A Room With A View – Fourth Chapter – read online
A Room With A View By E. M. Forster – Chapter IV Fourth Chapter
Mr. Beebe was right. Lucy never knew her desires so clearly as after music. She had not really appreciated the clergyman’s wit, nor the suggestive twitterings of Miss Alan. Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram. This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.
There is much that is immortal in this medieval lady. The dragons have gone, and so have the knights, but still she lingers in our midst. She reigned in many an early Victorian castle, and was Queen of much early Victorian song. It is sweet to protect her in the intervals of business, sweet to pay her honour when she has cooked our dinner well. But alas! the creature grows degenerate. In her heart also there are springing up strange desires. She too is enamoured of heavy winds, and vast panoramas, and green expanses of the sea. She has marked the kingdom of this world, how full it is of wealth, and beauty, and war—a radiant crust, built around the central fires, spinning towards the receding heavens. Men, declaring that she inspires them to it, move joyfully over the surface, having the most delightful meetings with other men, happy, not because they are masculine, but because they are alive. Before the show breaks up she would like to drop the august title of the Eternal Woman, and go there as her transitory self.
Lucy does not stand for the medieval lady, who was rather an ideal to which she was bidden to lift her eyes when feeling serious. Nor has she any system of revolt. Here and there a restriction annoyed her particularly, and she would transgress it, and perhaps be sorry that she had done so. This afternoon she was peculiarly restive. She would really like to do something of which her well-wishers disapproved. As she might not go on the electric tram, she went to Alinari’s shop.
There she bought a photograph of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Venus, being a pity, spoilt the picture, otherwise so charming, and Miss Bartlett had persuaded her to do without it. (A pity in art of course signified the nude.) Giorgione’s “Tempesta,” the “Idolino,” some of the Sistine frescoes and the Apoxyomenos, were added to it. She felt a little calmer then, and bought Fra Angelico’s “Coronation,” Giotto’s “Ascension of St. John,” some Della Robbia babies, and some Guido Reni Madonnas. For her taste was catholic, and she extended uncritical approval to every well-known name.
But though she spent nearly seven lire, the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. She was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. “The world,” she thought, “is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.” It was not surprising that Mrs. Honeychurch disapproved of music, declaring that it always left her daughter peevish, unpractical, and touchy.
“Nothing ever happens to me,” she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein many a deity, shadowy, but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality—the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.
She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky. Its brightness mesmerized her, still dancing before her eyes when she bent them to the ground and started towards home.
Then something did happen.
Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. “Cinque lire,” they had cried, “cinque lire!” They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.
That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain. Mr. George Emerson happened to be a few paces away, looking at her across the spot where the man had been. How very odd! Across something. Even as she caught sight of him he grew dim; the palace itself grew dim, swayed above her, fell on to her softly, slowly, noiselessly, and the sky fell with it.
She thought: “Oh, what have I done?”
“Oh, what have I done?” she murmured, and opened her eyes.
George Emerson still looked at her, but not across anything. She had complained of dullness, and lo! one man was stabbed, and another held her in his arms.
They were sitting on some steps in the Uffizi Arcade. He must have carried her. He rose when she spoke, and began to dust his knees. She repeated:
“Oh, what have I done?”
“I—I am very sorry.”
“How are you now?”
“Perfectly well—absolutely well.” And she began to nod and smile.
“Then let us come home. There’s no point in our stopping.”
He held out his hand to pull her up. She pretended not to see it. The cries from the fountain—they had never ceased—rang emptily. The whole world seemed pale and void of its original meaning.
“How very kind you have been! I might have hurt myself falling. But now I am well. I can go alone, thank you.”
His hand was still extended.
“Oh, my photographs!” she exclaimed suddenly.
“I bought some photographs at Alinari’s. I must have dropped them out there in the square.” She looked at him cautiously. “Would you add to your kindness by fetching them?”
He added to his kindness. As soon as he had turned his back, Lucy arose with the running of a maniac and stole down the arcade towards the Arno.
She stopped with her hand on her heart.
“You sit still; you aren’t fit to go home alone.”
“Yes, I am, thank you so very much.”
“No, you aren’t. You’d go openly if you were.”
“But I had rather—”
“Then I don’t fetch your photographs.”
“I had rather be alone.”
He said imperiously: “The man is dead—the man is probably dead; sit down till you are rested.” She was bewildered, and obeyed him. “And don’t move till I come back.”
In the distance she saw creatures with black hoods, such as appear in dreams. The palace tower had lost the reflection of the declining day, and joined itself to earth. How should she talk to Mr. Emerson when he returned from the shadowy square? Again the thought occurred to her, “Oh, what have I done?”—the thought that she, as well as the dying man, had crossed some spiritual boundary.
He returned, and she talked of the murder. Oddly enough, it was an easy topic. She spoke of the Italian character; she became almost garrulous over the incident that had made her faint five minutes before. Being strong physically, she soon overcame the horror of blood. She rose without his assistance, and though wings seemed to flutter inside her, she walked firmly enough towards the Arno. There a cabman signalled to them; they refused him.
“And the murderer tried to kiss him, you say—how very odd Italians are!—and gave himself up to the police! Mr. Beebe was saying that Italians know everything, but I think they are rather childish. When my cousin and I were at the Pitti yesterday—What was that?”
He had thrown something into the stream.
“What did you throw in?”
“Things I didn’t want,” he said crossly.
“Where are the photographs?”
He was silent.
“I believe it was my photographs that you threw away.”
“I didn’t know what to do with them,” he cried, and his voice was that of an anxious boy. Her heart warmed towards him for the first time. “They were covered with blood. There! I’m glad I’ve told you; and all the time we were making conversation I was wondering what to do with them.” He pointed down-stream. “They’ve gone.” The river swirled under the bridge, “I did mind them so, and one is so foolish, it seemed better that they should go out to the sea—I don’t know; I may just mean that they frightened me.” Then the boy verged into a man. “For something tremendous has happened; I must face it without getting muddled. It isn’t exactly that a man has died.”
Something warned Lucy that she must stop him.
“It has happened,” he repeated, “and I mean to find out what it is.”
He turned towards her frowning, as if she had disturbed him in some abstract quest.
“I want to ask you something before we go in.”
They were close to their pension. She stopped and leant her elbows against the parapet of the embankment. He did likewise. There is at times a magic in identity of position; it is one of the things that have suggested to us eternal comradeship. She moved her elbows before saying:
“I have behaved ridiculously.”
He was following his own thoughts.
“I was never so much ashamed of myself in my life; I cannot think what came over me.”
“I nearly fainted myself,” he said; but she felt that her attitude repelled him.
“Well, I owe you a thousand apologies.”
“Oh, all right.”
“And—this is the real point—you know how silly people are gossiping—ladies especially, I am afraid—you understand what I mean?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“I mean, would you not mention it to any one, my foolish behaviour?”
“Your behaviour? Oh, yes, all right—all right.”
“Thank you so much. And would you—”
She could not carry her request any further. The river was rushing below them, almost black in the advancing night. He had thrown her photographs into it, and then he had told her the reason. It struck her that it was hopeless to look for chivalry in such a man. He would do her no harm by idle gossip; he was trustworthy, intelligent, and even kind; he might even have a high opinion of her. But he lacked chivalry; his thoughts, like his behaviour, would not be modified by awe. It was useless to say to him, “And would you—” and hope that he would complete the sentence for himself, averting his eyes from her nakedness like the knight in that beautiful picture. She had been in his arms, and he remembered it, just as he remembered the blood on the photographs that she had bought in Alinari’s shop. It was not exactly that a man had died; something had happened to the living: they had come to a situation where character tells, and where childhood enters upon the branching paths of Youth.
“Well, thank you so much,” she repeated, “How quickly these accidents do happen, and then one returns to the old life!”
Anxiety moved her to question him.
His answer was puzzling: “I shall probably want to live.”
“But why, Mr. Emerson? What do you mean?”
“I shall want to live, I say.”
Leaning her elbows on the parapet, she contemplated the River Arno, whose roar was suggesting some unexpected melody to her ears.
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