Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster
Italy, Philip had always maintained, is only her true self in the height of the summer, when the tourists have left her, and her soul awakes under the beams of a vertical sun. He now had every opportunity of seeing her at her best, for it was nearly the middle of August before he went out to meet Harriet in the Tirol.
He found his sister in a dense cloud five thousand feet above the sea, chilled to the bone, overfed, bored, and not at all unwilling to be fetched away.
"It upsets one's plans terribly," she remarked, as she squeezed out her sponges, "but obviously it is my duty."
"Did mother explain it all to you?" asked Philip.
"Yes, indeed! Mother has written me a really beautiful letter. She describes how it was that she gradually got to feel that we must rescue the poor baby from its terrible surroundings, how she has tried by letter, and it is no good--nothing but insincere compliments and hypocrisy came back. Then she says, 'There is nothing like personal influence; you and Philip will succeed where I have failed.' She says, too, that Caroline Abbott has been wonderful."
"Caroline feels it as keenly almost as us. That is because she knows the man. Oh, he must be loathsome! Goodness me! I've forgotten to pack the ammonia! . . . It has been a terrible lesson for Caroline, but I fancy it is her turning-point. I can't help liking to think that out of all this evil good will come."
Philip saw no prospect of good, nor of beauty either. But the expedition promised to be highly comic. He was not averse to it any longer; he was simply indifferent to all in it except the humours. These would be wonderful. Harriet, worked by her mother; Mrs. Herriton, worked by Miss Abbott; Gino, worked by a cheque--what better entertainment could he desire? There was nothing to distract him this time; his sentimentality had died, so had his anxiety for the family honour. He might be a puppet's puppet, but he knew exactly the disposition of the strings.
They travelled for thirteen hours down-hill, whilst the streams broadened and the mountains shrank, and the vegetation changed, and the people ceased being ugly and drinking beer, and began instead to drink wine and to be beautiful. And the train which had picked them at sunrise out of a waste of glaciers and hotels was waltzing at sunset round the walls of Verona.
"Absurd nonsense they talk about the heat," said Philip, as they drove from the station. "Supposing we were here for pleasure, what could be more pleasurable than this?"
"Did you hear, though, they are remarking on the cold?" said Harriet nervously. "I should never have thought it cold."
And on the second day the heat struck them, like a hand laid over the mouth, just as they were walking to see the tomb of Juliet. From that moment everything went wrong. They fled from Verona. Harriet's sketch-book was stolen, and the bottle of ammonia in her trunk burst over her prayer-book, so that purple patches appeared on all her clothes. Then, as she was going through Mantua at four in the morning, Philip made her look out of the window because it was Virgil's birthplace, and a smut flew in her eye, and Harriet with a smut in her eye was notorious. At Bologna they stopped twenty-four hours to rest. It was a festa, and children blew bladder whistles night and day. "What a religion!" said Harriet. The hotel smelt, two puppies were asleep on her bed, and her bedroom window looked into a belfry, which saluted her slumbering form every quarter of an hour. Philip left his walking-stick, his socks, and the Baedeker at Bologna; she only left her sponge-bag. Next day they crossed the Apennines with a train-sick child and a hot lady, who told them that never, never before had she sweated so profusely. "Foreigners are a filthy nation," said Harriet. "I don't care if there are tunnels; open the windows. "He obeyed, and she got another smut in her eye. Nor did Florence improve matters. Eating, walking, even a cross word would bathe them both in boiling water. Philip, who was slighter of build, and less conscientious, suffered less. But Harriet had never been to Florence, and between the hours of eight and eleven she crawled like a wounded creature through the streets, and swooned before various masterpieces of art. It was an irritable couple who took tickets to Monteriano.
"Singles or returns?" said he.
"A single for me," said Harriet peevishly; "I shall never get back alive."
"Sweet creature!" said her brother, suddenly breaking down. "How helpful you will be when we come to Signor Carella!"
"Do you suppose," said Harriet, standing still among a whirl of porters--"do you suppose I am going to enter that man's house?"
"Then what have you come for, pray? For ornament?"
"To see that you do your duty."
"So mother told me. For goodness sake get the tickets; here comes that hot woman again! She has the impudence to bow."
"Mother told you, did she?" said Philip wrathfully, as he went to struggle for tickets at a slit so narrow that they were handed to him edgeways. Italy was beastly, and Florence station is the centre of beastly Italy. But he had a strange feeling that he was to blame for it all; that a little influx into him of virtue would make the whole land not beastly but amusing. For there was enchantment, he was sure of that; solid enchantment, which lay behind the porters and the screaming and the dust. He could see it in the terrific blue sky beneath which they travelled, in the whitened plain which gripped life tighter than a frost, in the exhausted reaches of the Arno, in the ruins of brown castles which stood quivering upon the hills. He could see it, though his head ached and his skin was twitching, though he was here as a puppet, and though his sister knew how he was here. There was nothing pleasant in that journey to Monteriano station. But nothing--not even the discomfort--was commonplace.
"But do people live inside?" asked Harriet. They had exchanged railway-carriage for the legno, and the legno had emerged from the withered trees, and had revealed to them their destination. Philip, to be annoying, answered "No."
"What do they do there?" continued Harriet, with a frown.
"There is a caffe. A prison. A theatre. A church. Walls. A view."
"Not for me, thank you," said Harriet, after a weighty pause.
"Nobody asked you, Miss, you see. Now Lilia was asked by such a nice young gentleman, with curls all over his forehead, and teeth just as white as father makes them." Then his manner changed. "But, Harriet, do you see nothing wonderful or attractive in that place--nothing at all?"
"Nothing at all. It's frightful."
"I know it is. But it's old--awfully old."
"Beauty is the only test," said Harriet. "At least so you told me when I sketched old buildings--for the sake, I suppose, of making yourself unpleasant."
"Oh, I'm perfectly right. But at the same time--I don't know--so many things have happened here--people have lived so hard and so splendidly--I can't explain."
"I shouldn't think you could. It doesn't seem the best moment to begin your Italy mania. I thought you were cured of it by now. Instead, will you kindly tell me what you are going to do when you arrive. I do beg you will not be taken unawares this time."
"First, Harriet, I shall settle you at the Stella d'Italia, in the comfort that befits your sex and disposition. Then I shall make myself some tea. After tea I shall take a book into Santa Deodata's, and read there. It is always fresh and cool."
The martyred Harriet exclaimed, "I'm not clever, Philip. I don't go in for it, as you know. But I know what's rude. And I know what's wrong."
"You!" she shouted, bouncing on the cushions of the legno and startling all the fleas. "What's the good of cleverness if a man's murdered a woman?"
"Harriet, I am hot. To whom do you refer?"
"He. Her. If you don't look out he'll murder you. I wish he would."
"Tut tut, tutlet! You'd find a corpse extraordinarily inconvenient." Then he tried to be less aggravating. "I heartily dislike the fellow, but we know he didn't murder her. In that letter, though she said a lot, she never said he was physically cruel."
"He has murdered her. The things he did--things one can't even mention--"
"Things which one must mention if one's to talk at all. And things which one must keep in their proper place. Because he was unfaithful to his wife, it doesn't follow that in every way he's absolutely vile." He looked at the city. It seemed to approve his remark.
"It's the supreme test. The man who is unchivalrous to a woman--"
"Oh, stow it! Take it to the Back Kitchen. It's no more a supreme test than anything else. The Italians never were chivalrous from the first. If you condemn him for that, you'll condemn the whole lot."
"I condemn the whole lot."
"And the French as well?"
"And the French as well."
"Things aren't so jolly easy," said Philip, more to himself than to her.
But for Harriet things were easy, though not jolly, and she turned upon her brother yet again. "What about the baby, pray? You've said a lot of smart things and whittled away morality and religion and I don't know what; but what about the baby? You think me a fool, but I've been noticing you all today, and you haven't mentioned the baby once. You haven't thought about it, even. You don't care. Philip! I shall not speak to you. You are intolerable."
She kept her promise, and never opened her lips all the rest of the way. But her eyes glowed with anger and resolution. For she was a straight, brave woman, as well as a peevish one.
Philip acknowledged her reproof to be true. He did not care about the baby one straw. Nevertheless, he meant to do his duty, and he was fairly confident of success. If Gino would have sold his wife for a thousand lire, for how much less would he not sell his child? It was just a commercial transaction. Why should it interfere with other things? His eyes were fixed on the towers again, just as they had been fixed when he drove with Miss Abbott. But this time his thoughts were pleasanter, for he had no such grave business on his mind. It was in the spirit of the cultivated tourist that he approached his destination.
One of the towers, rough as any other, was topped by a cross--the tower of the Collegiate Church of Santa Deodata. She was a holy maiden of the Dark Ages, the city's patron saint, and sweetness and barbarity mingle strangely in her story. So holy was she that all her life she lay upon her back in the house of her mother, refusing to eat, refusing to play, refusing to work. The devil, envious of such sanctity, tempted her in various ways. He dangled grapes above her, he showed her fascinating toys, he pushed soft pillows beneath her aching head. When all proved vain he tripped up the mother and flung her downstairs before her very eyes. But so holy was the saint that she never picked her mother up, but lay upon her back through all, and thus assured her throne in Paradise. She was only fifteen when she died, which shows how much is within the reach of any school-girl. Those who think her life was unpractical need only think of the victories upon Poggibonsi, San Gemignano, Volterra, Siena itself--all gained through the invocation of her name; they need only look at the church which rose over her grave. The grand schemes for a marble facade were never carried out, and it is brown unfinished stone until this day. But for the inside Giotto was summoned to decorate the walls of the nave. Giotto came--that is to say, he did not come, German research having decisively proved--but at all events the nave is covered with frescoes, and so are two chapels in the left transept, and the arch into the choir, and there are scraps in the choir itself. There the decoration stopped, till in the full spring of the Renaissance a great painter came to pay a few weeks' visit to his friend the Lord of Monteriano. In the intervals between the banquets and the discussions on Latin etymology and the dancing, he would stroll over to the church, and there in the fifth chapel to the right he has painted two frescoes of the death and burial of Santa Deodata. That is why Baedeker gives the place a star.
Santa Deodata was better company than Harriet, and she kept Philip in a pleasant dream until the legno drew up at the hotel. Every one there was asleep, for it was still the hour when only idiots were moving. There were not even any beggars about. The cabman put their bags down in the passage--they had left heavy luggage at the station--and strolled about till he came on the landlady's room and woke her, and sent her to them.
Then Harriet pronounced the monosyllable "Go!"
"Go where?" asked Philip, bowing to the landlady, who was swimming down the stairs.
"To the Italian. Go."
"Buona sera, signora padrona. Si ritorna volontieri a Monteriano! (Don't be a goose. I'm not going now. You're in the way, too.) "Vorrei due camere--"
"Go. This instant. Now. I'll stand it no longer. Go!"
"I'm damned if I'll go. I want my tea."
"Swear if you like!" she cried. "Blaspheme! Abuse me! But understand, I'm in earnest."
"Harriet, don't act. Or act better."
"We've come here to get the baby back, and for nothing else. I'll not have this levity and slackness, and talk about pictures and churches. Think of mother; did she send you out for them?"
"Think of mother and don't straddle across the stairs. Let the cabman and the landlady come down, and let me go up and choose rooms."
"Harriet, are you mad?"
"If you like. But you will not come up till you have seen the Italian."
"La signorina si sente male," said Philip, "C' e il sole."
"Poveretta!" cried the landlady and the cabman.
"Leave me alone!" said Harriet, snarling round at them. "I don't care for the lot of you. I'm English, and neither you'll come down nor he up till he goes for the baby."
"La prego-piano-piano-c e un' altra signorina che dorme--"
"We shall probably be arrested for brawling, Harriet. Have you the very slightest sense of the ludicrous?"
Harriet had not; that was why she could be so powerful. She had concocted this scene in the carriage, and nothing should baulk her of it. To the abuse in front and the coaxing behind she was equally indifferent. How long she would have stood like a glorified Horatius, keeping the staircase at both ends, was never to be known. For the young lady, whose sleep they were disturbing, awoke and opened her bedroom door, and came out on to the landing. She was Miss Abbott.
Philip's first coherent feeling was one of indignation. To be run by his mother and hectored by his sister was as much as he could stand. The intervention of a third female drove him suddenly beyond politeness. He was about to say exactly what he thought about the thing from beginning to end. But before he could do so Harriet also had seen Miss Abbott. She uttered a shrill cry of joy.
"You, Caroline, here of all people!" And in spite of the heat she darted up the stairs and imprinted an affectionate kiss upon her friend.
Philip had an inspiration. "You will have a lot to tell Miss Abbott, Harriet, and she may have as much to tell you. So I'll pay my call on Signor Carella, as you suggested, and see how things stand."
Miss Abbott uttered some noise of greeting or alarm. He did not reply to it or approach nearer to her. Without even paying the cabman, he escaped into the street.
"Tear each other's eyes out!" he cried, gesticulating at the facade of the hotel. "Give it to her, Harriet! Teach her to leave us alone. Give it to her, Caroline! Teach her to be grateful to you. Go it, ladies; go it!"
Such people as observed him were interested, but did not conclude that he was mad. This aftermath of conversation is not unknown in Italy.
He tried to think how amusing it was; but it would not do--Miss Abbott's presence affected him too personally. Either she suspected him of dishonesty, or else she was being dishonest herself. He preferred to suppose the latter. Perhaps she had seen Gino, and they had prepared some elaborate mortification for the Herritons. Perhaps Gino had sold the baby cheap to her for a joke: it was just the kind of joke that would appeal to him. Philip still remembered the laughter that had greeted his fruitless journey, and the uncouth push that had toppled him on to the bed. And whatever it might mean, Miss Abbott's presence spoilt the comedy: she would do nothing funny.
During this short meditation he had walked through the city, and was out on the other side. "Where does Signor Carella live?" he asked the men at the Dogana.
"I'll show you," said a little girl, springing out of the ground as Italian children will.
"She will show you," said the Dogana men, nodding reassuringly. "Follow her always, always, and you will come to no harm. She is a trustworthy guide. She is my daughter." cousin." sister."
Philip knew these relatives well: they ramify, if need be, all over the peninsula.
"Do you chance to know whether Signor Carella is in?" he asked her.
She had just seen him go in. Philip nodded. He was looking forward to the interview this time: it would be an intellectual duet with a man of no great intellect. What was Miss Abbott up to? That was one of the things he was going to discover. While she had it out with Harriet, he would have it out with Gino. He followed the Dogana's relative softly, like a diplomatist.
He did not follow her long, for this was the Volterra gate, and the house was exactly opposite to it. In half a minute they had scrambled down the mule-track and reached the only practicable entrance. Philip laughed, partly at the thought of Lilia in such a building, partly in the confidence of victory. Meanwhile the Dogana's relative lifted up her voice and gave a shout.
For an impressive interval there was no reply. Then the figure of a woman appeared high up on the loggia.
"That is Perfetta," said the girl.
"I want to see Signor Carella," cried Philip.
"Out," echoed the girl complacently.
"Why on earth did you say he was in?" He could have strangled her for temper. He had been just ripe for an interview--just the right combination of indignation and acuteness: blood hot, brain cool. But nothing ever did go right in Monteriano. "When will he be back?" he called to Perfetta. It really was too bad.
She did not know. He was away on business. He might be back this evening, he might not. He had gone to Poggibonsi.
At the sound of this word the little girl put her fingers to her nose and swept them at the plain. She sang as she did so, even as her foremothers had sung seven hundred years back--
Poggibonizzi, fatti in la, Che Monteriano si fa citta!
Then she asked Philip for a halfpenny. A German lady, friendly to the Past, had given her one that very spring.
"I shall have to leave a message," he called.
"Now Perfetta has gone for her basket," said the little girl. "When she returns she will lower it--so. Then you will put your card into it. Then she will raise it--thus. By this means--"
When Perfetta returned, Philip remembered to ask after the baby. It took longer to find than the basket, and he stood perspiring in the evening sun, trying to avoid the smell of the drains and to prevent the little girl from singing against Poggibonsi. The olive-trees beside him were draped with the weekly--or more probably the monthly--wash. What a frightful spotty blouse! He could not think where he had seen it. Then he remembered that it was Lilia's. She had brought it "to hack about in" at Sawston, and had taken it to Italy because "in Italy anything does." He had rebuked her for the sentiment.
"Beautiful as an angel!" bellowed Perfetta, holding out something which must be Lilia's baby. "But who am I addressing?"
"Thank you--here is my card." He had written on it a civil request to Gino for an interview next morning. But before he placed it in the basket and revealed his identity, he wished to find something out. "Has a young lady happened to call here lately--a young English lady?"
Perfetta begged his pardon: she was a little deaf.
"A young lady--pale, large, tall."
She did not quite catch.
"A young lady!"
"Perfetta is deaf when she chooses," said the Dogana's relative. At last Philip admitted the peculiarity and strode away. He paid off the detestable child at the Volterra gate. She got two nickel pieces and was not pleased, partly because it was too much, partly because he did not look pleased when he gave it to her. He caught her fathers and cousins winking at each other as he walked past them. Monteriano seemed in one conspiracy to make him look a fool. He felt tired and anxious and muddled, and not sure of anything except that his temper was lost. In this mood he returned to the Stella d'Italia, and there, as he was ascending the stairs, Miss Abbott popped out of the dining-room on the first floor and beckoned to him mysteriously.
"I was going to make myself some tea," he said, with his hand still on the banisters.
"I should be grateful--"
So he followed her into the dining-room and shut the door.
"You see," she began, "Harriet knows nothing."
"No more do I. He was out."
"But what's that to do with it?"
He presented her with an unpleasant smile. She fenced well, as he had noticed before. "He was out. You find me as ignorant as you have left Harriet."
"What do you mean? Please, please Mr. Herriton, don't be mysterious: there isn't the time. Any moment Harriet may be down, and we shan't have decided how to behave to her. Sawston was different: we had to keep up appearances. But here we must speak out, and I think I can trust you to do it. Otherwise we'll never start clear."
"Pray let us start clear," said Philip, pacing up and down the room. "Permit me to begin by asking you a question. In which capacity have you come to Monteriano--spy or traitor?"
"Spy!" she answered, without a moment's hesitation. She was standing by the little Gothic window as she spoke--the hotel had been a palace once--and with her finger she was following the curves of the moulding as if they might feel beautiful and strange. "Spy," she repeated, for Philip was bewildered at learning her guilt so easily, and could not answer a word. "Your mother has behaved dishonourably all through. She never wanted the child; no harm in that; but she is too proud to let it come to me. She has done all she could to wreck things; she did not tell you everything; she has told Harriet nothing at all; she has lied or acted lies everywhere. I cannot trust your mother. So I have come here alone--all across Europe; no one knows it; my father thinks I am in Normandy--to spy on Mrs. Herriton. Don't let's argue!" for he had begun, almost mechanically, to rebuke her for impertinence. "If you are here to get the child, I will help you; if you are here to fail, I shall get it instead of you."
"It is hopeless to expect you to believe me," he stammered. "But I can assert that we are here to get the child, even if it costs us all we've got. My mother has fixed no money limit whatever. I am here to carry out her instructions. I think that you will approve of them, as you have practically dictated them. I do not approve of them. They are absurd."
She nodded carelessly. She did not mind what he said. All she wanted was to get the baby out of Monteriano.
"Harriet also carries out your instructions," he continued. "She, however, approves of them, and does not know that they proceed from you. I think, Miss Abbott, you had better take entire charge of the rescue party. I have asked for an interview with Signor Carella tomorrow morning. Do you acquiesce?"
She nodded again.
"Might I ask for details of your interview with him? They might be helpful to me."
He had spoken at random. To his delight she suddenly collapsed. Her hand fell from the window. Her face was red with more than the reflection of evening.
"My interview--how do you know of it?"
"From Perfetta, if it interests you."
"Who ever is Perfetta?"
"The woman who must have let you in."
"Into Signor Carella's house."
"Mr. Herriton!" she exclaimed. "How could you believe her? Do you suppose that I would have entered that man's house, knowing about him all that I do? I think you have very odd ideas of what is possible for a lady. I hear you wanted Harriet to go. Very properly she refused. Eighteen months ago I might have done such a thing. But I trust I have learnt how to behave by now."
Philip began to see that there were two Miss Abbotts--the Miss Abbott who could travel alone to Monteriano, and the Miss Abbott who could not enter Gino's house when she got there. It was an amusing discovery. Which of them would respond to his next move?
"I suppose I misunderstood Perfetta. Where did you have your interview, then?"
"Not an interview--an accident--I am very sorry--I meant you to have the chance of seeing him first. Though it is your fault. You are a day late. You were due here yesterday. So I came yesterday, and, not finding you, went up to the Rocca--you know that kitchen-garden where they let you in, and there is a ladder up to a broken tower, where you can stand and see all the other towers below you and the plain and all the other hills?"
"Yes, yes. I know the Rocca; I told you of it."
"So I went up in the evening for the sunset: I had nothing to do. He was in the garden: it belongs to a friend of his."
"And you talked."
"It was very awkward for me. But I had to talk: he seemed to make me. You see he thought I was here as a tourist; he thinks so still. He intended to be civil, and I judged it better to be civil also."
"And of what did you talk?"
"The weather--there will be rain, he says, by tomorrow evening--the other towns, England, myself, about you a little, and he actually mentioned Lilia. He was perfectly disgusting; he pretended he loved her; he offered to show me her grave--the grave of the woman he has murdered!"
"My dear Miss Abbott, he is not a murderer. I have just been driving that into Harriet. And when you know the Italians as well as I do, you will realize that in all that he said to you he was perfectly sincere. The Italians are essentially dramatic; they look on death and love as spectacles. I don't doubt that he persuaded himself, for the moment, that he had behaved admirably, both as husband and widower."
"You may be right," said Miss Abbott, impressed for the first time. "When I tried to pave the way, so to speak--to hint that he had not behaved as he ought--well, it was no good at all. He couldn't or wouldn't understand."
There was something very humorous in the idea of Miss Abbott approaching Gino, on the Rocca, in the spirit of a district visitor. Philip, whose temper was returning, laughed.
"Harriet would say he has no sense of sin."
"Harriet may be right, I am afraid."
"If so, perhaps he isn't sinful!"
Miss Abbott was not one to encourage levity. "I know what he has done," she said. "What he says and what he thinks is of very little importance."
Philip smiled at her crudity. "I should like to hear, though, what he said about me. Is he preparing a warm reception?"
"Oh, no, not that. I never told him that you and Harriet were coming. You could have taken him by surprise if you liked. He only asked for you, and wished he hadn't been so rude to you eighteen months ago."
"What a memory the fellow has for little things!" He turned away as he spoke, for he did not want her to see his face. It was suffused with pleasure. For an apology, which would have been intolerable eighteen months ago, was gracious and agreeable now.
She would not let this pass. "You did not think it a little thing at the time. You told me he had assaulted you."
"I lost my temper," said Philip lightly. His vanity had been appeased, and he knew it. This tiny piece of civility had changed his mood. "Did he really--what exactly did he say?"
"He said he was sorry--pleasantly, as Italians do say such things. But he never mentioned the baby once."
What did the baby matter when the world was suddenly right way up? Philip smiled, and was shocked at himself for smiling, and smiled again. For romance had come back to Italy; there were no cads in her; she was beautiful, courteous, lovable, as of old. And Miss Abbott--she, too, was beautiful in her way, for all her gaucheness and conventionality. She really cared about life, and tried to live it properly. And Harriet--even Harriet tried.
This admirable change in Philip proceeds from nothing admirable, and may therefore provoke the gibes of the cynical. But angels and other practical people will accept it reverently, and write it down as good.
"The view from the Rocca (small gratuity) is finest at sunset," he murmured, more to himself than to her.
"And he never mentioned the baby once," Miss Abbott repeated. But she had returned to the window, and again her finger pursued the delicate curves. He watched her in silence, and was more attracted to her than he had ever been before. She really was the strangest mixture.
"The view from the Rocca--wasn't it fine?"
"What isn't fine here?" she answered gently, and then added, "I wish I was Harriet," throwing an extraordinary meaning into the words.
She would not go further, but he believed that she had paid homage to the complexity of life. For her, at all events, the expedition was neither easy nor jolly. Beauty, evil, charm, vulgarity, mystery--she also acknowledged this tangle, in spite of herself. And her voice thrilled him when she broke silence with "Mr. Herriton--come here--look at this!"
She removed a pile of plates from the Gothic window, and they leant out of it. Close opposite, wedged between mean houses, there rose up one of the great towers. It is your tower: you stretch a barricade between it and the hotel, and the traffic is blocked in a moment. Farther up, where the street empties out by the church, your connections, the Merli and the Capocchi, do likewise. They command the Piazza, you the Siena gate. No one can move in either but he shall be instantly slain, either by bows or by crossbows, or by Greek fire. Beware, however, of the back bedroom windows. For they are menaced by the tower of the Aldobrandeschi, and before now arrows have stuck quivering over the washstand. Guard these windows well, lest there be a repetition of the events of February 1338, when the hotel was surprised from the rear, and your dearest friend--you could just make out that it was he--was thrown at you over the stairs.
"It reaches up to heaven," said Philip, "and down to the other place. "The summit of the tower was radiant in the sun, while its base was in shadow and pasted over with advertisements. "Is it to be a symbol of the town?"
She gave no hint that she understood him. But they remained together at the window because it was a little cooler and so pleasant. Philip found a certain grace and lightness in his companion which he had never noticed in England. She was appallingly narrow, but her consciousness of wider things gave to her narrowness a pathetic charm. He did not suspect that he was more graceful too. For our vanity is such that we hold our own characters immutable, and we are slow to acknowledge that they have changed, even for the better.
Citizens came out for a little stroll before dinner. Some of them stood and gazed at the advertisements on the tower.
"Surely that isn't an opera-bill?" said Miss Abbott.
Philip put on his pince-nez. " 'Lucia di Lammermoor. By the Master Donizetti. Unique representation. This evening.'
"But is there an opera? Right up here?"
"Why, yes. These people know how to live. They would sooner have a thing bad than not have it at all. That is why they have got to have so much that is good. However bad the performance is tonight, it will be alive. Italians don't love music silently, like the beastly Germans. The audience takes its share--sometimes more.
"Can't we go?"
He turned on her, but not unkindly. "But we're here to rescue a child!"
He cursed himself for the remark. All the pleasure and the light went out of her face, and she became again Miss Abbott of Sawston--good, oh, most undoubtedly good, but most appallingly dull. Dull and remorseful: it is a deadly combination, and he strove against it in vain till he was interrupted by the opening of the dining-room door.
They started as guiltily as if they had been flirting. Their interview had taken such an unexpected course. Anger, cynicism, stubborn morality--all had ended in a feeling of good-will towards each other and towards the city which had received them. And now Harriet was here--acrid, indissoluble, large; the same in Italy as in England--changing her disposition never, and her atmosphere under protest.
Yet even Harriet was human, and the better for a little tea. She did not scold Philip for finding Gino out, as she might reasonably have done. She showered civilities on Miss Abbott, exclaiming again and again that Caroline's visit was one of the most fortunate coincidences in the world. Caroline did not contradict her.
"You see him tomorrow at ten, Philip. Well, don't forget the blank cheque. Say an hour for the business. No, Italians are so slow; say two. Twelve o'clock. Lunch. Well--then it's no good going till the evening train. I can manage the baby as far as Florence--"
"My dear sister, you can't run on like that. You don't buy a pair of gloves in two hours, much less a baby."
"Three hours, then, or four; or make him learn English ways. At Florence we get a nurse--"
"But, Harriet," said Miss Abbott, "what if at first he was to refuse?"
"I don't know the meaning of the word," said Harriet impressively. "I've told the landlady that Philip and I only want our rooms one night, and we shall keep to it."
"I dare say it will be all right. But, as I told you, I thought the man I met on the Rocca a strange, difficult man."
"He's insolent to ladies, we know. But my brother can be trusted to bring him to his senses. That woman, Philip, whom you saw will carry the baby to the hotel. Of course you must tip her for it. And try, if you can, to get poor Lilia's silver bangles. They were nice quiet things, and will do for Irma. And there is an inlaid box I lent her--lent, not gave--to keep her handkerchiefs in. It's of no real value; but this is our only chance. Don't ask for it; but if you see it lying about, just say--"
"No, Harriet; I'll try for the baby, but for nothing else. I promise to do that tomorrow, and to do it in the way you wish. But tonight, as we're all tired, we want a change of topic. We want relaxation. We want to go to the theatre."
"Theatres here? And at such a moment?"
"We should hardly enjoy it, with the great interview impending," said Miss Abbott, with an anxious glance at Philip.
He did not betray her, but said, "Don't you think it's better than sitting in all the evening and getting nervous?"
His sister shook her head. "Mother wouldn't like it. It would be most unsuitable--almost irreverent. Besides all that, foreign theatres are notorious. Don't you remember those letters in the 'Church Family Newspaper'?"
"But this is an opera--'Lucia di Lammermoor'--Sir Walter Scott--classical, you know."
Harriet's face grew resigned. "Certainly one has so few opportunities of hearing music. It is sure to be very bad. But it might be better than sitting idle all the evening. We have no book, and I lost my crochet at Florence."
"Good. Miss Abbott, you are coming too?"
"It is very kind of you, Mr. Herriton. In some ways I should enjoy it; but--excuse the suggestion--I don't think we ought to go to cheap seats."
"Good gracious me!" cried Harriet, "I should never have thought of that. As likely as not, we should have tried to save money and sat among the most awful people. One keeps on forgetting this is Italy."
"Unfortunately I have no evening dress; and if the seats--"
"Oh, that'll be all right," said Philip, smiling at his timorous, scrupulous women-kind. "We'll go as we are, and buy the best we can get. Monteriano is not formal."
So this strenuous day of resolutions, plans, alarms, battles, victories, defeats, truces, ended at the opera. Miss Abbott and Harriet were both a little shame-faced. They thought of their friends at Sawston, who were supposing them to be now tilting against the powers of evil. What would Mrs. Herriton, or Irma, or the curates at the Back Kitchen say if they could see the rescue party at a place of amusement on the very first day of its mission? Philip, too, marvelled at his wish to go. He began to see that he was enjoying his time in Monteriano, in spite of the tiresomeness of his companions and the occasional contrariness of himself.
He had been to this theatre many years before, on the occasion of a performance of "La Zia di Carlo." Since then it had been thoroughly done up, in the tints of the beet-root and the tomato, and was in many other ways a credit to the little town. The orchestra had been enlarged, some of the boxes had terra-cotta draperies, and over each box was now suspended an enormous tablet, neatly framed, bearing upon it the number of that box. There was also a drop-scene, representing a pink and purple landscape, wherein sported many a lady lightly clad, and two more ladies lay along the top of the proscenium to steady a large and pallid clock. So rich and so appalling was the effect, that Philip could scarcely suppress a cry. There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty's confidence. This tiny theatre of Monteriano spraddled and swaggered with the best of them, and these ladies with their clock would have nodded to the young men on the ceiling of the Sistine.
Philip had tried for a box, but all the best were taken: it was rather a grand performance, and he had to be content with stalls. Harriet was fretful and insular. Miss Abbott was pleasant, and insisted on praising everything: her only regret was that she had no pretty clothes with her.
"We do all right," said Philip, amused at her unwonted vanity.
"Yes, I know; but pretty things pack as easily as ugly ones. We had no need to come to Italy like guys."
This time he did not reply, "But we're here to rescue a baby." For he saw a charming picture, as charming a picture as he had seen for years--the hot red theatre; outside the theatre, towers and dark gates and mediaeval walls; beyond the walls olive-trees in the starlight and white winding roads and fireflies and untroubled dust; and here in the middle of it all, Miss Abbott, wishing she had not come looking like a guy. She had made the right remark. Most undoubtedly she had made the right remark. This stiff suburban woman was unbending before the shrine.
"Don't you like it at all?" he asked her.
"Most awfully." And by this bald interchange they convinced each other that Romance was here.
Harriet, meanwhile, had been coughing ominously at the drop-scene, which presently rose on the grounds of Ravenswood, and the chorus of Scotch retainers burst into cry. The audience accompanied with tappings and drummings, swaying in the melody like corn in the wind. Harriet, though she did not care for music, knew how to listen to it. She uttered an acid "Shish!"
"Shut it," whispered her brother.
"We must make a stand from the beginning. They're talking."
"It is tiresome," murmured Miss Abbott; "but perhaps it isn't for us to interfere."
Harriet shook her head and shished again. The people were quiet, not because it is wrong to talk during a chorus, but because it is natural to be civil to a visitor. For a little time she kept the whole house in order, and could smile at her brother complacently.
Her success annoyed him. He had grasped the principle of opera in Italy--it aims not at illusion but at entertainment--and he did not want this great evening-party to turn into a prayer-meeting. But soon the boxes began to fill, and Harriet's power was over. Families greeted each other across the auditorium. People in the pit hailed their brothers and sons in the chorus, and told them how well they were singing. When Lucia appeared by the fountain there was loud applause, and cries of "Welcome to Monteriano!"
"Ridiculous babies!" said Harriet, settling down in her stall.
"Why, it is the famous hot lady of the Apennines," cried Philip; "the one who had never, never before--"
"Ugh! Don't. She will be very vulgar. And I'm sure it's even worse here than in the tunnel. I wish we'd never--"
Lucia began to sing, and there was a moment's silence. She was stout and ugly; but her voice was still beautiful, and as she sang the theatre murmured like a hive of happy bees. All through the coloratura she was accompanied by sighs, and its top note was drowned in a shout of universal joy.
So the opera proceeded. The singers drew inspiration from the audience, and the two great sextettes were rendered not unworthily. Miss Abbott fell into the spirit of the thing. She, too, chatted and laughed and applauded and encored, and rejoiced in the existence of beauty. As for Philip, he forgot himself as well as his mission. He was not even an enthusiastic visitor. For he had been in this place always. It was his home.
Harriet, like M. Bovary on a more famous occasion, was trying to follow the plot. Occasionally she nudged her companions, and asked them what had become of Walter Scott. She looked round grimly. The audience sounded drunk, and even Caroline, who never took a drop, was swaying oddly. Violent waves of excitement, all arising from very little, went sweeping round the theatre. The climax was reached in the mad scene. Lucia, clad in white, as befitted her malady, suddenly gathered up her streaming hair and bowed her acknowledgment to the audience. Then from the back of the stage--she feigned not to see it--there advanced a kind of bamboo clothes-horse, stuck all over with bouquets. It was very ugly, and most of the flowers in it were false. Lucia knew this, and so did the audience; and they all knew that the clothes-horse was a piece of stage property, brought in to make the performance go year after year. None the less did it unloose the great deeps. With a scream of amazement and joy she embraced the animal, pulled out one or two practicable blossoms, pressed them to her lips, and flung them into her admirers. They flung them back, with loud melodious cries, and a little boy in one of the stageboxes snatched up his sister's carnations and offered them. "Che carino!" exclaimed the singer. She darted at the little boy and kissed him. Now the noise became tremendous. "Silence! silence!" shouted many old gentlemen behind. "Let the divine creature continue!" But the young men in the adjacent box were imploring Lucia to extend her civility to them. She refused, with a humorous, expressive gesture. One of them hurled a bouquet at her. She spurned it with her foot. Then, encouraged by the roars of the audience, she picked it up and tossed it to them. Harriet was always unfortunate. The bouquet struck her full in the chest, and a little billet-doux fell out of it into her lap.
"Call this classical!" she cried, rising from her seat. "It's not even respectable! Philip! take me out at once."
"Whose is it?" shouted her brother, holding up the bouquet in one hand and the billet-doux in the other. "Whose is it?"
The house exploded, and one of the boxes was violently agitated, as if some one was being hauled to the front. Harriet moved down the gangway, and compelled Miss Abbott to follow her. Philip, still laughing and calling "Whose is it?" brought up the rear. He was drunk with excitement. The heat, the fatigue, and the enjoyment had mounted into his head.
"To the left!" the people cried. "The innamorato is to the left."
He deserted his ladies and plunged towards the box. A young man was flung stomach downwards across the balustrade. Philip handed him up the bouquet and the note. Then his own hands were seized affectionately. It all seemed quite natural.
"Why have you not written?" cried the young man. "Why do you take me by surprise?"
"Oh, I've written," said Philip hilariously. "I left a note this afternoon."
"Silence! silence!" cried the audience, who were beginning to have enough. "Let the divine creature continue." Miss Abbott and Harriet had disappeared.
"No! no!" cried the young man. "You don't escape me now." For Philip was trying feebly to disengage his hands. Amiable youths bent out of the box and invited him to enter it.
"Gino's friends are ours--"
"Friends?" cried Gino. "A relative! A brother! Fra Filippo, who has come all the way from England and never written."
"I left a message."
The audience began to hiss.
"Come in to us."
"Thank you--ladies--there is not time--"
The next moment he was swinging by his arms. The moment after he shot over the balustrade into the box. Then the conductor, seeing that the incident was over, raised his baton. The house was hushed, and Lucia di Lammermoor resumed her song of madness and death.
Philip had whispered introductions to the pleasant people who had pulled him in--tradesmen's sons perhaps they were, or medical students, or solicitors' clerks, or sons of other dentists. There is no knowing who is who in Italy. The guest of the evening was a private soldier. He shared the honour now with Philip. The two had to stand side by side in the front, and exchange compliments, whilst Gino presided, courteous, but delightfully familiar. Philip would have a spasm of horror at the muddle he had made. But the spasm would pass, and again he would be enchanted by the kind, cheerful voices, the laughter that was never vapid, and the light caress of the arm across his back.
He could not get away till the play was nearly finished, and Edgardo was singing amongst the tombs of ancestors. His new friends hoped to see him at the Garibaldi tomorrow evening. He promised; then he remembered that if they kept to Harriet's plan he would have left Monteriano. "At ten o'clock, then," he said to Gino. "I want to speak to you alone. At ten."
"Certainly!" laughed the other.
Miss Abbott was sitting up for him when he got back. Harriet, it seemed, had gone straight to bed.
"That was he, wasn't it?" she asked.
"I suppose you didn't settle anything?"
"Why, no; how could I? The fact is--well, I got taken by surprise, but after all, what does it matter? There's no earthly reason why we shouldn't do the business pleasantly. He's a perfectly charming person, and so are his friends. I'm his friend now--his long-lost brother. What's the harm? I tell you, Miss Abbott, it's one thing for England and another for Italy. There we plan and get on high moral horses. Here we find what asses we are, for things go off quite easily, all by themselves. My hat, what a night! Did you ever see a really purple sky and really silver stars before? Well, as I was saying, it's absurd to worry; he's not a porky father. He wants that baby as little as I do. He's been ragging my dear mother--just as he ragged me eighteen months ago, and I've forgiven him. Oh, but he has a sense of humour!"
Miss Abbott, too, had a wonderful evening, nor did she ever remember such stars or such a sky. Her head, too, was full of music, and that night when she opened the window her room was filled with warm, sweet air. She was bathed in beauty within and without; she could not go to bed for happiness. Had she ever been so happy before? Yes, once before, and here, a night in March, the night Gino and Lilia had told her of their love--the night whose evil she had come now to undo.
She gave a sudden cry of shame. "This time--the same place--the same thing"--and she began to beat down her happiness, knowing it to be sinful. She was here to fight against this place, to rescue a little soul--who was innocent as yet. She was here to champion morality and purity, and the holy life of an English home. In the spring she had sinned through ignorance; she was not ignorant now. "Help me!" she cried, and shut the window as if there was magic in the encircling air. But the tunes would not go out of her head, and all night long she was troubled by torrents of music, and by applause and laughter, and angry young men who shouted the distich out of Baedeker:--
Poggibonizzi fatti in la, Che Monteriano si fa citta!
Poggibonsi was revealed to her as they sang--a joyless, straggling place, full of people who pretended. When she woke up she knew that it had been Sawston.