The Years, by Virginia Woolf

1913

It was January. Snow was falling; snow had fallen all day. The sky spread like a grey goose’s wing from which feathers were falling all over England. The sky was nothing but a flurry of falling flakes. Lanes were levelled; hollows filled; the snow clogged the streams; obscured windows, and lay wedged against doors. There was a faint murmur in the air, a slight crepitation, as if the air itself were turning to snow; otherwise all was silent, save when a sheep coughed, snow flopped from a branch, or slipped in an avalanche down some roof in London. Now and again a shaft of light spread slowly across the sky as a car drove through the muffled roads. But as the night wore on, snow covered the wheel ruts; softened to nothingness the marks of the traffic, and coated monuments, palaces and statues with a thick vestment of snow.

It was still snowing when the young man came from the House Agents to see over Abercorn Terrace. The snow cast a hard white glare upon the walls of the bathroom, showed up the cracks on the enamel bath, and the stains on the wall. Eleanor stood looking out of the window. The trees in the back garden were heavily lined with snow; all the roofs were softly moulded with snow; it was still falling. She turned. The young man turned too. The light was unbecoming to them both, yet the snow — she saw it through the window at the end of the passage — was beautiful, falling.

Mr Grice turned to her as they went downstairs,

“The fact is, our clients expect more lavatory accommodation nowadays,” he said, stopping outside a bedroom door.

Why can’t he say “baths” and have done with it, she thought. Slowly she went downstairs. Now she could see the snow falling through the panels of the hall door. As he went downstairs, she noticed the red ears which stood out over his high collar; and the neck which he had washed imperfectly in some sink at Wandsworth. She was annoyed; as he went round the house, sniffing and peering, he had indicted their cleanliness, their humanity; and he used absurd long words. He was hauling himself up into the class above him, she supposed, by means of long words. Now he stepped cautiously over the body of the sleeping dog; took his hat from the hall table, and went down the front door-steps in his business man’s buttoned boots, leaving yellow footprints in the thick white cushion of snow. A four-wheeler was waiting.

Eleanor turned. There was Crosby, dodging about in her best bonnet and mantle. She had been following Eleanor about the house like a dog all the morning; the odious moment could no longer be put off. Her four-wheeler was at the door; they had to say good-bye.

“Well, Crosby, it all looks very empty, doesn’t it?” said Eleanor, looking in at the empty drawing-room. The white light of the snow glared in on the walls. It showed up the marks on the walls where the furniture had stood, where the pictures had hung.

“It does, Miss Eleanor,” said Crosby. She stood looking too. Eleanor knew that she was going to cry. She did not want her to cry. She did not want to cry herself.

“I can still see you all sitting round that table, Miss Eleanor,” said Crosby. But the table had gone. Morris had taken this; Delia had taken that; everything had been shared out and separated.

“And the kettle that wouldn’t boil,” said Eleanor. “D’you remember that?” She tried to laugh.

“Oh, Miss Eleanor,” said Crosby, shaking her head, “I remember everything!” The tears were forming; Eleanor looked away into the further room.

There too were marks on the wall, where the bookcase had stood, where the writing-table had stood. She thought of herself sitting there, drawing a pattern on the blotting-paper; digging a hole, adding up tradesmen’s books. . . . Then she turned. There was Crosby. Crosby was crying. The mixture of emotions was positively painful; she was so glad to be quit of it all, but for Crosby it was the end of everything.

She had known every cupboard, flagstone, chair and table in that large rambling house, not from five or six feet of distance as they had known it; but from her knees, as she scrubbed and polished; she had known every groove, stain, fork, knife, napkin and cupboard. They and their doings had made her entire world. And now she was going off, alone, to a single room at Richmond.

“I should think you’d be glad to be out of that basement anyhow, Crosby,” said Eleanor, turning into the hall again. She had never realised how dark, how low it was, until, looking at it with “our Mr Grice,” she had felt ashamed.

“It was my home for forty years, Miss,” said Crosby. The tears were running. For forty years! Eleanor thought with a start. She had been a little girl of thirteen or fourteen when Crosby came to them, looking so stiff and smart. Now her blue gnat’s eyes protruded and her cheeks were sunk.

Crosby was stooping to put Rover on the chain.

“You’re sure you want him?” said Eleanor, looking at the rather smelly, wheezy and unattractive old dog. “We could easily find a nice home for him in the country.”

“Oh, miss, don’t ask me to give him up!” said Crosby. Tears checked her speech. Tears were running freely down her cheeks. For all Eleanor could do to prevent it, tears formed in her eyes too.

“Dear Crosby, good-bye,” she said. She bent and kissed her. She had a curious dry quality of skin she noticed. But her own tears were falling. Then Crosby, holding Rover on the chain, began to edge sideways down the slippery steps. Eleanor, holding the door open, looked after her. It was a dreadful moment; unhappy; muddled; altogether wrong. Crosby was so miserable; she was so glad. Yet as she held the door open her tears formed and fell. They had all lived here; she had stood here to wave Morris to school; there was the little garden in which they used to plant crocuses. And now Crosby, with flakes of snow falling on her black bonnet, climbed into the four-wheeler, holding Rover in her arms. Eleanor shut the door and went in.

Snow was falling as the cab trotted along the streets. There were long yellow ruts on the pavement where people, shopping, had pressed it into slush. It was beginning to thaw slightly; loads of snow slipped off the roofs and fell onto the pavement. Little boys, too, were snowballing; one of them threw a ball which struck the cab as it passed. But when it turned into Richmond Green the whole of the vast space was completely white. Nobody seemed to have crossed the snow there; everything was white. The grass was white; the trees were white; the railings were white; the only marks in the whole vista were the rooks, sitting huddled black on the tree tops. The cab trotted on.

The carts had churned the snow to a yellowish clotted mixture by the time the cab stopped in front of the little house off the Green. Crosby, carrying Rover in her arms lest his feet should mark the stairs, went up the steps. There was Louisa Burt standing to welcome her; and Mr Bishop, the lodger from the top floor who had been a butler. He lent a hand with the luggage, and Crosby followed after, to her little room.

Her room was at the top, and at the back, overlooking the garden. It was small, but when she had unpacked her things it was comfortable enough. It had a look of Abercorn Terrace. Indeed for many years she had been hoarding odds and ends with a view to her retirement. Indian elephants, silver vases, the walrus that she had found in the waste-paper basket one morning, when the guns were firing for the old Queen’s funeral — there they all were. She ranged them askew on the mantelpiece, and when she had hung the portraits of the family — some in wedding-dress, some in wigs and gowns, and Mr Martin in his uniform in the middle because he was her favourite — it was quite like home.

But whether it was the change to Richmond, or whether he had caught cold in the snow, Rover sickened immediately. He refused his food. His nose was hot. His eczema broke out again. When she tried to take him shopping with her next morning he rolled over with his feet in the air as if he begged to be left alone. Mr Bishop had to tell Mrs Crosby — for she wore the courtesy title in Richmond — that in his opinion the poor old chap (here he patted his head) was better out of the way.

“Come along with me, my dear,” said Mrs Burt, putting her arm on Crosby’s shoulder, “and let Bishop do it.”

“He won’t suffer, I can assure you,” said Mr Bishop, rising from his knees. He had put her Ladyship’s dogs to sleep scores of time before this. “He’ll just take one sniff”— Mr Bishop had his pocket-handkerchief in his hand —“and he’ll be off in a jiffy.”

“It’ll be for his good, Annie,” Mrs Burt added, trying to draw her away.

Indeed, the poor old dog looked very miserable. But Crosby shook her head. He had wagged his tail; his eyes were open. He was alive. There was a gleam of what she had long considered a smile on his face. He depended on her, she felt. She was not going to hand him over to strangers. She sat by his side for three days and nights; she fed him with a teaspoon on Brand’s Essence; but at last he refused to open his lips; his body grew stiffer and stiffer; a fly walked across his nose without its twitching. This was in the early morning with the sparrows twittering on the trees outside.

“It’s a mercy she’s got something to distract her,” said Mrs Burt as Crosby passed the kitchen window the day after the funeral in her best mantle and bonnet; for it was Thursday, when she fetched Mr Pargiter’s socks from Ebury Street. “But he ought to have been put down long ago,” she added, turning back to the sink. His breath had smelt.

Crosby took the District Railway to Sloane Square and then she walked. She walked slowly, with her elbows jutting out from her sides as if to protect herself from the haphazardry of the streets. She still looked sad; but the change from Richmond to Ebury Street did her good. She felt more herself in Ebury Street than in Richmond. A common sort of people lived in Richmond she always felt. Here the ladies and gentlemen had the same kind of way with them. She glanced approvingly into the shops as she passed. And General Arbuthnot, who used to visit the Master, lived in Ebury Street she reflected as she turned into that gloomy thoroughfare. He was dead now; Louisa had shown her the notice in the papers. But when he was alive, he had lived here. She had reached Mr Martin’s lodgings. She paused on the steps and adjusted her bonnet. She always had a word with Martin when she came to fetch his socks; it was one of her pleasures; and she enjoyed a gossip with Mrs Briggs, his landlady. Today she would have the pleasure of telling her of the death of Rover. Sidling cautiously down the area steps which were slippery with sleet she stood at the back door and rang the bell.

Martin sat in his room reading his newspaper. The war in the Balkans was over; but there was more trouble brewing — that he was sure. Quite sure. He turned the page. The room was very dark with the sleet falling. And he could never read while he was waiting. Crosby was coming; he could hear voices in the hall. How they gossiped! How they chattered! he thought impatiently. He threw the paper down and waited. Now she was coming; her hand was on the door. But what was he to say to her? he wondered, as he saw the handle turning. He put down the paper. He made use of the usual formula: “Well, Crosby, how’s the world treating you?” as she came in.

She remembered Rover; and the tears started to her eyes.

Martin listened to the story; he wrinkled his brow sympathetically. Then he got up, went into his bedroom, and came back holding a pyjama jacket in his hand.

“What d’you call that, Crosby?” he said. He pointed to a hole under the collar, fringed with brown. Crosby adjusted her gold- rimmed spectacles.

“A burn, sir,” she said with conviction.

“Brand new pyjamas; only worn them twice,” said Martin, holding them extended. Crosby touched them. They were made of the finest silk, she could tell.

“Tut — tut — tut!” she said, shaking her head.

“Will you please take this pyjama to Mrs What’s-her-name,” he went on, holding it out in front of him. He wanted to use a metaphor; but one had to be very literal and use only the simplest language, he remembered, when one talked to Crosby.

“Tell her to get another laundress,” he concluded, “and send the old one to the devil.”

Crosby gathered the injured pyjama tenderly to her breast; Mr Martin never could abide wool next the skin, she remembered. Martin paused. One must pass the time of the day with Crosby, but the death of Rover had seriously limited their topics of conversation.

“How’s the rheumatics?” he asked, as she stood very upright at the door of the room with the pyjamas on her arm. She had grown distinctly smaller, he thought. She shook her head, Richmond was very low compared with Abercorn Terrace, she said. Her face dropped. She was thinking of Rover, he supposed. He must get her mind off that; he could not bear tears.

“Seen Miss Eleanor’s new flat?” he asked. Crosby had. But she did not like flats. In her opinion Miss Eleanor wore herself out.

“And the people’s not worth it, sir,” she said, referring to the Zwinglers, Paravicinis and Cobbs who used to come to the back door for cast-off clothing in the old days.

Martin shook his head. He could not think what to say next. He hated talking to servants; it always made him feel insincere. Either one simpers, or one’s hearty, he was thinking. In either case it’s a lie.

“And are you keeping pretty well yourself, Master Martin?” Crosby asked him, using the diminutive, which was a perquisite of her long service.

“Not married yet, Crosby,” said Martin.

Crosby cast her eye round the room. It was a bachelor’s apartment, with its leather chairs; its chessmen on top of a pile of books and its soda-water syphon on a tray. She ventured to say that she was sure that there were plenty of nice young ladies who would be very glad to take care of him.

“Ah, but I like lying in bed of a morning,” said Martin.

“You always did, sir,” she said, smiling. And then it was possible for Martin to take out his watch, step briskly to the window and exclaim as if he had suddenly remembered an appointment,

“By Jove, Crosby, I must be off!” and the door shut upon Crosby.

It was a lie. He had no engagement. One always lies to servants, he thought, looking out of the window. The mean outlines of the Ebury Street houses showed through the falling sleet. Everybody lies, he thought. His father had lied — after his death they had found letters from a woman called Mira tied up in his table-drawer. And he had seen Mira — a stout respectable lady who wanted help with her roof. Why had his father lied? What was the harm of keeping a mistress? And he had lied himself; about the room off the Fulham Road where he and Dodge and Erridge used to smoke cheap cigars and tell smutty stories. It was an abominable system, he thought; family life; Abercorn Terrace. No wonder the house would not let. It had one bathroom, and a basement; and there all those different people had lived, boxed up together, telling lies.

Then as he stood at the window looking at the little figures slinking along the wet pavement he saw Crosby come up the area steps with a parcel under her arm. She stood for a moment, like a frightened little animal, peering round her before she ventured to brave the dangers of the street. At last, off she trotted. He saw the snow falling on her black bonnet as she disappeared. He turned away.

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