The Voyage Out, by Virginia Woolf

Chapter 23

But no brush was able to efface completely the expression of happiness, so that Mrs. Ambrose could not treat them when they came downstairs as if they had spent the morning in a way that could be discussed naturally. This being so, she joined in the world’s conspiracy to consider them for the time incapacitated from the business of life, struck by their intensity of feeling into enmity against life, and almost succeeded in dismissing them from her thoughts.

She reflected that she had done all that it was necessary to do in practical matters. She had written a great many letters, and had obtained Willoughby’s consent. She had dwelt so often upon Mr. Hewet’s prospects, his profession, his birth, appearance, and temperament, that she had almost forgotten what he was really like. When she refreshed herself by a look at him, she used to wonder again what he was like, and then, concluding that they were happy at any rate, thought no more about it.

She might more profitably consider what would happen in three years’ time, or what might have happened if Rachel had been left to explore the world under her father’s guidance. The result, she was honest enough to own, might have been better — who knows? She did not disguise from herself that Terence had faults. She was inclined to think him too easy and tolerant, just as he was inclined to think her perhaps a trifle hard — no, it was rather that she was uncompromising. In some ways she found St. John preferable; but then, of course, he would never have suited Rachel. Her friendship with St. John was established, for although she fluctuated between irritation and interest in a way that did credit to the candour of her disposition, she liked his company on the whole. He took her outside this little world of love and emotion. He had a grasp of facts. Supposing, for instance, that England made a sudden move towards some unknown port on the coast of Morocco, St. John knew what was at the back of it, and to hear him engaged with her husband in argument about finance and the balance of power, gave her an odd sense of stability. She respected their arguments without always listening to them, much as she respected a solid brick wall, or one of those immense municipal buildings which, although they compose the greater part of our cities, have been built day after day and year after year by unknown hands. She liked to sit and listen, and even felt a little elated when the engaged couple, after showing their profound lack of interest, slipped from the room, and were seen pulling flowers to pieces in the garden. It was not that she was jealous of them, but she did undoubtedly envy them their great unknown future that lay before them. Slipping from one such thought to another, she was at the dining-room with fruit in her hands. Sometimes she stopped to straighten a candle stooping with the heat, or disturbed some too rigid arrangement of the chairs. She had reason to suspect that Chailey had been balancing herself on the top of a ladder with a wet duster during their absence, and the room had never been quite like itself since. Returning from the dining-room for the third time, she perceived that one of the arm-chairs was now occupied by St. John. He lay back in it, with his eyes half shut, looking, as he always did, curiously buttoned up in a neat grey suit and fenced against the exuberance of a foreign climate which might at any moment proceed to take liberties with him. Her eyes rested on him gently and then passed on over his head. Finally she took the chair opposite.

“I didn’t want to come here,” he said at last, “but I was positively driven to it. . . . Evelyn M.,” he groaned.

He sat up, and began to explain with mock solemnity how the detestable woman was set upon marrying him.

“She pursues me about the place. This morning she appeared in the smoking-room. All I could do was to seize my hat and fly. I didn’t want to come, but I couldn’t stay and face another meal with her.”

“Well, we must make the best of it,” Helen replied philosophically. It was very hot, and they were indifferent to any amount of silence, so that they lay back in their chairs waiting for something to happen. The bell rang for luncheon, but there was no sound of movement in the house. Was there any news? Helen asked; anything in the papers? St. John shook his head. O yes, he had a letter from home, a letter from his mother, describing the suicide of the parlour-maid. She was called Susan Jane, and she came into the kitchen one afternoon, and said that she wanted cook to keep her money for her; she had twenty pounds in gold. Then she went out to buy herself a hat. She came in at half-past five and said that she had taken poison. They had only just time to get her into bed and call a doctor before she died.

“Well?” Helen enquired.

“There’ll have to be an inquest,” said St. John.

Why had she done it? He shrugged his shoulders. Why do people kill themselves? Why do the lower orders do any of the things they do do? Nobody knows. They sat in silence.

“The bell’s run fifteen minutes and they’re not down,” said Helen at length.

When they appeared, St. John explained why it had been necessary for him to come to luncheon. He imitated Evelyn’s enthusiastic tone as she confronted him in the smoking-room. “She thinks there can be nothing quite so thrilling as mathematics, so I’ve lent her a large work in two volumes. It’ll be interesting to see what she makes of it.”

Rachel could now afford to laugh at him. She reminded him of Gibbon; she had the first volume somewhere still; if he were undertaking the education of Evelyn, that surely was the test; or she had heard that Burke, upon the American Rebellion — Evelyn ought to read them both simultaneously. When St. John had disposed of her argument and had satisfied his hunger, he proceeded to tell them that the hotel was seething with scandals, some of the most appalling kind, which had happened in their absence; he was indeed much given to the study of his kind.

“Evelyn M., for example — but that was told me in confidence.”

“Nonsense!” Terence interposed.

“You’ve heard about poor Sinclair, too?”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard about Sinclair. He’s retired to his mine with a revolver. He writes to Evelyn daily that he’s thinking of committing suicide. I’ve assured her that he’s never been so happy in his life, and, on the whole, she’s inclined to agree with me.”

“But then she’s entangled herself with Perrott,” St. John continued; “and I have reason to think, from something I saw in the passage, that everything isn’t as it should be between Arthur and Susan. There’s a young female lately arrived from Manchester. A very good thing if it were broken off, in my opinion. Their married life is something too horrible to contemplate.

Oh, and I distinctly heard old Mrs. Paley rapping out the most fearful oaths as I passed her bedroom door. It’s supposed that she tortures her maid in private — it’s practically certain she does. One can tell it from the look in her eyes.”

“When you’re eighty and the gout tweezes you, you’ll be swearing like a trooper,” Terence remarked. “You’ll be very fat, very testy, very disagreeable. Can’t you imagine him — bald as a coot, with a pair of sponge-bag trousers, a little spotted tie, and a corporation?”

After a pause Hirst remarked that the worst infamy had still to be told. He addressed himself to Helen.

“They’ve hoofed out the prostitute. One night while we were away that old numskull Thornbury was doddering about the passages very late. (Nobody seems to have asked him what he was up to.) He saw the Signora Lola Mendoza, as she calls herself, cross the passage in her nightgown. He communicated his suspicions next morning to Elliot, with the result that Rodriguez went to the woman and gave her twenty-four hours in which to clear out of the place. No one seems to have enquired into the truth of the story, or to have asked Thornbury and Elliot what business it was of theirs; they had it entirely their own way. I propose that we should all sign a Round Robin, go to Rodriguez in a body, and insist upon a full enquiry. Something’s got to be done, don’t you agree?”

Hewet remarked that there could be no doubt as to the lady’s profession.

“Still,” he added, “it’s a great shame, poor woman; only I don’t see what’s to be done —”

“I quite agree with you, St. John,” Helen burst out. “It’s monstrous. The hypocritical smugness of the English makes my blood boil. A man who’s made a fortune in trade as Mr. Thornbury has is bound to be twice as bad as any prostitute.”

She respected St. John’s morality, which she took far more seriously than any one else did, and now entered into a discussion with him as to the steps that were to be taken to enforce their peculiar view of what was right. The argument led to some profoundly gloomy statements of a general nature. Who were they, after all — what authority had they — what power against the mass of superstition and ignorance? It was the English, of course; there must be something wrong in the English blood. Directly you met an English person, of the middle classes, you were conscious of an indefinable sensation of loathing; directly you saw the brown crescent of houses above Dover, the same thing came over you. But unfortunately St. John added, you couldn’t trust these foreigners —

They were interrupted by sounds of strife at the further end of the table. Rachel appealed to her aunt.

“Terence says we must go to tea with Mrs. Thornbury because she’s been so kind, but I don’t see it; in fact, I’d rather have my right hand sawn in pieces — just imagine! the eyes of all those women!”

“Fiddlesticks, Rachel,” Terence replied. “Who wants to look at you? You’re consumed with vanity! You’re a monster of conceit! Surely, Helen, you ought to have taught her by this time that she’s a person of no conceivable importance whatever — not beautiful, or well dressed, or conspicuous for elegance or intellect, or deportment. A more ordinary sight than you are,” he concluded, “except for the tear across your dress has never been seen. However, stay at home if you want to. I’m going.”

She appealed again to her aunt. It wasn’t the being looked at, she explained, but the things people were sure to say. The women in particular. She liked women, but where emotion was concerned they were as flies on a lump of sugar. They would be certain to ask her questions. Evelyn M. would say: “Are you in love? Is it nice being in love?” And Mrs. Thornbury — her eyes would go up and down, up and down — she shuddered at the thought of it. Indeed, the retirement of their life since their engagement had made her so sensitive, that she was not exaggerating her case.

She found an ally in Helen, who proceeded to expound her views of the human race, as she regarded with complacency the pyramid of variegated fruits in the centre of the table. It wasn’t that they were cruel, or meant to hurt, or even stupid exactly; but she had always found that the ordinary person had so little emotion in his own life that the scent of it in the lives of others was like the scent of blood in the nostrils of a bloodhound. Warming to the theme, she continued:

“Directly anything happens — it may be a marriage, or a birth, or a death — on the whole they prefer it to be a death — every one wants to see you. They insist upon seeing you. They’ve got nothing to say; they don’t care a rap for you; but you’ve got to go to lunch or to tea or to dinner, and if you don’t you’re damned. It’s the smell of blood,” she continued; “I don’t blame ’em; only they shan’t have mind if I know it!”

She looked about her as if she had called up a legion of human beings, all hostile and all disagreeable, who encircled the table, with mouths gaping for blood, and made it appear a little island of neutral country in the midst of the enemy’s country.

Her words roused her husband, who had been muttering rhythmically to himself, surveying his guests and his food and his wife with eyes that were now melancholy and now fierce, according to the fortunes of the lady in his ballad. He cut Helen short with a protest. He hated even the semblance of cynicism in women. “Nonsense, nonsense,” he remarked abruptly.

Terence and Rachel glanced at each other across the table, which meant that when they were married they would not behave like that. The entrance of Ridley into the conversation had a strange effect. It became at once more formal and more polite. It would have been impossible to talk quite easily of anything that came into their heads, and to say the word prostitute as simply as any other word. The talk now turned upon literature and politics, and Ridley told stories of the distinguished people he had known in his youth. Such talk was of the nature of an art, and the personalities and informalities of the young were silenced. As they rose to go, Helen stopped for a moment, leaning her elbows on the table.

“You’ve all been sitting here,” she said, “for almost an hour, and you haven’t noticed my figs, or my flowers, or the way the light comes through, or anything. I haven’t been listening, because I’ve been looking at you. You looked very beautiful; I wish you’d go on sitting for ever.”

She led the way to the drawing-room, where she took up her embroidery, and began again to dissuade Terence from walking down to the hotel in this heat. But the more she dissuaded, the more he was determined to go. He became irritated and obstinate. There were moments when they almost disliked each other. He wanted other people; he wanted Rachel, to see them with him. He suspected that Mrs. Ambrose would now try to dissuade her from going. He was annoyed by all this space and shade and beauty, and Hirst, recumbent, drooping a magazine from his wrist.

“I’m going,” he repeated. “Rachel needn’t come unless she wants to.”

“If you go, Hewet, I wish you’d make enquiries about the prostitute,” said Hirst. “Look here,” he added, “I’ll walk half the way with you.”

Greatly to their surprise he raised himself, looked at his watch, and remarked that, as it was now half an hour since luncheon, the gastric juices had had sufficient time to secrete; he was trying a system, he explained, which involved short spells of exercise interspaced by longer intervals of rest.

“I shall be back at four,” he remarked to Helen, “when I shall lie down on the sofa and relax all my muscles completely.”

“So you’re going, Rachel?” Helen asked. “You won’t stay with me?”

She smiled, but she might have been sad.

Was she sad, or was she really laughing? Rachel could not tell, and she felt for the moment very uncomfortable between Helen and Terence. Then she turned away, saying merely that she would go with Terence, on condition that he did all the talking.

A narrow border of shadow ran along the road, which was broad enough for two, but not broad enough for three. St. John therefore dropped a little behind the pair, and the distance between them increased by degrees. Walking with a view to digestion, and with one eye upon his watch, he looked from time to time at the pair in front of him. They seemed to be so happy, so intimate, although they were walking side by side much as other people walk. They turned slightly toward each other now and then, and said something which he thought must be something very private. They were really disputing about Helen’s character, and Terence was trying to explain why it was that she annoyed him so much sometimes. But St. John thought that they were saying things which they did not want him to hear, and was led to think of his own isolation. These people were happy, and in some ways he despised them for being made happy so simply, and in other ways he envied them. He was much more remarkable than they were, but he was not happy. People never liked him; he doubted sometimes whether even Helen liked him. To be simple, to be able to say simply what one felt, without the terrific self-consciousness which possessed him, and showed him his own face and words perpetually in a mirror, that would be worth almost any other gift, for it made one happy. Happiness, happiness, what was happiness? He was never happy. He saw too clearly the little vices and deceits and flaws of life, and, seeing them, it seemed to him honest to take notice of them. That was the reason, no doubt, why people generally disliked him, and complained that he was heartless and bitter. Certainly they never told him the things he wanted to be told, that he was nice and kind, and that they liked him. But it was true that half the sharp things that he said about them were said because he was unhappy or hurt himself. But he admitted that he had very seldom told any one that he cared for them, and when he had been demonstrative, he had generally regretted it afterwards. His feelings about Terence and Rachel were so complicated that he had never yet been able to bring himself to say that he was glad that they were going to be married. He saw their faults so clearly, and the inferior nature of a great deal of their feeling for each other, and he expected that their love would not last. He looked at them again, and, very strangely, for he was so used to thinking that he seldom saw anything, the look of them filled him with a simple emotion of affection in which there were some traces of pity also. What, after all, did people’s faults matter in comparison with what was good in them? He resolved that he would now tell them what he felt. He quickened his pace and came up with them just as they reached the corner where the lane joined the main road. They stood still and began to laugh at him, and to ask him whether the gastric juices — but he stopped them and began to speak very quickly and stiffly.

“D’you remember the morning after the dance?” he demanded. “It was here we sat, and you talked nonsense, and Rachel made little heaps of stones. I, on the other hand, had the whole meaning of life revealed to me in a flash.” He paused for a second, and drew his lips together in a tight little purse. “Love,” he said. “It seems to me to explain everything. So, on the whole, I’m very glad that you two are going to be married.” He then turned round abruptly, without looking at them, and walked back to the villa. He felt both exalted and ashamed of himself for having thus said what he felt. Probably they were laughing at him, probably they thought him a fool, and, after all, had he really said what he felt?

It was true that they laughed when he was gone; but the dispute about Helen which had become rather sharp, ceased, and they became peaceful and friendly.

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