It was a Saturday afternoon, gay and brilliant after abundant rains, and the spirit of youth dwelt in it, though the season was now autumn. All that was gracious triumphed. As the motorcars passed through Summer Street they raised only a little dust, and their stench was soon dispersed by the wind and replaced by the scent of the wet birches or of the pines. Mr. Beebe, at leisure for life’s amenities, leant over his Rectory gate. Freddy leant by him, smoking a pendant pipe.
“Suppose we go and hinder those new people opposite for a little.”
“They might amuse you.”
Freddy, whom his fellow-creatures never amused, suggested that the new people might be feeling a bit busy, and so on, since they had only just moved in.
“I suggested we should hinder them,” said Mr. Beebe. “They are worth it.” Unlatching the gate, he sauntered over the triangular green to Cissie Villa. “Hullo!” he cried, shouting in at the open door, through which much squalor was visible.
A grave voice replied, “Hullo!”
“I’ve brought some one to see you.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.”
The passage was blocked by a wardrobe, which the removal men had failed to carry up the stairs. Mr. Beebe edged round it with difficulty. The sitting-room itself was blocked with books.
“Are these people great readers?” Freddy whispered. “Are they that sort?”
“I fancy they know how to read—a rare accomplishment. What have they got? Byron. Exactly. A Shropshire Lad. Never heard of it. The Way of All Flesh. Never heard of it. Gibbon. Hullo! dear George reads German. Um—um—Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and so we go on. Well, I suppose your generation knows its own business, Honeychurch.”
“Mr. Beebe, look at that,” said Freddy in awestruck tones.
On the cornice of the wardrobe, the hand of an amateur had painted this inscription: “Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes.”
“I know. Isn’t it jolly? I like that. I’m certain that’s the old man’s doing.”
“How very odd of him!”
“Surely you agree?”
But Freddy was his mother’s son and felt that one ought not to go on spoiling the furniture.
“Pictures!” the clergyman continued, scrambling about the room. “Giotto—they got that at Florence, I’ll be bound.”
“The same as Lucy’s got.”
“Oh, by-the-by, did Miss Honeychurch enjoy London?”
“She came back yesterday.”
“I suppose she had a good time?”
“Yes, very,” said Freddy, taking up a book. “She and Cecil are thicker than ever.”
“That’s good hearing.”
“I wish I wasn’t such a fool, Mr. Beebe.”
Mr. Beebe ignored the remark.
“Lucy used to be nearly as stupid as I am, but it’ll be very different now, mother thinks. She will read all kinds of books.”
“So will you.”
“Only medical books. Not books that you can talk about afterwards. Cecil is teaching Lucy Italian, and he says her playing is wonderful. There are all kinds of things in it that we have never noticed. Cecil says—”
“What on earth are those people doing upstairs? Emerson—we think we’ll come another time.”
George ran down-stairs and pushed them into the room without speaking.
“Let me introduce Mr. Honeychurch, a neighbour.”
Then Freddy hurled one of the thunderbolts of youth. Perhaps he was shy, perhaps he was friendly, or perhaps he thought that George’s face wanted washing. At all events he greeted him with, “How d’ye do? Come and have a bathe.”
“Oh, all right,” said George, impassive.
Mr. Beebe was highly entertained.
“‘How d’ye do? how d’ye do? Come and have a bathe,'” he chuckled. “That’s the best conversational opening I’ve ever heard. But I’m afraid it will only act between men. Can you picture a lady who has been introduced to another lady by a third lady opening civilities with ‘How do you do? Come and have a bathe’? And yet you will tell me that the sexes are equal.”
“I tell you that they shall be,” said Mr. Emerson, who had been slowly descending the stairs. “Good afternoon, Mr. Beebe. I tell you they shall be comrades, and George thinks the same.”
“We are to raise ladies to our level?” the clergyman inquired.
“The Garden of Eden,” pursued Mr. Emerson, still descending, “which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies.”
Mr. Beebe disclaimed placing the Garden of Eden anywhere.
“In this—not in other things—we men are ahead. We despise the body less than women do. But not until we are comrades shall we enter the garden.”
“I say, what about this bathe?” murmured Freddy, appalled at the mass of philosophy that was approaching him.
“I believed in a return to Nature once. But how can we return to Nature when we have never been with her? To-day, I believe that we must discover Nature. After many conquests we shall attain simplicity. It is our heritage.”
“Let me introduce Mr. Honeychurch, whose sister you will remember at Florence.”
“How do you do? Very glad to see you, and that you are taking George for a bathe. Very glad to hear that your sister is going to marry. Marriage is a duty. I am sure that she will be happy, for we know Mr. Vyse, too. He has been most kind. He met us by chance in the National Gallery, and arranged everything about this delightful house. Though I hope I have not vexed Sir Harry Otway. I have met so few Liberal landowners, and I was anxious to compare his attitude towards the game laws with the Conservative attitude. Ah, this wind! You do well to bathe. Yours is a glorious country, Honeychurch!”
“Not a bit!” mumbled Freddy. “I must—that is to say, I have to—have the pleasure of calling on you later on, my mother says, I hope.”
“CALL, my lad? Who taught us that drawing-room twaddle? Call on your grandmother! Listen to the wind among the pines! Yours is a glorious country.”
Mr. Beebe came to the rescue.
“Mr. Emerson, he will call, I shall call; you or your son will return our calls before ten days have elapsed. I trust that you have realized about the ten days’ interval. It does not count that I helped you with the stair-eyes yesterday. It does not count that they are going to bathe this afternoon.”
“Yes, go and bathe, George. Why do you dawdle talking? Bring them back to tea. Bring back some milk, cakes, honey. The change will do you good. George has been working very hard at his office. I can’t believe he’s well.”
George bowed his head, dusty and sombre, exhaling the peculiar smell of one who has handled furniture.
“Do you really want this bathe?” Freddy asked him. “It is only a pond, don’t you know. I dare say you are used to something better.”
“Yes—I have said ‘Yes’ already.”
Mr. Beebe felt bound to assist his young friend, and led the way out of the house and into the pine-woods. How glorious it was! For a little time the voice of old Mr. Emerson pursued them dispensing good wishes and philosophy. It ceased, and they only heard the fair wind blowing the bracken and the trees. Mr. Beebe, who could be silent, but who could not bear silence, was compelled to chatter, since the expedition looked like a failure, and neither of his companions would utter a word. He spoke of Florence. George attended gravely, assenting or dissenting with slight but determined gestures that were as inexplicable as the motions of the tree-tops above their heads.
“And what a coincidence that you should meet Mr. Vyse! Did you realize that you would find all the Pension Bertolini down here?”
“I did not. Miss Lavish told me.”
“When I was a young man, I always meant to write a ‘History of Coincidence.'”
“Though, as a matter of fact, coincidences are much rarer than we suppose. For example, it isn’t purely coincidentally that you are here now, when one comes to reflect.”
To his relief, George began to talk.
“It is. I have reflected. It is Fate. Everything is Fate. We are flung together by Fate, drawn apart by Fate—flung together, drawn apart. The twelve winds blow us—we settle nothing—”
“You have not reflected at all,” rapped the clergyman. “Let me give you a useful tip, Emerson: attribute nothing to Fate. Don’t say, ‘I didn’t do this,’ for you did it, ten to one. Now I’ll cross-question you. Where did you first meet Miss Honeychurch and myself?”
“And where did you meet Mr. Vyse, who is going to marry Miss Honeychurch?”
“Looking at Italian art. There you are, and yet you talk of coincidence and Fate. You naturally seek out things Italian, and so do we and our friends. This narrows the field immeasurably we meet again in it.”
“It is Fate that I am here,” persisted George. “But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.”
Mr. Beebe slid away from such heavy treatment of the subject. But he was infinitely tolerant of the young, and had no desire to snub George.
“And so for this and for other reasons my ‘History of Coincidence’ is still to write.”
Wishing to round off the episode, he added; “We are all so glad that you have come.”
“Here we are!” called Freddy.
“Oh, good!” exclaimed Mr. Beebe, mopping his brow.
“In there’s the pond. I wish it was bigger,” he added apologetically.
They climbed down a slippery bank of pine-needles. There lay the pond, set in its little alp of green—only a pond, but large enough to contain the human body, and pure enough to reflect the sky. On account of the rains, the waters had flooded the surrounding grass, which showed like a beautiful emerald path, tempting these feet towards the central pool.
“It’s distinctly successful, as ponds go,” said Mr. Beebe. “No apologies are necessary for the pond.”
George sat down where the ground was dry, and drearily unlaced his boots.
“Aren’t those masses of willow-herb splendid? I love willow-herb in seed. What’s the name of this aromatic plant?”
No one knew, or seemed to care.
“These abrupt changes of vegetation—this little spongeous tract of water plants, and on either side of it all the growths are tough or brittle—heather, bracken, hurts, pines. Very charming, very charming.
“Mr. Beebe, aren’t you bathing?” called Freddy, as he stripped himself.
Mr. Beebe thought he was not.
“Water’s wonderful!” cried Freddy, prancing in.
“Water’s water,” murmured George. Wetting his hair first—a sure sign of apathy—he followed Freddy into the divine, as indifferent as if he were a statue and the pond a pail of soapsuds. It was necessary to use his muscles. It was necessary to keep clean. Mr. Beebe watched them, and watched the seeds of the willow-herb dance chorically above their heads.
“Apooshoo, apooshoo, apooshoo,” went Freddy, swimming for two strokes in either direction, and then becoming involved in reeds or mud.
“Is it worth it?” asked the other, Michelangelesque on the flooded margin.
The bank broke away, and he fell into the pool before he had weighed the question properly.
“Hee-poof—I’ve swallowed a pollywog, Mr. Beebe, water’s wonderful, water’s simply ripping.”
“Water’s not so bad,” said George, reappearing from his plunge, and sputtering at the sun.
“Water’s wonderful. Mr. Beebe, do.”
Mr. Beebe, who was hot, and who always acquiesced where possible, looked around him. He could detect no parishioners except the pine-trees, rising up steeply on all sides, and gesturing to each other against the blue. How glorious it was! The world of motor-cars and rural Deans receded inimitably. Water, sky, evergreens, a wind—these things not even the seasons can touch, and surely they lie beyond the intrusion of man?
“I may as well wash too”; and soon his garments made a third little pile on the sward, and he too asserted the wonder of the water.
It was ordinary water, nor was there very much of it, and, as Freddy said, it reminded one of swimming in a salad. The three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high, after the fashion of the nymphs in Gotterdammerung. But either because the rains had given a freshness or because the sun was shedding a most glorious heat, or because two of the gentlemen were young in years and the third young in spirit—for some reason or other a change came over them, and they forgot Italy and Botany and Fate. They began to play. Mr. Beebe and Freddy splashed each other. A little deferentially, they splashed George. He was quiet: they feared they had offended him. Then all the forces of youth burst out. He smiled, flung himself at them, splashed them, ducked them, kicked them, muddied them, and drove them out of the pool.
“Race you round it, then,” cried Freddy, and they raced in the sunshine, and George took a short cut and dirtied his shins, and had to bathe a second time. Then Mr. Beebe consented to run—a memorable sight.
They ran to get dry, they bathed to get cool, they played at being Indians in the willow-herbs and in the bracken, they bathed to get clean. And all the time three little bundles lay discreetly on the sward, proclaiming:
“No. We are what matters. Without us shall no enterprise begin. To us shall all flesh turn in the end.”
“A try! A try!” yelled Freddy, snatching up George’s bundle and placing it beside an imaginary goal-post.
“Socker rules,” George retorted, scattering Freddy’s bundle with a kick.
“Take care my watch!” cried Mr. Beebe.
Clothes flew in all directions.
“Take care my hat! No, that’s enough, Freddy. Dress now. No, I say!”
But the two young men were delirious. Away they twinkled into the trees, Freddy with a clerical waistcoat under his arm, George with a wide-awake hat on his dripping hair.
“That’ll do!” shouted Mr. Beebe, remembering that after all he was in his own parish. Then his voice changed as if every pine-tree was a Rural Dean. “Hi! Steady on! I see people coming you fellows!”
Yells, and widening circles over the dappled earth.
“Hi! hi! LADIES!”
Neither George nor Freddy was truly refined. Still, they did not hear Mr. Beebe’s last warning or they would have avoided Mrs. Honeychurch, Cecil, and Lucy, who were walking down to call on old Mrs. Butterworth. Freddy dropped the waistcoat at their feet, and dashed into some bracken. George whooped in their faces, turned and scudded away down the path to the pond, still clad in Mr. Beebe’s hat.
“Gracious alive!” cried Mrs. Honeychurch. “Whoever were those unfortunate people? Oh, dears, look away! And poor Mr. Beebe, too! Whatever has happened?”
“Come this way immediately,” commanded Cecil, who always felt that he must lead women, though knew not whither, and protect them, though he knew not against what. He led them now towards the bracken where Freddy sat concealed.
“Oh, poor Mr. Beebe! Was that his waistcoat we left in the path? Cecil, Mr. Beebe’s waistcoat—”
No business of ours, said Cecil, glancing at Lucy, who was all parasol and evidently “minded.”
“I fancy Mr. Beebe jumped back into the pond.”
“This way, please, Mrs. Honeychurch, this way.”
They followed him up the bank attempting the tense yet nonchalant expression that is suitable for ladies on such occasions.
“Well, I can’t help it,” said a voice close ahead, and Freddy reared a freckled face and a pair of snowy shoulders out of the fronds. “I can’t be trodden on, can I?”
“Good gracious me, dear; so it’s you! What miserable management! Why not have a comfortable bath at home, with hot and cold laid on?”
“Look here, mother, a fellow must wash, and a fellow’s got to dry, and if another fellow—”
“Dear, no doubt you’re right as usual, but you are in no position to argue. Come, Lucy.” They turned. “Oh, look—don’t look! Oh, poor Mr. Beebe! How unfortunate again—”
For Mr. Beebe was just crawling out of the pond, On whose surface garments of an intimate nature did float; while George, the world-weary George, shouted to Freddy that he had hooked a fish.
“And me, I’ve swallowed one,” answered he of the bracken. “I’ve swallowed a pollywog. It wriggleth in my tummy. I shall die—Emerson you beast, you’ve got on my bags.”
“Hush, dears,” said Mrs. Honeychurch, who found it impossible to remain shocked. “And do be sure you dry yourselves thoroughly first. All these colds come of not drying thoroughly.”
“Mother, do come away,” said Lucy. “Oh for goodness’ sake, do come.”
“Hullo!” cried George, so that again the ladies stopped.
He regarded himself as dressed. Barefoot, bare-chested, radiant and personable against the shadowy woods, he called:
“Hullo, Miss Honeychurch! Hullo!”
“Bow, Lucy; better bow. Whoever is it? I shall bow.”
Miss Honeychurch bowed.
That evening and all that night the water ran away. On the morrow the pool had shrunk to its old size and lost its glory. It had been a call to the blood and to the relaxed will, a passing benediction whose influence did not pass, a holiness, a spell, a momentary chalice for youth.