The voyage out, p.8
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       The Voyage Out, p.8

          

  Chapter VIII

  The next few months passed away, as many years can pass away, withoutdefinite events, and yet, if suddenly disturbed, it would be seen thatsuch months or years had a character unlike others. The three monthswhich had passed had brought them to the beginning of March. The climatehad kept its promise, and the change of season from winter to springhad made very little difference, so that Helen, who was sitting in thedrawing-room with a pen in her hand, could keep the windows open thougha great fire of logs burnt on one side of her. Below, the sea was stillblue and the roofs still brown and white, though the day was fadingrapidly. 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 satwriting with a pad on her knee, shared the general effect of size andlack of detail, for the flames which ran along the branches, suddenlydevouring little green tufts, burnt intermittently and sent irregularilluminations across her face and the plaster walls. There wereno pictures on the walls but here and there boughs laden withheavy-petalled flowers spread widely against them. Of the books fallenon the bare floor and heaped upon the large table, it was only possiblein 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 Gervasioduring the past three months, as, for instance, that they had had theBritish Consul to dinner, and had been taken over a Spanish man-of-war,and had seen a great many processions and religious festivals, whichwere so beautiful that Mrs. Ambrose couldn't conceive why, if peoplemust have a religion, they didn't all become Roman Catholics. They hadmade several expeditions though none of any length. It was worth comingif only for the sake of the flowering trees which grew wild quite nearthe house, and the amazing colours of sea and earth. The earth, insteadof being brown, was red, purple, green. "You won't believe me," sheadded, "there is no colour like it in England." She adopted, indeed,a condescending tone towards that poor island, which was now advancingchilly crocuses and nipped violets in nooks, in copses, in cosy corners,tended by rosy old gardeners in mufflers, who were always touchingtheir hats and bobbing obsequiously. She went on to deride the islandersthemselves. Rumours of London all in a ferment over a General Electionhad 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 onlypeople 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 humanbeings. They talk to one as if they were equals. As far as I can tellthere are no aristocrats."

  Perhaps it was the mention of aristocrats that reminded her of RichardDalloway and Rachel, for she ran on with the same penful to describe herniece.

  "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 dowith them. However, I must retract some of the things that I havesaid against them. If they were properly educated I don't see why theyshouldn't be much the same as men--as satisfactory I mean; though, ofcourse, very different. The question is, how should one educatethem. The present method seems to me abominable. This girl, thoughtwenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until Iexplained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance uponother matters as important" (here Mrs. Ambrose's letter may not bequoted) . . . "was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish butcriminal 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 agood deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less areasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats itsown object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much tooseriously. My brother-in-law really deserved a catastrophe--which hewon't get. I now pray for a young man to come to my help; some one, Imean, who would talk to her openly, and prove how absurd most of herideas about life are. Unluckily such men seem almost as rare as thewomen. The English colony certainly doesn't provide one; artists,merchants, cultivated people--they are stupid, conventional, andflirtatious. . . ." She ceased, and with her pen in her hand sat lookinginto the fire, making the logs into caves and mountains, for it hadgrown too dark to go on writing. Moreover, the house began to stir asthe hour of dinner approached; she could hear the plates being chinkedin the dining-room next door, and Chailey instructing the Spanish girlwhere 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 ofRidley or Rachel; yet a keen observer might have thought that the girlwas more definite and self-confident in her manner than before. Her skinwas brown, her eyes certainly brighter, and she attended to what wassaid as though she might be going to contradict it. The meal began withthe 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 thelights beneath them. She asked Maria in Spanish whether the hotel wasnot filling up with visitors. Maria informed her with pride that therewould come a time when it was positively difficult to buy eggs--theshopkeepers 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 atriangle 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 therest of the meal passed in a brisk argument between husband and wifeas to whether he was or was not wholly ignored by the entire civilisedworld.

  "Considering the last batch," said Helen, "you deserve beating. Youwere asked to lecture, you were offered a degree, and some silly womanpraised not only your books but your beauty--she said he was whatShelley would have been if Shelley had lived to fifty-five and growna beard. Really, Ridley, I think you're the vainest man I know," sheended, rising from the table, "which I may tell you is saying a gooddeal."

  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--Ridleymust 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 withthem, which he emphatically refused to do, exclaiming that Rachel heexpected 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, andcompressing his face into the likeness of a commander surveying a fieldof battle, or a martyr watching the flames lick his toes, rather thanthat 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 ofthe door.

  It was a beautiful evening, still light enough to see a long way downthe road, though the stars were coming out. The pillar-box was let intoa high yellow wall where the lane met the road, and having dropped theletters into it, Helen was for turning back.

  "No, no," said Rachel, taking her by the wrist. "We're going to seelife. You promised."

  "Seeing life" was the phrase they used for their habit of strollingthrough the town after dark. The social life of Santa Marina was carriedon almost entirely by lamp-light, which the warmth of the nights and thescents culled from flowers made pleasant enough. The young women, withtheir hair magnificently swept in coils, a red flower behind the ear,sat on the doorsteps, or issued out on to balconies, while the young menranged up and down beneath, shouting up a greeting from time to time andstopping here and there to enter into amorous talk. At the open windowsmerchants could be seen making up the day's account, and older womenlifting jars from shelf to shelf. The streets were full of people, menfor the most part, who interchanged their views of the world as theywalked, or gathered round the wine-tables at the street corner, where anold cripple was twanging his guitar strings, while a poor girl criedher passionate song in the gutter. The two Englishwomen excited somefriendly curiosity, but no one molested them.

  Helen sauntered on, observing the different people in their shabbyclothes, who seemed so careless and so natural, with satisfaction.

  "Just think of the Mall to-night!" she exclaimed at length. "It's thefifteenth of March. Perhaps there's a Court." She thought of the crowdwaiting in the cold spring air to see the grand carriages go by. "It'svery cold, if it's not raining," she said. "First there are men sellingpicture postcards; then there are wretched little shop-girls with roundbandboxes; then there are bank clerks in tail coats; and then--anynumber of dressmakers. People from South Kensington drive up in ahired fly; officials have a pair of bays; earls, on the other hand, areallowed one footman to stand up behind; dukes have two, royal dukes--soI was told--have three; the king, I suppose, can have as many as helikes. And the people believe in it!"

  Out here it seemed as though the people of England must be shaped in thebody like the kings and queens, knights and pawns of the chessboard, sostrange 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. Shemeant that the people in the crowd believed in Him; for she rememberedthe crosses with bleeding plaster figures that stood where foot-pathsjoined, and the inexplicable mystery of a service in a Roman Catholicchurch.

  "We shall never understand!" she sighed.

  They had walked some way and it was now night, but they could see alarge 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 andjudging that nothing was private in this country, they walked straighton. An avenue of trees ran along the road, which was completelystraight. The trees suddenly came to an end; the road turned a corner,and they found themselves confronted by a large square building. Theyhad come out upon the broad terrace which ran round the hotel and wereonly a few feet distant from the windows. A row of long windows openedalmost to the ground. They were all of them uncurtained, and allbrilliantly lighted, so that they could see everything inside. Eachwindow revealed a different section of the life of the hotel. They drewinto one of the broad columns of shadow which separated the windows andgazed in. They found themselves just outside the dining-room. It wasbeing swept; a waiter was eating a bunch of grapes with his leg acrossthe corner of a table. Next door was the kitchen, where they werewashing up; white cooks were dipping their arms into cauldrons, whilethe waiters made their meal voraciously off broken meats, sopping up thegravy with bits of crumb. Moving on, they became lost in a plantationof bushes, and then suddenly found themselves outside the drawing-room,where the ladies and gentlemen, having dined well, lay back indeep arm-chairs, occasionally speaking or turning over the pages ofmagazines. A thin woman was flourishing up and down the piano.

  "What is a dahabeeyah, Charles?" the distinct voice of a widow, seatedin an arm-chair by the window, asked her son.

  It was the end of the piece, and his answer was lost in the generalclearing 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 inshirt-sleeves playing billiards with two young ladies.

  "He pinched my arm!" the plump young woman cried, as she missed herstroke.

  "Now you two--no ragging," the young man with the red face reprovedthem, who was marking.

  "Take care or we shall be seen," whispered Helen, plucking Rachel by thearm. Incautiously her head had risen to the middle of the window.

  Turning the corner they came to the largest room in the hotel, which wassupplied with four windows, and was called the Lounge, although it wasreally a hall. Hung with armour and native embroideries, furnished withdivans and screens, which shut off convenient corners, the room was lessformal than the others, and was evidently the haunt of youth. SignorRodriguez, whom they knew to be the manager of the hotel, stood quitenear them in the doorway surveying the scene--the gentlemen lounging inchairs, the couples leaning over coffee-cups, the game of cards in thecentre under profuse clusters of electric light. He was congratulatinghimself upon the enterprise which had turned the refectory, a cold stoneroom with pots on trestles, into the most comfortable room in the house.The hotel was very full, and proved his wisdom in decreeing that nohotel can flourish without a lounge.

  The people were scattered about in couples or parties of four, andeither they were actually better acquainted, or the informal room madetheir manners easier. Through the open window came an uneven hummingsound like that which rises from a flock of sheep pent within hurdles atdusk. The card-party occupied the centre of the foreground.

  Helen and Rachel watched them play for some minutes without being ableto distinguish a word. Helen was observing one of the men intently. Hewas a lean, somewhat cadaverous man of about her own age, whose profilewas 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 fromthe rest, they heard him say quite distinctly:--

  "All you want is practice, Miss Warrington courage and practice--one'sno good without the other."

  "Hughling Elliot! Of course!" Helen exclaimed. She ducked her headimmediately, for at the sound of his name he looked up. The game went onfor a few minutes, and was then broken up by the approach of a wheeledchair, containing a voluminous old lady who paused by the table andsaid:--

  "Better luck to-night, Susan?"

  "All the luck's on our side," said a young man who until now had kepthis back turned to the window. He appeared to be rather stout, and had athick 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 brilliantplay."

  "Unless I go to bed early I get practically no sleep at all," Mrs. Paleywas heard to explain, as if to justify her seizure of Susan, who got upand proceeded to wheel the chair to the door.

  "They'll get some one else to take my place," she said cheerfully. Butshe was wrong. No attempt was made to find another player, and after theyoung man had built three stories of a card-house, which fell down, theplayers strolled off in different directions.

  Mr. Hewet turned his full face towards the window. They could see thathe had large eyes obscured by glasses; his complexion was rosy, hislips clean-shaven; and, seen among ordinary people, it appeared to be aninteresting face. He came straight towards them, but his eyes were fixednot upon the eavesdroppers but upon a spot where the curtain hung infolds.

  "Asleep?" he said.

  Helen and Rachel started to think that some one had been sitting nearto them unobserved all the time. There were legs in the shadow. Amelancholy voice issued from above them.

  "Two women," it said.

  A scuffling was heard on the gravel. The women had fled. They did notstop running until they felt certain that no eye could penetrate thedarkness and the hotel was only a square shadow in the distance, withred holes regularly cut in it.

 
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