened the little boy’s back-bone and imparted strength to his knees. He stood. Still gibbering with agitation, he walked away.

“You are a clever woman,” said Mr. Emerson. “You have done more than all the relics in the world. I am not of your creed, but I do believe in those who make their fellow-creatures happy. There is no scheme of the universe—”

He paused for a phrase.

“Niente,” said the Italian lady, and returned to her prayers.

“I’m not sure she understands English,” suggested Lucy.

In her chastened mood she no longer despised the Emersons. She was determined to be gracious to them, beautiful rather than delicate, and, if possible, to erase Miss Bartlett’s civility by some gracious reference to the pleasant rooms.

“That woman understands everything,” was Mr. Emerson’s reply. “But what are you doing here? Are you doing the church? Are you through with the church?”

“No,” cried Lucy, remembering her grievance. “I came here with Miss Lavish, who was to explain everything; and just by the door—it is too bad!—she simply ran away, and after waiting quite a time, I had to come in by myself.”

“Why shouldn’t you?” said Mr. Emerson.

“Yes, why shouldn’t you come by yourself?” said the son, addressing the young lady for the first time.

“But Miss Lavish has even taken away Baedeker.”

“Baedeker?” said Mr. Emerson. “I’m glad it’s THAT you minded. It’s worth minding, the loss of a Baedeker. THAT’S worth minding.”

Lucy was puzzled. She was again conscious of some new idea, and was not sure whither it would lead her.

“If you’ve no Baedeker,” said the son, “you’d better join us.” Was this where the idea would lead? She took refuge in her dignity.

“Thank you very much, but I could not think of that. I hope you do not suppose that I came to join on to you. I really came to help with the child, and to thank you for so kindly giving us your rooms last night. I hope that you have not been put to any great inconvenience.”

“My dear,” said the old man gently, “I think that you are repeating what you have heard older people say. You are pretending to be touchy; but you are not really. Stop being so tiresome, and tell me instead what part of the church you want to see. To take you to it will be a real pleasure.”

Now, this was abominably impertinent, and she ought to have been furious. But it is sometimes as difficult to lose one’s temper as it is difficult at other times to keep it. Lucy could not get cross. Mr. Emerson was an old man, and surely a girl might humour him. On the other hand, his son was a young man, and she felt that a girl ought to be offended with him, or at all events be offended before him. It was at him that she gazed before replying.

“I am not touchy, I hope. It is the Giottos that I want to see, if you will kindly tell me which they are.”

The son nodded. With a look of sombre satisfaction, he led the way to the Peruzzi Chapel. There was a hint of the teacher about him. She felt like a child in school who had answered a question rightly.

The chapel was already filled with an earnest congregation, and out of them rose the voice of a lecturer, directing them how to worship Giotto, not by tactful valuations, but by the standards of the spirit.

“Remember,” he was saying, “the facts about this church of Santa Croce; how it was built by faith in the full fervour of medievalism, before any taint of the Renaissance had appeared. Observe how Giotto in these frescoes—now, unhappily, ruined by restoration—is untroubled by the snares of anatomy and perspective. Could anything be more majestic, more pathetic, beautiful, true? How little, we feel, avails knowledge and technical cleverness against a man who truly feels!”

“No!” exclaimed Mr. Emerson, in much too loud a voice for church. “Remember nothing of the sort! Built by faith indeed! That simply means the workmen weren’t paid properly. And as for the frescoes, I see no truth in them. Look at that fat man in blue! He must weigh as much as I do, and he is shooting into the sky like an air balloon.”

He was referring to the fresco of the “Ascension of St. John.” Inside, the lecturer’s voice faltered, as well it might. The audience shifted uneasily, and so did Lucy. She was sure that she ought not to be with these men; but they had cast a spell over her. They were so serious and so strange that she could not remember how to behave.

“Now, did this happen, or didn’t it? Yes or no?”

George replied:

“It happened like this, if it happened at all. I would rather go up to heaven by myself than be pushed by cherubs; and if I got there I should like my friends to lean out of it, just as they do here.”

“You will never go up,” said his father. “You and I, dear boy, will lie at peace in the earth that bore us, and our names will disappear as surely as our work survives.”

“Some of the people can only see the empty grave, not the saint, whoever he is, going up. It did happen like that, if it happened at all.”

“Pardon me,” said a frigid voice. “The chapel is somewhat small for two parties. We will incommode you no longer.”