George stood by the window, watching the grey, wet London street. The city was empty as only a city can be – filled with people, but not the ones you want. Behind him, the cold fireplace was a black, gaping mouth, open in a silent cry. He leaned his head against the window frame and thought of his father, waiting in the rectory at Summer Street for George to come and take him back to town.
When the pleasant afternoon at Windy Corner had dissolved into disaster, George had told his father the whole story from its grisly beginning. All of it, from the man who had been stabbed and the blood-stained photographs that had been thrown in the river, to the kiss on a sun-drenched hillside, the second kiss on a pathway among shrubbery, and the fruitless conversation in a room that was dark with heavy furniture and clouded emotion.
How many times had that last scene played in his head? Dusk falling, Miss Bartlett a grey silhouette against the evening sky, Lucy talking herself into believing her own words…
How could she even contemplate marrying someone like Cecil Vyse? What would a girl like Lucy become, married to a man like that, a man who delighted in thwarting people? There were no colours in, on or around Cecil, George thought, and no depth to him. He looked like ink on paper, back straight and head high, walking through life oblivious of softness and beauty and light – all the things that Lucy was. The only beauty Cecil could understand and appreciate was the dead and perfected kind, arranged by an artist's hand on canvas or contained in black letters on a printed page. Life, with its irregularities, illogical turns and occasionally unpleasant surprises, did not interest him. It could not be controlled.
George closed his eyes. The radiant light on that hillside in Italy would never return. Lucy was lost to a life wrapped in layers of pretence; George was lost in the terrifying darkness of the soul.
The cab halted outside the rectory and George asked the driver to wait. When Mr Beebe opened the door, his usually so amiable face was hard and pale.
"Mr Emerson is in the study," was all he said before disappearing up the stairs.
Bemused by this cool greeting, George went to find his father. Mr Emerson, too, looked very different, not distant and disheartened like a week ago.
"George," he called from the depth of an armchair, "come and sit! You must be tired, and damp. This dreadful weather!"
"The cab's waiting," said George stiffly, his lips cold. He did not want to stay a second longer than necessary. "We should go."
"Send it off!" cried Mr Emerson, waving an impatient hand. "And then sit down and listen."
No argument would have the least effect, George knew from experience, so he sat opposite his father, leaning forward to see the old man's face. There was softness in Mr Emerson's eyes as he reached out and touched his son's hand.
"Miss Honeychurch has broken off her engagement," he said, "and Mr Vyse has returned to London."
Firelight danced over book-clad walls, rain pattered on the window, but to George everything suddenly seemed incomprehensible. There was a roaring silence in his head and he stared at his father without seeing him, without understanding, without understanding anything at all.
"Dear boy, you're not going to faint?" Mr Emerson's voice seemed to come from a great distance. He stared anxiously at George and went on, talking his son back into the room: "Miss Honeychurch is very upset, but only, I think, because she has been in a muddle and now sees things clearly. Go and talk to the poor girl, George! Make sure there is no more muddle."
The rain had stopped. When George climbed the steep hill to Windy Corner, listening to the wind in trees and bracken, the sun broke through the clouds and the whole wet world began to sparkle. George took this as a good omen, as Fate giving its approval.
The hall was dark after the sudden brilliance outside, and music came drifting from somewhere in the house. As Euphemia stepped aside to let George in, Freddy appeared, unsmiling and oddly wooden-faced.
"Oh, Emerson," he said. "I suppose you want Lucy."
"Yes," George admitted.
Freddy nodded towards the end of the hall and was gone. George went in search of the music. It was soft and sad, less dreamlike and intriguing than when he had heard her play from Armide on that terrible afternoon, and completely unlike her music in Italy, where it had always been rebellious and triumphant. Her music in England seemed tentative and uncertain, as though she had begun to doubt who she was and tried to find her way back, to find a reliable path through dark woods.
She looked up to say something as he entered the room, but stopped and blushed deeply when she saw who it was. For a moment he could only look at her. Sunlight flowed in from the window, softer than the brightness on the hillside in Florence, but she was as desirable to him now as she had been then – more, for they had both wandered through the dark since then, and this was where they emerged from it.
Her fingers were still on the keys when he crossed the room, but as he sat down beside her on the piano stool she placed her hands demurely in her lap. Neither of them spoke.
Three is an enchanted number, and this time, the third, they would find happiness. The sunlight gave her a golden halo as he took her face in his hands and kissed her.
Lucy was dressed in white as she had been on the day of their outing to Fiesole, and walking along the path to the Sacred Lake on this sunny autumn afternoon she felt that this was where everything converged. Everything in her life for the past six months had been pointing to this moment. The white dress; Cecil walking behind her on this same path; George, wet and naked, whooping in the face of glumness – and Lucy bowing across the rubbish that cumbers the world.
Walking here with George was entirely different. With Cecil she had always been aware of a faint discord, always been anxious about living up to expectations. She was not, after all, a Leonardo, and tended to say the wrong things. Honeychurch things. George listened where Cecil poked fun, and walked through the woods with ease and a natural presence that Cecil never found in any settings or circumstances, because he would only see things in relation to himself. George could look at the world with humility while quietly taking his place in it. His battles with the universe were behind him.
The recent rains had made the pond flood the surrounding grass the way it had on the day George had bathed here with Freddy and Mr Beebe, but the green of the woods had changed into fiery red and deep gold. The day was unseasonably warm, and George had left his jacket at home. Lucy watched him crouch by the water's edge to dip a hand into the pool. Sunlight played on his hair; the white linen shirt was stretched taut over his shoulders.
His beauty had awakened a strange, deep desire within her, that worried her and kept her turning restlessly in bed at night. It would not, she was sure, be considered "proper" by Charlotte's or anyone's standards – possibly when they were married, but certainly not before. Not here, not like this, not alone with him in the woods.
George stood up and smiled at her. "The first thing Freddy ever said to me was 'come and have a bathe'."
"Freddy has never been a brilliant conversationalist."
"Oh, Mr Beebe and I thought it was an excellent conversational opening – and look where it's taken us!" He came up to her and kissed her. "You used to bathe here, too, Freddy told me, when you were both children."
"Yes. Until I was found out. Charlotte thought it most improper."
"Let's bathe now! No one will come. It will be like closing a circle, or a chapter, or a book – anything you want to close."
He was laughing now, already shrugging out of his braces and unbuttoning his shirt, glorious in golden light among golden trees. Lucy took a step back and tried to regain control over her suddenly trembling hands, pushing back the memory of him naked and radiant in the path. Cecil had never made her feel like this, never remotely like this; the mere thought was laughable. She felt herself blush with shyness and embarrassment while part of her wanted to follow him, throw her clothes off and immerse herself in cool water under clear skies as though they were the only people on earth in the beginning of all things.
His thoughts seemed to have travelled the same paths.
"My father," he said gravely, pausing with his fingers on the third button, "says the Garden of Eden is yet to come." The shirt fell softly on emerald grass and he began to unfasten his trousers. "We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies."
When he stood naked before her, smiling, her face burned but she found she could not avert her eyes. They followed the lines and angles of his body from shoulder to waist and hip, his skin light against the darkness of the pool.
"Come," he said. "Don't you want to find the Garden of Eden?"
Then he jumped in, splashing her with water and shouting with joy. She took a step forward, feeling the hem of her skirt get soaked and heavy.
What harm could come of it, after all? They were already in disgrace with her family and Mr Beebe. They would be going away in the spring. They had to create their own paradise. Ah, for a little directness to liberate the soul!
She began to undo the many tiny buttons down her front, moving slowly from neck to waist. George had gone still, watching her. All the world was quiet except for the wind sighing in the treetops as Lucy's blouse and skirt landed on top of George's clothes and she slid into the pool in her undergarments. The look on his face… she thought she would remember it for ever. Then he caught her to him, improbably hot against her in the coolness of the water, and kissed her eyes, her mouth, her neck. Gasping, she let her hands slide down his sides and felt her hair begin to slip out of the carefully inserted pins and fall down her back. His mouth was hot on her collarbone and she closed her eyes, remembering him in the dining-room at Windy Corner, looking big and dishevelled, desperate and beautiful as he tried to make her see reason. What was it he had said then? I wanted to live and have my chance of joy.
He would have it, and so would she. She would not be lost in her own insincerity and confusion; he would not go back into the dark. Passion is sanity, Mr Emerson had said, and perhaps it was; the only clear and true note in the cacophony of life. They would continue to listen to it as they were listening now, here in the golden light among golden trees.