Flush: a biography, by Virginia Woolf

Chapter Six

The End

Flush was growing an old dog now. The journey to England and all the memories it revived had undoubtedly tired him. It was noticed that he sought the shade rather than the sun on his return, though the shade of Florence was hotter than the sun of Wimpole Street. Stretched beneath a statue, couched under the lip of a fountain for the sake of the few drops that spurted now and again on to his coat, he would lie dozing by the hour. The young dogs would come about him. To them he would tell his stories of Whitechapel and Wimpole Street; he would describe the smell of clover and the smell of Oxford Street; he would rehearse his memories of one revolution and another — how Grand Dukes had come and Grand Dukes had gone; but the spotted spaniel down the alley on the left — she goes on for ever, he would say. Then violent Mr. Landor would hurry by and shake his fist at him in mock fury; kind Miss Isa Blagden would pause and take a sugared biscuit from her reticule. The peasant women in the marketplace made him a bed of leaves in the shadow of their baskets and tossed him a bunch of grapes now and then. He was known, he was liked by all Florence — gentle and simple, dogs and men.

But he was growing an old dog now, and he tended more and more to lie not even under the fountain — for the cobbles were too hard for his old bones — but in Mrs. Browning’s bedroom where the arms of the Guidi family made a smooth patch of scagliola on the floor, or in the drawing-room under the shadow of the drawing-room table. One day shortly after his return from London he was stretched there fast asleep. The deep and dreamless sleep of old age was heavy on him. Indeed today his sleep was deeper even than usual, for as he slept the darkness seemed to thicken round him. If he dreamt at all, he dreamt that he was sleeping in the heart of a primeval forest, shut from the light of the sun, shut from the voices of mankind, though now and again as he slept he dreamt that he heard the sleepy chirp of a dreaming bird, or, as the wind tossed the branches, the mellow chuckle of a brooding monkey.

Then suddenly the branches parted; the light broke in — here, there, in dazzling shafts. Monkeys chattered; birds rose crying and calling in alarm. He started to his feet wide awake. An astonishing commotion was all round him. He had fallen asleep between the bare legs of an ordinary drawing-room table. Now he was hemmed in by the billowing of skirts and the heaving of trousers. The table itself, moreover, was swaying violently from side to side. He did not know which way to run. What on earth was happening? What in Heaven’s name possessed the drawing-room table? He lifted up his voice in a prolonged howl of interrogation.

To Flush’s question no satisfactory answer can here be given. A few facts, and those of the baldest, are all that can be supplied. Briefly, then, it would appear that early in the nineteenth century the Countess of Blessington had bought a crystal ball from a magician. Her ladyship “never could understand the use of it”; indeed she had never been able to see anything in the ball except crystal. After her death, however, there was a sale of her effects and the ball came into the possession of others who “looked deeper, or with purer eyes,” and saw other things in the ball besides crystal. Whether Lord Stanhope was the purchaser, whether it was he who looked “with purer eyes,” is not stated. But certainly by the year 1852 Lord Stanhope was in possession of a crystal ball and Lord Stanhope had only to look into it to see among other things “the spirits of the sun.” Obviously this was not a sight that a hospitable nobleman could keep to himself, and Lord Stanhope was in the habit of displaying his ball at luncheon parties and of inviting his friends to see the spirits of the sun also. There was something strangely delightful — except indeed to Mr. Chorley — in the spectacle; balls became the rage; and luckily a London optician soon discovered that he could make them, without being either an Egyptian or a magician, though naturally the price of English crystal was high. Thus many people in the early ‘fifties became possessed of balls, though “many persons,” Lord Stanhope said, “use the balls, without the moral courage to confess it.” The prevalence of spirits in London indeed became so marked that some alarm was felt; and Lord Stanley suggested to Sir Edward Lytton “that the Government should appoint a committee of investigation so as to get as far as possible at the facts.” Whether the rumour of an approaching Government committee alarmed the spirits, or whether spirits, like bodies, tend to multiply in close confinement, there can be no doubt that the spirits began to show signs of restlessness, and, escaping in vast numbers, took up their residence in the legs of tables. Whatever the motive, the policy was successful. Crystal balls were expensive; almost everybody owns a table. Thus when Mrs. Browning returned to Italy in the winter of 1852 she found that the spirits had preceded her; the tables of Florence were almost universally infected. “From the Legation to the English chemists,” she wrote, “people are ‘serving tables’ . . . everywhere. When people gather round a table it isn’t to play whist.” No, it was to decipher messages conveyed by the legs of tables. Thus if asked the age of a child, the table “expresses itself intelligently by knocking with its legs, responses according to the alphabet.” And if a table could tell you that your own child was four years old, what limit was there to its capacity? Spinning tables were advertised in shops. The walls were placarded with advertisements of wonders “scoperte a Livorno.” By the year 1854, so rapidly did the movement spread, “four hundred thousand families in America had given their names . . . as actually in enjoyment of spiritual intercourse.” And from England the news came that Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton had imported “several of the American rapping spirits” to Knebworth, with the happy result — so little Arthur Russell was informed when he beheld a “strange-looking old gentleman in a shabby dressing-gown” staring at him at breakfast — that Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton believed himself invisible. 9

When Mrs. Browning first looked into Lord Stanhope’s crystal ball at a luncheon party she saw nothing — except indeed that it was a remarkable sign of the times. The spirit of the sun indeed told her that she was about to go to Rome; but as she was not about to go to Rome, she contradicted the spirits of the sun. “But,” she added, with truth, “I love the marvellous.” She was nothing if not adventurous. She had gone to Manning Street at the risk of her life. She had discovered a world that she had never dreamt of within half an hour’s drive from Wimpole Street. Why should there not be another world only half a moment’s flight from Florence — a better world, a more beautiful world, where the dead live, trying in vain to reach us? At any rate she would take the risk. And so she sat herself down at the table too. And Mr. Lytton, the brilliant son of an invisible father, came; and Mr. Frederick Tennyson, and Mr. Powers and M. Villari — they all sat at the table and then when the table had done kicking, they sat on drinking tea and eating strawberries and cream, with “Florence dissolving in the purple of the hills and the stars looking on,” talking and talking: “ . . . what stories we told, and what miracles we swore to! Oh, we are believers here, Isa, except Robert. . . . ” Then in burst deaf Mr. Kirkup with his bleak white beard. He had come round simply to exclaim, “There is a spiritual world — there is a future state. I confess it. I am convinced at last.” And when Mr. Kirkup, whose creed had always been “the next thing to atheism,” was converted merely because, in spite of his deafness, he had heard “three taps so loud that they made him leap,” how could Mrs. Browning keep her hands off the table? “You know I am rather a visionary and inclined to knock round at all the doors of the present world to try to get out,” she wrote. So she summoned the faithful to Casa Guidi; and there they sat with their hands on the drawing-room table, trying to get out.

Flush started up in the wildest apprehension. The skirts and the trousers were billowing round him; the table was standing on one leg. But whatever the ladies and gentlemen round the table could hear and see, Flush could hear and see nothing. True, the table was standing on one leg, but so tables will if you lean hard on one side. He had upset tables himself and been well scolded for it. But now there was Mrs. Browning with her great eyes wide open staring as if she saw something marvellous outside. Flush rushed to the balcony and looked over. Was there another Grand Duke riding by with banners and torches? Flush could see nothing but an old beggar woman crouched at the corner of the street over her basket of melons. Yet clearly Mrs. Browning saw something; clearly she saw something that was very wonderful. So in the old Wimpole Street days she had wept once without any reason that he could see; and again she had laughed, holding up a blotted scrawl. But this was different. There was something in her look now that frightened him. There was something in the room, or in the table, or in the petticoats and trousers, that he disliked exceedingly.

As the weeks passed, this preoccupation of Mrs. Browning’s with the invisible grew upon her. It might be a fine hot day, but instead of watching the lizards slide in and out of the stones, she would sit at the table; it might be a dark starry night, but instead of reading in her book, or passing her hand over paper, she would call, if Mr. Browning were out, for Wilson, and Wilson would come yawning. Then they would sit at the table together until that article of furniture, whose chief function it was to provide shade, kicked on the floor, and Mrs. Browning exclaimed that it was telling Wilson that she would soon be ill. Wilson replied that she was only sleepy. But soon Wilson herself, the implacable, the upright, the British, screamed and went into a faint, and Mrs. Browning was rushing hither and thither to find “the hygienic vinegar.” That, to Flush, was a highly unpleasant way of spending a quiet evening. Better far to sit and read one’s book.

Undoubtedly the suspense, the intangible but disagreeable odour, the kicks and the screams and the vinegar, told upon Flush’s nerves. It was all very well for the baby, Penini, to pray “that Flush’s hair may grow”; that was an aspiration that Flush could understand. But this form of prayer which required the presence of evil-smelling, seedy-looking men and the antics of a piece of apparently solid mahogany, angered him much as they angered that robust, sensible, well-dressed man, his master. But far worse than any smell to Flush, far worse than any antics, was the look on Mrs. Browning’s face when she gazed out of the window as if she were seeing something that was wonderful when there was nothing. Flush stood himself in front of her. She looked through him as if he were not there. That was the cruellest look she had ever given him. It was worse than her cold anger when he bit Mr. Browning in the leg; worse than her sardonic laughter when the door shut upon his paw in Regent’s Park. There were moments indeed when he regretted Wimpole Street and its tables. The tables at No. 50 had never tilted upon one leg. The little table with the ring round it that held her precious ornaments had always stood perfectly still. In those far-off days he had only to leap on her sofa and Miss Barrett started wide-awake and looked at him. Now, once more, he leapt on to her sofa. But she did not notice him. She was writing. She paid no attention to him. She went on writing — “also, at the request of the medium, the spiritual hands took from the table a garland which lay there, and placed it upon my head. The particular hand which did this was of the largest human size, as white as snow, and very beautiful. It was as near to me as this hand I write with, and I saw it as distinctly.” Flush pawed her sharply. She looked through him as if he were invisible. He leapt off the sofa and ran downstairs into the street.

It was a blazing hot afternoon. The old beggar woman at the corner had fallen asleep over her melons. The sun seemed droning in the air. Keeping to the shady side of the street, Flush trotted along the well-known ways to the market-place. The whole square was brilliant with awnings and stalls and bright umbrellas. The market women were sitting beside baskets of fruit; pigeons were fluttering, bells were pealing, whips were cracking. The many- coloured mongrels of Florence were running in and out sniffing and pawing. All was as brisk as a beehive and as hot as an oven. Flush sought the shade. He flung himself down beside his friend Catterina, under the shadow of her great basket. A brown jar of red and yellow flowers cast a shadow beside it. Above them a statue, holding his right arm outstretched, deepened the shade to violet. Flush lay there in the cool, watching the young dogs busy with their own affairs. They were snarling and biting, stretching and tumbling, in all the abandonment of youthful joy. They were chasing each other in and out, round and round, as he had once chased the spotted spaniel in the alley. His thoughts turned to Reading for a moment — to Mr. Partridge’s spaniel, to his first love, to the ecstasies and innocences of youth. Well, he had had his day. He did not grudge them theirs. He had found the world a pleasant place to live in. He had no quarrel with it now. The market woman scratched him behind the ear. She had often cuffed him for stealing a grape, or for some other misdemeanour; but he was old now; and she was old. He guarded her melons and she scratched his ear. So she knitted and he dozed. The flies buzzed on the great pink melon that had been sliced open to show its flesh.

The sun burnt deliciously through the lily leaves, and through the green and white umbrella. The marble statue tempered its heat to a champagne freshness. Flush lay and let it burn through his fur to the naked skin. And when he was roasted on one side he turned over and let the sun roast the other. All the time the market people were chattering and bargaining; market women were passing; they were stopping and fingering the vegetables and the fruit. There was a perpetual buzz and hum of human voices such as Flush loved to listen to. After a time he drowsed off under the shadow of the lilies. He slept as dogs sleep when they are dreaming. Now his legs twitched — was he dreaming that he hunted rabbits in Spain? Was he coursing up a hot hill-side with dark men shouting “Span! Span!” as the rabbits darted from the brushwood? Then he lay still again. And now he yelped, quickly, softly, many times in succession. Perhaps he heard Dr. Mitford egging his greyhounds on to the hunt at Reading. Then his tail wagged sheepishly. Did he hear old Miss Mitford cry, “Bad dog! Bad dog!” as he slunk back to her, where she stood among the turnips waving her umbrella? And then he lay for a time snoring, wrapt in the deep sleep of happy old age. Suddenly every muscle in his body twitched. He woke with a violent start. Where did he think he was? In Whitechapel among the ruffians? Was the knife at his throat again?

Whatever it was, he woke from his dream in a state of terror. He made off as if he were flying to safety, as if he were seeking refuge. The market women laughed and pelted him with rotten grapes and called him back. He took no notice. Cart-wheels almost crushed him as he darted through the streets — the men standing up to drive cursed him and flicked him with their whips. Half-naked children threw pebbles at him and shouted “Matta! Matta!” as he fled past. Their mothers ran to the door and caught them back in alarm. Had he then gone mad? Had the sun turned his brain? Or had he once more heard the hunting horn of Venus? Or had one of the American rapping spirits, one of the spirits that live in table legs, got possession of him at last? Whatever it was, he went in a bee-line up one street and down another until he reached the door of Casa Guidi. He made his way straight upstairs and went straight into the drawing-room.

Mrs. Browning was lying, reading, on the sofa. She looked up, startled, as he came in. It was not a spirit — it was only Flush. She laughed. Then, as he leapt on to the sofa and thrust his face into hers, the words of her own poem came into her mind:

You see this dog. It was but yesterday

I mused forgetful of his presence here

Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear,

When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,

A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way

Right sudden against my face — two golden-clear

Great eyes astonished mine — a drooping ear

Did flap me on either cheek to dry the spray!

I started first, as some Arcadian,

Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove;

But, as the bearded vision closelier ran

My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above

Surprise and sadness — thanking the true Pan,

Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.

She had written that poem one day years ago in Wimpole Street when she was very unhappy. Years had passed; now she was happy. She was growing old now and so was Flush. She bent down over him for a moment. Her face with its wide mouth and its great eyes and its heavy curls was still oddly like his. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, each, perhaps, completed what was dormant in the other. But she was woman; he was dog. Mrs. Browning went on reading. Then she looked at Flush again. But he did not look at her. An extraordinary change had come over him. “Flush!” she cried. But he was silent. He had been alive; he was now dead. 10 That was all. The drawing-room table, strangely enough, stood perfectly still.

9 “Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton thought himself invisible.” Mrs. Huth Jackson in A Victorian Childhood says, “Lord Arthur Russell told me, many years later, that when a small boy he was taken to Knebworth by his mother. Next morning he was in the big hall having breakfast when a strange-looking old gentleman in a shabby dressing-gown came in and walked slowly round the table staring at each of the guests in turn. He heard his mother’s neighbour whisper to her, ‘Do not take any notice, he thinks he is invisible’. It was Lord Lytton himself” (pp. 17-18).

10 “he was now dead”. It is certain that Flush died; but the date and manner of his death are unknown. The only reference consists in the statement that “Flush lived to a good old age and is buried in the vaults of Casa Guidi”. Mrs. Browning was buried in the English Cemetery at Florence, Robert Browning in Westminster Abbey. Flush still lies, therefore, beneath the house in which, once upon a time, the Brownings lived.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 11:53