Chapter V: Possibilities of a Pleasant Outing
It was a family saying that "you never knew which way Charlotte Bartlett would turn." She was perfectly pleasant and sensible over Lucy's adventure, found the abridged account of it quite adequate, and paid suitable tribute to the courtesy of Mr. George Emerson. She and Miss Lavish had had an adventure also. They had been stopped at the Dazio coming back, and the young officials there, who seemed impudent and desoeuvre, had tried to search their reticules for provisions. It might have been most unpleasant. Fortunately Miss Lavish was a match for any one.
For good or for evil, Lucy was left to face her problem alone. None of her friends had seen her, either in the Piazza or, later on, by the embankment. Mr. Beebe, indeed, noticing her startled eyes at dinner-time, had again passed to himself the remark of "Too much Beethoven." But he only supposed that she was ready for an adventure, not that she had encountered it. This solitude oppressed her; she was accustomed to have her thoughts confirmed by others or, at all events, contradicted; it was too dreadful not to know whether she was thinking right or wrong.
At breakfast next morning she took decisive action. There were two plans between which she had to choose. Mr. Beebe was walking up to the Torre del Gallo with the Emersons and some American ladies. Would Miss Bartlett and Miss Honeychurch join the party? Charlotte declined for herself; she had been there in the rain the previous afternoon. But she thought it an admirable idea for Lucy, who hated shopping, changing money, fetching letters, and other irksome duties—all of which Miss Bartlett must accomplish this morning and could easily accomplish alone.
"No, Charlotte!" cried the girl, with real warmth. "It's very kind of Mr. Beebe, but I am certainly coming with you. I had much rather."
"Very well, dear," said Miss Bartlett, with a faint flush of pleasure that called forth a deep flush of shame on the cheeks of Lucy. How abominably she behaved to Charlotte, now as always! But now she should alter. All morning she would be really nice to her.
She slipped her arm into her cousin's, and they started off along the Lung' Arno. The river was a lion that morning in strength, voice, and colour. Miss Bartlett insisted on leaning over the parapet to look at it. She then made her usual remark, which was "How I do wish Freddy and your mother could see this, too!"
Lucy fidgeted; it was tiresome of Charlotte to have stopped exactly where she did.
"Look, Lucia! Oh, you are watching for the Torre del Gallo party. I feared you would repent you of your choice."
Serious as the choice had been, Lucy did not repent. Yesterday had been a muddle—queer and odd, the kind of thing one could not write down easily on paper—but she had a feeling that Charlotte and her shopping were preferable to George Emerson and the summit of the Torre del Gallo. Since she could not unravel the tangle, she must take care not to re-enter it. She could protest sincerely against Miss Bartlett's insinuations.
But though she had avoided the chief actor, the scenery unfortunately remained. Charlotte, with the complacency of fate, led her from the river to the Piazza Signoria. She could not have believed that stones, a Loggia, a fountain, a palace tower, would have such significance. For a moment she understood the nature of ghosts.
The exact site of the murder was occupied, not by a ghost, but by Miss Lavish, who had the morning newspaper in her hand. She hailed them briskly. The dreadful catastrophe of the previous day had given her an idea which she thought would work up into a book.
"Oh, let me congratulate you!" said Miss Bartlett. "After your despair of yesterday! What a fortunate thing!"
"Aha! Miss Honeychurch, come you here I am in luck. Now, you are to tell me absolutely everything that you saw from the beginning." Lucy poked at the ground with her parasol.
"But perhaps you would rather not?"
"I'm sorry—if you could manage without it, I think I would rather not."
The elder ladies exchanged glances, not of disapproval; it is suitable that a girl should feel deeply.
"It is I who am sorry," said Miss Lavish "literary hacks are shameless creatures. I believe there's no secret of the human heart into which we wouldn't pry."
She marched cheerfully to the fountain and back, and did a few calculations in realism. Then she said that she had been in the Piazza since eight o'clock collecting material. A good deal of it was unsuitable, but of course one always had to adapt. The two men had quarrelled over a five-franc note. For the five-franc note she should substitute a young lady, which would raise the tone of the tragedy, and at the same time furnish an excellent plot.
"What is the heroine's name?" asked Miss Bartlett.
"Leonora," said Miss Lavish; her own name was Eleanor.
"I do hope she's nice."
That desideratum would not be omitted.
"And what is the plot?"
Love, murder, abduction, revenge, was the plot. But it all came while the fountain plashed to the satyrs in the morning sun.
"I hope you will excuse me for boring on like this," Miss Lavish concluded. "It is so tempting to talk to really sympathetic people. Of course, this is the barest outline. There will be a deal of local colouring, descriptions of Florence and the neighbourhood, and I shall also introduce some humorous characters. And let me give you all fair warning: I intend to be unmerciful to the British tourist."
"Oh, you wicked woman," cried Miss Bartlett. "I am sure you are thinking of the Emersons."
Miss Lavish gave a Machiavellian smile.
"I confess that in Italy my sympathies are not with my own countrymen. It is the neglected Italians who attract me, and whose lives I am going to paint so far as I can. For I repeat and I insist, and I have always held most strongly, that a tragedy such as yesterday's is not the less tragic because it happened in humble life."
There was a fitting silence when Miss Lavish had concluded. Then the cousins wished success to her labours, and walked slowly away across the square.
"She is my idea of a really clever woman," said Miss Bartlett. "That last remark struck me as so particularly true. It should be a most pathetic novel."
Lucy assented. At present her great aim was not to get put into it. Her perceptions this morning were curiously keen, and she believed that Miss Lavish had her on trial for an ingenue.
"She is emancipated, but only in the very best sense of the word," continued Miss Bartlett slowly. "None but the superficial would be shocked at her. We had a long talk yesterday. She believes in justice and truth and human interest. She told me also that she has a high opinion of the destiny of woman—Mr. Eager! Why, how nice! What a pleasant surprise!"
"Ah, not for me," said the chaplain blandly, "for I have been watching you and Miss Honeychurch for quite a little time."
"We were chatting to Miss Lavish."
His brow contracted.
"So I saw. Were you indeed? Andate via! sono occupato!" The last remark was made to a vender of panoramic photographs who was approaching with a courteous smile. "I am about to venture a suggestion. Would you and Miss Honeychurch be disposed to join me in a drive some day this week—a drive in the hills? We might go up by Fiesole and back by Settignano. There is a point on that road where we could get down and have an hour's ramble on the hillside. The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view of Fiesole. It is the view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures. That man had a decided feeling for landscape. Decidedly. But who looks at it to-day? Ah, the world is too much for us."
Miss Bartlett had not heard of Alessio Baldovinetti, but she knew that Mr. Eager was no commonplace chaplain. He was a member of the residential colony who had made Florence their home. He knew the people who never walked about with Baedekers, who had learnt to take a siesta after lunch, who took drives the pension tourists had never heard of, and saw by private influence galleries which were closed to them. Living in delicate seclusion, some in furnished flats, others in Renaissance villas on Fiesole's slope, they read, wrote, studied, and exchanged ideas, thus attaining to that intimate knowledge, or rather perception, of Florence which is denied to all who carry in their pockets the coupons of Cook.
Therefore an invitation from the chaplain was something to be proud of. Between the two sections of his flock he was often the only link, and it was his avowed custom to select those of his migratory sheep who seemed worthy, and give them a few hours in the pastures of the permanent. Tea at a Renaissance villa? Nothing had been said about it yet. But if it did come to that—how Lucy would enjoy it!
A few days ago and Lucy would have felt the same. But the joys of life were grouping themselves anew. A drive in the hills with Mr. Eager and Miss Bartlett—even if culminating in a residential tea-party—was no longer the greatest of them. She echoed the raptures of Charlotte somewhat faintly. Only when she heard that Mr. Beebe was also coming did her thanks become more sincere.
"So we shall be a partie carree," said the chaplain. "In these days of toil and tumult one has great needs of the country and its message of purity. Andate via! andate presto, presto! Ah, the town! Beautiful as it is, it is the town."
"This very square—so I am told—witnessed yesterday the most sordid of tragedies. To one who loves the Florence of Dante and Savonarola there is something portentous in such desecration—portentous and humiliating."
"Humiliating indeed," said Miss Bartlett. "Miss Honeychurch happened to be passing through as it happened. She can hardly bear to speak of it." She glanced at Lucy proudly.
"And how came we to have you here?" asked the chaplain paternally.
Miss Bartlett's recent liberalism oozed away at the question. "Do not blame her, please, Mr. Eager. The fault is mine: I left her unchaperoned."
"So you were here alone, Miss Honeychurch?" His voice suggested sympathetic reproof but at the same time indicated that a few harrowing details would not be unacceptable. His dark, handsome face drooped mournfully towards her to catch her reply.
"One of our pension acquaintances kindly brought her home," said Miss Bartlett, adroitly concealing the sex of the preserver.
"For her also it must have been a terrible experience. I trust that neither of you was at all—that it was not in your immediate proximity?"
Of the many things Lucy was noticing to-day, not the least remarkable was this: the ghoulish fashion in which respectable people will nibble after blood. George Emerson had kept the subject strangely pure.
"He died by the fountain, I believe," was her reply.
"And you and your friend—"
"Were over at the Loggia."
"That must have saved you much. You have not, of course, seen the disgraceful illustrations which the gutter Press—This man is a public nuisance; he knows that I am a resident perfectly well, and yet he goes on worrying me to buy his vulgar views."
Surely the vendor of photographs was in league with Lucy—in the eternal league of Italy with youth. He had suddenly extended his book before Miss Bartlett and Mr. Eager, binding their hands together by a long glossy ribbon of churches, pictures, and views.
"This is too much!" cried the chaplain, striking petulantly at one of Fra Angelico's angels. She tore. A shrill cry rose from the vendor. The book it seemed, was more valuable than one would have supposed.
"Willingly would I purchase—" began Miss Bartlett.
"Ignore him," said Mr. Eager sharply, and they all walked rapidly away from the square.
But an Italian can never be ignored, least of all when he has a grievance. His mysterious persecution of Mr. Eager became relentless; the air rang with his threats and lamentations. He appealed to Lucy; would not she intercede? He was poor—he sheltered a family—the tax on bread. He waited, he gibbered, he was recompensed, he was dissatisfied, he did not leave them until he had swept their minds clean of all thoughts whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Shopping was the topic that now ensued. Under the chaplain's guidance they selected many hideous presents and mementoes—florid little picture-frames that seemed fashioned in gilded pastry; other little frames, more severe, that stood on little easels, and were carven out of oak; a blotting book of vellum; a Dante of the same material; cheap mosaic brooches, which the maids, next Christmas, would never tell from real; pins, pots, heraldic saucers, brown art-photographs; Eros and Psyche in alabaster; St. Peter to match—all of which would have cost less in London.
This successful morning left no pleasant impressions on Lucy. She had been a little frightened, both by Miss Lavish and by Mr. Eager, she knew not why. And as they frightened her, she had, strangely enough, ceased to respect them. She doubted that Miss Lavish was a great artist. She doubted that Mr. Eager was as full of spirituality and culture as she had been led to suppose. They were tried by some new test, and they were found wanting. As for Charlotte—as for Charlotte she was exactly the same. It might be possible to be nice to her; it was impossible to love her.
"The son of a labourer; I happen to know it for a fact. A mechanic of some sort himself when he was young; then he took to writing for the Socialistic Press. I came across him at Brixton."
They were talking about the Emersons.
"How wonderfully people rise in these days!" sighed Miss Bartlett, fingering a model of the leaning Tower of Pisa.
"Generally," replied Mr. Eager, "one has only sympathy for their success. The desire for education and for social advance—in these things there is something not wholly vile. There are some working men whom one would be very willing to see out here in Florence—little as they would make of it."
"Is he a journalist now?" Miss Bartlett asked.
"He is not; he made an advantageous marriage."
He uttered this remark with a voice full of meaning, and ended with a sigh.
"Oh, so he has a wife."
"Dead, Miss Bartlett, dead. I wonder—yes I wonder how he has the effrontery to look me in the face, to dare to claim acquaintance with me. He was in my London parish long ago. The other day in Santa Croce, when he was with Miss Honeychurch, I snubbed him. Let him beware that he does not get more than a snub."
"What?" cried Lucy, flushing.
"Exposure!" hissed Mr. Eager.
He tried to change the subject; but in scoring a dramatic point he had interested his audience more than he had intended. Miss Bartlett was full of very natural curiosity. Lucy, though she wished never to see the Emersons again, was not disposed to condemn them on a single word.
"Do you mean," she asked, "that he is an irreligious man? We know that already."
"Lucy, dear—" said Miss Bartlett, gently reproving her cousin's penetration.
"I should be astonished if you knew all. The boy—an innocent child at the time—I will exclude. God knows what his education and his inherited qualities may have made him."
"Perhaps," said Miss Bartlett, "it is something that we had better not hear."
"To speak plainly," said Mr. Eager, "it is. I will say no more." For the first time Lucy's rebellious thoughts swept out in words—for the first time in her life.
"You have said very little."
"It was my intention to say very little," was his frigid reply.
He gazed indignantly at the girl, who met him with equal indignation. She turned towards him from the shop counter; her breast heaved quickly. He observed her brow, and the sudden strength of her lips. It was intolerable that she should disbelieve him.
"Murder, if you want to know," he cried angrily. "That man murdered his wife!"
"How?" she retorted.
"To all intents and purposes he murdered her. That day in Santa Croce—did they say anything against me?"
"Not a word, Mr. Eager—not a single word."
"Oh, I thought they had been libelling me to you. But I suppose it is only their personal charms that makes you defend them."
"I'm not defending them," said Lucy, losing her courage, and relapsing into the old chaotic methods. "They're nothing to me."
"How could you think she was defending them?" said Miss Bartlett, much discomfited by the unpleasant scene. The shopman was possibly listening.
"She will find it difficult. For that man has murdered his wife in the sight of God."
The addition of God was striking. But the chaplain was really trying to qualify a rash remark. A silence followed which might have been impressive, but was merely awkward. Then Miss Bartlett hastily purchased the Leaning Tower, and led the way into the street.
"I must be going," said he, shutting his eyes and taking out his watch.
Miss Bartlett thanked him for his kindness, and spoke with enthusiasm of the approaching drive.
"Drive? Oh, is our drive to come off?"
Lucy was recalled to her manners, and after a little exertion the complacency of Mr. Eager was restored.
"Bother the drive!" exclaimed the girl, as soon as he had departed. "It is just the drive we had arranged with Mr. Beebe without any fuss at all. Why should he invite us in that absurd manner? We might as well invite him. We are each paying for ourselves."
Miss Bartlett, who had intended to lament over the Emersons, was launched by this remark into unexpected thoughts.
"If that is so, dear—if the drive we and Mr. Beebe are going with Mr. Eager is really the same as the one we are going with Mr. Beebe, then I foresee a sad kettle of fish."
"Because Mr. Beebe has asked Eleanor Lavish to come, too."
"That will mean another carriage."
"Far worse. Mr. Eager does not like Eleanor. She knows it herself. The truth must be told; she is too unconventional for him."
They were now in the newspaper-room at the English bank. Lucy stood by the central table, heedless of Punch and the Graphic, trying to answer, or at all events to formulate the questions rioting in her brain. The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things. Murder, accusations of murder, a lady clinging to one man and being rude to another—were these the daily incidents of her streets? Was there more in her frank beauty than met the eye—the power, perhaps, to evoke passions, good and bad, and to bring them speedily to a fulfillment?
Happy Charlotte, who, though greatly troubled over things that did not matter, seemed oblivious to things that did; who could conjecture with admirable delicacy "where things might lead to," but apparently lost sight of the goal as she approached it. Now she was crouching in the corner trying to extract a circular note from a kind of linen nose-bag which hung in chaste concealment round her neck. She had been told that this was the only safe way to carry money in Italy; it must only be broached within the walls of the English bank. As she groped she murmured: "Whether it is Mr. Beebe who forgot to tell Mr. Eager, or Mr. Eager who forgot when he told us, or whether they have decided to leave Eleanor out altogether—which they could scarcely do—but in any case we must be prepared. It is you they really want; I am only asked for appearances. You shall go with the two gentlemen, and I and Eleanor will follow behind. A one-horse carriage would do for us. Yet how difficult it is!"
"It is indeed," replied the girl, with a gravity that sounded sympathetic.
"What do you think about it?" asked Miss Bartlett, flushed from the struggle, and buttoning up her dress.
"I don't know what I think, nor what I want."
"Oh, dear, Lucy! I do hope Florence isn't boring you. Speak the word, and, as you know, I would take you to the ends of the earth to-morrow."
"Thank you, Charlotte," said Lucy, and pondered over the offer.
There were letters for her at the bureau—one from her brother, full of athletics and biology; one from her mother, delightful as only her mother's letters could be. She had read in it of the crocuses which had been bought for yellow and were coming up puce, of the new parlour-maid, who had watered the ferns with essence of lemonade, of the semi-detached cottages which were ruining Summer Street, and breaking the heart of Sir Harry Otway. She recalled the free, pleasant life of her home, where she was allowed to do everything, and where nothing ever happened to her. The road up through the pine-woods, the clean drawing-room, the view over the Sussex Weald—all hung before her bright and distinct, but pathetic as the pictures in a gallery to which, after much experience, a traveller returns.
"And the news?" asked Miss Bartlett.
"Mrs. Vyse and her son have gone to Rome," said Lucy, giving the news that interested her least. "Do you know the Vyses?"
"Oh, not that way back. We can never have too much of the dear Piazza Signoria."
"They're nice people, the Vyses. So clever—my idea of what's really clever. Don't you long to be in Rome?"
"I die for it!"
The Piazza Signoria is too stony to be brilliant. It has no grass, no flowers, no frescoes, no glittering walls of marble or comforting patches of ruddy brick. By an odd chance—unless we believe in a presiding genius of places—the statues that relieve its severity suggest, not the innocence of childhood, nor the glorious bewilderment of youth, but the conscious achievements of maturity. Perseus and Judith, Hercules and Thusnelda, they have done or suffered something, and though they are immortal, immortality has come to them after experience, not before. Here, not only in the solitude of Nature, might a hero meet a goddess, or a heroine a god.
"Charlotte!" cried the girl suddenly. "Here's an idea. What if we popped off to Rome to-morrow—straight to the Vyses' hotel? For I do know what I want. I'm sick of Florence. No, you said you'd go to the ends of the earth! Do! Do!"
Miss Bartlett, with equal vivacity, replied:
"Oh, you droll person! Pray, what would become of your drive in the hills?"
They passed together through the gaunt beauty of the square, laughing over the unpractical suggestion.