The water fell off a ledge like lead — like a chain with thick white links. The train ran out into a steep green meadow, and Jacob saw striped tulips growing and heard a bird singing, in Italy.
A motor car full of Italian officers ran along the flat road and kept up with the train, raising dust behind it. There were trees laced together with vines — as Virgil said. Here was a station; and a tremendous leave-taking going on, with women in high yellow boots and odd pale boys in ringed socks. Virgil’s bees had gone about the plains of Lombardy. It was the custom of the ancients to train vines between elms. Then at Milan there were sharp-winged hawks, of a bright brown, cutting figures over the roofs.
These Italian carriages get damnably hot with the afternoon sun on them, and the chances are that before the engine has pulled to the top of the gorge the clanking chain will have broken. Up, up, up, it goes, like a train on a scenic railway. Every peak is covered with sharp trees, and amazing white villages are crowded on ledges. There is always a white tower on the very summit, flat red-frilled roofs, and a sheer drop beneath. It is not a country in which one walks after tea. For one thing there is no grass. A whole hillside will be ruled with olive trees. Already in April the earth is clotted into dry dust between them. And there are neither stiles nor footpaths, nor lanes chequered with the shadows of leaves nor eighteenth-century inns with bow-windows, where one eats ham and eggs. Oh no, Italy is all fierceness, bareness, exposure, and black priests shuffling along the roads. It is strange, too, how you never get away from villas.
Still, to be travelling on one’s own with a hundred pounds to spend is a fine affair. And if his money gave out, as it probably would, he would go on foot. He could live on bread and wine — the wine in straw bottles — for after doing Greece he was going to knock off Rome. The Roman civilization was a very inferior affair, no doubt. But Bonamy talked a lot of rot, all the same. “You ought to have been in Athens,” he would say to Bonamy when he got back. “Standing on the Parthenon,” he would say, or “The ruins of the Coliseum suggest some fairly sublime reflections,” which he would write out at length in letters. It might turn to an essay upon civilization. A comparison between the ancients and moderns, with some pretty sharp hits at Mr. Asquith — something in the style of Gibbon.
A stout gentleman laboriously hauled himself in, dusty, baggy, slung with gold chains, and Jacob, regretting that he did not come of the Latin race, looked out of the window.
It is a strange reflection that by travelling two days and nights you are in the heart of Italy. Accidental villas among olive trees appear; and men-servants watering the cactuses. Black victorias drive in between pompous pillars with plaster shields stuck to them. It is at once momentary and astonishingly intimate — to be displayed before the eyes of a foreigner. And there is a lonely hill-top where no one ever comes, and yet it is seen by me who was lately driving down Piccadilly on an omnibus. And what I should like would be to get out among the fields, sit down and hear the grasshoppers, and take up a handful of earth — Italian earth, as this is Italian dust upon my shoes.
Jacob heard them crying strange names at railway stations through the night. The train stopped and he heard frogs croaking close by, and he wrinkled back the blind cautiously and saw a vast strange marsh all white in the moonlight. The carriage was thick with cigar smoke, which floated round the globe with the green shade on it. The Italian gentleman lay snoring with his boots off and his waistcoat unbuttoned. . . . And all this business of going to Greece seemed to Jacob an intolerable weariness — sitting in hotels by oneself and looking at monuments — he’d have done better to go to Cornwall with Timmy Durrant. . . . “O— h,” Jacob protested, as the darkness began breaking in front of him and the light showed through, but the man was reaching across him to get something — the fat Italian man in his dicky, unshaven, crumpled, obese, was opening the door and going off to have a wash.
So Jacob sat up, and saw a lean Italian sportsman with a gun walking down the road in the early morning light, and the whole idea of the Parthenon came upon him in a clap.
“By Jove!” he thought, “we must be nearly there!” and he stuck his head out of the window and got the air full in his face.
It is highly exasperating that twenty-five people of your acquaintance should be able to say straight off something very much to the point about being in Greece, while for yourself there is a stopper upon all emotions whatsoever. For after washing at the hotel at Patras, Jacob had followed the tram lines a mile or so out; and followed them a mile or so back; he had met several droves of turkeys; several strings of donkeys; had got lost in back streets; had read advertisements of corsets and of Maggi’s consomme; children had trodden on his toes; the place smelt of bad cheese; and he was glad to find himself suddenly come out opposite his hotel. There was an old copy of the Daily Mail lying among coffee-cups; which he read. But what could he do after dinner?
No doubt we should be, on the whole, much worse off than we are without our astonishing gift for illusion. At the age of twelve or so, having given up dolls and broken our steam engines, France, but much more probably Italy, and India almost for a certainty, draws the superfluous imagination. One’s aunts have been to Rome; and every one has an uncle who was last heard of — poor man — in Rangoon. He will never come back any more. But it is the governesses who start the Greek myth. Look at that for a head (they say)— nose, you see, straight as a dart, curls, eyebrows — everything appropriate to manly beauty; while his legs and arms have lines on them which indicate a perfect degree of development — the Greeks caring for the body as much as for the face. And the Greeks could paint fruit so that birds pecked at it. First you read Xenophon; then Euripides. One day — that was an occasion, by God — what people have said appears to have sense in it; “the Greek spirit”; the Greek this, that, and the other; though it is absurd, by the way, to say that any Greek comes near Shakespeare. The point is, however, that we have been brought up in an illusion.
Jacob, no doubt, thought something in this fashion, the Daily Mail crumpled in his hand; his legs extended; the very picture of boredom.
“But it’s the way we’re brought up,” he went on.
And it all seemed to him very distasteful. Something ought to be done about it. And from being moderately depressed he became like a man about to be executed. Clara Durrant had left him at a party to talk to an American called Pilchard. And he had come all the way to Greece and left her. They wore evening-dresses, and talked nonsense — what damned nonsense — and he put out his hand for the Globe Trotter, an international magazine which is supplied free of charge to the proprietors of hotels.
In spite of its ramshackle condition modern Greece is highly advanced in the electric tramway system, so that while Jacob sat in the hotel sitting-room the trams clanked, chimed, rang, rang, rang imperiously to get the donkeys out of the way, and one old woman who refused to budge, beneath the windows. The whole of civilization was being condemned.
The waiter was quite indifferent to that too. Aristotle, a dirty man, carnivorously interested in the body of the only guest now occupying the only arm-chair, came into the room ostentatiously, put something down, put something straight, and saw that Jacob was still there.
“I shall want to be called early to-morrow,” said Jacob, over his shoulder. “I am going to Olympia.”
This gloom, this surrender to the dark waters which lap us about, is a modern invention. Perhaps, as Cruttendon said, we do not believe enough. Our fathers at any rate had something to demolish. So have we for the matter of that, thought Jacob, crumpling the Daily Mail in his hand. He would go into Parliament and make fine speeches — but what use are fine speeches and Parliament, once you surrender an inch to the black waters? Indeed there has never been any explanation of the ebb and flow in our veins — of happiness and unhappiness. That respectability and evening parties where one has to dress, and wretched slums at the back of Gray’s Inn — something solid, immovable, and grotesque — is at the back of it, Jacob thought probable. But then there was the British Empire which was beginning to puzzle him; nor was he altogether in favour of giving Home Rule to Ireland. What did the Daily Mail say about that?
For he had grown to be a man, and was about to be immersed in things — as indeed the chambermaid, emptying his basin upstairs, fingering keys, studs, pencils, and bottles of tabloids strewn on the dressing-table, was aware.
That he had grown to be a man was a fact that Florinda knew, as she knew everything, by instinct.
And Betty Flanders even now suspected it, as she read his letter, posted at Milan, “Telling me,” she complained to Mrs. Jarvis, “really nothing that I want to know”; but she brooded over it.
Fanny Elmer felt it to desperation. For he would take his stick and his hat and would walk to the window, and look perfectly absent-minded and very stern too, she thought.
“I am going,” he would say, “to cadge a meal of Bonamy.”
“Anyhow, I can drown myself in the Thames,” Fanny cried, as she hurried past the Foundling Hospital.
“But the Daily Mail isn’t to be trusted,” Jacob said to himself, looking about for something else to read. And he sighed again, being indeed so profoundly gloomy that gloom must have been lodged in him to cloud him at any moment, which was odd in a man who enjoyed things so, was not much given to analysis, but was horribly romantic, of course, Bonamy thought, in his rooms in Lincoln’s Inn.
“He will fall in love,” thought Bonamy. “Some Greek woman with a straight nose.”
It was to Bonamy that Jacob wrote from Patras — to Bonamy who couldn’t love a woman and never read a foolish book.
There are very few good books after all, for we can’t count profuse histories, travels in mule carts to discover the sources of the Nile, or the volubility of fiction.
I like books whose virtue is all drawn together in a page or two. I like sentences that don’t budge though armies cross them. I like words to be hard — such were Bonamy’s views, and they won him the hostility of those whose taste is all for the fresh growths of the morning, who throw up the window, and find the poppies spread in the sun, and can’t forbear a shout of jubilation at the astonishing fertility of English literature. That was not Bonamy’s way at all. That his taste in literature affected his friendships, and made him silent, secretive, fastidious, and only quite at his ease with one or two young men of his own way of thinking, was the charge against him.
But then Jacob Flanders was not at all of his own way of thinking — far from it, Bonamy sighed, laying the thin sheets of notepaper on the table and falling into thought about Jacob’s character, not for the first time.
The trouble was this romantic vein in him. “But mixed with the stupidity which leads him into these absurd predicaments,” thought Bonamy, “there is something — something”— he sighed, for he was fonder of Jacob than of any one in the world.
Jacob went to the window and stood with his hands in his pockets. There he saw three Greeks in kilts; the masts of ships; idle or busy people of the lower classes strolling or stepping out briskly, or falling into groups and gesticulating with their hands. Their lack of concern for him was not the cause of his gloom; but some more profound conviction — it was not that he himself happened to be lonely, but that all people are.
Yet next day, as the train slowly rounded a hill on the way to Olympia, the Greek peasant women were out among the vines; the old Greek men were sitting at the stations, sipping sweet wine. And though Jacob remained gloomy he had never suspected how tremendously pleasant it is to be alone; out of England; on one’s own; cut off from the whole thing. There are very sharp bare hills on the way to Olympia; and between them blue sea in triangular spaces. A little like the Cornish coast. Well now, to go walking by oneself all day — to get on to that track and follow it up between the bushes — or are they small trees? — to the top of that mountain from which one can see half the nations of antiquity —
“Yes,” said Jacob, for his carriage was empty, “let’s look at the map.” Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have — positively — a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang — there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.
The evening air slightly moved the dirty curtains in the hotel window at Olympia.
“I am full of love for every one,” thought Mrs. Wentworth Williams, “— for the poor most of all — for the peasants coming back in the evening with their burdens. And everything is soft and vague and very sad. It is sad, it is sad. But everything has meaning,” thought Sandra Wentworth Williams, raising her head a little and looking very beautiful, tragic, and exalted. “One must love everything.”
She held in her hand a little book convenient for travelling — stories by Tchekov — as she stood, veiled, in white, in the window of the hotel at Olympia. How beautiful the evening was! and her beauty was its beauty. The tragedy of Greece was the tragedy of all high souls. The inevitable compromise. She seemed to have grasped something. She would write it down. And moving to the table where her husband sat reading she leant her chin in her hands and thought of the peasants, of suffering, of her own beauty, of the inevitable compromise, and of how she would write it down. Nor did Evan Williams say anything brutal, banal, or foolish when he shut his book and put it away to make room for the plates of soup which were now being placed before them. Only his drooping bloodhound eyes and his heavy sallow cheeks expressed his melancholy tolerance, his conviction that though forced to live with circumspection and deliberation he could never possibly achieve any of those objects which, as he knew, are the only ones worth pursuing. His consideration was flawless; his silence unbroken.
“Everything seems to mean so much,” said Sandra. But with the sound of her own voice the spell was broken. She forgot the peasants. Only there remained with her a sense of her own beauty, and in front, luckily, there was a looking-glass.
“I am very beautiful,” she thought.
She shifted her hat slightly. Her husband saw her looking in the glass; and agreed that beauty is important; it is an inheritance; one cannot ignore it. But it is a barrier; it is in fact rather a bore. So he drank his soup; and kept his eyes fixed upon the window.
“Quails,” said Mrs. Wentworth Williams languidly. “And then goat, I suppose; and then . . . ”
“Caramel custard presumably,” said her husband in the same cadence, with his toothpick out already.
She laid her spoon upon her plate, and her soup was taken away half finished. Never did she do anything without dignity; for hers was the English type which is so Greek, save that villagers have touched their hats to it, the vicarage reveres it; and upper-gardeners and under-gardeners respectfully straighten their backs as she comes down the broad terrace on Sunday morning, dallying at the stone urns with the Prime Minister to pick a rose — which, perhaps, she was trying to forget, as her eye wandered round the dining-room of the inn at Olympia, seeking the window where her book lay, where a few minutes ago she had discovered something — something very profound it had been, about love and sadness and the peasants.
But it was Evan who sighed; not in despair nor indeed in rebellion. But, being the most ambitious of men and temperamentally the most sluggish, he had accomplished nothing; had the political history of England at his finger-ends, and living much in company with Chatham, Pitt, Burke, and Charles James Fox could not help contrasting himself and his age with them and theirs. “Yet there never was a time when great men are more needed,” he was in the habit of saying to himself, with a sigh. Here he was picking his teeth in an inn at Olympia. He had done. But Sandra’s eyes wandered.
“Those pink melons are sure to be dangerous,” he said gloomily. And as he spoke the door opened and in came a young man in a grey check suit.
“Beautiful but dangerous,” said Sandra, immediately talking to her husband in the presence of a third person. (“Ah, an English boy on tour,” she thought to herself.)
And Evan knew all that too.
Yes, he knew all that; and he admired her. Very pleasant, he thought, to have affairs. But for himself, what with his height (Napoleon was five feet four, he remembered), his bulk, his inability to impose his own personality (and yet great men are needed more than ever now, he sighed), it was useless. He threw away his cigar, went up to Jacob and asked him, with a simple sort of sincerity which Jacob liked, whether he had come straight out from England.
“How very English!” Sandra laughed when the waiter told them next morning that the young gentleman had left at five to climb the mountain. “I am sure he asked you for a bath?” at which the waiter shook his head, and said that he would ask the manager.
“You do not understand,” laughed Sandra. “Never mind.”
Stretched on the top of the mountain, quite alone, Jacob enjoyed himself immensely. Probably he had never been so happy in the whole of his life.
But at dinner that night Mr. Williams asked him whether he would like to see the paper; then Mrs. Williams asked him (as they strolled on the terrace smoking — and how could he refuse that man’s cigar?) whether he’d seen the theatre by moonlight; whether he knew Everard Sherborn; whether he read Greek and whether (Evan rose silently and went in) if he had to sacrifice one it would be the French literature or the Russian?
“And now,” wrote Jacob in his letter to Bonamy, “I shall have to read her cursed book”— her Tchekov, he meant, for she had lent it him.
Though the opinion is unpopular it seems likely enough that bare places, fields too thick with stones to be ploughed, tossing sea-meadows half-way between England and America, suit us better than cities.
There is something absolute in us which despises qualification. It is this which is teased and twisted in society. People come together in a room. “So delighted,” says somebody, “to meet you,” and that is a lie. And then: “I enjoy the spring more than the autumn now. One does, I think, as one gets older.” For women are always, always, always talking about what one feels, and if they say “as one gets older,” they mean you to reply with something quite off the point.
Jacob sat himself down in the quarry where the Greeks had cut marble for the theatre. It is hot work walking up Greek hills at midday. The wild red cyclamen was out; he had seen the little tortoises hobbling from clump to clump; the air smelt strong and suddenly sweet, and the sun, striking on jagged splinters of marble, was very dazzling to the eyes. Composed, commanding, contemptuous, a little melancholy, and bored with an august kind of boredom, there he sat smoking his pipe.
Bonamy would have said that this was the sort of thing that made him uneasy — when Jacob got into the doldrums, looked like a Margate fisherman out of a job, or a British Admiral. You couldn’t make him understand a thing when he was in a mood like that. One had better leave him alone. He was dull. He was apt to be grumpy.
He was up very early, looking at the statues with his Baedeker.
Sandra Wentworth Williams, ranging the world before breakfast in quest of adventure or a point of view, all in white, not so very tall perhaps, but uncommonly upright — Sandra Williams got Jacob’s head exactly on a level with the head of the Hermes of Praxiteles. The comparison was all in his favour. But before she could say a single word he had gone out of the Museum and left her.
Still, a lady of fashion travels with more than one dress, and if white suits the morning hour, perhaps sandy yellow with purple spots on it, a black hat, and a volume of Balzac, suit the evening. Thus she was arranged on the terrace when Jacob came in. Very beautiful she looked. With her hands folded she mused, seemed to listen to her husband, seemed to watch the peasants coming down with brushwood on their backs, seemed to notice how the hill changed from blue to black, seemed to discriminate between truth and falsehood, Jacob thought, and crossed his legs suddenly, observing the extreme shabbiness of his trousers.
“But he is very distinguished looking,” Sandra decided.
And Evan Williams, lying back in his chair with the paper on his knees, envied them. The best thing he could do would be to publish, with Macmillans, his monograph upon the foreign policy of Chatham. But confound this tumid, queasy feeling — this restlessness, swelling, and heat — it was jealousy! jealousy! jealousy! which he had sworn never to feel again.
“Come with us to Corinth, Flanders,” he said with more than his usual energy, stopping by Jacob’s chair. He was relieved by Jacob’s reply, or rather by the solid, direct, if shy manner in which he said that he would like very much to come with them to Corinth.
“Here is a fellow,” thought Evan Williams, “who might do very well in politics.”
“I intend to come to Greece every year so long as I live,” Jacob wrote to Bonamy. “It is the only chance I can see of protecting oneself from civilization.”
“Goodness knows what he means by that,” Bonamy sighed. For as he never said a clumsy thing himself, these dark sayings of Jacob’s made him feel apprehensive, yet somehow impressed, his own turn being all for the definite, the concrete, and the rational.
Nothing could be much simpler than what Sandra said as she descended the Acro-Corinth, keeping to the little path, while Jacob strode over rougher ground by her side. She had been left motherless at the age of four; and the Park was vast.
“One never seemed able to get out of it,” she laughed. Of course there was the library, and dear Mr. Jones, and notions about things. “I used to stray into the kitchen and sit upon the butler’s knees,” she laughed, sadly though.
Jacob thought that if he had been there he would have saved her; for she had been exposed to great dangers, he felt, and, he thought to himself, “People wouldn’t understand a woman talking as she talks.”
She made little of the roughness of the hill; and wore breeches, he saw, under her short skirts.
“Women like Fanny Elmer don’t,” he thought. “What’s-her-name Carslake didn’t; yet they pretend . . . ”
Mrs. Williams said things straight out. He was surprised by his own knowledge of the rules of behaviour; how much more can be said than one thought; how open one can be with a woman; and how little he had known himself before.
Evan joined them on the road; and as they drove along up hill and down hill (for Greece is in a state of effervescence, yet astonishingly clean-cut, a treeless land, where you see the ground between the blades, each hill cut and shaped and outlined as often as not against sparkling deep blue waters, islands white as sand floating on the horizon, occasional groves of palm trees standing in the valleys, which are scattered with black goats, spotted with little olive trees and sometimes have white hollows, rayed and criss-crossed, in their flanks), as they drove up hill and down he scowled in the corner of the carriage, with his paw so tightly closed that the skin was stretched between the knuckles and the little hairs stood upright. Sandra rode opposite, dominant, like a Victory prepared to fling into the air.
“Heartless!” thought Evan (which was untrue).
“Brainless!” he suspected (and that was not true either). “Still . . .!” He envied her.
When bedtime came the difficulty was to write to Bonamy, Jacob found. Yet he had seen Salamis, and Marathon in the distance. Poor old Bonamy! No; there was something queer about it. He could not write to Bonamy.
“I shall go to Athens all the same,” he resolved, looking very set, with this hook dragging in his side.
The Williamses had already been to Athens.
Athens is still quite capable of striking a young man as the oddest combination, the most incongruous assortment. Now it is suburban; now immortal. Now cheap continental jewellery is laid upon plush trays. Now the stately woman stands naked, save for a wave of drapery above the knee. No form can he set on his sensations as he strolls, one blazing afternoon, along the Parisian boulevard and skips out of the way of the royal landau which, looking indescribably ramshackle, rattles along the pitted roadway, saluted by citizens of both sexes cheaply dressed in bowler hats and continental costumes; though a shepherd in kilt, cap, and gaiters very nearly drives his herd of goats between the royal wheels; and all the time the Acropolis surges into the air, raises itself above the town, like a large immobile wave with the yellow columns of the Parthenon firmly planted upon it.
The yellow columns of the Parthenon are to be seen at all hours of the day firmly planted upon the Acropolis; though at sunset, when the ships in the Piraeus fire their guns, a bell rings, a man in uniform (the waistcoat unbuttoned) appears; and the women roll up the black stockings which they are knitting in the shadow of the columns, call to the children, and troop off down the hill back to their houses.
There they are again, the pillars, the pediment, the Temple of Victory and the Erechtheum, set on a tawny rock cleft with shadows, directly you unlatch your shutters in the morning and, leaning out, hear the clatter, the clamour, the whip cracking in the street below. There they are.
The extreme definiteness with which they stand, now a brilliant white, again yellow, and in some lights red, imposes ideas of durability, of the emergence through the earth of some spiritual energy elsewhere dissipated in elegant trifles. But this durability exists quite independently of our admiration. Although the beauty is sufficiently humane to weaken us, to stir the deep deposit of mud — memories, abandonments, regrets, sentimental devotions — the Parthenon is separate from all that; and if you consider how it has stood out all night, for centuries, you begin to connect the blaze (at midday the glare is dazzling and the frieze almost invisible) with the idea that perhaps it is beauty alone that is immortal.
Added to this, compared with the blistered stucco, the new love songs rasped out to the strum of guitar and gramophone, and the mobile yet insignificant faces of the street, the Parthenon is really astonishing in its silent composure; which is so vigorous that, far from being decayed, the Parthenon appears, on the contrary, likely to outlast the entire world.
“And the Greeks, like sensible men, never bothered to finish the backs of their statues,” said Jacob, shading his eyes and observing that the side of the figure which is turned away from view is left in the rough.
He noted the slight irregularity in the line of the steps which “the artistic sense of the Greeks preferred to mathematical accuracy,” he read in his guide-book.
He stood on the exact spot where the great statue of Athena used to stand, and identified the more famous landmarks of the scene beneath.
In short he was accurate and diligent; but profoundly morose. Moreover he was pestered by guides. This was on Monday.
But on Wednesday he wrote a telegram to Bonamy, telling him to come at once. And then he crumpled it in his hand and threw it in the gutter.
“For one thing he wouldn’t come,” he thought. “And then I daresay this sort of thing wears off.” “This sort of thing” being that uneasy, painful feeling, something like selfishness — one wishes almost that the thing would stop — it is getting more and more beyond what is possible —“If it goes on much longer I shan’t be able to cope with it — but if some one else were seeing it at the same time — Bonamy is stuffed in his room in Lincoln’s Inn — oh, I say, damn it all, I say,”— the sight of Hymettus, Pentelicus, Lycabettus on one side, and the sea on the other, as one stands in the Parthenon at sunset, the sky pink feathered, the plain all colours, the marble tawny in one’s eyes, is thus oppressive. Luckily Jacob had little sense of personal association; he seldom thought of Plato or Socrates in the flesh; on the other hand his feeling for architecture was very strong; he preferred statues to pictures; and he was beginning to think a great deal about the problems of civilization, which were solved, of course, so very remarkably by the ancient Greeks, though their solution is no help to us. Then the hook gave a great tug in his side as he lay in bed on Wednesday night; and he turned over with a desperate sort of tumble, remembering Sandra Wentworth Williams with whom he was in love.
Next day he climbed Pentelicus.
The day after he went up to the Acropolis. The hour was early; the place almost deserted; and possibly there was thunder in the air. But the sun struck full upon the Acropolis.
Jacob’s intention was to sit down and read, and, finding a drum of marble conveniently placed, from which Marathon could be seen, and yet it was in the shade, while the Erechtheum blazed white in front of him, there he sat. And after reading a page he put his thumb in his book. Why not rule countries in the way they should be ruled? And he read again.
No doubt his position there overlooking Marathon somehow raised his spirits. Or it may have been that a slow capacious brain has these moments of flowering. Or he had, insensibly, while he was abroad, got into the way of thinking about politics.
And then looking up and seeing the sharp outline, his meditations were given an extraordinary edge; Greece was over; the Parthenon in ruins; yet there he was.
(Ladies with green and white umbrellas passed through the courtyard — French ladies on their way to join their husbands in Constantinople.)
Jacob read on again. And laying the book on the ground he began, as if inspired by what he had read, to write a note upon the importance of history — upon democracy — one of those scribbles upon which the work of a lifetime may be based; or again, it falls out of a book twenty years later, and one can’t remember a word of it. It is a little painful. It had better be burnt.
Jacob wrote; began to draw a straight nose; when all the French ladies opening and shutting their umbrellas just beneath him exclaimed, looking at the sky, that one did not know what to expect — rain or fine weather?
Jacob got up and strolled across to the Erechtheum. There are still several women standing there holding the roof on their heads. Jacob straightened himself slightly; for stability and balance affect the body first. These statues annulled things so! He stared at them, then turned, and there was Madame Lucien Grave perched on a block of marble with her kodak pointed at his head. Of course she jumped down, in spite of her age, her figure, and her tight boots — having, now that her daughter was married, lapsed with a luxurious abandonment, grand enough in its way, into the fleshy grotesque; she jumped down, but not before Jacob had seen her.
“Damn these women — damn these women!” he thought. And he went to fetch his book which he had left lying on the ground in the Parthenon.
“How they spoil things,” he murmured, leaning against one of the pillars, pressing his book tight between his arm and his side. (As for the weather, no doubt the storm would break soon; Athens was under cloud.)
“It is those damned women,” said Jacob, without any trace of bitterness, but rather with sadness and disappointment that what might have been should never be.
(This violent disillusionment is generally to be expected in young men in the prime of life, sound of wind and limb, who will soon become fathers of families and directors of banks.)
Then, making sure that the Frenchwomen had gone, and looking cautiously round him, Jacob strolled over to the Erechtheum and looked rather furtively at the goddess on the left-hand side holding the roof on her head. She reminded him of Sandra Wentworth Williams. He looked at her, then looked away. He looked at her, then looked away. He was extraordinarily moved, and with the battered Greek nose in his head, with Sandra in his head, with all sorts of things in his head, off he started to walk right up to the top of Mount Hymettus, alone, in the heat.
That very afternoon Bonamy went expressly to talk about Jacob to tea with Clara Durrant in the square behind Sloane Street where, on hot spring days, there are striped blinds over the front windows, single horses pawing the macadam outside the doors, and elderly gentlemen in yellow waistcoats ringing bells and stepping in very politely when the maid demurely replies that Mrs. Durrant is at home.
Bonamy sat with Clara in the sunny front room with the barrel organ piping sweetly outside; the water-cart going slowly along spraying the pavement; the carriages jingling, and all the silver and chintz, brown and blue rugs and vases filled with green boughs, striped with trembling yellow bars.
The insipidity of what was said needs no illustration — Bonamy kept on gently returning quiet answers and accumulating amazement at an existence squeezed and emasculated within a white satin shoe (Mrs. Durrant meanwhile enunciating strident politics with Sir Somebody in the back room) until the virginity of Clara’s soul appeared to him candid; the depths unknown; and he would have brought out Jacob’s name had he not begun to feel positively certain that Clara loved him — and could do nothing whatever.
“Nothing whatever!” he exclaimed, as the door shut, and, for a man of his temperament, got a very queer feeling, as he walked through the park, of carriages irresistibly driven; of flower beds uncompromisingly geometrical; of force rushing round geometrical patterns in the most senseless way in the world. “Was Clara,” he thought, pausing to watch the boys bathing in the Serpentine, “the silent woman? — would Jacob marry her?”
But in Athens in the sunshine, in Athens, where it is almost impossible to get afternoon tea, and elderly gentlemen who talk politics talk them all the other way round, in Athens sat Sandra Wentworth Williams, veiled, in white, her legs stretched in front of her, one elbow on the arm of the bamboo chair, blue clouds wavering and drifting from her cigarette.
The orange trees which flourish in the Square of the Constitution, the band, the dragging of feet, the sky, the houses, lemon and rose coloured — all this became so significant to Mrs. Wentworth Williams after her second cup of coffee that she began dramatizing the story of the noble and impulsive Englishwoman who had offered a seat in her carriage to the old American lady at Mycenae (Mrs. Duggan)— not altogether a false story, though it said nothing of Evan, standing first on one foot, then on the other, waiting for the women to stop chattering.
“I am putting the life of Father Damien into verse,” Mrs. Duggan had said, for she had lost everything — everything in the world, husband and child and everything, but faith remained.
Sandra, floating from the particular to the universal, lay back in a trance.
The flight of time which hurries us so tragically along; the eternal drudge and drone, now bursting into fiery flame like those brief balls of yellow among green leaves (she was looking at orange trees); kisses on lips that are to die; the world turning, turning in mazes of heat and sound — though to be sure there is the quiet evening with its lovely pallor, “For I am sensitive to every side of it,” Sandra thought, “and Mrs. Duggan will write to me for ever, and I shall answer her letters.” Now the royal band marching by with the national flag stirred wider rings of emotion, and life became something that the courageous mount and ride out to sea on — the hair blown back (so she envisaged it, and the breeze stirred slightly among the orange trees) and she herself was emerging from silver spray — when she saw Jacob. He was standing in the Square with a book under his arm looking vacantly about him. That he was heavily built and might become stout in time was a fact.
But she suspected him of being a mere bumpkin.
“There is that young man,” she said, peevishly, throwing away her cigarette, “that Mr. Flanders.”
“Where?” said Evan. “I don’t see him.”
“Oh, walking away — behind the trees now. No, you can’t see him. But we are sure to run into him,” which, of course, they did.
But how far was he a mere bumpkin? How far was Jacob Flanders at the age of twenty-six a stupid fellow? It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done. Some, it is true, take ineffaceable impressions of character at once. Others dally, loiter, and get blown this way and that. Kind old ladies assure us that cats are often the best judges of character. A cat will always go to a good man, they say; but then, Mrs. Whitehorn, Jacob’s landlady, loathed cats.
There is also the highly respectable opinion that character-mongering is much overdone nowadays. After all, what does it matter — that Fanny Elmer was all sentiment and sensation, and Mrs. Durrant hard as iron? that Clara, owing (so the character-mongers said) largely to her mother’s influence, never yet had the chance to do anything off her own bat, and only to very observant eyes displayed deeps of feeling which were positively alarming; and would certainly throw herself away upon some one unworthy of her one of these days unless, so the character-mongers said, she had a spark of her mother’s spirit in her — was somehow heroic. But what a term to apply to Clara Durrant! Simple to a degree, others thought her. And that is the very reason, so they said, why she attracts Dick Bonamy — the young man with the Wellington nose. Now HE’S a dark horse if you like. And there these gossips would suddenly pause. Obviously they meant to hint at his peculiar disposition — long rumoured among them.
“But sometimes it is precisely a woman like Clara that men of that temperament need . . . ” Miss Julia Eliot would hint.
“Well,” Mr. Bowley would reply, “it may be so.”
For however long these gossips sit, and however they stuff out their victims’ characters till they are swollen and tender as the livers of geese exposed to a hot fire, they never come to a decision.
“That young man, Jacob Flanders,” they would say, “so distinguished looking — and yet so awkward.” Then they would apply themselves to Jacob and vacillate eternally between the two extremes. He rode to hounds — after a fashion, for he hadn’t a penny.
“Did you ever hear who his father was?” asked Julia Eliot.
“His mother, they say, is somehow connected with the Rocksbiers,” replied Mr. Bowley.
“He doesn’t overwork himself anyhow.”
“His friends are very fond of him.”
“Dick Bonamy, you mean?”
“No, I didn’t mean that. It’s evidently the other way with Jacob. He is precisely the young man to fall headlong in love and repent it for the rest of his life.”
“Oh, Mr. Bowley,” said Mrs. Durrant, sweeping down upon them in her imperious manner, “you remember Mrs. Adams? Well, that is her niece.” And Mr. Bowley, getting up, bowed politely and fetched strawberries.
So we are driven back to see what the other side means — the men in clubs and Cabinets — when they say that character-drawing is a frivolous fireside art, a matter of pins and needles, exquisite outlines enclosing vacancy, flourishes, and mere scrawls.
The battleships ray out over the North Sea, keeping their stations accurately apart. At a given signal all the guns are trained on a target which (the master gunner counts the seconds, watch in hand — at the sixth he looks up) flames into splinters. With equal nonchalance a dozen young men in the prime of life descend with composed faces into the depths of the sea; and there impassively (though with perfect mastery of machinery) suffocate uncomplainingly together. Like blocks of tin soldiers the army covers the cornfield, moves up the hillside, stops, reels slightly this way and that, and falls flat, save that, through field glasses, it can be seen that one or two pieces still agitate up and down like fragments of broken match-stick.
These actions, together with the incessant commerce of banks, laboratories, chancellories, and houses of business, are the strokes which oar the world forward, they say. And they are dealt by men as smoothly sculptured as the impassive policeman at Ludgate Circus. But you will observe that far from being padded to rotundity his face is stiff from force of will, and lean from the efforts of keeping it so. When his right arm rises, all the force in his veins flows straight from shoulder to finger-tips; not an ounce is diverted into sudden impulses, sentimental regrets, wire-drawn distinctions. The buses punctually stop.
It is thus that we live, they say, driven by an unseizable force. They say that the novelists never catch it; that it goes hurtling through their nets and leaves them torn to ribbons. This, they say, is what we live by — this unseizable force.
“Where are the men?” said old General Gibbons, looking round the drawing-room, full as usual on Sunday afternoons of well-dressed people. “Where are the guns?”
Mrs. Durrant looked too.
Clara, thinking that her mother wanted her, came in; then went out again.
They were talking about Germany at the Durrants, and Jacob (driven by this unseizable force) walked rapidly down Hermes Street and ran straight into the Williamses.
“Oh!” cried Sandra, with a cordiality which she suddenly felt. And Evan added, “What luck!”
The dinner which they gave him in the hotel which looks on to the Square of the Constitution was excellent. Plated baskets contained fresh rolls. There was real butter. And the meat scarcely needed the disguise of innumerable little red and green vegetables glazed in sauce.
It was strange, though. There were the little tables set out at intervals on the scarlet floor with the Greek King’s monogram wrought in yellow. Sandra dined in her hat, veiled as usual. Evan looked this way and that over his shoulder; imperturbable yet supple; and sometimes sighed. It was strange. For they were English people come together in Athens on a May evening. Jacob, helping himself to this and that, answered intelligently, yet with a ring in his voice.
The Williamses were going to Constantinople early next morning, they said.
“Before you are up,” said Sandra.
They would leave Jacob alone, then. Turning very slightly, Evan ordered something — a bottle of wine — from which he helped Jacob, with a kind of solicitude, with a kind of paternal solicitude, if that were possible. To be left alone — that was good for a young fellow. Never was there a time when the country had more need of men. He sighed.
“And you have been to the Acropolis?” asked Sandra.
“Yes,” said Jacob. And they moved off to the window together, while Evan spoke to the head waiter about calling them early.
“It is astonishing,” said Jacob, in a gruff voice.
Sandra opened her eyes very slightly. Possibly her nostrils expanded a little too.
“At half-past six then,” said Evan, coming towards them, looking as if he faced something in facing his wife and Jacob standing with their backs to the window.
Sandra smiled at him.
And, as he went to the window and had nothing to say she added, in broken half-sentences:
“Well, but how lovely — wouldn’t it be? The Acropolis, Evan — or are you too tired?”
At that Evan looked at them, or, since Jacob was staring ahead of him, at his wife, surlily, sullenly, yet with a kind of distress — not that she would pity him. Nor would the implacable spirit of love, for anything he could do, cease its tortures.
They left him and he sat in the smoking-room, which looks out on to the Square of the Constitution.
“Evan is happier alone,” said Sandra. “We have been separated from the newspapers. Well, it is better that people should have what they want. . . . You have seen all these wonderful things since we met. . . . What impression . . . I think that you are changed.”
“You want to go to the Acropolis,” said Jacob. “Up here then.”
“One will remember it all one’s life,” said Sandra.
“Yes,” said Jacob. “I wish you could have come in the day-time.”
“This is more wonderful,” said Sandra, waving her hand.
Jacob looked vaguely.
“But you should see the Parthenon in the day-time,” he said. “You couldn’t come to-morrow — it would be too early?”
“You have sat there for hours and hours by yourself?”
“There were some awful women this morning,” said Jacob.
“Awful women?” Sandra echoed.
“But something very wonderful has happened,” said Sandra. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour — that was all the time before her.
“Yes,” he said.
“When one is your age — when one is young. What will you do? You will fall in love — oh yes! But don’t be in too great a hurry. I am so much older.”
She was brushed off the pavement by parading men.
“Shall we go on?” Jacob asked.
“Let us go on,” she insisted.
For she could not stop until she had told him — or heard him say — or was it some action on his part that she required? Far away on the horizon she discerned it and could not rest.
“You’d never get English people to sit out like this,” he said.
“Never — no. When you get back to England you won’t forget this — or come with us to Constantinople!” she cried suddenly.
“But then . . . ”
“You must go to Delphi, of course,” she said. “But,” she asked herself, “what do I want from him? Perhaps it is something that I have missed. . . . ”
“You will get there about six in the evening,” she said. “You will see the eagles.”
Jacob looked set and even desperate by the light at the street corner and yet composed. He was suffering, perhaps. He was credulous. Yet there was something caustic about him. He had in him the seeds of extreme disillusionment, which would come to him from women in middle life. Perhaps if one strove hard enough to reach the top of the hill it need not come to him — this disillusionment from women in middle life.
“The hotel is awful,” she said. “The last visitors had left their basins full of dirty water. There is always that,” she laughed.
“The people one meets ARE beastly,” Jacob said.
His excitement was clear enough.
“Write and tell me about it,” she said. “And tell me what you feel and what you think. Tell me everything.”
The night was dark. The Acropolis was a jagged mound.
“I should like to, awfully,” he said.
“When we get back to London, we shall meet . . . ”
“I suppose they leave the gates open?” he asked.
“We could climb them!” she answered wildly.
Obscuring the moon and altogether darkening the Acropolis the clouds passed from east to west. The clouds solidified; the vapours thickened; the trailing veils stayed and accumulated.
It was dark now over Athens, except for gauzy red streaks where the streets ran; and the front of the Palace was cadaverous from electric light. At sea the piers stood out, marked by separate dots; the waves being invisible, and promontories and islands were dark humps with a few lights.
“I’d love to bring my brother, if I may,” Jacob murmured.
“And then when your mother comes to London — ” said Sandra.
The mainland of Greece was dark; and somewhere off Euboea a cloud must have touched the waves and spattered them — the dolphins circling deeper and deeper into the sea. Violent was the wind now rushing down the Sea of Marmara between Greece and the plains of Troy.
In Greece and the uplands of Albania and Turkey, the wind scours the sand and the dust, and sows itself thick with dry particles. And then it pelts the smooth domes of the mosques, and makes the cypresses, standing stiff by the turbaned tombstones of Mohammedans, creak and bristle.
Sandra’s veils were swirled about her.
“I will give you my copy,” said Jacob. “Here. Will you keep it?”
(The book was the poems of Donne.)
Now the agitation of the air uncovered a racing star. Now it was dark. Now one after another lights were extinguished. Now great towns — Paris — Constantinople — London — were black as strewn rocks. Waterways might be distinguished. In England the trees were heavy in leaf. Here perhaps in some southern wood an old man lit dry ferns and the birds were startled. The sheep coughed; one flower bent slightly towards another. The English sky is softer, milkier than the Eastern. Something gentle has passed into it from the grass-rounded hills, something damp. The salt gale blew in at Betty Flanders’s bedroom window, and the widow lady, raising herself slightly on her elbow, sighed like one who realizes, but would fain ward off a little longer — oh, a little longer! — the oppression of eternity.
But to return to Jacob and Sandra.
They had vanished. There was the Acropolis; but had they reached it? The columns and the Temple remain; the emotion of the living breaks fresh on them year after year; and of that what remains?
As for reaching the Acropolis who shall say that we ever do it, or that when Jacob woke next morning he found anything hard and durable to keep for ever? Still, he went with them to Constantinople.
Sandra Wentworth Williams certainly woke to find a copy of Donne’s poems upon her dressing-table. And the book would be stood on the shelf in the English country house where Sally Duggan’s Life of Father Damien in verse would join it one of these days. There were ten or twelve little volumes already. Strolling in at dusk, Sandra would open the books and her eyes would brighten (but not at the print), and subsiding into the arm-chair she would suck back again the soul of the moment; or, for sometimes she was restless, would pull out book after book and swing across the whole space of her life like an acrobat from bar to bar. She had had her moments. Meanwhile, the great clock on the landing ticked and Sandra would hear time accumulating, and ask herself, “What for? What for?”
“What for? What for?” Sandra would say, putting the book back, and strolling to the looking-glass and pressing her hair. And Miss Edwards would be startled at dinner, as she opened her mouth to admit roast mutton, by Sandra’s sudden solicitude: “Are you happy, Miss Edwards?”— a thing Cissy Edwards hadn’t thought of for years.
“What for? What for?” Jacob never asked himself any such questions, to judge by the way he laced his boots; shaved himself; to judge by the depth of his sleep that night, with the wind fidgeting at the shutters, and half-a-dozen mosquitoes singing in his ears. He was young — a man. And then Sandra was right when she judged him to be credulous as yet. At forty it might be a different matter. Already he had marked the things he liked in Donne, and they were savage enough. However, you might place beside them passages of the purest poetry in Shakespeare.
But the wind was rolling the darkness through the streets of Athens, rolling it, one might suppose, with a sort of trampling energy of mood which forbids too close an analysis of the feelings of any single person, or inspection of features. All faces — Greek, Levantine, Turkish, English — would have looked much the same in that darkness. At length the columns and the Temples whiten, yellow, turn rose; and the Pyramids and St. Peter’s arise, and at last sluggish St. Paul’s looms up.
The Christians have the right to rouse most cities with their interpretation of the day’s meaning. Then, less melodiously, dissenters of different sects issue a cantankerous emendation. The steamers, resounding like gigantic tuning-forks, state the old old fact — how there is a sea coldly, greenly, swaying outside. But nowadays it is the thin voice of duty, piping in a white thread from the top of a funnel, that collects the largest multitudes, and night is nothing but a long-drawn sigh between hammer-strokes, a deep breath — you can hear it from an open window even in the heart of London.
But who, save the nerve-worn and sleepless, or thinkers standing with hands to the eyes on some crag above the multitude, see things thus in skeleton outline, bare of flesh? In Surbiton the skeleton is wrapped in flesh.
“The kettle never boils so well on a sunny morning,” says Mrs. Grandage, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece. Then the grey Persian cat stretches itself on the window-seat, and buffets a moth with soft round paws. And before breakfast is half over (they were late today), a baby is deposited in her lap, and she must guard the sugar basin while Tom Grandage reads the golfing article in the “Times,” sips his coffee, wipes his moustaches, and is off to the office, where he is the greatest authority upon the foreign exchanges and marked for promotion. The skeleton is well wrapped in flesh. Even this dark night when the wind rolls the darkness through Lombard Street and Fetter Lane and Bedford Square it stirs (since it is summer-time and the height of the season), plane trees spangled with electric light, and curtains still preserving the room from the dawn. People still murmur over the last word said on the staircase, or strain, all through their dreams, for the voice of the alarum clock. So when the wind roams through a forest innumerable twigs stir; hives are brushed; insects sway on grass blades; the spider runs rapidly up a crease in the bark; and the whole air is tremulous with breathing; elastic with filaments.
Only here — in Lombard Street and Fetter Lane and Bedford Square — each insect carries a globe of the world in his head, and the webs of the forest are schemes evolved for the smooth conduct of business; and honey is treasure of one sort and another; and the stir in the air is the indescribable agitation of life.
But colour returns; runs up the stalks of the grass; blows out into tulips and crocuses; solidly stripes the tree trunks; and fills the gauze of the air and the grasses and pools.
The Bank of England emerges; and the Monument with its bristling head of golden hair; the dray horses crossing London Bridge show grey and strawberry and iron-coloured. There is a whir of wings as the suburban trains rush into the terminus. And the light mounts over the faces of all the tall blind houses, slides through a chink and paints the lustrous bellying crimson curtains; the green wine-glasses; the coffee-cups; and the chairs standing askew.
Sunlight strikes in upon shaving-glasses; and gleaming brass cans; upon all the jolly trappings of the day; the bright, inquisitive, armoured, resplendent, summer’s day, which has long since vanquished chaos; which has dried the melancholy mediaeval mists; drained the swamp and stood glass and stone upon it; and equipped our brains and bodies with such an armoury of weapons that merely to see the flash and thrust of limbs engaged in the conduct of daily life is better than the old pageant of armies drawn out in battle array upon the plain.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01