1919. Freddy, a respectable young veteran on the cusp of thirty, no longer sings solo comic songs. Instead he writes and performs comic duets, and is rapidly getting known as a musical expert - in the music-hall acception of the word. Freddy has indeed become the family bee, and while Mrs Honeychurch still hopes that he will meet “the right girl” some day and gift her with the extended family which George and Lucy seem unwilling to provide, she is grateful that “dear Cecil” agreed to take him under his wing.
1919. Cecil’s clever war chronicles, Brass Tacks, will, sadly, never the day as a volume. Not in a time when everyone from royalty to the man in the street is determined to praise the war... and bury it. While Cecil himself grumbles at having his wit ignored in this “low, dishonest decade” (unsurprisingly, his best chum is another satirist named W. H. Auden), he has found consolation in reading them aloud to Freddy before their chimney fire. They have a little cottage with a garden in Middlesex, only a stone’s throw from Drury Lane and the National Gallery. They also have a car, a rumbunctious black affair christened “Mrs Beebe” by Cecil, and Freddy loves driving her to and from London. Cecil, who loves Freddy, suffers nobly and emphatically through these jaunts, though he had to put his foot down when it came to Freddy driving, singing and waving his cap to other motorists all at once.
1919. Lucy and George are frequent visitors, along with their little daughter. Mrs Honeychurch, while lamenting that Windy Corner has turned into Windy Hermitage indeed, takes the train now and then to keep an eye on their garden. She usually remembers to bring a cushion for their living-room.
1919. Mr Beebe has finally reconciled himself to the fact that Freddy chose to wait for his first love (to stop being a starched-up nincompoop) instead of listening to the voice of reason (Mr Beebe’s) and taking George bathing again. He has also discovered that visiting the silly lads, as he insists on calling them in Cecil’s hearing, is a good cop-out when he is hard pressed to open yet another Peace Bazar.
1919. Finally, finally, Cecil takes Freddy to Rome. His lips twitch when Freddy, barefoot under the ragazzi’s good-natured cheers, wades into a certain fountain and brings his arms around a little marble faun. The faun and Freddy smile alike, cheek to cheek, while Cecil readies his camera. Then, as the Italian sun brings up a brilliant sheen in Freddy’s chestnut hair, a flash crackles along and a long-forgotten line from Tennyson lights up in Cecil’s mind: Love is the only gold.
2. Round by Rome
"Every one, soon or late, comes round by Rome " – Robert Browning.
"La-la-la-la-kissin’you ," Freddy sang with stubborn, if slightly hoarse gusto across the clouds of dust they were raising on each side of the open-hooded Diatto. Renting the car had been Freddy’s idea; Cecil, who had entertained vague hopes of a moonlit entrance in Rome and a vetturino, had said yes to please Freddy and because he still felt a bit queasy from their five hours’ stay on the Marseilles steamboat.
"Ta-la-tilala-hissin’you", Freddy warbled happily. He struck a tentative yodel on the honk.
"You can’t hiss people," Cecil said. "Not that I would object in most cases, but it’s still not grammatically ‘crikey’." He was careful to quarantine the last word with an arched eyebrow.
"Well, it’s music-hall, " Freddy said, his coda whenever Cecil tried to bridle his lyrical musings. "Aren’t you going to open your eyes? Scenery’s not half bad!"
Freddy was currently working for "a writer chap" named P. G. Wodehouse, the friend of a friend of a friend of Mr Emerson who had praised him as a gentle disciple of the Comic Muse. Freddy thought him top-hole, all the more when Wodehouse commissioned him to help with the lyrics of a new musical comedy for the London Gaieties. An ecstatic Freddy had embraced the project whole-heartedly. A less ecstatic Cecil had stood by and watched as the Comic Muse made herself one of the household.
He had congratulated himself on his fund of patience during the six weeks it took before Freddy could start a sentence in terms other than "Plum says". Then came the fateful evening when Freddy had burst in while Cecil was enjoying his first sip of a rare and carefully distilled brandy, and demanded a rhyme for gun.
Cecil had blinked slowly at the love of his life.
"It’s the musical," Freddy explained. "Plum says they’ve finally made up their mind on the title – it’s to be called ‘The Girl Behind the Gun’!"
This was the last straw, and Cecil accordingly rose from his seat. "Quod barbari non fecerunt, he told Freddy with righteous wrath, Wodehouse fecit."
Freddy blinked tout court.
"Meaning, I’m taking you to Italy next month." And Cecil had softened at the look of pure, undistilled joy on Freddy’s face. "Mi piacer, dear lad. But we are not taking Mr Plum and his females of disreputable character along."
"Scenery’s jolly nice," the young barbarian now insisted. "I say, Cecil, are you all right? You look a bit sickish."
"I," Cecil informed him, "am reconnecting with the Italian mystique." He kept one hand on his stomach.
He only moved it when they stopped before his old hotel, the establishment which he and his mother had patronized thirteen years earlier. It had lost some of its bloom, Cecil now saw; the hall, once resplendent in black marble and sussurous waiters, showed a number of chips and too many potted apidistras; what had once been a refreshing penumbra felt plain gloomy. At his side, Freddy had fallen into untypical silence. Cecil glanced aside and saw him take off his cap as if he were in church – Freddy!
The landlord, an unknown entity to Cecil’s eyes, was proceeding cautiously toward them.
"Mr…Vyse?" he enquired, his voice muted with reluctance. "I’m afraid there has been a mistake.
"A mistake?"Cecil braced his shoulders, stretching himself up to the best of height, staring at a point hovering a good inch above his interlocutor’s head. From the corner of his eye he caught the man’s eyes spidering over Freddy and the man’s little grimace at the open shirt collar and the tousled young head. "Enlighten me, prego."
A hushed monologue followed about plumbers and carpenters and the rooms being sadly, unfortunately, out of order for the present. But Cecil stopped listening when the doors opened again and a group of men walked in. Four generals and two colonels, he counted quickly, all in full regalia, all in the pink of health and wealth. They stopped and stared at him. He stared right back.
The landlord was still busy staring at Freddy.
"We do not even have one room left, sir, " he said in meaningful tones, and Cecil surprised himself by greeting the words with a blistering jolt of rage. He curled a hand on Freddy’s elbow and pivoted his friend, marching them straight into the assembly at the door. One general was not quick enough and stumbled into a potted plant. Cecil, seized by the imp of epigramme, turned and said pointedly: "An hostel old is a host to mold".
Then allowed Freddy to kick the door open.
"I’m sorry," he added once they were back in the noisy, sunny Via del Corso. "Or rather I’m not, I dare say, but I wish… I should have known there was no coming back. I should have booked other rooms."
"It’s because of your chronicles, isn’t it? They were beastly. Those men," Freddy hurried on, to preclude any misunderstanding. He sniffed at the warm air, benevolent with the scents of the various trattorias, and laughed his delight. "Oh, Cecil, let’s just have a bite and a romp! The sun is topping here."
The sun was indeed topping, and so was Freddy stepping full into it, his honest brown hair shot with burnt-gold lights. Cecil thought of his new Debrie camera, still ensconsed in the car’s yellow boot, but desisted. There would be all the time to come for frames and settings; for now, let Freddy and the sun have their hour of play.
They idled through the big and the little streets, stopping at times to allow Freddy to hail a cat and Cecil to reconnect with the Roman mystique. When his stomach, ever contrary, gave the latter warning that it was well past noon , they retraced their steps to the piazza where they had left the car.
"What the – " Cecil began, but Freddy was already bouncing forth.
"Football! Oh, isn’t this great? Hullo," he added for the nine ragazzi perched on and inside the Diatto to watch their peers kick a ball in the deserted square. "Inglese – Freddy – sport fiend – oh, and musica fiend, too. Mind if I join you? "
And of course, join you became Freddy suiting the action to the word and diving into the many-legged crowd with a happy whoop. He had known better than to ask Cecil, who leant back against the Diatti, resigning himself to fate and football as he lit a gold-tipped cigarette to placate hunger. Still, Freddy in action was a fund of marvel, one that never ceased or paled, if only because it came to Cecil as the hard evidence of Freddy being alive and well.
"I say, I’m positively starved," came as further proof of Freddy still being a creature of this world. The game had ended in a frenzy of whoops and lazzi, and the friendly youths were surrounding them. Freddy grinned at them under the sweat. "You chaps wouldn’t know of a good place to eat? Cannelloni,"he added with a firm rub to his own tummy. "Vitello al lemone? Risotto something something savore?"
Trust Freddy to learn by heart the culinary section in his sister’s old Baedeker, which she had kindly gifted to him on learning of their plans.
But the ragazzi were delighted. And when they found that Cecil could speak their language, they became nearly delirious and towed the two of them all the way to Marco’s mother, who cooked tortellinis worth a king’s ransom and had a nice, clean, limewashed room to let at the back of the house.
"I think I’ve got the hang of it wrong," Freddy said around a mouthful of pasta. "The kissin’ should come first, and then some other stuff."
"Is this a proposal?" Cecil deadpanned him. "I would be more than amenable, but you know my stance on tennis and testimonies of lust – not in public, dear lad."
The dear lad kicked him good-naturedly under the table before remembering his hostess. "Scusi," he mumbled. She beamed Mediterranean warmth at him, but it was Cecil whom she addressed with a quiet Va bene.
"No, I mean… " But Freddy had lost his musical thread in contemplation of Cecil’s slender line of mouth, now flushed with pepper and thyme, and repeated libations from the homely red wine.
They retired to their room and did not come out before the heat had abated, and the first shadows of the afternoon loitered on the white walls.
"It’s nice," Freddy said tentatively. He had pronounced the statue anatomically correct but still seemed confused by the young god in hot pursuit of the young woman. "But what comes next? When he catches up with her?"
"Oh, nothing much. She turns into a bush of laurel. A happy ever after, if we are to believe Ovid."
"Laurel?" Freddy said, visibly puzzled by the dynamics of mythological romance. "Like the stuff in Mrs Mancini’s gravy? Girls are rum creatures."
Cecil looked right, looked left, and dropped a kiss on the goldbrown hair. "Come," he said. "You’ve been very good and let me show you four cardinals, nine antiquated saints and half a gallery of young ladies doing rum things. I think it’s time we moved on to Caravaggio."
"Caravaggio," Freddy repeated dutifully. Then, on a plaintive note, "More saints?"
"…Oh," he said a minute later, mesmerised. Cecil let him take his fill of a nubile, dark-nippled John the Baptist, eyes half-hooded under a Byzantian tumble of curls, then steered him to the Boy with a Basket of Fruit, equally curled, not less tantalizing.
"Oh," Freddy said, mouth open on a round huff of breath, and Cecil felt something happen in his chest that had to be the selfish, sensuous, simple moment of being in love.
His elation, sadly, was short-lived : the room once devoted to the Domenichinos now hosted a series of newfangled paintings by a glut of self-styled ‘Futurists’, and he had to stay there a whole ten minutes while Freddy underwent illumination.
"It’s an automobile,"Freddy said again and again in awestruck tones. "It’s smashing!"
"Well, it’s giving me a headache," Cecil griped, and dragged him, still wide-eyed, far from the higgledy-piggledy splatter of curves and angles.
The Baedeker proved of little help. It turned out to have been Lucy’s mother’s faithful companion in her own tour of Italy, back in 1875, and half of the pages had been crossed out or edited by George in an evening of leisure. George, it seemed, had successfully managed his transition from the Note of Interrogation to the Note of Exclamation via a happy marriage, and the Baedeker bore the brunt of it.
In the end, they left it in the gentlemen’s room of the Caffè Greco and took the Diatto for a spin into the countryside.
"No violets," Freddy sighed. "Lucy’s always going on and on about them."
"That would be Tuscany, dear lad." Cecil, kneeling cautiously down on his jacket, smiled at his horizontal lover. "Can I offer poppies and corn as a consolation?
Freddy looked up under the bangs which still, and gloriously, got in the way of his eyes and grinned.
"Kissin’ you in the poppies and corn," rose his boyish voice. "Kissin’ you, it makes me heaven-born!"
"Now you’re being cute."
"Kissin’, kissin’, kissin’, kissin’ you." Freddy’s hand dashed out and grabbed his, tugging him to ground level. "It’s kissin’ time in Rome when my heart feels true!" He paused to loop one arm around Cecil, capsized all over him, and pluck the glasses off his paramour's nose. "You know, I think that would make a ripping title – Kissing Time."
Any objection that Cecil could think of, he was no longer in a position to utter.
"Such a good day," Freddy yawned, curling into him. The one room let to them came with one bed, but it was a letto matrimoniale, wide and fresh as a Roman meadow. Cecil could lie sideways with Freddy in his arms and his toes would not touch the board.
"Practically perfect," he said.
"Hmmm… have to write to Mother tomorrow. She wants us to tell her about the English cemetary and that fellow Keats’s grave. No, wait, that’s Emerson. Mother asked about the gardens. And fountains."
"Tomorrow will be a garden day," Cecil promised him. And a fountain day, he vowed for himself.
Freddy stretched languidly, cat-like in his arms. "…didn’t take any photograph?"
"Tomorrow," Cecil whispered. "Tomorrow."
And tomorrow became tonight’s rhythm, lulling them into repose as the Roman night bathed them, and the Roman life went on in the busy streets. Tomorrow, Cecil thought, and let the three-note song be their guide, all the way to their morning-end.