But Lucy had developed since the spring. That is to say, she was now better able to stifle the emotions of which the conventions and the world disapprove. Though the danger was greater, she was not shaken by deep sobs. She said to Cecil, “I am not coming in to tea—tell mother—I must write some letters,” and went up to her room. Then she prepared for action. Love felt and returned, love which our bodies exact and our hearts have transfigured, love which is the most real thing that we shall ever meet, reappeared now as the world’s enemy, and she must stifle it.
She sent for Miss Bartlett.
The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy’s first aim was to defeat herself. As her brain clouded over, as the memory of the views grew dim and the words of the book died away, she returned to her old shibboleth of nerves. She “conquered her breakdown.” Tampering with the truth, she forgot that the truth had ever been. Remembering that she was engaged to Cecil, she compelled herself to confused remembrances of George; he was nothing to her; he never had been anything; he had behaved abominably; she had never encouraged him. The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul. In a few moments Lucy was equipped for battle.
“Something too awful has happened,” she began, as soon as her cousin arrived. “Do you know anything about Miss Lavish’s novel?”
Miss Bartlett looked surprised, and said that she had not read the book, nor known that it was published; Eleanor was a reticent woman at heart.
“There is a scene in it. The hero and heroine make love. Do you know about that?”
“Do you know about it, please?” she repeated. “They are on a hillside, and Florence is in the distance.”
“My good Lucia, I am all at sea. I know nothing about it whatever.”
“There are violets. I cannot believe it is a coincidence. Charlotte, Charlotte, how could you have told her? I have thought before speaking; it must be you.”
“Told her what?” she asked, with growing agitation.
“About that dreadful afternoon in February.”
Miss Bartlett was genuinely moved. “Oh, Lucy, dearest girl—she hasn’t put that in her book?”
“Not so that one could recognize it. Yes.”
“Then never—never—never more shall Eleanor Lavish be a friend of mine.”
“So you did tell?”
“I did just happen—when I had tea with her at Rome—in the course of conversation—”
“But Charlotte—what about the promise you gave me when we were packing? Why did you tell Miss Lavish, when you wouldn’t even let me tell mother?”
“I will never forgive Eleanor. She has betrayed my confidence.”
“Why did you tell her, though? This is a most serious thing.”
Why does any one tell anything? The question is eternal, and it was not surprising that Miss Bartlett should only sigh faintly in response. She had done wrong—she admitted it, she only hoped that she had not done harm; she had told Eleanor in the strictest confidence.
Lucy stamped with irritation.
“Cecil happened to read out the passage aloud to me and to Mr. Emerson; it upset Mr. Emerson and he insulted me again. Behind Cecil’s back. Ugh! Is it possible that men are such brutes? Behind Cecil’s back as we were walking up the garden.”
Miss Bartlett burst into self-accusations and regrets.
“What is to be done now? Can you tell me?”
“Oh, Lucy—I shall never forgive myself, never to my dying day. Fancy if your prospects—”
“I know,” said Lucy, wincing at the word. “I see now why you wanted me to tell Cecil, and what you meant by ‘some other source.’ You knew that you had told Miss Lavish, and that she was not reliable.”
It was Miss Bartlett’s turn to wince. “However,” said the girl, despising her cousin’s shiftiness, “What’s done’s done. You have put me in a most awkward position. How am I to get out of it?”
Miss Bartlett could not think. The days of her energy were over. She was a visitor, not a chaperon, and a discredited visitor at that. She stood with clasped hands while the girl worked herself into the necessary rage.
“He must—that man must have such a setting down that he won’t forget. And who’s to give it him? I can’t tell mother now—owing to you. Nor Cecil, Charlotte, owing to you. I am caught up every way. I think I shall go mad. I have no one to help me. That’s why I’ve sent for you. What’s wanted is a man with a whip.”
Miss Bartlett agreed: one wanted a man with a whip.
“Yes—but it’s no good agreeing. What’s to be DONE. We women go maundering on. What DOES a girl do when she comes across a cad?”
“I always said he was a cad, dear. Give me credit for that, at all events. From the very first moment—when he said his father was having a bath.”
“Oh, bother the credit and who’s been right or wrong! We’ve both made a muddle of it. George Emerson is still down the garden there, and is he to be left unpunished, or isn’t he? I want to know.”
Miss Bartlett was absolutely helpless. Her own exposure had unnerved her, and thoughts were colliding painfully in her brain. She moved feebly to the window, and tried to detect the cad’s white flannels among the laurels.
“You were ready enough at the Bertolini when you rushed me off to Rome. Can’t you speak again to him now?”
“Willingly would I move heaven and earth—”
“I want something more definite,” said Lucy contemptuously. “Will you speak to him? It is the least you can do, surely, considering it all happened because you broke your word.”
“Never again shall Eleanor Lavish be a friend of mine.”
Really, Charlotte was outdoing herself.
“Yes or no, please; yes or no.”
“It is the kind of thing that only a gentleman can settle.” George Emerson was coming up the garden with a tennis ball in his hand.
“Very well,” said Lucy, with an angry gesture. “No one will help me. I will speak to him myself.” And immediately she realized that this was what her cousin had intended all along.
“Hullo, Emerson!” called Freddy from below. “Found the lost ball? Good man! Want any tea?” And there was an irruption from the house on to the terrace.
“Oh, Lucy, but that is brave of you! I admire you—”
They had gathered round George, who beckoned, she felt, over the rubbish, the sloppy thoughts, the furtive yearnings that were beginning to cumber her soul. Her anger faded at the sight of him. Ah! The Emersons were fine people in their way. She had to subdue a rush in her blood before saying:
“Freddy has taken him into the dining-room. The others are going down the garden. Come. Let us get this over quickly. Come. I want you in the room, of course.”
“Lucy, do you mind doing it?”
“How can you ask such a ridiculous question?”
“Poor Lucy—” She stretched out her hand. “I seem to bring nothing but misfortune wherever I go.” Lucy nodded. She remembered their last evening at Florence—the packing, the candle, the shadow of Miss Bartlett’s toque on the door. She was not to be trapped by pathos a second time. Eluding her cousin’s caress, she led the way downstairs.
“Try the jam,” Freddy was saying. “The jam’s jolly good.”
George, looking big and dishevelled, was pacing up and down the dining-room. As she entered he stopped, and said:
“No—nothing to eat.”
“You go down to the others,” said Lucy; “Charlotte and I will give Mr. Emerson all he wants. Where’s mother?”
“She’s started on her Sunday writing. She’s in the drawing-room.”
“That’s all right. You go away.”
He went off singing.
Lucy sat down at the table. Miss Bartlett, who was thoroughly frightened, took up a book and pretended to read.
She would not be drawn into an elaborate speech. She just said: “I can’t have it, Mr. Emerson. I cannot even talk to you. Go out of this house, and never come into it again as long as I live here—” flushing as she spoke and pointing to the door. “I hate a row. Go please.”
“But I can’t—”
She shook her head. “Go, please. I do not want to call in Mr. Vyse.”
“You don’t mean,” he said, absolutely ignoring Miss Bartlett—”you don’t mean that you are going to marry that man?”
The line was unexpected.
She shrugged her shoulders, as if his vulgarity wearied her. “You are merely ridiculous,” she said quietly.
Then his words rose gravely over hers: “You cannot live with Vyse. He’s only for an acquaintance. He is for society and cultivated talk. He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman.”
It was a new light on Cecil’s character.
“Have you ever talked to Vyse without feeling tired?”
“I can scarcely discuss—”
“No, but have you ever? He is the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things—books, pictures—but kill when they come to people. That’s why I’ll speak out through all this muddle even now. It’s shocking enough to lose you in any case, but generally a man must deny himself joy, and I would have held back if your Cecil had been a different person. I would never have let myself go. But I saw him first in the National Gallery, when he winced because my father mispronounced the names of great painters. Then he brings us here, and we find it is to play some silly trick on a kind neighbour. That is the man all over—playing tricks on people, on the most sacred form of life that he can find. Next, I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for YOU to settle whether you were shocked or no. Cecil all over again. He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own. So it was at the Rectory, when I met you both again; so it has been the whole of this afternoon. Therefore—not ‘therefore I kissed you,’ because the book made me do that, and I wish to goodness I had more self-control. I’m not ashamed. I don’t apologize. But it has frightened you, and you may not have noticed that I love you. Or would you have told me to go, and dealt with a tremendous thing so lightly? But therefore—therefore I settled to fight him.”
Lucy thought of a very good remark.
“You say Mr. Vyse wants me to listen to him, Mr. Emerson. Pardon me for suggesting that you have caught the habit.”
And he took the shoddy reproof and touched it into immortality. He said:
“Yes, I have,” and sank down as if suddenly weary. “I’m the same kind of brute at bottom. This desire to govern a woman—it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together before they shall enter the garden. But I do love you surely in a better way than he does.” He thought. “Yes—really in a better way. I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms,” He stretched them towards her. “Lucy, be quick—there’s no time for us to talk now—come to me as you came in the spring, and afterwards I will be gentle and explain. I have cared for you since that man died. I cannot live without you, ‘No good,’ I thought; ‘she is marrying some one else’; but I meet you again when all the world is glorious water and sun. As you came through the wood I saw that nothing else mattered. I called. I wanted to live and have my chance of joy.”
“And Mr. Vyse?” said Lucy, who kept commendably calm. “Does he not matter? That I love Cecil and shall be his wife shortly? A detail of no importance, I suppose?”
But he stretched his arms over the table towards her.
“May I ask what you intend to gain by this exhibition?”
He said: “It is our last chance. I shall do all that I can.” And as if he had done all else, he turned to Miss Bartlett, who sat like some portent against the skies of the evening. “You wouldn’t stop us this second time if you understood,” he said. “I have been into the dark, and I am going back into it, unless you will try to understand.”
Her long, narrow head drove backwards and forwards, as though demolishing some invisible obstacle. She did not answer.
“It is being young,” he said quietly, picking up his racquet from the floor and preparing to go. “It is being certain that Lucy cares for me really. It is that love and youth matter intellectually.”
In silence the two women watched him. His last remark, they knew, was nonsense, but was he going after it or not? Would not he, the cad, the charlatan, attempt a more dramatic finish? No. He was apparently content. He left them, carefully closing the front door; and when they looked through the hall window, they saw him go up the drive and begin to climb the slopes of withered fern behind the house. Their tongues were loosed, and they burst into stealthy rejoicings.
“Oh, Lucia—come back here—oh, what an awful man!”
Lucy had no reaction—at least, not yet. “Well, he amuses me,” she said. “Either I’m mad, or else he is, and I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. One more fuss through with you, Charlotte. Many thanks. I think, though, that this is the last. My admirer will hardly trouble me again.”
And Miss Bartlett, too, essayed the roguish:
“Well, it isn’t every one who could boast such a conquest, dearest, is it? Oh, one oughtn’t to laugh, really. It might have been very serious. But you were so sensible and brave—so unlike the girls of my day.”
“Let’s go down to them.”
But, once in the open air, she paused. Some emotion—pity, terror, love, but the emotion was strong—seized her, and she was aware of autumn. Summer was ending, and the evening brought her odours of decay, the more pathetic because they were reminiscent of spring. That something or other mattered intellectually? A leaf, violently agitated, danced past her, while other leaves lay motionless. That the earth was hastening to re-enter darkness, and the shadows of those trees over Windy Corner?
“Hullo, Lucy! There’s still light enough for another set, if you two’ll hurry.”
“Mr. Emerson has had to go.”
“What a nuisance! That spoils the four. I say, Cecil, do play, do, there’s a good chap. It’s Floyd’s last day. Do play tennis with us, just this once.”
Cecil’s voice came: “My dear Freddy, I am no athlete. As you well remarked this very morning, ‘There are some chaps who are no good for anything but books’; I plead guilty to being such a chap, and will not inflict myself on you.”
The scales fell from Lucy’s eyes. How had she stood Cecil for a moment? He was absolutely intolerable, and the same evening she broke off her engagement.