Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster
"He will have to marry her," said Philip. "I heard from him this morning, just as we left Milan. He finds he has gone too far to back out. It would be expensive. I don't know how much he minds--not as much as we suppose, I think. At all events there's not a word of blame in the letter. I don't believe he even feels angry. I never was so completely forgiven. Ever since you stopped him killing me, it has been a vision of perfect friendship. He nursed me, he lied for me at the inquest, and at the funeral, though he was crying, you would have thought it was my son who had died. Certainly I was the only person he had to be kind to; he was so distressed not to make Harriet's acquaintance, and that he scarcely saw anything of you. In his letter he says so again."
"Thank him, please, when you write," said Miss Abbott, "and give him my kindest regards."
"Indeed I will." He was surprised that she could slide away from the man so easily. For his own part, he was bound by ties of almost alarming intimacy. Gino had the southern knack of friendship. In the intervals of business he would pull out Philip's life, turn it inside out, remodel it, and advise him how to use it for the best. The sensation was pleasant, for he was a kind as well as a skilful operator. But Philip came away feeling that he had not a secret corner left. In that very letter Gino had again implored him, as a refuge from domestic difficulties, "to marry Miss Abbott, even if her dowry is small." And how Miss Abbott herself, after such tragic intercourse, could resume the conventions and send calm messages of esteem, was more than he could understand.
"When will you see him again?" she asked. They were standing together in the corridor of the train, slowly ascending out of Italy towards the San Gothard tunnel.
"I hope next spring. Perhaps we shall paint Siena red for a day or two with some of the new wife's money. It was one of the arguments for marrying her."
"He has no heart," she said severely. "He does not really mind about the child at all."
"No; you're wrong. He does. He is unhappy, like the rest of us. But he doesn't try to keep up appearances as we do. He knows that the things that have made him happy once will probably make him happy again--"
"He said he would never be happy again."
"In his passion. Not when he was calm. We English say it when we are calm--when we do not really believe it any longer. Gino is not ashamed of inconsistency. It is one of the many things I like him for.
"Yes; I was wrong. That is so."
"He's much more honest with himself than I am," continued Philip, "and he is honest without an effort and without pride. But you, Miss Abbott, what about you? Will you be in Italy next spring?"
"I'm sorry. When will you come back, do you think?"
"I think never."
"For whatever reason?" He stared at her as if she were some monstrosity.
"Because I understand the place. There is no need."
"Understand Italy!" he exclaimed.
"Well, I don't. And I don't understand you," he murmured to himself, as he paced away from her up the corridor. By this time he loved her very much, and he could not bear to be puzzled. He had reached love by the spiritual path: her thoughts and her goodness and her nobility had moved him first, and now her whole body and all its gestures had become transfigured by them. The beauties that are called obvious--the beauties of her hair and her voice and her limbs--he had noticed these last; Gino, who never traversed any path at all, had commended them dispassionately to his friend.
Why was he so puzzling? He had known so much about her once--what she thought, how she felt, the reasons for her actions. And now he only knew that he loved her, and all the other knowledge seemed passing from him just as he needed it most. Why would she never come to Italy again? Why had she avoided himself and Gino ever since the evening that she had saved their lives? The train was nearly empty. Harriet slumbered in a compartment by herself. He must ask her these questions now, and he returned quickly to her down the corridor.
She greeted him with a question of her own. "Are your plans decided?"
"Yes. I can't live at Sawston."
"Have you told Mrs. Herriton?"
"I wrote from Monteriano. I tried to explain things; but she will never understand me. Her view will be that the affair is settled--sadly settled since the baby is dead. Still it's over; our family circle need be vexed no more. She won't even be angry with you. You see, you have done us no harm in the long run. Unless, of course, you talk about Harriet and make a scandal. So that is my plan--London and work. What is yours?"
"Poor Harriet!" said Miss Abbott. "As if I dare judge Harriet! Or anybody." And without replying to Philip's question she left him to visit the other invalid.
Philip gazed after her mournfully, and then he looked mournfully out of the window at the decreasing streams. All the excitement was over--the inquest, Harriet's short illness, his own visit to the surgeon. He was convalescent, both in body and spirit, but convalescence brought no joy. In the looking-glass at the end of the corridor he saw his face haggard, and his shoulders pulled forward by the weight of the sling. Life was greater than he had supposed, but it was even less complete. He had seen the need for strenuous work and for righteousness. And now he saw what a very little way those things would go.
"Is Harriet going to be all right?" he asked. Miss Abbott had come back to him.
"She will soon be her old self," was the reply. For Harriet, after a short paroxysm of illness and remorse, was quickly returning to her normal state. She had been "thoroughly upset" as she phrased it, but she soon ceased to realize that anything was wrong beyond the death of a poor little child. Already she spoke of "this unlucky accident," and "the mysterious frustration of one's attempts to make things better." Miss Abbott had seen that she was comfortable, and had given her a kind kiss. But she returned feeling that Harriet, like her mother, considered the affair as settled.
"I'm clear enough about Harriet's future, and about parts of my own. But I ask again, What about yours?"
"Sawston and work," said Miss Abbott.
"Why not?" she asked, smiling.
"You've seen too much. You've seen as much and done more than I have."
"But it's so different. Of course I shall go to Sawston. You forget my father; and even if he wasn't there, I've a hundred ties: my district--I'm neglecting it shamefully--my evening classes, the St. James'--"
"Silly nonsense!" he exploded, suddenly moved to have the whole thing out with her. "You're too good--about a thousand times better than I am. You can't live in that hole; you must go among people who can hope to understand you. I mind for myself. I want to see you often--again and again."
"Of course we shall meet whenever you come down; and I hope that it will mean often."
"It's not enough; it'll only be in the old horrible way, each with a dozen relatives round us. No, Miss Abbott; it's not good enough."
"We can write at all events."
"You will write?" he cried, with a flush of pleasure. At times his hopes seemed so solid.
"I will indeed."
"But I say it's not enough--you can't go back to the old life if you wanted to. Too much has happened.
"I know that," she said sadly.
"Not only pain and sorrow, but wonderful things: that tower in the sunlight--do you remember it, and all you said to me? The theatre, even. And the next day--in the church; and our times with Gino."
"All the wonderful things are over," she said. "That is just where it is."
"I don't believe it. At all events not for me. The most wonderful things may be to come--"
"The wonderful things are over," she repeated, and looked at him so mournfully that he dare not contradict her. The train was crawling up the last ascent towards the Campanile of Airolo and the entrance of the tunnel.
"Miss Abbott," he murmured, speaking quickly, as if their free intercourse might soon be ended, "what is the matter with you? I thought I understood you, and I don't. All those two great first days at Monteriano I read you as clearly as you read me still. I saw why you had come, and why you changed sides, and afterwards I saw your wonderful courage and pity. And now you're frank with me one moment, as you used to be, and the next moment you shut me up. You see I owe too much to you--my life, and I don't know what besides. I won't stand it. You've gone too far to turn mysterious. I'll quote what you said to me: 'Don't be mysterious; there isn't the time.' I'll quote something else: 'I and my life must be where I live.' You can't live at Sawston."
He had moved her at last. She whispered to herself hurriedly. "It is tempting--" And those three words threw him into a tumult of joy. What was tempting to her? After all was the greatest of things possible? Perhaps, after long estrangement, after much tragedy, the South had brought them together in the end. That laughter in the theatre, those silver stars in the purple sky, even the violets of a departed spring, all had helped, and sorrow had helped also, and so had tenderness to others.
"It is tempting," she repeated, "not to be mysterious. I've wanted often to tell you, and then been afraid. I could never tell any one else, certainly no woman, and I think you're the one man who might understand and not be disgusted."
"Are you lonely?" he whispered. "Is it anything like that?"
"Yes." The train seemed to shake him towards her. He was resolved that though a dozen people were looking, he would yet take her in his arms. "I'm terribly lonely, or I wouldn't speak. I think you must know already." Their faces were crimson, as if the same thought was surging through them both.
"Perhaps I do." He came close to her. "Perhaps I could speak instead. But if you will say the word plainly you'll never be sorry; I will thank you for it all my life."
She said plainly, "That I love him." Then she broke down. Her body was shaken with sobs, and lest there should be any doubt she cried between the sobs for Gino! Gino! Gino!
He heard himself remark "Rather! I love him too! When I can forget how he hurt me that evening. Though whenever we shake hands--" One of them must have moved a step or two, for when she spoke again she was already a little way apart.
"You've upset me." She stifled something that was perilously near hysterics. "I thought I was past all this. You're taking it wrongly. I'm in love with Gino--don't pass it off--I mean it crudely--you know what I mean. So laugh at me."
"Laugh at love?" asked Philip.
"Yes. Pull it to pieces. Tell me I'm a fool or worse--that he's a cad. Say all you said when Lilia fell in love with him. That's the help I want. I dare tell you this because I like you--and because you're without passion; you look on life as a spectacle; you don't enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful. So I can trust you to cure me. Mr. Herriton, isn't it funny?" She tried to laugh herself, but became frightened and had to stop. "He's not a gentleman, nor a Christian, nor good in any way. He's never flattered me nor honoured me. But because he's handsome, that's been enough. The son of an Italian dentist, with a pretty face." She repeated the phrase as if it was a charm against passion. "Oh, Mr. Herriton, isn't it funny!" Then, to his relief, she began to cry. "I love him, and I'm not ashamed of it. I love him, and I'm going to Sawston, and if I mayn't speak about him to you sometimes, I shall die."
In that terrible discovery Philip managed to think not of himself but of her. He did not lament. He did not even speak to her kindly, for he saw that she could not stand it. A flippant reply was what she asked and needed--something flippant and a little cynical. And indeed it was the only reply he could trust himself to make.
"Perhaps it is what the books call 'a passing fancy'?"
She shook her head. Even this question was too pathetic. For as far as she knew anything about herself, she knew that her passions, once aroused, were sure. "If I saw him often," she said, "I might remember what he is like. Or he might grow old. But I dare not risk it, so nothing can alter me now."
"Well, if the fancy does pass, let me know." After all, he could say what he wanted.
"Oh, you shall know quick enough--"
"But before you retire to Sawston--are you so mighty sure?"
"What of?" She had stopped crying. He was treating her exactly as she had hoped.
"That you and he--" He smiled bitterly at the thought of them together. Here was the cruel antique malice of the gods, such as they once sent forth against Pasiphae. Centuries of aspiration and culture--and the world could not escape it. "I was going to say--whatever have you got in common?"
"Nothing except the times we have seen each other." Again her face was crimson. He turned his own face away.
"The time I thought you weak and heedless, and went instead of you to get the baby. That began it, as far as I know the beginning. Or it may have begun when you took us to the theatre, and I saw him mixed up with music and light. But didn't understand till the morning. Then you opened the door--and I knew why I had been so happy. Afterwards, in the church, I prayed for us all; not for anything new, but that we might just be as we were--he with the child he loved, you and I and Harriet safe out of the place--and that I might never see him or speak to him again. I could have pulled through then--the thing was only coming near, like a wreath of smoke; it hadn't wrapped me round."
"But through my fault," said Philip solemnly, "he is parted from the child he loves. And because my life was in danger you came and saw him and spoke to him again." For the thing was even greater than she imagined. Nobody but himself would ever see round it now. And to see round it he was standing at an immense distance. He could even be glad that she had once held the beloved in her arms.
"Don't talk of 'faults.' You're my friend for ever, Mr. Herriton, I think. Only don't be charitable and shift or take the blame. Get over supposing I'm refined. That's what puzzles you. Get over that."
As he spoke she seemed to be transfigured, and to have indeed no part with refinement or unrefinement any longer. Out of this wreck there was revealed to him something indestructible--something which she, who had given it, could never take away.
"I say again, don't be charitable. If he had asked me, I might have given myself body and soul. That would have been the end of my rescue party. But all through he took me for a superior being--a goddess. I who was worshipping every inch of him, and every word he spoke. And that saved me."
Philip's eyes were fixed on the Campanile of Airolo. But he saw instead the fair myth of Endymion. This woman was a goddess to the end. For her no love could be degrading: she stood outside all degradation. This episode, which she thought so sordid, and which was so tragic for him, remained supremely beautiful. To such a height was he lifted, that without regret he could now have told her that he was her worshipper too. But what was the use of telling her? For all the wonderful things had happened.
"Thank you," was all that he permitted himself. "Thank you for everything."
She looked at him with great friendliness, for he had made her life endurable. At that moment the train entered the San Gothard tunnel. They hurried back to the carriage to close the windows lest the smuts should get into Harriet's eyes.