The Voyage Out, by Virginia Woolf

Chapter 13

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.

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