XVIII. Lying to Mr. Beebe, Mrs. Honeychurch, Freddy, and the Servants
Windy Corner lay, not on the summit of the ridge, but a few hundred feet down the southern slope, at the springing of one of the great buttresses that supported the hill. On either side of it was a shallow ravine, filled with ferns and pine-trees, and down the ravine on the left ran the highway into the Weald.
Whenever Mr. Beebe crossed the ridge and caught sight of these noble dispositions of the earth, and, poised in the middle of them, Windy Corner,--he laughed. The situation was so glorious, the house so commonplace, not to say impertinent. The late Mr. Honeychurch had affected the cube, because it gave him the most accommodation for his money, and the only addition made by his widow had been a small turret, shaped like a rhinoceros' horn, where she could sit in wet weather and watch the carts going up and down the road. So impertinent--and yet the house "did," for it was the home of people who loved their surroundings honestly. Other houses in the neighborhood had been built by expensive architects, over others their inmates had fidgeted sedulously, yet all these suggested the accidental, the temporary; while Windy Corner seemed as inevitable as an ugliness of Nature's own creation. One might laugh at the house, but one never shuddered. Mr. Beebe was bicycling over this Monday afternoon with a piece of gossip. He had heard from the Miss Alans. These admirable ladies, since they could not go to Cissie Villa, had changed their plans. They were going to Greece instead.
"Since Florence did my poor sister so much good," wrote Miss Catharine, "we do not see why we should not try Athens this winter. Of course, Athens is a plunge, and the doctor has ordered her special digestive bread; but, after all, we can take that with us, and it is only getting first into a steamer and then into a train. But is there an English Church?" And the letter went on to say: "I do not expect we shall go any further than Athens, but if you knew of a really comfortable pension at Constantinople, we should be so grateful."
Lucy would enjoy this letter, and the smile with which Mr. Beebe greeted Windy Corner was partly for her. She would see the fun of it, and some of its beauty, for she must see some beauty. Though she was hopeless about pictures, and though she dressed so unevenly--oh, that cerise frock yesterday at church!--she must see some beauty in life, or she could not play the piano as she did. He had a theory that musicians are incredibly complex, and know far less than other artists what they want and what they are; that they puzzle themselves as well as their friends; that their psychology is a modern development, and has not yet been understood. This theory, had he known it, had possibly just been illustrated by facts. Ignorant of the events of yesterday he was only riding over to get some tea, to see his niece, and to observe whether Miss Honeychurch saw anything beautiful in the desire of two old ladies to visit Athens.
A carriage was drawn up outside Windy Corner, and just as he caught sight of the house it started, bowled up the drive, and stopped abruptly when it reached the main road. Therefore it must be the horse, who always expected people to walk up the hill in case they tired him. The door opened obediently, and two men emerged, whom Mr. Beebe recognized as Cecil and Freddy. They were an odd couple to go driving; but he saw a trunk beside the coachman's legs. Cecil, who wore a bowler, must be going away, while Freddy (a cap)--was seeing him to the station. They walked rapidly, taking the short cuts, and reached the summit while the carriage was still pursuing the windings of the road.
They shook hands with the clergyman, but did not speak.
"So you're off for a minute, Mr. Vyse?" he asked.
Cecil said, "Yes," while Freddy edged away.
"I was coming to show you this delightful letter from those friends of Miss Honeychurch. He quoted from it. "Isn't it wonderful? Isn't it romance? most certainly they will go to Constantinople. They are taken in a snare that cannot fail. They will end by going round the world."
Cecil listened civilly, and said he was sure that Lucy would be amused and interested.
"Isn't Romance capricious! I never notice it in you young people; you do nothing but play lawn tennis, and say that romance is dead, while the Miss Alans are struggling with all the weapons of propriety against the terrible thing. 'A really comfortable pension at Constantinople!' So they call it out of decency, but in their hearts they want a pension with magic windows opening on the foam of perilous seas in fairyland forlorn! No ordinary view will content the Miss Alans. They want the Pension Keats."
"I'm awfully sorry to interrupt, Mr. Beebe," said Freddy, "but have you any matches?"
"I have," said Cecil, and it did not escape Mr. Beebe's notice that he spoke to the boy more kindly.
"You have never met these Miss Alans, have you, Mr. Vyse?"
"Then you don't see the wonder of this Greek visit. I haven't been to Greece myself, and don't mean to go, and I can't imagine any of my friends going. It is altogether too big for our little lot. Don't you think so? Italy is just about as much as we can manage. Italy is heroic, but Greece is godlike or devilish--I am not sure which, and in either case absolutely out of our suburban focus. All right, Freddy--I am not being clever, upon my word I am not--I took the idea from another fellow; and give me those matches when you've done with them." He lit a cigarette, and went on talking to the two young men. "I was saying, if our poor little Cockney lives must have a background, let it be Italian. Big enough in all conscience. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for me. There the contrast is just as much as I can realize. But not the Parthenon, not the frieze of Phidias at any price; and here comes the victoria."
"You're quite right," said Cecil. "Greece is not for our little lot"; and he got in. Freddy followed, nodding to the clergyman, whom he trusted not to be pulling one's leg, really. And before they had gone a dozen yards he jumped out, and came running back for Vyse's match-box, which had not been returned. As he took it, he said: "I'm so glad you only talked about books. Cecil's hard hit. Lucy won't marry him. If you'd gone on about her, as you did about them, he might have broken down."
"Late last night. I must go."
"Perhaps they won't want me down there."
"No--go on. Good-bye."
"Thank goodness!" exclaimed Mr. Beebe to himself, and struck the saddle of his bicycle approvingly, "It was the one foolish thing she ever did. Oh, what a glorious riddance!" And, after a little thought, he negotiated the slope into Windy Corner, light of heart. The house was again as it ought to be--cut off forever from Cecil's pretentious world.
He would find Miss Minnie down in the garden.
In the drawing-room Lucy was tinkling at a Mozart Sonata. He hesitated a moment, but went down the garden as requested. There he found a mournful company. It was a blustering day, and the wind had taken and broken the dahlias. Mrs. Honeychurch, who looked cross, was tying them up, while Miss Bartlett, unsuitably dressed, impeded her with offers of assistance. At a little distance stood Minnie and the "garden-child," a minute importation, each holding either end of a long piece of bass.
"Oh, how do you do, Mr. Beebe? Gracious what a mess everything is! Look at my scarlet pompons, and the wind blowing your skirts about, and the ground so hard that not a prop will stick in, and then the carriage having to go out, when I had counted on having Powell, who--give every one their due--does tie up dahlias properly."
Evidently Mrs. Honeychurch was shattered.
"How do you do?" said Miss Bartlett, with a meaning glance, as though conveying that more than dahlias had been broken off by the autumn gales.
"Here, Lennie, the bass," cried Mrs. Honeychurch. The garden-child, who did not know what bass was, stood rooted to the path with horror. Minnie slipped to her uncle and whispered that every one was very disagreeable to-day, and that it was not her fault if dahlia-strings would tear longways instead of across.
"Come for a walk with me," he told her. "You have worried them as much as they can stand. Mrs. Honeychurch, I only called in aimlessly. I shall take her up to tea at the Beehive Tavern, if I may."
"Oh, must you? Yes do.--Not the scissors, thank you, Charlotte, when both my hands are full already--I'm perfectly certain that the orange cactus will go before I can get to it."
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 every one, 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."
Mr. Beebe poked at a crumb with his knife.
"But my feelings are of no importance. I know too well that I get on Lucy's nerves. Our tour was a failure. She wanted to leave Florence, and when we got to Rome she did not want to be in Rome, and all the time I felt that I was spending her mother's money--."
"Let us keep to the future, though," interrupted Mr. Beebe. "I want your advice."
"Very well," said Charlotte, with a choky abruptness that was new to him, though familiar to Lucy. "I for one will help her to go to Greece. Will you?"
Mr. Beebe considered.
"It is absolutely necessary," she continued, lowering her veil and whispering through it with a passion, an intensity, that surprised him. "I know--I know." The darkness was coming on, and he felt that this odd woman really did know. "She must not stop here a moment, and we must keep quiet till she goes. I trust that the servants know nothing. Afterwards--but I may have said too much already. Only, Lucy and I are helpless against Mrs. Honeychurch alone. If you help we may succeed. Otherwise--"
"Otherwise," she repeated as if the word held finality.
"Yes, I will help her," said the clergyman, setting his jaw firm. "Come, let us go back now, and settle the whole thing up."
Miss Bartlett burst into florid gratitude. The tavern sign--a beehive trimmed evenly with bees--creaked in the wind outside as she thanked him. Mr. Beebe did not quite understand the situation; but then, he did not desire to understand it, nor to jump to the conclusion of "another man" that would have attracted a grosser mind. He only felt that Miss Bartlett knew of some vague influence from which the girl desired to be delivered, and which might well be clothed in the fleshly form. Its very vagueness spurred him into knight-errantry. His belief in celibacy, so reticent, so carefully concealed beneath his tolerance and culture, now came to the surface and expanded like some delicate flower. "They that marry do well, but they that refrain do better." So ran his belief, and he never heard that an engagement was broken off but with a slight feeling of pleasure. In the case of Lucy, the feeling was intensified through dislike of Cecil; and he was willing to go further--to place her out of danger until she could confirm her resolution of virginity. The feeling was very subtle and quite undogmatic, and he never imparted it to any other of the characters in this entanglement. Yet it existed, and it alone explains his action subsequently, and his influence on the action of others. The compact that he made with Miss Bartlett in the tavern, was to help not only Lucy, but religion also.
They hurried home through a world of black and grey. He conversed on indifferent topics: the Emersons' need of a housekeeper; servants; Italian servants; novels about Italy; novels with a purpose; could literature influence life? Windy Corner glimmered. In the garden, Mrs. Honeychurch, now helped by Freddy, still wrestled with the lives of her flowers.
"It gets too dark," she said hopelesly. "This comes of putting off. We might have known the weather would break up soon; and now Lucy wants to go to Greece. I don't know what the world's coming to."
"Mrs. Honeychurch," he said, "go to Greece she must. Come up to the house and let's talk it over. Do you, in the first place, mind her breaking with Vyse?"
"Mr. Beebe, I'm thankful--simply thankful."
"So am I," said Freddy.
"Good. Now come up to the house."
They conferred in the dining-room for half an hour.
Lucy would never have carried the Greek scheme alone. It was expensive and dramatic--both qualities that her mother loathed. Nor would Charlotte have succeeded. The honours of the day rested with Mr. Beebe. By his tact and common sense, and by his influence as a clergyman--for a clergyman who was not a fool influenced Mrs. Honeychurch greatly--he bent her to their purpose, "I don't see why Greece is necessary," she said; "but as you do, I suppose it is all right. It must be something I can't understand. Lucy! Let's tell her. Lucy!"
"She is playing the piano," Mr. Beebe said. He opened the door, and heard the words of a song:
"Look not thou on beauty's charming."
"I didn't know that Miss Honeychurch sang, too."
"Sit thou still when kings are arming,
Taste not when the wine-cup glistens--"
"It's a song that Cecil gave her. How odd girls are!"
"What's that?" called Lucy, stopping short.
"All right, dear," said Mrs. Honeychurch kindly. She went into the drawing-room, and Mr. Beebe heard her kiss Lucy and say: "I am sorry I was so cross about Greece, but it came on the top of the dahlias."
Rather a hard voice said: "Thank you, mother; that doesn't matter a bit."
"And you are right, too--Greece will be all right; you can go if the Miss Alans will have you."
"Oh, splendid! Oh, thank you!"
Mr. Beebe followed. Lucy still sat at the piano with her hands over the keys. She was glad, but he had expected greater gladness. Her mother bent over her. Freddy, to whom she had been singing, reclined on the floor with his head against her, and an unlit pipe between his lips. Oddly enough, the group was beautiful. Mr. Beebe, who loved the art of the past, was reminded of a favourite theme, the Santa Conversazione, in which people who care for one another are painted chatting together about noble things--a theme neither sensual nor sensational, and therefore ignored by the art of to-day. Why should Lucy want either to marry or to travel when she had such friends at home?
"Taste not when the wine-cup glistens,
Speak not when the people listens,"
"Here's Mr. Beebe."
"Mr. Beebe knows my rude ways."
"It's a beautiful song and a wise one," said he. "Go on."
"It isn't very good," she said listlessly. "I forget why--harmony or something."
"I suspected it was unscholarly. It's so beautiful."
"The tune's right enough," said Freddy, "but the words are rotten. Why throw up the sponge?"
"How stupidly you talk!" said his sister. The Santa Conversazione was broken up. After all, there was no reason that Lucy should talk about Greece or thank him for persuading her mother, so he said good-bye.
Freddy lit his bicycle lamp for him in the porch, and with his usual felicity of phrase, said: "This has been a day and a half."
"Stop thine ear against the singer--"
"Wait a minute; she is finishing."
"From the red gold keep thy finger;
Vacant heart and hand and eye
Easy live and quiet die."
"I love weather like this," said Freddy.
Mr. Beebe passed into it.
The two main facts were clear. She had behaved splendidly, and he had helped her. He could not expect to master the details of so big a change in a girl's life. If here and there he was dissatisfied or puzzled, he must acquiesce; she was choosing the better part.
"Vacant heart and hand and eye--"
Perhaps the song stated "the better part" rather too strongly. He half fancied that the soaring accompaniment--which he did not lose in the shout of the gale--really agreed with Freddy, and was gently criticizing the words that it adorned:
"Vacant heart and hand and eye
Easy live and quiet die."
However, for the fourth time Windy Corner lay poised below him-- now as a beacon in the roaring tides of darkness.Next