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“The Signora had no business to do it,” said Miss Bartlett, “no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!”
“And a Cockney, besides!” said Lucy, who had been further saddened by the Signora’s unexpected accent. “It might be London.” She looked at the two rows of English people who were sitting at the table; at the row of white bottles of water and red bottles of wine that ran between the English people; at the portraits of the late Queen and the late Poet Laureate that hung behind the English people, heavily framed; at the notice of the English church (Rev. Cuthbert Eager, M. A. Oxon.), that was the only other decoration of the wall. “Charlotte, don’t you feel, too, that we might be in London? I can hardly believe that all kinds of other things are just outside. I suppose it is one’s being so tired.”
“This meat has surely been used for soup,” said Miss Bartlett, laying down her fork.
“I want so to see the Arno. The rooms the Signora promised us in her letter would have looked over the Arno. The Signora had no business to do it at all. Oh, it is a shame!”
“Any nook does for me,” Miss Bartlett continued; “but it does seem hard that you shouldn’t have a view.”
Lucy felt that she had been selfish. “Charlotte, you mustn’t spoil me: of course, you must look over the Arno, too. I meant that. The first vacant room in the front—” “You must have it,” said Miss Bartlett, part of whose travelling expenses were paid by Lucy’s mother—a piece of generosity to which she made many a tactful allusion.
“No, no. You must have it.”
“I insist on it. Your mother would never forgive me, Lucy.”
“She would never forgive me.”
The ladies’ voices grew animated, and—if the sad truth be owned—a little peevish. They were tired, and under the guise of unselfishness they wrangled. Some of their neighbours interchanged glances, and one of them—one of the ill-bred people whom one does meet abroad—leant forward over the table and actually intruded into their argument. He said:
“I have a view, I have a view.”
Miss Bartlett was startled. Generally at a pension people looked them over for a day or two before speaking, and often did not find out that they would “do” till they had gone. She knew that the intruder was ill-bred, even before she glanced at him. He was an old man, of heavy build, with a fair, shaven face and large eyes. There was something childish in those eyes, though it was not the childishness of senility. What exactly it was Miss Bartlett did not stop to consider, for her glance passed on to his clothes. These did not attract her. He was probably trying to become acquainted with them before they got into the swim. So she assumed a dazed expression when he spoke to her, and then said: “A view? Oh, a view! How delightful a view is!”
“This is my son,” said the old man; “his name’s George. He has a view too.”
“Ah,” said Miss Bartlett, repressing Lucy, who was about to speak.
“What I mean,” he continued, “is that you can have our rooms, and we’ll have yours. We’ll change.”
The better class of tourist was shocked at this, and sympathized with the new-comers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said “Thank you very much indeed; that is out of the question.”
“Why?” said the old man, with both fists on the table.
“Because it is quite out of the question, thank you.”
“You see, we don’t like to take—” began Lucy. Her cousin again repressed her.
“But why?” he persisted. “Women like looking at a view; men don’t.” And he thumped with his fists like a naughty child, and turned to his son, saying, “George, persuade them!”
“It’s so obvious they should have the rooms,” said the son. “There’s nothing else to say.”
He did not look at the ladies as he spoke, but his voice was perplexed and sorrowful. Lucy, too, was perplexed; but she saw that they were in for what is known as “quite a scene,” and she had an odd feeling that whenever these ill-bred tourists spoke the contest widened and deepened till it dealt, not with rooms and views, but with—well, with something quite different, whose existence she had not realized before. Now the old man attacked Miss Bartlett almost violently: Why should she not change? What possible objection had she? They would clear out in half an hour.
Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub any one so gross. Her face reddened with displeasure. She looked around as much as to say, “Are you all like this?” And two little old ladies, who were sitting further up the table, with shawls hanging over the backs of the chairs, looked back, clearly indicating “We are not; we are genteel.”
“Eat your dinner, dear,” she said to Lucy, and began to toy again with the meat that she had once censured.
Lucy mumbled that those seemed very odd people opposite.
“Eat your dinner, dear. This pension is a failure. To-morrow we will make a change.”
Hardly had she announced this fell decision when she reversed it. The curtains at the end of the room parted, and revealed a clergyman, stout but attractive, who hurried forward to take his place at the table, cheerfully apologizing for his lateness. Lucy, who had not yet acquired decency, at once rose to her feet, exclaiming: “Oh, oh! Why, it’s Mr. Beebe! Oh, how perfectly lovely! Oh, Charlotte, we must stop now, however bad the rooms are. Oh!”
Miss Bartlett said, with more restraint:
“How do you do, Mr. Beebe? I expect that you have forgotten us: Miss Bartlett and Miss Honeychurch, who were at Tunbridge Wells when you helped the Vicar of St. Peter’s that very cold Easter.”
The clergyman, who had the air of one on a holiday, did not remember the ladies quite as clearly as they remembered him. But he came forward pleasantly enough and accepted the chair into which he was beckoned by Lucy.
“I AM so glad to see you,” said the girl, who was in a state of spiritual starvation, and would have been glad to see the waiter if her cousin had permitted it. “Just fancy how small the world is. Summer Street, too, makes it so specially funny.”
“Miss Honeychurch lives in the parish of Summer Street,” said Miss Bartlett, filling up the gap, “and she happened to tell me in the course of conversation that you have just accepted the living—”
“Yes, I heard from mother so last week. She didn’t know that I knew you at Tunbridge Wells; but I wrote back at once, and I said: ‘Mr. Beebe is—’”
“Quite right,” said the clergyman. “I move into the Rectory at Summer Street next June. I am lucky to be appointed to such a charming neighbourhood.”
“Oh, how glad I am! The name of our house is Windy Corner.” Mr. Beebe bowed.
“There is mother and me generally, and my brother, though it’s not often we get him to ch—— The church is rather far off, I mean.”
“Lucy, dearest, let Mr. Beebe eat his dinner.”
“I am eating it, thank you, and enjoying it.”
He preferred to talk to Lucy, whose playing he remembered, rather than to Miss Bartlett, who probably remembered his sermons. He asked the girl whether she knew Florence well, and was informed at some length that she had never been there before. It is delightful to advise a newcomer, and he was first in the field. “Don’t neglect the country round,” his advice concluded. “The first fine afternoon drive up to Fiesole, and round by Settignano, or something of that sort.”
“No!” cried a voice from the top of the table. “Mr. Beebe, you are wrong. The first fine afternoon your ladies must go to Prato.”
“That lady looks so clever,” whispered Miss Bartlett to her cousin. “We are in luck.”
And, indeed, a perfect torrent of information burst on them. People told them what to see, when to see it, how to stop the electric trams, how to get rid of the beggars, how much to give for a vellum blotter, how much the place would grow upon them. The Pension Bertolini had decided, almost enthusiastically, that they would do. Whichever way they looked, kind ladies smiled and shouted at them. And above all rose the voice of the clever lady, crying: “Prato! They must go to Prato. That place is too sweetly squalid for words. I love it; I revel in shaking off the trammels of respectability, as you know.”
The young man named George glanced at the clever lady, and then returned moodily to his plate. Obviously he and his father did not do. Lucy, in the midst of her success, found time to wish they did. It gave her no extra pleasure that any one should be left in the cold; and when she rose to go, she turned back and gave the two outsiders a nervous little bow.
The father did not see it; the son acknowledged it, not by another bow, but by raising his eyebrows and smiling; he seemed to be smiling across something.
She hastened after her cousin, who had already disappeared through the curtains—curtains which smote one in the face, and seemed heavy with more than cloth. Beyond them stood the unreliable Signora, bowing good-evening to her guests, and supported by ‘Enery, her little boy, and Victorier, her daughter. It made a curious little scene, this attempt of the Cockney to convey the grace and geniality of the South. And even more curious was the drawing-room, which attempted to rival the solid comfort of a Bloomsbury boarding-house. Was this really Italy?
Miss Bartlett was already seated on a tightly stuffed arm-chair, which had the colour and the contours of a tomato. She was talking to Mr. Beebe, and as she spoke, her long narrow head drove backwards and forwards, slowly, regularly, as though she were demolishing some invisible obstacle. “We are most grateful to you,” she was saying. “The first evening means so much. When you arrived we were in for a peculiarly mauvais quart d’heure.”
He expressed his regret.
“Do you, by any chance, know the name of an old man who sat opposite us at dinner?”
“Is he a friend of yours?”
“We are friendly—as one is in pensions.”
“Then I will say no more.”
He pressed her very slightly, and she said more.
“I am, as it were,” she concluded, “the chaperon of my young cousin, Lucy, and it would be a serious thing if I put her under an obligation to people of whom we know nothing. His manner was somewhat unfortunate. I hope I acted for the best.”
“You acted very naturally,” said he. He seemed thoughtful, and after a few moments added: “All the same, I don’t think much harm would have come of accepting.”
“No harm, of course. But we could not be under an obligation.”
“He is rather a peculiar man.” Again he hesitated, and then said gently: “I think he would not take advantage of your acceptance, nor expect you to show gratitude. He has the merit—if it is one—of saying exactly what he means. He has rooms he does not value, and he thinks you would value them. He no more thought of putting you under an obligation than he thought of being polite. It is so difficult—at least, I find it difficult—to understand people who speak the truth.”
Lucy was pleased, and said: “I was hoping that he was nice; I do so always hope that people will be nice.”
“I think he is; nice and tiresome. I differ from him on almost every point of any importance, and so, I expect—I may say I hope—you will differ. But his is a type one disagrees with rather than deplores. When he first came here he not unnaturally put people’s backs up. He has no tact and no manners—I don’t mean by that that he has bad manners—and he will not keep his opinions to himself. We nearly complained about him to our depressing Signora, but I am glad to say we thought better of it.”
“Am I to conclude,” said Miss Bartlett, “that he is a Socialist?”
Mr. Beebe accepted the convenient word, not without a slight twitching of the lips.
“And presumably he has brought up his son to be a Socialist, too?”
“I hardly know George, for he hasn’t learnt to talk yet. He seems a nice creature, and I think he has brains. Of course, he has all his father’s mannerisms, and it is quite possible that he, too, may be a Socialist.”
“Oh, you relieve me,” said Miss Bartlett. “So you think I ought to have accepted their offer? You feel I have been narrow-minded and suspicious?”
“Not at all,” he answered; “I never suggested that.”
“But ought I not to apologize, at all events, for my apparent rudeness?”
He replied, with some irritation, that it would be quite unnecessary, and got up from his seat to go to the smoking-room.
“Was I a bore?” said Miss Bartlett, as soon as he had disappeared. “Why didn’t you talk, Lucy? He prefers young people, I’m sure. I do hope I haven’t monopolized him. I hoped you would have him all the evening, as well as all dinner-time.”
“He is nice,” exclaimed Lucy. “Just what I remember. He seems to see good in every one. No one would take him for a clergyman.”
“My dear Lucia—”
“Well, you know what I mean. And you know how clergymen generally laugh; Mr. Beebe laughs just like an ordinary man.”
“Funny girl! How you do remind me of your mother. I wonder if she will approve of Mr. Beebe.”
“I’m sure she will; and so will Freddy.”
“I think every one at Windy Corner will approve; it is the fashionable world. I am used to Tunbridge Wells, where we are all hopelessly behind the times.”
“Yes,” said Lucy despondently.
There was a haze of disapproval in the air, but whether the disapproval was of herself, or of Mr. Beebe, or of the fashionable world at Windy Corner, or of the narrow world at Tunbridge Wells, she could not determine. She tried to locate it, but as usual she blundered. Miss Bartlett sedulously denied disapproving of any one, and added “I am afraid you are finding me a very depressing companion.”
And the girl again thought: “I must have been selfish or unkind; I must be more careful. It is so dreadful for Charlotte, being poor.”
Fortunately one of the little old ladies, who for some time had been smiling very benignly, now approached and asked if she might be allowed to sit where Mr. Beebe had sat. Permission granted, she began to chatter gently about Italy, the plunge it had been to come there, the gratifying success of the plunge, the improvement in her sister’s health, the necessity of closing the bed-room windows at night, and of thoroughly emptying the water-bottles in the morning. She handled her subjects agreeably, and they were, perhaps, more worthy of attention than the high discourse upon Guelfs and Ghibellines which was proceeding tempestuously at the other end of the room. It was a real catastrophe, not a mere episode, that evening of hers at Venice, when she had found in her bedroom something that is one worse than a flea, though one better than something else.
“But here you are as safe as in England. Signora Bertolini is so English.”
“Yet our rooms smell,” said poor Lucy. “We dread going to bed.”
“Ah, then you look into the court.” She sighed. “If only Mr. Emerson was more tactful! We were so sorry for you at dinner.”
“I think he was meaning to be kind.”
“Undoubtedly he was,” said Miss Bartlett.
“Mr. Beebe has just been scolding me for my suspicious nature. Of course, I was holding back on my cousin’s account.”
“Of course,” said the little old lady; and they murmured that one could not be too careful with a young girl.
Lucy tried to look demure, but could not help feeling a great fool. No one was careful with her at home; or, at all events, she had not noticed it.
“About old Mr. Emerson—I hardly know. No, he is not tactful; yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time—beautiful?”
“Beautiful?” said Miss Bartlett, puzzled at the word. “Are not beauty and delicacy the same?”
“So one would have thought,” said the other helplessly. “But things are so difficult, I sometimes think.”
She proceeded no further into things, for Mr. Beebe reappeared, looking extremely pleasant.
“Miss Bartlett,” he cried, “it’s all right about the rooms. I’m so glad. Mr. Emerson was talking about it in the smoking-room, and knowing what I did, I encouraged him to make the offer again. He has let me come and ask you. He would be so pleased.”
“Oh, Charlotte,” cried Lucy to her cousin, “we must have the rooms now. The old man is just as nice and kind as he can be.”
Miss Bartlett was silent.
“I fear,” said Mr. Beebe, after a pause, “that I have been officious. I must apologize for my interference.”
Gravely displeased, he turned to go. Not till then did Miss Bartlett reply: “My own wishes, dearest Lucy, are unimportant in comparison with yours. It would be hard indeed if I stopped you doing as you liked at Florence, when I am only here through your kindness. If you wish me to turn these gentlemen out of their rooms, I will do it. Would you then, Mr. Beebe, kindly tell Mr. Emerson that I accept his kind offer, and then conduct him to me, in order that I may thank him personally?”
She raised her voice as she spoke; it was heard all over the drawing-room, and silenced the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. The clergyman, inwardly cursing the female sex, bowed, and departed with her message.
“Remember, Lucy, I alone am implicated in this. I do not wish the acceptance to come from you. Grant me that, at all events.”
Mr. Beebe was back, saying rather nervously:
“Mr. Emerson is engaged, but here is his son instead.”
The young man gazed down on the three ladies, who felt seated on the floor, so low were their chairs.
“My father,” he said, “is in his bath, so you cannot thank him personally. But any message given by you to me will be given by me to him as soon as he comes out.”
Miss Bartlett was unequal to the bath. All her barbed civilities came forth wrong end first. Young Mr. Emerson scored a notable triumph to the delight of Mr. Beebe and to the secret delight of Lucy.
“Poor young man!” said Miss Bartlett, as soon as he had gone.
“How angry he is with his father about the rooms! It is all he can do to keep polite.”
“In half an hour or so your rooms will be ready,” said Mr. Beebe. Then looking rather thoughtfully at the two cousins, he retired to his own rooms, to write up his philosophic diary.
“Oh, dear!” breathed the little old lady, and shuddered as if all the winds of heaven had entered the apartment. “Gentlemen sometimes do not realize—” Her voice faded away, but Miss Bartlett seemed to understand and a conversation developed, in which gentlemen who did not thoroughly realize played a principal part. Lucy, not realizing either, was reduced to literature. Taking up Baedeker’s Handbook to Northern Italy, she committed to memory the most important dates of Florentine History. For she was determined to enjoy herself on the morrow. Thus the half-hour crept profitably away, and at last Miss Bartlett rose with a sigh, and said:
“I think one might venture now. No, Lucy, do not stir. I will superintend the move.”
“How you do do everything,” said Lucy.
“Naturally, dear. It is my affair.”
“But I would like to help you.”
Charlotte’s energy! And her unselfishness! She had been thus all her life, but really, on this Italian tour, she was surpassing herself. So Lucy felt, or strove to feel. And yet—there was a rebellious spirit in her which wondered whether the acceptance might not have been less delicate and more beautiful. At all events, she entered her own room without any feeling of joy.
“I want to explain,” said Miss Bartlett, “why it is that I have taken the largest room. Naturally, of course, I should have given it to you; but I happen to know that it belongs to the young man, and I was sure your mother would not like it.”
Lucy was bewildered.
“If you are to accept a favour it is more suitable you should be under an obligation to his father than to him. I am a woman of the world, in my small way, and I know where things lead to. However, Mr. Beebe is a guarantee of a sort that they will not presume on this.”
“Mother wouldn’t mind I’m sure,” said Lucy, but again had the sense of larger and unsuspected issues.
Miss Bartlett only sighed, and enveloped her in a protecting embrace as she wished her good-night. It gave Lucy the sensation of a fog, and when she reached her own room she opened the window and breathed the clean night air, thinking of the kind old man who had enabled her to see the lights dancing in the Arno and the cypresses of San Miniato, and the foot-hills of the Apennines, black against the rising moon.
Miss Bartlett, in her room, fastened the window-shutters and locked the door, and then made a tour of the apartment to see where the cupboards led, and whether there were any oubliettes or secret entrances. It was then that she saw, pinned up over the washstand, a sheet of paper on which was scrawled an enormous note of interrogation. Nothing more.
“What does it mean?” she thought, and she examined it carefully by the light of a candle. Meaningless at first, it gradually became menacing, obnoxious, portentous with evil. She was seized with an impulse to destroy it, but fortunately remembered that she had no right to do so, since it must be the property of young Mr. Emerson. So she unpinned it carefully, and put it between two pieces of blotting-paper to keep it clean for him. Then she completed her inspection of the room, sighed heavily according to her habit, and went to bed.
It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.
Over the river men were at work with spades and sieves on the sandy foreshore, and on the river was a boat, also diligently employed for some mysterious end. An electric tram came rushing underneath the window. No one was inside it, except one tourist; but its platforms were overflowing with Italians, who preferred to stand. Children tried to hang on behind, and the conductor, with no malice, spat in their faces to make them let go. Then soldiers appeared—good-looking, undersized men—wearing each a knapsack covered with mangy fur, and a great-coat which had been cut for some larger soldier. Beside them walked officers, looking foolish and fierce, and before them went little boys, turning somersaults in time with the band. The tramcar became entangled in their ranks, and moved on painfully, like a caterpillar in a swarm of ants. One of the little boys fell down, and some white bullocks came out of an archway. Indeed, if it had not been for the good advice of an old man who was selling button-hooks, the road might never have got clear.
Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it. So it was as well that Miss Bartlett should tap and come in, and having commented on Lucy’s leaving the door unlocked, and on her leaning out of the window before she was fully dressed, should urge her to hasten herself, or the best of the day would be gone. By the time Lucy was ready her cousin had done her breakfast, and was listening to the clever lady among the crumbs.
A conversation then ensued, on not unfamiliar lines. Miss Bartlett was, after all, a wee bit tired, and thought they had better spend the morning settling in; unless Lucy would at all like to go out? Lucy would rather like to go out, as it was her first day in Florence, but, of course, she could go alone. Miss Bartlett could not allow this. Of course she would accompany Lucy everywhere. Oh, certainly not; Lucy would stop with her cousin. Oh, no! that would never do. Oh, yes!
At this point the clever lady broke in.
“If it is Mrs. Grundy who is troubling you, I do assure you that you can neglect the good person. Being English, Miss Honeychurch will be perfectly safe. Italians understand. A dear friend of mine, Contessa Baroncelli, has two daughters, and when she cannot send a maid to school with them, she lets them go in sailor-hats instead. Every one takes them for English, you see, especially if their hair is strained tightly behind.”
Miss Bartlett was unconvinced by the safety of Contessa Baroncelli’s daughters. She was determined to take Lucy herself, her head not being so very bad. The clever lady then said that she was going to spend a long morning in Santa Croce, and if Lucy would come too, she would be delighted.
“I will take you by a dear dirty back way, Miss Honeychurch, and if you bring me luck, we shall have an adventure.”
Lucy said that this was most kind, and at once opened the Baedeker, to see where Santa Croce was.
“Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touch the surface of things. As to the true Italy—he does not even dream of it. The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”
This sounded very interesting, and Lucy hurried over her breakfast, and started with her new friend in high spirits. Italy was coming at last. The Cockney Signora and her works had vanished like a bad dream.
Miss Lavish—for that was the clever lady’s name—turned to the right along the sunny Lung’ Arno. How delightfully warm! But a wind down the side streets cut like a knife, didn’t it? Ponte alle Grazie—particularly interesting, mentioned by Dante. San Miniato—beautiful as well as interesting; the crucifix that kissed a murderer—Miss Honeychurch would remember the story. The men on the river were fishing. (Untrue; but then, so is most information.) Then Miss Lavish darted under the archway of the white bullocks, and she stopped, and she cried:
“A smell! a true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell.”
“Is it a very nice smell?” said Lucy, who had inherited from her mother a distaste to dirt.
“One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,” was the retort; “one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!” bowing right and left. “Look at that adorable wine-cart! How the driver stares at us, dear, simple soul!”
So Miss Lavish proceeded through the streets of the city of Florence, short, fidgety, and playful as a kitten, though without a kitten’s grace. It was a treat for the girl to be with any one so clever and so cheerful; and a blue military cloak, such as an Italian officer wears, only increased the sense of festivity.
“Buon giorno! Take the word of an old woman, Miss Lucy: you will never repent of a little civility to your inferiors. That is the true democracy. Though I am a real Radical as well. There, now you’re shocked.”
“Indeed, I’m not!” exclaimed Lucy. “We are Radicals, too, out and out. My father always voted for Mr. Gladstone, until he was so dreadful about Ireland.”
“I see, I see. And now you have gone over to the enemy.”
“Oh, please—! If my father was alive, I am sure he would vote Radical again now that Ireland is all right. And as it is, the glass over our front door was broken last election, and Freddy is sure it was the Tories; but mother says nonsense, a tramp.”
“Shameful! A manufacturing district, I suppose?”
“No—in the Surrey hills. About five miles from Dorking, looking over the Weald.”
Miss Lavish seemed interested, and slackened her trot.
“What a delightful part; I know it so well. It is full of the very nicest people. Do you know Sir Harry Otway—a Radical if ever there was?”
“Very well indeed.”
“And old Mrs. Butterworth the philanthropist?” “Why, she rents a field of us! How funny!”
Miss Lavish looked at the narrow ribbon of sky, and murmured: “Oh, you have property in Surrey?”
“Hardly any,” said Lucy, fearful of being thought a snob. “Only thirty acres—just the garden, all downhill, and some fields.”
Miss Lavish was not disgusted, and said it was just the size of her aunt’s Suffolk estate. Italy receded. They tried to remember the last name of Lady Louisa some one, who had taken a house near Summer Street the other year, but she had not liked it, which was odd of her. And just as Miss Lavish had got the name, she broke off and exclaimed:
“Bless us! Bless us and save us! We’ve lost the way.”
Certainly they had seemed a long time in reaching Santa Croce, the tower of which had been plainly visible from the landing window. But Miss Lavish had said so much about knowing her Florence by heart, that Lucy had followed her with no misgivings.
“Lost! lost! My dear Miss Lucy, during our political diatribes we have taken a wrong turning. How those horrid Conservatives would jeer at us! What are we to do? Two lone females in an unknown town. Now, this is what I call an adventure.”
Lucy, who wanted to see Santa Croce, suggested, as a possible solution, that they should ask the way there.
“Oh, but that is the word of a craven! And no, you are not, not, NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift.”
Accordingly they drifted through a series of those grey-brown streets, neither commodious nor picturesque, in which the eastern quarter of the city abounds. Lucy soon lost interest in the discontent of Lady Louisa, and became discontented herself. For one ravishing moment Italy appeared. She stood in the Square of the Annunziata and saw in the living terra-cotta those divine babies whom no cheap reproduction can ever stale. There they stood, with their shining limbs bursting from the garments of charity, and their strong white arms extended against circlets of heaven. Lucy thought she had never seen anything more beautiful; but Miss Lavish, with a shriek of dismay, dragged her forward, declaring that they were out of their path now by at least a mile.
The hour was approaching at which the continental breakfast begins, or rather ceases, to tell, and the ladies bought some hot chestnut paste out of a little shop, because it looked so typical. It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown. But it gave them strength to drift into another Piazza, large and dusty, on the farther side of which rose a black-and-white facade of surpassing ugliness. Miss Lavish spoke to it dramatically. It was Santa Croce. The adventure was over.
“Stop a minute; let those two people go on, or I shall have to speak to them. I do detest conventional intercourse. Nasty! they are going into the church, too. Oh, the Britisher abroad!”
“We sat opposite them at dinner last night. They have given us their rooms. They were so very kind.”
“Look at their figures!” laughed Miss Lavish. “They walk through my Italy like a pair of cows. It’s very naughty of me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it.”
“What would you ask us?”
Miss Lavish laid her hand pleasantly on Lucy’s arm, as if to suggest that she, at all events, would get full marks. In this exalted mood they reached the steps of the great church, and were about to enter it when Miss Lavish stopped, squeaked, flung up her arms, and cried:
“There goes my local-colour box! I must have a word with him!”
And in a moment she was away over the Piazza, her military cloak flapping in the wind; nor did she slacken speed till she caught up an old man with white whiskers, and nipped him playfully upon the arm.
Lucy waited for nearly ten minutes. Then she began to get tired. The beggars worried her, the dust blew in her eyes, and she remembered that a young girl ought not to loiter in public places. She descended slowly into the Piazza with the intention of rejoining Miss Lavish, who was really almost too original. But at that moment Miss Lavish and her local-colour box moved also, and disappeared down a side street, both gesticulating largely. Tears of indignation came to Lucy’s eyes partly because Miss Lavish had jilted her, partly because she had taken her Baedeker. How could she find her way home? How could she find her way about in Santa Croce? Her first morning was ruined, and she might never be in Florence again. A few minutes ago she had been all high spirits, talking as a woman of culture, and half persuading herself that she was full of originality. Now she entered the church depressed and humiliated, not even able to remember whether it was built by the Franciscans or the Dominicans. Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.
Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy. She puzzled out the Italian notices—the notices that forbade people to introduce dogs into the church—the notice that prayed people, in the interest of health and out of respect to the sacred edifice in which they found themselves, not to spit. She watched the tourists; their noses were as red as their Baedekers, so cold was Santa Croce. She beheld the horrible fate that overtook three Papists—two he-babies and a she-baby—who began their career by sousing each other with the Holy Water, and then proceeded to the Machiavelli memorial, dripping but hallowed. Advancing towards it very slowly and from immense distances, they touched the stone with their fingers, with their handkerchiefs, with their heads, and then retreated. What could this mean? They did it again and again. Then Lucy realized that they had mistaken Machiavelli for some saint, hoping to acquire virtue. Punishment followed quickly. The smallest he-baby stumbled over one of the sepulchral slabs so much admired by Mr. Ruskin, and entangled his feet in the features of a recumbent bishop. Protestant as she was, Lucy darted forward. She was too late. He fell heavily upon the prelate’s upturned toes.
“Hateful bishop!” exclaimed the voice of old Mr. Emerson, who had darted forward also. “Hard in life, hard in death. Go out into the sunshine, little boy, and kiss your hand to the sun, for that is where you ought to be. Intolerable bishop!”
The child screamed frantically at these words, and at these dreadful people who picked him up, dusted him, rubbed his bruises, and told him not to be superstitious.
“Look at him!” said Mr. Emerson to Lucy. “Here’s a mess: a baby hurt, cold, and frightened! But what else can you expect from a church?”
The child’s legs had become as melting wax. Each time that old Mr. Emerson and Lucy set it erect it collapsed with a roar. Fortunately an Italian lady, who ought to have been saying her prayers, came to the rescue. By some mysterious virtue, which mothers alone possess, she stiffened the little boy’s back-bone and imparted strength to his knees. He stood. Still gibbering with agitation, he walked away.
“You are a clever woman,” said Mr. Emerson. “You have done more than all the relics in the world. I am not of your creed, but I do believe in those who make their fellow-creatures happy. There is no scheme of the universe—”
He paused for a phrase.
“Niente,” said the Italian lady, and returned to her prayers.
“I’m not sure she understands English,” suggested Lucy.
In her chastened mood she no longer despised the Emersons. She was determined to be gracious to them, beautiful rather than delicate, and, if possible, to erase Miss Bartlett’s civility by some gracious reference to the pleasant rooms.
“That woman understands everything,” was Mr. Emerson’s reply. “But what are you doing here? Are you doing the church? Are you through with the church?”
“No,” cried Lucy, remembering her grievance. “I came here with Miss Lavish, who was to explain everything; and just by the door—it is too bad!—she simply ran away, and after waiting quite a time, I had to come in by myself.”
“Why shouldn’t you?” said Mr. Emerson.
“Yes, why shouldn’t you come by yourself?” said the son, addressing the young lady for the first time.
“But Miss Lavish has even taken away Baedeker.”
“Baedeker?” said Mr. Emerson. “I’m glad it’s THAT you minded. It’s worth minding, the loss of a Baedeker. THAT’S worth minding.”
Lucy was puzzled. She was again conscious of some new idea, and was not sure whither it would lead her.
“If you’ve no Baedeker,” said the son, “you’d better join us.” Was this where the idea would lead? She took refuge in her dignity.
“Thank you very much, but I could not think of that. I hope you do not suppose that I came to join on to you. I really came to help with the child, and to thank you for so kindly giving us your rooms last night. I hope that you have not been put to any great inconvenience.”
“My dear,” said the old man gently, “I think that you are repeating what you have heard older people say. You are pretending to be touchy; but you are not really. Stop being so tiresome, and tell me instead what part of the church you want to see. To take you to it will be a real pleasure.”