Chapter VIII: Medieval
The drawing-room curtains at Windy Corner had been pulled to meet, for the carpet was new and deserved protection from the August sun. They were heavy curtains, reaching almost to the ground, and the light that filtered through them was subdued and varied. A poet—none was present—might have quoted, "Life like a dome of many coloured glass," or might have compared the curtains to sluice-gates, lowered against the intolerable tides of heaven. Without was poured a sea of radiance; within, the glory, though visible, was tempered to the capacities of man.
Two pleasant people sat in the room. One—a boy of nineteen—was studying a small manual of anatomy, and peering occasionally at a bone which lay upon the piano. From time to time he bounced in his chair and puffed and groaned, for the day was hot and the print small, and the human frame fearfully made; and his mother, who was writing a letter, did continually read out to him what she had written. And continually did she rise from her seat and part the curtains so that a rivulet of light fell across the carpet, and make the remark that they were still there.
"Where aren't they?" said the boy, who was Freddy, Lucy's brother. "I tell you I'm getting fairly sick."
"For goodness' sake go out of my drawing-room, then?" cried Mrs. Honeychurch, who hoped to cure her children of slang by taking it literally.
Freddy did not move or reply.
"I think things are coming to a head," she observed, rather wanting her son's opinion on the situation if she could obtain it without undue supplication.
"Time they did."
"I am glad that Cecil is asking her this once more."
"It's his third go, isn't it?"
"Freddy I do call the way you talk unkind."
"I didn't mean to be unkind." Then he added: "But I do think Lucy might have got this off her chest in Italy. I don't know how girls manage things, but she can't have said 'No' properly before, or she wouldn't have to say it again now. Over the whole thing—I can't explain—I do feel so uncomfortable."
"Do you indeed, dear? How interesting!"
"I feel—never mind."
He returned to his work.
"Just listen to what I have written to Mrs. Vyse. I said: 'Dear Mrs. Vyse.'"
"Yes, mother, you told me. A jolly good letter."
"I said: 'Dear Mrs. Vyse, Cecil has just asked my permission about it, and I should be delighted, if Lucy wishes it. But—'" She stopped reading, "I was rather amused at Cecil asking my permission at all. He has always gone in for unconventionality, and parents nowhere, and so forth. When it comes to the point, he can't get on without me."
"What do you mean?"
"He asked me for my permission also."
She exclaimed: "How very odd of him!"
"Why so?" asked the son and heir. "Why shouldn't my permission be asked?"
"What do you know about Lucy or girls or anything? What ever did you say?"
"I said to Cecil, 'Take her or leave her; it's no business of mine!'"
"What a helpful answer!" But her own answer, though more normal in its wording, had been to the same effect.
"The bother is this," began Freddy.
Then he took up his work again, too shy to say what the bother was. Mrs. Honeychurch went back to the window.
"Freddy, you must come. There they still are!"
"I don't see you ought to go peeping like that."
"Peeping like that! Can't I look out of my own window?"
But she returned to the writing-table, observing, as she passed her son, "Still page 322?" Freddy snorted, and turned over two leaves. For a brief space they were silent. Close by, beyond the curtains, the gentle murmur of a long conversation had never ceased.
"The bother is this: I have put my foot in it with Cecil most awfully." He gave a nervous gulp. "Not content with 'permission', which I did give—that is to say, I said, 'I don't mind'—well, not content with that, he wanted to know whether I wasn't off my head with joy. He practically put it like this: Wasn't it a splendid thing for Lucy and for Windy Corner generally if he married her? And he would have an answer—he said it would strengthen his hand."
"I hope you gave a careful answer, dear."
"I answered 'No'" said the boy, grinding his teeth. "There! Fly into a stew! I can't help it—had to say it. I had to say no. He ought never to have asked me."
"Ridiculous child!" cried his mother. "You think you're so holy and truthful, but really it's only abominable conceit. Do you suppose that a man like Cecil would take the slightest notice of anything you say? I hope he boxed your ears. How dare you say no?"
"Oh, do keep quiet, mother! I had to say no when I couldn't say yes. I tried to laugh as if I didn't mean what I said, and, as Cecil laughed too, and went away, it may be all right. But I feel my foot's in it. Oh, do keep quiet, though, and let a man do some work."
"No," said Mrs. Honeychurch, with the air of one who has considered the subject, "I shall not keep quiet. You know all that has passed between them in Rome; you know why he is down here, and yet you deliberately insult him, and try to turn him out of my house."
"Not a bit!" he pleaded. "I only let out I didn't like him. I don't hate him, but I don't like him. What I mind is that he'll tell Lucy."
He glanced at the curtains dismally.
"Well, I like him," said Mrs. Honeychurch. "I know his mother; he's good, he's clever, he's rich, he's well connected—Oh, you needn't kick the piano! He's well connected—I'll say it again if you like: he's well connected." She paused, as if rehearsing her eulogy, but her face remained dissatisfied. She added: "And he has beautiful manners."
"I liked him till just now. I suppose it's having him spoiling Lucy's first week at home; and it's also something that Mr. Beebe said, not knowing."
"Mr. Beebe?" said his mother, trying to conceal her interest. "I don't see how Mr. Beebe comes in."
"You know Mr. Beebe's funny way, when you never quite know what he means. He said: 'Mr. Vyse is an ideal bachelor.' I was very cute, I asked him what he meant. He said 'Oh, he's like me—better detached.' I couldn't make him say any more, but it set me thinking. Since Cecil has come after Lucy he hasn't been so pleasant, at least—I can't explain."
"You never can, dear. But I can. You are jealous of Cecil because he may stop Lucy knitting you silk ties."
The explanation seemed plausible, and Freddy tried to accept it. But at the back of his brain there lurked a dim mistrust. Cecil praised one too much for being athletic. Was that it? Cecil made one talk in one's own way. This tired one. Was that it? And Cecil was the kind of fellow who would never wear another fellow's cap. Unaware of his own profundity, Freddy checked himself. He must be jealous, or he would not dislike a man for such foolish reasons.
"Will this do?" called his mother. "'Dear Mrs. Vyse,—Cecil has just asked my permission about it, and I should be delighted if Lucy wishes it.' Then I put in at the top, 'and I have told Lucy so.' I must write the letter out again—'and I have told Lucy so. But Lucy seems very uncertain, and in these days young people must decide for themselves.' I said that because I didn't want Mrs. Vyse to think us old-fashioned. She goes in for lectures and improving her mind, and all the time a thick layer of flue under the beds, and the maid's dirty thumb-marks where you turn on the electric light. She keeps that flat abominably—"
"Suppose Lucy marries Cecil, would she live in a flat, or in the country?"
"Don't interrupt so foolishly. Where was I? Oh yes—'Young people must decide for themselves. I know that Lucy likes your son, because she tells me everything, and she wrote to me from Rome when he asked her first.' No, I'll cross that last bit out—it looks patronizing. I'll stop at 'because she tells me everything.' Or shall I cross that out, too?"
"Cross it out, too," said Freddy.
Mrs. Honeychurch left it in.
"Then the whole thing runs: 'Dear Mrs. Vyse.—Cecil has just asked my permission about it, and I should be delighted if Lucy wishes it, and I have told Lucy so. But Lucy seems very uncertain, and in these days young people must decide for themselves. I know that Lucy likes your son, because she tells me everything. But I do not know—'"
"Look out!" cried Freddy.
The curtains parted.
Cecil's first movement was one of irritation. He couldn't bear the Honeychurch habit of sitting in the dark to save the furniture. Instinctively he give the curtains a twitch, and sent them swinging down their poles. Light entered. There was revealed a terrace, such as is owned by many villas with trees each side of it, and on it a little rustic seat, and two flower-beds. But it was transfigured by the view beyond, for Windy Corner was built on the range that overlooks the Sussex Weald. Lucy, who was in the little seat, seemed on the edge of a green magic carpet which hovered in the air above the tremulous world.
Appearing thus late in the story, Cecil must be at once described. He was medieval. Like a Gothic statue. Tall and refined, with shoulders that seemed braced square by an effort of the will, and a head that was tilted a little higher than the usual level of vision, he resembled those fastidious saints who guard the portals of a French cathedral. Well educated, well endowed, and not deficient physically, he remained in the grip of a certain devil whom the modern world knows as self-consciousness, and whom the medieval, with dimmer vision, worshipped as asceticism. A Gothic statue implies celibacy, just as a Greek statue implies fruition, and perhaps this was what Mr. Beebe meant. And Freddy, who ignored history and art, perhaps meant the same when he failed to imagine Cecil wearing another fellow's cap.
Mrs. Honeychurch left her letter on the writing table and moved towards her young acquaintance.
"Oh, Cecil!" she exclaimed—"oh, Cecil, do tell me!"
"I promessi sposi," said he.
They stared at him anxiously.
"She has accepted me," he said, and the sound of the thing in English made him flush and smile with pleasure, and look more human.
"I am so glad," said Mrs. Honeychurch, while Freddy proffered a hand that was yellow with chemicals. They wished that they also knew Italian, for our phrases of approval and of amazement are so connected with little occasions that we fear to use them on great ones. We are obliged to become vaguely poetic, or to take refuge in Scriptural reminiscences.
"Welcome as one of the family!" said Mrs. Honeychurch, waving her hand at the furniture. "This is indeed a joyous day! I feel sure that you will make our dear Lucy happy."
"I hope so," replied the young man, shifting his eyes to the ceiling.
"We mothers—" simpered Mrs. Honeychurch, and then realized that she was affected, sentimental, bombastic—all the things she hated most. Why could she not be Freddy, who stood stiff in the middle of the room; looking very cross and almost handsome?
"I say, Lucy!" called Cecil, for conversation seemed to flag.
Lucy rose from the seat. She moved across the lawn and smiled in at them, just as if she was going to ask them to play tennis. Then she saw her brother's face. Her lips parted, and she took him in her arms. He said, "Steady on!"
"Not a kiss for me?" asked her mother.
Lucy kissed her also.
"Would you take them into the garden and tell Mrs. Honeychurch all about it?" Cecil suggested. "And I'd stop here and tell my mother."
"We go with Lucy?" said Freddy, as if taking orders.
"Yes, you go with Lucy."
They passed into the sunlight. Cecil watched them cross the terrace, and descend out of sight by the steps. They would descend—he knew their ways—past the shrubbery, and past the tennis-lawn and the dahlia-bed, until they reached the kitchen garden, and there, in the presence of the potatoes and the peas, the great event would be discussed.
Smiling indulgently, he lit a cigarette, and rehearsed the events that had led to such a happy conclusion.
He had known Lucy for several years, but only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical. He could still remember his depression that afternoon at Rome, when she and her terrible cousin fell on him out of the blue, and demanded to be taken to St. Peter's. That day she had seemed a typical tourist—shrill, crude, and gaunt with travel. But Italy worked some marvel in her. It gave her light, and—which he held more precious—it gave her shadow. Soon he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci's, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things that she will not tell us. The things are assuredly not of this life; no woman of Leonardo's could have anything so vulgar as a "story." She did develop most wonderfully day by day.
So it happened that from patronizing civility he had slowly passed if not to passion, at least to a profound uneasiness. Already at Rome he had hinted to her that they might be suitable for each other. It had touched him greatly that she had not broken away at the suggestion. Her refusal had been clear and gentle; after it—as the horrid phrase went—she had been exactly the same to him as before. Three months later, on the margin of Italy, among the flower-clad Alps, he had asked her again in bald, traditional language. She reminded him of a Leonardo more than ever; her sunburnt features were shadowed by fantastic rock; at his words she had turned and stood between him and the light with immeasurable plains behind her. He walked home with her unashamed, feeling not at all like a rejected suitor. The things that really mattered were unshaken.
So now he had asked her once more, and, clear and gentle as ever, she had accepted him, giving no coy reasons for her delay, but simply saying that she loved him and would do her best to make him happy. His mother, too, would be pleased; she had counselled the step; he must write her a long account.
Glancing at his hand, in case any of Freddy's chemicals had come off on it, he moved to the writing table. There he saw "Dear Mrs. Vyse," followed by many erasures. He recoiled without reading any more, and after a little hesitation sat down elsewhere, and pencilled a note on his knee.
Then he lit another cigarette, which did not seem quite as divine as the first, and considered what might be done to make Windy Corner drawing-room more distinctive. With that outlook it should have been a successful room, but the trail of Tottenham Court Road was upon it; he could almost visualize the motor-vans of Messrs. Shoolbred and Messrs. Maple arriving at the door and depositing this chair, those varnished book-cases, that writing-table. The table recalled Mrs. Honeychurch's letter. He did not want to read that letter—his temptations never lay in that direction; but he worried about it none the less. It was his own fault that she was discussing him with his mother; he had wanted her support in his third attempt to win Lucy; he wanted to feel that others, no matter who they were, agreed with him, and so he had asked their permission. Mrs. Honeychurch had been civil, but obtuse in essentials, while as for Freddy—"He is only a boy," he reflected. "I represent all that he despises. Why should he want me for a brother-in-law?"
The Honeychurches were a worthy family, but he began to realize that Lucy was of another clay; and perhaps—he did not put it very definitely—he ought to introduce her into more congenial circles as soon as possible.
"Mr. Beebe!" said the maid, and the new rector of Summer Street was shown in; he had at once started on friendly relations, owing to Lucy's praise of him in her letters from Florence.
Cecil greeted him rather critically.
"I've come for tea, Mr. Vyse. Do you suppose that I shall get it?"
"I should say so. Food is the thing one does get here—Don't sit in that chair; young Honeychurch has left a bone in it."
"I know," said Cecil. "I know. I can't think why Mrs. Honeychurch allows it."
For Cecil considered the bone and the Maples' furniture separately; he did not realize that, taken together, they kindled the room into the life that he desired.
"I've come for tea and for gossip. Isn't this news?"
"News? I don't understand you," said Cecil. "News?"
Mr. Beebe, whose news was of a very different nature, prattled forward.
"I met Sir Harry Otway as I came up; I have every reason to hope that I am first in the field. He has bought Cissie and Albert from Mr. Flack!"
"Has he indeed?" said Cecil, trying to recover himself. Into what a grotesque mistake had he fallen! Was it likely that a clergyman and a gentleman would refer to his engagement in a manner so flippant? But his stiffness remained, and, though he asked who Cissie and Albert might be, he still thought Mr. Beebe rather a bounder.
"Unpardonable question! To have stopped a week at Windy Corner and not to have met Cissie and Albert, the semi-detached villas that have been run up opposite the church! I'll set Mrs. Honeychurch after you."
"I'm shockingly stupid over local affairs," said the young man languidly. "I can't even remember the difference between a Parish Council and a Local Government Board. Perhaps there is no difference, or perhaps those aren't the right names. I only go into the country to see my friends and to enjoy the scenery. It is very remiss of me. Italy and London are the only places where I don't feel to exist on sufferance."
Mr. Beebe, distressed at this heavy reception of Cissie and Albert, determined to shift the subject.
"Let me see, Mr. Vyse—I forget—what is your profession?"
"I have no profession," said Cecil. "It is another example of my decadence. My attitude—quite an indefensible one—is that so long as I am no trouble to any one I have a right to do as I like. I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don't care a straw about, but somehow, I've not been able to begin."
"You are very fortunate," said Mr. Beebe. "It is a wonderful opportunity, the possession of leisure."
His voice was rather parochial, but he did not quite see his way to answering naturally. He felt, as all who have regular occupation must feel, that others should have it also.
"I am glad that you approve. I daren't face the healthy person—for example, Freddy Honeychurch."
"Oh, Freddy's a good sort, isn't he?"
"Admirable. The sort who has made England what she is."
Cecil wondered at himself. Why, on this day of all others, was he so hopelessly contrary? He tried to get right by inquiring effusively after Mr. Beebe's mother, an old lady for whom he had no particular regard. Then he flattered the clergyman, praised his liberal-mindedness, his enlightened attitude towards philosophy and science.
"Where are the others?" said Mr. Beebe at last, "I insist on extracting tea before evening service."
"I suppose Anne never told them you were here. In this house one is so coached in the servants the day one arrives. The fault of Anne is that she begs your pardon when she hears you perfectly, and kicks the chair-legs with her feet. The faults of Mary—I forget the faults of Mary, but they are very grave. Shall we look in the garden?"
"I know the faults of Mary. She leaves the dust-pans standing on the stairs."
"The fault of Euphemia is that she will not, simply will not, chop the suet sufficiently small."
They both laughed, and things began to go better.
"The faults of Freddy—" Cecil continued.
"Ah, he has too many. No one but his mother can remember the faults of Freddy. Try the faults of Miss Honeychurch; they are not innumerable."
"She has none," said the young man, with grave sincerity.
"I quite agree. At present she has none."
"I'm not cynical. I'm only thinking of my pet theory about Miss Honeychurch. Does it seem reasonable that she should play so wonderfully, and live so quietly? I suspect that one day she will be wonderful in both. The water-tight compartments in her will break down, and music and life will mingle. Then we shall have her heroically good, heroically bad—too heroic, perhaps, to be good or bad."
Cecil found his companion interesting.
"And at present you think her not wonderful as far as life goes?"
"Well, I must say I've only seen her at Tunbridge Wells, where she was not wonderful, and at Florence. Since I came to Summer Street she has been away. You saw her, didn't you, at Rome and in the Alps. Oh, I forgot; of course, you knew her before. No, she wasn't wonderful in Florence either, but I kept on expecting that she would be."
"In what way?"
Conversation had become agreeable to them, and they were pacing up and down the terrace.
"I could as easily tell you what tune she'll play next. There was simply the sense that she had found wings, and meant to use them. I can show you a beautiful picture in my Italian diary: Miss Honeychurch as a kite, Miss Bartlett holding the string. Picture number two: the string breaks."
The sketch was in his diary, but it had been made afterwards, when he viewed things artistically. At the time he had given surreptitious tugs to the string himself.
"But the string never broke?"
"No. I mightn't have seen Miss Honeychurch rise, but I should certainly have heard Miss Bartlett fall."
"It has broken now," said the young man in low, vibrating tones.
Immediately he realized that of all the conceited, ludicrous, contemptible ways of announcing an engagement this was the worst. He cursed his love of metaphor; had he suggested that he was a star and that Lucy was soaring up to reach him?
"Broken? What do you mean?"
"I meant," said Cecil stiffly, "that she is going to marry me."
The clergyman was conscious of some bitter disappointment which he could not keep out of his voice.
"I am sorry; I must apologize. I had no idea you were intimate with her, or I should never have talked in this flippant, superficial way. Mr. Vyse, you ought to have stopped me." And down the garden he saw Lucy herself; yes, he was disappointed.
Cecil, who naturally preferred congratulations to apologies, drew down his mouth at the corners. Was this the reception his action would get from the world? Of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement. But he was sensitive to the successive particles of it which he encountered.
Occasionally he could be quite crude.
"I am sorry I have given you a shock," he said dryly. "I fear that Lucy's choice does not meet with your approval."
"Not that. But you ought to have stopped me. I know Miss Honeychurch only a little as time goes. Perhaps I oughtn't to have discussed her so freely with any one; certainly not with you."
"You are conscious of having said something indiscreet?"
Mr. Beebe pulled himself together. Really, Mr. Vyse had the art of placing one in the most tiresome positions. He was driven to use the prerogatives of his profession.
"No, I have said nothing indiscreet. I foresaw at Florence that her quiet, uneventful childhood must end, and it has ended. I realized dimly enough that she might take some momentous step. She has taken it. She has learnt—you will let me talk freely, as I have begun freely—she has learnt what it is to love: the greatest lesson, some people will tell you, that our earthly life provides." It was now time for him to wave his hat at the approaching trio. He did not omit to do so. "She has learnt through you," and if his voice was still clerical, it was now also sincere; "let it be your care that her knowledge is profitable to her."
"Grazie tante!" said Cecil, who did not like parsons.
"Have you heard?" shouted Mrs. Honeychurch as she toiled up the sloping garden. "Oh, Mr. Beebe, have you heard the news?"
Freddy, now full of geniality, whistled the wedding march. Youth seldom criticizes the accomplished fact.
"Indeed I have!" he cried. He looked at Lucy. In her presence he could not act the parson any longer—at all events not without apology. "Mrs. Honeychurch, I'm going to do what I am always supposed to do, but generally I'm too shy. I want to invoke every kind of blessing on them, grave and gay, great and small. I want them all their lives to be supremely good and supremely happy as husband and wife, as father and mother. And now I want my tea."
"You only asked for it just in time," the lady retorted. "How dare you be serious at Windy Corner?"
He took his tone from her. There was no more heavy beneficence, no more attempts to dignify the situation with poetry or the Scriptures. None of them dared or was able to be serious any more.
An engagement is so potent a thing that sooner or later it reduces all who speak of it to this state of cheerful awe. Away from it, in the solitude of their rooms, Mr. Beebe, and even Freddy, might again be critical. But in its presence and in the presence of each other they were sincerely hilarious. It has a strange power, for it compels not only the lips, but the very heart. The chief parallel to compare one great thing with another—is the power over us of a temple of some alien creed. Standing outside, we deride or oppose it, or at the most feel sentimental. Inside, though the saints and gods are not ours, we become true believers, in case any true believer should be present.
So it was that after the gropings and the misgivings of the afternoon they pulled themselves together and settled down to a very pleasant tea-party. If they were hypocrites they did not know it, and their hypocrisy had every chance of setting and of becoming true. Anne, putting down each plate as if it were a wedding present, stimulated them greatly. They could not lag behind that smile of hers which she gave them ere she kicked the drawing-room door. Mr. Beebe chirruped. Freddy was at his wittiest, referring to Cecil as the "Fiasco"—family honoured pun on fiance. Mrs. Honeychurch, amusing and portly, promised well as a mother-in-law. As for Lucy and Cecil, for whom the temple had been built, they also joined in the merry ritual, but waited, as earnest worshippers should, for the disclosure of some holier shrine of joy.