Chapter X: Cecil as a Humourist
The society out of which Cecil proposed to rescue Lucy was perhaps no very splendid affair, yet it was more splendid than her antecedents entitled her to. Her father, a prosperous local solicitor, had built Windy Corner, as a speculation at the time the district was opening up, and, falling in love with his own creation, had ended by living there himself. Soon after his marriage the social atmosphere began to alter. Other houses were built on the brow of that steep southern slope and others, again, among the pine-trees behind, and northward on the chalk barrier of the downs. Most of these houses were larger than Windy Corner, and were filled by people who came, not from the district, but from London, and who mistook the Honeychurches for the remnants of an indigenous aristocracy. He was inclined to be frightened, but his wife accepted the situation without either pride or humility. "I cannot think what people are doing," she would say, "but it is extremely fortunate for the children." She called everywhere; her calls were returned with enthusiasm, and by the time people found out that she was not exactly of their milieu, they liked her, and it did not seem to matter. When Mr. Honeychurch died, he had the satisfaction—which few honest solicitors despise—of leaving his family rooted in the best society obtainable.
The best obtainable. Certainly many of the immigrants were rather dull, and Lucy realized this more vividly since her return from Italy. Hitherto she had accepted their ideals without questioning—their kindly affluence, their inexplosive religion, their dislike of paper-bags, orange-peel, and broken bottles. A Radical out and out, she learnt to speak with horror of Suburbia. Life, so far as she troubled to conceive it, was a circle of rich, pleasant people, with identical interests and identical foes. In this circle, one thought, married, and died. Outside it were poverty and vulgarity for ever trying to enter, just as the London fog tries to enter the pine-woods pouring through the gaps in the northern hills. But, in Italy, where any one who chooses may warm himself in equality, as in the sun, this conception of life vanished. Her senses expanded; she felt that there was no one whom she might not get to like, that social barriers were irremovable, doubtless, but not particularly high. You jump over them just as you jump into a peasant's olive-yard in the Apennines, and he is glad to see you. She returned with new eyes.
So did Cecil; but Italy had quickened Cecil, not to tolerance, but to irritation. He saw that the local society was narrow, but, instead of saying, "Does that very much matter?" he rebelled, and tried to substitute for it the society he called broad. He did not realize that Lucy had consecrated her environment by the thousand little civilities that create a tenderness in time, and that though her eyes saw its defects, her heart refused to despise it entirely. Nor did he realize a more important point—that if she was too great for this society, she was too great for all society, and had reached the stage where personal intercourse would alone satisfy her. A rebel she was, but not of the kind he understood—a rebel who desired, not a wider dwelling-room, but equality beside the man she loved. For Italy was offering her the most priceless of all possessions—her own soul.
Playing bumble-puppy with Minnie Beebe, niece to the rector, and aged thirteen—an ancient and most honourable game, which consists in striking tennis-balls high into the air, so that they fall over the net and immoderately bounce; some hit Mrs. Honeychurch; others are lost. The sentence is confused, but the better illustrates Lucy's state of mind, for she was trying to talk to Mr. Beebe at the same time.
"Oh, it has been such a nuisance—first he, then they—no one knowing what they wanted, and everyone so tiresome."
"But they really are coming now," said Mr. Beebe. "I wrote to Miss Teresa a few days ago—she was wondering how often the butcher called, and my reply of once a month must have impressed her favourably. They are coming. I heard from them this morning.
"I shall hate those Miss Alans!" Mrs. Honeychurch cried. "Just because they're old and silly one's expected to say 'How sweet!' I hate their 'if'-ing and 'but'-ing and 'and'-ing. And poor Lucy—serve her right—worn to a shadow."
Mr. Beebe watched the shadow springing and shouting over the tennis-court. Cecil was absent—one did not play bumble-puppy when he was there.
"Well, if they are coming—No, Minnie, not Saturn." Saturn was a tennis-ball whose skin was partially unsewn. When in motion his orb was encircled by a ring. "If they are coming, Sir Harry will let them move in before the twenty-ninth, and he will cross out the clause about whitewashing the ceilings, because it made them nervous, and put in the fair wear and tear one.—That doesn't count. I told you not Saturn."
"Saturn's all right for bumble-puppy," cried Freddy, joining them. "Minnie, don't you listen to her."
"Saturn doesn't bounce."
"Saturn bounces enough."
"No, he doesn't."
"Well; he bounces better than the Beautiful White Devil."
"Hush, dear," said Mrs. Honeychurch.
"But look at Lucy—complaining of Saturn, and all the time's got the Beautiful White Devil in her hand, ready to plug it in. That's right, Minnie, go for her—get her over the shins with the racquet—get her over the shins!"
Lucy fell, the Beautiful White Devil rolled from her hand.
Mr. Beebe picked it up, and said: "The name of this ball is Vittoria Corombona, please." But his correction passed unheeded.
Freddy possessed to a high degree the power of lashing little girls to fury, and in half a minute he had transformed Minnie from a well-mannered child into a howling wilderness. Up in the house Cecil heard them, and, though he was full of entertaining news, he did not come down to impart it, in case he got hurt. He was not a coward and bore necessary pain as well as any man. But he hated the physical violence of the young. How right it was! Sure enough it ended in a cry.
"I wish the Miss Alans could see this," observed Mr. Beebe, just as Lucy, who was nursing the injured Minnie, was in turn lifted off her feet by her brother.
"Who are the Miss Alans?" Freddy panted.
"They have taken Cissie Villa."
"That wasn't the name—"
Here his foot slipped, and they all fell most agreeably on to the grass. An interval elapses.
"Wasn't what name?" asked Lucy, with her brother's head in her lap.
"Alan wasn't the name of the people Sir Harry's let to."
"Nonsense, Freddy! You know nothing about it."
"Nonsense yourself! I've this minute seen him. He said to me: 'Ahem! Honeychurch,'"—Freddy was an indifferent mimic—"'ahem! ahem! I have at last procured really dee-sire-rebel tenants.' I said, 'ooray, old boy!' and slapped him on the back."
"Exactly. The Miss Alans?"
"Rather not. More like Anderson."
"Oh, good gracious, there isn't going to be another muddle!" Mrs. Honeychurch exclaimed. "Do you notice, Lucy, I'm always right? I said don't interfere with Cissie Villa. I'm always right. I'm quite uneasy at being always right so often."
"It's only another muddle of Freddy's. Freddy doesn't even know the name of the people he pretends have taken it instead."
"Yes, I do. I've got it. Emerson."
"Emerson. I'll bet you anything you like."
"What a weathercock Sir Harry is," said Lucy quietly. "I wish I had never bothered over it at all."
Then she lay on her back and gazed at the cloudless sky. Mr. Beebe, whose opinion of her rose daily, whispered to his niece that THAT was the proper way to behave if any little thing went wrong.
Meanwhile the name of the new tenants had diverted Mrs. Honeychurch from the contemplation of her own abilities.
"Emerson, Freddy? Do you know what Emersons they are?"
"I don't know whether they're any Emersons," retorted Freddy, who was democratic. Like his sister and like most young people, he was naturally attracted by the idea of equality, and the undeniable fact that there are different kinds of Emersons annoyed him beyond measure.
"I trust they are the right sort of person. All right, Lucy"—she was sitting up again—"I see you looking down your nose and thinking your mother's a snob. But there is a right sort and a wrong sort, and it's affectation to pretend there isn't."
"Emerson's a common enough name," Lucy remarked.
She was gazing sideways. Seated on a promontory herself, she could see the pine-clad promontories descending one beyond another into the Weald. The further one descended the garden, the more glorious was this lateral view.
"I was merely going to remark, Freddy, that I trusted they were no relations of Emerson the philosopher, a most trying man. Pray, does that satisfy you?"
"Oh, yes," he grumbled. "And you will be satisfied, too, for they're friends of Cecil; so"—elaborate irony—"you and the other country families will be able to call in perfect safety."
"CECIL?" exclaimed Lucy.
"Don't be rude, dear," said his mother placidly. "Lucy, don't screech. It's a new bad habit you're getting into."
"But has Cecil—"
"Friends of Cecil's," he repeated, "'and so really dee-sire-rebel. Ahem! Honeychurch, I have just telegraphed to them.'"
She got up from the grass.
It was hard on Lucy. Mr. Beebe sympathized with her very much. While she believed that her snub about the Miss Alans came from Sir Harry Otway, she had borne it like a good girl. She might well "screech" when she heard that it came partly from her lover. Mr. Vyse was a tease—something worse than a tease: he took a malicious pleasure in thwarting people. The clergyman, knowing this, looked at Miss Honeychurch with more than his usual kindness.
When she exclaimed, "But Cecil's Emersons—they can't possibly be the same ones—there is that—" he did not consider that the exclamation was strange, but saw in it an opportunity of diverting the conversation while she recovered her composure. He diverted it as follows:
"The Emersons who were at Florence, do you mean? No, I don't suppose it will prove to be them. It is probably a long cry from them to friends of Mr. Vyse's. Oh, Mrs. Honeychurch, the oddest people! The queerest people! For our part we liked them, didn't we?" He appealed to Lucy. "There was a great scene over some violets. They picked violets and filled all the vases in the room of these very Miss Alans who have failed to come to Cissie Villa. Poor little ladies! So shocked and so pleased. It used to be one of Miss Catharine's great stories. 'My dear sister loves flowers,' it began. They found the whole room a mass of blue—vases and jugs—and the story ends with 'So ungentlemanly and yet so beautiful.' It is all very difficult. Yes, I always connect those Florentine Emersons with violets."
"Fiasco's done you this time," remarked Freddy, not seeing that his sister's face was very red. She could not recover herself. Mr. Beebe saw it, and continued to divert the conversation.
"These particular Emersons consisted of a father and a son—the son a goodly, if not a good young man; not a fool, I fancy, but very immature—pessimism, et cetera. Our special joy was the father—such a sentimental darling, and people declared he had murdered his wife."
In his normal state Mr. Beebe would never have repeated such gossip, but he was trying to shelter Lucy in her little trouble. He repeated any rubbish that came into his head.
"Murdered his wife?" said Mrs. Honeychurch. "Lucy, don't desert us—go on playing bumble-puppy. Really, the Pension Bertolini must have been the oddest place. That's the second murderer I've heard of as being there. Whatever was Charlotte doing to stop? By-the-by, we really must ask Charlotte here some time."
Mr. Beebe could recall no second murderer. He suggested that his hostess was mistaken. At the hint of opposition she warmed. She was perfectly sure that there had been a second tourist of whom the same story had been told. The name escaped her. What was the name? Oh, what was the name? She clasped her knees for the name. Something in Thackeray. She struck her matronly forehead.
Lucy asked her brother whether Cecil was in.
"Oh, don't go!" he cried, and tried to catch her by the ankles.
"I must go," she said gravely. "Don't be silly. You always overdo it when you play."
As she left them her mother's shout of "Harris!" shivered the tranquil air, and reminded her that she had told a lie and had never put it right. Such a senseless lie, too, yet it shattered her nerves and made her connect these Emersons, friends of Cecil's, with a pair of nondescript tourists. Hitherto truth had come to her naturally. She saw that for the future she must be more vigilant, and be—absolutely truthful? Well, at all events, she must not tell lies. She hurried up the garden, still flushed with shame. A word from Cecil would soothe her, she was sure.
"Hullo!" he called, and leant out of the smoking-room window. He seemed in high spirits. "I was hoping you'd come. I heard you all bear-gardening, but there's better fun up here. I, even I, have won a great victory for the Comic Muse. George Meredith's right—the cause of Comedy and the cause of Truth are really the same; and I, even I, have found tenants for the distressful Cissie Villa. Don't be angry! Don't be angry! You'll forgive me when you hear it all."
He looked very attractive when his face was bright, and he dispelled her ridiculous forebodings at once.
"I have heard," she said. "Freddy has told us. Naughty Cecil! I suppose I must forgive you. Just think of all the trouble I took for nothing! Certainly the Miss Alans are a little tiresome, and I'd rather have nice friends of yours. But you oughtn't to tease one so."
"Friends of mine?" he laughed. "But, Lucy, the whole joke is to come! Come here." But she remained standing where she was. "Do you know where I met these desirable tenants? In the National Gallery, when I was up to see my mother last week."
"What an odd place to meet people!" she said nervously. "I don't quite understand."
"In the Umbrian Room. Absolute strangers. They were admiring Luca Signorelli—of course, quite stupidly. However, we got talking, and they refreshed me not a little. They had been to Italy."
"But, Cecil—" proceeded hilariously.
"In the course of conversation they said that they wanted a country cottage—the father to live there, the son to run down for week-ends. I thought, 'What a chance of scoring off Sir Harry!' and I took their address and a London reference, found they weren't actual blackguards—it was great sport—and wrote to him, making out—"
"Cecil! No, it's not fair. I've probably met them before—"
He bore her down.
"Perfectly fair. Anything is fair that punishes a snob. That old man will do the neighbourhood a world of good. Sir Harry is too disgusting with his 'decayed gentlewomen.' I meant to read him a lesson some time. No, Lucy, the classes ought to mix, and before long you'll agree with me. There ought to be intermarriage—all sorts of things. I believe in democracy—"
"No, you don't," she snapped. "You don't know what the word means."
He stared at her, and felt again that she had failed to be Leonardesque. "No, you don't!"
Her face was inartistic—that of a peevish virago.
"It isn't fair, Cecil. I blame you—I blame you very much indeed. You had no business to undo my work about the Miss Alans, and make me look ridiculous. You call it scoring off Sir Harry, but do you realize that it is all at my expense? I consider it most disloyal of you."
She left him.
"Temper!" he thought, raising his eyebrows.
No, it was worse than temper—snobbishness. As long as Lucy thought that his own smart friends were supplanting the Miss Alans, she had not minded. He perceived that these new tenants might be of value educationally. He would tolerate the father and draw out the son, who was silent. In the interests of the Comic Muse and of Truth, he would bring them to Windy Corner.