Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster
Opposite the Volterra gate of Monteriano, outside the city, is a very respectable white-washed mud wall, with a coping of red crinkled tiles to keep it from dissolution. It would suggest a gentleman's garden if there was not in its middle a large hole, which grows larger with every rain-storm. Through the hole is visible, firstly, the iron gate that is intended to close it; secondly, a square piece of ground which, though not quite, mud, is at the same time not exactly grass; and finally, another wall, stone this time, which has a wooden door in the middle and two wooden-shuttered windows each side, and apparently forms the facade of a one-storey house.
This house is bigger than it looks, for it slides for two storeys down the hill behind, and the wooden door, which is always locked, really leads into the attic. The knowing person prefers to follow the precipitous mule-track round the turn of the mud wall till he can take the edifice in the rear. Then--being now on a level with the cellars--he lifts up his head and shouts. If his voice sounds like something light--a letter, for example, or some vegetables, or a bunch of flowers--a basket is let out of the first-floor windows by a string, into which he puts his burdens and departs. But if he sounds like something heavy, such as a log of wood, or a piece of meat, or a visitor, he is interrogated, and then bidden or forbidden to ascend. The ground floor and the upper floor of that battered house are alike deserted, and the inmates keep the central portion, just as in a dying body all life retires to the heart. There is a door at the top of the first flight of stairs, and if the visitor is admitted he will find a welcome which is not necessarily cold. There are several rooms, some dark and mostly stuffy--a reception-room adorned with horsehair chairs, wool-work stools, and a stove that is never lit--German bad taste without German domesticity broods over that room; also a living-room, which insensibly glides into a bedroom when the refining influence of hospitality is absent, and real bedrooms; and last, but not least, the loggia, where you can live day and night if you feel inclined, drinking vermouth and smoking cigarettes, with leagues of olive-trees and vineyards and blue-green hills to watch you.
It was in this house that the brief and inevitable tragedy of Lilia's married life took place. She made Gino buy it for her, because it was there she had first seen him sitting on the mud wall that faced the Volterra gate. She remembered how the evening sun had struck his hair, and how he had smiled down at her, and being both sentimental and unrefined, was determined to have the man and the place together. Things in Italy are cheap for an Italian, and, though he would have preferred a house in the piazza, or better still a house at Siena, or, bliss above bliss, a house at Leghorn, he did as she asked, thinking that perhaps she showed her good taste in preferring so retired an abode.
The house was far too big for them, and there was a general concourse of his relatives to fill it up. His father wished to make it a patriarchal concern, where all the family should have their rooms and meet together for meals, and was perfectly willing to give up the new practice at Poggibonsi and preside. Gino was quite willing too, for he was an affectionate youth who liked a large home-circle, and he told it as a pleasant bit of news to Lilia, who did not attempt to conceal her horror.
At once he was horrified too; saw that the idea was monstrous; abused himself to her for having suggested it; rushed off to tell his father that it was impossible. His father complained that prosperity was already corrupting him and making him unsympathetic and hard; his mother cried; his sisters accused him of blocking their social advance. He was apologetic, and even cringing, until they turned on Lilia. Then he turned on them, saying that they could not understand, much less associate with, the English lady who was his wife; that there should be one master in that house-- himself.
Lilia praised and petted him on his return, calling him brave and a hero and other endearing epithets. But he was rather blue when his clan left Monteriano in much dignity--a dignity which was not at all impaired by the acceptance of a cheque. They took the cheque not to Poggibonsi, after all, but to Empoli--a lively, dusty town some twenty miles off. There they settled down in comfort, and the sisters said they had been driven to it by Gino.
The cheque was, of course, Lilia's, who was extremely generous, and was quite willing to know anybody so long as she had not to live with them, relations-in-law being on her nerves. She liked nothing better than finding out some obscure and distant connection--there were several of them--and acting the lady bountiful, leaving behind her bewilderment, and too often discontent. Gino wondered how it was that all his people, who had formerly seemed so pleasant, had suddenly become plaintive and disagreeable. He put it down to his lady wife's magnificence, in comparison with which all seemed common. Her money flew apace, in spite of the cheap living. She was even richer than he expected; and he remembered with shame how he had once regretted his inability to accept the thousand lire that Philip Herriton offered him in exchange for her. It would have been a shortsighted bargain.
Lilia enjoyed settling into the house, with nothing to do except give orders to smiling workpeople, and a devoted husband as interpreter. She wrote a jaunty account of her happiness to Mrs. Herriton, and Harriet answered the letter, saying (1) that all future communications should be addressed to the solicitors; (2) would Lilia return an inlaid box which Harriet had lent her--but not given--to keep handkerchiefs and collars in?
"Look what I am giving up to live with you!" she said to Gino, never omitting to lay stress on her condescension. He took her to mean the inlaid box, and said that she need not give it up at all.
"Silly fellow, no! I mean the life. Those Herritons are very well connected. They lead Sawston society. But what do I care, so long as I have my silly fellow!" She always treated him as a boy, which he was, and as a fool, which he was not, thinking herself so immeasurably superior to him that she neglected opportunity after opportunity of establishing her rule. He was good-looking and indolent; therefore he must be stupid. He was poor; therefore he would never dare to criticize his benefactress. He was passionately in love with her; therefore she could do exactly as she liked.
"It mayn't be heaven below," she thought, "but it's better than Charles."
And all the time the boy was watching her, and growing up.
She was reminded of Charles by a disagreeable letter from the solicitors, bidding her disgorge a large sum of money for Irma, in accordance with her late husband's will. It was just like Charles's suspicious nature to have provided against a second marriage. Gino was equally indignant, and between them they composed a stinging reply, which had no effect. He then said that Irma had better come out and live with them. "The air is good, so is the food; she will be happy here, and we shall not have to part with the money." But Lilia had not the courage even to suggest this to the Herritons, and an unexpected terror seized her at the thought of Irma or any English child being educated at Monteriano.
Gino became terribly depressed over the solicitors' letter, more depressed than she thought necessary. There was no more to do in the house, and he spent whole days in the loggia leaning over the parapet or sitting astride it disconsolately.
"Oh, you idle boy!" she cried, pinching his muscles. "Go and play pallone."
"I am a married man," he answered, without raising his head. "I do not play games any more."
"Go and see your friends then."
"I have no friends now."
"Silly, silly, silly! You can't stop indoors all day!"
"I want to see no one but you." He spat on to an olive-tree.
"Now, Gino, don't be silly. Go and see your friends, and bring them to see me. We both of us like society."
He looked puzzled, but allowed himself to be persuaded, went out, found that he was not as friendless as he supposed, and returned after several hours in altered spirits. Lilia congratulated herself on her good management.
"I'm ready, too, for people now," she said. "I mean to wake you all up, just as I woke up Sawston. Let's have plenty of men--and make them bring their womenkind. I mean to have real English tea-parties."
"There is my aunt and her husband; but I thought you did not want to receive my relatives."
"I never said such a--"
"But you would be right," he said earnestly. "They are not for you. Many of them are in trade, and even we are little more; you should have gentlefolk and nobility for your friends."
"Poor fellow," thought Lilia. "It is sad for him to discover that his people are vulgar." She began to tell him that she loved him just for his silly self, and he flushed and began tugging at his moustache.
"But besides your relatives I must have other people here. Your friends have wives and sisters, haven't they?"
"Oh, yes; but of course I scarcely know them."
"Not know your friends' people?"
"Why, no. If they are poor and have to work for their living I may see them--but not otherwise. Except--" He stopped. The chief exception was a young lady, to whom he had once been introduced for matrimonial purposes. But the dowry had proved inadequate, and the acquaintance terminated.
"How funny! But I mean to change all that. Bring your friends to see me, and I will make them bring their people."
He looked at her rather hopelessly.
"Well, who are the principal people here? Who leads society?"
The governor of the prison, he supposed, and the officers who assisted him.
"Well, are they married?"
"There we are. Do you know them?"
"Yes--in a way."
"I see," she exclaimed angrily. "They look down on you, do they, poor boy? Wait!" He assented. "Wait! I'll soon stop that. Now, who else is there?"
"The marchese, sometimes, and the canons of the Collegiate Church."
"The canons--" he began with twinkling eyes.
"Oh, I forgot your horrid celibacy. In England they would be the centre of everything. But why shouldn't I know them? Would it make it easier if I called all round? Isn't that your foreign way?"
He did not think it would make it easier.
"But I must know some one! Who were the men you were talking to this afternoon?"
Low-class men. He could scarcely recollect their names.
"But, Gino dear, if they're low class, why did you talk to them? Don't you care about your position?"
All Gino cared about at present was idleness and pocket-money, and his way of expressing it was to exclaim, "Ouf-pouf! How hot it is in here. No air; I sweat all over. I expire. I must cool myself, or I shall never get to sleep." In his funny abrupt way he ran out on to the loggia, where he lay full length on the parapet, and began to smoke and spit under the silence of the stars.
Lilia gathered somehow from this conversation that Continental society was not the go-as-you-please thing she had expected. Indeed she could not see where Continental society was. Italy is such a delightful place to live in if you happen to be a man. There one may enjoy that exquisite luxury of Socialism--that true Socialism which is based not on equality of income or character, but on the equality of manners. In the democracy of the caffe or the street the great question of our life has been solved, and the brotherhood of man is a reality. But is accomplished at the expense of the sisterhood of women. Why should you not make friends with your neighbour at the theatre or in the train, when you know and he knows that feminine criticism and feminine insight and feminine prejudice will never come between you? Though you become as David and Jonathan, you need never enter his home, nor he yours. All your lives you will meet under the open air, the only roof-tree of the South, under which he will spit and swear, and you will drop your h's, and nobody will think the worse of either.
Meanwhile the women--they have, of course, their house and their church, with its admirable and frequent services, to which they are escorted by the maid. Otherwise they do not go out much, for it is not genteel to walk, and you are too poor to keep a carriage. Occasionally you will take them to the caffe or theatre, and immediately all your wonted acquaintance there desert you, except those few who are expecting and expected to marry into your family. It is all very sad. But one consolation emerges--life is very pleasant in Italy if you are a man.
Hitherto Gino had not interfered with Lilia. She was so much older than he was, and so much richer, that he regarded her as a superior being who answered to other laws. He was not wholly surprised, for strange rumours were always blowing over the Alps of lands where men and women had the same amusements and interests, and he had often met that privileged maniac, the lady tourist, on her solitary walks. Lilia took solitary walks too, and only that week a tramp had grabbed at her watch--an episode which is supposed to be indigenous in Italy, though really less frequent there than in Bond Street. Now that he knew her better, he was inevitably losing his awe: no one could live with her and keep it, especially when she had been so silly as to lose a gold watch and chain. As he lay thoughtful along the parapet, he realized for the first time the responsibilities of monied life. He must save her from dangers, physical and social, for after all she was a woman. "And I," he reflected, "though I am young, am at all events a man, and know what is right."
He found her still in the living-room, combing her hair, for she had something of the slattern in her nature, and there was no need to keep up appearances.
"You must not go out alone," he said gently. "It is not safe. If you want to walk, Perfetta shall accompany you." Perfetta was a widowed cousin, too humble for social aspirations, who was living with them as factotum.
"Very well," smiled Lilia, "very well"--as if she were addressing a solicitous kitten. But for all that she never took a solitary walk again, with one exception, till the day of her death.
Days passed, and no one called except poor relatives. She began to feel dull. Didn't he know the Sindaco or the bank manager? Even the landlady of the Stella d'Italia would be better than no one. She, when she went into the town, was pleasantly received; but people naturally found a difficulty in getting on with a lady who could not learn their language. And the tea-party, under Gino's adroit management, receded ever and ever before her.
He had a good deal of anxiety over her welfare, for she did not settle down in the house at all. But he was comforted by a welcome and unexpected visitor. As he was going one afternoon for the letters--they were delivered at the door, but it took longer to get them at the office--some one humorously threw a cloak over his head, and when he disengaged himself he saw his very dear friend Spiridione Tesi of the custom-house at Chiasso, whom he had not met for two years. What joy! what salutations! so that all the passersby smiled with approval on the amiable scene. Spiridione's brother was now station-master at Bologna, and thus he himself could spend his holiday travelling over Italy at the public expense. Hearing of Gino's marriage, he had come to see him on his way to Siena, where lived his own uncle, lately monied too.
"They all do it," he exclaimed, "myself excepted." He was not quite twenty-three. "But tell me more. She is English. That is good, very good. An English wife is very good indeed. And she is rich?"
"Blonde or dark?"
"Is it possible!"
"It pleases me very much," said Gino simply. "If you remember, I always desired a blonde." Three or four men had collected, and were listening.
"We all desire one," said Spiridione. "But you, Gino, deserve your good fortune, for you are a good son, a brave man, and a true friend, and from the very first moment I saw you I wished you well."
"No compliments, I beg," said Gino, standing with his hands crossed on his chest and a smile of pleasure on his face.
Spiridione addressed the other men, none of whom he had ever seen before. "Is it not true? Does not he deserve this wealthy blonde?"
"He does deserve her," said all the men.
It is a marvellous land, where you love it or hate it.
There were no letters, and of course they sat down at the Caffe Garibaldi, by the Collegiate Church--quite a good caffe that for so small a city. There were marble-topped tables, and pillars terra-cotta below and gold above, and on the ceiling was a fresco of the battle of Solferino. One could not have desired a prettier room. They had vermouth and little cakes with sugar on the top, which they chose gravely at the counter, pinching them first to be sure they were fresh. And though vermouth is barely alcoholic, Spiridione drenched his with soda-water to be sure that it should not get into his head.
They were in high spirits, and elaborate compliments alternated curiously with gentle horseplay. But soon they put up their legs on a pair of chairs and began to smoke.
"Tell me," said Spiridione--"I forgot to ask--is she young?"
"Ah, well, we cannot have everything."
"But you would be surprised. Had she told me twenty-eight, I should not have disbelieved her."
"Is she simpatica?" (Nothing will translate that word.)
Gino dabbed at the sugar and said after a silence, "Sufficiently so."
"It is a most important thing."
"She is rich, she is generous, she is affable, she addresses her inferiors without haughtiness."
There was another silence. "It is not sufficient," said the other. "One does not define it thus." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Last month a German was smuggling cigars. The custom-house was dark. Yet I refused because I did not like him. The gifts of such men do not bring happiness. Non era simpatico. He paid for every one, and the fine for deception besides."
"Do you gain much beyond your pay?" asked Gino, diverted for an instant.
"I do not accept small sums now. It is not worth the risk. But the German was another matter. But listen, my Gino, for I am older than you and more full of experience. The person who understands us at first sight, who never irritates us, who never bores, to whom we can pour forth every thought and wish, not only in speech but in silence--that is what I mean by simpatico."
"There are such men, I know," said Gino. "And I have heard it said of children. But where will you find such a woman?"
"That is true. Here you are wiser than I. Sono poco simpatiche le donne. And the time we waste over them is much." He sighed dolefully, as if he found the nobility of his sex a burden.
"One I have seen who may be so. She spoke very little, but she was a young lady--different to most. She, too, was English, the companion of my wife here. But Fra Filippo, the brother-in-law, took her back with him. I saw them start. He was very angry."
Then he spoke of his exciting and secret marriage, and they made fun of the unfortunate Philip, who had travelled over Europe to stop it.
"I regret though," said Gino, when they had finished laughing, "that I toppled him on to the bed. A great tall man! And when I am really amused I am often impolite."
"You will never see him again," said Spiridione, who carried plenty of philosophy about him. "And by now the scene will have passed from his mind."
"It sometimes happens that such things are recollected longest. I shall never see him again, of course; but it is no benefit to me that he should wish me ill. And even if he has forgotten, I am still sorry that I toppled him on to the bed."
So their talk continued, at one moment full of childishness and tender wisdom, the next moment scandalously gross. The shadows of the terra-cotta pillars lengthened, and tourists, flying through the Palazzo Pubblico opposite, could observe how the Italians wasted time.
The sight of tourists reminded Gino of something he might say. "I want to consult you since you are so kind as to take an interest in my affairs. My wife wishes to take solitary walks."
Spiridione was shocked.
"But I have forbidden her."
"She does not yet understand. She asked me to accompany her sometimes--to walk without object! You know, she would like me to be with her all day."
"I see. I see." He knitted his brows and tried to think how he could help his friend. "She needs employment. Is she a Catholic?"
"That is a pity. She must be persuaded. It will be a great solace to her when she is alone."
"I am a Catholic, but of course I never go to church."
"Of course not. Still, you might take her at first. That is what my brother has done with his wife at Bologna and he has joined the Free Thinkers. He took her once or twice himself, and now she has acquired the habit and continues to go without him."
"Most excellent advice, and I thank you for it. But she wishes to give tea-parties--men and women together whom she has never seen."
"Oh, the English! they are always thinking of tea. They carry it by the kilogramme in their trunks, and they are so clumsy that they always pack it at the top. But it is absurd!"
"What am I to do about it?'
"Do nothing. Or ask me!"
"Come!" cried Gino, springing up. "She will be quite pleased."
The dashing young fellow coloured crimson. "Of course I was only joking."
"I know. But she wants me to take my friends. Come now! Waiter!"
"If I do come," cried the other, "and take tea with you, this bill must be my affair."
"Certainly not; you are in my country!"
A long argument ensued, in which the waiter took part, suggesting various solutions. At last Gino triumphed. The bill came to eightpence-halfpenny, and a halfpenny for the waiter brought it up to ninepence. Then there was a shower of gratitude on one side and of deprecation on the other, and when courtesies were at their height they suddenly linked arms and swung down the street, tickling each other with lemonade straws as they went.
Lilia was delighted to see them, and became more animated than Gino had known her for a long time. The tea tasted of chopped hay, and they asked to be allowed to drink it out of a wine-glass, and refused milk; but, as she repeatedly observed, this was something like. Spiridione's manners were very agreeable. He kissed her hand on introduction, and as his profession had taught him a little English, conversation did not flag.
"Do you like music?" she asked.
"Passionately," he replied. "I have not studied scientific music, but the music of the heart, yes."
So she played on the humming piano very badly, and he sang, not so badly. Gino got out a guitar and sang too, sitting out on the loggia. It was a most agreeable visit.
Gino said he would just walk his friend back to his lodgings. As they went he said, without the least trace of malice or satire in his voice, "I think you are quite right. I shall not bring people to the house any more. I do not see why an English wife should be treated differently. This is Italy."
"You are very wise," exclaimed the other; "very wise indeed. The more precious a possession the more carefully it should be guarded."
They had reached the lodging, but went on as far as the Caffe Garibaldi, where they spent a long and most delightful evening.