A Room With a View

Page 8

“Generally,” replied Mr. Eager, “one has only sympathy for their success. The desire for education and for social advance—in these things there is something not wholly vile. There are some working men whom one would be very willing to see out here in Florence—little as they would make of it.”

“Is he a journalist now?” Miss Bartlett asked.

“He is not; he made an advantageous marriage.”

He uttered this remark with a voice full of meaning, and ended with a sigh.

“Oh, so he has a wife.”

“Dead, Miss Bartlett, dead. I wonder—yes I wonder how he has the effrontery to look me in the face, to dare to claim acquaintance with me. He was in my London parish long ago. The other day in Santa Croce, when he was with Miss Honeychurch, I snubbed him. Let him beware that he does not get more than a snub.”

“What?” cried Lucy, flushing.

“Exposure!” hissed Mr. Eager.

He tried to change the subject; but in scoring a dramatic point he had interested his audience more than he had intended. Miss Bartlett was full of very natural curiosity. Lucy, though she wished never to see the Emersons again, was not disposed to condemn them on a single word.

“Do you mean,” she asked, “that he is an irreligious man? We know that already.”

“Lucy, dear—” said Miss Bartlett, gently reproving her cousin’s penetration.

“I should be astonished if you knew all. The boy—an innocent child at the time—I will exclude. God knows what his education and his inherited qualities may have made him.”

“Perhaps,” said Miss Bartlett, “it is something that we had better not hear.”

“To speak plainly,” said Mr. Eager, “it is. I will say no more.” For the first time Lucy’s rebellious thoughts swept out in words—for the first time in her life.

“You have said very little.”

“It was my intention to say very little,” was his frigid reply.

He gazed indignantly at the girl, who met him with equal indignation. She turned towards him from the shop counter; her breast heaved quickly. He observed her brow, and the sudden strength of her lips. It was intolerable that she should disbelieve him.

“Murder, if you want to know,” he cried angrily. “That man murdered his wife!”

“How?” she retorted.

“To all intents and purposes he murdered her. That day in Santa Croce—did they say anything against me?”

“Not a word, Mr. Eager—not a single word.”

“Oh, I thought they had been libelling me to you. But I suppose it is only their personal charms that makes you defend them.”

“I’m not defending them,” said Lucy, losing her courage, and relapsing into the old chaotic methods. “They’re nothing to me.”

“How could you think she was defending them?” said Miss Bartlett, much discomfited by the unpleasant scene. The shopman was possibly listening.

“She will find it difficult. For that man has murdered his wife in the sight of God.”

The addition of God was striking. But the chaplain was really trying to qualify a rash remark. A silence followed which might have been impressive, but was merely awkward. Then Miss Bartlett hastily purchased the Leaning Tower, and led the way into the street.

“I must be going,” said he, shutting his eyes and taking out his watch.

Miss Bartlett thanked him for his kindness, and spoke with enthusiasm of the approaching drive.

“Drive? Oh, is our drive to come off?”

Lucy was recalled to her manners, and after a little exertion the complacency of Mr. Eager was restored.

“Bother the drive!” exclaimed the girl, as soon as he had departed. “It is just the drive we had arranged with Mr. Beebe without any fuss at all. Why should he invite us in that absurd manner? We might as well invite him. We are each paying for ourselves.”

Miss Bartlett, who had intended to lament over the Emersons, was launched by this remark into unexpected thoughts.

“If that is so, dear—if the drive we and Mr. Beebe are going with Mr. Eager is really the same as the one we are going with Mr. Beebe, then I foresee a sad kettle of fish.”

“How?”

“Because Mr. Beebe has asked Eleanor Lavish to come, too.”

“That will mean another carriage.”

“Far worse. Mr. Eager does not like Eleanor. She knows it herself. The truth must be told; she is too unconventional for him.”

They were now in the newspaper-room at the English bank. Lucy stood by the central table, heedless of Punch and the Graphic, trying to answer, or at all events to formulate the questions rioting in her brain. The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things. Murder, accusations of murder, a lady clinging to one man and being rude to another—were these the daily incidents of her streets? Was there more in her frank beauty than met the eye—the power, perhaps, to evoke passions, good and bad, and to bring them speedily to a fulfillment?

Happy Charlotte, who, though greatly troubled over things that did not matter, seemed oblivious to things that did; who could conjecture with admirable delicacy “where things might lead to,” but apparently lost sight of the goal as she approached it. Now she was crouching in the corner trying to extract a circular note from a kind of linen nose-bag which hung in chaste concealment round her neck. She had been told that this was the only safe way to carry money in Italy; it must only be broached within the walls of the English bank. As she groped she murmured: “Whether it is Mr. Beebe who forgot to tell Mr. Eager, or Mr. Eager who forgot when he told us, or whether they have decided to leave Eleanor out altogether—which they could scarcely do—but in any case we must be prepared. It is you they really want; I am only asked for appearances. You shall go with the two gentlemen, and I and Eleanor will follow behind. A one-horse carriage would do for us. Yet how difficult it is!”

“It is indeed,” replied the girl, with a gravity that sounded sympathetic.

“What do you think about it?” asked Miss Bartlett, flushed from the struggle, and buttoning up her dress.

“I don’t know what I think, nor what I want.”

“Oh, dear, Lucy! I do hope Florence isn’t boring you. Speak the word, and, as you know, I would take you to the ends of the earth to-morrow.”

“Thank you, Charlotte,” said Lucy, and pondered over the offer.

There were letters for her at the bureau—one from her brother, full of athletics and biology; one from her mother, delightful as only her mother’s letters could be. She had read in it of the crocuses which had been bought for yellow and were coming up puce, of the new parlour-maid, who had watered the ferns with essence of lemonade, of the semi-detached cottages which were ruining Summer Street, and breaking the heart of Sir Harry Otway. She recalled the free, pleasant life of her home, where she was allowed to do everything, and where nothing ever happened to her. The road up through the pine-woods, the clean drawing-room, the view over the Sussex Weald—all hung before her bright and distinct, but pathetic as the pictures in a gallery to which, after much experience, a traveller returns.

“And the news?” asked Miss Bartlett.

“Mrs. Vyse and her son have gone to Rome,” said Lucy, giving the news that interested her least. “Do you know the Vyses?”

“Oh, not that way back. We can never have too much of the dear Piazza Signoria.”

“They’re nice people, the Vyses. So clever—my idea of what’s really clever. Don’t you long to be in Rome?”

“I die for it!”

The Piazza Signoria is too stony to be brilliant. It has no grass, no flowers, no frescoes, no glittering walls of marble or comforting patches of ruddy brick. By an odd chance—unless we believe in a presiding genius of places—the statues that relieve its severity suggest, not the innocence of childhood, nor the glorious bewilderment of youth, but the conscious achievements of maturity. Perseus and Judith, Hercules and Thusnelda, they have done or suffered something, and though they are immortal, immortality has come to them after experience, not before. Here, not only in the solitude of Nature, might a hero meet a goddess, or a heroine a god.

“Charlotte!” cried the girl suddenly. “Here’s an idea. What if we popped off to Rome to-morrow—straight to the Vyses’ hotel? For I do know what I want. I’m sick of Florence. No, you said you’d go to the ends of the earth! Do! Do!”

Miss Bartlett, with equal vivacity, replied:

“Oh, you droll person! Pray, what would become of your drive in the hills?”

They passed together through the gaunt beauty of the square, laughing over the unpractical suggestion.

 

Chapter VI: The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them.

It was Phaethon who drove them to Fiesole that memorable day, a youth all irresponsibility and fire, recklessly urging his master’s horses up the stony hill. Mr. Beebe recognized him at once. Neither the Ages of Faith nor the Age of Doubt had touched him; he was Phaethon in Tuscany driving a cab. And it was Persephone whom he asked leave to pick up on the way, saying that she was his sister—Persephone, tall and slender and pale, returning with the Spring to her mother’s cottage, and still shading her eyes from the unaccustomed light. To her Mr. Eager objected, saying that here was the thin edge of the wedge, and one must guard against imposition. But the ladies interceded, and when it had been made clear that it was a very great favour, the goddess was allowed to mount beside the god.

Phaethon at once slipped the left rein over her head, thus enabling himself to drive with his arm round her waist. She did not mind. Mr. Eager, who sat with his back to the horses, saw nothing of the indecorous proceeding, and continued his conversation with Lucy. The other two occupants of the carriage were old Mr. Emerson and Miss Lavish. For a dreadful thing had happened: Mr. Beebe, without consulting Mr. Eager, had doubled the size of the party. And though Miss Bartlett and Miss Lavish had planned all the morning how the people were to sit, at the critical moment when the carriages came round they lost their heads, and Miss Lavish got in with Lucy, while Miss Bartlett, with George Emerson and Mr. Beebe, followed on behind.

It was hard on the poor chaplain to have his partie carree thus transformed. Tea at a Renaissance villa, if he had ever meditated it, was now impossible. Lucy and Miss Bartlett had a certain style about them, and Mr. Beebe, though unreliable, was a man of parts. But a shoddy lady writer and a journalist who had murdered his wife in the sight of God—they should enter no villa at his introduction.

Lucy, elegantly dressed in white, sat erect and nervous amid these explosive ingredients, attentive to Mr. Eager, repressive towards Miss Lavish, watchful of old Mr. Emerson, hitherto fortunately asleep, thanks to a heavy lunch and the drowsy atmosphere of Spring. She looked on the expedition as the work of Fate. But for it she would have avoided George Emerson successfully. In an open manner he had shown that he wished to continue their intimacy. She had refused, not because she disliked him, but because she did not know what had happened, and suspected that he did know. And this frightened her.

For the real event—whatever it was—had taken place, not in the Loggia, but by the river. To behave wildly at the sight of death is pardonable. But to discuss it afterwards, to pass from discussion into silence, and through silence into sympathy, that is an error, not of a startled emotion, but of the whole fabric. There was really something blameworthy (she thought) in their joint contemplation of the shadowy stream, in the common impulse which had turned them to the house without the passing of a look or word. This sense of wickedness had been slight at first. She had nearly joined the party to the Torre del Gallo. But each time that she avoided George it became more imperative that she should avoid him again. And now celestial irony, working through her cousin and two clergymen, did not suffer her to leave Florence till she had made this expedition with him through the hills.

Meanwhile Mr. Eager held her in civil converse; their little tiff was over.

“So, Miss Honeychurch, you are travelling? As a student of art?”

“Oh, dear me, no—oh, no!”

“Perhaps as a student of human nature,” interposed Miss Lavish, “like myself?”

“Oh, no. I am here as a tourist.”

“Oh, indeed,” said Mr. Eager. “Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little—handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: ‘Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?’ And the father replies: ‘Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog.’ There’s travelling for you. Ha! ha! ha!”