VII. They Return
Some complicated game had been playing up and down the hillside all the afternoon. What it was and exactly how the players had sided, Lucy was slow to discover. Mr. Eager had met them with a questioning eye. Charlotte had repulsed him with much small talk. Mr. Emerson, seeking his son, was told whereabouts to find him. Mr. Beebe, who wore the heated aspect of a neutral, was bidden to collect the factions for the return home. There was a general sense of groping and bewilderment. Pan had been amongst them--not the great god Pan, who has been buried these two thousand years, but the little god Pan, who presides over social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics. Mr. Beebe had lost every one, and had consumed in solitude the tea-basket which he had brought up as a pleasant surprise. Miss Lavish had lost Miss Bartlett. Lucy had lost Mr. Eager. Mr. Emerson had lost George. Miss Bartlett had lost a mackintosh square. Phaethon had lost the game.
That last fact was undeniable. He climbed on to the box shivering, with his collar up, prophesying the swift approach of bad weather. "Let us go immediately," he told them. "The signorino will walk."
"All the way? He will be hours," said Mr. Beebe.
"Apparently. I told him it was unwise." He would look no one in the face; perhaps defeat was particularly mortifying for him. He alone had played skilfully, using the whole of his instinct, while the others had used scraps of their intelligence. He alone had divined what things were, and what he wished them to be. He alone had interpreted the message that Lucy had received five days before from the lips of a dying man. Persephone, who spends half her life in the grave--she could interpret it also. Not so these English. They gain knowledge slowly, and perhaps too late.
The thoughts of a cab-driver, however just, seldom affect the lives of his employers. He was the most competent of Miss Bartlett's opponents, but infinitely the least dangerous. Once back in the town, he and his insight and his knowledge would trouble English ladies no more. Of course, it was most unpleasant; she had seen his black head in the bushes; he might make a tavern story out of it. But after all, what have we to do with taverns? Real menace belongs to the drawing-room. It was of drawing-room people that Miss Bartlett thought as she journeyed downwards towards the fading sun. Lucy sat beside her; Mr. Eager sat opposite, trying to catch her eye; he was vaguely suspicious. They spoke of Alessio Baldovinetti.
Rain and darkness came on together. The two ladies huddled together under an inadequate parasol. There was a lightning flash, and Miss Lavish who was nervous, screamed from the carriage in front. At the next flash, Lucy screamed also. Mr. Eager addressed her professionally:
"Courage, Miss Honeychurch, courage and faith. If I might say so, there is something almost blasphemous in this horror of the elements. Are we seriously to suppose that all these clouds, all this immense electrical display, is simply called into existence to extinguish you or me?"
"Even from the scientific standpoint the chances against our being struck are enormous. The steel knives, the only articles which might attract the current, are in the other carriage. And, in any case, we are infinitely safer than if we were walking. Courage--courage and faith."
Under the rug, Lucy felt the kindly pressure of her cousin's hand. At times our need for a sympathetic gesture is so great that we care not what exactly it signifies or how much we may have to pay for it afterwards. Miss Bartlett, by this timely exercise of her muscles, gained more than she would have got in hours of preaching or cross examination.
She renewed it when the two carriages stopped, half into Florence.
"Mr. Eager!" called Mr. Beebe. "We want your assistance. Will you interpret for us?"
"George!" cried Mr. Emerson. "Ask your driver which way George went. The boy may lose his way. He may be killed."
"Go, Mr. Eager," said Miss Bartlett. don't ask our driver; our driver is no help. Go and support poor Mr. Beebe--, he is nearly demented."
"He may be killed!" cried the old man. "He may be killed!"
"Typical behaviour," said the chaplain, as he quitted the carriage. "In the presence of reality that kind of person invariably breaks down."
"What does he know?" whispered Lucy as soon as they were alone. "Charlotte, how much does Mr. Eager know?"
"Nothing, dearest; he knows nothing. But--" she pointed at the driver-"HE knows everything. Dearest, had we better? Shall I?" She took out her purse. "It is dreadful to be entangled with low-class people. He saw it all." Tapping Phaethon's back with her guide-book, she said, "Silenzio!" and offered him a franc.
"Va bene," he replied, and accepted it. As well this ending to his day as any. But Lucy, a mortal maid, was disappointed in him.
There was an explosion up the road. The storm had struck the overhead wire of the tramline, and one of the great supports had fallen. If they had not stopped perhaps they might have been hurt. They chose to regard it as a miraculous preservation, and the floods of love and sincerity, which fructify every hour of life, burst forth in tumult. They descended from the carriages; they embraced each other. It was as joyful to be forgiven past unworthinesses as to forgive them. For a moment they realized vast possibilities of good.
The older people recovered quickly. In the very height of their emotion they knew it to be unmanly or unladylike. Miss Lavish calculated that, even if they had continued, they would not have been caught in the accident. Mr. Eager mumbled a temperate prayer. But the drivers, through miles of dark squalid road, poured out their souls to the dryads and the saints, and Lucy poured out hers to her cousin.
"Charlotte, dear Charlotte, kiss me. Kiss me again. Only you can understand me. You warned me to be careful. And I--I thought I was developing."
"Do not cry, dearest. Take your time."
"I have been obstinate and silly--worse than you know, far worse. Once by the river--Oh, but he isn't killed--he wouldn't be killed, would he?"
The thought disturbed her repentance. As a matter of fact, the storm was worst along the road; but she had been near danger, and so she thought it must be near to every one.
"I trust not. One would always pray against that."
"He is really--I think he was taken by surprise, just as I was before. But this time I'm not to blame; I want you to believe that. I simply slipped into those violets. No, I want to be really truthful. I am a little to blame. I had silly thoughts. The sky, you know, was gold, and the ground all blue, and for a moment he looked like some one in a book."
"In a book?"
"Heroes--gods--the nonsense of schoolgirls."
"But, Charlotte, you know what happened then."
Miss Bartlett was silent. Indeed, she had little more to learn. With a certain amount of insight she drew her young cousin affectionately to her. All the way back Lucy's body was shaken by deep sighs, which nothing could repress.
"I want to be truthful," she whispered. "It is so hard to be absolutely truthful."
"Don't be troubled, dearest. Wait till you are calmer. We will talk it over before bed-time in my room."
So they re-entered the city with hands clasped. It was a shock to the girl to find how far emotion had ebbed in others. The storm had ceased, and Mr. Emerson was easier about his son. Mr. Beebe had regained good humour, and Mr. Eager was already snubbing Miss Lavish. Charlotte alone she was sure of--Charlotte, whose exterior concealed so much insight and love.
The luxury of self-exposure kept her almost happy through the long evening. She thought not so much of what had happened as of how she should describe it. All her sensations, her spasms of courage, her moments of unreasonable joy, her mysterious discontent, should be carefully laid before her cousin. And together in divine confidence they would disentangle and interpret them all.
"At last," thought she, "I shall understand myself. I shan't again be troubled by things that come out of nothing, and mean I don't know what."
Miss Alan asked her to play. She refused vehemently. Music seemed to her the employment of a child. She sat close to her cousin, who, with commendable patience, was listening to a long story about lost luggage. When it was over she capped it by a story of her own. Lucy became rather hysterical with the delay. In vain she tried to check, or at all events to accelerate, the tale. It was not till a late hour that Miss Bartlett had recovered her luggage and could say in her usual tone of gentle reproach:
"Well, dear, I at all events am ready for Bedfordshire. Come into my room, and I will give a good brush to your hair."
With some solemnity the door was shut, and a cane chair placed for the girl. Then Miss Bartlett said "So what is to be done?"
She was unprepared for the question. It had not occurred to her that she would have to do anything. A detailed exhibition of her emotions was all that she had counted upon.
"What is to be done? A point, dearest, which you alone can settle."
The rain was streaming down the black windows, and the great room felt damp and chilly, One candle burnt trembling on the chest of drawers close to Miss Bartlett's toque, which cast monstrous and fantastic shadows on the bolted door. A tram roared by in the dark, and Lucy felt unaccountably sad, though she had long since dried her eyes. She lifted them to the ceiling, where the griffins and bassoons were colourless and vague, the very ghosts of joy.
"It has been raining for nearly four hours," she said at last.
Miss Bartlett ignored the remark.
"How do you propose to silence him?"
"My dear girl, no; Mr. George Emerson."
Lucy began to pace up and down the room.
"I don't understand," she said at last.
She understood very well, but she no longer wished to be absolutely truthful.
"How are you going to stop him talking about it?"
"I have a feeling that talk is a thing he will never do."
"I, too, intend to judge him charitably. But unfortunately I have met the type before. They seldom keep their exploits to themselves."
"Exploits?" cried Lucy, wincing under the horrible plural.
"My poor dear, did you suppose that this was his first? Come here and listen to me. I am only gathering it from his own remarks. Do you remember that day at lunch when he argued with Miss Alan that liking one person is an extra reason for liking another?"
"Yes," said Lucy, whom at the time the argument had pleased.
"Well, I am no prude. There is no need to call him a wicked young man, but obviously he is thoroughly unrefined. Let us put it down to his deplorable antecedents and education, if you wish. But we are no farther on with our question. What do you propose to do?"
An idea rushed across Lucy's brain, which, had she thought of it sooner and made it part of her, might have proved victorious.
"I propose to speak to him," said she.
Miss Bartlett uttered a cry of genuine alarm.
"You see, Charlotte, your kindness--I shall never forget it. But--as you said--it is my affair. Mine and his."
"And you are going to IMPLORE him, to BEG him to keep silence?"
"Certainly not. There would be no difficulty. Whatever you ask him he answers, yes or no; then it is over. I have been frightened of him. But now I am not one little bit."
"But we fear him for you, dear. You are so young and inexperienced, you have lived among such nice people, that you cannot realize what men can be--how they can take a brutal pleasure in insulting a woman whom her sex does not protect and rally round. This afternoon, for example, if I had not arrived, what would have happened?"
"I can't think," said Lucy gravely.
Something in her voice made Miss Bartlett repeat her question, intoning it more vigorously.
"What would have happened if I hadn't arrived?"
"I can't think," said Lucy again.
"When he insulted you, how would you have replied?"
"I hadn't time to think. You came."
"Yes, but won't you tell me now what you would have done?"
"I should have--" She checked herself, and broke the sentence off. She went up to the dripping window and strained her eyes into the darkness. She could not think what she would have done.
"Come away from the window, dear," said Miss Bartlett. "You will be seen from the road."
Lucy obeyed. She was in her cousin's power. She could not modulate out the key of self-abasement in which she had started. Neither of them referred again to her suggestion that she should speak to George and settle the matter, whatever it was, with him.
Miss Bartlett became plaintive.
"Oh, for a real man! We are only two women, you and I. Mr. Beebe is hopeless. There is Mr. Eager, but you do not trust him. Oh, for your brother! He is young, but I know that his sister's insult would rouse in him a very lion. Thank God, chivalry is not yet dead. There are still left some men who can reverence woman."
As she spoke, she pulled off her rings, of which she wore several, and ranged them upon the pin cushion. Then she blew into her gloves and said:
"It will be a push to catch the morning train, but we must try."
"The train to Rome." She looked at her gloves critically.
The girl received the announcement as easily as it had been given.
"When does the train to Rome go?"
"Signora Bertolini would be upset."
"We must face that," said Miss Bartlett, not liking to say that she had given notice already.
"She will make us pay for a whole week's pension."
"I expect she will. However, we shall be much more comfortable at the Vyses' hotel. Isn't afternoon tea given there for nothing?"
"Yes, but they pay extra for wine." After this remark she remained motionless and silent. To her tired eyes Charlotte throbbed and swelled like a ghostly figure in a dream.
They began to sort their clothes for packing, for there was no time to lose, if they were to catch the train to Rome. Lucy, when admonished, began to move to and fro between the rooms, more conscious of the discomforts of packing by candlelight than of a subtler ill. Charlotte, who was practical without ability, knelt by the side of an empty trunk, vainly endeavouring to pave it with books of varying thickness and size. She gave two or three sighs, for the stooping posture hurt her back, and, for all her diplomacy, she felt that she was growing old. The girl heard her as she entered the room, and was seized with one of those emotional impulses to which she could never attribute a cause. She only felt that the candle would burn better, the packing go easier, the world be happier, if she could give and receive some human love. The impulse had come before to-day, but never so strongly. She knelt down by her cousin's side and took her in her arms.
Miss Bartlett returned the embrace with tenderness and warmth. But she was not a stupid woman, and she knew perfectly well that Lucy did not love her, but needed her to love. For it was in ominous tones that she said, after a long pause:
"Dearest Lucy, how will you ever forgive me?"
Lucy was on her guard at once, knowing by bitter experience what forgiving Miss Bartlett meant. Her emotion relaxed, she modified her embrace a little, and she said:
"Charlotte dear, what do you mean? As if I have anything to forgive!"
"You have a great deal, and I have a very great deal to forgive myself, too. I know well how much I vex you at every turn."
Miss Bartlett assumed her favourite role, that of the prematurely aged martyr.
"Ah, but yes! I feel that our tour together is hardly the success I had hoped. I might have known it would not do. You want some one younger and stronger and more in sympathy with you. I am too uninteresting and old-fashioned--only fit to pack and unpack your things."
"My only consolation was that you found people more to your taste, and were often able to leave me at home. I had my own poor ideas of what a lady ought to do, but I hope I did not inflict them on you more than was necessary. You had your own way about these rooms, at all events."
"You mustn't say these things," said Lucy softly.
She still clung to the hope that she and Charlotte loved each other, heart and soul. They continued to pack in silence.
"I have been a failure," said Miss Bartlett, as she struggled with the straps of Lucy's trunk instead of strapping her own. "Failed to make you happy; failed in my duty to your mother. She has been so generous to me; I shall never face her again after this disaster."
"But mother will understand. It is not your fault, this trouble, and it isn't a disaster either."
"It is my fault, it is a disaster. She will never forgive me, and rightly. Fur instance, what right had I to make friends with Miss Lavish?"
"When I was here for your sake? If I have vexed you it is equally true that I have neglected you. Your mother will see this as clearly as I do, when you tell her."
Lucy, from a cowardly wish to improve the situation, said:
"Why need mother hear of it?"
"But you tell her everything?"
"I suppose I do generally."
"I dare not break your confidence. There is something sacred in it. Unless you feel that it is a thing you could not tell her."
The girl would not be degraded to this.
"Naturally I should have told her. But in case she should blame you in any way, I promise I will not, I am very willing not to. I will never speak of it either to her or to any one."
Her promise brought the long-drawn interview to a sudden close. Miss Bartlett pecked her smartly on both cheeks, wished her good-night, and sent her to her own room.
For a moment the original trouble was in the background. George would seem to have behaved like a cad throughout; perhaps that was the view which one would take eventually. At present she neither acquitted nor condemned him; she did not pass judgment. At the moment when she was about to judge him her cousin's voice had intervened, and, ever since, it was Miss Bartlett who had dominated; Miss Bartlett who, even now, could be heard sighing into a crack in the partition wall; Miss Bartlett, who had really been neither pliable nor humble nor inconsistent. She had worked like a great artist; for a time--indeed, for years--she had been meaningless, but at the end there was presented to the girl the complete picture of a cheerless, loveless world in which the young rush to destruction until they learn better--a shamefaced world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good, if we may judge from those who have used them most.
Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul.
The door-bell rang, and she started to the shutters. Before she reached them she hesitated, turned, and blew out the candle. Thus it was that, though she saw some one standing in the wet below, he, though he looked up, did not see her.
To reach his room he had to go by hers. She was still dressed. It struck her that she might slip into the passage and just say that she would be gone before he was up, and that their extraordinary intercourse was over.
Whether she would have dared to do this was never proved. At the critical moment Miss Bartlett opened her own door, and her voice said:
"I wish one word with you in the drawing-room, Mr. Emerson, please."
Soon their footsteps returned, and Miss Bartlett said: "Good-night, Mr. Emerson."
His heavy, tired breathing was the only reply; the chaperon had done her work.
Lucy cried aloud: "It isn't true. It can't all be true. I want not to be muddled. I want to grow older quickly."
Miss Bartlett tapped on the wall.
"Go to bed at once, dear. You need all the rest you can get."
In the morning they left for Rome.Next