There was a bolt on Georgie's side of it, and he went swiftly across to this and fastened it. Even as he did so, he heard a key quietly turned from the other side of it. He undressed with the stealth of a burglar prowling about a house, for somehow it was shy work that he and Lucia should be going to bed so close to each other; he brushed his teeth with infinite precaution and bent low over the basin to eject spitting would be too noisy a word the water with which he had rinsed his mouth, for it would never do to let a sound of these intimate manoeuvres penetrate next door.
Or was she, too, being as stealthy as he? Whichever it was particularly if it was the last he must not let a betrayal of his presence reach her. He got into bed and clicked out his light. That could be done quite boldly: she might hear that, for it only betokened that all was over. Then, in spite of this long day in the open air, which should have conduced to drowsiness, he felt terribly wide-awake, for the subject which had intermittently occupied his mind, shadowing it with dim apprehension, ever since Pepino's death, presented itself in the most garish colours. For years, by a pretty Riseholme fantasy, it had always been supposed that he was the implacably Platonic but devout lover of Lucia: somehow that interesting fiction had grown up, and Lucia had certainly abetted it as well as himself.
She had let it be supposed that he was, and that she accepted this chaste fervour.
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But now that her year of widowhood was nearly over, there loomed in front of Georgie the awful fact that very soon there could be no earthly reason why he should not claim his reward for these years of devotion and exchange his passionate celibacy for an even more passionate matrimony. It was an unnerving thought that he might have the right before the summer was over, to tap at some door of communication like that which he had so carefully bolted and she locked and say, 'May I come in, darling?
Did Lucia expect him to ask to marry her? There was the crux and his imagination proceeded to crucify him upon it. They had posed for years as cherishing for each other a stainless devotion, but what if, with her, it had been no pose at all, but a dreadful reality? Had he been encouraging her to hope, by coming down to stay at this hotel in this very compromising manner? In his ghastly midnight musing, it seemed terribly likely.
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He had been very rash to come, and all this afternoon he had been pursuing his foolhardy career. He had said that life wasn't worth living if he could not get hold of Mallards Cottage, which was less than a stone's throw even he could throw a stone as far as that from the house she was to inhabit alone. Really it looked as if it was the proximity to her that made the cottage so desirable. If she only knew how embarrassing her proximity had been just now when he prepared himself for bed! And Lucia always got what she wanted.
There was a force about her he supposed so different from poor Daisy's violent yappings and scufflings , which caused things to happen in the way she wished. He had forgotten again , as soon as it opened.
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Things happened like that for her: she got what she wanted. I couldn't possibly marry her, and I won't. I want to live quietly and do my sewing and my sketching, and see lots of Lucia, and play any amount of duets with her, but not marry her. Pray God, she doesn't want me to! Lucia was lying awake, too, next door, and if either of them could have known what the other was thinking about, they would both instantly have fallen into a refreshing sleep, instead of tossing and turning as they were doing.
She, too, knew that for years she and Georgie had let it be taken for granted that they were mutually devoted, and had both about equally encouraged that impression. There had been an interlude, it is true, when that wonderful Olga Bracely had shone like evening stars singing over Riseholme, but she was to be absent from England for a year; besides she was married, and even if she had not been would certainly not have married Georgie.
Dear Georgie: he was so terribly glad when I began to be myself again, and how he jumped at the plan of coming to Tilling and spending the night here! And how he froze on to the idea of taking Mallards Cottage as soon as he knew I had got Mallards! I'm afraid I've been encouraging him to hope. He knows that my year of widowhood is almost over, and on the very eve of its accomplishment, I take him off on this solitary expedition with me.
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Dear me: it looks as if I was positively asking for it. How perfectly horrible! And then when I say no, he has every right to turn on me, and say I've been leading him on. I've been taking moonlight walks with him, I'm at this moment staying alone with him in an hotel. Oh dear! Lucia sat up in bed and listened. She longed to hear sounds of snoring from the next room, for that would show that the thought of the fulfilment of his long devotion was not keeping him awake, but there was no sound of any kind. I must make it quite clear that I won't before he asks me. I can't bear to think of hurting Georgie, but it will hurt him less if I show him beforehand he's got no chance.
Something about the beauty of a friendship untroubled with passion. Something about the tranquillity that comes with age. There's that eternal old church clock striking three. Surely it must be fast. Woffles and.
Georgie will know. Certainly Tilling is fascinating. Intriguing, too. A great variety, but I think I can manage them. And what about Miss Mapp? Those wide grins. We shall see about that. Lucia awoke herself from a doze by giving a loud snore, and for one agonized moment thought it was Georgie, whom she had hoped to hear snoring, in alarming proximity to herself.
That nightmare-spasm was quickly over, and she recognized that it was she that had done it. After all her trouble in not letting a sound of any sort penetrate through that door! Georgie heard it. He was getting sleepy, too, in spite of his uneasy musings, but he was just wide-awake enough to realize where that noise had come from. It was hardly nine o'clock in the morning when they set out for the house-agents', and the upper circles of Tilling were not yet fully astir.
But there was a town-crier in a blue frock-coat ringing a bell in the High Street and proclaiming that the water-supply would be cut off that day from twelve noon till three in the afternoon. It was difficult to get to the house-agents', for the street where it was situated was being extensively excavated and they had chosen the wrong side of the road, and though they saw it opposite them when halfway down the street, a long detour must be made to reach it. Do not be so impatient, Georgie. Ah, we can cross here. I'm not so sure that she would entertain--'.
Mr Woolgar turned round a crank like that used for starting rather old-fashioned motor-cars, and when a bell rang, he gave a number, and got into communication with the brown bungalow without proper plumbing. She usually takes about three hours if fine. There was an awful period, during which Mr Woolgar kept on saying 'Quite', 'Just so', 'I see', 'Yes, dear', with the most tedious monotony, in answer to unintelligible quacking noises from the other end.
Besides, Miss Poppit likes. She is Mrs Wyse now. Lately married. A beautiful wedding. The house you want is her property. Starling Cottage, Porpoise Street. I will write it down for you. While this was being done, Diva suddenly blew in, beginning to speak before she was wholly inside the office. A short tempestuous interlude ensued. And I hope your dear little canary is better. Mr Woolgar apparently understood that 'pip' was not a salutation but a disease of canaries, and did not say 'So long' or 'Pip pip'.
Calm returned again. It has escaped me for the moment. As if you were going up to Mallards, but first turning to the right just short of it. It is on our books, too.
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The pride of proprietorship tempted Lucia for a moment to say 'I've got it already,' but she refrained. The complications which might have ensued, had she asked the price of it, were endless. Many ladies in Tilling like a little change in the summer. It was impossible since time was so precious, and Georgie so feverishly apprehensive, after this warning, that somebody else would secure Mallards Cottage before him, although the owner was safe in the sand-dunes for the present to walk round the excavations in the street, and like Diva they made an intrepid short cut among gas-pipes and water-mains and braziers and bricks to the other side.
A sad splash of mud hurled itself against Georgie's fawn-coloured trousers as he stepped in a puddle, which was very tarsome, but it was useless to attempt to brush it off till it was dry. As they went up the now familiar street towards Mallards they saw quaint Irene leaning out of the upper window of a small house, trying to take down a board that hung outside it which advertised that this house, too, was to let: the fact of her removing it seemed to indicate that from this moment it was to let no longer.
Just as they passed, the board, which was painted in the most amazing colours, slipped from her hand and crashed on to the pavement, narrowly missing Diva who simultaneously popped out of the front door. It broke into splinters at her feet, and she gave a shrill cry of dismay. Then perceiving Irene she called up, 'No harm done, dear,' and Irene, in a voice of fury, cried, 'No harm? My beautiful board's broken to smithereens. Why didn't you catch it, silly?
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