The Years, by Virginia Woolf

1908

It was March and the wind was blowing. But it was not “blowing.” It was scraping, scourging. It was so cruel. So unbecoming. Not merely did it bleach faces and raise red spots on noses; it tweaked up skirts; showed stout legs; made trousers reveal skeleton shins. There was no roundness, no fruit in it. Rather it was like the curve of a scythe which cuts, not corn, usefully; but destroys, revelling in sheer sterility. With one blast it blew out colour — even a Rembrandt in the National Gallery, even a solid ruby in a Bond Street window: one blast and they were gone. Had it any breeding place it was in the Isle of Dogs among tin cans lying beside a workhouse drab on the banks of a polluted city. It tossed up rotten leaves, gave them another span of degraded existence; scorned, derided them, yet had nothing to put in the place of the scorned, the derided. Down they fell. Uncreative, unproductive, yelling its joy in destruction, its power to peel off the bark, the bloom, and show the bare bone, it paled every window; drove old gentlemen further and further into the leather smelling recesses of clubs; and old ladies to sit eyeless, leather cheeked, joyless among the tassels and antimacassars of their bedrooms and kitchens. Triumphing in its wantonness it emptied the streets; swept flesh before it; and coming smack against a dust cart standing outside the Army and Navy Stores, scattered along the pavement a litter of old envelopes; twists of hair; papers already blood smeared, yellow smeared, smudged with print and sent them scudding to plaster legs, lamp posts, pillar boxes, and fold themselves frantically against area railings.

Matty Stiles, the caretaker, huddled in the basement of the house in Browne Street, looked up. There was a rattle of dust along the pavement. It worked its way under the doors, through the window frames; on to chests and dressers. But she didn’t care. She was one of the unlucky ones. She had been thinking it was a safe job, sure to last the summer out anyhow. The lady was dead; the gentleman too. She had got the job through her son the policeman. The house with its basement would never let this side of Christmas — so they told her. She had only to show parties round who came with orders to view from the agent. And she always mentioned the basement — how damp it was. “Look at that stain on the ceiling.” There it was, sure enough. All the same, the party from China took a fancy to it. It suited him, he said. He had business in the city. She was one of the unlucky ones — after three months to turn out and lodge with her son in Pimlico.

A bell rang. Let him ring, ring, ring, she growled. She wasn’t going to open the door any more. There he was standing on the door-step. She could see a pair of legs against the railing. Let him ring as much as he liked. The house was sold. Couldn’t he see the notice on the board? Couldn’t he read it? Hadn’t he eyes? She huddled closer to the fire, which was covered with pale ash. She could see his legs there, standing on the door-step, between the canaries’ cage and the dirty linen which she had been going to wash, but this wind made her shoulder ache cruel. Let him ring the house down, for all she cared.

Martin was standing there.

“Sold” was written on a strip of bright red paper pasted across the house-agent’s board.

“Already!” said Martin. He had made a little circle to look at the house in Browne Street. And it was already sold. The red strip gave him a shock. It was sold already, and Digby had only been dead three months — Eugénie not much more than a year. He stood for a moment gazing at the black windows now grimed with dust. It was a house of character; built some time in the eighteenth century. Eugénie had been proud of it. And I used to like going there, he thought. But now an old newspaper was on the door-step; wisps of straw had caught in the railings; and he could see, for there were no blinds, into an empty room. A woman was peering up at him from behind the bars of a cage in the basement. It was no use ringing. He turned away. A feeling of something extinguished came over him as he went down the street.

It’s a grimy, it’s a sordid end, he thought; I used to enjoy going there. But he disliked brooding over unpleasant thoughts. What’s the good of it? he asked himself.

“The King of Spain’s daughter,” he hummed as he turned the corner, “came to visit me . . . ”

“And how much longer,” he asked himself, pressing the bell, as he stood on the door-step of the house in Abercorn Terrace, “is old Crosby going to keep me waiting?” The wind was very cold.

He stood there, looking at the buff-coloured front of the large, architecturally insignificant, but no doubt convenient family mansion in which his father and sister still lived. “She takes her time nowadays,” he thought, shivering in the wind. But here the door opened, and Crosby appeared.

“Hullo, Crosby!” he said.

She beamed on him so that her gold tooth showed. He was always her favourite, they said, and the thought pleased him today.

“How’s the world treating you?” he asked, as he gave her his hat.

She was just the same — more shrivelled, more gnat-like, and her blue eyes were more prominent than ever.

“Feeling the rheumatics?” he asked, as she helped him off with his coat. She grinned, silently. He felt friendly; he was glad to find her much as usual. “And Miss Eleanor?” he asked, as he opened the drawing-room door. The room was empty. She was not there. But she had been there, for there was a book on the table. Nothing had been changed he was glad to see. He stood in front of the fire and looked at his mother’s picture. In the course of the past few years it had ceased to be his mother; it had become a work of art. But it was dirty.

There used to be a flower in the grass, he thought, peering into a dark corner: but now there was nothing but dirty brown paint. And what’s she been reading? he wondered. He took the book that was propped up against the teapot and looked at it. “Renan,” he read. “Why Renan?” he asked himself, beginning to read as he waited.

“Mr Martin, Miss,” said Crosby, opening the study door. Eleanor looked round. She was standing by her father’s chair with her hands full of long strips of newspaper cuttings, as if she had been reading them aloud. There was a chess-board in front of him; the chess-men were set out for a game; but he was lying back in his chair. He looked lethargic, and rather gloomy.

“Put ’em away. . . . Keep ’em safe somewhere,” he said, jerking his thumb at the cuttings. That was a sign that he had grown very old, Eleanor thought — wanting newspaper cuttings kept. He had grown inert and ponderous after his stroke; there were red veins in his nose and in his cheeks. She too felt old, heavy and dull.

“Mr Martin’s called,” Crosby repeated.

“Martin’s come,” Eleanor said. Her father seemed not to hear. He sat still with his head sunk on his breast. “Martin,” Eleanor repeated. “Martin . . . ”

Did he want to see him or did he not want to see him? She waited as if for some sluggish thought to rise. At last he gave a little grunt; but what it meant she was not certain.

“I’ll send him in after tea,” she said. She paused for a moment. He roused himself and began fumbling with his chess-men. He still had courage, she observed with pride. He still insisted upon doing things for himself.

She went into the drawing-room and found Martin standing in front of the placid, smiling picture of their mother. He held a book in his hand.

“Why Renan?” he said as she came in. He shut the book and kissed her. “Why Renan?” he repeated. She flushed slightly. It made her shy, for some reason, that he had found the book there, open. She sat down and laid the press cuttings on the tea-table.

“How’s Papa?” he asked. She had lost something of her bright colour, he thought, glancing at her, and her hair had a tuft of grey in it.

“Rather gloomy,” she said, glancing at the press cuttings.

“I wonder,” she added, “who writes that sort of thing?”

“What sort of thing?” said Martin. He picked up one of the crinkled strips and began reading it: “’ . . . an exceptionally able public servant . . . a man of wide interests. . . . ’ Oh, Digby,” he said. “Obituaries. I passed the house this afternoon,” he added. “It’s sold.”

“Already?” said Eleanor.

“It looked very shut-up and desolate,” he added. “There was a dirty old woman in the basement.”

Eleanor took out a hair-pin and began fraying the wick of the kettle. Martin watched her for a moment in silence.

“I liked going there,” he said at length. “I liked Eugénie,” he added.

Eleanor paused.

“Yes . . . ” she said doubtfully. She had never felt at her ease with her. “She exaggerated,” she added.

“Well of course,” Martin laughed. He smiled, recalling some memory. “She had less sense of truth than . . . that’s no sort of use, Nell,” he broke off, irritated by her fumbling with the wick.

“Yes, yes,” she protested. “It boils in time.”

She paused. Stretching out towards the tea-caddy, she measured the tea. “One, two, three, four,” she counted.

She still used the nice old silver tea-caddy, he noticed, with the sliding lid. He watched her measuring the tea methodically — one, two, three, four. He was silent.

“We can’t tell a lie to save our souls,” he said abruptly.

What makes him say that? Eleanor wondered.

“When I was with them in Italy — ” she said aloud. But here the door opened and Crosby came in carrying some sort of dish. She left the door ajar and a dog pushed in after her.

“I mean —” Eleanor added; but she could not say what she meant with Crosby in the room fidgeting about.

“It’s time Miss Eleanor got a new kettle,” said Martin, pointing to the old brass kettle, faintly engraved with a design of roses, which he had always hated.

“Crosby,” said Eleanor, still poking with her pin, “doesn’t hold with new inventions. Crosby won’t trust herself in the Tube, will you, Crosby?”

Crosby grinned. They always spoke to her in the third person, because she never answered but only grinned. The dog snuffed at the dish she had just put down. “Crosby’s letting that beast get much too fat,” said Martin, pointing at the dog.

“That’s what I’m always telling her,” said Eleanor.

“If I were you, Crosby,” said Martin, “I’d cut down his meals and take him for a brisk run round the park every morning.” Crosby opened her mouth wide.

“Oh, Mr Martin!” she protested, shocked by his brutality into speech.

The dog followed her out of the room.

“Crosby’s the same as ever,” said Martin.

Eleanor had lifted the lid of the kettle and was looking in. There were no bubbles on the water yet.

“Damn that kettle,” said Martin. He took up one of the newspaper cuttings and began to make it into a spill.

“No, no, Papa wants them kept,” said Eleanor. “But he wasn’t like that,” she said, laying her hand on the newspaper cuttings. “Not in the least.”

“What was he like?” Martin asked.

Eleanor paused. She could see her uncle clearly in her mind’s eye; he held his top-hat in his hand; he laid his hand on her shoulder as they stopped in front of some picture. But how could she describe him?

“He used to take me to the National Gallery,” she said.

“Very cultivated, of course,” said Martin. “But he was such a damned snob.”

“Only on the surface,” said Eleanor.

“And always finding fault with Eugénie about little things,” Martin added.

“But think of living with her,” said Eleanor.

“That manner —” She threw her hand out; but not as Eugénie threw her hand out, Martin thought.

“I liked her,” he said. “I liked going there.” He saw the untidy room; the piano open; the window open; a wind blowing the curtains, and his aunt coming forward with her arms open. “What a pleasure, Martin! what a pleasure!” she would say. What had her private life been, he wondered — her love affairs? She must have had them — obviously, obviously.

“Wasn’t there some story,” he began, “about a letter?” He wanted to say, Didn’t she have an affair with somebody? But it was more difficult to be open with his sister than with other women, because she treated him as if he were a small boy still. Had Eleanor ever been in love, he wondered, looking at her.

“Yes,” she said. “There was a story —”

But here the electric bell rang sharply. She stopped.

“Papa,” she said. She half rose.

“No,” said Martin. “I’ll go.” He got up. “I promised him a game of chess.”

“Thanks, Martin. He’ll enjoy that,” said Eleanor with relief as he left the room, and she found herself alone.

She leant back in her chair. How terrible old age was, she thought; shearing off all one’s faculties, one by one, but leaving something alive in the centre: leaving — she swept up the press cuttings — a game of chess, a drive in the park, and a visit from old General Arbuthnot in the evening.

It was better to die, like Eugénie and Digby, in the prime of life with all one’s faculties about one. But he wasn’t like that, she thought, glancing at the press cuttings. “A man of singularly handsome presence . . . shot, fished, and played golf.” No, not like that in the least. He had been a curious man; weak; sensitive; liking titles; liking pictures; and often depressed, she guessed, by his wife’s exuberance. She pushed the cuttings away and took up her book. It was odd how different the same person seemed to two different people, she thought. There was Martin, liking Eugénie; and she, liking Digby. She began to read.

She had always wanted to know about Christianity — how it began; what it meant, originally. God is love, The kingdom of Heaven is within us, sayings like that she thought, turning over the pages, what did they mean? The actual words were very beautiful. But who said them — when? Then the spout of the tea-kettle puffed steam at her and she moved it away. The wind was rattling the windows in the back room; it was bending the little bushes; they still had no leaves on them. It was what a man said under a fig tree, on a hill, she thought. And then another man wrote it down. But suppose that what that man says is just as false as what this man — she touched the press cuttings with her spoon — says about Digby? And here am I, she thought, looking at the china in the Dutch cabinet, in this drawing-room, getting a little spark from what someone said all those years ago — here it comes (the china was changing from blue to livid) skipping over all those mountains, all those seas. She found her place and began to read.

But a sound in the hall interrupted her. Was someone coming in? She listened. No, it was the wind. The wind was terrific. It pressed on the house; gripped it tight, then let it fall apart. Upstairs a door slammed; a window must be open in the bedroom above. A blind was tapping. It was difficult to fix her mind on Renan. She liked it, though. French she could read easily of course; and Italian; and a little German. But what vast gaps there were, what blank spaces, she thought leaning back in her chair, in her knowledge! How little she knew about anything. Take this cup for instance; she held it out in front of her. What was it made of? Atoms? And what were atoms, and how did they stick together? The smooth hard surface of the china with its red flowers seemed to her for a second a marvellous mystery. But there was another sound in the hall. It was the wind, but it was also a voice, talking. It must be Martin. But who could he be talking to, she wondered? She listened, but she could not hear what he was saying because of the wind. And why, she asked herself, did he say We can’t tell a lie to save our souls? He was thinking about himself; one always knew when people were thinking about themselves by their tone of voice. Perhaps he was justifying himself for having left the Army. That had been courageous, she thought; but isn’t it odd, she mused, listening to the voices, that he should be such a dandy too? He was wearing a new blue suit with white stripes on it. And he had shaved off his moustache. He ought never to have been a soldier, she thought; he was much too pugnacious. . . . They were still talking. She could not hear what he was saying, but from the sound of his voice it came over her that he must have a great many love affairs. Yes — it became perfectly obvious to her, listening to his voice through the door, that he had a great many love affairs. But who with? and why do men think love affairs so important? she asked as the door opened.

“Hullo, Rose!” she exclaimed, surprised to see her sister come in too. “I thought you were in Northumberland!”

“You thought I was in Northumberland!” Rose laughed, kissing her. “But why? I said the eighteenth.”

“But isn’t today the eleventh?” said Eleanor.

“You’re only a week behind the times, Nell,” said Martin.

“Then I must have dated all my letters wrong!” Eleanor exclaimed. She glanced apprehensively at her writing-table. The walrus, with a worn patch in its bristles, no longer stood there.

“Tea, Rose?” she asked.

“No. It’s a bath I want,” said Rose. She threw off her hat and ran her fingers through her hair.

“You’re looking very well,” said Eleanor, thinking how handsome she looked. But she had a scratch on her chin.

“A positive beauty, isn’t she?” Martin laughed at her.

Rose threw her head up rather like a horse. They always bickered, Eleanor thought — Martin and Rose. Rose was handsome, but she wished she dressed better. She was dressed in a green hairy coat and skirt with leather buttons, and she carried a shiny bag. She had been holding meetings in the North.

“I want a bath,” Rose repeated. “I’m dirty. And what’s all this?” she said, pointing to the press cuttings on the table. “Oh, Uncle Digby,” she added casually, pushing them away. He had been dead some months now; they were already yellowish and curled.

“Martin says the house has been sold,” said Eleanor.

“Has it?” she said indifferently. She broke off a piece of cake and began munching it. “Spoiling my dinner,” she said. “But I had no time for lunch.”

“What a woman of action she is!” Martin chaffed her.

“And the meetings?” Eleanor asked.

“Yes. What about the North?” said Martin.

They began to discuss politics. She had been speaking at a by- election. A stone had been thrown at her; she put her hand to her chin. But she had enjoyed it.

“I think we gave ’em something to think about,” she said, breaking off another piece of cake.

She ought to have been the soldier, Eleanor thought. She was exactly like the picture of old Uncle Pargiter of Pargiter’s Horse. Martin, now that he had shaved his moustache off and showed his lips, ought to have been — what? Perhaps an architect, she thought. He’s so — she looked up. Now it was hailing. White rods came across the window in the back room. There was a great gust of wind; the little bushes blanched and bent under it. And a window banged upstairs in her mother’s bedroom. Perhaps I ought to go and shut it, she thought. The rain must be coming in.

“Eleanor —“said Rose. “Eleanor”— she repeated.

Eleanor started.

“Eleanor’s broody,” said Martin.

“No, not at all — not at all,” she protested. “What are you talking about?”

“I was asking you,” said Rose. “Do you remember that row when the microscope was broken? Well, I met that boy — that horrid, ferret- faced boy — Erridge — up in the North.”

“He wasn’t horrid,” said Martin.

“He was,” Rose persisted. “A horrid little sneak. He pretended that it was I who broke the microscope and it was he who broke it. . . . D’you remember that row?” She turned to Eleanor.

“I don’t remember that row,” said Eleanor. “There were so many,” she added.

“That was one of the worst,” said Martin.

“It was,” said Rose. She pursed her lips together. Some memory seemed to have come back to her. “And after it was over,” she said, turning to Martin, “you came up into the nursery and asked me to go beetling with you in the Round Pond. D’you remember?”

She paused. There was something queer about the memory, Eleanor could see. She spoke with a curious intensity.

“And you said, ‘I’ll ask you three times; and if you don’t answer the third time, I’ll go alone.’ And I swore, ‘I’ll let him go alone.’” Her blue eyes blazed.

“I can see you,” said Martin. “Wearing a pink frock, with a knife in your hand.”

“And you went,” Rose said; she spoke with suppressed vehemence. “And I dashed into the bathroom and cut this gash”— she held out her wrist. Eleanor looked at it. There was a thin white scar just above the wrist joint.

When did she do that? Eleanor thought. She could not remember. Rose had locked herself into the bathroom with a knife and cut her wrist. She had known nothing about it. She looked at the white mark. It must have bled.

“Oh, Rose always was a firebrand!” said Martin. He got up. “She always had the devil’s own temper,” he added. He stood for a moment looking round the drawing-room, cluttered up with several hideous pieces of furniture that he would have got rid of had be been Eleanor, he thought, and forced to live there. But perhaps she did not mind things like that.

“Dining out?” she said. He dined out every night. She would like to have asked him where he was dining.

He nodded without saying anything. He met all sorts of people she did not know, she reflected; and he did not want to talk about them. He had turned to the fireplace.

“That picture wants cleaning,” he said, pointing to the picture of their mother.

“It’s a nice picture,” he added, looking at it critically. “But usen’t there to be a flower in the grass?”

Eleanor looked at it. She had not looked at it, so as to see it, for many years.

“Was there?” she said.

“Yes. A little blue flower,” said Martin. “I can remember it when I was a child. . . . ”

He turned. Some memory from his childhood came over him as he saw Rose sitting there at the tea table with her fist still clenched. He saw her standing with her back to the school-room door; very red in the face, with her lips tight shut as they were now. She had wanted him to do something. And he had crumpled a ball of paper in his hand and shied it at her.

“What awful lives children live!” he said, waving his hand at her as he crossed the room. “Don’t they, Rose?”

“Yes,” said Rose. “And they can’t tell anybody,” she added.

There was another gust and the sound of glass crashing.

“Miss Pym’s conservatory?” said Martin, pausing with his hand on the door.

“Miss Pym?” said Eleanor. “She’s been dead these twenty years!”

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