Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster
At about nine o'clock next morning Perfetta went out on to the loggia, not to look at the view, but to throw some dirty water at it. "Scusi tanto!" she wailed, for the water spattered a tall young lady who had for some time been tapping at the lower door.
"Is Signor Carella in?" the young lady asked. It was no business of Perfetta's to be shocked, and the style of the visitor seemed to demand the reception-room. Accordingly she opened its shutters, dusted a round patch on one of the horsehair chairs, and bade the lady do herself the inconvenience of sitting down. Then she ran into Monteriano and shouted up and down its streets until such time as her young master should hear her.
The reception-room was sacred to the dead wife. Her shiny portrait hung upon the wall--similar, doubtless, in all respects to the one which would be pasted on her tombstone. A little piece of black drapery had been tacked above the frame to lend a dignity to woe. But two of the tacks had fallen out, and the effect was now rakish, as of a drunkard's bonnet. A coon song lay open on the piano, and of the two tables one supported Baedeker's "Central Italy," the other Harriet's inlaid box. And over everything there lay a deposit of heavy white dust, which was only blown off one moment to thicken on another. It is well to be remembered with love. It is not so very dreadful to be forgotten entirely. But if we shall resent anything on earth at all, we shall resent the consecration of a deserted room.
Miss Abbott did not sit down, partly because the antimacassars might harbour fleas, partly because she had suddenly felt faint, and was glad to cling on to the funnel of the stove. She struggled with herself, for she had need to be very calm; only if she was very calm might her behaviour be justified. She had broken faith with Philip and Harriet: she was going to try for the baby before they did. If she failed she could scarcely look them in the face again.
"Harriet and her brother," she reasoned, "don't realize what is before them. She would bluster and be rude; he would be pleasant and take it as a joke. Both of them--even if they offered money--would fail. But I begin to understand the man's nature; he does not love the child, but he will be touchy about it--and that is quite as bad for us. He's charming, but he's no fool; he conquered me last year; he conquered Mr. Herriton yesterday, and if I am not careful he will conquer us all today, and the baby will grow up in Monteriano. He is terribly strong; Lilia found that out, but only I remember it now."
This attempt, and this justification of it, were the results of the long and restless night. Miss Abbott had come to believe that she alone could do battle with Gino, because she alone understood him; and she had put this, as nicely as she could, in a note which she had left for Philip. It distressed her to write such a note, partly because her education inclined her to reverence the male, partly because she had got to like Philip a good deal after their last strange interview. His pettiness would be dispersed, and as for his "unconventionality," which was so much gossiped about at Sawston, she began to see that it did not differ greatly from certain familiar notions of her own. If only he would forgive her for what she was doing now, there might perhaps be before them a long and profitable friendship. But she must succeed. No one would forgive her if she did not succeed. She prepared to do battle with the powers of evil.
The voice of her adversary was heard at last, singing fearlessly from his expanded lungs, like a professional. Herein he differed from Englishmen, who always have a little feeling against music, and sing only from the throat, apologetically. He padded upstairs, and looked in at the open door of the reception-room without seeing her. Her heart leapt and her throat was dry when he turned away and passed, still singing, into the room opposite. It is alarming not to be seen.
He had left the door of this room open, and she could see into it, right across the landing. It was in a shocking mess. Food, bedclothes, patent-leather boots, dirty plates, and knives lay strewn over a large table and on the floor. But it was the mess that comes of life, not of desolation. It was preferable to the charnel-chamber in which she was standing now, and the light in it was soft and large, as from some gracious, noble opening.
He stopped singing, and cried "Where is Perfetta?"
His back was turned, and he was lighting a cigar. He was not speaking to Miss Abbott. He could not even be expecting her. The vista of the landing and the two open doors made him both remote and significant, like an actor on the stage, intimate and unapproachable at the same time. She could no more call out to him than if he was Hamlet.
"You know!" he continued, "but you will not tell me. Exactly like you." He reclined on the table and blew a fat smoke-ring. "And why won't you tell me the numbers? I have dreamt of a red hen--that is two hundred and five, and a friend unexpected--he means eighty-two. But I try for the Terno this week. So tell me another number."
Miss Abbott did not know of the Tombola. His speech terrified her. She felt those subtle restrictions which come upon us in fatigue. Had she slept well she would have greeted him as soon as she saw him. Now it was impossible. He had got into another world.
She watched his smoke-ring. The air had carried it slowly away from him, and brought it out intact upon the landing.
"Two hundred and five--eighty-two. In any case I shall put them on Bari, not on Florence. I cannot tell you why; I have a feeling this week for Bari." Again she tried to speak. But the ring mesmerized her. It had become vast and elliptical, and floated in at the reception-room door.
"Ah! you don't care if you get the profits. You won't even say 'Thank you, Gino.' Say it, or I'll drop hot, red-hot ashes on you. 'Thank you, Gino--'"
The ring had extended its pale blue coils towards her. She lost self-control. It enveloped her. As if it was a breath from the pit, she screamed.
There he was, wanting to know what had frightened her, how she had got here, why she had never spoken. He made her sit down. He brought her wine, which she refused. She had not one word to say to him.
"What is it?" he repeated. "What has frightened you?"
He, too, was frightened, and perspiration came starting through the tan. For it is a serious thing to have been watched. We all radiate something curiously intimate when we believe ourselves to be alone.
"Business--" she said at last.
"Business with me?"
"Most important business." She was lying, white and limp, in the dusty chair.
"Before business you must get well; this is the best wine."
She refused it feebly. He poured out a glass. She drank it. As she did so she became self-conscious. However important the business, it was not proper of her to have called on him, or to accept his hospitality.
"Perhaps you are engaged," she said. "And as I am not very well--"
"You are not well enough to go back. And I am not engaged."
She looked nervously at the other room.
"Ah, now I understand," he exclaimed. "Now I see what frightened you. But why did you never speak?" And taking her into the room where he lived, he pointed to--the baby.
She had thought so much about this baby, of its welfare, its soul, its morals, its probable defects. But, like most unmarried people, she had only thought of it as a word--just as the healthy man only thinks of the word death, not of death itself. The real thing, lying asleep on a dirty rug, disconcerted her. It did not stand for a principle any longer. It was so much flesh and blood, so many inches and ounces of life--a glorious, unquestionable fact, which a man and another woman had given to the world. You could talk to it; in time it would answer you; in time it would not answer you unless it chose, but would secrete, within the compass of its body, thoughts and wonderful passions of its own. And this was the machine on which she and Mrs. Herriton and Philip and Harriet had for the last month been exercising their various ideals--had determined that in time it should move this way or that way, should accomplish this and not that. It was to be Low Church, it was to be high-principled, it was to be tactful, gentlemanly, artistic--excellent things all. Yet now that she saw this baby, lying asleep on a dirty rug, she had a great disposition not to dictate one of them, and to exert no more influence than there may be in a kiss or in the vaguest of the heartfelt prayers.
But she had practised self-discipline, and her thoughts and actions were not yet to correspond. To recover her self-esteem she tried to imagine that she was in her district, and to behave accordingly.
"What a fine child, Signor Carella. And how nice of you to talk to it. Though I see that the ungrateful little fellow is asleep! Seven months? No, eight; of course eight. Still, he is a remarkably fine child for his age."
Italian is a bad medium for condescension. The patronizing words came out gracious and sincere, and he smiled with pleasure.
"You must not stand. Let us sit on the loggia, where it is cool. I am afraid the room is very untidy," he added, with the air of a hostess who apologizes for a stray thread on the drawing-room carpet. Miss Abbott picked her way to the chair. He sat near her, astride the parapet, with one foot in the loggia and the other dangling into the view. His face was in profile, and its beautiful contours drove artfully against the misty green of the opposing hills. "Posing!" said Miss Abbott to herself. "A born artist's model."
"Mr. Herriton called yesterday," she began, "but you were out."
He started an elaborate and graceful explanation. He had gone for the day to Poggibonsi. Why had the Herritons not written to him, so that he could have received them properly? Poggibonsi would have done any day; not but what his business there was fairly important. What did she suppose that it was?
Naturally she was not greatly interested. She had not come from Sawston to guess why he had been to Poggibonsi. She answered politely that she had no idea, and returned to her mission.
"But guess!" he persisted, clapping the balustrade between his hands.
She suggested, with gentle sarcasm, that perhaps he had gone to Poggibonsi to find something to do.
He intimated that it was not as important as all that. Something to do--an almost hopeless quest! "E manca questo!" He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, to indicate that he had no money. Then he sighed, and blew another smoke-ring. Miss Abbott took heart and turned diplomatic.
"This house," she said, "is a large house."
"Exactly," was his gloomy reply. "And when my poor wife died--" He got up, went in, and walked across the landing to the reception-room door, which he closed reverently. Then he shut the door of the living-room with his foot, returned briskly to his seat, and continued his sentence. "When my poor wife died I thought of having my relatives to live here. My father wished to give up his practice at Empoli; my mother and sisters and two aunts were also willing. But it was impossible. They have their ways of doing things, and when I was younger I was content with them. But now I am a man. I have my own ways. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I do," said Miss Abbott, thinking of her own dear father, whose tricks and habits, after twenty-five years spent in their company, were beginning to get on her nerves. She remembered, though, that she was not here to sympathize with Gino--at all events, not to show that she sympathized. She also reminded herself that he was not worthy of sympathy. "It is a large house," she repeated.
"Immense; and the taxes! But it will be better when--Ah! but you have never guessed why I went to Poggibonsi--why it was that I was out when he called."
"I cannot guess, Signor Carella. I am here on business."
"I cannot; I hardly know you."
"But we are old friends," he said, "and your approval will be grateful to me. You gave it me once before. Will you give it now?"
"I have not come as a friend this time," she answered stiffly. "I am not likely, Signor Carella, to approve of anything you do."
"Oh, Signorina!" He laughed, as if he found her piquant and amusing. "Surely you approve of marriage?"
"Where there is love," said Miss Abbott, looking at him hard. His face had altered in the last year, but not for the worse, which was baffling.
"Where there is love," said he, politely echoing the English view. Then he smiled on her, expecting congratulations.
"Do I understand that you are proposing to marry again?"
"I forbid you, then!"
He looked puzzled, but took it for some foreign banter, and laughed.
"I forbid you!" repeated Miss Abbott, and all the indignation of her sex and her nationality went thrilling through the words.
"But why?" He jumped up, frowning. His voice was squeaky and petulant, like that of a child who is suddenly forbidden a toy.
"You have ruined one woman; I forbid you to ruin another. It is not a year since Lilia died. You pretended to me the other day that you loved her. It is a lie. You wanted her money. Has this woman money too?"
"Why, yes!" he said irritably. "A little."
"And I suppose you will say that you love her."
"I shall not say it. It will be untrue. Now my poor wife--" He stopped, seeing that the comparison would involve him in difficulties. And indeed he had often found Lilia as agreeable as any one else.
Miss Abbott was furious at this final insult to her dead acquaintance. She was glad that after all she could be so angry with the boy. She glowed and throbbed; her tongue moved nimbly. At the finish, if the real business of the day had been completed, she could have swept majestically from the house. But the baby still remained, asleep on a dirty rug.
Gino was thoughtful, and stood scratching his head. He respected Miss Abbott. He wished that she would respect him. "So you do not advise me?" he said dolefully. "But why should it be a failure?"
Miss Abbott tried to remember that he was really a child still--a child with the strength and the passions of a disreputable man. "How can it succeed," she said solemnly, "where there is no love?"
"But she does love me! I forgot to tell you that."
"Passionately." He laid his hand upon his own heart.
"Then God help her!"
He stamped impatiently. "Whatever I say displeases you, Signorina. God help you, for you are most unfair. You say that I ill-treated my dear wife. It is not so. I have never ill-treated any one. You complain that there is no love in this marriage. I prove that there is, and you become still more angry. What do you want? Do you suppose she will not be contented? Glad enough she is to get me, and she will do her duty well."
"Her duty!" cried Miss Abbott, with all the bitterness of which she was capable.
"Why, of course. She knows why I am marrying her."
"To succeed where Lilia failed! To be your housekeeper, your slave, you--" The words she would like to have said were too violent for her.
"To look after the baby, certainly," said he.
"The baby--?" She had forgotten it.
"It is an English marriage," he said proudly. "I do not care about the money. I am having her for my son. Did you not understand that?"
"No," said Miss Abbott, utterly bewildered. Then, for a moment, she saw light. "It is not necessary, Signor Carella. Since you are tired of the baby--"
Ever after she remembered it to her credit that she saw her mistake at once. "I don't mean that," she added quickly.
"I know," was his courteous response. "Ah, in a foreign language (and how perfectly you speak Italian) one is certain to make slips."
She looked at his face. It was apparently innocent of satire.
"You meant that we could not always be together yet, he and I. You are right. What is to be done? I cannot afford a nurse, and Perfetta is too rough. When he was ill I dare not let her touch him. When he has to be washed, which happens now and then, who does it? I. I feed him, or settle what he shall have. I sleep with him and comfort him when he is unhappy in the night. No one talks, no one may sing to him but I. Do not be unfair this time; I like to do these things. But nevertheless (his voice became pathetic) they take up a great deal of time, and are not all suitable for a young man."
"Not at all suitable," said Miss Abbott, and closed her eyes wearily. Each moment her difficulties were increasing. She wished that she was not so tired, so open to contradictory impressions. She longed for Harriet's burly obtuseness or for the soulless diplomacy of Mrs. Herriton.
"A little more wine?" asked Gino kindly.
"Oh, no, thank you! But marriage, Signor Carella, is a very serious step. Could you not manage more simply? Your relative, for example--"
"Empoli! I would as soon have him in England!"
"He has a grandmother there, you know--Mrs. Theobald."
"He has a grandmother here. No, he is troublesome, but I must have him with me. I will not even have my father and mother too. For they would separate us," he added.
"They would separate our thoughts."
She was silent. This cruel, vicious fellow knew of strange refinements. The horrible truth, that wicked people are capable of love, stood naked before her, and her moral being was abashed. It was her duty to rescue the baby, to save it from contagion, and she still meant to do her duty. But the comfortable sense of virtue left her. She was in the presence of something greater than right or wrong.
Forgetting that this was an interview, he had strolled back into the room, driven by the instinct she had aroused in him. "Wake up!" he cried to his baby, as if it was some grown-up friend. Then he lifted his foot and trod lightly on its stomach.
Miss Abbott cried, "Oh, take care!" She was unaccustomed to this method of awakening the young.
"He is not much longer than my boot, is he? Can you believe that in time his own boots will be as large? And that he also--"
"But ought you to treat him like that?"
He stood with one foot resting on the little body, suddenly musing, filled with the desire that his son should be like him, and should have sons like him, to people the earth. It is the strongest desire that can come to a man--if it comes to him at all--stronger even than love or the desire for personal immortality. All men vaunt it, and declare that it is theirs; but the hearts of most are set elsewhere. It is the exception who comprehends that physical and spiritual life may stream out of him for ever. Miss Abbott, for all her goodness, could not comprehend it, though such a thing is more within the comprehension of women. And when Gino pointed first to himself and then to his baby and said "father-son," she still took it as a piece of nursery prattle, and smiled mechanically.
The child, the first fruits, woke up and glared at her. Gino did not greet it, but continued the exposition of his policy.
"This woman will do exactly what I tell her. She is fond of children. She is clean; she has a pleasant voice. She is not beautiful; I cannot pretend that to you for a moment. But she is what I require."
The baby gave a piercing yell.
"Oh, do take care!" begged Miss Abbott. "You are squeezing it.
"It is nothing. If he cries silently then you may be frightened. He thinks I am going to wash him, and he is quite right."
"Wash him!" she cried. "You? Here?" The homely piece of news seemed to shatter all her plans. She had spent a long half-hour in elaborate approaches, in high moral attacks; she had neither frightened her enemy nor made him angry, nor interfered with the least detail of his domestic life.
"I had gone to the Farmacia," he continued, "and was sitting there comfortably, when suddenly I remembered that Perfetta had heated water an hour ago--over there, look, covered with a cushion. I came away at once, for really he must be washed. You must excuse me. I can put it off no longer."
"I have wasted your time," she said feebly.
He walked sternly to the loggia and drew from it a large earthenware bowl. It was dirty inside; he dusted it with a tablecloth. Then he fetched the hot water, which was in a copper pot. He poured it out. He added cold. He felt in his pocket and brought out a piece of soap. Then he took up the baby, and, holding his cigar between his teeth, began to unwrap it. Miss Abbott turned to go.
"But why are you going? Excuse me if I wash him while we talk."
"I have nothing more to say," said Miss Abbott. All she could do now was to find Philip, confess her miserable defeat, and bid him go in her stead and prosper better. She cursed her feebleness; she longed to expose it, without apologies or tears.
"Oh, but stop a moment!" he cried. "You have not seen him yet.
"I have seen as much as I want, thank you."
The last wrapping slid off. He held out to her in his two hands a little kicking image of bronze.
She would not touch the child.
"I must go at once," she cried; for the tears--the wrong tears--were hurrying to her eyes.
"Who would have believed his mother was blonde? For he is brown all over--brown every inch of him. Ah, but how beautiful he is! And he is mine; mine for ever. Even if he hates me he will be mine. He cannot help it; he is made out of me; I am his father."
It was too late to go. She could not tell why, but it was too late. She turned away her head when Gino lifted his son to his lips. This was something too remote from the prettiness of the nursery. The man was majestic; he was a part of Nature; in no ordinary love scene could he ever be so great. For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and--by some sad, strange irony--it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy. Gino passionately embracing, Miss Abbott reverently averting her eyes--both of them had parents whom they did not love so very much.
"May I help you to wash him?" she asked humbly.
He gave her his son without speaking, and they knelt side by side, tucking up their sleeves. The child had stopped crying, and his arms and legs were agitated by some overpowering joy. Miss Abbott had a woman's pleasure in cleaning anything--more especially when the thing was human. She understood little babies from long experience in a district, and Gino soon ceased to give her directions, and only gave her thanks.
"It is very kind of you," he murmured, "especially in your beautiful dress. He is nearly clean already. Why, I take the whole morning! There is so much more of a baby than one expects. And Perfetta washes him just as she washes clothes. Then he screams for hours. My wife is to have a light hand. Ah, how he kicks! Has he splashed you? I am very sorry."
"I am ready for a soft towel now," said Miss Abbott, who was strangely exalted by the service.
"Certainly! certainly!" He strode in a knowing way to a cupboard. But he had no idea where the soft towel was. Generally he dabbed the baby on the first dry thing. he found.
"And if you had any powder."
He struck his forehead despairingly. Apparently the stock of powder was just exhausted.
She sacrificed her own clean handkerchief. He put a chair for her on the loggia, which faced westward, and was still pleasant and cool. There she sat, with twenty miles of view behind her, and he placed the dripping baby on her knee. It shone now with health and beauty: it seemed to reflect light, like a copper vessel. Just such a baby Bellini sets languid on his mother's lap, or Signorelli flings wriggling on pavements of marble, or Lorenzo di Credi, more reverent but less divine, lays carefully among flowers, with his head upon a wisp of golden straw. For a time Gino contemplated them standing. Then, to get a better view, he knelt by the side of the chair, with his hands clasped before him.
So they were when Philip entered, and saw, to all intents and purposes, the Virgin and Child, with Donor.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed; for he was glad to find things in such cheerful trim.
She did not greet him, but rose up unsteadily and handed the baby to his father.
"No, do stop!" whispered Philip. "I got your note. I'm not offended; you're quite right. I really want you; I could never have done it alone."
No words came from her, but she raised her hands to her mouth, like one who is in sudden agony.
"Signorina, do stop a little--after all your kindness."
She burst into tears.
"What is it?" said Philip kindly.
She tried to speak, and then went away weeping bitterly.
The two men stared at each other. By a common impulse they ran on to the loggia. They were just in time to see Miss Abbott disappear among the trees.
"What is it?" asked Philip again. There was no answer, and somehow he did not want an answer. Some strange thing had happened which he could not presume to understand. He would find out from Miss Abbott, if ever he found out at all.
"Well, your business," said Gino, after a puzzled sigh.
"Our business--Miss Abbott has told you of that."
"She came for business. But she forgot about it; so did I.
Perfetta, who had a genius for missing people, now returned, loudly complaining of the size of Monteriano and the intricacies of its streets. Gino told her to watch the baby. Then he offered Philip a cigar, and they proceeded to the business.