The voyage out, p.27
The Voyage Out, p.27
All that evening the clouds gathered, until they closed entirely overthe blue of the sky. They seemed to narrow the space between earth andheaven, so that there was no room for the air to move in freely; andthe waves, too, lay flat, and yet rigid, as if they were restrained. Theleaves on the bushes and trees in the garden hung closely together,and the feeling of pressure and restraint was increased by the shortchirping sounds which came from birds and insects.
So strange were the lights and the silence that the busy hum of voiceswhich usually filled the dining-room at meal times had distinct gapsin it, and during these silences the clatter of the knives upon platesbecame audible. The first roll of thunder and the first heavy dropstriking the pane caused a little stir.
"It's coming!" was said simultaneously in many different languages.
There was then a profound silence, as if the thunder had withdrawn intoitself. People had just begun to eat again, when a gust of cold aircame through the open windows, lifting tablecloths and skirts, a lightflashed, and was instantly followed by a clap of thunder right over thehotel. The rain swished with it, and immediately there were allthose sounds of windows being shut and doors slamming violently whichaccompany a storm.
The room grew suddenly several degrees darker, for the wind seemed to bedriving waves of darkness across the earth. No one attempted to eat fora time, but sat looking out at the garden, with their forks in the air.The flashes now came frequently, lighting up faces as if they were goingto be photographed, surprising them in tense and unnatural expressions.The clap followed close and violently upon them. Several women halfrose from their chairs and then sat down again, but dinner was continueduneasily with eyes upon the garden. The bushes outside were ruffled andwhitened, and the wind pressed upon them so that they seemed to stoop tothe ground. The waiters had to press dishes upon the diners' notice;and the diners had to draw the attention of waiters, for they were allabsorbed in looking at the storm. As the thunder showed no signs ofwithdrawing, but seemed massed right overhead, while the lightning aimedstraight at the garden every time, an uneasy gloom replaced the firstexcitement.
Finishing the meal very quickly, people congregated in the hall, wherethey felt more secure than in any other place because they could retreatfar from the windows, and although they heard the thunder, they couldnot see anything. A little boy was carried away sobbing in the arms ofhis mother.
While the storm continued, no one seemed inclined to sit down, but theycollected in little groups under the central skylight, where they stoodin a yellow atmosphere, looking upwards. Now and again their facesbecame white, as the lightning flashed, and finally a terrific crashcame, making the panes of the skylight lift at the joints.
"Ah!" several voices exclaimed at the same moment.
"Something struck," said a man's voice.
The rain rushed down. The rain seemed now to extinguish the lightningand the thunder, and the hall became almost dark.
After a minute or two, when nothing was heard but the rattle of waterupon the glass, there was a perceptible slackening of the sound, andthen the atmosphere became lighter.
"It's over," said another voice.
At a touch, all the electric lights were turned on, and revealed a crowdof people all standing, all looking with rather strained faces up atthe skylight, but when they saw each other in the artificial lightthey turned at once and began to move away. For some minutes the raincontinued to rattle upon the skylight, and the thunder gave anothershake or two; but it was evident from the clearing of the darkness andthe light drumming of the rain upon the roof, that the great confusedocean of air was travelling away from them, and passing high over headwith its clouds and its rods of fire, out to sea. The building, whichhad seemed so small in the tumult of the storm, now became as square andspacious as usual.
As the storm drew away, the people in the hall of the hotel sat down;and with a comfortable sense of relief, began to tell each other storiesabout great storms, and produced in many cases their occupations forthe evening. The chess-board was brought out, and Mr. Elliot, who wore astock instead of a collar as a sign of convalescence, but was otherwisemuch as usual, challenged Mr. Pepper to a final contest. Round themgathered a group of ladies with pieces of needlework, or in default ofneedlework, with novels, to superintend the game, much as if they werein charge of two small boys playing marbles. Every now and then theylooked at the board and made some encouraging remark to the gentlemen.
Mrs. Paley just round the corner had her cards arranged in long laddersbefore her, with Susan sitting near to sympathise but not to correct,and the merchants and the miscellaneous people who had never beendiscovered to possess names were stretched in their arm-chairs withtheir newspapers on their knees. The conversation in these circumstanceswas very gentle, fragmentary, and intermittent, but the room was full ofthe indescribable stir of life. Every now and then the moth, which wasnow grey of wing and shiny of thorax, whizzed over their heads, and hitthe lamps with a thud.
A young woman put down her needlework and exclaimed, "Poor creature! itwould be kinder to kill it." But nobody seemed disposed to rouse himselfin order to kill the moth. They watched it dash from lamp to lamp,because they were comfortable, and had nothing to do.
On the sofa, beside the chess-players, Mrs. Elliot was imparting a newstitch in knitting to Mrs. Thornbury, so that their heads came very neartogether, and were only to be distinguished by the old lace cap whichMrs. Thornbury wore in the evening. Mrs. Elliot was an expert atknitting, and disclaimed a compliment to that effect with evident pride.
"I suppose we're all proud of something," she said, "and I'm proud of myknitting. I think things like that run in families. We all knit well. Ihad an uncle who knitted his own socks to the day of his death--andhe did it better than any of his daughters, dear old gentleman. Now Iwonder that you, Miss Allan, who use your eyes so much, don't takeup knitting in the evenings. You'd find it such a relief, I shouldsay--such a rest to the eyes--and the bazaars are so glad of things."Her voice dropped into the smooth half-conscious tone of the expertknitter; the words came gently one after another. "As much as I do Ican always dispose of, which is a comfort, for then I feel that I am notwasting my time--"
Miss Allan, being thus addressed, shut her novel and observed the othersplacidly for a time. At last she said, "It is surely not natural toleave your wife because she happens to be in love with you. But that--asfar as I can make out--is what the gentleman in my story does."
"Tut, tut, that doesn't sound good--no, that doesn't sound at allnatural," murmured the knitters in their absorbed voices.
"Still, it's the kind of book people call very clever," Miss Allanadded.
"_Maternity_--by Michael Jessop--I presume," Mr. Elliot put in, for hecould never resist the temptation of talking while he played chess.
"D'you know," said Mrs. Elliot, after a moment, "I don't think people_do_ write good novels now--not as good as they used to, anyhow."
No one took the trouble to agree with her or to disagree with her.Arthur Venning who was strolling about, sometimes looking at the game,sometimes reading a page of a magazine, looked at Miss Allan, who washalf asleep, and said humorously, "A penny for your thoughts, MissAllan."
The others looked up. They were glad that he had not spoken to them.But Miss Allan replied without any hesitation, "I was thinking ofmy imaginary uncle. Hasn't every one got an imaginary uncle?" shecontinued. "I have one--a most delightful old gentleman. He's alwaysgiving me things. Sometimes it's a gold watch; sometimes it's a carriageand pair; sometimes it's a beautiful little cottage in the New Forest;sometimes it's a ticket to the place I most want to see."
She set them all thinking vaguely of the things they wanted. Mrs. Elliotknew exactly what she wanted; she wanted a child; and the usual littlepucker deepened on her brow.
"We're such lucky people," she said, looking at her husband. "We reallyhave no wants." She was apt to say this, partly in order to convinceherself, and partly in order to convince other people. But she wasprevented from wondering how far she carried conviction by the entranceof Mr. and Mrs. Flushing, who came through the hall and stopped by thechess-board. Mrs. Flushing looked wilder than ever. A great strand ofblack hair looped down across her brow, her cheeks were whipped a darkblood red, and drops of rain made wet marks upon them.
Mr. Flushing explained that they had been on the roof watching thestorm.
"It was a wonderful sight," he said. "The lightning went right out overthe sea, and lit up the waves and the ships far away. You can't thinkhow wonderful the mountains looked too, with the lights on them, and thegreat masses of shadow. It's all over now."
He slid down into a chair, becoming interested in the final struggle ofthe game.
"And you go back to-morrow?" said Mrs. Thornbury, looking at Mrs.Flushing.
"Yes," she replied.
"And indeed one is not sorry to go back," said Mrs. Elliot, assuming anair of mournful anxiety, "after all this illness."
"Are you afraid of dyin'?" Mrs. Flushing demanded scornfully.
"I think we are all afraid of that," said Mrs. Elliot with dignity.
"I suppose we're all cowards when it comes to the point," said Mrs.Flushing, rubbing her cheek against the back of the chair. "I'm sure Iam."
"Not a bit of it!" said Mr. Flushing, turning round, for Mr. Pepper tooka very long time to consider his move. "It's not cowardly to wish tolive, Alice. It's the very reverse of cowardly. Personally, I'd like togo on for a hundred years--granted, of course, that I had the full useof my faculties. Think of all the things that are bound to happen!""That is what I feel," Mrs. Thornbury rejoined. "The changes, theimprovements, the inventions--and beauty. D'you know I feel sometimesthat I couldn't bear to die and cease to see beautiful things about me?"
"It would certainly be very dull to die before they have discoveredwhether there is life in Mars," Miss Allan added.
"Do you really believe there's life in Mars?" asked Mrs. Flushing,turning to her for the first time with keen interest. "Who tells youthat? Some one who knows? D'you know a man called--?"
Here Mrs. Thornbury laid down her knitting, and a look of extremesolicitude came into her eyes.
"There is Mr. Hirst," she said quietly.
St. John had just come through the swing door. He was rather blownabout by the wind, and his cheeks looked terribly pale, unshorn, andcavernous. After taking off his coat he was going to pass straightthrough the hall and up to his room, but he could not ignore thepresence of so many people he knew, especially as Mrs. Thornbury roseand went up to him, holding out her hand. But the shock of the warmlamp-lit room, together with the sight of so many cheerful human beingssitting together at their ease, after the dark walk in the rain, and thelong days of strain and horror, overcame him completely. He looked atMrs. Thornbury and could not speak.
Every one was silent. Mr. Pepper's hand stayed upon his Knight. Mrs.Thornbury somehow moved him to a chair, sat herself beside him, and withtears in her own eyes said gently, "You have done everything for yourfriend."
Her action set them all talking again as if they had never stopped, andMr. Pepper finished the move with his Knight.
"There was nothing to be done," said St. John. He spoke very slowly. "Itseems impossible--"
He drew his hand across his eyes as if some dream came between him andthe others and prevented him from seeing where he was.
"And that poor fellow," said Mrs. Thornbury, the tears falling againdown her cheeks.
"Impossible," St. John repeated.
"Did he have the consolation of knowing--?" Mrs. Thornbury began verytentatively.
But St. John made no reply. He lay back in his chair, half-seeing theothers, half-hearing what they said. He was terribly tired, and thelight and warmth, the movements of the hands, and the soft communicativevoices soothed him; they gave him a strange sense of quiet and relief.As he sat there, motionless, this feeling of relief became a feelingof profound happiness. Without any sense of disloyalty to Terence andRachel he ceased to think about either of them. The movements and thevoices seemed to draw together from different parts of the room, and tocombine themselves into a pattern before his eyes; he was content to sitsilently watching the pattern build itself up, looking at what he hardlysaw.
The game was really a good one, and Mr. Pepper and Mr. Elliot werebecoming more and more set upon the struggle. Mrs. Thornbury, seeingthat St. John did not wish to talk, resumed her knitting.
"Lightning again!" Mrs. Flushing suddenly exclaimed. A yellow lightflashed across the blue window, and for a second they saw the greentrees outside. She strode to the door, pushed it open, and stood halfout in the open air.
But the light was only the reflection of the storm which was over. Therain had ceased, the heavy clouds were blown away, and the air was thinand clear, although vapourish mists were being driven swiftly across themoon. The sky was once more a deep and solemn blue, and the shape of theearth was visible at the bottom of the air, enormous, dark, and solid,rising into the tapering mass of the mountain, and pricked here andthere on the slopes by the tiny lights of villas. The driving air, thedrone of the trees, and the flashing light which now and again spread abroad illumination over the earth filled Mrs. Flushing with exultation.Her breasts rose and fell.
"Splendid! Splendid!" she muttered to herself. Then she turned back intothe hall and exclaimed in a peremptory voice, "Come outside and see,Wilfrid; it's wonderful."
Some half-stirred; some rose; some dropped their balls of wool and beganto stoop to look for them.
"To bed--to bed," said Miss Allan.
"It was the move with your Queen that gave it away, Pepper," exclaimedMr. Elliot triumphantly, sweeping the pieces together and standing up.He had won the game.
"What? Pepper beaten at last? I congratulate you!" said Arthur Venning,who was wheeling old Mrs. Paley to bed.
All these voices sounded gratefully in St. John's ears as he layhalf-asleep, and yet vividly conscious of everything around him. Acrosshis eyes passed a procession of objects, black and indistinct, thefigures of people picking up their books, their cards, their balls ofwool, their work-baskets, and passing him one after another on their wayto bed.
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