The voyage out, p.10
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       The Voyage Out, p.10
 

          
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  Chapter X

  Among the promises which Mrs. Ambrose had made her niece should she staywas a room cut off from the rest of the house, large, private--a room inwhich she could play, read, think, defy the world, a fortress as well asa sanctuary. Rooms, she knew, became more like worlds than rooms at theage of twenty-four. Her judgment was correct, and when she shut the doorRachel entered an enchanted place, where the poets sang and things fellinto their right proportions. Some days after the vision of the hotelby night she was sitting alone, sunk in an arm-chair, reading abrightly-covered red volume lettered on the back _Works_ _of_ _Henrik__Ibsen_. Music was open on the piano, and books of music rose in twojagged pillars on the floor; but for the moment music was deserted.

  Far from looking bored or absent-minded, her eyes were concentratedalmost sternly upon the page, and from her breathing, which was slow butrepressed, it could be seen that her whole body was constrained by theworking of her mind. At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, anddrew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks thetransition 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, andpartly as the heroine of the play she had just read. The landscapeoutside, because she had seen nothing but print for the space of twohours, now appeared amazingly solid and clear, but although there weremen 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 heroicstatue in the middle of the foreground, dominating the view. Ibsen'splays always left her in that condition. She acted them for days at atime, greatly to Helen's amusement; and then it would be Meredith's turnand she became Diana of the Crossways. But Helen was aware that it wasnot all acting, and that some sort of change was taking place in thehuman being. When Rachel became tired of the rigidity of her pose on theback of the chair, she turned round, slid comfortably down into it, andgazed out over the furniture through the window opposite which opened onthe garden. (Her mind wandered away from Nora, but she went on thinkingof 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 roundsheltered gardens, and the household gossip of her aunts. But Mrs.Ambrose would have been the first to disclaim any influence, or indeedany 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 andthe interminable mazes which had led to that result were usually noteven guessed at by her. Talk was the medicine she trusted to, talk abouteverything, talk that was free, unguarded, and as candid as a habit oftalking with men made natural in her own case. Nor did she encouragethose habits of unselfishness and amiability founded upon insinceritywhich 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 booksand discouraged too entire a dependence upon Bach and Beethoven andWagner. But when Mrs. Ambrose would have suggested Defoe, Maupassant, orsome spacious chronicle of family life, Rachel chose modern books, booksin 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 disputesabout facts which had no such importance as the moderns claimed forthem. But she did not interfere. Rachel read what she chose, readingwith the curious literalness of one to whom written sentences areunfamiliar, and handling words as though they were made of wood,separately of great importance, and possessed of shapes like tables orchairs. In this way she came to conclusions, which had to be remodelledaccording to the adventures of the day, and were indeed recast asliberally as any one could desire, leaving always a small grain ofbelief behind them.

  Ibsen was succeeded by a novel such as Mrs. Ambrose detested, whosepurpose was to distribute the guilt of a woman's downfall upon the rightshoulders; a purpose which was achieved, if the reader's discomfortwere 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 mindcontracting and expanding like the main-spring of a clock, and thesmall noises of midday, which one can ascribe to no definite cause, ina regular rhythm. It was all very real, very big, very impersonal, andafter a moment or two she began to raise her first finger and to letit fall on the arm of her chair so as to bring back to herself someconsciousness of her own existence. She was next overcome by theunspeakable queerness of the fact that she should be sitting in anarm-chair, in the morning, in the middle of the world. Who were thepeople moving in the house--moving things from one place to another? Andlife, what was that? It was only a light passing over the surface andvanishing, as in time she would vanish, though the furniture in theroom would remain. Her dissolution became so complete that she couldnot raise her finger any more, and sat perfectly still, listening andlooking always at the same spot. It became stranger and stranger. Shewas overcome with awe that things should exist at all. . . . She forgotthat she had any fingers to raise. . . . The things that existed wereso immense and so desolate. . . . She continued to be conscious of thesevast masses of substance for a long stretch of time, the clock stillticking in the midst of the universal silence.

  "Come in," she said mechanically, for a string in her brain seemed tobe pulled by a persistent knocking at the door. With great slowness thedoor opened and a tall human being came towards her, holding out her armand saying:

  "What am I to say to this?"

  The utter absurdity of a woman coming into a room with a piece of paperin 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 whichwere written the incredible words:

  DEAR MRS. AMBROSE--I am getting up a picnic for next Friday, when wepropose to start at eleven-thirty if the weather is fine, and to makethe ascent of Monte Rosa. It will take some time, but the view shouldbe magnificent. It would give me great pleasure if you and Miss Vinracewould consent to be of the party.--

  Yours sincerely, TERENCE HEWET

  Rachel read the words aloud to make herself believe in them. For thesame reason she put her hand on Helen's shoulder.

  "Books--books--books," said Helen, in her absent-minded way. "More newbooks--I wonder what you find in them. . . ."

  For the second time Rachel read the letter, but to herself. Thistime, instead of seeming vague as ghosts, each word was astonishinglyprominent; they came out as the tops of mountains come through a mist._Friday_--_eleven-thirty_--_Miss_ _Vinrace_. The blood began to run inher veins; she felt her eyes brighten.

  "We must go," she said, rather surprising Helen by her decision. "Wemust certainly go"--such was the relief of finding that things stillhappened, and indeed they appeared the brighter for the mist surroundingthem.

  "Monte Rosa--that's the mountain over there, isn't it?" said Helen; "butHewet--who's he? One of the young men Ridley met, I suppose. Shall I sayyes, then? It may be dreadfully dull."

  She took the letter back and went, for the messenger was waiting for heranswer.

  The party which had been suggested a few nights ago in Mr. Hirst'sbedroom had taken shape and was the source of great satisfaction to Mr.Hewet, who had seldom used his practical abilities, and was pleasedto find them equal to the strain. His invitations had been universallyaccepted, which was the more encouraging as they had been issued againstHirst's advice to people who were very dull, not at all suited to eachother, and sure not to come.

  "Undoubtedly," he said, as he twirled and untwirled a note signed HelenAmbrose, "the gifts needed to make a great commander have been absurdlyoverrated. About half the intellectual effort which is needed to reviewa book of modern poetry has enabled me to get together seven or eightpeople, of opposite sexes, at the same spot at the same hour on the sameday. What else is generalship, Hirst? What more did Wellington
do on thefield 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, andHirst was writing a letter opposite. Hirst was quick to point out thatall the difficulties remained.

  "For instance, here are two women you've never seen. Suppose one of themsuffers from mountain-sickness, as my sister does, and the other--"

  "Oh, the women are for you," Hewet interrupted. "I asked them solely foryour benefit. What you want, Hirst, you know, is the society of youngwomen of your own age. You don't know how to get on with women, which isa 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 tothe place where a general meeting had been appointed. He wondered whyon earth he had asked these people, and what one really expected to getfrom bunching human beings up together.

  "Cows," he reflected, "draw together in a field; ships in a calm; andwe're just the same when we've nothing else to do. But why do we doit?--is it to prevent ourselves from seeing to the bottom of things"(he stopped by a stream and began stirring it with his walking-stickand clouding the water with mud), "making cities and mountains and wholeuniverses out of nothing, or do we really love each other, or do we,on the other hand, live in a state of perpetual uncertainty, knowingnothing, leaping from moment to moment as from world to world?--whichis, on the whole, the view _I_ incline to."

  He jumped over the stream; Hirst went round and joined him, remarkingthat 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 thesalmon-pink farmhouse standing by the stream which had been chosen asmeeting-place. It was a shady spot, lying conveniently just where thehill sprung out from the flat. Between the thin stems of the plane treesthe young men could see little knots of donkeys pasturing, and a tallwoman rubbing the nose of one of them, while another woman was kneelingby the stream lapping water out of her palms.

  As they entered the shady place, Helen looked up and then held out herhand.

  "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 carriagearrived. By degrees the grove filled with people--the Elliots, theThornburys, Mr. Venning and Susan, Miss Allan, Evelyn Murgatroyd, andMr. Perrott. Mr. Hirst acted the part of hoarse energetic sheep-dog. Bymeans of a few words of caustic Latin he had the animals marshalled, andby inclining a sharp shoulder he lifted the ladies. "What Hewet fails tounderstand," he remarked, "is that we must break the back of theascent before midday." He was assisting a young lady, by name EvelynMurgatroyd, as he spoke. She rose light as a bubble to her seat. With afeather 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 leadingroyalist troops into action.

  "Ride with me," she commanded; and, as soon as Hirst had swung himselfacross a mule, the two started, leading the cavalcade.

  "You're not to call me Miss Murgatroyd. I hate it," she said. "My name'sEvelyn. 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. Thefull and romantic career of Evelyn Murgatroyd is best hit off by herown words, "Call me Evelyn and I'll call you St. John." She said thaton very slight provocation--her surname was enough--but although a greatmany young men had answered her already with considerable spirit shewent on saying it and making choice of none. But her donkey stumbled toa jog-trot, and she had to ride in advance alone, for the path whenit began to ascend one of the spines of the hill became narrowand scattered with stones. The cavalcade wound on like a jointedcaterpillar, tufted with the white parasols of the ladies, and thepanama hats of the gentlemen. At one point where the ground rosesharply, Evelyn M. jumped off, threw her reins to the native boy, andadjured St. John Hirst to dismount too. Their example was followed bythose who felt the need of stretching.

  "I don't see any need to get off," said Miss Allan to Mrs. Elliot justbehind her, "considering the difficulty I had getting on."

  "These little donkeys stand anything, _n'est-ce_ _pas_?" Mrs. Elliotaddressed the guide, who obligingly bowed his head.

  "Flowers," said Helen, stooping to pick the lovely little bright flowerswhich grew separately here and there. "You pinch their leaves and thenthey 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 ofmeeting they had not been introduced.

  "How sensible!" chirped Mrs. Elliot. "That's just what one would alwayslike--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 implicitlyupon one thing following another that the mere glimpse of a worldwhere dinner could be disregarded, or the table moved one inch from itsaccustomed place, filled her with fears for her own stability.

  Higher and higher they went, becoming separated from the world. Theworld, when they turned to look back, flattened itself out, and wasmarked with squares of thin green and grey.

  "Towns are very small," Rachel remarked, obscuring the whole of SantaMarina and its suburbs with one hand. The sea filled in all the anglesof the coast smoothly, breaking in a white frill, and here and thereships were set firmly in the blue. The sea was stained with purple andgreen blots, and there was a glittering line upon the rim where it metthe sky. The air was very clear and silent save for the sharp noise ofgrasshoppers and the hum of bees, which sounded loud in the ear as theyshot past and vanished. The party halted and sat for a time in a quarryon the hillside.

  "Amazingly clear," exclaimed St. John, identifying one cleft in the landafter another.

  Evelyn M. sat beside him, propping her chin on her hand. She surveyedthe view with a certain look of triumph.

  "D'you think Garibaldi was ever up here?" she asked Mr. Hirst. Oh, ifshe had been his bride! If, instead of a picnic party, this was a partyof patriots, and she, red-shirted like the rest, had lain among grimmen, flat on the turf, aiming her gun at the white turrets beneath them,screening her eyes to pierce through the smoke! So thinking, her footstirred 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. "Youonly 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, andshe 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 beingcautious, don't you?"

  But St. John was decidedly cautious, as she could see by the suddenconstriction of his lips, and had no intention of revealing his soul toa young lady. "The ass is eating my hat," he remarked, and stretched outfor it instead of answering her. Evelyn blushed very slightly and thenturned with some impetuosity upon Mr. Perrott, and when they mountedagain it was Mr. Perrott who lifted her to her seat.

  "When one has laid the eggs one eats the omelette," said HughlingElliot, exquisitely in French, a hint to the rest of them that it wastime to ride on again.

  The
midday sun which Hirst had foretold was beginning to beat downhotly. The higher they got the more of the sky appeared, until themountain was only a small tent of earth against an enormous bluebackground. The English fell silent; the natives who walked beside thedonkeys broke into queer wavering songs and tossed jokes from one to theother. The way grew very steep, and each rider kept his eyes fixed onthe hobbling curved form of the rider and donkey directly in front ofhim. Rather more strain was being put upon their bodies than is quitelegitimate in a party of pleasure, and Hewet overheard one or twoslightly grumbling remarks.

  "Expeditions in such heat are perhaps a little unwise," Mrs. Elliotmurmured to Miss Allan.

  But Miss Allan returned, "I always like to get to the top"; and it wastrue, although she was a big woman, stiff in the joints, and unused todonkey-riding, but as her holidays were few she made the most of them.

  The vivacious white figure rode well in front; she had somehow possessedherself of a leafy branch and wore it round her hat like a garland. Theywent on for a few minutes in silence.

  "The view will be wonderful," Hewet assured them, turning round in hissaddle and smiling encouragement. Rachel caught his eye and smiled too.They struggled on for some time longer, nothing being heard but theclatter of hooves striving on the loose stones. Then they saw thatEvelyn was off her ass, and that Mr. Perrott was standing in theattitude of a statesman in Parliament Square, stretching an arm of stonetowards 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 andseeing the view prevented any one from answering her. One after anotherthey came out on the flat space at the top and stood overcome withwonder. Before them they beheld an immense space--grey sands runninginto forest, and forest merging in mountains, and mountains washed byair, the infinite distances of South America. A river ran across theplain, as flat as the land, and appearing quite as stationary. Theeffect of so much space was at first rather chilling. They feltthemselves very small, and for some time no one said anything. ThenEvelyn exclaimed, "Splendid!" She took hold of the hand that was nexther; it chanced to be Miss Allan's hand.

  "North--South--East--West," said Miss Allan, jerking her head slightlytowards the points of the compass.

  Hewet, who had gone a little in front, looked up at his guests as if tojustify himself for having brought them. He observed how strangely thepeople standing in a row with their figures bent slightly forwardand their clothes plastered by the wind to the shape of their bodiesresembled naked statues. On their pedestal of earth they lookedunfamiliar 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, andthey handed packets of chicken and bread from one to another.

  As St. John gave Helen her packet she looked him full in the face andsaid:

  "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 toRachel.

  "Your lights tempted us," said Helen. "We watched you playing cards, butwe 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 abouther.

  Hughling Elliot put up his eyeglass and grasped the situation.

  "I don't know of anything more dreadful," he said, pulling at the jointof a chicken's leg, "than being seen when one isn't conscious of it. Onefeels sure one has been caught doing something ridiculous--looking atone's tongue in a hansom, for instance."

  Now the others ceased to look at the view, and drawing together sat downin a circle round the baskets.

  "And yet those little looking-glasses in hansoms have a fascination oftheir own," said Mrs. Thornbury. "One's features look so different whenone can only see a bit of them."

  "There will soon be very few hansom cabs left," said Mrs. Elliot. "Andfour-wheeled cabs--I assure you even at Oxford it's almost impossible toget 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 thenoblest of God's creatures, could not agree, and Venning thought Hirstan unspeakable ass, but was too polite not to continue the conversation.

  "When they see us falling out of aeroplanes they get some of their ownback, I expect," he remarked.

  "You fly?" said old Mr. Thornbury, putting on his spectacles to look athim.

  "I hope to, some day," said Arthur.

  Here flying was discussed at length, and Mrs. Thornbury delivered anopinion which was almost a speech to the effect that it would be quitenecessary 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 andskirt, with a sandwich in her hand, her eyes lighting up with zealas 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 wasabout drink and salt and the view. Suddenly Miss Allan, who wasseated with her back to the ruined wall, put down her sandwich,picked something off her neck, and remarked, "I'm covered with littlecreatures." It was true, and the discovery was very welcome. The antswere pouring down a glacier of loose earth heaped between the stones ofthe ruin--large brown ants with polished bodies. She held out one on theback of her hand for Helen to look at.

  "Suppose they sting?" said Helen.

  "They will not sting, but they may infest the victuals," said MissAllan, and measures were taken at once to divert the ants from theircourse. At Hewet's suggestion it was decided to adopt the methods ofmodern warfare against an invading army. The table-cloth represented theinvaded country, and round it they built barricades of baskets, setup the wine bottles in a rampart, made fortifications of bread and dugfosses of salt. When an ant got through it was exposed to a fire ofbread-crumbs, until Susan pronounced that that was cruel, and rewardedthose brave spirits with spoil in the shape of tongue. Playing this gamethey lost their stiffness, and even became unusually daring, for Mr.Perrott, who was very shy, said, "Permit me," and removed an ant fromEvelyn's neck.

  "It would be no laughing matter really," said Mrs. Elliot confidentiallyto Mrs. Thornbury, "if an ant did get between the vest and the skin."

  The noise grew suddenly more clamorous, for it was discovered that along line of ants had found their way on to the table-cloth by a backentrance, and if success could be gauged by noise, Hewet had everyreason to think his party a success. Nevertheless he became, for noreason at all, profoundly depressed.

  "They are not satisfactory; they are ignoble," he thought, surveyinghis guests from a little distance, where he was gathering together theplates. He glanced at them all, stooping and swaying and gesticulatinground the table-cloth. Amiable and modest, respectable in many ways,lovable even in their contentment and desire to be kind, how mediocrethey 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 ina pod; and Susan--she had no self, and counted neither one way nor theother; Venning was as honest and as brutal as a schoolboy; poor oldThornbury merely trod his round like a horse in a mill; and the lessone examined into Evelyn's character the better, he suspected. Yet thesewere the people with money, and to them rather than to others was giventhe management of the world. Put among them some one more vital, whocared for life or for beauty, and what an agony, what a waste would theyinflict 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; withhis usual little frown of concentration upon his forehead he was peelingthe skin off a banana. "And he's as ugly as sin." For the ugliness ofSt. John Hirst, and the limitations that went with it, he made the restin 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. Shewas laughing at Miss Allan. "You wear combinations in this heat?" shesaid in a voice which was meant to be private. He liked the look of herimmensely, not so much her beauty, but her largeness and simplicity,which made her stand out from the rest like a great stone woman, andhe passed on in a gentler mood. His eye fell upon Rachel. She was lyingback rather behind the others resting on one elbow; she might have beenthinking precisely the same thoughts as Hewet himself. Her eyes werefixed 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."

 
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