The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf - HTML preview
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From a distance the _Euphrosyne_ looked very small. Glasses were turned upon her from the decks of great liners, and she was pronounced a tramp, a cargo-boat, or one of those wretched little passenger steamers where people rolled about among the cattle on deck. The insect-like figures of Dalloways, Ambroses, and Vinraces were also derided, both from the extreme smallness of their persons and the doubt which only strong glasses could dispel as to whether they were really live creatures or only lumps on the rigging. Mr. Pepper with all his learning had been mistaken for a cormorant, and then, as unjustly, transformed into a cow. At night, indeed, when the waltzes were swinging in the saloon, and gifted passengers reciting, the little ship--shrunk to a few beads of light out among the dark waves, and one high in air upon the mast-head--seemed something mysterious and impressive to heated partners resting from the dance. She became a ship passing in the night--an emblem of the loneliness of human life, an occasion for queer confidences and sudden appeals for sympathy.
On and on she went, by day and by night, following her path, until one morning broke and showed the land. Losing its shadow-like appearance it became first cleft and mountainous, next coloured grey and purple, next scattered with white blocks which gradually separated themselves, and then, as the progress of the ship acted upon the view like a field-glass of increasing power, became streets of houses. By nine o'clock the _Euphrosyne_ had taken up her position in the middle of a great bay; she dropped her anchor; immediately, as if she were a recumbent giant requiring examination, small boats came swarming about her. She rang with cries; men jumped on to her; her deck was thumped by feet. The lonely little island was invaded from all quarters at once, and after four weeks of silence it was bewildering to hear human speech. Mrs. Ambrose alone heeded none of this stir. She was pale with suspense while the boat with mail bags was making towards them. Absorbed in her letters she did not notice that she had left the _Euphrosyne_, and felt no sadness when the ship lifted up her voice and bellowed thrice like a cow separated from its calf.
"The children are well!" she exclaimed. Mr. Pepper, who sat opposite with a great mound of bag and rug upon his knees, said, "Gratifying." Rachel, to whom the end of the voyage meant a complete change of perspective, was too much bewildered by the approach of the shore to realise what children were well or why it was gratifying. Helen went on reading.
Moving very slowly, and rearing absurdly high over each wave, the little boat was now approaching a white crescent of sand. Behind this was a deep green valley, with distinct hills on either side. On the slope of the right-hand hill white houses with brown roofs were settled, like nesting sea-birds, and at intervals cypresses striped the hill with black bars. Mountains whose sides were flushed with red, but whose crowns were bald, rose as a pinnacle, half-concealing another pinnacle behind it. The hour being still early, the whole view was exquisitely light and airy; the blues and greens of sky and tree were intense but not sultry. As they drew nearer and could distinguish details, the effect of the earth with its minute objects and colours and different forms of life was overwhelming after four weeks of the sea, and kept them silent."Three hundred years odd," said Mr. Pepper meditatively at length.
As nobody said, "What?" he merely extracted a bottle and swallowed a pill. The piece of information that died within him was to the effect that three hundred years ago five Elizabethan barques had anchored where the _Euphrosyne_ now floated. Half-drawn up upon the beach lay an equal number of Spanish galleons, unmanned, for the country was still a virgin land behind a veil. Slipping across the water, the English sailors bore away bars of silver, bales of linen, timbers of cedar wood, golden crucifixes knobbed with emeralds. When the Spaniards came down from their drinking, a fight ensued, the two parties churning up the sand, and driving each other into the surf. The Spaniards, bloated with fine living upon the fruits of the miraculous land, fell in heaps; but the hardy Englishmen, tawny with sea-voyaging, hairy for lack of razors, with muscles like wire, fangs greedy for flesh, and fingers itching for gold, despatched the wounded, drove the dying into the sea, and soon reduced the natives to a state of superstitious wonderment. Here a settlement was made; women were imported; children grew. All seemed to favour the expansion of the British Empire, and had there been men like Richard Dalloway in the time of Charles the First, the map would undoubtedly be red where it is now an odious green. But it must be supposed that the political mind of that age lacked imagination, and, merely for want of a few thousand pounds and a few thousand men, the spark died that should have been a conflagration. From the interior came Indians with subtle poisons, naked bodies, and painted idols; from the sea came vengeful Spaniards and rapacious Portuguese; exposed to all these enemies (though the climate proved wonderfully kind and the earth abundant) the English dwindled away and all but disappeared. Somewhere about the middle of the seventeenth century a single sloop watched its season and slipped out by night, bearing within it all that was left of the great British colony, a few men, a few women, and perhaps a dozen dusky children. English history then denies all knowledge of the place. Owing to one cause and another civilisation shifted its centre to a spot some four or five hundred miles to the south, and to-day Santa Marina is not much larger than it was three hundred years ago. In population it is a happy compromise, for Portuguese fathers wed Indian mothers, and their children intermarry with the Spanish. Although they get their ploughs from Manchester, they make their coats from their own sheep, their silk from their own worms, and their furniture from their own cedar trees, so that in arts and industries the place is still much where it was in Elizabethan days.
The reasons which had drawn the English across the sea to found a small colony within the last ten years are not so easily described, and will never perhaps be recorded in history books. Granted facility of travel, peace, good trade, and so on, there was besides a kind of dissatisfaction among the English with the older countries and the enormous accumulations of carved stone, stained glass, and rich brown painting which they offered to the tourist. The movement in search of something new was of course infinitely small, affecting only a handful of well-to-do people. It began by a few schoolmasters serving their passage out to South America as the pursers of tramp steamers. They returned in time for the summer term, when their stories of the splendours and hardships of life at sea, the humours of sea-captains, the wonders of night and dawn, and the marvels of the place delighted outsiders, and sometimes found their way into print. The country itself taxed all their powers of description, for they said it was much bigger than Italy, and really nobler than Greece. Again, they declared that the natives were strangely beautiful, very big in stature, dark, passionate, and quick to seize the knife. The place seemed new and full of new forms of beauty, in proof of which they showed handkerchiefs which the women had worn round their heads, and primitive carvings coloured bright greens and blues. Somehow or other, as fashions do, the fashion spread; an old monastery was quickly turned into a hotel, while a famous line of steamships altered its route for the convenience of passengers.
Oddly enough it happened that the least satisfactory of Helen Ambrose's brothers had been sent out years before to make his fortune, at any rate to keep clear of race-horses, in the very spot which had now become so popular. Often, leaning upon the column in the verandah, he had watched the English ships with English schoolmasters for pursers steaming into the bay. Having at length earned enough to take a holiday, and being sick of the place, he proposed to put his villa, on the slope of the mountain, at his sister's disposal. She, too, had been a little stirred by the talk of a new world, where there was always sun and never a fog, which went on around her, and the chance, when they were planning where to spend the winter out of England, seemed too good to be missed. For these reasons she determined to accept Willoughby's offer of free passages on his ship, to place the children with their grand-parents, and to do the thing thoroughly while she was about it.
Taking seats in a carriage drawn by long-tailed horses with pheasants' feathers erect between their ears, the Ambroses, Mr. Pepper, and Rachel rattled out of the harbour. The day increased in heat as they drove up the hill. The road passed through the town, where men seemed to be beating brass and crying "Water," where the passage was blocked by mules and cleared by whips and curses, where the women walked barefoot, their heads balancing baskets, and cripples hastily displayed mutilated members; it issued among steep green fields, not so green but that the earth showed through. Great trees now shaded all but the centre of the road, and a mountain stream, so shallow and so swift that it plaited itself into strands as it ran, raced along the edge. Higher they went, until Ridley and Rachel walked behind; next they turned along a lane scattered with stones, where Mr. Pepper raised his stick and silently indicated a shrub, bearing among sparse leaves a voluminous purple blossom; and at a rickety canter the last stage of the way was accomplished.
The villa was a roomy white house, which, as is the case with most continental houses, looked to an English eye frail, ramshackle, and absurdly frivolous, more like a pagoda in a tea-garden than a place where one slept. The garden called urgently for the services of gardener. Bushes waved their branches across the paths, and the blades of grass, with spaces of earth between them, could be counted. In the circular piece of ground in front of the verandah were two cracked vases, from which red flowers drooped, with a stone fountain between them, now parched in the sun. The circular garden led to a long garden, where the gardener's shears had scarcely been, unless now and then, when he cut a bough of blossom for his beloved. A few tall trees shaded it, and round bushes with wax-like flowers mobbed their heads together in a row. A garden smoothly laid with turf, divided by thick hedges, with raised beds of bright flowers, such as we keep within walls in England, would have been out of place upon the side of this bare hill. There was no ugliness to shut out, and the villa looked straight across the shoulder of a slope, ribbed with olive trees, to the sea.
The indecency of the whole place struck Mrs. Chailey forcibly. There were no blinds to shut out the sun, nor was there any furniture to speak of for the sun to spoil. Standing in the bare stone hall, and surveying a staircase of superb breadth, but cracked and carpetless, she further ventured the opinion that there were rats, as large as terriers at home, and that if one put one's foot down with any force one would come through the floor. As for hot water--at this point her investigations left her speechless.
"Poor creature!" she murmured to the sallow Spanish servant-girl who came out with the pigs and hens to receive them, "no wonder you hardly look like a human being!" Maria accepted the compliment with an exquisite Spanish grace. In Chailey's opinion they would have done better to stay on board an English ship, but none knew better than she that her duty commanded her to stay.
When they were settled in, and in train to find daily occupation, there was some speculation as to the reasons which induced Mr. Pepper to stay, taking up his lodging in the Ambroses' house. Efforts had been made for some days before landing to impress upon him the advantages of the Amazons.
"That great stream!" Helen would begin, gazing as if she saw a visionary cascade, "I've a good mind to go with you myself, Willoughby--only I can't. Think of the sunsets and the moonrises--I believe the colours are unimaginable.""There are wild peacocks," Rachel hazarded. "And marvellous creatures in the water," Helen asserted. "One might discover a new reptile," Rachel continued. "There's certain to be a revolution, I'm told," Helen urged.
The effect of these subterfuges was a little dashed by Ridley, who, after regarding Pepper for some moments, sighed aloud, "Poor fellow!" and inwardly speculated upon the unkindness of women.
He stayed, however, in apparent contentment for six days, playing with a microscope and a notebook in one of the many sparsely furnished sitting-rooms, but on the evening of the seventh day, as they sat at dinner, he appeared more restless than usual. The dinner-table was set between two long windows which were left uncurtained by Helen's orders. Darkness fell as sharply as a knife in this climate, and the town then sprang out in circles and lines of bright dots beneath them. Buildings which never showed by day showed by night, and the sea flowed right over the land judging by the moving lights of the steamers. The sight fulfilled the same purpose as an orchestra in a London restaurant, and silence had its setting. William Pepper observed it for some time; he put on his spectacles to contemplate the scene."I've identified the big block to the left," he observed, and pointed with his fork at a square formed by several rows of lights. "One should infer that they can cook vegetables," he added. "An hotel?" said Helen. "Once a monastery," said Mr. Pepper. Nothing more was said then, but, the day after, Mr. Pepper returned from a midday walk, and stood silently before Helen who was reading in the verandah. "I've taken a room over there," he said. "You're not going?" she exclaimed. "On the whole--yes," he remarked. "No private cook _can_ cook vegetables."
Knowing his dislike of questions, which she to some extent shared, Helen asked no more. Still, an uneasy suspicion lurked in her mind that William was hiding a wound. She flushed to think that her words, or her husband's, or Rachel's had penetrated and stung. She was half-moved to cry, "Stop, William; explain!" and would have returned to the subject at luncheon if William had not shown himself inscrutable and chill, lifting fragments of salad on the point of his fork, with the gesture of a man pronging seaweed, detecting gravel, suspecting germs."If you all die of typhoid I won't be responsible!" he snapped. "If you die of dulness, neither will I," Helen echoed in her heart.
She reflected that she had never yet asked him whether he had been in love. They had got further and further from that subject instead of drawing nearer to it, and she could not help feeling it a relief when William Pepper, with all his knowledge, his microscope, his note-books, his genuine kindliness and good sense, but a certain dryness of soul, took his departure. Also she could not help feeling it sad that friendships should end thus, although in this case to have the room empty was something of a comfort, and she tried to console herself with the reflection that one never knows how far other people feel the things they might be supposed to feel.
The next few months passed away, as many years can pass away, without definite events, and yet, if suddenly disturbed, it would be seen that such months or years had a character unlike others. The three months which had passed had brought them to the beginning of March. The climate had kept its promise, and the change of season from winter to spring had made very little difference, so that Helen, who was sitting in the drawing-room with a pen in her hand, could keep the windows open though a great fire of logs burnt on one side of her. Below, the sea was still blue and the roofs still brown and white, though the day was fading rapidly. It was dusk in the room, which, large and empty at all times, now appeared larger and emptier than usual. Her own figure, as she sat writing with a pad on her knee, shared the general effect of size and lack of detail, for the flames which ran along the branches, suddenly devouring little green tufts, burnt intermittently and sent irregular illuminations across her face and the plaster walls. There were no pictures on the walls but here and there boughs laden with heavy-petalled flowers spread widely against them. Of the books fallen on the bare floor and heaped upon the large table, it was only possible in this light to trace the outline.
Mrs. Ambrose was writing a very long letter. Beginning "Dear Bernard," it went on to describe what had been happening in the Villa San Gervasio during the past three months, as, for instance, that they had had the British Consul to dinner, and had been taken over a Spanish man-of-war, and had seen a great many processions and religious festivals, which were so beautiful that Mrs. Ambrose couldn't conceive why, if people must have a religion, they didn't all become Roman Catholics. They had made several expeditions though none of any length. It was worth coming if only for the sake of the flowering trees which grew wild quite near the house, and the amazing colours of sea and earth. The earth, instead of being brown, was red, purple, green. "You won't believe me," she added, "there is no colour like it in England." She adopted, indeed, a condescending tone towards that poor island, which was now advancing chilly crocuses and nipped violets in nooks, in copses, in cosy corners, tended by rosy old gardeners in mufflers, who were always touching their hats and bobbing obsequiously. She went on to deride the islanders themselves. Rumours of London all in a ferment over a General Election had reached them even out here. "It seems incredible," she went on, "that people should care whether Asquith is in or Austen Chamberlin out, and while you scream yourselves hoarse about politics you let the only people who are trying for something good starve or simply laugh at them. When have you ever encouraged a living artist? Or bought his best work? Why are you all so ugly and so servile? Here the servants are human beings. They talk to one as if they were equals. As far as I can tell there are no aristocrats."Perhaps it was the mention of aristocrats that reminded her of Richard Dalloway and Rachel, for she ran on with the same penful to describe her niece.
"It's an odd fate that has put me in charge of a girl," she wrote, "considering that I have never got on well with women, or had much to do with them. However, I must retract some of the things that I have said against them. If they were properly educated I don't see why they shouldn't be much the same as men--as satisfactory I mean; though, of course, very different. The question is, how should one educate them. The present method seems to me abominable. This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important" (here Mrs. Ambrose's letter may not be quoted) . . . "was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are-the wonder is they're no worse. I have taken it upon myself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much too seriously. My brother-in-law really deserved a catastrophe--which he won't get. I now pray for a young man to come to my help; some one, I mean, who would talk to her openly, and prove how absurd most of her ideas about life are. Unluckily such men seem almost as rare as the women. The English colony certainly doesn't provide one; artists, merchants, cultivated people--they are stupid, conventional, and flirtatious. . . ." She ceased, and with her pen in her hand sat looking into the fire, making the logs into caves and mountains, for it had grown too dark to go on writing. Moreover, the house began to stir as the hour of dinner approached; she could hear the plates being chinked in the dining-room next door, and Chailey instructing the Spanish girl where to put things down in vigorous English. The bell rang; she rose, met Ridley and Rachel outside, and they all went in to dinner.
Three months had made but little difference in the appearance either of Ridley or Rachel; yet a keen observer might have thought that the girl was more definite and self-confident in her manner than before. Her skin was brown, her eyes certainly brighter, and she attended to what was said as though she might be going to contradict it. The meal began with the comfortable silence of people who are quite at their ease together. Then Ridley, leaning on his elbow and looking out of the window, observed that it was a lovely night.
"Yes," said Helen. She added, "The season's begun," looking at the lights beneath them. She asked Maria in Spanish whether the hotel was not filling up with visitors. Maria informed her with pride that there would come a time when it was positively difficult to buy eggs--the shopkeepers would not mind what prices they asked; they would get them, at any rate, from the English."That's an English steamer in the bay," said Rachel, looking at a triangle of lights below. "She came in early this morning." "Then we may hope for some letters and send ours back," said Helen.
For some reason the mention of letters always made Ridley groan, and the rest of the meal passed in a brisk argument between husband and wife as to whether he was or was not wholly ignored by the entire civilised world.
"Considering the last batch," said Helen, "you deserve beating. You were asked to lecture, you were offered a degree, and some silly woman praised not only your books but your beauty--she said he was what Shelley would have been if Shelley had lived to fifty-five and grown a beard. Really, Ridley, I think you're the vainest man I know," she ended, rising from the table, "which I may tell you is saying a good deal."Finding her letter lying before the fire she added a few lines to it, and then announced that she was going to take the letters now--Ridley must bring his--and Rachel? "I hope you've written to your Aunts? It's high time."
The women put on cloaks and hats, and after inviting Ridley to come with them, which he emphatically refused to do, exclaiming that Rachel he expected to be a fool, but Helen surely knew better, they turned to go. He stood over the fire gazing into the depths of the looking-glass, and compressing his face into the likeness of a commander surveying a field of battle, or a martyr watching the flames lick his toes, rather than that of a secluded Professor.Helen laid hold of his beard. "Am I a fool?" she said. "Let me go, Helen." "Am I a fool?" she repeated. "Vile woman!" he exclaimed, and kissed her. "We'll leave you to your vanities," she called back as they went out of the door.
It was a beautiful evening, still light enough to see a long way down the road, though the stars were coming out. The pillar-box was let into a high yellow wall where the lane met the road, and having dropped the letters into it, Helen was for turning back."No, no," said Rachel, taking her by the wrist. "We're going to see life. You promised."
"Seeing life" was the phrase they used for their habit of strolling through the town after dark. The social life of Santa Marina was carried on almost entirely by lamp-light, which the warmth of the nights and the scents culled from flowers made pleasant enough. The young women, with their hair magnificently swept in coils, a red flower behind the ear, sat on the doorsteps, or issued out on to balconies, while the young men ranged up and down beneath, shouting up a greeting from time to time and stopping here and there to enter into amorous talk. At the open windows merchants could be seen making up the day's account, and older women lifting jars from shelf to shelf. The streets were full of people, men for the most part, who interchanged their views of the world as they walked, or gathered round the wine-tables at the street corner, where an old cripple was twanging his guitar strings, while a poor girl cried her passionate song in the gutter. The two Englishwomen excited some friendly curiosity, but no one molested them. Helen sauntered on, observing the different people in their shabby clothes, who seemed so careless and so natural, with satisfaction.
"Just think of the Mall to-night!" she exclaimed at length. "It's the fifteenth of March. Perhaps there's a Court." She thought of the crowd waiting in the cold spring air to see the grand carriages go by. "It's very cold, if it's not raining," she said. "First there are men selling picture postcards; then there are wretched little shop-girls with round bandboxes; then there are bank clerks in tail coats; and then--any number of dressmakers. People from South Kensington drive up in a hired fly; officials have a pair of bays; earls, on the other hand, are allowed one footman to stand up behind; dukes have two, royal dukes--so I was told--have three; the king, I suppose, can have as many as he likes. And the people believe in it!"
Out here it seemed as though the people of England must be shaped in the body like the kings and queens, knights and pawns of the chessboard, so strange were their differences, so marked and so implicitly believed in.They had to part in order to circumvent a crowd.
"They believe in God," said Rachel as they regained each other. She meant that the people in the crowd believed in Him; for she remembered the crosses with bleeding plaster figures that stood where foot-paths joined, and the inexplicable mystery of a service in a Roman Catholic church."We shall never understand!" she sighed. They had walked some way and it was now night, but they could see a large iron gate a little way farther down the road on their left. "Do you mean to go right up to the hotel?" Helen asked.
Rachel gave the gate a push; it swung open, and, seeing no one about and judging that nothing was private in this country, they walked straight on. An avenue of trees ran along the road, which was completely straight. The trees suddenly came to an end; the road turned a corner, and they found themselves confronted by a large square building. They had come out upon the broad terrace which ran round the hotel and were only a few feet distant from the windows. A row of long windows opened almost to the ground. They were all of them uncurtained, and all brilliantly lighted, so that they could see everything inside. Each window revealed a different section of the life of the hotel. They drew into one of the broad columns of shadow which separated the windows and gazed in. They found themselves just outside the dining-room. It was being swept; a waiter was eating a bunch of grapes with his leg across the corner of a table. Next door was the kitchen, where they were washing up; white cooks were dipping their arms into cauldrons, while the waiters made their meal voraciously off broken meats, sopping up the gravy with bits of crumb. Moving on, they became lost in a plantation of bushes, and then suddenly found themselves outside the drawing-room, where the ladies and gentlemen, having dined well, lay back in deep arm-chairs, occasionally speaking or turning over the pages of magazines. A thin woman was flourishing up and down the piano."What is a dahabeeyah, Charles?" the distinct voice of a widow, seated in an arm-chair by the window, asked her son. It was the end of the piece, and his answer was lost in the general clearing of throats and tapping of knees. "They're all old in this room," Rachel whispered. Creeping on, they found that the next window revealed two men in shirt-sleeves playing billiards with two young ladies. "He pinched my arm!" the plump young woman cried, as she missed her stroke. "Now you two--no ragging," the young man with the red face reproved them, who was marking. "Take care or we shall be seen," whispered Helen, plucking Rachel by the arm. Incautiously her head had risen to the middle of the window.
Turning the corner they came to the largest room in the hotel, which was supplied with four windows, and was called the Lounge, although it was really a hall. Hung with armour and native embroideries, furnished with divans and screens, which shut off convenient corners, the room was less formal than the others, and was evidently the haunt of youth. Signor Rodriguez, whom they knew to be the manager of the hotel, stood quite near them in the doorway surveying the scene--the gentlemen lounging in chairs, the couples leaning over coffee-cups, the game of cards in the centre under profuse clusters of electric light. He was congratulating himself upon the enterprise which had turned the refectory, a cold stone room with pots on trestles, into the most comfortable room in the house. The hotel was very full, and proved his wisdom in decreeing that no hotel can flourish without a lounge.
The people were scattered about in couples or parties of four, and either they were actually better acquainted, or the informal room made their manners easier. Through the open window came an uneven humming sound like that which rises from a flock of sheep pent within hurdles at dusk. The card-party occupied the centre of the foreground.
Helen and Rachel watched them play for some minutes without being able to distinguish a word. Helen was observing one of the men intently. He was a lean, somewhat cadaverous man of about her own age, whose profile was turned to them, and he was the partner of a highly-coloured girl, obviously English by birth.
Suddenly, in the strange way in which some words detach themselves from the rest, they heard him say quite distinctly:--
"All you want is practice, Miss Warrington; courage and practice--one's no good without the other."
"Hughling Elliot! Of course!" Helen exclaimed. She ducked her head immediately, for at the sound of his name he looked up. The game went on for a few minutes, and was then broken up by the approach of a wheeled chair, containing a voluminous old lady who paused by the table and said:--"Better luck to-night, Susan?" "All the luck's on our side," said a young man who until now had kept his back turned to the window. He appeared to be rather stout, and had a thick crop of hair. "Luck, Mr. Hewet?" said his partner, a middle-aged lady with spectacles. "I assure you, Mrs. Paley, our success is due solely to our brilliant play."
"Unless I go to bed early I get practically no sleep at all," Mrs. Paley was heard to explain, as if to justify her seizure of Susan, who got up and proceeded to wheel the chair to the door.
"They'll get some one else to take my place," she said cheerfully. But she was wrong. No attempt was made to find another player, and after the young man had built three stories of a card-house, which fell down, the players strolled off in different directions.
Mr. Hewet turned his full face towards the window. They could see that he had large eyes obscured by glasses; his complexion was rosy, his lips clean-shaven; and, seen among ordinary people, it appeared to be an interesting face. He came straight towards them, but his eyes were fixed not upon the eavesdroppers but upon a spot where the curtain hung in folds."Asleep?" he said. Helen and Rachel started to think that some one had been sitting near to them unobserved all the time. There were legs in the shadow. A melancholy voice issued from above them. "Two women," it said.
A scuffling was heard on the gravel. The women had fled. They did not stop running until they felt certain that no eye could penetrate the darkness and the hotel was only a square shadow in the distance, with red holes regularly cut in it.
An hour passed, and the downstairs rooms at the hotel grew dim and were almost deserted, while the little box-like squares above them were brilliantly irradiated. Some forty or fifty people were going to bed. The thump of jugs set down on the floor above could be heard and the clink of china, for there was not as thick a partition between the rooms as one might wish, so Miss Allan, the elderly lady who had been playing bridge, determined, giving the wall a smart rap with her knuckles. It was only matchboard, she decided, run up to make many little rooms of one large one. Her grey petticoats slipped to the ground, and, stooping, she folded her clothes with neat, if not loving fingers, screwed her hair into a plait, wound her father's great gold watch, and opened the complete works of Wordsworth. She was reading the "Prelude," partly because she always read the "Prelude" abroad, and partly because she was engaged in writing a short _Primer_ _of_ _English_ _Literature_--_Beowulf_ _to_ _Swinburne_--which would have a paragraph on Wordsworth. She was deep in the fifth book, stopping indeed to pencil a note, when a pair of boots dropped, one after another, on the floor above her. She looked up and speculated. Whose boots were they, she wondered. She then became aware of a swishing sound next door--a woman, clearly, putting away her dress. It was succeeded by a gentle tapping sound, such as that which accompanies hair-dressing. It was very difficult to keep her attention fixed upon the "Prelude." Was it Susan Warrington tapping? She forced herself, however, to read to the end of the book, when she placed a mark between the pages, sighed contentedly, and then turned out the light.
Very different was the room through the wall, though as like in shape as one egg-box is like another. As Miss Allan read her book, Susan Warrington was brushing her hair. Ages have consecrated this hour, and the most majestic of all domestic actions, to talk of love between women; but Miss Warrington being alone could not talk; she could only look with extreme solicitude at her own face in the glass. She turned her head from side to side, tossing heavy locks now this way now that; and then withdrew a pace or two, and considered herself seriously."I'm nice-looking," she determined. "Not pretty--possibly," she drew herself up a little. "Yes--most people would say I was handsome."
She was really wondering what Arthur Venning would say she was. Her feeling about him was decidedly queer. She would not admit to herself that she was in love with him or that she wanted to marry him, yet she spent every minute when she was alone in wondering what he thought of her, and in comparing what they had done to-day with what they had done the day before.
"He didn't ask me to play, but he certainly followed me into the hall," she meditated, summing up the evening. She was thirty years of age, and owing to the number of her sisters and the seclusion of life in a country parsonage had as yet had no proposal of marriage. The hour of confidences was often a sad one, and she had been known to jump into bed, treating her hair unkindly, feeling herself overlooked by life in comparison with others. She was a big, well-made woman, the red lying upon her cheeks in patches that were too well defined, but her serious anxiety gave her a kind of beauty.
She was just about to pull back the bed-clothes when she exclaimed, "Oh, but I'm forgetting," and went to her writing-table. A brown volume lay there stamped with the figure of the year. She proceeded to write in the square ugly hand of a mature child, as she wrote daily year after year, keeping the diaries, though she seldom looked at them.
"A.M.--Talked to Mrs. H. Elliot about country neighbours. She knows the Manns; also the Selby-Carroways. How small the world is! Like her. Read a chapter of _Miss_ _Appleby's_ _Adventure_ to Aunt E. P.M.--Played lawn-tennis with Mr. Perrott and Evelyn M. Don't _like_ Mr. P. Have a feeling that he is not 'quite,' though clever certainly. Beat them. Day splendid, view wonderful. One gets used to no trees, though much too bare at first. Cards after dinner. Aunt E. cheerful, though twingy, she says. Mem.: _ask_ _about_ _damp_ _sheets_."
She knelt in prayer, and then lay down in bed, tucking the blankets comfortably about her, and in a few minutes her breathing showed that she was asleep. With its profoundly peaceful sighs and hesitations it resembled that of a cow standing up to its knees all night through in the long grass.
A glance into the next room revealed little more than a nose, prominent above the sheets. Growing accustomed to the darkness, for the windows were open and showed grey squares with splinters of starlight, one could distinguish a lean form, terribly like the body of a dead person, the body indeed of William Pepper, asleep too. Thirty-six, thirtyseven, thirty-eight--here were three Portuguese men of business, asleep presumably, since a snore came with the regularity of a great ticking clock. Thirty-nine was a corner room, at the end of the passage, but late though it was--"One" struck gently downstairs--a line of light under the door showed that some one was still awake."How late you are, Hugh!" a woman, lying in bed, said in a peevish but solicitous voice. Her husband was brushing his teeth, and for some moments did not answer. "You should have gone to sleep," he replied. "I was talking to Thornbury." "But you know that I never can sleep when I'm waiting for you," she said. To that he made no answer, but only remarked, "Well then, we'll turn out the light." They were silent.
The faint but penetrating pulse of an electric bell could now be heard in the corridor. Old Mrs. Paley, having woken hungry but without her spectacles, was summoning her maid to find the biscuit-box. The maid having answered the bell, drearily respectful even at this hour though muffled in a mackintosh, the passage was left in silence. Downstairs all was empty and dark; but on the upper floor a light still burnt in the room where the boots had dropped so heavily above Miss Allan's head. Here was the gentleman who, a few hours previously, in the shade of the curtain, had seemed to consist entirely of legs. Deep in an arm-chair he was reading the third volume of Gibbon's _History_ _of_ _the_ _Decline_ _and_ _Fall_ _of_ _Rome_ by candle-light. As he read he knocked the ash automatically, now and again, from his cigarette and turned the page, while a whole procession of splendid sentences entered his capacious brow and went marching through his brain in order. It seemed likely that this process might continue for an hour or more, until the entire regiment had shifted its quarters, had not the door opened, and the young man, who was inclined to be stout, come in with large naked feet."Oh, Hirst, what I forgot to say was--" "Two minutes," said Hirst, raising his finger. He safely stowed away the last words of the paragraph. "What was it you forgot to say?" he asked. "D'you think you _do_ make enough allowance for feelings?" asked Mr. Hewet. He had again forgotten what he had meant to say. After intense contemplation of the immaculate Gibbon Mr. Hirst smiled at the question of his friend. He laid aside his book and considered.
"I should call yours a singularly untidy mind," he observed. "Feelings? Aren't they just what we do allow for? We put love up there, and all the rest somewhere down below." With his left hand he indicated the top of a pyramid, and with his right the base."But you didn't get out of bed to tell me that," he added severely. "I got out of bed," said Hewet vaguely, "merely to talk I suppose."
"Meanwhile I shall undress," said Hirst. When naked of all but his shirt, and bent over the basin, Mr. Hirst no longer impressed one with the majesty of his intellect, but with the pathos of his young yet ugly body, for he stooped, and he was so thin that there were dark lines between the different bones of his neck and shoulders."Women interest me," said Hewet, who, sitting on the bed with his chin resting on his knees, paid no attention to the undressing of Mr. Hirst. "They're so stupid," said Hirst. "You're sitting on my pyjamas." "I suppose they _are_ stupid?" Hewet wondered. "There can't be two opinions about that, I imagine," said Hirst, hopping briskly across the room, "unless you're in love--that fat woman Warrington?" he enquired. "Not one fat woman--all fat women," Hewet sighed. "The women I saw to-night were not fat," said Hirst, who was taking advantage of Hewet's company to cut his toe-nails. "Describe them," said Hewet. "You know I can't describe things!" said Hirst. "They were much like other women, I should think. They always are." "No; that's where we differ," said Hewet. "I say everything's different. No two people are in the least the same. Take you and me now."
"So I used to think once," said Hirst. "But now they're all types. Don't take us,--take this hotel. You could draw circles round the whole lot of them, and they'd never stray outside."("You can kill a hen by doing that"), Hewet murmured.
"Mr. Hughling Elliot, Mrs. Hughling Elliot, Miss Allan, Mr. and Mrs. Thornbury--one circle," Hirst continued. "Miss Warrington, Mr. Arthur Venning, Mr. Perrott, Evelyn M. another circle; then there are a whole lot of natives; finally ourselves.""Are we all alone in our circle?" asked Hewet. "Quite alone," said Hirst. "You try to get out, but you can't. You only make a mess of things by trying." "I'm not a hen in a circle," said Hewet. "I'm a dove on a tree-top." "I wonder if this is what they call an ingrowing toe-nail?" said Hirst, examining the big toe on his left foot. "I flit from branch to branch," continued Hewet. "The world is profoundly pleasant." He lay back on the bed, upon his arms.
"I wonder if it's really nice to be as vague as you are?" asked Hirst, looking at him. "It's the lack of continuity--that's what's so odd bout you," he went on. "At the age of twentyseven, which is nearly thirty, you seem to have drawn no conclusions. A party of old women excites you still as though you were three."Hewet contemplated the angular young man who was neatly brushing the rims of his toenails into the fire-place in silence for a moment.
"I respect you, Hirst," he remarked. "I envy you--some things," said Hirst. "One: your capacity for not thinking; two: people like you better than they like me. Women like you, I suppose.""I wonder whether that isn't really what matters most?" said Hewet. Lying now flat on the bed he waved his hand in vague circles above him. "Of course it is," said Hirst. "But that's not the difficulty. The difficulty is, isn't it, to find an appropriate object?" "There are no female hens in your circle?" asked Hewet. "Not the ghost of one," said Hirst.
Although they had known each other for three years Hirst had never yet heard the true story of Hewet's loves. In general conversation it was taken for granted that they were many, but in private the subject was allowed to lapse. The fact that he had money enough to do no work, and that he had left Cambridge after two terms owing to a difference with the authorities, and had then travelled and drifted, made his life strange at many points where his friends' lives were much of a piece.
"I don't see your circles--I don't see them," Hewet continued. "I see a thing like a teetotum spinning in and out--knocking into things--dashing from side to side--collecting numbers--more and more and more, till the whole place is thick with them. Round and round they go--out there, over the rim--out of sight."His fingers showed that the waltzing teetotums had spun over the edge of the counterpane and fallen off the bed into infinity. "Could you contemplate three weeks alone in this hotel?" asked Hirst, after a moment's pause. Hewet proceeded to think. "The truth of it is that one never is alone, and one never is in company," he concluded. "Meaning?" said Hirst.
"Meaning? Oh, something about bubbles--auras--what d'you call 'em? You can't see my bubble; I can't see yours; all we see of each other is a speck, like the wick in the middle of that flame. The flame goes about with us everywhere; it's not ourselves exactly, but what we feel; the world is short, or people mainly; all kinds of people.""A nice streaky bubble yours must be!" said Hirst. "And supposing my bubble could run into some one else's bubble--" "And they both burst?" put in Hirst.
"Then--then--then--" pondered Hewet, as if to himself, "it would be an e-nor-mous world," he said, stretching his arms to their full width, as though even so they could hardly clasp the billowy universe, for when he was with Hirst he always felt unusually sanguine and vague."I don't think you altogether as foolish as I used to, Hewet," said Hirst. "You don't know what you mean but you try to say it." "But aren't you enjoying yourself here?" asked Hewet.
"On the whole--yes," said Hirst. "I like observing people. I like looking at things. This country is amazingly beautiful. Did you notice how the top of the mountain turned yellow to-night? Really we must take our lunch and spend the day out. You're getting disgustingly fat." He pointed at the calf of Hewet's bare leg."We'll get up an expedition," said Hewet energetically. "We'll ask the entire hotel. We'll hire donkeys and--" "Oh, Lord!" said Hirst, "do shut it! I can see Miss Warrington and Miss Allan and Mrs. Elliot and the rest squatting on the stones and quacking, 'How jolly!'"
"We'll ask Venning and Perrott and Miss Murgatroyd--every one we can lay hands on," went on Hewet. "What's the name of the little old grasshopper with the eyeglasses? Pepper?--Pepper shall lead us.""Thank God, you'll never get the donkeys," said Hirst.
"I must make a note of that," said Hewet, slowly dropping his feet to the floor. "Hirst escorts Miss Warrington; Pepper advances alone on a white ass; provisions equally distributed--or shall we hire a mule? The matrons--there's Mrs. Paley, by Jove!--share a carriage.""That's where you'll go wrong," said Hirst. "Putting virgins among matrons." "How long should you think that an expedition like that would take, Hirst?" asked Hewet. "From twelve to sixteen hours I would say," said Hirst. "The time usually occupied by a first confinement." "It will need considerable organisation," said Hewet. He was now padding softly round the room, and stopped to stir the books on the table. They lay heaped one upon another.
"We shall want some poets too," he remarked. "Not Gibbon; no; d'you happen to have _Modern_ _Love_ or _John_ _Donne_? You see, I contemplate pauses when people get tired of looking at the view, and then it would be nice to read something rather difficult aloud.""Mrs. Paley _will_ enjoy herself," said Hirst. "Mrs. Paley will enjoy it certainly," said Hewet. "It's one of the saddest things I know-the way elderly ladies cease to read poetry. And yet how appropriate this is:
I speak as one who plumbs Life's dim profound,
One who at length can sound Clear views and certain.
But--after love what comes? A scene that lours,
A few sad vacant hours, And then, the Curtain.
Between the extinction of Hewet's candle and the rising of a dusky Spanish boy who was the first to survey the desolation of the hotel in the early morning, a few hours of silence intervened. One could almost hear a hundred people breathing deeply, and however wakeful and restless it would have been hard to escape sleep in the middle of so much sleep. Looking out of the windows, there was only darkness to be seen. All over the shadowed half of the world people lay prone, and a few flickering lights in empty streets marked the places where their cities were built. Red and yellow omnibuses were crowding each other in Piccadilly; sumptuous women were rocking at a standstill; but here in the darkness an owl flitted from tree to tree, and when the breeze lifted the branches the moon flashed as if it were a torch. Until all people should awake again the houseless animals were abroad, the tigers and the stags, and the elephants coming down in the darkness to drink at pools. The wind at night blowing over the hills and woods was purer and fresher than the wind by day, and the earth, robbed of detail, more mysterious than the earth coloured and divided by roads and fields. For six hours this profound beauty existed, and then as the east grew whiter and whiter the ground swam to the surface, the roads were revealed, the smoke rose and the people stirred, and the sun shone upon the windows of the hotel at Santa Marina until they were uncurtained, and the gong blaring all through the house gave notice of breakfast.
Directly breakfast was over, the ladies as usual circled vaguely, picking up papers and putting them down again, about the hall.
Mrs. Elliot, the wife of Hughling the Oxford Don, was a short woman, whose expression was habitually plaintive. Her eyes moved from thing to thing as though they never found anything sufficiently pleasant to rest upon for any length of time."I'm going to try to get Aunt Emma out into the town," said Susan. "She's not seen a thing yet." "I call it so spirited of her at her age," said Mrs. Elliot, "coming all this way from her own fireside." "Yes, we always tell her she'll die on board ship," Susan replied. "She was born on one," she added.
"In the old days," said Mrs. Elliot, "a great many people were. I always pity the poor women so! We've got a lot to complain of!" She shook her head. Her eyes wandered about the table, and she remarked irrelevantly, "The poor little Queen of Holland! Newspaper reporters practically, one may say, at her bedroom door!""Were you talking of the Queen of Holland?" said the pleasant voice of Miss Allan, who was searching for the thick pages of _The_ _Times_ among a litter of thin foreign sheets. "I always envy any one who lives in such an excessively flat country," she remarked. "How very strange!" said Mrs. Elliot. "I find a flat country so depressing." "I'm afraid you can't be very happy here then, Miss Allan," said Susan. "On the contrary," said Miss Allan, "I am exceedingly fond of mountains." Perceiving _The_ _Times_ at some distance, she moved off to secure it. "Well, I must find my husband," said Mrs. Elliot, fidgeting away. "And I must go to my aunt," said Miss Warrington, and taking up the duties of the day they moved away.
Whether the flimsiness of foreign sheets and the coarseness of their type is any proof of frivolity and ignorance, there is no doubt that English people scarce consider news read there as news, any more than a programme bought from a man in the street inspires confidence in what it says. A very respectable elderly pair, having inspected the long tables of newspapers, did not think it worth their while to read more than the headlines. "The debate on the fifteenth should have reached us by now," Mrs. Thornbury murmured. Mr. Thornbury, who was beautifully clean and had red rubbed into his handsome worn face like traces of paint on a weather-beaten wooden figure, looked over his glasses and saw that Miss Allan had _The_ _Times_.The couple therefore sat themselves down in arm-chairs and waited.
"Ah, there's Mr. Hewet," said Mrs. Thornbury. "Mr. Hewet," she continued, "do come and sit by us. I was telling my husband how much you reminded me of a dear old friend of mine--Mary Umpleby. She was a most delightful woman, I assure you. She grew roses. We used to stay with her in the old days.""No young man likes to have it said that he resembles an elderly spinster," said Mr. Thornbury. "On the contrary," said Mr. Hewet, "I always think it a compliment to remind people of some one else. But Miss Umpleby--why did she grow roses?"
"Ah, poor thing," said Mrs. Thornbury, "that's a long story. She had gone through dreadful sorrows. At one time I think she would have lost her senses if it hadn't been for her garden. The soil was very much against her--a blessing in disguise; she had to be up at dawn--out in all weathers. And then there are creatures that eat roses. But she triumphed. She always did. She was a brave soul." She sighed deeply but at the same time with resignation."I did not realise that I was monopolising the paper," said Miss Allan, coming up to them. "We were so anxious to read about the debate," said Mrs. Thornbury, accepting it on behalf of her husband.
"One doesn't realise how interesting a debate can be until one has sons in the navy. My interests are equally balanced, though; I have sons in the army too; and one son who makes speeches at the Union--my baby!""Hirst would know him, I expect," said Hewet. "Mr. Hirst has such an interesting face," said Mrs. Thornbury. "But I feel one ought to be very clever to talk to him. Well, William?" she enquired, for Mr. Thornbury grunted.
"They're making a mess of it," said Mr. Thornbury. He had reached the second column of the report, a spasmodic column, for the Irish members had been brawling three weeks ago at Westminster over a question of naval efficiency. After a disturbed paragraph or two, the column of print once more ran smoothly.
"You have read it?" Mrs. Thornbury asked Miss Allan. "No, I am ashamed to say I have only read about the discoveries in Crete," said Miss Allan.
"Oh, but I would give so much to realise the ancient world!" cried Mrs. Thornbury. "Now that we old people are alone,--we're on our second honeymoon,--I am really going to put myself to school again. After all we are _founded_ on the past, aren't we, Mr. Hewet? My soldier son says that there is still a great deal to be learnt from Hannibal. One ought to know so much more than one does. Somehow when I read the paper, I begin with the debates first, and, before I've done, the door always opens--we're a very large party at home--and so one never does think enough about the ancients and all they've done for us. But _you_ begin at the beginning, Miss Allan.""When I think of the Greeks I think of them as naked black men," said Miss Allan, "which is quite incorrect, I'm sure." "And you, Mr. Hirst?" said Mrs. Thornbury, perceiving that the gaunt young man was near. "I'm sure you read everything." "I confine myself to cricket and crime," said Hirst. "The worst of coming from the upper classes," he continued, "is that one's friends are never killed in railway accidents." Mr. Thornbury threw down the paper, and emphatically dropped his eyeglasses. The sheets fell in the middle of the group, and were eyed by them all. "It's not gone well?" asked his wife solicitously.
Hewet picked up one sheet and read, "A lady was walking yesterday in the streets of Westminster when she perceived a cat in the window of a deserted house. The famished animal--""I shall be out of it anyway," Mr. Thornbury interrupted peevishly. "Cats are often forgotten," Miss Allan remarked. "Remember, William, the Prime Minister has reserved his answer," said Mrs. Thornbury. "At the age of eighty, Mr. Joshua Harris of Eeles Park, Brondesbury, has had a son," said Hirst. ". . . The famished animal, which had been noticed by workmen for some days, was rescued, but--by Jove! it bit the man's hand to pieces!"
"Wild with hunger, I suppose," commented Miss Allan. "You're all neglecting the chief advantage of being abroad," said Mr. Hughling Elliot, who had joined the group. "You might read your news in French, which is equivalent to reading no news at all."
Mr. Elliot had a profound knowledge of Coptic, which he concealed as far as possible, and quoted French phrases so exquisitely that it was hard to believe that he could also speak the ordinary tongue. He had an immense respect for the French."Coming?" he asked the two young men. "We ought to start before it's really hot." "I beg of you not to walk in the heat, Hugh," his wife pleaded, giving him an angular parcel enclosing half a chicken and some raisins.
"Hewet will be our barometer," said Mr. Elliot. "He will melt before I shall." Indeed, if so much as a drop had melted off his spare ribs, the bones would have lain bare. The ladies were left alone now, surrounding _The_ _Times_ which lay upon the floor. Miss Allan looked at her father's watch."Ten minutes to eleven," she observed. "Work?" asked Mrs. Thornbury. "Work," replied Miss Allan. "What a fine creature she is!" murmured Mrs. Thornbury, as the square figure in its manly coat withdrew. "And I'm sure she has a hard life," sighed Mrs. Elliot. "Oh, it _is_ a hard life," said Mrs. Thornbury. "Unmarried women--earning their livings-it's the hardest life of all." "Yet she seems pretty cheerful," said Mrs. Elliot. "It must be very interesting," said Mrs. Thornbury. "I envy her her knowledge." "But that isn't what women want," said Mrs. Elliot.
"I'm afraid it's all a great many can hope to have," sighed Mrs. Thornbury. "I believe that there are more of us than ever now. Sir Harley Lethbridge was telling me only the other day how difficult it is to find boys for the navy--partly because of their teeth, it is true. And I have heard young women talk quite openly of--"
"Dreadful, dreadful!" exclaimed Mrs. Elliot. "The crown, as one may call it, of a woman's life. I, who know what it is to be childless--" she sighed and ceased.
"But we must not be hard," said Mrs. Thornbury. "The conditions are so much changed since I was a young woman."
"I sketch a great deal," said Mrs. Elliot, "but that isn't really an occupation. It's so disconcerting to find girls just beginning doing better than one does oneself! And nature's difficult--very difficult!""Are there not institutions--clubs--that you could help?" asked Mrs. Thornbury. "They are so exhausting," said Mrs. Elliot. "I look strong, because of my colour; but I'm not; the youngest of eleven never is."
"If the mother is careful before," said Mrs. Thornbury judicially, "there is no reason why the size of the family should make any difference. And there is no training like the training that brothers and sisters give each other. I am sure of that. I have seen it with my own children. My eldest boy Ralph, for instance--"But Mrs. Elliot was inattentive to the elder lady's experience, and her eyes wandered about the hall.
"My mother had two miscarriages, I know," she said suddenly. "The first because she met one of those great dancing bears--they shouldn't be allowed; the other--it was a horrid story--our cook had a child and there was a dinner party. So I put my dyspepsia down to that."
"And a miscarriage is so much worse than a confinement," Mrs. Thornbury murmured absentmindedly, adjusting her spectacles and picking up _The_ _Times_. Mrs. Elliot rose and fluttered away.
When she had heard what one of the million voices speaking in the paper had to say, and noticed that a cousin of hers had married a clergyman at Minehead--ignoring the drunken women, the golden animals of Crete, the movements of battalions, the dinners, the reforms, the fires, the indignant, the learned and benevolent, Mrs. Thornbury went upstairs to write a letter for the mail.
The paper lay directly beneath the clock, the two together seeming to represent stability in a changing world. Mr. Perrott passed through; Mr. Venning poised for a second on the edge of a table. Mrs. Paley was wheeled past. Susan followed. Mr. Venning strolled after her. Portuguese military families, their clothes suggesting late rising in untidy bedrooms, trailed across, attended by confidential nurses carrying noisy children. As midday drew on, and the sun beat straight upon the roof, an eddy of great flies droned in a circle; iced drinks were served under the palms; the long blinds were pulled down with a shriek, turning all the light yellow. The clock now had a silent hall to tick in, and an audience of four or five somnolent merchants. By degrees white figures with shady hats came in at the door, admitting a wedge of the hot summer day, and shutting it out again. After resting in the dimness for a minute, they went upstairs. Simultaneously, the clock wheezed one, and the gong sounded, beginning softly, working itself into a frenzy, and ceasing. There was a pause. Then all those who had gone upstairs came down; cripples came, planting both feet on the same step lest they should slip; prim little girls came, holding the nurse's finger; fat old men came still buttoning waistcoats. The gong had been sounded in the garden, and by degrees recumbent figures rose and strolled in to eat, since the time had come for them to feed again. There were pools and bars of shade in the garden even at midday, where two or three visitors could lie working or talking at their ease.
Owing to the heat of the day, luncheon was generally a silent meal, when people observed their neighbors and took stock of any new faces there might be, hazarding guesses as to who they were and what they did. Mrs. Paley, although well over seventy and crippled in the legs, enjoyed her food and the peculiarities of her fellow-beings. She was seated at a small table with Susan.
"I shouldn't like to say what _she_ is!" she chuckled, surveying a tall woman dressed conspicuously in white, with paint in the hollows of her cheeks, who was always late, and always attended by a shabby female follower, at which remark Susan blushed, and wondered why her aunt said such things.
Lunch went on methodically, until each of the seven courses was left in fragments and the fruit was merely a toy, to be peeled and sliced as a child destroys a daisy, petal by petal. The food served as an extinguisher upon any faint flame of the human spirit that might survive the midday heat, but Susan sat in her room afterwards, turning over and over the delightful fact that Mr. Venning had come to her in the garden, and had sat there quite half an hour while she read aloud to her aunt. Men and women sought different corners where they could lie unobserved, and from two to four it might be said without exaggeration that the hotel was inhabited by bodies without souls. Disastrous would have been the result if a fire or a death had suddenly demanded something heroic of human nature, but tragedies come in the hungry hours. Towards four o'clock the human spirit again began to lick the body, as a flame licks a black promontory of coal. Mrs. Paley felt it unseemly to open her toothless jaw so widely, though there was no one near, and Mrs. Elliot surveyed her found flushed face anxiously in the looking-glass.
Half an hour later, having removed the traces of sleep, they met each other in the hall, and Mrs. Paley observed that she was going to have her tea.
"Oh, I've done two or three little daubs," said Mrs. Elliot, speaking rather louder than usual. "But it's so difficult after Oxfordshire, where there are so many trees. The light's so strong here. Some people admire it, I know, but I find it very fatiguing."
"I really don't need cooking, Susan," said Mrs. Paley, when her niece returned. "I must trouble you to move me." Everything had to be moved. Finally the old lady was placed so that the light wavered over her, as though she were a fish in a net. Susan poured out tea, and was just remarking that they were having hot weather in Wiltshire too, when Mr. Venning asked whether he might join them.
"It's so nice to find a young man who doesn't despise tea," said Mrs. Paley, regaining her good humour. "One of my nephews the other day asked for a glass of sherry--at five o'clock! I told him he could get it at the public house round the corner, but not in my drawing room.""I'd rather go without lunch than tea," said Mr. Venning. "That's not strictly true. I want both."
Mr. Venning was a dark young man, about thirty-two years of age, very slapdash and confident in his manner, although at this moment obviously a little excited. His friend Mr. Perrott was a barrister, and as Mr. Perrott refused to go anywhere without Mr. Venning it was necessary, when Mr. Perrott came to Santa Marina about a Company, for Mr. Venning to come too. He was a barrister also, but he loathed a profession which kept him indoors over books, and directly his widowed mother died he was going, so he confided to Susan, to take up flying seriously, and become partner in a large business for making aeroplanes. The talk rambled on. It dealt, of course, with the beauties and singularities of the place, the streets, the people, and the quantities of unowned yellow dogs."Don't you think it dreadfully cruel the way they treat dogs in this country?" asked Mrs. Paley. "I'd have 'em all shot," said Mr. Venning. "Oh, but the darling puppies," said Susan.
"Jolly little chaps," said Mr. Venning. "Look here, you've got nothing to eat." A great wedge of cake was handed Susan on the point of a trembling knife. Her hand trembled too as she took it."I have such a dear dog at home," said Mrs. Elliot. "My parrot can't stand dogs," said Mrs. Paley, with the air of one making a confidence. "I always suspect that he (or she) was teased by a dog when I was abroad." "You didn't get far this morning, Miss Warrington," said Mr. Venning.
"It was hot," she answered. Their conversation became private, owing to Mrs. Paley's deafness and the long sad history which Mrs. Elliot had embarked upon of a wire-haired terrier, white with just one black spot, belonging to an uncle of hers, which had committed suicide. "Animals do commit suicide," she sighed, as if she asserted a painful fact."Couldn't we explore the town this evening?" Mr. Venning suggested. "My aunt--" Susan began. "You deserve a holiday," he said. "You're always doing things for other people." "But that's my life," she said, under cover of refilling the teapot. "That's no one's life," he returned, "no young person's. You'll come?" "I should like to come," she murmured. At this moment Mrs. Elliot looked up and exclaimed, "Oh, Hugh! He's bringing some one," she added. "He would like some tea," said Mrs. Paley. "Susan, run and get some cups--there are the two young men." "We're thirsting for tea," said Mr. Elliot. "You know Mr. Ambrose, Hilda? We met on the hill."
"He dragged me in," said Ridley, "or I should have been ashamed. I'm dusty and dirty and disagreeable." He pointed to his boots which were white with dust, while a dejected flower drooping in his buttonhole, like an exhausted animal over a gate, added to the effect of length and untidiness. He was introduced to the others. Mr. Hewet and Mr. Hirst brought chairs, and tea began again, Susan pouring cascades of water from pot to pot, always cheerfully, and with the competence of long use.
"My wife's brother," Ridley explained to Hilda, whom he failed to remember, "has a house here, which he has lent us. I was sitting on a rock thinking of nothing at all when Elliot started up like a fairy in a pantomime."
"We've been cursing you," said Ridley in answer to Mrs. Elliot's kind enquiries about his wife. "You tourists eat up all the eggs, Helen tells me. That's an eye-sore too"--he nodded his head at the hotel. "Disgusting luxury, I call it. We live with pigs in the drawingroom.""The food is not at all what it ought to be, considering the price," said Mrs. Paley seriously. "But unless one goes to a hotel where is one to go to?" "Stay at home," said Ridley. "I often wish I had! Everyone ought to stay at home. But, of course, they won't." Mrs. Paley conceived a certain grudge against Ridley, who seemed to be criticising her habits after an acquaintance of five minutes.
"I believe in foreign travel myself," she stated, "if one knows one's native land, which I think I can honestly say I do. I should not allow any one to travel until they had visited Kent and Dorsetshire--Kent for the hops, and Dorsetshire for its old stone cottages. There is nothing to compare with them here.""Yes--I always think that some people like the flat and other people like the downs," said Mrs. Elliot rather vaguely.
Hirst, who had been eating and drinking without interruption, now lit a cigarette, and observed, "Oh, but we're all agreed by this time that nature's a mistake. She's either very ugly, appallingly uncomfortable, or absolutely terrifying. I don't know which alarms me most--a cow or a tree. I once met a cow in a field by night. The creature looked at me. I assure you it turned my hair grey. It's a disgrace that the animals should be allowed to go at large."
"And what did the cow think of _him_?" Venning mumbled to Susan, who immediately decided in her own mind that Mr. Hirst was a dreadful young man, and that although he had such an air of being clever he probably wasn't as clever as Arthur, in the ways that really matter.
"Wasn't it Wilde who discovered the fact that nature makes no allowance for hip-bones?" enquired Hughling Elliot. He knew by this time exactly what scholarships and distinction Hirst enjoyed, and had formed a very high opinion of his capacities.
Ridley conjectured that it was now permissible for him to take his leave. Politeness required him to thank Mrs. Elliot for his tea, and to add, with a wave of his hand, "You must come up and see us."The wave included both Hirst and Hewet, and Hewet answered, "I should like it immensely."
The party broke up, and Susan, who had never felt so happy in her life, was just about to start for her walk in the town with Arthur, when Mrs. Paley beckoned her back. She could not understand from the book how Double Demon patience is played; and suggested that if they sat down and worked it out together it would fill up the time nicely before dinner.
Among the promises which Mrs. Ambrose had made her niece should she stay was a room cut off from the rest of the house, large, private--a room in which she could play, read, think, defy the world, a fortress as well as a sanctuary. Rooms, she knew, became more like worlds than rooms at the age of twenty-four. Her judgment was correct, and when she shut the door Rachel entered an enchanted place, where the poets sang and things fell into their right proportions. Some days after the vision of the hotel by night she was sitting alone, sunk in an arm-chair, reading a brightly-covered red volume lettered on the back _Works_ _of_ _Henrik_ _Ibsen_. Music was open on the piano, and books of music rose in two jagged pillars on the floor; but for the moment music was deserted.
Far from looking bored or absent-minded, her eyes were concentrated almost sternly upon the page, and from her breathing, which was slow but repressed, it could be seen that her whole body was constrained by the working of her mind. At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, and drew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks the transition from the imaginary world to the real world.
"What I want to know," she said aloud, "is this: What is the truth? What's the truth of it all?" She was speaking partly as herself, and partly as the heroine of the play she had just read. The landscape outside, because she had seen nothing but print for the space of two hours, now appeared amazingly solid and clear, but although there were men on the hill washing the trunks of olive trees with a white liquid, for the moment she herself was the most vivid thing in it--an heroic statue in the middle of the foreground, dominating the view. Ibsen's plays always left her in that condition. She acted them for days at a time, greatly to Helen's amusement; and then it would be Meredith's turn and she became Diana of the Crossways. But Helen was aware that it was not all acting, and that some sort of change was taking place in the human being. When Rachel became tired of the rigidity of her pose on the back of the chair, she turned round, slid comfortably down into it, and gazed out over the furniture through the window opposite which opened on the garden. (Her mind wandered away from Nora, but she went on thinking of things that the book suggested to her, of women and life.)
During the three months she had been here she had made up considerably, as Helen meant she should, for time spent in interminable walks round sheltered gardens, and the household gossip of her aunts. But Mrs. Ambrose would have been the first to disclaim any influence, or indeed any belief that to influence was within her power. She saw her less shy, and less serious, which was all to the good, and the violent leaps and the interminable mazes which had led to that result were usually not even guessed at by her. Talk was the medicine she trusted to, talk about everything, talk that was free, unguarded, and as candid as a habit of talking with men made natural in her own case. Nor did she encourage those habits of unselfishness and amiability founded upon insincerity which are put at so high a value in mixed households of men and women. She desired that Rachel should think, and for this reason offered books and discouraged too entire a dependence upon Bach and Beethoven and Wagner. But when Mrs. Ambrose would have suggested Defoe, Maupassant, or some spacious chronicle of family life, Rachel chose modern books, books in shiny yellow covers, books with a great deal of gilding on the back, which were tokens in her aunt's eyes of harsh wrangling and disputes about facts which had no such importance as the moderns claimed for them. But she did not interfere. Rachel read what she chose, reading with the curious literalness of one to whom written sentences are unfamiliar, and handling words as though they were made of wood, separately of great importance, and possessed of shapes like tables or chairs. In this way she came to conclusions, which had to be remodelled according to the adventures of the day, and were indeed recast as liberally as any one could desire, leaving always a small grain of belief behind them.
Ibsen was succeeded by a novel such as Mrs. Ambrose detested, whose purpose was to distribute the guilt of a woman's downfall upon the right shoulders; a purpose which was achieved, if the reader's discomfort were any proof of it. She threw the book down, looked out of the window, turned away from the window, and relapsed into an arm-chair.
The morning was hot, and the exercise of reading left her mind contracting and expanding like the main-spring of a clock, and the small noises of midday, which one can ascribe to no definite cause, in a regular rhythm. It was all very real, very big, very impersonal, and after a moment or two she began to raise her first finger and to let it fall on the arm of her chair so as to bring back to herself some consciousness of her own existence. She was next overcome by the unspeakable queerness of the fact that she should be sitting in an arm-chair, in the morning, in the middle of the world. Who were the people moving in the house--moving things from one place to another? And life, what was that? It was only a light passing over the surface and vanishing, as in time she would vanish, though the furniture in the room would remain. Her dissolution became so complete that she could not raise her finger any more, and sat perfectly still, listening and looking always at the same spot. It became stranger and stranger. She was overcome with awe that things should exist at all. . . . She forgot that she had any fingers to raise. . . . The things that existed were so immense and so desolate. . . . She continued to be conscious of these vast masses of substance for a long stretch of time, the clock still ticking in the midst of the universal silence.
"Come in," she said mechanically, for a string in her brain seemed to be pulled by a persistent knocking at the door. With great slowness the door opened and a tall human being came towards her, holding out her arm and saying:"What am I to say to this?" The utter absurdity of a woman coming into a room with a piece of paper in her hand amazed Rachel.
"I don't know what to answer, or who Terence Hewet is," Helen continued, in the toneless voice of a ghost. She put a paper before Rachel on which were written the incredible words:
DEAR MRS. AMBROSE--I am getting up a picnic for next Friday, when we propose to start at eleven-thirty if the weather is fine, and to make the ascent of Monte Rosa. It will take some time, but the view should be magnificent. It would give me great pleasure if you and Miss Vinrace would consent to be of the party.--
For the second time Rachel read the letter, but to herself. This time, instead of seeming vague as ghosts, each word was astonishingly prominent; they came out as the tops of mountains come through a mist. _Friday_--_eleven-thirty_--_Miss_ _Vinrace_. The blood began to run in her veins; she felt her eyes brighten.
"We must go," she said, rather surprising Helen by her decision. "We must certainly go"-such was the relief of finding that things still happened, and indeed they appeared the brighter for the mist surrounding them.
"Monte Rosa--that's the mountain over there, isn't it?" said Helen; "but Hewet--who's he? One of the young men Ridley met, I suppose. Shall I say yes, then? It may be dreadfully dull."She took the letter back and went, for the messenger was waiting for her answer.
The party which had been suggested a few nights ago in Mr. Hirst's bedroom had taken shape and was the source of great satisfaction to Mr. Hewet, who had seldom used his practical abilities, and was pleased to find them equal to the strain. His invitations had been universally accepted, which was the more encouraging as they had been issued against Hirst's advice to people who were very dull, not at all suited to each other, and sure not to come.
"Undoubtedly," he said, as he twirled and untwirled a note signed Helen Ambrose, "the gifts needed to make a great commander have been absurdly overrated. About half the intellectual effort which is needed to review a book of modern poetry has enabled me to get together seven or eight people, of opposite sexes, at the same spot at the same hour on the same day. What else is generalship, Hirst? What more did Wellington do on the field of Waterloo? It's like counting the number of pebbles of a path, tedious but not difficult."
He was sitting in his bedroom, one leg over the arm of the chair, and Hirst was writing a letter opposite. Hirst was quick to point out that all the difficulties remained. "For instance, here are two women you've never seen. Suppose one of them suffers from mountain-sickness, as my sister does, and the other--"
"Oh, the women are for you," Hewet interrupted. "I asked them solely for your benefit. What you want, Hirst, you know, is the society of young women of your own age. You don't know how to get on with women, which is a great defect, considering that half the world consists of women."Hirst groaned that he was quite aware of that.
But Hewet's complacency was a little chilled as he walked with Hirst to the place where a general meeting had been appointed. He wondered why on earth he had asked these people, and what one really expected to get from bunching human beings up together.
"Cows," he reflected, "draw together in a field; ships in a calm; and we're just the same when we've nothing else to do. But why do we do it?--is it to prevent ourselves from seeing to the bottom of things" (he stopped by a stream and began stirring it with his walking-stick and clouding the water with mud), "making cities and mountains and whole universes out of nothing, or do we really love each other, or do we, on the other hand, live in a state of perpetual uncertainty, knowing nothing, leaping from moment to moment as from world to world?--which is, on the whole, the view _I_ incline to."He jumped over the stream; Hirst went round and joined him, remarking that he had long ceased to look for the reason of any human action.
Half a mile further, they came to a group of plane trees and the salmon-pink farmhouse standing by the stream which had been chosen as meeting-place. It was a shady spot, lying conveniently just where the hill sprung out from the flat. Between the thin stems of the plane trees the young men could see little knots of donkeys pasturing, and a tall woman rubbing the nose of one of them, while another woman was kneeling by the stream lapping water out of her palms.As they entered the shady place, Helen looked up and then held out her hand. "I must introduce myself," she said. "I am Mrs. Ambrose." Having shaken hands, she said, "That's my niece." Rachel approached awkwardly. She held out her hand, but withdrew it. "It's all wet," she said. Scarcely had they spoken, when the first carriage drew up.
The donkeys were quickly jerked into attention, and the second carriage arrived. By degrees the grove filled with people--the Elliots, the Thornburys, Mr. Venning and Susan, Miss Allan, Evelyn Murgatroyd, and Mr. Perrott. Mr. Hirst acted the part of hoarse energetic sheep-dog. By means of a few words of caustic Latin he had the animals marshalled, and by inclining a sharp shoulder he lifted the ladies. "What Hewet fails to understand," he remarked, "is that we must break the back of the ascent before midday." He was assisting a young lady, by name Evelyn Murgatroyd, as he spoke. She rose light as a bubble to her seat. With a feather drooping from a broad-brimmed hat, in white from top to toe, she looked like a gallant lady of the time of Charles the First leading royalist troops into action."Ride with me," she commanded; and, as soon as Hirst had swung himself across a mule, the two started, leading the cavalcade. "You're not to call me Miss Murgatroyd. I hate it," she said. "My name's Evelyn. What's yours?" "St. John," he said. "I like that," said Evelyn. "And what's your friend's name?" "His initials being R. S. T., we call him Monk," said Hirst. "Oh, you're all too clever," she said. "Which way? Pick me a branch. Let's canter."
She gave her donkey a sharp cut with a switch and started forward. The full and romantic career of Evelyn Murgatroyd is best hit off by her own words, "Call me Evelyn and I'll call you St. John." She said that on very slight provocation--her surname was enough--but although a great many young men had answered her already with considerable spirit she went on saying it and making choice of none. But her donkey stumbled to a jog-trot, and she had to ride in advance alone, for the path when it began to ascend one of the spines of the hill became narrow and scattered with stones. The cavalcade wound on like a jointed caterpillar, tufted with the white parasols of the ladies, and the panama hats of the gentlemen. At one point where the ground rose sharply, Evelyn M. jumped off, threw her reins to the native boy, and adjured St. John Hirst to dismount too. Their example was followed by those who felt the need of stretching."I don't see any need to get off," said Miss Allan to Mrs. Elliot just behind her, "considering the difficulty I had getting on." "These little donkeys stand anything, _n'est-ce_ _pas_?" Mrs. Elliot addressed the guide, who obligingly bowed his head.
"Flowers," said Helen, stooping to pick the lovely little bright flowers which grew separately here and there. "You pinch their leaves and then they smell," she said, laying one on Miss Allan's knee.
"Haven't we met before?" asked Miss Allan, looking at her. "I was taking it for granted," Helen laughed, for in the confusion of meeting they had not been introduced.
"How sensible!" chirped Mrs. Elliot. "That's just what one would always like--only unfortunately it's not possible." "Not possible?" said Helen. "Everything's possible. Who knows what mayn't happen before night-fall?" she continued, mocking the poor lady's timidity, who depended implicitly upon one thing following another that the mere glimpse of a world where dinner could be disregarded, or the table moved one inch from its accustomed place, filled her with fears for her own stability.
Higher and higher they went, becoming separated from the world. The world, when they turned to look back, flattened itself out, and was marked with squares of thin green and grey.
"Towns are very small," Rachel remarked, obscuring the whole of Santa Marina and its suburbs with one hand. The sea filled in all the angles of the coast smoothly, breaking in a white frill, and here and there ships were set firmly in the blue. The sea was stained with purple and green blots, and there was a glittering line upon the rim where it met the sky. The air was very clear and silent save for the sharp noise of grasshoppers and the hum of bees, which sounded loud in the ear as they shot past and vanished. The party halted and sat for a time in a quarry on the hillside."Amazingly clear," exclaimed St. John, identifying one cleft in the land after another. Evelyn M. sat beside him, propping her chin on her hand. She surveyed the view with a certain look of triumph.
"D'you think Garibaldi was ever up here?" she asked Mr. Hirst. Oh, if she had been his bride! If, instead of a picnic party, this was a party of patriots, and she, red-shirted like the rest, had lain among grim men, flat on the turf, aiming her gun at the white turrets beneath them, screening her eyes to pierce through the smoke! So thinking, her foot stirred restlessly, and she exclaimed:"I don't call this _life_, do you?" "What do you call life?" said St. John. "Fighting--revolution," she said, still gazing at the doomed city. "You only care for books, I know." "You're quite wrong," said St. John. "Explain," she urged, for there were no guns to be aimed at bodies, and she turned to another kind of warfare.
"What do I care for? People," he said. "Well, I _am_ surprised!" she exclaimed. "You look so awfully serious. Do let's be friends and tell each other what we're like. I hate being cautious, don't you?"
But St. John was decidedly cautious, as she could see by the sudden constriction of his lips, and had no intention of revealing his soul to a young lady. "The ass is eating my hat," he remarked, and stretched out for it instead of answering her. Evelyn blushed very slightly and then turned with some impetuosity upon Mr. Perrott, and when they mounted again it was Mr. Perrott who lifted her to her seat."When one has laid the eggs one eats the omelette," said Hughling Elliot, exquisitely in French, a hint to the rest of them that it was time to ride on again.
The midday sun which Hirst had foretold was beginning to beat down hotly. The higher they got the more of the sky appeared, until the mountain was only a small tent of earth against an enormous blue background. The English fell silent; the natives who walked beside the donkeys broke into queer wavering songs and tossed jokes from one to the other. The way grew very steep, and each rider kept his eyes fixed on the hobbling curved form of the rider and donkey directly in front of him. Rather more strain was being put upon their bodies than is quite legitimate in a party of pleasure, and Hewet overheard one or two slightly grumbling remarks."Expeditions in such heat are perhaps a little unwise," Mrs. Elliot murmured to Miss Allan.
But Miss Allan returned, "I always like to get to the top"; and it was true, although she was a big woman, stiff in the joints, and unused to donkey-riding, but as her holidays were few she made the most of them.
The vivacious white figure rode well in front; she had somehow possessed herself of a leafy branch and wore it round her hat like a garland. They went on for a few minutes in silence.
"The view will be wonderful," Hewet assured them, turning round in his saddle and smiling encouragement. Rachel caught his eye and smiled too. They struggled on for some time longer, nothing being heard but the clatter of hooves striving on the loose stones. Then they saw that Evelyn was off her ass, and that Mr. Perrott was standing in the attitude of a statesman in Parliament Square, stretching an arm of stone towards the view. A little to the left of them was a low ruined wall, the stump of an Elizabethan watch-tower.
"I couldn't have stood it much longer," Mrs. Elliot confided to Mrs. Thornbury, but the excitement of being at the top in another moment and seeing the view prevented any one from answering her. One after another they came out on the flat space at the top and stood overcome with wonder. Before them they beheld an immense space--grey sands running into forest, and forest merging in mountains, and mountains washed by air, the infinite distances of South America. A river ran across the plain, as flat as the land, and appearing quite as stationary. The effect of so much space was at first rather chilling. They felt themselves very small, and for some time no one said anything. Then Evelyn exclaimed, "Splendid!" She took hold of the hand that was next her; it chanced to be Miss Allan's hand."North--South--East--West," said Miss Allan, jerking her head slightly towards the points of the compass.
Hewet, who had gone a little in front, looked up at his guests as if to justify himself for having brought them. He observed how strangely the people standing in a row with their figures bent slightly forward and their clothes plastered by the wind to the shape of their bodies resembled naked statues. On their pedestal of earth they looked unfamiliar and noble, but in another moment they had broken their rank, and he had to see to the laying out of food. Hirst came to his help, and they handed packets of chicken and bread from one to another.As St. John gave Helen her packet she looked him full in the face and said: "Do you remember--two women?" He looked at her sharply. "I do," he answered. "So you're the two women!" Hewet exclaimed, looking from Helen to Rachel. "Your lights tempted us," said Helen. "We watched you playing cards, but we never knew that we were being watched." "It was like a thing in a play," Rachel added. "And Hirst couldn't describe you," said Hewet. It was certainly odd to have seen Helen and to find nothing to say about her. Hughling Elliot put up his eyeglass and grasped the situation.
"I don't know of anything more dreadful," he said, pulling at the joint of a chicken's leg, "than being seen when one isn't conscious of it. One feels sure one has been caught doing something ridiculous--looking at one's tongue in a hansom, for instance."Now the others ceased to look at the view, and drawing together sat down in a circle round the baskets. "And yet those little looking-glasses in hansoms have a fascination of their own," said
Mrs. Thornbury. "One's features look so different when one can only see a bit of them." "There will soon be very few hansom cabs left," said Mrs. Elliot. "And four-wheeled cabs--I assure you even at Oxford it's almost impossible to get a four-wheeled cab.""I wonder what happens to the horses," said Susan. "Veal pie," said Arthur. "It's high time that horses should become extinct anyhow," said Hirst. "They're distressingly ugly, besides being vicious."
But Susan, who had been brought up to understand that the horse is the noblest of God's creatures, could not agree, and Venning thought Hirst an unspeakable ass, but was too polite not to continue the conversation."When they see us falling out of aeroplanes they get some of their own back, I expect," he remarked. "You fly?" said old Mr. Thornbury, putting on his spectacles to look at him. "I hope to, some day," said Arthur.
Here flying was discussed at length, and Mrs. Thornbury delivered an opinion which was almost a speech to the effect that it would be quite necessary in time of war, and in England we were terribly behind-hand. "If I were a young fellow," she concluded, "I should certainly qualify." It was odd to look at the little elderly lady, in her grey coat and skirt, with a sandwich in her hand, her eyes lighting up with zeal as she imagined herself a young man in an aeroplane. For some reason, however, the talk did not run easily after this, and all they said was about drink and salt and the view. Suddenly Miss Allan, who was seated with her back to the ruined wall, put down her sandwich, picked something off her neck, and remarked, "I'm covered with little creatures." It was true, and the discovery was very welcome. The ants were pouring down a glacier of loose earth heaped between the stones of the ruin--large brown ants with polished bodies. She held out one on the back of her hand for Helen to look at."Suppose they sting?" said Helen.
"They will not sting, but they may infest the victuals," said Miss Allan, and measures were taken at once to divert the ants from their course. At Hewet's suggestion it was decided to adopt the methods of modern warfare against an invading army. The tablecloth represented the invaded country, and round it they built barricades of baskets, set up the wine bottles in a rampart, made fortifications of bread and dug fosses of salt. When an ant got through it was exposed to a fire of bread-crumbs, until Susan pronounced that that was cruel, and rewarded those brave spirits with spoil in the shape of tongue. Playing this game they lost their stiffness, and even became unusually daring, for Mr. Perrott, who was very shy, said, "Permit me," and removed an ant from Evelyn's neck. "It would be no laughing matter really," said Mrs. Elliot confidentially to Mrs. Thornbury, "if an ant did get between the vest and the skin."
The noise grew suddenly more clamorous, for it was discovered that a long line of ants had found their way on to the table-cloth by a back entrance, and if success could be gauged by noise, Hewet had every reason to think his party a success. Nevertheless he became, for no reason at all, profoundly depressed.
"They are not satisfactory; they are ignoble," he thought, surveying his guests from a little distance, where he was gathering together the plates. He glanced at them all, stooping and swaying and gesticulating round the table-cloth. Amiable and modest, respectable in many ways, lovable even in their contentment and desire to be kind, how mediocre they all were, and capable of what insipid cruelty to one another! There was Mrs. Thornbury, sweet but trivial in her maternal egoism; Mrs. Elliot, perpetually complaining of her lot; her husband a mere pea in a pod; and Susan--she had no self, and counted neither one way nor the other; Venning was as honest and as brutal as a schoolboy; poor old Thornbury merely trod his round like a horse in a mill; and the less one examined into Evelyn's character the better, he suspected. Yet these were the people with money, and to them rather than to others was given the management of the world. Put among them some one more vital, who cared for life or for beauty, and what an agony, what a waste would they inflict on him if he tried to share with them and not to scourge!
"There's Hirst," he concluded, coming to the figure of his friend; with his usual little frown of concentration upon his forehead he was peeling the skin off a banana. "And he's as ugly as sin." For the ugliness of St. John Hirst, and the limitations that went with it, he made the rest in some way responsible. It was their fault that he had to live alone. Then he came to Helen, attracted to her by the sound of her laugh. She was laughing at Miss Allan. "You wear combinations in this heat?" she said in a voice which was meant to be private. He liked the look of her immensely, not so much her beauty, but her largeness and simplicity, which made her stand out from the rest like a great stone woman, and he passed on in a gentler mood. His eye fell upon Rachel. She was lying back rather behind the others resting on one elbow; she might have been thinking precisely the same thoughts as Hewet himself. Her eyes were fixed rather sadly but not intently upon the row of people opposite her. Hewet crawled up to her on his knees, with a piece of bread in his hand."What are you looking at?" he asked. She was a little startled, but answered directly, "Human beings."
One after another they rose and stretched themselves, and in a few minutes divided more or less into two separate parties. One of these parties was dominated by Hughling Elliot and Mrs. Thornbury, who, having both read the same books and considered the same questions, were now anxious to name the places beneath them and to hang upon them stores of information about navies and armies, political parties, natives and mineral products--all of which combined, they said, to prove that South America was the country of the future.Evelyn M. listened with her bright blue eyes fixed upon the oracles. "How it makes one long to be a man!" she exclaimed. Mr. Perrott answered, surveying the plain, that a country with a future was a very fine thing.
"If I were you," said Evelyn, turning to him and drawing her glove vehemently through her fingers, "I'd raise a troop and conquer some great territory and make it splendid. You'd want women for that. I'd love to start life from the very beginning as it ought to be
-nothing squalid--but great halls and gardens and splendid men and women. But you--you only like Law Courts!"
"And would you really be content without pretty frocks and sweets and all the things young ladies like?" asked Mr. Perrott, concealing a certain amount of pain beneath his ironical manner."I'm not a young lady," Evelyn flashed; she bit her underlip. "Just because I like splendid things you laugh at me. Why are there no men like Garibaldi now?" she demanded.
"Look here," said Mr. Perrott, "you don't give me a chance. You think we ought to begin things fresh. Good. But I don't see precisely--conquer a territory? They're all conquered already, aren't they?""It's not any territory in particular," Evelyn explained. "It's the idea, don't you see? We lead such tame lives. And I feel sure you've got splendid things in you."
Hewet saw the scars and hollows in Mr. Perrott's sagacious face relax pathetically. He could imagine the calculations which even then went on within his mind, as to whether he would be justified in asking a woman to marry him, considering that he made no more than five hundred a year at the Bar, owned no private means, and had an invalid sister to support. Mr. Perrott again knew that he was not "quite," as Susan stated in her diary; not quite a gentleman she meant, for he was the son of a grocer in Leeds, had started life with a basket on his back, and now, though practically indistinguishable from a born gentleman, showed his origin to keen eyes in an impeccable neatness of dress, lack of freedom in manner, extreme cleanliness of person, and a certain indescribable timidity and precision with his knife and fork which might be the relic of days when meat was rare, and the way of handling it by no means gingerly.
The two parties who were strolling about and losing their unity now came together, and joined each other in a long stare over the yellow and green patches of the heated landscape below. The hot air danced across it, making it impossible to see the roofs of a village on the plain distinctly. Even on the top of the mountain where a breeze played lightly, it was very hot, and the heat, the food, the immense space, and perhaps some less well-defined cause produced a comfortable drowsiness and a sense of happy relaxation in them. They did not say much, but felt no constraint in being silent.
"Suppose we go and see what's to be seen over there?" said Arthur to Susan, and the pair walked off together, their departure certainly sending some thrill of emotion through the rest."An odd lot, aren't they?" said Arthur. "I thought we should never get 'em all to the top. But I'm glad we came, by Jove! I wouldn't have missed this for something."
"I don't _like_ Mr. Hirst," said Susan inconsequently. "I suppose he's very clever, but why should clever people be so--I expect he's awfully nice, really," she added, instinctively qualifying what might have seemed an unkind remark.
"Hirst? Oh, he's one of these learned chaps," said Arthur indifferently. "He don't look as if he enjoyed it. You should hear him talking to Elliot. It's as much as I can do to follow 'em at all. . . . I was never good at my books."With these sentences and the pauses that came between them they reached a little hillock, on the top of which grew several slim trees.
"D'you mind if we sit down here?" said Arthur, looking about him. "It's jolly in the shade--and the view--" They sat down, and looked straight ahead of them in silence for some time."But I do envy those clever chaps sometimes," Arthur remarked. "I don't suppose they ever . . ." He did not finish his sentence. "I can't see why you should envy them," said Susan, with great sincerity.
"Odd things happen to one," said Arthur. "One goes along smoothly enough, one thing following another, and it's all very jolly and plain sailing, and you think you know all about it, and suddenly one doesn't know where one is a bit, and everything seems different from what it used to seem. Now to-day, coming up that path, riding behind you, I seemed to see everything as if--" he paused and plucked a piece of grass up by the roots. He scattered the little lumps of earth which were sticking to the roots--"As if it had a kind of meaning. You've made the difference to me," he jerked out, "I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. I've felt it ever since I knew you. . . . It's because I love you."
Even while they had been saying commonplace things Susan had been conscious of the excitement of intimacy, which seemed not only to lay bare something in her, but in the trees and the sky, and the progress of his speech which seemed inevitable was positively painful to her, for no human being had ever come so close to her before.
She was struck motionless as his speech went on, and her heart gave great separate leaps at the last words. She sat with her fingers curled round a stone, looking straight in front of her down the mountain over the plain. So then, it had actually happened to her, a proposal of marriage.Arthur looked round at her; his face was oddly twisted. She was drawing her breath with such difficulty that she could hardly answer. "You might have known." He seized her in his arms; again and again and again they clasped each other, murmuring inarticulately.
"Well," sighed Arthur, sinking back on the ground, "that's the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me." He looked as if he were trying to put things seen in a dream beside real things.There was a long silence.
"It's the most perfect thing in the world," Susan stated, very gently and with great conviction. It was no longer merely a proposal of marriage, but of marriage with Arthur, with whom she was in love.In the silence that followed, holding his hand tightly in hers, she prayed to God that she might make him a good wife. "And what will Mr. Perrott say?" she asked at the end of it. "Dear old fellow," said Arthur who, now that the first shock was over, was relaxing into an enormous sense of pleasure and contentment. "We must be very nice to him, Susan."
He told her how hard Perrott's life had been, and how absurdly devoted he was to Arthur himself. He went on to tell her about his mother, a widow lady, of strong character. In return Susan sketched the portraits of her own family--Edith in particular, her youngest sister, whom she loved better than any one else, "except you, Arthur. . . . Arthur," she continued, "what was it that you first liked me for?"
"It was a buckle you wore one night at sea," said Arthur, after due consideration. "I remember noticing--it's an absurd thing to notice!--that you didn't take peas, because I don't either."
From this they went on to compare their more serious tastes, or rather Susan ascertained what Arthur cared about, and professed herself very fond of the same thing. They would live in London, perhaps have a cottage in the country near Susan's family, for they would find it strange without her at first. Her mind, stunned to begin with, now flew to the various changes that her engagement would make--how delightful it would be to join the ranks of the married women--no longer to hang on to groups of girls much younger than herself--to escape the long solitude of an old maid's life. Now and then her amazing good fortune overcame her, and she turned to Arthur with an exclamation of love.
They lay in each other's arms and had no notion that they were observed. Yet two figures suddenly appeared among the trees above them. "Here's shade," began Hewet, when Rachel suddenly stopped dead. They saw a man and woman lying on the ground beneath them, rolling slightly this way and that as the embrace tightened and slackened. The man then sat upright and the woman, who now appeared to be Susan Warrington, lay back upon the ground, with her eyes shut and an absorbed look upon her face, as though she were not altogether conscious. Nor could you tell from her expression whether she was happy, or had suffered something. When Arthur again turned to her, butting her as a lamb butts a ewe, Hewet and Rachel retreated without a word. Hewet felt uncomfortably shy."I don't like that," said Rachel after a moment.
"I can remember not liking it either," said Hewet. "I can remember--" but he changed his mind and continued in an ordinary tone of voice, "Well, we may take it for granted that they're engaged. D'you think he'll ever fly, or will she put a stop to that?"But Rachel was still agitated; she could not get away from the sight they had just seen. Instead of answering Hewet she persisted. "Love's an odd thing, isn't it, making one's heart beat." "It's so enormously important, you see," Hewet replied. "Their lives are now changed for ever."
"And it makes one sorry for them too," Rachel continued, as though she were tracing the course of her feelings. "I don't know either of them, but I could almost burst into tears. That's silly, isn't it?""Just because they're in love," said Hewet. "Yes," he added after a moment's consideration, "there's something horribly pathetic about it, I agree."
And now, as they had walked some way from the grove of trees, and had come to a rounded hollow very tempting to the back, they proceeded to sit down, and the impression of the lovers lost some of its force, though a certain intensity of vision, which was probably the result of the sight, remained with them. As a day upon which any emotion has been repressed is different from other days, so this day was now different, merely because they had seen other people at a crisis of their lives.
"A great encampment of tents they might be," said Hewet, looking in front of him at the mountains. "Isn't it like a water-colour too--you know the way water-colours dry in ridges all across the paper--I've been wondering what they looked like."
His eyes became dreamy, as though he were matching things, and reminded Rachel in their colour of the green flesh of a snail. She sat beside him looking at the mountains too. When it became painful to look any longer, the great size of the view seeming to enlarge her eyes beyond their natural limit, she looked at the ground; it pleased her to scrutinise this inch of the soil of South America so minutely that she noticed every grain of earth and made it into a world where she was endowed with the supreme power. She bent a blade of grass, and set an insect on the utmost tassel of it, and wondered if the insect realised his strange adventure, and thought how strange it was that she should have bent that tassel rather than any other of the million tassels."You've never told me you name," said Hewet suddenly. "Miss Somebody Vinrace. . . . I like to know people's Christian names." "Rachel," she replied.
"Rachel," he repeated. "I have an aunt called Rachel, who put the life of Father Damien into verse. She is a religious fanatic--the result of the way she was brought up, down in Northamptonshire, never seeing a soul. Have you any aunts?""I live with them," said Rachel. "And I wonder what they're doing now?" Hewet enquired.
"They are probably buying wool," Rachel determined. She tried to describe them. "They are small, rather pale women," she began, "very clean. We live in Richmond. They have an old dog, too, who will only eat the marrow out of bones. . . . They are always going to church. They tidy their drawers a good deal." But here she was overcome by the difficulty of describing people."It's impossible to believe that it's all going on still!" she exclaimed.
The sun was behind them and two long shadows suddenly lay upon the ground in front of them, one waving because it was made by a skirt, and the other stationary, because thrown by a pair of legs in trousers."You look very comfortable!" said Helen's voice above them. "Hirst," said Hewet, pointing at the scissorlike shadow; he then rolled round to look up at them. "There's room for us all here," he said. When Hirst had seated himself comfortably, he said: "Did you congratulate the young couple?" It appeared that, coming to the same spot a few minutes after Hewet and Rachel, Helen and Hirst had seen precisely the same thing. "No, we didn't congratulate them," said Hewet. "They seemed very happy." "Well," said Hirst, pursing up his lips, "so long as I needn't marry either of them--" "We were very much moved," said Hewet.
"I thought you would be," said Hirst. "Which was it, Monk? The thought of the immortal passions, or the thought of new-born males to keep the Roman Catholics out? I assure you," he said to Helen, "he's capable of being moved by either."Rachel was a good deal stung by his banter, which she felt to be directed equally against them both, but she could think of no repartee.
"Nothing moves Hirst," Hewet laughed; he did not seem to be stung at all. "Unless it were a transfinite number falling in love with a finite one--I suppose such things do happen, even in mathematics."
"On the contrary," said Hirst with a touch of annoyance, "I consider myself a person of very strong passions." It was clear from the way he spoke that he meant it seriously; he spoke of course for the benefit of the ladies.
"By the way, Hirst," said Hewet, after a pause, "I have a terrible confession to make. Your book--the poems of Wordsworth, which if you remember I took off your table just as we were starting, and certainly put in my pocket here--""Is lost," Hirst finished for him. "I consider that there is still a chance," Hewet urged, slapping himself to right and left, "that I never did take it after all." "No," said Hirst. "It is here." He pointed to his breast. "Thank God," Hewet exclaimed. "I need no longer feel as though I'd murdered a child!" "I should think you were always losing things," Helen remarked, looking at him meditatively. "I don't lose things," said Hewet. "I mislay them. That was the reason why Hirst refused to share a cabin with me on the voyage out." "You came out together?" Helen enquired. "I propose that each member of this party now gives a short biographical sketch of himself or herself," said Hirst, sitting upright. "Miss Vinrace, you come first; begin."
Rachel stated that she was twenty-four years of age, the daughter of a ship-owner, that she had never been properly educated; played the piano, had no brothers or sisters, and lived at Richmond with aunts, her mother being dead.
"Next," said Hirst, having taken in these facts; he pointed at Hewet. "I am the son of an English gentleman. I am twenty-seven," Hewet began. "My father was a fox-hunting squire. He died when I was ten in the hunting field. I can remember his body coming home, on a shutter I suppose, just as I was going down to tea, and noticing that there was jam for tea, and wondering whether I should be allowed--""Yes; but keep to the facts," Hirst put in. "I was educated at Winchester and Cambridge, which I had to leave after a time. I have done a good many things since--" "Profession?" "None--at least--" "Tastes?" "Literary. I'm writing a novel." "Brothers and sisters?" "Three sisters, no brother, and a mother."
"Is that all we're to hear about you?" said Helen. She stated that she was very old--forty last October, and her father had been a solicitor in the city who had gone bankrupt, for which reason she had never had much education--they lived in one place after another-but an elder brother used to lend her books.
"If I were to tell you everything--" she stopped and smiled. "It would take too long," she concluded. "I married when I was thirty, and I have two children. My husband is a scholar. And now--it's your turn," she nodded at Hirst.
"You've left out a great deal," he reproved her. "My name is St. John Alaric Hirst," he began in a jaunty tone of voice. "I'm twenty-four years old. I'm the son of the Reverend Sidney Hirst, vicar of Great Wappyng in Norfolk. Oh, I got scholarships everywhere-Westminster--King's. I'm now a fellow of King's. Don't it sound dreary? Parents both alive (alas). Two brothers and one sister. I'm a very distinguished young man," he added. "One of the three, or is it five, most distinguished men in England," Hewet remarked."Quite correct," said Hirst. "That's all very interesting," said Helen after a pause. "But of course we've left out the only questions that matter. For instance, are we Christians?" "I am not," "I am not," both the young men replied. "I am," Rachel stated. "You believe in a personal God?" Hirst demanded, turning round and fixing her with his eyeglasses. "I believe--I believe," Rachel stammered, "I believe there are things we don't know about, and the world might change in a minute and anything appear."
At this Helen laughed outright. "Nonsense," she said. "You're not a Christian. You've never thought what you are.--And there are lots of other questions," she continued, "though perhaps we can't ask them yet." Although they had talked so freely they were all uncomfortably conscious that they really knew nothing about each other."The important questions," Hewet pondered, "the really interesting ones. I doubt that one ever does ask them." Rachel, who was slow to accept the fact that only a very few things can be said even by people who know each other well, insisted on knowing what he meant. "Whether we've ever been in love?" she enquired. "Is that the kind of question you mean?" Again Helen laughed at her, benignantly strewing her with handfuls of the long tasselled grass, for she was so brave and so foolish. "Oh, Rachel," she cried. "It's like having a puppy in the house having you with one--a puppy that brings one's underclothes down into the hall." But again the sunny earth in front of them was crossed by fantastic wavering figures, the shadows of men and women. "There they are!" exclaimed Mrs. Elliot. There was a touch of peevishness in her voice. "And we've had _such_ a hunt to find you. Do you know what the time is?"
Mrs. Elliot and Mr. and Mrs. Thornbury now confronted them; Mrs. Elliot was holding out her watch, and playfully tapping it upon the face. Hewet was recalled to the fact that this was a party for which he was responsible, and he immediately led them back to the watch-tower, where they were to have tea before starting home again. A bright crimson scarf fluttered from the top of the wall, which Mr. Perrott and Evelyn were tying to a stone as the others came up. The heat had changed just so far that instead of sitting in the shadow they sat in the sun, which was still hot enough to paint their faces red and yellow, and to colour great sections of the earth beneath them."There's nothing half so nice as tea!" said Mrs. Thornbury, taking her cup.
"Nothing," said Helen. "Can't you remember as a child chopping up hay--" she spoke much more quickly than usual, and kept her eye fixed upon Mrs. Thornbury, "and pretending it was tea, and getting scolded by the nurses--why I can't imagine, except that nurses are such brutes, won't allow pepper instead of salt though there's no earthly harm in it. Weren't your nurses just the same?"
During this speech Susan came into the group, and sat down by Helen's side. A few minutes later Mr. Venning strolled up from the opposite direction. He was a little flushed, and in the mood to answer hilariously whatever was said to him."What have you been doing to that old chap's grave?" he asked, pointing to the red flag which floated from the top of the stones. "We have tried to make him forget his misfortune in having died three hundred years ago," said Mr. Perrott. "It would be awful--to be dead!" ejaculated Evelyn M.
"To be dead?" said Hewet. "I don't think it would be awful. It's quite easy to imagine. When you go to bed to-night fold your hands so--breathe slower and slower--" He lay back with his hands clasped upon his breast, and his eyes shut, "Now," he murmured in an even monotonous voice, "I shall never, never, never move again." His body, lying flat among them, did for a moment suggest death."This is a horrible exhibition, Mr. Hewet!" cried Mrs. Thornbury. "More cake for us!" said Arthur. "I assure you there's nothing horrible about it," said Hewet, sitting up and laying hands upon the cake. "It's so natural," he repeated. "People with children should make them do that exercise every night. . . . Not that I look forward to being dead."
"And when you allude to a grave," said Mr. Thornbury, who spoke almost for the first time, "have you any authority for calling that ruin a grave? I am quite with you in refusing to accept the common interpretation which declares it to be the remains of an Elizabethan watch-tower--any more than I believe that the circular mounds or barrows which we find on the top of our English downs were camps. The antiquaries call everything a camp. I am always asking them, Well then, where do you think our ancestors kept their cattle? Half the camps in England are merely the ancient pound or barton as we call it in my part of the world. The argument that no one would keep his cattle in such exposed and inaccessible spots has no weight at all, if you reflect that in those days a man's cattle were his capital, his stock-in-trade, his daughter's dowries. Without cattle he was a serf, another man's man. . . ." His eyes slowly lost their intensity, and he muttered a few concluding words under his breath, looking curiously old and forlorn.
Hughling Elliot, who might have been expected to engage the old gentleman in argument, was absent at the moment. He now came up holding out a large square of cotton upon which a fine design was printed in pleasant bright colours that made his hand look pale.
"A bargain," he announced, laying it down on the cloth. "I've just bought it from the big man with the ear-rings. Fine, isn't it? It wouldn't suit every one, of course, but it's just the thing--isn't it, Hilda?--for Mrs. Raymond Parry.""Mrs. Raymond Parry!" cried Helen and Mrs. Thornbury at the same moment. They looked at each other as though a mist hitherto obscuring their faces had been blown away. "Ah--you have been to those wonderful parties too?" Mrs. Elliot asked with interest.
Mrs. Parry's drawing-room, though thousands of miles away, behind a vast curve of water on a tiny piece of earth, came before their eyes. They who had had no solidity or anchorage before seemed to be attached to it somehow, and at once grown more substantial. Perhaps they had been in the drawing-room at the same moment; perhaps they had passed each other on the stairs; at any rate they knew some of the same people. They looked one another up and down with new interest. But they could do no more than look at each other, for there was no time to enjoy the fruits of the discovery. The donkeys were advancing, and it was advisable to begin the descent immediately, for the night fell so quickly that it would be dark before they were home again.
Accordingly, remounting in order, they filed off down the hillside. Scraps of talk came floating back from one to another. There were jokes to begin with, and laughter; some walked part of the way, and picked flowers, and sent stones bounding before them."Who writes the best Latin verse in your college, Hirst?" Mr. Elliot called back incongruously, and Mr. Hirst returned that he had no idea.
The dusk fell as suddenly as the natives had warned them, the hollows of the mountain on either side filling up with darkness and the path becoming so dim that it was surprising to hear the donkeys' hooves still striking on hard rock. Silence fell upon one, and then upon another, until they were all silent, their minds spilling out into the deep blue air. The way seemed shorter in the dark than in the day; and soon the lights of the town were seen on the flat far beneath them.Suddenly some one cried, "Ah!" In a moment the slow yellow drop rose again from the plain below; it rose, paused, opened like a flower, and fell in a shower of drops. "Fireworks," they cried. Another went up more quickly; and then another; they could almost hear it twist and roar.
"Some Saint's day, I suppose," said a voice. The rush and embrace of the rockets as they soared up into the air seemed like the fiery way in which lovers suddenly rose and united, leaving the crowd gazing up at them with strained white faces. But Susan and Arthur, riding down the hill, never said a word to each other, and kept accurately apart.
Then the fireworks became erratic, and soon they ceased altogether, and the rest of the journey was made almost in darkness, the mountain being a great shadow behind them, and bushes and trees little shadows which threw darkness across the road. Among the plane-trees they separated, bundling into carriages and driving off, without saying goodnight, or saying it only in a half-muffled way.
It was so late that there was no time for normal conversation between their arrival at the hotel and their retirement to bed. But Hirst wandered into Hewet's room with a collar in his hand.
"Well, Hewet," he remarked, on the crest of a gigantic yawn, "that was a great success, I consider." He yawned. "But take care you're not landed with that young woman. . . . I don't really like young women. . . ."
Hewet was too much drugged by hours in the open air to make any reply. In fact every one of the party was sound asleep within ten minutes or so of each other, with the exception of Susan Warrington. She lay for a considerable time looking blankly at the wall opposite, her hands clasped above her heart, and her light burning by her side. All articulate thought had long ago deserted her; her heart seemed to have grown to the size of a sun, and to illuminate her entire body, shedding like the sun a steady tide of warmth."I'm happy, I'm happy, I'm happy," she repeated. "I love every one. I'm happy."
When Susan's engagement had been approved at home, and made public to any one who took an interest in it at the hotel--and by this time the society at the hotel was divided so as to point to invisible chalk-marks such as Mr. Hirst had described, the news was felt to justify some celebration--an expedition? That had been done already. A dance then. The advantage of a dance was that it abolished one of those long evenings which were apt to become tedious and lead to absurdly early hours in spite of bridge.
Two or three people standing under the erect body of the stuffed leopard in the hall very soon had the matter decided. Evelyn slid a pace or two this way and that, and pronounced that the floor was excellent. Signor Rodriguez informed them of an old Spaniard who fiddled at weddings--fiddled so as to make a tortoise waltz; and his daughter, although endowed with eyes as black as coal-scuttles, had the same power over the piano. If there were any so sick or so surly as to prefer sedentary occupations on the night in question to spinning and watching others spin, the drawing-room and billiard-room were theirs. Hewet made it his business to conciliate the outsiders as much as possible. To Hirst's theory of the invisible chalk-marks he would pay no attention whatever. He was treated to a snub or two, but, in reward, found obscure lonely gentlemen delighted to have this opportunity of talking to their kind, and the lady of doubtful character showed every symptom of confiding her case to him in the near future. Indeed it was made quite obvious to him that the two or three hours between dinner and bed contained an amount of unhappiness, which was really pitiable, so many people had not succeeded in making friends.It was settled that the dance was to be on Friday, one week after the engagement, and at dinner Hewet declared himself satisfied.
"They're all coming!" he told Hirst. "Pepper!" he called, seeing William Pepper slip past in the wake of the soup with a pamphlet beneath his arm, "We're counting on you to open the ball.""You will certainly put sleep out of the question," Pepper returned. "You are to take the floor with Miss Allan," Hewet continued, consulting a sheet of pencilled notes.
Pepper stopped and began a discourse upon round dances, country dances, morris dances, and quadrilles, all of which are entirely superior to the bastard waltz and spurious polka which have ousted them most unjustly in contemporary popularity--when the waiters gently pushed him on to his table in the corner.
The dining-room at this moment had a certain fantastic resemblance to a farmyard scattered with grain on which bright pigeons kept descending. Almost all the ladies wore dresses which they had not yet displayed, and their hair rose in waves and scrolls so as to appear like carved wood in Gothic churches rather than hair. The dinner was shorter and less formal than usual, even the waiters seeming to be affected with the general excitement. Ten minutes before the clock struck nine the committee made a tour through the ballroom. The hall, when emptied of its furniture, brilliantly lit, adorned with flowers whose scent tinged the air, presented a wonderful appearance of ethereal gaiety."It's like a starlit sky on an absolutely cloudless night," Hewet murmured, looking about him, at the airy empty room. "A heavenly floor, anyhow," Evelyn added, taking a run and sliding two or three feet along. "What about those curtains?" asked Hirst. The crimson curtains were drawn across the long windows. "It's a perfect night outside."
"Yes, but curtains inspire confidence," Miss Allan decided. "When the ball is in full swing it will be time to draw them. We might even open the windows a little. . . . If we do it now elderly people will imagine there are draughts."
Her wisdom had come to be recognised, and held in respect. Meanwhile as they stood talking, the musicians were unwrapping their instruments, and the violin was repeating again and again a note struck upon the piano. Everything was ready to begin.
After a few minutes' pause, the father, the daughter, and the son-in-law who played the horn flourished with one accord. Like the rats who followed the piper, heads instantly appeared in the doorway. There was another flourish; and then the trio dashed spontaneously into the triumphant swing of the waltz. It was as though the room were instantly flooded with water. After a moment's hesitation first one couple, then another, leapt into mid-stream, and went round and round in the eddies. The rhythmic swish of the dancers sounded like a swirling pool. By degrees the room grew perceptibly hotter. The smell of kid gloves mingled with the strong scent of flowers. The eddies seemed to circle faster and faster, until the music wrought itself into a crash, ceased, and the circles were smashed into little separate bits. The couples struck off in different directions, leaving a thin row of elderly people stuck fast to the walls, and here and there a piece of trimming or a handkerchief or a flower lay upon the floor. There was a pause, and then the music started again, the eddies whirled, the couples circled round in them, until there was a crash, and the circles were broken up into separate pieces.
When this had happened about five times, Hirst, who leant against a window-frame, like some singular gargoyle, perceived that Helen Ambrose and Rachel stood in the doorway. The crowd was such that they could not move, but he recognised them by a piece of Helen's shoulder and a glimpse of Rachel's head turning round. He made his way to them; they greeted him with relief."We are suffering the tortures of the damned," said Helen. "This is my idea of hell," said Rachel. Her eyes were bright and she looked bewildered. Hewet and Miss Allan, who had been waltzing somewhat laboriously, paused and greeted the newcomers. "This _is_ nice," said Hewet. "But where is Mr. Ambrose?" "Pindar," said Helen. "May a married woman who was forty in October dance? I can't stand still." She seemed to fade into Hewet, and they both dissolved in the crowd.
"We must follow suit," said Hirst to Rachel, and he took her resolutely by the elbow. Rachel, without being expert, danced well, because of a good ear for rhythm, but Hirst had no taste for music, and a few dancing lessons at Cambridge had only put him into possession of the anatomy of a waltz, without imparting any of its spirit. A single turn proved to them that their methods were incompatible; instead of fitting into each other their bones seemed to jut out in angles making smooth turning an impossibility, and cutting, moreover, into the circular progress of the other dancers."Shall we stop?" said Hirst. Rachel gathered from his expression that he was annoyed.
They staggered to seats in the corner, from which they had a view of the room. It was still surging, in waves of blue and yellow, striped by the black evening-clothes of the gentlemen.
"An amazing spectacle," Hirst remarked. "Do you dance much in London?" They were both breathing fast, and both a little excited, though each was determined not to show any excitement at all."Scarcely ever. Do you?" "My people give a dance every Christmas."
"This isn't half a bad floor," Rachel said. Hirst did not attempt to answer her platitude. He sat quite silent, staring at the dancers. After three minutes the silence became so intolerable to Rachel that she was goaded to advance another commonplace about the beauty of the night. Hirst interrupted her ruthlessly."Was that all nonsense what you said the other day about being a Christian and having no education?" he asked.
"It was practically true," she replied. "But I also play the piano very well," she said, "better, I expect than any one in this room. You are the most distinguished man in England, aren't you?" she asked shyly.
"One of the three," he corrected.
They were again silent. Rachel was wondering whether he thought her also nice-looking; St. John was considering the immense difficulty of talking to girls who had no experience of life. Rachel had obviously never thought or felt or seen anything, and she might be intelligent or she might be just like all the rest. But Hewet's taunt rankled in his mind-"you don't know how to get on with women," and he was determined to profit by this opportunity. Her evening-clothes bestowed on her just that degree of unreality and distinction which made it romantic to speak to her, and stirred a desire to talk, which irritated him because he did not know how to begin. He glanced at her, and she seemed to him very remote and inexplicable, very young and chaste. He drew a sigh, and began."About books now. What have you read? Just Shakespeare and the Bible?"
"I haven't read many classics," Rachel stated. She was slightly annoyed by his jaunty and rather unnatural manner, while his masculine acquirements induced her to take a very modest view of her own power."D'you mean to tell me you've reached the age of twenty-four without reading Gibbon?" he demanded. "Yes, I have," she answered.
"Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed, throwing out his hands. "You must begin to-morrow. I shall send you my copy. What I want to know is--" he looked at her critically. "You see, the problem is, can one really talk to you? Have you got a mind, or are you like the rest of your sex? You seem to me absurdly young compared with men of your age."Rachel looked at him but said nothing.
"About Gibbon," he continued. "D'you think you'll be able to appreciate him? He's the test, of course. It's awfully difficult to tell about women," he continued, "how much, I mean, is due to lack of training, and how much is native incapacity. I don't see myself why you shouldn't understand--only I suppose you've led an absurd life until now--you've just walked in a crocodile, I suppose, with your hair down your back."
The music was again beginning. Hirst's eye wandered about the room in search of Mrs. Ambrose. With the best will in the world he was conscious that they were not getting on well together."I'd like awfully to lend you books," he said, buttoning his gloves, and rising from his seat. "We shall meet again. I'm going to leave you now." He got up and left her.
Rachel looked round. She felt herself surrounded, like a child at a party, by the faces of strangers all hostile to her, with hooked noses and sneering, indifferent eyes. She was by a window, she pushed it open with a jerk. She stepped out into the garden. Her eyes swam with tears of rage."Damn that man!" she exclaimed, having acquired some of Helen's words. "Damn his insolence!"
She stood in the middle of the pale square of light which the window she had opened threw upon the grass. The forms of great black trees rose massively in front of her. She stood still, looking at them, shivering slightly with anger and excitement. She heard the trampling and swinging of the dancers behind her, and the rhythmic sway of the waltz music.
"There are trees," she said aloud. Would the trees make up for St. John Hirst? She would be a Persian princess far from civilisation, riding her horse upon the mountains alone, and making her women sing to her in the evening, far from all this, from the strife and men and women--a form came out of the shadow; a little red light burnt high up in its blackness."Miss Vinrace, is it?" said Hewet, peering at her. "You were dancing with Hirst?" "He's made me furious!" she cried vehemently. "No one's any right to be insolent!" "Insolent?" Hewet repeated, taking his cigar from his mouth in surprise. "Hirst-insolent?" "It's insolent to--" said Rachel, and stopped. She did not know exactly why she had been made so angry. With a great effort she pulled herself together. "Oh, well," she added, the vision of Helen and her mockery before her, "I dare say I'm a fool." She made as though she were going back into the ballroom, but Hewet stopped her. "Please explain to me," he said. "I feel sure Hirst didn't mean to hurt you."
When Rachel tried to explain, she found it very difficult. She could not say that she found the vision of herself walking in a crocodile with her hair down her back peculiarly unjust and horrible, nor could she explain why Hirst's assumption of the superiority of his nature and experience had seemed to her not only galling but terrible--as if a gate had clanged in her face. Pacing up and down the terrace beside Hewet she said bitterly:
"It's no good; we should live separate; we cannot understand each other; we only bring out what's worst."
Hewet brushed aside her generalisation as to the natures of the two sexes, for such generalisations bored him and seemed to him generally untrue. But, knowing Hirst, he guessed fairly accurately what had happened, and, though secretly much amused, was determined that Rachel should not store the incident away in her mind to take its place in the view she had of life.
"Now you'll hate him," he said, "which is wrong. Poor old Hirst--he can't help his method. And really, Miss Vinrace, he was doing his best; he was paying you a compliment--he was trying--he was trying--" he could not finish for the laughter that overcame him.Rachel veered round suddenly and laughed out too. She saw that there was something ridiculous about Hirst, and perhaps about herself. "It's his way of making friends, I suppose," she laughed. "Well--I shall do my part. I shall begin--'Ugly in body, repulsive in mind as you are, Mr. Hirst--"
"Hear, hear!" cried Hewet. "That's the way to treat him. You see, Miss Vinrace, you must make allowances for Hirst. He's lived all his life in front of a looking-glass, so to speak, in a beautiful panelled room, hung with Japanese prints and lovely old chairs and tables, just one splash of colour, you know, in the right place,--between the windows I think it is,--and there he sits hour after hour with his toes on the fender, talking about philosophy and God and his liver and his heart and the hearts of his friends. They're all broken. You can't expect him to be at his best in a ballroom. He wants a cosy, smoky, masculine place, where he can stretch his legs out, and only speak when he's got something to say. For myself, I find it rather dreary. But I do respect it. They're all so much in earnest. They do take the serious things very seriously."The description of Hirst's way of life interested Rachel so much that she almost forgot her private grudge against him, and her respect revived. "They are really very clever then?" she asked.
"Of course they are. So far as brains go I think it's true what he said the other day; they're the cleverest people in England. But--you ought to take him in hand," he added. "There's a great deal more in him than's ever been got at. He wants some one to laugh at him. . . . The idea of Hirst telling you that you've had no experiences! Poor old Hirst!"
They had been pacing up and down the terrace while they talked, and now one by one the dark windows were uncurtained by an invisible hand, and panes of light fell regularly at equal intervals upon the grass. They stopped to look in at the drawing-room, and perceived Mr. Pepper writing alone at a table.
"There's Pepper writing to his aunt," said Hewet. "She must be a very remarkable old lady, eighty-five he tells me, and he takes her for walking tours in the New Forest. . . . Pepper!" he cried, rapping on the window. "Go and do your duty. Miss Allan expects you."When they came to the windows of the ballroom, the swing of the dancers and the lilt of the music was irresistible.
"Shall we?" said Hewet, and they clasped hands and swept off magnificently into the great swirling pool. Although this was only the second time they had met, the first time they had seen a man and woman kissing each other, and the second time Mr. Hewet had found that a young woman angry is very like a child. So that when they joined hands in the dance they felt more at their ease than is usual.
It was midnight and the dance was now at its height. Servants were peeping in at the windows; the garden was sprinkled with the white shapes of couples sitting out. Mrs. Thornbury and Mrs. Elliot sat side by side under a palm tree, holding fans, handkerchiefs, and brooches deposited in their laps by flushed maidens. Occasionally they exchanged comments."Miss Warrington _does_ look happy," said Mrs. Elliot; they both smiled; they both sighed. "He has a great deal of character," said Mrs. Thornbury, alluding to Arthur. "And character is what one wants," said Mrs. Elliot. "Now that young man is _clever_ enough," she added, nodding at Hirst, who came past with Miss Allan on his arm.
"He does not look strong," said Mrs. Thornbury. "His complexion is not good.--Shall I tear it off?" she asked, for Rachel had stopped, conscious of a long strip trailing behind her."I hope you are enjoying yourselves?" Hewet asked the ladies.
"This is a very familiar position for me!" smiled Mrs. Thornbury. "I have brought out five daughters--and they all loved dancing! You love it too, Miss Vinrace?" she asked, looking at Rachel with maternal eyes. "I know I did when I was your age. How I used to beg my mother to let me stay--and now I sympathise with the poor mothers--but I sympathise with the daughters too!"She smiled sympathetically, and at the same time rather keenly, at Rachel.
"They seem to find a great deal to say to each other," said Mrs. Elliot, looking significantly at the backs of the couple as they turned away. "Did you notice at the picnic? He was the only person who could make her utter."
"Her father is a very interesting man," said Mrs. Thornbury. "He has one of the largest shipping businesses in Hull. He made a very able reply, you remember, to Mr. Asquith at the last election. It is so interesting to find that a man of his experience is a strong Protectionist."
"I hear there are dreadful accounts from England about the rats," she said. "A sister-inlaw, who lives at Norwich, tells me it has been quite unsafe to order poultry. The plague-you see. It attacks the rats, and through them other creatures.""And the local authorities are not taking proper steps?" asked Mrs. Thornbury.
"That she does not say. But she describes the attitude of the educated people--who should know better--as callous in the extreme. Of course, my sister-in-law is one of those active modern women, who always takes things up, you know--the kind of woman one admires, though one does not feel, at least I do not feel--but then she has a constitution of iron."Mrs. Elliot, brought back to the consideration of her own delicacy, here sighed.
"A very animated face," said Mrs. Thornbury, looking at Evelyn M. who had stopped near them to pin tight a scarlet flower at her breast. It would not stay, and, with a spirited gesture of impatience, she thrust it into her partner's button-hole. He was a tall melancholy youth, who received the gift as a knight might receive his lady's token.
"Very trying to the eyes," was Mrs. Eliot's next remark, after watching the yellow whirl in which so few of the whirlers had either name or character for her, for a few minutes. Bursting out of the crowd, Helen approached them, and took a vacant chair."May I sit by you?" she said, smiling and breathing fast. "I suppose I ought to be ashamed of myself," she went on, sitting down, "at my age." Her beauty, now that she was flushed and animated, was more expansive than usual, and both the ladies felt the same desire to touch her. "I _am_ enjoying myself," she panted. "Movement--isn't it amazing?" "I have always heard that nothing comes up to dancing if one is a good dancer," said Mrs. Thornbury, looking at her with a smile. Helen swayed slightly as if she sat on wires.
"I could dance for ever!" she said. "They ought to let themselves go more!" she exclaimed. "They ought to leap and swing. Look! How they mince!"
"Have you seen those wonderful Russian dancers?" began Mrs. Elliot. But Helen saw her partner coming and rose as the moon rises. She was half round the room before they took their eyes off her, for they could not help admiring her, although they thought it a little odd that a woman of her age should enjoy dancing.
"Should you mind sitting out with me?" he asked. "I'm quite incapable of dancing." He piloted Helen to a corner which was supplied with two arm-chairs, and thus enjoyed the advantage of semi-privacy. They sat down, and for a few minutes Helen was too much under the influence of dancing to speak.
"Astonishing!" she exclaimed at last. "What sort of shape can she think her body is?" This remark was called forth by a lady who came past them, waddling rather than walking, and leaning on the arm of a stout man with globular green eyes set in a fat white face. Some support was necessary, for she was very stout, and so compressed that the upper part of her body hung considerably in advance of her feet, which could only trip in tiny steps, owing to the tightness of the skirt round her ankles. The dress itself consisted of a small piece of shiny yellow satin, adorned here and there indiscriminately with round shields of blue and green beads made to imitate hues of a peacock's breast. On the summit of a frothy castle of hair a purple plume stood erect, while her short neck was encircled by a black velvet ribbon knobbed with gems, and golden bracelets were tightly wedged into the flesh of her fat gloved arms. She had the face of an impertinent but jolly little pig, mottled red under a dusting of powder.St. John could not join in Helen's laughter. "It makes me sick," he declared. "The whole thing makes me sick. . . . Consider the minds of those people--their feelings. Don't you agree?" "I always make a vow never to go to another party of any description," Helen replied, "and I always break it." She leant back in her chair and looked laughingly at the young man. She could see that he was genuinely cross, if at the same time slightly excited. "However," he said, resuming his jaunty tone, "I suppose one must just make up one's mind to it." "To what?" "There never will be more than five people in the world worth talking to." Slowly the flush and sparkle in Helen's face died away, and she looked as quiet and as observant as usual. "Five people?" she remarked. "I should say there were more than five." "You've been very fortunate, then," said Hirst. "Or perhaps I've been very unfortunate." He became silent. "Should you say I was a difficult kind of person to get on with?" he asked sharply. "Most clever people are when they're young," Helen replied.
"And of course I am--immensely clever," said Hirst. "I'm infinitely cleverer than Hewet. It's quite possible," he continued in his curiously impersonal manner, "that I'm going to be one of the people who really matter. That's utterly different from being clever, though one can't expect one's family to see it," he added bitterly.Helen thought herself justified in asking, "Do you find your family difficult to get on with?"
"Intolerable. . . . They want me to be a peer and a privy councillor. I've come out here partly in order to settle the matter. It's got to be settled. Either I must go to the bar, or I must stay on in Cambridge. Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to each, but the arguments certainly do seem to me in favour of Cambridge. This kind of thing!" he waved his hand at the crowded ballroom. "Repulsive. I'm conscious of great powers of affection too. I'm not susceptible, of course, in the way Hewet is. I'm very fond of a few people. I think, for example, that there's something to be said for my mother, though she is in many ways so deplorable. . . . At Cambridge, of course, I should inevitably become the most important man in the place, but there are other reasons why I dread Cambridge-" he ceased."Are you finding me a dreadful bore?" he asked. He changed curiously from a friend confiding in a friend to a conventional young man at a party. "Not in the least," said Helen. "I like it very much."
"You can't think," he exclaimed, speaking almost with emotion, "what a difference it makes finding someone to talk to! Directly I saw you I felt you might possibly understand me. I'm very fond of Hewet, but he hasn't the remotest idea what I'm like. You're the only woman I've ever met who seems to have the faintest conception of what I mean when I say a thing."
The next dance was beginning; it was the Barcarolle out of Hoffman, which made Helen beat her toe in time to it; but she felt that after such a compliment it was impossible to get up and go, and, besides being amused, she was really flattered, and the honesty of his conceit attracted her. She suspected that he was not happy, and was sufficiently feminine to wish to receive confidences.
"I'm very old," she sighed. "The odd thing is that I don't find you old at all," he replied. "I feel as though we were exactly the same age. Moreover--" here he hesitated, but took courage from a glance at her face, "I feel as if I could talk quite plainly to you as one does to a man--about the relations between the sexes, about . . . and . . ."In spite of his certainty a slight redness came into his face as he spoke the last two words. She reassured him at once by the laugh with which she exclaimed, "I should hope so!" He looked at her with real cordiality, and the lines which were drawn about his nose and lips slackened for the first time. "Thank God!" he exclaimed. "Now we can behave like civilised human beings."
Certainly a barrier which usually stands fast had fallen, and it was possible to speak of matters which are generally only alluded to between men and women when doctors are present, or the shadow of death. In five minutes he was telling her the history of his life. It was long, for it was full of extremely elaborate incidents, which led on to a discussion of the principles on which morality is founded, and thus to several very interesting matters, which even in this ballroom had to be discussed in a whisper, lest one of the pouter pigeon ladies or resplendent merchants should overhear them, and proceed to demand that they should leave the place. When they had come to an end, or, to speak more accurately, when Helen intimated by a slight slackening of her attention that they had sat there long enough, Hirst rose, exclaiming, "So there's no reason whatever for all this mystery!"
"None, except that we are English people," she answered. She took his arm and they crossed the ball-room, making their way with difficulty between the spinning couples, who were now perceptibly dishevelled, and certainly to a critical eye by no means lovely in their shapes. The excitement of undertaking a friendship and the length of their talk, made them hungry, and they went in search of food to the dining-room, which was now full of people eating at little separate tables. In the doorway they met Rachel, going up to dance again with Arthur Venning. She was flushed and looked very happy, and Helen was struck by the fact that in this mood she was certainly more attractive than the generality of young women. She had never noticed it so clearly before."Enjoying yourself?" she asked, as they stopped for a second. "Miss Vinrace," Arthur answered for her, "has just made a confession; she'd no idea that dances could be so delightful." "Yes!" Rachel exclaimed. "I've changed my view of life completely!"
"You don't say so!" Helen mocked. They passed on. "That's typical of Rachel," she said. "She changes her view of life about every other day. D'you know, I believe you're just the person I want," she said, as they sat down, "to help me complete her education? She's been brought up practically in a nunnery. Her father's too absurd. I've been doing what I can--but I'm too old, and I'm a woman. Why shouldn't you talk to her--explain things to her--talk to her, I mean, as you talk to me?"
"I have made one attempt already this evening," said St. John. "I rather doubt that it was successful. She seems to me so very young and inexperienced. I have promised to lend her Gibbon."
"It's not Gibbon exactly," Helen pondered. "It's the facts of life, I think--d'you see what I mean? What really goes on, what people feel, although they generally try to hide it? There's nothing to be frightened of. It's so much more beautiful than the pretences-always more interesting--always better, I should say, than _that_ kind of thing."
She nodded her head at a table near them, where two girls and two young men were chaffing each other very loudly, and carrying on an arch insinuating dialogue, sprinkled with endearments, about, it seemed, a pair of stockings or a pair of legs. One of the girls was flirting a fan and pretending to be shocked, and the sight was very unpleasant, partly because it was obvious that the girls were secretly hostile to each other.
"In my old age, however," Helen sighed, "I'm coming to think that it doesn't much matter in the long run what one does: people always go their own way--nothing will ever influence them." She nodded her head at the supper party.
But St. John did not agree. He said that he thought one could really make a great deal of difference by one's point of view, books and so on, and added that few things at the present time mattered more than the enlightenment of women. He sometimes thought that almost everything was due to education.
In the ballroom, meanwhile, the dancers were being formed into squares for the lancers. Arthur and Rachel, Susan and Hewet, Miss Allan and Hughling Elliot found themselves together.Miss Allan looked at her watch. "Half-past one," she stated. "And I have to despatch Alexander Pope to-morrow."
"Pope!" snorted Mr. Elliot. "Who reads Pope, I should like to know? And as for reading about him--No, no, Miss Allan; be persuaded you will benefit the world much more by dancing than by writing." It was one of Mr. Elliot's affectations that nothing in the world could compare with the delights of dancing--nothing in the world was so tedious as literature. Thus he sought pathetically enough to ingratiate himself with the young, and to prove to them beyond a doubt that though married to a ninny of a wife, and rather pale and bent and careworn by his weight of learning, he was as much alive as the youngest of them all.
"It's a question of bread and butter," said Miss Allan calmly. "However, they seem to expect me." She took up her position and pointed a square black toe.
After the lancers there was a waltz; after the waltz a polka; and then a terrible thing happened; the music, which had been sounding regularly with five-minute pauses, stopped suddenly. The lady with the great dark eyes began to swathe her violin in silk, and the gentleman placed his horn carefully in its case. They were surrounded by couples imploring them in English, in French, in Spanish, of one more dance, one only; it was still early. But the old man at the piano merely exhibited his watch and shook his head. He turned up the collar of his coat and produced a red silk muffler, which completely dashed his festive appearance. Strange as it seemed, the musicians were pale and heavyeyed; they looked bored and prosaic, as if the summit of their desire was cold meat and beer, succeeded immediately by bed.
Rachel was one of those who had begged them to continue. When they refused she began turning over the sheets of dance music which lay upon the piano. The pieces were generally bound in coloured covers, with pictures on them of romantic scenes--gondoliers astride on the crescent of the moon, nuns peering through the bars of a convent window, or young women with their hair down pointing a gun at the stars. She remembered that the general effect of the music to which they had danced so gaily was one of passionate regret for dead love and the innocent years of youth; dreadful sorrows had always separated the dancers from their past happiness."No wonder they get sick of playing stuff like this," she remarked reading a bar or two; "they're really hymn tunes, played very fast, with bits out of Wagner and Beethoven."
"Do you play? Would you play? Anything, so long as we can dance to it!" From all sides her gift for playing the piano was insisted upon, and she had to consent. As very soon she had played the only pieces of dance music she could remember, she went on to play an air from a sonata by Mozart."But that's not a dance," said some one pausing by the piano.
"It is," she replied, emphatically nodding her head. "Invent the steps." Sure of her melody she marked the rhythm boldly so as to simplify the way. Helen caught the idea; seized Miss Allan by the arm, and whirled round the room, now curtseying, now spinning round, now tripping this way and that like a child skipping through a meadow.
"This is the dance for people who don't know how to dance!" she cried. The tune changed to a minuet; St. John hopped with incredible swiftness first on his left leg, then on his right; the tune flowed melodiously; Hewet, swaying his arms and holding out the tails of his coat, swam down the room in imitation of the voluptuous dreamy dance of an Indian maiden dancing before her Rajah. The tune marched; and Miss Allen advanced with skirts extended and bowed profoundly to the engaged pair. Once their feet fell in with the rhythm they showed a complete lack of self-consciousness. From Mozart Rachel passed without stopping to old English hunting songs, carols, and hymn tunes, for, as she had observed, any good tune, with a little management, became a tune one could dance to. By degrees every person in the room was tripping and turning in pairs or alone. Mr. Pepper executed an ingenious pointed step derived from figure-skating, for which he once held some local championship; while Mrs. Thornbury tried to recall an old country dance which she had seen danced by her father's tenants in Dorsetshire in the old days. As for Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, they gallopaded round and round the room with such impetuosity that the other dancers shivered at their approach. Some people were heard to criticise the performance as a romp; to others it was the most enjoyable part of the evening.
"Now for the great round dance!" Hewet shouted. Instantly a gigantic circle was formed, the dancers holding hands and shouting out, "D'you ken John Peel," as they swung faster and faster and faster, until the strain was too great, and one link of the chain--Mrs. Thornbury--gave way, and the rest went flying across the room in all directions, to land upon the floor or the chairs or in each other's arms as seemed most convenient.
Rising from these positions, breathless and unkempt, it struck them for the first time that the electric lights pricked the air very vainly, and instinctively a great many eyes turned to the windows. Yes--there was the dawn. While they had been dancing the night had passed, and it had come. Outside, the mountains showed very pure and remote; the dew was sparkling on the grass, and the sky was flushed with blue, save for the pale yellows and pinks in the East. The dancers came crowding to the windows, pushed them open, and here and there ventured a foot upon the grass.
"How silly the poor old lights look!" said Evelyn M. in a curiously subdued tone of voice. "And ourselves; it isn't becoming." It was true; the untidy hair, and the green and yellow gems, which had seemed so festive half an hour ago, now looked cheap and slovenly. The complexions of the elder ladies suffered terribly, and, as if conscious that a cold eye had been turned upon them, they began to say good-night and to make their way up to bed.
Rachel, though robbed of her audience, had gone on playing to herself. From John Peel she passed to Bach, who was at this time the subject of her intense enthusiasm, and one by one some of the younger dancers came in from the garden and sat upon the deserted gilt chairs round the piano, the room being now so clear that they turned out the lights. As they sat and listened, their nerves were quieted; the heat and soreness of their lips, the result of incessant talking and laughing, was smoothed away. They sat very still as if they saw a building with spaces and columns succeeding each other rising in the empty space. Then they began to see themselves and their lives, and the whole of human life advancing very nobly under the direction of the music. They felt themselves ennobled, and when Rachel stopped playing they desired nothing but sleep.
Susan rose. "I think this has been the happiest night of my life!" she exclaimed. "I do adore music," she said, as she thanked Rachel. "It just seems to say all the things one can't say oneself." She gave a nervous little laugh and looked from one to another with great benignity, as though she would like to say something but could not find the words in which to express it. "Every one's been so kind--so very kind," she said. Then she too went to bed.The party having ended in the very abrupt way in which parties do end, Helen and Rachel stood by the door with their cloaks on, looking for a carriage. "I suppose you realise that there are no carriages left?" said St. John, who had been out to look. "You must sleep here." "Oh, no," said Helen; "we shall walk."
"May we come too?" Hewet asked. "We can't go to bed. Imagine lying among bolsters and looking at one's washstand on a morning like this--Is that where you live?" They had begun to walk down the avenue, and he turned and pointed at the white and green villa on the hillside, which seemed to have its eyes shut."That's not a light burning, is it?" Helen asked anxiously. "It's the sun," said St. John. The upper windows had each a spot of gold on them. "I was afraid it was my husband, still reading Greek," she said. "All this time he's been editing _Pindar_."
They passed through the town and turned up the steep road, which was perfectly clear, though still unbordered by shadows. Partly because they were tired, and partly because the early light subdued them, they scarcely spoke, but breathed in the delicious fresh air, which seemed to belong to a different state of life from the air at midday. When they came to the high yellow wall, where the lane turned off from the road, Helen was for dismissing the two young men."You've come far enough," she said. "Go back to bed." But they seemed unwilling to move.
"Let's sit down a moment," said Hewet. He spread his coat on the ground. "Let's sit down and consider." They sat down and looked out over the bay; it was very still, the sea was rippling faintly, and lines of green and blue were beginning to stripe it. There were no sailing boats as yet, but a steamer was anchored in the bay, looking very ghostly in the mist; it gave one unearthly cry, and then all was silent.Rachel occupied herself in collecting one grey stone after another and building them into a little cairn; she did it very quietly and carefully.
"And so you've changed your view of life, Rachel?" said Helen. Rachel added another stone and yawned. "I don't remember," she said, "I feel like a fish at the bottom of the sea." She yawned again. None of these people possessed any power to frighten her out here in the dawn, and she felt perfectly familiar even with Mr. Hirst.
"My brain, on the contrary," said Hirst, "is in a condition of abnormal activity." He sat in his favourite position with his arms binding his legs together and his chin resting on the top of his knees. "I see through everything--absolutely everything. Life has no more mysteries for me." He spoke with conviction, but did not appear to wish for an answer. Near though they sat, and familiar though they felt, they seemed mere shadows to each other.
"And all those people down there going to sleep," Hewet began dreamily, "thinking such different things,--Miss Warrington, I suppose, is now on her knees; the Elliots are a little startled, it's not often _they_ get out of breath, and they want to get to sleep as quickly as possible; then there's the poor lean young man who danced all night with Evelyn; he's putting his flower in water and asking himself, 'Is this love?'--and poor old Perrott, I daresay, can't get to sleep at all, and is reading his favourite Greek book to console himself--and the others--no, Hirst," he wound up, "I don't find it simple at all.""I have a key," said Hirst cryptically. His chin was still upon his knees and his eyes fixed in front of him. A silence followed. Then Helen rose and bade them good-night. "But," she said, "remember that you've got to come and see us."
They waved good-night and parted, but the two young men did not go back to the hotel; they went for a walk, during which they scarcely spoke, and never mentioned the names of the two women, who were, to a considerable extent, the subject of their thoughts. They did not wish to share their impressions. They returned to the hotel in time for breakfast.
There were many rooms in the villa, but one room which possessed a character of its own because the door was always shut, and no sound of music or laughter issued from it. Every one in the house was vaguely conscious that something went on behind that door, and without in the least knowing what it was, were influenced in their own thoughts by the knowledge that if the passed it the door would be shut, and if they made a noise Mr. Ambrose inside would be disturbed. Certain acts therefore possessed merit, and others were bad, so that life became more harmonious and less disconnected than it would have been had Mr. Ambrose given up editing _Pindar_, and taken to a nomad existence, in and out of every room in the house. As it was, every one was conscious that by observing certain rules, such as punctuality and quiet, by cooking well, and performing other small duties, one ode after another was satisfactorily restored to the world, and they shared the continuity of the scholar's life. Unfortunately, as age puts one barrier between human beings, and learning another, and sex a third, Mr. Ambrose in his study was some thousand miles distant from the nearest human being, who in this household was inevitably a woman. He sat hour after hour among white-leaved books, alone like an idol in an empty church, still except for the passage of his hand from one side of the sheet to another, silent save for an occasional choke, which drove him to extend his pipe a moment in the air. As he worked his way further and further into the heart of the poet, his chair became more and more deeply encircled by books, which lay open on the floor, and could only be crossed by a careful process of stepping, so delicate that his visitors generally stopped and addressed him from the outskirts.On the morning after the dance, however, Rachel came into her uncle's room and hailed him twice, "Uncle Ridley," before he paid her any attention. At length he looked over his spectacles. "Well?" he asked. "I want a book," she replied. "Gibbon's _History_ _of_ _the_ _Roman_ _Empire_. May I have it?" She watched the lines on her uncle's face gradually rearrange themselves at her question. It had been smooth as a mask before she spoke. "Please say that again," said her uncle, either because he had not heard or because he had not understood. She repeated the same words and reddened slightly as she did so. "Gibbon! What on earth d'you want him for?" he enquired.
"Somebody advised me to read it," Rachel stammered. "But I don't travel about with a miscellaneous collection of eighteenth-century historians!" her uncle exclaimed. "Gibbon! Ten big volumes at least."Rachel said that she was sorry to interrupt, and was turning to go.
"Stop!" cried her uncle. He put down his pipe, placed his book on one side, and rose and led her slowly round the room, holding her by the arm. "Plato," he said, laying one finger on the first of a row of small dark books, "and Jorrocks next door, which is wrong. Sophocles, Swift. You don't care for German commentators, I presume. French, then. You read French? You should read Balzac. Then we come to Wordsworth and Coleridge, Pope, Johnson, Addison, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats. One thing leads to another. Why is Marlowe here? Mrs. Chailey, I presume. But what's the use of reading if you don't read Greek? After all, if you read Greek, you need never read anything else, pure waste of time--pure waste of time," thus speaking half to himself, with quick movements of his hands; they had come round again to the circle of books on the floor, and their progress was stopped."Well," he demanded, "which shall it be?" "Balzac," said Rachel, "or have you the _Speech_ _on_ _the_ _American_ _Revolution_, Uncle Ridley?" "_The_ _Speech_ _on_ _the_ _American_ _Revolution_?" he asked. He looked at her very keenly again. "Another young man at the dance?" "No. That was Mr. Dalloway," she confessed. "Good Lord!" he flung back his head in recollection of Mr. Dalloway.
She chose for herself a volume at random, submitted it to her uncle, who, seeing that it was _La_ _Cousine_ _bette_, bade her throw it away if she found it too horrible, and was about to leave him when he demanded whether she had enjoyed her dance?
He then wanted to know what people did at dances, seeing that he had only been to one thirty-five years ago, when nothing had seemed to him more meaningless and idiotic. Did they enjoy turning round and round to the screech of a fiddle? Did they talk, and say pretty things, and if so, why didn't they do it, under reasonable conditions? As for himself--he sighed and pointed at the signs of industry lying all about him, which, in spite of his sigh, filled his face with such satisfaction that his niece thought good to leave. On bestowing a kiss she was allowed to go, but not until she had bound herself to learn at any rate the Greek alphabet, and to return her French novel when done with, upon which something more suitable would be found for her.
As the rooms in which people live are apt to give off something of the same shock as their faces when seen for the first time, Rachel walked very slowly downstairs, lost in wonder at her uncle, and his books, and his neglect of dances, and his queer, utterly inexplicable, but apparently satisfactory view of life, when her eye was caught by a note with her name on it lying in the hall. The address was written in a small strong hand unknown to her, and the note, which had no beginning, ran:--
I send the first volume of Gibbon as I promised. Personally I find little to be said for the moderns, but I'm going to send you Wedekind when I've done him. Donne? Have you read Webster and all that set? I envy you reading them for the first time. Completely exhausted after last night. And you?
The flourish of initials which she took to be St. J. A. H., wound up the letter. She was very much flattered that Mr. Hirst should have remembered her, and fulfilled his promise so quickly.
There was still an hour to luncheon, and with Gibbon in one hand, and Balzac in the other she strolled out of the gate and down the little path of beaten mud between the olive trees on the slope of the hill. It was too hot for climbing hills, but along the valley there were trees and a grass path running by the river bed. In this land where the population was centred in the towns it was possible to lose sight of civilisation in a very short time, passing only an occasional farmhouse, where the women were handling red roots in the courtyard; or a little boy lying on his elbows on the hillside surrounded by a flock of black strong-smelling goats. Save for a thread of water at the bottom, the river was merely a deep channel of dry yellow stones. On the bank grew those trees which Helen had said it was worth the voyage out merely to see. April had burst their buds, and they bore large blossoms among their glossy green leaves with petals of a thick wax-like substance coloured an exquisite cream or pink or deep crimson. But filled with one of those unreasonable exultations which start generally from an unknown cause, and sweep whole countries and skies into their embrace, she walked without seeing. The night was encroaching upon the day. Her ears hummed with the tunes she had played the night before; she sang, and the singing made her walk faster and faster. She did not see distinctly where she was going, the trees and the landscape appearing only as masses of green and blue, with an occasional space of differently coloured sky. Faces of people she had seen last night came before her; she heard their voices; she stopped singing, and began saying things over again or saying things differently, or inventing things that might have been said. The constraint of being among strangers in a long silk dress made it unusually exciting to stride thus alone. Hewet, Hirst, Mr. Venning, Miss Allan, the music, the light, the dark trees in the garden, the dawn,--as she walked they went surging round in her head, a tumultuous background from which the present moment, with its opportunity of doing exactly as she liked, sprung more wonderfully vivid even than the night before.
So she might have walked until she had lost all knowledge of her way, had it not been for the interruption of a tree, which, although it did not grow across her path, stopped her as effectively as if the branches had struck her in the face. It was an ordinary tree, but to her it appeared so strange that it might have been the only tree in the world. Dark was the trunk in the middle, and the branches sprang here and there, leaving jagged intervals of light between them as distinctly as if it had but that second risen from the ground. Having seen a sight that would last her for a lifetime, and for a lifetime would preserve that second, the tree once more sank into the ordinary ranks of trees, and she was able to seat herself in its shade and to pick the red flowers with the thin green leaves which were growing beneath it. She laid them side by side, flower to flower and stalk to stalk, caressing them for walking alone. Flowers and even pebbles in the earth had their own life and disposition, and brought back the feelings of a child to whom they were companions. Looking up, her eye was caught by the line of the mountains flying out energetically across the sky like the lash of a curling whip. She looked at the pale distant sky, and the high bare places on the mountain-tops lying exposed to the sun. When she sat down she had dropped her books on to the earth at her feet, and now she looked down on them lying there, so square in the grass, a tall stem bending over and tickling the smooth brown cover of Gibbon, while the mottled blue Balzac lay naked in the sun. With a feeling that to open and read would certainly be a surprising experience, she turned the historian's page and read that--
His generals, in the early part of his reign, attempted the reduction of Aethiopia and Arabia Felix. They marched near a thousand miles to the south of the tropic; but the heat of the climate soon repelled the invaders and protected the unwarlike natives of those sequestered regions. . . . The northern countries of Europe scarcely deserved the expense and labour of conquest. The forests and morasses of Germany were filled with a hardy race of barbarians, who despised life when it was separated from freedom.
Never had any words been so vivid and so beautiful--Arabia Felix--Aethiopia. But those were not more noble than the others, hardy barbarians, forests, and morasses. They seemed to drive roads back to the very beginning of the world, on either side of which the populations of all times and countries stood in avenues, and by passing down them all knowledge would be hers, and the book of the world turned back to the very first page. Such was her excitement at the possibilities of knowledge now opening before her that she ceased to read, and a breeze turning the page, the covers of Gibbon gently ruffled and closed together. She then rose again and walked on. Slowly her mind became less confused and sought the origins of her exaltation, which were twofold and could be limited by an effort to the persons of Mr. Hirst and Mr. Hewet. Any clear analysis of them was impossible owing to the haze of wonder in which they were enveloped. She could not reason about them as about people whose feelings went by the same rule as her own did, and her mind dwelt on them with a kind of physical pleasure such as is caused by the contemplation of bright things hanging in the sun. From them all life seemed to radiate; the very words of books were steeped in radiance. She then became haunted by a suspicion which she was so reluctant to face that she welcomed a trip and stumble over the grass because thus her attention was dispersed, but in a second it had collected itself again. Unconsciously she had been walking faster and faster, her body trying to outrun her mind; but she was now on the summit of a little hillock of earth which rose above the river and displayed the valley. She was no longer able to juggle with several ideas, but must deal with the most persistent, and a kind of melancholy replaced her excitement. She sank down on to the earth clasping her knees together, and looking blankly in front of her. For some time she observed a great yellow butterfly, which was opening and closing its wings very slowly on a little flat stone.
"What is it to be in love?" she demanded, after a long silence; each word as it came into being seemed to shove itself out into an unknown sea. Hypnotised by the wings of the butterfly, and awed by the discovery of a terrible possibility in life, she sat for some time longer. When the butterfly flew away, she rose, and with her two books beneath her arm returned home again, much as a soldier prepared for battle.