The Voyage Out, by Virginia Woolf

Chapter 6

“That’s the tragedy of life — as I always say!” said Mrs. Dalloway. “Beginning things and having to end them. Still, I’m not going to let this end, if you’re willing.” It was the morning, the sea was calm, and the ship once again was anchored not far from another shore.

She was dressed in her long fur cloak, with the veils wound around her head, and once more the rich boxes stood on top of each other so that the scene of a few days back seemed to be repeated.

“D’you suppose we shall ever meet in London?” said Ridley ironically. “You’ll have forgotten all about me by the time you step out there.”

He pointed to the shore of the little bay, where they could now see the separate trees with moving branches.

“How horrid you are!” she laughed. “Rachel’s coming to see me anyhow — the instant you get back,” she said, pressing Rachel’s arm. “Now — you’ve no excuse!”

With a silver pencil she wrote her name and address on the flyleaf of Persuasion, and gave the book to Rachel. Sailors were shouldering the luggage, and people were beginning to congregate. There were Captain Cobbold, Mr. Grice, Willoughby, Helen, and an obscure grateful man in a blue jersey.

“Oh, it’s time,” said Clarissa. “Well, good-bye. I do like you,” she murmured as she kissed Rachel. People in the way made it unnecessary for Richard to shake Rachel by the hand; he managed to look at her very stiffly for a second before he followed his wife down the ship’s side.

The boat separating from the vessel made off towards the land, and for some minutes Helen, Ridley, and Rachel leant over the rail, watching. Once Mrs. Dalloway turned and waved; but the boat steadily grew smaller and smaller until it ceased to rise and fall, and nothing could be seen save two resolute backs.

“Well, that’s over,” said Ridley after a long silence. “We shall never see them again,” he added, turning to go to his books. A feeling of emptiness and melancholy came over them; they knew in their hearts that it was over, and that they had parted for ever, and the knowledge filled them with far greater depression than the length of their acquaintance seemed to justify. Even as the boat pulled away they could feel other sights and sounds beginning to take the place of the Dalloways, and the feeling was so unpleasant that they tried to resist it. For so, too, would they be forgotten.

In much the same way as Mrs. Chailey downstairs was sweeping the withered rose-leaves off the dressing-table, so Helen was anxious to make things straight again after the visitors had gone. Rachel’s obvious languor and listlessness made her an easy prey, and indeed Helen had devised a kind of trap. That something had happened she now felt pretty certain; moreover, she had come to think that they had been strangers long enough; she wished to know what the girl was like, partly of course because Rachel showed no disposition to be known. So, as they turned from the rail, she said:

“Come and talk to me instead of practising,” and led the way to the sheltered side where the deck-chairs were stretched in the sun. Rachel followed her indifferently. Her mind was absorbed by Richard; by the extreme strangeness of what had happened, and by a thousand feelings of which she had not been conscious before. She made scarcely any attempt to listen to what Helen was saying, as Helen indulged in commonplaces to begin with. While Mrs. Ambrose arranged her embroidery, sucked her silk, and threaded her needle, she lay back gazing at the horizon.

“Did you like those people?” Helen asked her casually.

“Yes,” she replied blankly.

“You talked to him, didn’t you?”

She said nothing for a minute.

“He kissed me,” she said without any change of tone.

Helen started, looked at her, but could not make out what she felt.

“M-m-m’yes,” she said, after a pause. “I thought he was that kind of man.”

“What kind of man?” said Rachel.

“Pompous and sentimental.”

“I like him,” said Rachel.

“So you really didn’t mind?”

For the first time since Helen had known her Rachel’s eyes lit up brightly.

“I did mind,” she said vehemently. “I dreamt. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Tell me what happened,” said Helen. She had to keep her lips from twitching as she listened to Rachel’s story. It was poured out abruptly with great seriousness and no sense of humour.

“We talked about politics. He told me what he had done for the poor somewhere. I asked him all sorts of questions. He told me about his own life. The day before yesterday, after the storm, he came in to see me. It happened then, quite suddenly. He kissed me. I don’t know why.” As she spoke she grew flushed. “I was a good deal excited,” she continued. “But I didn’t mind till afterwards; when —” she paused, and saw the figure of the bloated little man again —”I became terrified.”

From the look in her eyes it was evident she was again terrified. Helen was really at a loss what to say. From the little she knew of Rachel’s upbringing she supposed that she had been kept entirely ignorant as to the relations of men with women. With a shyness which she felt with women and not with men she did not like to explain simply what these are. Therefore she took the other course and belittled the whole affair.

“Oh, well,” she said, “He was a silly creature, and if I were you, I’d think no more about it.”

“No,” said Rachel, sitting bolt upright, “I shan’t do that. I shall think about it all day and all night until I find out exactly what it does mean.”

“Don’t you ever read?” Helen asked tentatively.

Cowper’s Letters — that kind of thing. Father gets them for me or my Aunts.”

Helen could hardly restrain herself from saying out loud what she thought of a man who brought up his daughter so that at the age of twenty-four she scarcely knew that men desired women and was terrified by a kiss. She had good reason to fear that Rachel had made herself incredibly ridiculous.

“You don’t know many men?” she asked.

“Mr. Pepper,” said Rachel ironically.

“So no one’s ever wanted to marry you?”

“No,” she answered ingenuously.

Helen reflected that as, from what she had said, Rachel certainly would think these things out, it might be as well to help her.

“You oughtn’t to be frightened,” she said. “It’s the most natural thing in the world. Men will want to kiss you, just as they’ll want to marry you. The pity is to get things out of proportion. It’s like noticing the noises people make when they eat, or men spitting; or, in short, any small thing that gets on one’s nerves.”

Rachel seemed to be inattentive to these remarks.

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, “what are those women in Piccadilly?”

“In Picadilly? They are prostituted,” said Helen.

“It is terrifying — it is disgusting,” Rachel asserted, as if she included Helen in the hatred.

“It is,” said Helen. “But —”

“I did like him,” Rachel mused, as if speaking to herself. “I wanted to talk to him; I wanted to know what he’d done. The women in Lancashire —”

It seemed to her as she recalled their talk that there was something lovable about Richard, good in their attempted friendship, and strangely piteous in the way they had parted.

The softening of her mood was apparent to Helen.

“You see,” she said, “you must take things as they are; and if you want friendship with men you must run risks. Personally,” she continued, breaking into a smile, “I think it’s worth it; I don’t mind being kissed; I’m rather jealous, I believe, that Mr. Dalloway kissed you and didn’t kiss me. Though,” she added, “he bored me considerably.”

But Rachel did not return the smile or dismiss the whole affair, as Helen meant her to. Her mind was working very quickly, inconsistently and painfully. Helen’s words hewed down great blocks which had stood there always, and the light which came in was cold. After sitting for a time with fixed eyes, she burst out:

“So that’s why I can’t walk alone!”

By this new light she saw her life for the first time a creeping hedged-in thing, driven cautiously between high walls, here turned aside, there plunged in darkness, made dull and crippled for ever — her life that was the only chance she had — a thousand words and actions became plain to her.

“Because men are brutes! I hate men!” she exclaimed.

“I thought you said you liked him?” said Helen.

“I liked him, and I liked being kissed,” she answered, as if that only added more difficulties to her problem.

Helen was surprised to see how genuine both shock and problem were, but she could think of no way of easing the difficulty except by going on talking. She wanted to make her niece talk, and so to understand why this rather dull, kindly, plausible politician had made so deep an impression on her, for surely at the age of twenty-four this was not natural.

“And did you like Mrs. Dalloway too?” she asked.

As she spoke she saw Rachel redden; for she remembered silly things she had said, and also, it occurred to her that she treated this exquisite woman rather badly, for Mrs. Dalloway had said that she loved her husband.

“She was quite nice, but a thimble-pated creature,” Helen continued. “I never heard such nonsense! Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter — fish and the Greek alphabet — never listened to a word any one said — chock-full of idiotic theories about the way to bring up children — I’d far rather talk to him any day. He was pompous, but he did at least understand what was said to him.”

The glamour insensibly faded a little both from Richard and Clarissa. They had not been so wonderful after all, then, in the eyes of a mature person.

“It’s very difficult to know what people are like,” Rachel remarked, and Helen saw with pleasure that she spoke more naturally. “I suppose I was taken in.”

There was little doubt about that according to Helen, but she restrained herself and said aloud:

“One has to make experiments.”

“And they were nice,” said Rachel. “They were extraordinarily interesting.” She tried to recall the image of the world as a live thing that Richard had given her, with drains like nerves, and bad houses like patches of diseased skin. She recalled his watch-words — Unity — Imagination, and saw again the bubbles meeting in her tea-cup as he spoke of sisters and canaries, boyhood and his father, her small world becoming wonderfully enlarged.

“But all people don’t seem to you equally interesting, do they?” asked Mrs. Ambrose.

Rachel explained that most people had hitherto been symbols; but that when they talked to one they ceased to be symbols, and became —”I could listen to them for ever!” she exclaimed. She then jumped up, disappeared downstairs for a minute, and came back with a fat red book.

Who’s Who,” she said, laying it upon Helen’s knee and turning the pages. “It gives short lives of people — for instance: ‘Sir Roland Beal; born 1852; parents from Moffatt; educated at Rugby; passed first into R.E.; married 1878 the daughter of T. Fishwick; served in the Bechuanaland Expedition 1884-85 (honourably mentioned). Clubs: United Service, Naval and Military. Recreations: an enthusiastic curler.’”

Sitting on the deck at Helen’s feet she went on turning the pages and reading biographies of bankers, writers, clergymen, sailors, surgeons, judges, professors, statesmen, editors, philanthropists, merchants, and actresses; what clubs they belonged to, where they lived, what games they played, and how many acres they owned.

She became absorbed in the book.

Helen meanwhile stitched at her embroidery and thought over the things they had said. Her conclusion was that she would very much like to show her niece, if it were possible, how to live, or as she put it, how to be a reasonable person. She thought that there must be something wrong in this confusion between politics and kissing politicians, and that an elder person ought to be able to help.

“I quite agree,” she said, “that people are very interesting; only —” Rachel, putting her finger between the pages, looked up enquiringly.

“Only I think you ought to discriminate,” she ended. “It’s a pity to be intimate with people who are — well, rather second-rate, like the Dalloways, and to find it out later.”

“But how does one know?” Rachel asked.

“I really can’t tell you,” replied Helen candidly, after a moment’s thought. “You’ll have to find out for yourself. But try and — Why don’t you call me Helen?” she added. “’Aunt’s’ a horrid name. I never liked my Aunts.”

“I should like to call you Helen,” Rachel answered.

“D’you think me very unsympathetic?”

Rachel reviewed the points which Helen had certainly failed to understand; they arose chiefly from the difference of nearly twenty years in age between them, which made Mrs. Ambrose appear too humorous and cool in a matter of such moment.

“No,” she said. “Some things you don’t understand, of course.”

“Of course,” Helen agreed. “So now you can go ahead and be a person on your own account,” she added.

The vision of her own personality, of herself as a real everlasting thing, different from anything else, unmergeable, like the sea or the wind, flashed into Rachel’s mind, and she became profoundly excited at the thought of living.

“I can by m-m-myself,” she stammered, “in spite of you, in spite of the Dalloways, and Mr. Pepper, and Father, and my Aunts, in spite of these?” She swept her hand across a whole page of statesmen and soldiers.

“In spite of them all,” said Helen gravely. She then put down her needle, and explained a plan which had come into her head as they talked. Instead of wandering on down the Amazons until she reached some sulphurous tropical port, where one had to lie within doors all day beating off insects with a fan, the sensible thing to do surely was to spend the season with them in their villa by the seaside, where among other advantages Mrs. Ambrose herself would be at hand to —

“After all, Rachel,” she broke off, “it’s silly to pretend that because there’s twenty years’ difference between us we therefore can’t talk to each other like human beings.”

“No; because we like each other,” said Rachel.

“Yes,” Mrs. Ambrose agreed.

That fact, together with other facts, had been made clear by their twenty minutes’ talk, although how they had come to these conclusions they could not have said.

However they were come by, they were sufficiently serious to send Mrs. Ambrose a day or two later in search of her brother-in-law. She found him sitting in his room working, applying a stout blue pencil authoritatively to bundles of filmy paper. Papers lay to left and to right of him, there were great envelopes so gorged with papers that they spilt papers on to the table. Above him hung a photograph of a woman’s head. The need of sitting absolutely still before a Cockney photographer had given her lips a queer little pucker, and her eyes for the same reason looked as though she thought the whole situation ridiculous. Nevertheless it was the head of an individual and interesting woman, who would no doubt have turned and laughed at Willoughby if she could have caught his eye; but when he looked up at her he sighed profoundly. In his mind this work of his, the great factories at Hull which showed like mountains at night, the ships that crossed the ocean punctually, the schemes for combining this and that and building up a solid mass of industry, was all an offering to her; he laid his success at her feet; and was always thinking how to educate his daughter so that Theresa might be glad. He was a very ambitious man; and although he had not been particularly kind to her while she lived, as Helen thought, he now believed that she watched him from Heaven, and inspired what was good in him.

Mrs. Ambrose apologised for the interruption, and asked whether she might speak to him about a plan of hers. Would he consent to leave his daughter with them when they landed, instead of taking her on up the Amazons?

“We would take great care of her,” she added, “and we should really like it.”

Willoughby looked very grave and carefully laid aside his papers.

“She’s a good girl,” he said at length. “There is a likeness?”— he nodded his head at the photograph of Theresa and sighed. Helen looked at Theresa pursing up her lips before the Cockney photographer. It suggested her in an absurd human way, and she felt an intense desire to share some joke.

“She’s the only thing that’s left to me,” sighed Willoughby. “We go on year after year without talking about these things —” He broke off. “But it’s better so. Only life’s very hard.”

Helen was sorry for him, and patted him on the shoulder, but she felt uncomfortable when her brother-in-law expressed his feelings, and took refuge in praising Rachel, and explaining why she thought her plan might be a good one.

“True,” said Willoughby when she had done. “The social conditions are bound to be primitive. I should be out a good deal. I agreed because she wished it. And of course I have complete confidence in you. . . . You see, Helen,” he continued, becoming confidential, “I want to bring her up as her mother would have wished. I don’t hold with these modern views — any more than you do, eh? She’s a nice quiet girl, devoted to her music — a little less of that would do no harm. Still, it’s kept her happy, and we lead a very quiet life at Richmond. I should like her to begin to see more people. I want to take her about with me when I get home. I’ve half a mind to rent a house in London, leaving my sisters at Richmond, and take her to see one or two people who’d be kind to her for my sake. I’m beginning to realise,” he continued, stretching himself out, “that all this is tending to Parliament, Helen. It’s the only way to get things done as one wants them done. I talked to Dalloway about it. In that case, of course, I should want Rachel to be able to take more part in things. A certain amount of entertaining would be necessary — dinners, an occasional evening party. One’s constituents like to be fed, I believe. In all these ways Rachel could be of great help to me. So,” he wound up, “I should be very glad, if we arrange this visit (which must be upon a business footing, mind), if you could see your way to helping my girl, bringing her out — she’s a little shy now — making a woman of her, the kind of woman her mother would have liked her to be,” he ended, jerking his head at the photograph.

Willoughby’s selfishness, though consistent as Helen saw with real affection for his daughter, made her determined to have the girl to stay with her, even if she had to promise a complete course of instruction in the feminine graces. She could not help laughing at the notion of it — Rachel a Tory hostess! — and marvelling as she left him at the astonishing ignorance of a father.

Rachel, when consulted, showed less enthusiasm than Helen could have wished. One moment she was eager, the next doubtful. Visions of a great river, now blue, now yellow in the tropical sun and crossed by bright birds, now white in the moon, now deep in shade with moving trees and canoes sliding out from the tangled banks, beset her. Helen promised a river. Then she did not want to leave her father. That feeling seemed genuine too, but in the end Helen prevailed, although when she had won her case she was beset by doubts, and more than once regretted the impulse which had entangled her with the fortunes of another human being.

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