An hour passed, and the downstairs rooms at the hotel grew dim and were almost deserted, while the little box-like squares above them were brilliantly irradiated. Some forty or fifty people were going to bed. The thump of jugs set down on the floor above could be heard and the clink of china, for there was not as thick a partition between the rooms as one might wish, so Miss Allan, the elderly lady who had been playing bridge, determined, giving the wall a smart rap with her knuckles. It was only matchboard, she decided, run up to make many little rooms of one large one. Her grey petticoats slipped to the ground, and, stooping, she folded her clothes with neat, if not loving fingers, screwed her hair into a plait, wound her father’s great gold watch, and opened the complete works of Wordsworth. She was reading the “Prelude,” partly because she always read the “Prelude” abroad, and partly because she was engaged in writing a short Primer of English Literature — Beowulf to Swinburne — which would have a paragraph on Wordsworth. She was deep in the fifth book, stopping indeed to pencil a note, when a pair of boots dropped, one after another, on the floor above her. She looked up and speculated. Whose boots were they, she wondered. She then became aware of a swishing sound next door — a woman, clearly, putting away her dress. It was succeeded by a gentle tapping sound, such as that which accompanies hair-dressing. It was very difficult to keep her attention fixed upon the “Prelude.” Was it Susan Warrington tapping? She forced herself, however, to read to the end of the book, when she placed a mark between the pages, sighed contentedly, and then turned out the light.
Very different was the room through the wall, though as like in shape as one egg-box is like another. As Miss Allan read her book, Susan Warrington was brushing her hair. Ages have consecrated this hour, and the most majestic of all domestic actions, to talk of love between women; but Miss Warrington being alone could not talk; she could only look with extreme solicitude at her own face in the glass. She turned her head from side to side, tossing heavy locks now this way now that; and then withdrew a pace or two, and considered herself seriously.
“I’m nice-looking,” she determined. “Not pretty — possibly,” she drew herself up a little. “Yes — most people would say I was handsome.”
She was really wondering what Arthur Venning would say she was. Her feeling about him was decidedly queer. She would not admit to herself that she was in love with him or that she wanted to marry him, yet she spent every minute when she was alone in wondering what he thought of her, and in comparing what they had done to-day with what they had done the day before.
“He didn’t ask me to play, but he certainly followed me into the hall,” she meditated, summing up the evening. She was thirty years of age, and owing to the number of her sisters and the seclusion of life in a country parsonage had as yet had no proposal of marriage. The hour of confidences was often a sad one, and she had been known to jump into bed, treating her hair unkindly, feeling herself overlooked by life in comparison with others. She was a big, well-made woman, the red lying upon her cheeks in patches that were too well defined, but her serious anxiety gave her a kind of beauty.
She was just about to pull back the bed-clothes when she exclaimed, “Oh, but I’m forgetting,” and went to her writing-table. A brown volume lay there stamped with the figure of the year. She proceeded to write in the square ugly hand of a mature child, as she wrote daily year after year, keeping the diaries, though she seldom looked at them.
“A.M. — Talked to Mrs. H. Elliot about country neighbours. She knows the Manns; also the Selby-Carroways. How small the world is! Like her. Read a chapter of Miss Appleby’s Adventure to Aunt E. P.M. — Played lawn-tennis with Mr. Perrott and Evelyn M. Don’t like Mr. P. Have a feeling that he is not ‘quite,’ though clever certainly. Beat them. Day splendid, view wonderful. One gets used to no trees, though much too bare at first. Cards after dinner. Aunt E. cheerful, though twingy, she says. Mem.: ask about damp sheets.”
She knelt in prayer, and then lay down in bed, tucking the blankets comfortably about her, and in a few minutes her breathing showed that she was asleep. With its profoundly peaceful sighs and hesitations it resembled that of a cow standing up to its knees all night through in the long grass.
A glance into the next room revealed little more than a nose, prominent above the sheets. Growing accustomed to the darkness, for the windows were open and showed grey squares with splinters of starlight, one could distinguish a lean form, terribly like the body of a dead person, the body indeed of William Pepper, asleep too. Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight — here were three Portuguese men of business, asleep presumably, since a snore came with the regularity of a great ticking clock. Thirty-nine was a corner room, at the end of the passage, but late though it was —”One” struck gently downstairs — a line of light under the door showed that some one was still awake.
“How late you are, Hugh!” a woman, lying in bed, said in a peevish but solicitous voice. Her husband was brushing his teeth, and for some moments did not answer.
“You should have gone to sleep,” he replied. “I was talking to Thornbury.”
“But you know that I never can sleep when I’m waiting for you,” she said.
To that he made no answer, but only remarked, “Well then, we’ll turn out the light.” They were silent.
The faint but penetrating pulse of an electric bell could now be heard in the corridor. Old Mrs. Paley, having woken hungry but without her spectacles, was summoning her maid to find the biscuit-box. The maid having answered the bell, drearily respectful even at this hour though muffled in a mackintosh, the passage was left in silence. Downstairs all was empty and dark; but on the upper floor a light still burnt in the room where the boots had dropped so heavily above Miss Allan’s head. Here was the gentleman who, a few hours previously, in the shade of the curtain, had seemed to consist entirely of legs. Deep in an arm-chair he was reading the third volume of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of Rome by candle-light. As he read he knocked the ash automatically, now and again, from his cigarette and turned the page, while a whole procession of splendid sentences entered his capacious brow and went marching through his brain in order. It seemed likely that this process might continue for an hour or more, until the entire regiment had shifted its quarters, had not the door opened, and the young man, who was inclined to be stout, come in with large naked feet.
“Oh, Hirst, what I forgot to say was —”
“Two minutes,” said Hirst, raising his finger.
He safely stowed away the last words of the paragraph.
“What was it you forgot to say?” he asked.
“D’you think you do make enough allowance for feelings?” asked Mr. Hewet. He had again forgotten what he had meant to say.
After intense contemplation of the immaculate Gibbon Mr. Hirst smiled at the question of his friend. He laid aside his book and considered.
“I should call yours a singularly untidy mind,” he observed. “Feelings? Aren’t they just what we do allow for? We put love up there, and all the rest somewhere down below.” With his left hand he indicated the top of a pyramid, and with his right the base.
“But you didn’t get out of bed to tell me that,” he added severely.
“I got out of bed,” said Hewet vaguely, “merely to talk I suppose.”
“Meanwhile I shall undress,” said Hirst. When naked of all but his shirt, and bent over the basin, Mr. Hirst no longer impressed one with the majesty of his intellect, but with the pathos of his young yet ugly body, for he stooped, and he was so thin that there were dark lines between the different bones of his neck and shoulders.
“Women interest me,” said Hewet, who, sitting on the bed with his chin resting on his knees, paid no attention to the undressing of Mr. Hirst.
“They’re so stupid,” said Hirst. “You’re sitting on my pyjamas.”
“I suppose they are stupid?” Hewet wondered.
“There can’t be two opinions about that, I imagine,” said Hirst, hopping briskly across the room, “unless you’re in love — that fat woman Warrington?” he enquired.
“Not one fat woman — all fat women,” Hewet sighed.
“The women I saw to-night were not fat,” said Hirst, who was taking advantage of Hewet’s company to cut his toe-nails.
“Describe them,” said Hewet.
“You know I can’t describe things!” said Hirst. “They were much like other women, I should think. They always are.”
“No; that’s where we differ,” said Hewet. “I say everything’s different. No two people are in the least the same. Take you and me now.”
“So I used to think once,” said Hirst. “But now they’re all types. Don’t take us — take this hotel. You could draw circles round the whole lot of them, and they’d never stray outside.”
(”You can kill a hen by doing that”), Hewet murmured.
“Mr. Hughling Elliot, Mrs. Hughling Elliot, Miss Allan, Mr. and Mrs. Thornbury — one circle,” Hirst continued. “Miss Warrington, Mr. Arthur Venning, Mr. Perrott, Evelyn M. another circle; then there are a whole lot of natives; finally ourselves.”
“Are we all alone in our circle?” asked Hewet.
“Quite alone,” said Hirst. “You try to get out, but you can’t. You only make a mess of things by trying.”
“I’m not a hen in a circle,” said Hewet. “I’m a dove on a tree-top.”
“I wonder if this is what they call an ingrowing toe-nail?” said Hirst, examining the big toe on his left foot.
“I flit from branch to branch,” continued Hewet. “The world is profoundly pleasant.” He lay back on the bed, upon his arms.
“I wonder if it’s really nice to be as vague as you are?” asked Hirst, looking at him. “It’s the lack of continuity — that’s what’s so odd bout you,” he went on. “At the age of twenty-seven, which is nearly thirty, you seem to have drawn no conclusions. A party of old women excites you still as though you were three.”
Hewet contemplated the angular young man who was neatly brushing the rims of his toe-nails into the fire-place in silence for a moment.
“I respect you, Hirst,” he remarked.
“I envy you — some things,” said Hirst. “One: your capacity for not thinking; two: people like you better than they like me. Women like you, I suppose.”
“I wonder whether that isn’t really what matters most?” said Hewet. Lying now flat on the bed he waved his hand in vague circles above him.
“Of course it is,” said Hirst. “But that’s not the difficulty. The difficulty is, isn’t it, to find an appropriate object?”
“There are no female hens in your circle?” asked Hewet.
“Not the ghost of one,” said Hirst.
Although they had known each other for three years Hirst had never yet heard the true story of Hewet’s loves. In general conversation it was taken for granted that they were many, but in private the subject was allowed to lapse. The fact that he had money enough to do no work, and that he had left Cambridge after two terms owing to a difference with the authorities, and had then travelled and drifted, made his life strange at many points where his friends’ lives were much of a piece.
“I don’t see your circles — I don’t see them,” Hewet continued. “I see a thing like a teetotum spinning in and out — knocking into things — dashing from side to side — collecting numbers — more and more and more, till the whole place is thick with them. Round and round they go — out there, over the rim — out of sight.”
His fingers showed that the waltzing teetotums had spun over the edge of the counterpane and fallen off the bed into infinity.
“Could you contemplate three weeks alone in this hotel?” asked Hirst, after a moment’s pause.
Hewet proceeded to think.
“The truth of it is that one never is alone, and one never is in company,” he concluded.
“Meaning?” said Hirst.
“Meaning? Oh, something about bubbles — auras — what d’you call ’em? You can’t see my bubble; I can’t see yours; all we see of each other is a speck, like the wick in the middle of that flame. The flame goes about with us everywhere; it’s not ourselves exactly, but what we feel; the world is short, or people mainly; all kinds of people.”
“A nice streaky bubble yours must be!” said Hirst.
“And supposing my bubble could run into some one else’s bubble —”
“And they both burst?” put in Hirst.
“Then — then — then —” pondered Hewet, as if to himself, “it would be an e-nor-mous world,” he said, stretching his arms to their full width, as though even so they could hardly clasp the billowy universe, for when he was with Hirst he always felt unusually sanguine and vague.
“I don’t think you altogether as foolish as I used to, Hewet,” said Hirst. “You don’t know what you mean but you try to say it.”
“But aren’t you enjoying yourself here?” asked Hewet.
“On the whole — yes,” said Hirst. “I like observing people. I like looking at things. This country is amazingly beautiful. Did you notice how the top of the mountain turned yellow to-night? Really we must take our lunch and spend the day out. You’re getting disgustingly fat.” He pointed at the calf of Hewet’s bare leg.
“We’ll get up an expedition,” said Hewet energetically. “We’ll ask the entire hotel. We’ll hire donkeys and —”
“Oh, Lord!” said Hirst, “do shut it! I can see Miss Warrington and Miss Allan and Mrs. Elliot and the rest squatting on the stones and quacking, ‘How jolly!’”
“We’ll ask Venning and Perrott and Miss Murgatroyd — every one we can lay hands on,” went on Hewet. “What’s the name of the little old grasshopper with the eyeglasses? Pepper? — Pepper shall lead us.”
“Thank God, you’ll never get the donkeys,” said Hirst.
“I must make a note of that,” said Hewet, slowly dropping his feet to the floor. “Hirst escorts Miss Warrington; Pepper advances alone on a white ass; provisions equally distributed — or shall we hire a mule? The matrons — there’s Mrs. Paley, by Jove! — share a carriage.”
“That’s where you’ll go wrong,” said Hirst. “Putting virgins among matrons.”
“How long should you think that an expedition like that would take, Hirst?” asked Hewet.
“From twelve to sixteen hours I would say,” said Hirst. “The time usually occupied by a first confinement.”
“It will need considerable organisation,” said Hewet. He was now padding softly round the room, and stopped to stir the books on the table. They lay heaped one upon another.
“We shall want some poets too,” he remarked. “Not Gibbon; no; d’you happen to have Modern Love or John Donne? You see, I contemplate pauses when people get tired of looking at the view, and then it would be nice to read something rather difficult aloud.”
“Mrs. Paley will enjoy herself,” said Hirst.
“Mrs. Paley will enjoy it certainly,” said Hewet. “It’s one of the saddest things I know — the way elderly ladies cease to read poetry. And yet how appropriate this is:
I speak as one who plumbs
Life’s dim profound,
One who at length can sound
Clear views and certain.
But — after love what comes?
A scene that lours,
A few sad vacant hours,
And then, the Curtain.
I daresay Mrs. Paley is the only one of us who can really understand that.”
“We’ll ask her,” said Hirst. “Please, Hewet, if you must go to bed, draw my curtain. Few things distress me more than the moonlight.”
Hewet retreated, pressing the poems of Thomas Hardy beneath his arm, and in their beds next door to each other both the young men were soon asleep.
Between the extinction of Hewet’s candle and the rising of a dusky Spanish boy who was the first to survey the desolation of the hotel in the early morning, a few hours of silence intervened. One could almost hear a hundred people breathing deeply, and however wakeful and restless it would have been hard to escape sleep in the middle of so much sleep. Looking out of the windows, there was only darkness to be seen. All over the shadowed half of the world people lay prone, and a few flickering lights in empty streets marked the places where their cities were built. Red and yellow omnibuses were crowding each other in Piccadilly; sumptuous women were rocking at a standstill; but here in the darkness an owl flitted from tree to tree, and when the breeze lifted the branches the moon flashed as if it were a torch. Until all people should awake again the houseless animals were abroad, the tigers and the stags, and the elephants coming down in the darkness to drink at pools. The wind at night blowing over the hills and woods was purer and fresher than the wind by day, and the earth, robbed of detail, more mysterious than the earth coloured and divided by roads and fields. For six hours this profound beauty existed, and then as the east grew whiter and whiter the ground swam to the surface, the roads were revealed, the smoke rose and the people stirred, and the sun shone upon the windows of the hotel at Santa Marina until they were uncurtained, and the gong blaring all through the house gave notice of breakfast.
Directly breakfast was over, the ladies as usual circled vaguely, picking up papers and putting them down again, about the hall.
“And what are you going to do to-day?” asked Mrs. Elliot drifting up against Miss Warrington.
Mrs. Elliot, the wife of Hughling the Oxford Don, was a short woman, whose expression was habitually plaintive. Her eyes moved from thing to thing as though they never found anything sufficiently pleasant to rest upon for any length of time.
“I’m going to try to get Aunt Emma out into the town,” said Susan. “She’s not seen a thing yet.”
“I call it so spirited of her at her age,” said Mrs. Elliot, “coming all this way from her own fireside.”
“Yes, we always tell her she’ll die on board ship,” Susan replied. “She was born on one,” she added.
“In the old days,” said Mrs. Elliot, “a great many people were. I always pity the poor women so! We’ve got a lot to complain of!” She shook her head. Her eyes wandered about the table, and she remarked irrelevantly, “The poor little Queen of Holland! Newspaper reporters practically, one may say, at her bedroom door!”
“Were you talking of the Queen of Holland?” said the pleasant voice of Miss Allan, who was searching for the thick pages of The Times among a litter of thin foreign sheets.
“I always envy any one who lives in such an excessively flat country,” she remarked.
“How very strange!” said Mrs. Elliot. “I find a flat country so depressing.”
“I’m afraid you can’t be very happy here then, Miss Allan,” said Susan.
“On the contrary,” said Miss Allan, “I am exceedingly fond of mountains.” Perceiving The Times at some distance, she moved off to secure it.
“Well, I must find my husband,” said Mrs. Elliot, fidgeting away.
“And I must go to my aunt,” said Miss Warrington, and taking up the duties of the day they moved away.
Whether the flimsiness of foreign sheets and the coarseness of their type is any proof of frivolity and ignorance, there is no doubt that English people scarce consider news read there as news, any more than a programme bought from a man in the street inspires confidence in what it says. A very respectable elderly pair, having inspected the long tables of newspapers, did not think it worth their while to read more than the headlines.
“The debate on the fifteenth should have reached us by now,” Mrs. Thornbury murmured. Mr. Thornbury, who was beautifully clean and had red rubbed into his handsome worn face like traces of paint on a weather-beaten wooden figure, looked over his glasses and saw that Miss Allan had The Times.
The couple therefore sat themselves down in arm-chairs and waited.
“Ah, there’s Mr. Hewet,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “Mr. Hewet,” she continued, “do come and sit by us. I was telling my husband how much you reminded me of a dear old friend of mine — Mary Umpleby. She was a most delightful woman, I assure you. She grew roses. We used to stay with her in the old days.”
“No young man likes to have it said that he resembles an elderly spinster,” said Mr. Thornbury.
“On the contrary,” said Mr. Hewet, “I always think it a compliment to remind people of some one else. But Miss Umpleby — why did she grow roses?”
“Ah, poor thing,” said Mrs. Thornbury, “that’s a long story. She had gone through dreadful sorrows. At one time I think she would have lost her senses if it hadn’t been for her garden. The soil was very much against her — a blessing in disguise; she had to be up at dawn — out in all weathers. And then there are creatures that eat roses. But she triumphed. She always did. She was a brave soul.” She sighed deeply but at the same time with resignation.
“I did not realise that I was monopolising the paper,” said Miss Allan, coming up to them.
“We were so anxious to read about the debate,” said Mrs. Thornbury, accepting it on behalf of her husband.
“One doesn’t realise how interesting a debate can be until one has sons in the navy. My interests are equally balanced, though; I have sons in the army too; and one son who makes speeches at the Union — my baby!”
“Hirst would know him, I expect,” said Hewet.
“Mr. Hirst has such an interesting face,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “But I feel one ought to be very clever to talk to him. Well, William?” she enquired, for Mr. Thornbury grunted.
“They’re making a mess of it,” said Mr. Thornbury. He had reached the second column of the report, a spasmodic column, for the Irish members had been brawling three weeks ago at Westminster over a question of naval efficiency. After a disturbed paragraph or two, the column of print once more ran smoothly.
“You have read it?” Mrs. Thornbury asked Miss Allan.
“No, I am ashamed to say I have only read about the discoveries in Crete,” said Miss Allan.
“Oh, but I would give so much to realise the ancient world!” cried Mrs. Thornbury. “Now that we old people are alone — we’re on our second honeymoon — I am really going to put myself to school again. After all we are founded on the past, aren’t we, Mr. Hewet? My soldier son says that there is still a great deal to be learnt from Hannibal. One ought to know so much more than one does. Somehow when I read the paper, I begin with the debates first, and, before I’ve done, the door always opens — we’re a very large party at home — and so one never does think enough about the ancients and all they’ve done for us. But you begin at the beginning, Miss Allan.”
“When I think of the Greeks I think of them as naked black men,” said Miss Allan, “which is quite incorrect, I’m sure.”
“And you, Mr. Hirst?” said Mrs. Thornbury, perceiving that the gaunt young man was near. “I’m sure you read everything.”
“I confine myself to cricket and crime,” said Hirst. “The worst of coming from the upper classes,” he continued, “is that one’s friends are never killed in railway accidents.”
Mr. Thornbury threw down the paper, and emphatically dropped his eyeglasses. The sheets fell in the middle of the group, and were eyed by them all.
“It’s not gone well?” asked his wife solicitously.
Hewet picked up one sheet and read, “A lady was walking yesterday in the streets of Westminster when she perceived a cat in the window of a deserted house. The famished animal —”
“I shall be out of it anyway,” Mr. Thornbury interrupted peevishly.
“Cats are often forgotten,” Miss Allan remarked.
“Remember, William, the Prime Minister has reserved his answer,” said Mrs. Thornbury.
“At the age of eighty, Mr. Joshua Harris of Eeles Park, Brondesbury, has had a son,” said Hirst.
“ . . . The famished animal, which had been noticed by workmen for some days, was rescued, but — by Jove! it bit the man’s hand to pieces!”
“Wild with hunger, I suppose,” commented Miss Allan.
“You’re all neglecting the chief advantage of being abroad,” said Mr. Hughling Elliot, who had joined the group. “You might read your news in French, which is equivalent to reading no news at all.”
Mr. Elliot had a profound knowledge of Coptic, which he concealed as far as possible, and quoted French phrases so exquisitely that it was hard to believe that he could also speak the ordinary tongue. He had an immense respect for the French.
“Coming?” he asked the two young men. “We ought to start before it’s really hot.”
“I beg of you not to walk in the heat, Hugh,” his wife pleaded, giving him an angular parcel enclosing half a chicken and some raisins.
“Hewet will be our barometer,” said Mr. Elliot. “He will melt before I shall.” Indeed, if so much as a drop had melted off his spare ribs, the bones would have lain bare. The ladies were left alone now, surrounding The Times which lay upon the floor. Miss Allan looked at her father’s watch.
“Ten minutes to eleven,” she observed.
“Work?” asked Mrs. Thornbury.
“Work,” replied Miss Allan.
“What a fine creature she is!” murmured Mrs. Thornbury, as the square figure in its manly coat withdrew.
“And I’m sure she has a hard life,” sighed Mrs. Elliot.
“Oh, it is a hard life,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “Unmarried women — earning their livings — it’s the hardest life of all.”
“Yet she seems pretty cheerful,” said Mrs. Elliot.
“It must be very interesting,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “I envy her her knowledge.”
“But that isn’t what women want,” said Mrs. Elliot.
“I’m afraid it’s all a great many can hope to have,” sighed Mrs. Thornbury. “I believe that there are more of us than ever now. Sir Harley Lethbridge was telling me only the other day how difficult it is to find boys for the navy — partly because of their teeth, it is true. And I have heard young women talk quite openly of —”
“Dreadful, dreadful!” exclaimed Mrs. Elliot. “The crown, as one may call it, of a woman’s life. I, who know what it is to be childless —” she sighed and ceased.
“But we must not be hard,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “The conditions are so much changed since I was a young woman.”
“Surely maternity does not change,” said Mrs. Elliot.
“In some ways we can learn a great deal from the young,” said Mrs. Thornbury. “I learn so much from my own daughters.”
“I believe that Hughling really doesn’t mind,” said Mrs. Elliot. “But then he has his work.”
“Women without children can do so much for the children of others,” observed Mrs. Thornbury gently.
“I sketch a great deal,” said Mrs. Elliot, “but that isn’t really an occupation. It’s so disconcerting to find girls just beginning doing better than one does oneself! And nature’s difficult — very difficult!”
“Are there not institutions — clubs — that you could help?” asked Mrs. Thornbury.
“They are so exhausting,” said Mrs. Elliot. “I look strong, because of my colour; but I’m not; the youngest of eleven never is.”
“If the mother is careful before,” said Mrs. Thornbury judicially, “there is no reason why the size of the family should make any difference. And there is no training like the training that brothers and sisters give each other. I am sure of that. I have seen it with my own children. My eldest boy Ralph, for instance —”
But Mrs. Elliot was inattentive to the elder lady’s experience, and her eyes wandered about the hall.
“My mother had two miscarriages, I know,” she said suddenly. “The first because she met one of those great dancing bears — they shouldn’t be allowed; the other — it was a horrid story — our cook had a child and there was a dinner party. So I put my dyspepsia down to that.”
“And a miscarriage is so much worse than a confinement,” Mrs. Thornbury murmured absentmindedly, adjusting her spectacles and picking up The Times. Mrs. Elliot rose and fluttered away.
When she had heard what one of the million voices speaking in the paper had to say, and noticed that a cousin of hers had married a clergyman at Minehead — ignoring the drunken women, the golden animals of Crete, the movements of battalions, the dinners, the reforms, the fires, the indignant, the learned and benevolent, Mrs. Thornbury went upstairs to write a letter for the mail.
The paper lay directly beneath the clock, the two together seeming to represent stability in a changing world. Mr. Perrott passed through; Mr. Venning poised for a second on the edge of a table. Mrs. Paley was wheeled past. Susan followed. Mr. Venning strolled after her. Portuguese military families, their clothes suggesting late rising in untidy bedrooms, trailed across, attended by confidential nurses carrying noisy children. As midday drew on, and the sun beat straight upon the roof, an eddy of great flies droned in a circle; iced drinks were served under the palms; the long blinds were pulled down with a shriek, turning all the light yellow. The clock now had a silent hall to tick in, and an audience of four or five somnolent merchants. By degrees white figures with shady hats came in at the door, admitting a wedge of the hot summer day, and shutting it out again. After resting in the dimness for a minute, they went upstairs. Simultaneously, the clock wheezed one, and the gong sounded, beginning softly, working itself into a frenzy, and ceasing. There was a pause. Then all those who had gone upstairs came down; cripples came, planting both feet on the same step lest they should slip; prim little girls came, holding the nurse’s finger; fat old men came still buttoning waistcoats. The gong had been sounded in the garden, and by degrees recumbent figures rose and strolled in to eat, since the time had come for them to feed again. There were pools and bars of shade in the garden even at midday, where two or three visitors could lie working or talking at their ease.
Owing to the heat of the day, luncheon was generally a silent meal, when people observed their neighbors and took stock of any new faces there might be, hazarding guesses as to who they were and what they did. Mrs. Paley, although well over seventy and crippled in the legs, enjoyed her food and the peculiarities of her fellow-beings. She was seated at a small table with Susan.
“I shouldn’t like to say what she is!” she chuckled, surveying a tall woman dressed conspicuously in white, with paint in the hollows of her cheeks, who was always late, and always attended by a shabby female follower, at which remark Susan blushed, and wondered why her aunt said such things.
Lunch went on methodically, until each of the seven courses was left in fragments and the fruit was merely a toy, to be peeled and sliced as a child destroys a daisy, petal by petal. The food served as an extinguisher upon any faint flame of the human spirit that might survive the midday heat, but Susan sat in her room afterwards, turning over and over the delightful fact that Mr. Venning had come to her in the garden, and had sat there quite half an hour while she read aloud to her aunt. Men and women sought different corners where they could lie unobserved, and from two to four it might be said without exaggeration that the hotel was inhabited by bodies without souls. Disastrous would have been the result if a fire or a death had suddenly demanded something heroic of human nature, but tragedies come in the hungry hours. Towards four o’clock the human spirit again began to lick the body, as a flame licks a black promontory of coal. Mrs. Paley felt it unseemly to open her toothless jaw so widely, though there was no one near, and Mrs. Elliot surveyed her found flushed face anxiously in the looking-glass.
Half an hour later, having removed the traces of sleep, they met each other in the hall, and Mrs. Paley observed that she was going to have her tea.
“You like your tea too, don’t you?” she said, and invited Mrs. Elliot, whose husband was still out, to join her at a special table which she had placed for her under a tree.
“A little silver goes a long way in this country,” she chuckled.
She sent Susan back to fetch another cup.
“They have such excellent biscuits here,” she said, contemplating a plateful. “Not sweet biscuits, which I don’t like — dry biscuits . . . Have you been sketching?”
“Oh, I’ve done two or three little daubs,” said Mrs. Elliot, speaking rather louder than usual. “But it’s so difficult after Oxfordshire, where there are so many trees. The light’s so strong here. Some people admire it, I know, but I find it very fatiguing.”
“I really don’t need cooking, Susan,” said Mrs. Paley, when her niece returned. “I must trouble you to move me.” Everything had to be moved. Finally the old lady was placed so that the light wavered over her, as though she were a fish in a net. Susan poured out tea, and was just remarking that they were having hot weather in Wiltshire too, when Mr. Venning asked whether he might join them.
“It’s so nice to find a young man who doesn’t despise tea,” said Mrs. Paley, regaining her good humour. “One of my nephews the other day asked for a glass of sherry — at five o’clock! I told him he could get it at the public house round the corner, but not in my drawing room.”
“I’d rather go without lunch than tea,” said Mr. Venning. “That’s not strictly true. I want both.”
Mr. Venning was a dark young man, about thirty-two years of age, very slapdash and confident in his manner, although at this moment obviously a little excited. His friend Mr. Perrott was a barrister, and as Mr. Perrott refused to go anywhere without Mr. Venning it was necessary, when Mr. Perrott came to Santa Marina about a Company, for Mr. Venning to come too. He was a barrister also, but he loathed a profession which kept him indoors over books, and directly his widowed mother died he was going, so he confided to Susan, to take up flying seriously, and become partner in a large business for making aeroplanes. The talk rambled on. It dealt, of course, with the beauties and singularities of the place, the streets, the people, and the quantities of unowned yellow dogs.
“Don’t you think it dreadfully cruel the way they treat dogs in this country?” asked Mrs. Paley.
“I’d have ’em all shot,” said Mr. Venning.
“Oh, but the darling puppies,” said Susan.
“Jolly little chaps,” said Mr. Venning. “Look here, you’ve got nothing to eat.” A great wedge of cake was handed Susan on the point of a trembling knife. Her hand trembled too as she took it.
“I have such a dear dog at home,” said Mrs. Elliot.
“My parrot can’t stand dogs,” said Mrs. Paley, with the air of one making a confidence. “I always suspect that he (or she) was teased by a dog when I was abroad.”
“You didn’t get far this morning, Miss Warrington,” said Mr. Venning.
“It was hot,” she answered. Their conversation became private, owing to Mrs. Paley’s deafness and the long sad history which Mrs. Elliot had embarked upon of a wire-haired terrier, white with just one black spot, belonging to an uncle of hers, which had committed suicide. “Animals do commit suicide,” she sighed, as if she asserted a painful fact.
“Couldn’t we explore the town this evening?” Mr. Venning suggested.
“My aunt —” Susan began.
“You deserve a holiday,” he said. “You’re always doing things for other people.”
“But that’s my life,” she said, under cover of refilling the teapot.
“That’s no one’s life,” he returned, “no young person’s. You’ll come?”
“I should like to come,” she murmured.
At this moment Mrs. Elliot looked up and exclaimed, “Oh, Hugh! He’s bringing some one,” she added.
“He would like some tea,” said Mrs. Paley. “Susan, run and get some cups — there are the two young men.”
“We’re thirsting for tea,” said Mr. Elliot. “You know Mr. Ambrose, Hilda? We met on the hill.”
“He dragged me in,” said Ridley, “or I should have been ashamed. I’m dusty and dirty and disagreeable.” He pointed to his boots which were white with dust, while a dejected flower drooping in his buttonhole, like an exhausted animal over a gate, added to the effect of length and untidiness. He was introduced to the others. Mr. Hewet and Mr. Hirst brought chairs, and tea began again, Susan pouring cascades of water from pot to pot, always cheerfully, and with the competence of long use.
“My wife’s brother,” Ridley explained to Hilda, whom he failed to remember, “has a house here, which he has lent us. I was sitting on a rock thinking of nothing at all when Elliot started up like a fairy in a pantomime.”
“Our chicken got into the salt,” Hewet said dolefully to Susan. “Nor is it true that bananas include moisture as well as sustenance.
Hirst was already drinking.
“We’ve been cursing you,” said Ridley in answer to Mrs. Elliot’s kind enquiries about his wife. “You tourists eat up all the eggs, Helen tells me. That’s an eye-sore too”— he nodded his head at the hotel. “Disgusting luxury, I call it. We live with pigs in the drawing-room.”
“The food is not at all what it ought to be, considering the price,” said Mrs. Paley seriously. “But unless one goes to a hotel where is one to go to?”
“Stay at home,” said Ridley. “I often wish I had! Everyone ought to stay at home. But, of course, they won’t.”
Mrs. Paley conceived a certain grudge against Ridley, who seemed to be criticising her habits after an acquaintance of five minutes.
“I believe in foreign travel myself,” she stated, “if one knows one’s native land, which I think I can honestly say I do. I should not allow any one to travel until they had visited Kent and Dorsetshire — Kent for the hops, and Dorsetshire for its old stone cottages. There is nothing to compare with them here.”
“Yes — I always think that some people like the flat and other people like the downs,” said Mrs. Elliot rather vaguely.
Hirst, who had been eating and drinking without interruption, now lit a cigarette, and observed, “Oh, but we’re all agreed by this time that nature’s a mistake. She’s either very ugly, appallingly uncomfortable, or absolutely terrifying. I don’t know which alarms me most — a cow or a tree. I once met a cow in a field by night. The creature looked at me. I assure you it turned my hair grey. It’s a disgrace that the animals should be allowed to go at large.”
“And what did the cow think of him?” Venning mumbled to Susan, who immediately decided in her own mind that Mr. Hirst was a dreadful young man, and that although he had such an air of being clever he probably wasn’t as clever as Arthur, in the ways that really matter.
“Wasn’t it Wilde who discovered the fact that nature makes no allowance for hip-bones?” enquired Hughling Elliot. He knew by this time exactly what scholarships and distinction Hirst enjoyed, and had formed a very high opinion of his capacities.
But Hirst merely drew his lips together very tightly and made no reply.
Ridley conjectured that it was now permissible for him to take his leave. Politeness required him to thank Mrs. Elliot for his tea, and to add, with a wave of his hand, “You must come up and see us.”
The wave included both Hirst and Hewet, and Hewet answered, “I should like it immensely.”
The party broke up, and Susan, who had never felt so happy in her life, was just about to start for her walk in the town with Arthur, when Mrs. Paley beckoned her back. She could not understand from the book how Double Demon patience is played; and suggested that if they sat down and worked it out together it would fill up the time nicely before dinner.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01