How often had Lucy rehearsed this bow, this interview! But she had always rehearsed them indoors, and with certain accessories, which surely we have a right to assume. Who could foretell that she and George would meet in the rout of a civilization, amidst an army of coats and collars and boots that lay wounded over the sunlit earth? She had imagined a young Mr. Emerson, who might be shy or morbid or indifferent or furtively impudent. She was prepared for all of these. But she had never imagined one who would be happy and greet her with the shout of the morning star.
Indoors herself, partaking of tea with old Mrs. Butterworth, she reflected that it is impossible to foretell the future with any degree of accuracy, that it is impossible to rehearse life. A fault in the scenery, a face in the audience, an irruption of the audience on to the stage, and all our carefully planned gestures mean nothing, or mean too much. “I will bow,” she had thought. “I will not shake hands with him. That will be just the proper thing.” She had bowed—but to whom? To gods, to heroes, to the nonsense of school-girls! She had bowed across the rubbish that cumbers the world.
So ran her thoughts, while her faculties were busy with Cecil. It was another of those dreadful engagement calls. Mrs. Butterworth had wanted to see him, and he did not want to be seen. He did not want to hear about hydrangeas, why they change their colour at the seaside. He did not want to join the C. O. S. When cross he was always elaborate, and made long, clever answers where “Yes” or “No” would have done. Lucy soothed him and tinkered at the conversation in a way that promised well for their married peace. No one is perfect, and surely it is wiser to discover the imperfections before wedlock. Miss Bartlett, indeed, though not in word, had taught the girl that this our life contains nothing satisfactory. Lucy, though she disliked the teacher, regarded the teaching as profound, and applied it to her lover.
“Lucy,” said her mother, when they got home, “is anything the matter with Cecil?”
The question was ominous; up till now Mrs. Honeychurch had behaved with charity and restraint.
“No, I don’t think so, mother; Cecil’s all right.”
“Perhaps he’s tired.”
Lucy compromised: perhaps Cecil was a little tired.
“Because otherwise”—she pulled out her bonnet-pins with gathering displeasure—”because otherwise I cannot account for him.”
“I do think Mrs. Butterworth is rather tiresome, if you mean that.”
“Cecil has told you to think so. You were devoted to her as a little girl, and nothing will describe her goodness to you through the typhoid fever. No—it is just the same thing everywhere.”
“Let me just put your bonnet away, may I?”
“Surely he could answer her civilly for one half-hour?”
“Cecil has a very high standard for people,” faltered Lucy, seeing trouble ahead. “It’s part of his ideals—it is really that that makes him sometimes seem—”
“Oh, rubbish! If high ideals make a young man rude, the sooner he gets rid of them the better,” said Mrs. Honeychurch, handing her the bonnet.
“Now, mother! I’ve seen you cross with Mrs. Butterworth yourself!”
“Not in that way. At times I could wring her neck. But not in that way. No. It is the same with Cecil all over.”
“By-the-by—I never told you. I had a letter from Charlotte while I was away in London.”
This attempt to divert the conversation was too puerile, and Mrs. Honeychurch resented it.
“Since Cecil came back from London, nothing appears to please him. Whenever I speak he winces;—I see him, Lucy; it is useless to contradict me. No doubt I am neither artistic nor literary nor intellectual nor musical, but I cannot help the drawing-room furniture; your father bought it and we must put up with it, will Cecil kindly remember.”
“I—I see what you mean, and certainly Cecil oughtn’t to. But he does not mean to be uncivil—he once explained—it is the things that upset him—he is easily upset by ugly things—he is not uncivil to PEOPLE.”
“Is it a thing or a person when Freddy sings?”
“You can’t expect a really musical person to enjoy comic songs as we do.”
“Then why didn’t he leave the room? Why sit wriggling and sneering and spoiling everyone’s pleasure?”
“We mustn’t be unjust to people,” faltered Lucy. Something had enfeebled her, and the case for Cecil, which she had mastered so perfectly in London, would not come forth in an effective form. The two civilizations had clashed—Cecil hinted that they might—and she was dazzled and bewildered, as though the radiance that lies behind all civilization had blinded her eyes. Good taste and bad taste were only catchwords, garments of diverse cut; and music itself dissolved to a whisper through pine-trees, where the song is not distinguishable from the comic song.
She remained in much embarrassment, while Mrs. Honeychurch changed her frock for dinner; and every now and then she said a word, and made things no better. There was no concealing the fact, Cecil had meant to be supercilious, and he had succeeded. And Lucy—she knew not why—wished that the trouble could have come at any other time.
“Go and dress, dear; you’ll be late.”
“All right, mother—”
“Don’t say ‘All right’ and stop. Go.”
She obeyed, but loitered disconsolately at the landing window. It faced north, so there was little view, and no view of the sky. Now, as in the winter, the pine-trees hung close to her eyes. One connected the landing window with depression. No definite problem menaced her, but she sighed to herself, “Oh, dear, what shall I do, what shall I do?” It seemed to her that every one else was behaving very badly. And she ought not to have mentioned Miss Bartlett’s letter. She must be more careful; her mother was rather inquisitive, and might have asked what it was about. Oh, dear, should she do?—and then Freddy came bounding up-stairs, and joined the ranks of the ill-behaved.
“I say, those are topping people.”
“My dear baby, how tiresome you’ve been! You have no business to take them bathing in the Sacred it’s much too public. It was all right for you but most awkward for every one else. Do be more careful. You forget the place is growing half suburban.”
“I say, is anything on to-morrow week?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then I want to ask the Emersons up to Sunday tennis.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that, Freddy, I wouldn’t do that with all this muddle.”
“What’s wrong with the court? They won’t mind a bump or two, and I’ve ordered new balls.”
“I meant it’s better not. I really mean it.”
He seized her by the elbows and humorously danced her up and down the passage. She pretended not to mind, but she could have screamed with temper. Cecil glanced at them as he proceeded to his toilet and they impeded Mary with her brood of hot-water cans. Then Mrs. Honeychurch opened her door and said: “Lucy, what a noise you’re making! I have something to say to you. Did you say you had had a letter from Charlotte?” and Freddy ran away.
“Yes. I really can’t stop. I must dress too.”
The unfortunate girl returned.
“You’ve a bad habit of hurrying away in the middle of one’s sentences. Did Charlotte mention her boiler?”
“Don’t you remember that her boiler was to be had out in October, and her bath cistern cleaned out, and all kinds of terrible to-doings?”
“I can’t remember all Charlotte’s worries,” said Lucy bitterly. “I shall have enough of my own, now that you are not pleased with Cecil.”
Mrs. Honeychurch might have flamed out. She did not. She said: “Come here, old lady—thank you for putting away my bonnet—kiss me.” And, though nothing is perfect, Lucy felt for the moment that her mother and Windy Corner and the Weald in the declining sun were perfect.
So the grittiness went out of life. It generally did at Windy Corner. At the last minute, when the social machine was clogged hopelessly, one member or other of the family poured in a drop of oil. Cecil despised their methods—perhaps rightly. At all events, they were not his own.
Dinner was at half-past seven. Freddy gabbled the grace, and they drew up their heavy chairs and fell to. Fortunately, the men were hungry. Nothing untoward occurred until the pudding. Then Freddy said:
“Lucy, what’s Emerson like?”
“I saw him in Florence,” said Lucy, hoping that this would pass for a reply.
“Is he the clever sort, or is he a decent chap?”
“Ask Cecil; it is Cecil who brought him here.”
“He is the clever sort, like myself,” said Cecil.
Freddy looked at him doubtfully.
“How well did you know them at the Bertolini?” asked Mrs. Honeychurch.
“Oh, very slightly. I mean, Charlotte knew them even less than I did.”
“Oh, that reminds me—you never told me what Charlotte said in her letter.”
“One thing and another,” said Lucy, wondering whether she would get through the meal without a lie. “Among other things, that an awful friend of hers had been bicycling through Summer Street, wondered if she’d come up and see us, and mercifully didn’t.”
“Lucy, I do call the way you talk unkind.”
“She was a novelist,” said Lucy craftily. The remark was a happy one, for nothing roused Mrs. Honeychurch so much as literature in the hands of females. She would abandon every topic to inveigh against those women who (instead of minding their houses and their children) seek notoriety by print. Her attitude was: “If books must be written, let them be written by men”; and she developed it at great length, while Cecil yawned and Freddy played at “This year, next year, now, never,” with his plum-stones, and Lucy artfully fed the flames of her mother’s wrath. But soon the conflagration died down, and the ghosts began to gather in the darkness. There were too many ghosts about. The original ghost—that touch of lips on her cheek—had surely been laid long ago; it could be nothing to her that a man had kissed her on a mountain once. But it had begotten a spectral family—Mr. Harris, Miss Bartlett’s letter, Mr. Beebe’s memories of violets—and one or other of these was bound to haunt her before Cecil’s very eyes. It was Miss Bartlett who returned now, and with appalling vividness.
“I have been thinking, Lucy, of that letter of Charlotte’s. How is she?”
“I tore the thing up.”
“Didn’t she say how she was? How does she sound? Cheerful?”
“Oh, yes I suppose so—no—not very cheerful, I suppose.”
“Then, depend upon it, it IS the boiler. I know myself how water preys upon one’s mind. I would rather anything else—even a misfortune with the meat.”
Cecil laid his hand over his eyes.
“So would I,” asserted Freddy, backing his mother up—backing up the spirit of her remark rather than the substance.
“And I have been thinking,” she added rather nervously, “surely we could squeeze Charlotte in here next week, and give her a nice holiday while plumbers at Tunbridge Wells finish. I have not seen poor Charlotte for so long.”
It was more than her nerves could stand. And she could not protest violently after her mother’s goodness to her upstairs.
“Mother, no!” she pleaded. “It’s impossible. We can’t have Charlotte on the top of the other things; we’re squeezed to death as it is. Freddy’s got a friend coming Tuesday, there’s Cecil, and you’ve promised to take in Minnie Beebe because of the diphtheria scare. It simply can’t be done.”
“Nonsense! It can.”
“If Minnie sleeps in the bath. Not otherwise.”
“Minnie can sleep with you.”
“I won’t have her.”
“Then, if you’re so selfish, Mr. Floyd must share a room with Freddy.”
“Miss Bartlett, Miss Bartlett, Miss Bartlett,” moaned Cecil, again laying his hand over his eyes.
“It’s impossible,” repeated Lucy. “I don’t want to make difficulties, but it really isn’t fair on the maids to fill up the house so.”
“The truth is, dear, you don’t like Charlotte.”
“No, I don’t. And no more does Cecil. She gets on our nerves. You haven’t seen her lately, and don’t realize how tiresome she can be, though so good. So please, mother, don’t worry us this last summer; but spoil us by not asking her to come.”
“Hear, hear!” said Cecil.
Mrs. Honeychurch, with more gravity than usual, and with more feeling than she usually permitted herself, replied: “This isn’t very kind of you two. You have each other and all these woods to walk in, so full of beautiful things; and poor Charlotte has only the water turned off and plumbers. You are young, dears, and however clever young people are, and however many books they read, they will never guess what it feels like to grow old.”
Cecil crumbled his bread.
“I must say Cousin Charlotte was very kind to me that year I called on my bike,” put in Freddy. “She thanked me for coming till I felt like such a fool, and fussed round no end to get an egg boiled for my tea just right.”
“I know, dear. She is kind to every one, and yet Lucy makes this difficulty when we try to give her some little return.”
But Lucy hardened her heart. It was no good being kind to Miss Bartlett. She had tried herself too often and too recently. One might lay up treasure in heaven by the attempt, but one enriched neither Miss Bartlett nor any one else upon earth. She was reduced to saying: “I can’t help it, mother. I don’t like Charlotte. I admit it’s horrid of me.”
“From your own account, you told her as much.”
“Well, she would leave Florence so stupidly. She flurried—”
The ghosts were returning; they filled Italy, they were even usurping the places she had known as a child. The Sacred Lake would never be the same again, and, on Sunday week, something would even happen to Windy Corner. How would she fight against ghosts? For a moment the visible world faded away, and memories and emotions alone seemed real.
“I suppose Miss Bartlett must come, since she boils eggs so well,” said Cecil, who was in rather a happier frame of mind, thanks to the admirable cooking.
“I didn’t mean the egg was WELL boiled,” corrected Freddy, “because in point of fact she forgot to take it off, and as a matter of fact I don’t care for eggs. I only meant how jolly kind she seemed.”
Cecil frowned again. Oh, these Honeychurches! Eggs, boilers, hydrangeas, maids—of such were their lives compact. “May me and Lucy get down from our chairs?” he asked, with scarcely veiled insolence. “We don’t want no dessert.”