The Years, by Virginia Woolf

1918

A veil of mist covered the November sky; a many folded veil, so fine-meshed that it made one density. It was not raining, but here and there the mist condensed on the surface into dampness and made pavements greasy. Here and there on a grass blade or on a hedge leaf a drop hung motionless. It was windless and calm. Sounds coming through the veil — the bleat of sheep, the croak of rooks — were deadened. The uproar of the traffic merged into one growl. Now and then as if a door opened and shut, or the veil parted and closed, the roar boomed and faded.

“Dirty brute,” Crosby muttered as she hobbled along the asphalt path across Richmond Green. Her legs were paining her. It was not actually raining, but the great open space was full of mist; and there was nobody near, so that she could talk aloud.

“Dirty brute,” she muttered again. She had got into the habit of talking aloud. There was nobody in sight; the end of the path was lost in mist. It was very silent. Only the rooks gathered on the tree tops now and then let fall a queer little croak, and a leaf, spotted with black, fell to the ground. Her face twitched as she walked, as if her muscles had got into the habit of protesting, involuntarily, against the spites and obstacles that tormented her. She had aged greatly during the past four years. She looked so small and hunched that it seemed doubtful if she could make her way across the wide open space, shrouded in white mist. But she had to go to the High Street to do her shopping.

“The dirty brute,” she muttered again. She had had some words that morning with Mrs Burt about the Count’s bath. He spat in it, and Mrs Burt had told her to clean it.

“Count indeed — he’s no more Count than you are,” she continued. She was talking to Mrs Burt now. “I’m quite willing to oblige you,” she went on. Even out here, in the mist, where she was free to say what she liked, she adopted a conciliatory tone, because she knew that they wanted to be rid of her. She gesticulated with the hand that was not carrying the bag as she told Louisa that she was quite ready to oblige her. She hobbled on. “And I shouldn’t mind going either,” she added bitterly, but this was spoken to herself only. It was no pleasure to her to live in the house any more; but there was nowhere else for her to go; that the Burts knew very well.

“And I’m quite ready to oblige you,” she added aloud, as indeed she had said to Louisa herself. But the truth was that she was no longer able to work as she had done. Her legs pained her. It took all the strength out of her to do her own shopping, let alone to clean the bath. But it was all take-it-or-leave-it now. In the old days she would have sent the whole lot packing.

“Drabs . . . hussies,” she muttered. She was now addressing the red-haired servant girl who had flung out of the house yesterday without warning. She could easily get another job. It didn’t matter to her. So it was left to Crosby to clean the Count’s bath.

“Dirty brute, dirty brute,” she repeated; her pale-blue eyes glared impotently. She saw once more the blob of spittle that the Count had left on the side of his bath — the Belgian who called himself a Count. “I’ve been used to work for gentlefolk, not for dirty foreigners like you,” she told him as she hobbled.

The roar of traffic sounded louder as she approached the ghostly line of trees. She could see houses now beyond the trees. Her pale-blue eyes peered forward through the mist as she made her way towards the railings. Her eyes alone seemed to express an unconquerable determination; she was not going to give in; she was bent on surviving. The soft mist was slowly lifting. Leaves lay damp and purple on the asphalt path. The rooks croaked and shuffled on the tree tops. Now a dark line of railings emerged from the mist. The roar of traffic in the High Street sounded louder and louder. Crosby stopped and rested her bag on the railing before she went on to do battle with the crowd of shoppers in the High Street. She would have to shove and push, and be jostled this way and that; and her feet pained her. They didn’t mind if you bought or not, she thought; and often she was pushed out of her place by some bold-faced drab. She thought of the red- haired girl again, as she stood there, panting slightly, with her bag on the railing. Her legs pained her. Suddenly the long-drawn note of a siren floated out its melancholy wail of sound; then there was a dull explosion.

“Them guns again,” Crosby muttered, looking up at the pale-grey sky with peevish irritation. The rooks, scared by the gun-fire, rose and wheeled round the tree tops. Then there was another dull boom. A man on a ladder who was painting the windows of one of the houses paused with his brush in his hand and looked round. A woman who was walking along carrying a loaf of bread that stuck half out of its paper wrapping stopped too. They both waited as if for something to happen. A topple of smoke drifted over and flopped down from the chimneys. The guns boomed again. The man on the ladder said something to the woman on the pavement. She nodded her head. Then he dipped his brush in the pot and went on painting. The woman walked on. Crosby pulled herself together and tottered across the road into the High Street. The guns went on booming and the sirens wailed. The war was over — so somebody told her as she took her place in the queue at the grocer’s shop. The guns went on booming and the sirens wailed.

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