Lucy As a Work of Art
A few days after the engagement was announced Mrs. Honeychurch made Lucy and her Fiasco come to a little garden-party in the neighbourhood, for naturally she wanted to show people that her daughter was marrying a presentable man.
Cecil was more than presentable; he looked distinguished, and it was very pleasant to see his slim figure keeping step with Lucy, and his long, fair face responding when Lucy spoke to him. People congratulated Mrs. Honeychurch, which is, I believe, a social blunder, but it pleased her, and she introduced Cecil rather indiscriminately to some stuffy dowagers.
At tea a misfortune took place: a cup of coffee was upset over Lucy’s figured silk, and though Lucy feigned indifference, her mother feigned nothing of the sort but dragged her indoors to have the frock treated by a sympathetic maid. They were gone some time, and Cecil was left with the dowagers. When they returned he was not as pleasant as he had been.
“Do you go to much of this sort of thing?” he asked when they were driving home.
“Oh, now and then,” said Lucy, who had rather enjoyed herself.
“Is it typical of country society?”
“I suppose so. Mother, would it be?”
“Plenty of society,” said Mrs. Honeychurch, who was trying to remember the hang of one of the dresses.
Seeing that her thoughts were elsewhere, Cecil bent towards Lucy and said:
“To me it seemed perfectly appalling, disastrous, portentous.”
“I am so sorry that you were stranded.”
“Not that, but the congratulations. It is so disgusting, the way an engagement is regarded as public property—a kind of waste place where every outsider may shoot his vulgar sentiment. All those old women smirking!”
“One has to go through it, I suppose. They won’t notice us so much next time.”
“But my point is that their whole attitude is wrong. An engagement—horrid word in the first place—is a private matter, and should be treated as such.”
Yet the smirking old women, however wrong individually, were racially correct. The spirit of the generations had smiled through them, rejoicing in the engagement of Cecil and Lucy because it promised the continuance of life on earth. To Cecil and Lucy it promised something quite different—personal love. Hence Cecil’s irritation and Lucy’s belief that his irritation was just.
“How tiresome!” she said. “Couldn’t you have escaped to tennis?”
“I don’t play tennis—at least, not in public. The neighbourhood is deprived of the romance of me being athletic. Such romance as I have is that of the Inglese Italianato.”
“E un diavolo incarnato! You know the proverb?”
She did not. Nor did it seem applicable to a young man who had spent a quiet winter in Rome with his mother. But Cecil, since his engagement, had taken to affect a cosmopolitan naughtiness which he was far from possessing.
“Well,” said he, “I cannot help it if they do disapprove of me. There are certain irremovable barriers between myself and them, and I must accept them.”
“We all have our limitations, I suppose,” said wise Lucy.
“Sometimes they are forced on us, though,” said Cecil, who saw from her remark that she did not quite understand his position.
“It makes a difference doesn’t it, whether we fully fence ourselves in, or whether we are fenced out by the barriers of others?”
She thought a moment, and agreed that it did make a difference.
“Difference?” cried Mrs. Honeychurch, suddenly alert. “I don’t see any difference. Fences are fences, especially when they are in the same place.”
“We were speaking of motives,” said Cecil, on whom the interruption jarred.
“My dear Cecil, look here.” She spread out her knees and perched her card-case on her lap. “This is me. That’s Windy Corner. The rest of the pattern is the other people. Motives are all very well, but the fence comes here.”
“We weren’t talking of real fences,” said Lucy, laughing.
“Oh, I see, dear—poetry.”
She leant placidly back. Cecil wondered why Lucy had been amused.
“I tell you who has no ‘fences,’ as you call them,” she said, “and that’s Mr. Beebe.”
“A parson fenceless would mean a parson defenceless.”
Lucy was slow to follow what people said, but quick enough to detect what they meant. She missed Cecil’s epigram, but grasped the feeling that prompted it.
“Don’t you like Mr. Beebe?” she asked thoughtfully.
“I never said so!” he cried. “I consider him far above the average. I only denied—” And he swept off on the subject of fences again, and was brilliant.
“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”
“Poor old man! What was his name?”
“Harris,” said Lucy glibly.
“Let’s hope that Mrs. Harris there warn’t no sich person,” said her mother.
Cecil nodded intelligently.
“Isn’t Mr. Eager a parson of the cultured type?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I hate him. I’ve heard him lecture on Giotto. I hate him. Nothing can hide a petty nature. I hate him.”
“My goodness gracious me, child!” said Mrs. Honeychurch. “You’ll blow my head off! Whatever is there to shout over? I forbid you and Cecil to hate any more clergymen.”
He smiled. There was indeed something rather incongruous in Lucy’s moral outburst over Mr. Eager. It was as if one should see the Leonardo on the ceiling of the Sistine. He longed to hint to her that not here lay her vocation; that a woman’s power and charm reside in mystery, not in muscular rant. But possibly rant is a sign of vitality: it mars the beautiful creature, but shows that she is alive. After a moment, he contemplated her flushed face and excited gestures with a certain approval. He forebore to repress the sources of youth.
Nature—simplest of topics, he thought—lay around them. He praised the pine-woods, the deep lasts of bracken, the crimson leaves that spotted the hurt-bushes, the serviceable beauty of the turnpike road. The outdoor world was not very familiar to him, and occasionally he went wrong in a question of fact. Mrs. Honeychurch’s mouth twitched when he spoke of the perpetual green of the larch.
“I count myself a lucky person,” he concluded, “When I’m in London I feel I could never live out of it. When I’m in the country I feel the same about the country. After all, I do believe that birds and trees and the sky are the most wonderful things in life, and that the people who live amongst them must be the best. It’s true that in nine cases out of ten they don’t seem to notice anything. The country gentleman and the country labourer are each in their way the most depressing of companions. Yet they may have a tacit sympathy with the workings of Nature which is denied to us of the town. Do you feel that, Mrs. Honeychurch?”
Mrs. Honeychurch started and smiled. She had not been attending. Cecil, who was rather crushed on the front seat of the victoria, felt irritable, and determined not to say anything interesting again.
Lucy had not attended either. Her brow was wrinkled, and she still looked furiously cross—the result, he concluded, of too much moral gymnastics. It was sad to see her thus blind to the beauties of an August wood.
“‘Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height,’” he quoted, and touched her knee with his own.
She flushed again and said: “What height?”
“‘Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height,
What pleasure lives in height (the shepherd sang).
In height and in the splendour of the hills?’
Let us take Mrs. Honeychurch’s advice and hate clergymen no more. What’s this place?”
“Summer Street, of course,” said Lucy, and roused herself.
The woods had opened to leave space for a sloping triangular meadow. Pretty cottages lined it on two sides, and the upper and third side was occupied by a new stone church, expensively simple, a charming shingled spire. Mr. Beebe’s house was near the church. In height it scarcely exceeded the cottages. Some great mansions were at hand, but they were hidden in the trees. The scene suggested a Swiss Alp rather than the shrine and centre of a leisured world, and was marred only by two ugly little villas—the villas that had competed with Cecil’s engagement, having been acquired by Sir Harry Otway the very afternoon that Lucy had been acquired by Cecil.
“Cissie” was the name of one of these villas, “Albert” of the other. These titles were not only picked out in shaded Gothic on the garden gates, but appeared a second time on the porches, where they followed the semicircular curve of the entrance arch in block capitals. “Albert” was inhabited. His tortured garden was bright with geraniums and lobelias and polished shells. His little windows were chastely swathed in Nottingham lace. “Cissie” was to let. Three notice-boards, belonging to Dorking agents, lolled on her fence and announced the not surprising fact. Her paths were already weedy; her pocket-handkerchief of a lawn was yellow with dandelions.
“The place is ruined!” said the ladies mechanically. “Summer Street will never be the same again.”
As the carriage passed, “Cissie’s” door opened, and a gentleman came out of her.
“Stop!” cried Mrs. Honeychurch, touching the coachman with her parasol. “Here’s Sir Harry. Now we shall know. Sir Harry, pull those things down at once!”
Sir Harry Otway—who need not be described—came to the carriage and said “Mrs. Honeychurch, I meant to. I can’t, I really can’t turn out Miss Flack.”
“Am I not always right? She ought to have gone before the contract was signed. Does she still live rent free, as she did in her nephew’s time?”
“But what can I do?” He lowered his voice. “An old lady, so very vulgar, and almost bedridden.”
“Turn her out,” said Cecil bravely.
Sir Harry sighed, and looked at the villas mournfully. He had had full warning of Mr. Flack’s intentions, and might have bought the plot before building commenced: but he was apathetic and dilatory. He had known Summer Street for so many years that he could not imagine it being spoilt. Not till Mrs. Flack had laid the foundation stone, and the apparition of red and cream brick began to rise did he take alarm. He called on Mr. Flack, the local builder,—a most reasonable and respectful man—who agreed that tiles would have made more artistic roof, but pointed out that slates were cheaper. He ventured to differ, however, about the Corinthian columns which were to cling like leeches to the frames of the bow windows, saying that, for his part, he liked to relieve the façade by a bit of decoration. Sir Harry hinted that a column, if possible, should be structural as well as decorative.
Mr. Flack replied that all the columns had been ordered, adding, “and all the capitals different—one with dragons in the foliage, another approaching to the Ionian style, another introducing Mrs. Flack’s initials—every one different.” For he had read his Ruskin. He built his villas according to his desire; and not until he had inserted an immovable aunt into one of them did Sir Harry buy.
This futile and unprofitable transaction filled the knight with sadness as he leant on Mrs. Honeychurch’s carriage. He had failed in his duties to the country-side, and the country-side was laughing at him as well. He had spent money, and yet Summer Street was spoilt as much as ever. All he could do now was to find a desirable tenant for “Cissie”—someone really desirable.
“The rent is absurdly low,” he told them, “and perhaps I am an easy landlord. But it is such an awkward size. It is too large for the peasant class and too small for any one the least like ourselves.”
Cecil had been hesitating whether he should despise the villas or despise Sir Harry for despising them. The latter impulse seemed the more fruitful.
“You ought to find a tenant at once,” he said maliciously. “It would be a perfect paradise for a bank clerk.”
“Exactly!” said Sir Harry excitedly. “That is exactly what I fear, Mr. Vyse. It will attract the wrong type of people. The train service has improved—a fatal improvement, to my mind. And what are five miles from a station in these days of bicycles?”
“Rather a strenuous clerk it would be,” said Lucy.
Cecil, who had his full share of mediaeval mischievousness, replied that the physique of the lower middle classes was improving at a most appalling rate. She saw that he was laughing at their harmless neighbour, and roused herself to stop him.
“Sir Harry!” she exclaimed, “I have an idea. How would you like spinsters?”
“My dear Lucy, it would be splendid. Do you know any such?”
“Yes; I met them abroad.”
“Gentlewomen?” he asked tentatively.
“Yes, indeed, and at the present moment homeless. I heard from them last week—Miss Teresa and Miss Catharine Alan. I’m really not joking. They are quite the right people. Mr. Beebe knows them, too. May I tell them to write to you?”
“Indeed you may!” he cried. “Here we are with the difficulty solved already. How delightful it is! Extra facilities—please tell them they shall have extra facilities, for I shall have no agents’ fees. Oh, the agents! The appalling people they have sent me! One woman, when I wrote—a tactful letter, you know—asking her to explain her social position to me, replied that she would pay the rent in advance. As if one cares about that! And several references I took up were most unsatisfactory—people swindlers, or not respectable. And oh, the deceit! I have seen a good deal of the seamy side this last week. The deceit of the most promising people. My dear Lucy, the deceit!”
“My advice,” put in Mrs. Honeychurch, “is to have nothing to do with Lucy and her decayed gentlewomen at all. I know the type. Preserve me from people who have seen better days, and bring heirlooms with them that make the house smell stuffy. It’s a sad thing, but I’d far rather let to some one who is going up in the world than to someone who has come down.”
“I think I follow you,” said Sir Harry; “but it is, as you say, a very sad thing.”
“The Misses Alan aren’t that!” cried Lucy.
“Yes, they are,” said Cecil. “I haven’t met them but I should say they were a highly unsuitable addition to the neighbourhood.”
“Don’t listen to him, Sir Harry—he’s tiresome.”
“It’s I who am tiresome,” he replied. “I oughtn’t to come with my troubles to young people. But really I am so worried, and Lady Otway will only say that I cannot be too careful, which is quite true, but no real help.”
“Then may I write to my Misses Alan?”
But his eye wavered when Mrs. Honeychurch exclaimed:
“Beware! They are certain to have canaries. Sir Harry, beware of canaries: they spit the seed out through the bars of the cages and then the mice come. Beware of women altogether. Only let to a man.”
“Really—” he murmured gallantly, though he saw the wisdom of her remark.
“Men don’t gossip over tea-cups. If they get drunk, there’s an end of them—they lie down comfortably and sleep it off. If they’re vulgar, they somehow keep it to themselves. It doesn’t spread so. Give me a man—of course, provided he’s clean.”
Sir Harry blushed. Neither he nor Cecil enjoyed these open compliments to their sex. Even the exclusion of the dirty did not leave them much distinction. He suggested that Mrs. Honeychurch, if she had time, should descend from the carriage and inspect “Cissie” for herself. She was delighted. Nature had intended her to be poor and to live in such a house. Domestic arrangements always attracted her, especially when they were on a small scale.
Cecil pulled Lucy back as she followed her mother.
“Mrs. Honeychurch,” he said, “what if we two walk home and leave you?”
“Certainly!” was her cordial reply.
Sir Harry likewise seemed almost too glad to get rid of them. He beamed at them knowingly, said, “Aha! young people, young people!” and then hastened to unlock the house.
“Hopeless vulgarian!” exclaimed Cecil, almost before they were out of earshot.
“I can’t help it. It would be wrong not to loathe that man.”
“He isn’t clever, but really he is nice.”
“No, Lucy, he stands for all that is bad in country life. In London he would keep his place. He would belong to a brainless club, and his wife would give brainless dinner parties. But down here he acts the little god with his gentility, and his patronage, and his sham aesthetics, and every one—even your mother—is taken in.”
“All that you say is quite true,” said Lucy, though she felt discouraged. “I wonder whether—whether it matters so very much.”
“It matters supremely. Sir Harry is the essence of that garden-party. Oh, goodness, how cross I feel! How I do hope he’ll get some vulgar tenant in that villa—some woman so really vulgar that he’ll notice it. Gentlefolks! Ugh! with his bald head and retreating chin! But let’s forget him.”
This Lucy was glad enough to do. If Cecil disliked Sir Harry Otway and Mr. Beebe, what guarantee was there that the people who really mattered to her would escape? For instance, Freddy. Freddy was neither clever, nor subtle, nor beautiful, and what prevented Cecil from saying, any minute, “It would be wrong not to loathe Freddy”? And what would she reply? Further than Freddy she did not go, but he gave her anxiety enough. She could only assure herself that Cecil had known Freddy some time, and that they had always got on pleasantly, except, perhaps, during the last few days, which was an accident, perhaps.
“Which way shall we go?” she asked him.
Nature—simplest of topics, she thought—was around them. Summer Street lay deep in the woods, and she had stopped where a footpath diverged from the highroad.
“Are there two ways?”
“Perhaps the road is more sensible, as we’re got up smart.”
“I’d rather go through the wood,” said Cecil, With that subdued irritation that she had noticed in him all the afternoon. “Why is it, Lucy, that you always say the road? Do you know that you have never once been with me in the fields or the wood since we were engaged?”
“Haven’t I? The wood, then,” said Lucy, startled at his queerness, but pretty sure that he would explain later; it was not his habit to leave her in doubt as to his meaning.
She led the way into the whispering pines, and sure enough he did explain before they had gone a dozen yards.
“I had got an idea—I dare say wrongly—that you feel more at home with me in a room.”
“A room?” she echoed, hopelessly bewildered.
“Yes. Or, at the most, in a garden, or on a road. Never in the real country like this.”
“Oh, Cecil, whatever do you mean? I have never felt anything of the sort. You talk as if I was a kind of poetess sort of person.”
“I don’t know that you aren’t. I connect you with a view—a certain type of view. Why shouldn’t you connect me with a room?”
She reflected a moment, and then said, laughing:
“Do you know that you’re right? I do. I must be a poetess after all. When I think of you it’s always as in a room. How funny!”
To her surprise, he seemed annoyed.
“A drawing-room, pray? With no view?”
“Yes, with no view, I fancy. Why not?”
“I’d rather,” he said reproachfully, “that you connected me with the open air.”
She said again, “Oh, Cecil, whatever do you mean?”
As no explanation was forthcoming, she shook off the subject as too difficult for a girl, and led him further into the wood, pausing every now and then at some particularly beautiful or familiar combination of the trees. She had known the wood between Summer Street and Windy Corner ever since she could walk alone; she had played at losing Freddy in it, when Freddy was a purple-faced baby; and though she had been to Italy, it had lost none of its charm.
Presently they came to a little clearing among the pines—another tiny green alp, solitary this time, and holding in its bosom a shallow pool.
She exclaimed, “The Sacred Lake!”
“Why do you call it that?”
“I can’t remember why. I suppose it comes out of some book. It’s only a puddle now, but you see that stream going through it? Well, a good deal of water comes down after heavy rains, and can’t get away at once, and the pool becomes quite large and beautiful. Then Freddy used to bathe there. He is very fond of it.”
He meant, “Are you fond of it?” But she answered dreamily, “I bathed here, too, till I was found out. Then there was a row.”
At another time he might have been shocked, for he had depths of prudishness within him. But now? with his momentary cult of the fresh air, he was delighted at her admirable simplicity. He looked at her as she stood by the pool’s edge. She was got up smart, as she phrased it, and she reminded him of some brilliant flower that has no leaves of its own, but blooms abruptly out of a world of green.
“Who found you out?”
“Charlotte,” she murmured. “She was stopping with us. Charlotte—Charlotte.”
She smiled gravely. A certain scheme, from which hitherto he had shrunk, now appeared practical.
“Yes, I suppose we ought to be going,” was her reply.
“Lucy, I want to ask something of you that I have never asked before.”
At the serious note in his voice she stepped frankly and kindly towards him.
“Hitherto never—not even that day on the lawn when you agreed to marry me—”
He became self-conscious and kept glancing round to see if they were observed. His courage had gone.
“Up to now I have never kissed you.”
She was as scarlet as if he had put the thing most indelicately.
“No—more you have,” she stammered.
“Then I ask you—may I now?”
“Of course, you may, Cecil. You might before. I can’t run at you, you know.”
At that supreme moment he was conscious of nothing but absurdities. Her reply was inadequate. She gave such a business-like lift to her veil. As he approached her he found time to wish that he could recoil. As he touched her, his gold pince-nez became dislodged and was flattened between them.
Such was the embrace. He considered, with truth, that it had been a failure. Passion should believe itself irresistible. It should forget civility and consideration and all the other curses of a refined nature. Above all, it should never ask for leave where there is a right of way. Why could he not do as any labourer or navvy—nay, as any young man behind the counter would have done? He recast the scene. Lucy was standing flowerlike by the water, he rushed up and took her in his arms; she rebuked him, permitted him and revered him ever after for his manliness. For he believed that women revere men for their manliness.
They left the pool in silence, after this one salutation. He waited for her to make some remark which should show him her inmost thoughts. At last she spoke, and with fitting gravity.
“Emerson was the name, not Harris.”
“The old man’s.”
“What old man?”
“That old man I told you about. The one Mr. Eager was so unkind to.”
He could not know that this was the most intimate conversation they had ever had.