Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster
When the bewildered tourist alights at the station of Monteriano, he finds himself in the middle of the country. There are a few houses round the railway, and many more dotted over the plain and the slopes of the hills, but of a town, mediaeval or otherwise, not the slightest sign. He must take what is suitably termed a "legno"--a piece of wood--and drive up eight miles of excellent road into the middle ages. For it is impossible, as well as sacrilegious, to be as quick as Baedeker.
It was three in the afternoon when Philip left the realms of commonsense. He was so weary with travelling that he had fallen asleep in the train. His fellow-passengers had the usual Italian gift of divination, and when Monteriano came they knew he wanted to go there, and dropped him out. His feet sank into the hot asphalt of the platform, and in a dream he watched the train depart, while the porter who ought to have been carrying his bag, ran up the line playing touch-you-last with the guard. Alas! he was in no humour for Italy. Bargaining for a legno bored him unutterably. The man asked six lire; and though Philip knew that for eight miles it should scarcely be more than four, yet he was about to give what he was asked, and so make the man discontented and unhappy for the rest of the day. He was saved from this social blunder by loud shouts, and looking up the road saw one cracking his whip and waving his reins and driving two horses furiously, and behind him there appeared the swaying figure of a woman, holding star-fish fashion on to anything she could touch. It was Miss Abbott, who had just received his letter from Milan announcing the time of his arrival, and had hurried down to meet him.
He had known Miss Abbott for years, and had never had much opinion about her one way or the other. She was good, quiet, dull, and amiable, and young only because she was twenty-three: there was nothing in her appearance or manner to suggest the fire of youth. All her life had been spent at Sawston with a dull and amiable father, and her pleasant, pallid face, bent on some respectable charity, was a familiar object of the Sawston streets. Why she had ever wished to leave them was surprising; but as she truly said, "I am John Bull to the backbone, yet I do want to see Italy, just once. Everybody says it is marvellous, and that one gets no idea of it from books at all." The curate suggested that a year was a long time; and Miss Abbott, with decorous playfulness, answered him, "Oh, but you must let me have my fling! I promise to have it once, and once only. It will give me things to think about and talk about for the rest of my life." The curate had consented; so had Mr. Abbott. And here she was in a legno, solitary, dusty, frightened, with as much to answer and to answer for as the most dashing adventuress could desire.
They shook hands without speaking. She made room for Philip and his luggage amidst the loud indignation of the unsuccessful driver, whom it required the combined eloquence of the station-master and the station beggar to confute. The silence was prolonged until they started. For three days he had been considering what he should do, and still more what he should say. He had invented a dozen imaginary conversations, in all of which his logic and eloquence procured him certain victory. But how to begin? He was in the enemy's country, and everything--the hot sun, the cold air behind the heat, the endless rows of olive-trees, regular yet mysterious--seemed hostile to the placid atmosphere of Sawston in which his thoughts took birth. At the outset he made one great concession. If the match was really suitable, and Lilia were bent on it, he would give in, and trust to his influence with his mother to set things right. He would not have made the concession in England; but here in Italy, Lilia, however wilful and silly, was at all events growing to be a human being.
"Are we to talk it over now?" he asked.
"Certainly, please," said Miss Abbott, in great agitation. "If you will be so very kind."
"Then how long has she been engaged?"
Her face was that of a perfect fool--a fool in terror.
"A short time--quite a short time," she stammered, as if the shortness of the time would reassure him.
"I should like to know how long, if you can remember."
She entered into elaborate calculations on her fingers. "Exactly eleven days," she said at last.
"How long have you been here?"
More calculations, while he tapped irritably with his foot. "Close on three weeks."
"Did you know him before you came?"
"Oh! Who is he?"
"A native of the place."
The second silence took place. They had left the plain now and were climbing up the outposts of the hills, the olive-trees still accompanying. The driver, a jolly fat man, had got out to ease the horses, and was walking by the side of the carriage.
"I understood they met at the hotel."
"It was a mistake of Mrs. Theobald's."
"I also understand that he is a member of the Italian nobility."
She did not reply.
"May I be told his name?"
Miss Abbott whispered, "Carella." But the driver heard her, and a grin split over his face. The engagement must be known already.
"Carella? Conte or Marchese, or what?"
"Signor," said Miss Abbott, and looked helplessly aside.
"Perhaps I bore you with these questions. If so, I will stop."
"Oh, no, please; not at all. I am here--my own idea--to give all information which you very naturally--and to see if somehow--please ask anything you like."
"Then how old is he?"
"Oh, quite young. Twenty-one, I believe."
There burst from Philip the exclamation, "Good Lord!"
"One would never believe it," said Miss Abbott, flushing. "He looks much older."
"And is he good-looking?" he asked, with gathering sarcasm.
She became decisive. "Very good-looking. All his features are good, and he is well built--though I dare say English standards would find him too short."
Philip, whose one physical advantage was his height, felt annoyed at her implied indifference to it.
"May I conclude that you like him?"
She replied decisively again, "As far as I have seen him, I do."
At that moment the carriage entered a little wood, which lay brown and sombre across the cultivated hill. The trees of the wood were small and leafless, but noticeable for this--that their stems stood in violets as rocks stand in the summer sea. There are such violets in England, but not so many. Nor are there so many in Art, for no painter has the courage. The cart-ruts were channels, the hollow lagoons; even the dry white margin of the road was splashed, like a causeway soon to be submerged under the advancing tide of spring. Philip paid no attention at the time: he was thinking what to say next. But his eyes had registered the beauty, and next March he did not forget that the road to Monteriano must traverse innumerable flowers.
"As far as I have seen him, I do like him," repeated Miss Abbott, after a pause.
He thought she sounded a little defiant, and crushed her at once.
"What is he, please? You haven't told me that. What's his position?"
She opened her mouth to speak, and no sound came from it. Philip waited patiently. She tried to be audacious, and failed pitiably.
"No position at all. He is kicking his heels, as my father would say. You see, he has only just finished his military service."
"As a private?"
"I suppose so. There is general conscription. He was in the Bersaglieri, I think. Isn't that the crack regiment?"
"The men in it must be short and broad. They must also be able to walk six miles an hour."
She looked at him wildly, not understanding all that he said, but feeling that he was very clever. Then she continued her defence of Signor Carella.
"And now, like most young men, he is looking out for something to do."
"Meanwhile, like most young men, he lives with his people--father, mother, two sisters, and a tiny tot of a brother."
There was a grating sprightliness about her that drove him nearly mad. He determined to silence her at last.
"One more question, and only one more. What is his father?"
"His father," said Miss Abbott. "Well, I don't suppose you'll think it a good match. But that's not the point. I mean the point is not--I mean that social differences--love, after all--not but what--I'
Philip ground his teeth together and said nothing.
"Gentlemen sometimes judge hardly. But I feel that you, and at all events your mother--so really good in every sense, so really unworldly--after all, love-marriages are made in heaven."
"Yes, Miss Abbott, I know. But I am anxious to hear heaven's choice. You arouse my curiosity. Is my sister-in-law to marry an angel?"
"Mr. Herriton, don't--please, Mr. Herriton--a dentist. His father's a dentist."
Philip gave a cry of personal disgust and pain. He shuddered all over, and edged away from his companion. A dentist! A dentist at Monteriano. A dentist in fairyland! False teeth and laughing gas and the tilting chair at a place which knew the Etruscan League, and the Pax Romana, and Alaric himself, and the Countess Matilda, and the Middle Ages, all fighting and holiness, and the Renaissance, all fighting and beauty! He thought of Lilia no longer. He was anxious for himself: he feared that Romance might die.
Romance only dies with life. No pair of pincers will ever pull it out of us. But there is a spurious sentiment which cannot resist the unexpected and the incongruous and the grotesque. A touch will loosen it, and the sooner it goes from us the better. It was going from Philip now, and therefore he gave the cry of pain.
"I cannot think what is in the air," he began. "If Lilia was determined to disgrace us, she might have found a less repulsive way. A boy of medium height with a pretty face, the son of a dentist at Monteriano. Have I put it correctly? May I surmise that he has not got one penny? May I also surmise that his social position is nil? Furthermore--"
"Stop! I'll tell you no more."
"Really, Miss Abbott, it is a little late for reticence. You have equipped me admirably!"
"I'll tell you not another word!" she cried, with a spasm of terror. Then she got out her handkerchief, and seemed as if she would shed tears. After a silence, which he intended to symbolize to her the dropping of a curtain on the scene, he began to talk of other subjects.
They were among olives again, and the wood with its beauty and wildness had passed away. But as they climbed higher the country opened out, and there appeared, high on a hill to the right, Monteriano. The hazy green of the olives rose up to its walls, and it seemed to float in isolation between trees and sky, like some fantastic ship city of a dream. Its colour was brown, and it revealed not a single house--nothing but the narrow circle of the walls, and behind them seventeen towers--all that was left of the fifty-two that had filled the city in her prime. Some were only stumps, some were inclining stiffly to their fall, some were still erect, piercing like masts into the blue. It was impossible to praise it as beautiful, but it was also impossible to damn it as quaint.
Meanwhile Philip talked continually, thinking this to be great evidence of resource and tact. It showed Miss Abbott that he had probed her to the bottom, but was able to conquer his disgust, and by sheer force of intellect continue to be as agreeable and amusing as ever. He did not know that he talked a good deal of nonsense, and that the sheer force of his intellect was weakened by the sight of Monteriano, and by the thought of dentistry within those walls.
The town above them swung to the left, to the right, to the left again, as the road wound upward through the trees, and the towers began to glow in the descending sun. As they drew near, Philip saw the heads of people gathering black upon the walls, and he knew well what was happening--how the news was spreading that a stranger was in sight, and the beggars were aroused from their content and bid to adjust their deformities; how the alabaster man was running for his wares, and the Authorized Guide running for his peaked cap and his two cards of recommendation--one from Miss M'Gee, Maida Vale, the other, less valuable, from an Equerry to the Queen of Peru; how some one else was running to tell the landlady of the Stella d'Italia to put on her pearl necklace and brown boots and empty the slops from the spare bedroom; and how the landlady was running to tell Lilia and her boy that their fate was at hand.
Perhaps it was a pity Philip had talked so profusely. He had driven Miss Abbott half demented, but he had given himself no time to concert a plan. The end came so suddenly. They emerged from the trees on to the terrace before the walk, with the vision of half Tuscany radiant in the sun behind them, and then they turned in through the Siena gate, and their journey was over. The Dogana men admitted them with an air of gracious welcome, and they clattered up the narrow dark street, greeted by that mixture of curiosity and kindness which makes each Italian arrival so wonderful.
He was stunned and knew not what to do. At the hotel he received no ordinary reception. The landlady wrung him by the hand; one person snatched his umbrella, another his bag; people pushed each other out of his way. The entrance seemed blocked with a crowd. Dogs were barking, bladder whistles being blown, women waving their handkerchiefs, excited children screaming on the stairs, and at the top of the stairs was Lilia herself, very radiant, with her best blouse on.
"Welcome!" she cried. "Welcome to Monteriano!" He greeted her, for he did not know what else to do, and a sympathetic murmur rose from the crowd below.
"You told me to come here," she continued, "and I don't forget it. Let me introduce Signor Carella!"
Philip discerned in the comer behind her a young man who might eventually prove handsome and well-made, but certainly did not seem so then. He was half enveloped in the drapery of a cold dirty curtain, and nervously stuck out a hand, which Philip took and found thick and damp. There were more murmurs of approval from the stairs.
"Well, din-din's nearly ready," said Lilia. "Your room's down the passage, Philip. You needn't go changing."
He stumbled away to wash his hands, utterly crushed by her effrontery.
"Dear Caroline!" whispered Lilia as soon as he had gone. "What an angel you've been to tell him! He takes it so well. But you must have had a mauvais quart d'heure."
Miss Abbott's long terror suddenly turned into acidity. "I've told nothing," she snapped. "It's all for you--and if it only takes a quarter of an hour you'll be lucky!"
Dinner was a nightmare. They had the smelly dining-room to themselves. Lilia, very smart and vociferous, was at the head of the table; Miss Abbott, also in her best, sat by Philip, looking, to his irritated nerves, more like the tragedy confidante every moment. That scion of the Italian nobility, Signor Carella, sat opposite. Behind him loomed a bowl of goldfish, who swam round and round, gaping at the guests.
The face of Signor Carella was twitching too much for Philip to study it. But he could see the hands, which were not particularly clean, and did not get cleaner by fidgeting amongst the shining slabs of hair. His starched cuffs were not clean either, and as for his suit, it had obviously been bought for the occasion as something really English--a gigantic check, which did not even fit. His handkerchief he had forgotten, but never missed it. Altogether, he was quite unpresentable, and very lucky to have a father who was a dentist in Monteriano. And why, even Lilia--But as soon as the meal began it furnished Philip with an explanation.
For the youth was hungry, and his lady filled his plate with spaghetti, and when those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat, his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times--seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.
Conversation, to give it that name, was carried on in a mixture of English and Italian. Lilia had picked up hardly any of the latter language, and Signor Carella had not yet learnt any of the former. Occasionally Miss Abbott had to act as interpreter between the lovers, and the situation became uncouth and revolting in the extreme. Yet Philip was too cowardly to break forth and denounce the engagement. He thought he should be more effective with Lilia if he had her alone, and pretended to himself that he must hear her defence before giving judgment.
Signor Carella, heartened by the spaghetti and the throat-rasping wine, attempted to talk, and, looking politely towards Philip, said, "England is a great country. The Italians love England and the English."
Philip, in no mood for international amenities, merely bowed.
"Italy too," the other continued a little resentfully, "is a great country. She has produced many famous men--for example Garibaldi and Dante. The latter wrote the 'Inferno,' the 'Purgatorio,' the 'Paradiso.' The 'Inferno' is the most beautiful." And with the complacent tone of one who has received a solid education, he quoted the opening lines--
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura Che la diritta via era smarrita--
a quotation which was more apt than he supposed.
Lilia glanced at Philip to see whether he noticed that she was marrying no ignoramus. Anxious to exhibit all the good qualities of her betrothed, she abruptly introduced the subject of pallone, in which, it appeared, he was a proficient player. He suddenly became shy and developed a conceited grin--the grin of the village yokel whose cricket score is mentioned before a stranger. Philip himself had loved to watch pallone, that entrancing combination of lawn-tennis and fives. But he did not expect to love it quite so much again.
"Oh, look!" exclaimed Lilia, "the poor wee fish!"
A starved cat had been worrying them all for pieces of the purple quivering beef they were trying to swallow. Signor Carella, with the brutality so common in Italians, had caught her by the paw and flung her away from him. Now she had climbed up to the bowl and was trying to hook out the fish. He got up, drove her off, and finding a large glass stopper by the bowl, entirely plugged up the aperture with it.
"But may not the fish die?" said Miss Abbott. "They have no air."
"Fish live on water, not on air," he replied in a knowing voice, and sat down. Apparently he was at his ease again, for he took to spitting on the floor. Philip glanced at Lilia but did not detect her wincing. She talked bravely till the end of the disgusting meal, and then got up saying, "Well, Philip, I am sure you are ready for by-bye. We shall meet at twelve o'clock lunch tomorrow, if we don't meet before. They give us caffe later in our rooms."
It was a little too impudent. Philip replied, "I should like to see you now, please, in my room, as I have come all the way on business." He heard Miss Abbott gasp. Signor Carella, who was lighting a rank cigar, had not understood.
It was as he expected. When he was alone with Lilia he lost all nervousness. The remembrance of his long intellectual supremacy strengthened him, and he began volubly--
"My. dear Lilia, don't let's have a scene. Before I arrived I thought I might have to question you. It is unnecessary. I know everything. Miss Abbott has told me a certain amount, and the rest I see for myself."
"See for yourself?" she exclaimed, and he remembered afterwards that she had flushed crimson.
"That he is probably a ruffian and certainly a cad."
"There are no cads in Italy," she said quickly.
He was taken aback. It was one of his own remarks. And she further upset him by adding, "He is the son of a dentist. Why not?"
"Thank you for the information. I know everything, as I told you before. I am also aware of the social position of an Italian who pulls teeth in a minute provincial town."
He was not aware of it, but he ventured to conclude that it was pretty, low. Nor did Lilia contradict him. But she was sharp enough to say, "Indeed, Philip, you surprise me. I understood you went in for equality and so on."
"And I understood that Signor Carella was a member of the Italian nobility.
"Well, we put it like that in the telegram so as not to shock dear Mrs. Herriton. But it is true. He is a younger branch. Of course families ramify--just as in yours there is your cousin Joseph." She adroitly picked out the only undesirable member of the Herriton clan. "Gino's father is courtesy itself, and rising rapidly in his profession. This very month he leaves Monteriano, and sets up at Poggibonsi. And for my own poor part, I think what people are is what matters, but I don't suppose you'll agree. And I should like you to know that Gino's uncle is a priest--the same as a clergyman at home."
Philip was aware of the social position of an Italian priest, and said so much about it that Lilia interrupted him with, "Well, his cousin's a lawyer at Rome."
"What kind of 'lawyer'?"
"Why, a lawyer just like you are--except that he has lots to do and can never get away."
The remark hurt more than he cared to show. He changed his method, and in a gentle, conciliating tone delivered the following speech:--
"The whole thing is like a bad dream--so bad that it cannot go on. If there was one redeeming feature about the man I might be uneasy. As it is I can trust to time. For the moment, Lilia, he has taken you in, but you will find him out soon. It is not possible that you, a lady, accustomed to ladies and gentlemen, will tolerate a man whose position is--well, not equal to the son of the servants' dentist in Coronation Place. I am not blaming you now. But I blame the glamour of Italy--I have felt it myself, you know--and I greatly blame Miss Abbott."
"Caroline! Why blame her? What's all this to do with Caroline?"
"Because we expected her to--" He saw that the answer would involve him in difficulties, and, waving his hand, continued, "So I am confident, and you in your heart agree, that this engagement will not last. Think of your life at home--think of Irma! And I'll also say think of us; for you know, Lilia, that we count you more than a relation. I should feel I was losing my own sister if you did this, and my mother would lose a daughter."
She seemed touched at last, for she turned away her face and said, "I can't break it off now!"
"Poor Lilia," said he, genuinely moved. "I know it may be painful. But I have come to rescue you, and, book-worm though I may be, I am not frightened to stand up to a bully. He's merely an insolent boy. He thinks he can keep you to your word by threats. He will be different when he sees he has a man to deal with."
What follows should be prefaced with some simile--the simile of a powder-mine, a thunderbolt, an earthquake--for it blew Philip up in the air and flattened him on the ground and swallowed him up in the depths. Lilia turned on her gallant defender and said--
"For once in my life I'll thank you to leave me alone. I'll thank your mother too. For twelve years you've trained me and tortured me, and I'll stand it no more. Do you think I'm a fool? Do you think I never felt? Ah! when I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over--never a kind word--and discussed me, and thought I might just do; and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me, and you said funny things about me to show how clever you were! And when Charles died I was still to run in strings for the honour of your beastly family, and I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again. No, thank you! No, thank you! 'Bully?' 'Insolent boy?' Who's that, pray, but you? But, thank goodness, I can stand up against the world now, for I've found Gino, and this time I marry for love!"
The coarseness and truth of her attack alike overwhelmed him. But her supreme insolence found him words, and he too burst forth.
"Yes! and I forbid you to do it! You despise me, perhaps, and think I'm feeble. But you're mistaken. You are ungrateful and impertinent and contemptible, but I will save you in order to save Irma and our name. There is going to be such a row in this town that you and he'll be sorry you came to it. I shall shrink from nothing, for my blood is up. It is unwise of you to laugh. I forbid you to marry Carella, and I shall tell him so now."
"Do," she cried. "Tell him so now. Have it out with him. Gino! Gino! Come in! Avanti! Fra Filippo forbids the banns!"
Gino appeared so quickly that he must have been listening outside the door.
"Fra Filippo's blood's up. He shrinks from nothing. Oh, take care he doesn't hurt you!" She swayed about in vulgar imitation of Philip's walk, and then, with a proud glance at the square shoulders of her betrothed, flounced out of the room.
Did she intend them to fight? Philip had no intention of doing so; and no more, it seemed, had Gino, who stood nervously in the middle of the room with twitching lips and eyes.
"Please sit down, Signor Carella," said Philip in Italian. "Mrs. Herriton is rather agitated, but there is no reason we should not be calm. Might I offer you a cigarette? Please sit down."
He refused the cigarette and the chair, and remained standing in the full glare of the lamp. Philip, not averse to such assistance, got his own face into shadow.
For a long time he was silent. It might impress Gino, and it also gave him time to collect himself. He would not this time fall into the error of blustering, which he had caught so unaccountably from Lilia. He would make his power felt by restraint.
Why, when he looked up to begin, was Gino convulsed with silent laughter? It vanished immediately; but he became nervous, and was even more pompous than he intended.
"Signor Carella, I will be frank with you. I have come to prevent you marrying Mrs. Herriton, because I see you will both be unhappy together. She is English, you are Italian; she is accustomed to one thing, you to another. And--pardon me if I say it--she is rich and you are poor."
"I am not marrying her because she is rich," was the sulky reply.
"I never suggested that for a moment," said Philip courteously. "You are honourable, I am sure; but are you wise? And let me remind you that we want her with us at home. Her little daughter will be motherless, our home will be broken up. If you grant my request you will earn our thanks--and you will not be without a reward for your disappointment."
"Reward--what reward?" He bent over the back of a chair and looked earnestly at Philip. They were coming to terms pretty quickly. Poor Lilia!
Philip said slowly, "What about a thousand lire?"
His soul went forth into one exclamation, and then he was silent, with gaping lips. Philip would have given double: he had expected a bargain.
"You can have them tonight."
He found words, and said, "It is too late."
"Because--" His voice broke. Philip watched his face,--a face without refinement perhaps, but not without expression,--watched it quiver and re-form and dissolve from emotion into emotion. There was avarice at one moment, and insolence, and politeness, and stupidity, and cunning--and let us hope that sometimes there was love. But gradually one emotion dominated, the most unexpected of all; for his chest began to heave and his eyes to wink and his mouth to twitch, and suddenly he stood erect and roared forth his whole being in one tremendous laugh.
Philip sprang up, and Gino, who had flung wide his arms to let the glorious creature go, took him by the shoulders and shook him, and said, "Because we are married--married--married as soon as I knew you were, coming. There was no time to tell you. Oh. oh! You have come all the way for nothing. Oh! And oh, your generosity!" Suddenly he became grave, and said, "Please pardon me; I am rude. I am no better than a peasant, and I--" Here he saw Philip's face, and it was too much for him. He gasped and exploded and crammed his hands into his mouth and spat them out in another explosion, and gave Philip an aimless push, which toppled him on to the bed. He uttered a horrified Oh! and then gave up, and bolted away down the passage, shrieking like a child, to tell the joke to his wife.
For a time Philip lay on the bed, pretending to himself that he was hurt grievously. He could scarcely see for temper, and in the passage he ran against Miss Abbott, who promptly burst into tears.
"I sleep at the Globo," he told her, "and start for Sawston tomorrow morning early. He has assaulted me. I could prosecute him. But shall not."
"I can't stop here," she sobbed. "I daren't stop here. You will have to take me with you!"