The Years, by Virginia Woolf


It was midsummer; and the nights were hot. The moon, falling on water, made it white, inscrutable, whether deep or shallow. But where the moonlight fell on solid objects it gave them a burnish and a silver plating, so that even the leaves in country roads seemed varnished. All along the silent country roads leading to London carts plodded; the iron reins fixed in the iron hands, for vegetables, fruit, flowers travelled slowly. Heaped high with round crates of cabbage, cherries, carnations, they looked like caravans piled with the goods of tribes migrating in search of water, driven by enemies to seek new pasturage. On they plodded, down this road, that road, keeping close to the kerb. Even the horses, had they been blind, could have heard the hum of London in the distance; and the drivers, dozing, yet saw through half shut eyes the fiery gauze of the eternally burning city. At dawn, at Covent Garden, they laid down their burdens; tables and trestles, even the cobbles were frilled as with some celestial laundry with cabbages, cherries and carnations.

All the windows were open. Music sounded. From behind crimson curtains, rendered semi-transparent and sometimes blowing wide came the sound of the eternal waltz — After the ball is over, after the dance is done — like a serpent that swallowed its own tail, since the ring was complete from Hammersmith to Shoreditch. Over and over again it was repeated by trombones outside public houses; errand boys whistled it; bands inside private rooms where people were dancing played it. There they sat at little tables at Wapping in the romantic Inn that overhung the river, between timber warehouses where barges were moored; and here again in Mayfair. Each table had its lamp; its canopy of tight red silk, and the flowers that had sucked damp from the earth that noon relaxed and spread their petals in vases. Each table had its pyramid of strawberries, its pale plump quail; and Martin, after India, after Africa, found it exciting to talk to a girl with bare shoulders, to a woman iridescent with green beetles wings in her hair in a manner that the waltz condoned and half concealed under its amorous blandishments. Did it matter what one said? For she looked over her shoulder, only half listening, as a man came in wearing decorations, and a lady, in black with diamonds, beckoned him to a private corner.

As the night wore on a tender blue light lay on the market carts still plodding close to the kerb, past Westminster, past the yellow round clocks, the coffee stalls and the statues that stood there in the dawn holding so stiffly their rods or rolls of paper. And the scavengers followed after, sluicing the pavements. Cigarette ends, little bits of silver paper, orange peel — all the litter of the day was swept off the pavement and still the carts plodded, and the cabs trotted, indefatigably, along the dowdy pavements of Kensington, under the sparkling lights of Mayfair, carrying ladies with high head dresses and gentlemen in white waistcoats along the hammered dry roads which looked in the moonlight as if they were plated with silver.

“Look!” said Eugénie as the cab trotted over the bridge in the summer twilight. “Isn’t that lovely?”

She waved her hand at the water. They were crossing the Serpentine; but her exclamation was only an aside; she was listening to what her husband was saying. Their daughter Magdalena was with them; and she looked where her mother pointed. There was the Serpentine, red in the setting sun; the trees grouped together, sculptured, losing their detail; and the ghostly architecture of the little bridge, white at the end, composed the scene. The lights — the sun-light and the artificial light — were strangely mixed.

“ . . . of course it’s put the Government in a fix,” Sir Digby was saying. “But then that’s what he wants.”

“Yes . . . he’ll make a name for himself, that young man,” said Lady Pargiter.

The cab passed over the bridge. It entered the shadow of the trees. Now it left the Park and joined the long line of cabs, taking people in evening dress to plays, to dinner-parties, that was streaming towards the Marble Arch. The light grew more and more artificial; yellower and yellower. Eugénie leant across and touched something on her daughter’s dress. Maggie looked up. She had thought that they were still talking politics.

“So,” said her mother, arranging the flower in front of her dress. She put her head a little on one side and looked at her daughter approvingly. Then she gave a sudden laugh and threw her hand out. “D’you know what made me so late?” she said. “That imp, Sally . . . ”

But her husband interrupted her. He had caught sight of an illuminated clock.

“We shall be late,” he said.

“But eight-fifteen means eight-thirty,” said Eugénie as they turned down a side street.

All was silent in the house at Browne Street. A ray from the street lamp fell through the fanlight and, rather capriciously, lit up a tray of glasses on the hall table; a top hat; and a chair with gilt paws. The chair, standing empty, as if waiting for someone, had a look of ceremony; as if it stood on the cracked floor of some Italian ante-room. But all was silent. Antonio, the man servant, was asleep; Mollie, the housemaid, was asleep; downstairs in the basement a door flapped to and fro — otherwise all was silent.

Sally in her bedroom at the top of the house turned on her side and listened intently. She thought she heard the front door click. A burst of dance music came in through the open window and made it impossible to hear.

She sat up in bed and looked out through the slit of the blind. Through the gap she could see a slice of the sky; then roofs; then the tree in the garden; then the backs of houses opposite standing in a long row. One of the houses was brilliantly lit and from the long open windows came dance music. They were waltzing. She saw shadows twirling across the blind. It was impossible to read; impossible to sleep. First there was the music; then a burst of talk; then people came out into the garden; voices chattered, then the music began again.

It was a hot summer’s night, and though it was late, the whole world seemed to be alive; the rush of traffic sounded distant but incessant.

A faded brown book lay on her bed; as if she had been reading. But it was impossible to read; impossible to sleep. She lay back on the pillow with her hands behind her head.

“And he says,” she murmured, “the world is nothing but . . . ” She paused. What did he say? Nothing but thought, was it? she asked herself as if she had already forgotten. Well, since it was impossible to read and impossible to sleep, she would let herself be thought. It was easier to act things than to think them. Legs, body, hands, the whole of her must be laid out passively to take part in this universal process of thinking which the man said was the world living. She stretched herself out. Where did thought begin?

In the feet? she asked. There they were, jutting out under the single sheet. They seemed separated, very far away. She closed her eyes. Then against her will something in her hardened. It was impossible to act thought. She became something; a root; lying sunk in the earth; veins seemed to thread the cold mass; the tree put forth branches; the branches had leaves.

“— the sun shines through the leaves,” she said, waggling her finger. She opened her eyes in order to verify the sun on the leaves and saw the actual tree standing out there in the garden. Far from being dappled with sunlight, it had no leaves at all. She felt for a moment as if she had been contradicted. For the tree was black, dead black.

She leant her elbow on the sill and looked out at the tree. A confused clapping sound came from the room where they were having the dance. The music had stopped; people began to come down the iron staircase into the garden which was marked out with blue and yellow lamps dotted along the wall. The voices grew louder. More people came and more people came. The dotted square of green was full of the flowing pale figures of women in evening dress; of the upright black-and-white figures of men in evening dress. She watched them moving in and out. They were talking and laughing; but they were too far off for her to hear what they were saying. Sometimes a single word or a laugh rose above the rest, and then there was a confused babble of sound. In their own garden all was empty and silent. A cat slid stealthily along the top of a wall; stopped; and then went on again as if drawn on some secret errand. Another dance struck up.

“Over again, over and over again!” she exclaimed impatiently. The air, laden with the curious dry smell of London earth, puffed in her face, blowing the blind out. Stretched flat on her bed, she saw the moon; it seemed immensely high above her. Little vapours were moving across the surface. Now they parted and she saw engravings chased over the white disc. What were they, she wondered — mountains? valleys? And if valleys, she said to herself half closing her eyes, then white trees; then icy hollows, and nightingales, two nightingales calling to each other, calling and answering each other across the valleys. The waltz music took the words “calling and answering each other” and flung them out; but as it repeated the same rhythm again and again, it coarsened them, it destroyed them. The dance music interfered with everything. At first exciting, then it became boring and finally intolerable. Yet it was only twenty minutes to one.

Her lip raised itself, like that of a horse that is going to bite. The little brown book was dull. She reached her hand above her head and took down another book from the shelf of battered books without looking at it. She opened the book at random; but her eye was caught by one of the couples who were still sitting out in the garden though the others had gone in. What were they saying, she wondered? There was something gleaming in the grass, and, as far as she could see, the black-and-white figure stooped and picked it up.

“And as he picks it up,” she murmured, looking out, “he says to the lady beside him: Behold, Miss Smith, what I have found on the grass — a fragment of my heart; of my broken heart, he says. I have found it in the grass; and I wear it on my breast”— she hummed the words in time to the melancholy waltz music —“my broken heart, this broken glass, for love —” she paused and glanced at the book. On the fly-leaf was written:

“Sara Pargiter from her Cousin Edward Pargiter.”

“ . . . for love,” she concluded, “is best.”

She turned to the title-page.

“The Antigone of Sophocles, done into English verse by Edward Pargiter,” she read.

Once more she looked out of the window. The couple had moved. They were going up the iron staircase. She watched them. They went into the ballroom. “And suppose in the middle of the dance,” she murmured, “she takes it out; and looks at it and says, ‘What is this?’ and it’s only a piece of broken glass — of broken glass. . . . ” She looked down at the book again.

“The Antigone of Sophocles,” she read. The book was brand-new; it cracked as she opened it; this was the first time she had opened it.

“The Antigone of Sophocles, done into English verse by Edward Pargiter,” she read again. He had given it her in Oxford; one hot afternoon when they had been trailing through chapels and libraries. “Trailing and wailing,” she hummed, turning over the pages, “and he said to me, getting up from the low armchair, and brushing his hand through his hair”— she glanced out of the window — “‘my wasted youth, my wasted youth.’” The waltz was now at its most intense, its most melancholy. “Taking in his hand,” she hummed in time to it, “this broken glass, this faded heart, he said to me . . . ” Here the music stopped; there was a sound of clapping; the dancers once more came out into the garden.

She skipped through the pages. At first she read a line or two at random; then, from the litter of broken words, scenes rose, quickly, inaccurately, as she skipped. The unburied body of a murdered man lay like a fallen tree-trunk, like a statue, with one foot stark in the air. Vultures gathered. Down they flopped on the silver sand. With a lurch, with a reel, the top-heavy birds came waddling; with a flap of the grey throat swinging, they hopped — she beat her hand on the counterpane as she read — to that lump there. Quick, quick, quick with repeated jerks they struck the mouldy flesh. Yes. She glanced at the tree outside in the garden. The unburied body of the murdered man lay on the sand. Then in a yellow cloud came whirling — who? She turned the page quickly. Antigone? She came whirling out of the dust-cloud to where the vultures were reeling and flung white sand over the blackened foot. She stood there letting fall white dust over the blackened foot. Then behold! there were more clouds; dark clouds; the horsemen leapt down; she was seized; her wrists were bound with withies; and they bore her, thus bound — where?

There was a roar of laughter from the garden. She looked up. Where did they take her? she asked. The garden was full of people. She could not hear a word that they were saying. The figures were moving in and out.

“To the estimable court of the respected ruler?” she murmured, picking up a word or two at random, for she was still looking out into the garden. The man’s name was Creon. He buried her. It was a moonlight night. The blades of the cactuses were sharp silver. The man in the loincloth gave three sharp taps with his mallet on the brick. She was buried alive. The tomb was a brick mound. There was just room for her to lie straight out. Straight out in a brick tomb, she said. And that’s the end, she yawned, shutting the book.

She laid herself out, under the cold smooth sheets, and pulled the pillow over her ears. The one sheet and the one blanket fitted softly round her. At the bottom of the bed was a long stretch of cool fresh mattress. The sound of the dance music became dulled. Her body dropped suddenly; then reached ground. A dark wing brushed her mind, leaving a pause; a blank space. Everything — the music, the voices — became stretched and generalised. The book fell on the floor. She was asleep.

“It’s a lovely night,” said the girl who was going up the iron steps with her partner. She rested her hand on the balustrade. It felt very cold. She looked up; a slice of yellow light lay round the moon. It seemed to laugh round it. Her partner looked up too, and then mounted another step without saying anything for he was shy.

“Going to the match tomorrow?” he said stiffly, for they scarcely knew each other.

“If my brother gets off in time to take me,” she said, and went up another step too. Then, as they entered the ballroom, he gave her a little bow and left her; for his partner was waiting.

The moon which was now clear of clouds lay in a bare space as if the light had consumed the heaviness of the clouds and left a perfectly clear pavement, a dancing ground for revelry. For some time the dappled iridescence of the sky remained unbroken. Then there was a puff of wind; and a little cloud crossed the moon.

There was a sound in the bedroom. Sara turned over.

“Who’s that?” she murmured. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.

It was her sister. She stood at the door, hesitating. “Asleep?” she said in a low voice.

“No,” said Sara. She rubbed her eyes. “I’m awake,” she said, opening them.

Maggie came across the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. The blind was blowing out; the sheets were slipping off the bed. She felt dazed for a moment. After the ballroom, it looked so untidy. There was a tumbler with a toothbrush in it on the wash- stand; the towel was crumpled on the towel-horse; and a book had fallen on the floor. She stooped and picked up the book. As she did so, the music burst out down the street. She held back the blind. The women in pale dresses, the men in black and white, were crowding up the stairs into the ballroom. Snatches of talk and laughter were blown across the garden.

“Is there a dance?” she asked.

“Yes. Down the street,” said Sara.

Maggie looked out. At this distance the music sounded romantic, mysterious, and the colours flowed over each other, neither pink nor white nor blue.

Maggie stretched herself and unpinned the flower that she was wearing. It was drooping; the white petals were stained with black marks. She looked out of the window again. The mixture of lights was very odd; one leaf was a lurid green; another was a bright white. The branches crossed each other at different levels. Then Sally laughed.

“Did anybody give you a piece of glass,” she said, “saying to you, Miss Pargiter . . . my broken heart?”

“No,” said Maggie, “why should they?” The flower fell off her lap onto the floor.

“I was thinking,” said Sara. “The people in the garden . . . ”

She waved her hand at the window. They were silent for a moment, listening to the dance music.

“And who did you sit next?” Sara asked after a time.

“A man in gold lace,” said Maggie.

“In gold lace?” Sara repeated.

Maggie was silent. She was getting used to the room; the discrepancy between this litter and the shiny ballroom was leaving her. She envied her sister lying in bed with the window open and the breeze blowing in.

“Because he was going to a party,” she said. She paused. Something had caught her eye. A branch swayed up and down in the little breeze. Maggie held the blind so that the window was uncurtained. Now she could see the whole sky, and the houses and the branches in the garden.

“It’s the moon,” she said. It was the moon that was making the leaves white. They both looked at the moon, which shone like a silver coin, perfectly polished, very sharp and hard.

“But if they don’t say O my broken heart,” said Sara, “what do they say, at parties?”

Maggie flicked off a white fleck that had stuck to her arm from her gloves.

“Some people say one thing,” she said, getting up, “and some people say another.”

She picked up the little brown book which lay on the counterpane and smoothed out the bedclothes. Sara took the book out of her hand.

“This man,” she said, tapping the ugly little brown volume, “says the world’s nothing but thought, Maggie.”

“Does he?” said Maggie, putting the book on the wash-stand. It was a device, she knew, to keep her standing there, talking.

“D’you think it’s true?” Sara asked.

“Possibly,” said Maggie, without thinking what she was saying. She put out her hand to draw the curtain.

“The world’s nothing but thought, does he say?” she repeated, holding the curtain apart.

She had been thinking something of the kind when the cab crossed the Serpentine; when her mother interrupted her. She had been thinking, Am I that, or am I this? Are we one, or are we separate — something of the kind.

“Then what about trees and colours?” she said, turning round.

“Trees and colours?” Sara repeated.

“Would there be trees if we didn’t see them?” said Maggie.

“What’s ‘I’? . . . ‘I’ . . . ” She stopped. She did not know what she meant. She was talking nonsense.

“Yes,” said Sara. “What’s ‘I’?” She held her sister tight by the skirt, whether she wanted to prevent her from going, or whether she wanted to argue the question.

“What’s ‘I’?” she repeated.

But there was a rustling outside the door and her mother came in.

“Oh my dear children!” she exclaimed, “still out of bed? Still talking?”

She came across the room, beaming, glowing, as if she were still under the influence of the party. Jewels flashed on her neck and her arms. She was extraordinarily handsome. She glanced round her.

“And the flower’s on the floor, and everything’s so untidy,” she said. She picked up the flower that Maggie had dropped and put it to her lips.

“Because I was reading, Mama, because I was waiting,” said Sara. She took her mother’s hand and stroked the bare arm. She imitated her mother’s manner so exactly that Maggie smiled. They were the very opposite of each other — Lady Pargiter so sumptuous; Sally so angular. But it’s worked, she thought to herself, as Lady Pargiter allowed herself to be pulled down onto the bed. The imitation had been perfect.

“But you must go to sleep, Sal,” she protested. “What did the doctor say? Lie straight, lie still, he said.” She pushed her back onto the pillows.

“I am lying straight and still,” said Sara. “Now”— she looked up at her —“tell me about the party.”

Maggie stood upright in the window. She watched the couples coming down the iron staircase. Soon the garden was full of pale whites and pinks, moving in and out. She half heard them behind her talking about the party.

“It was a very nice party,” her mother was saying.

Maggie looked out of the window. The square of the garden was filled with differently tinted colours. They seemed to ripple one over the other until they entered the angle where the light from the house fell, when they suddenly turned to ladies and gentlemen in full evening dress.

“No fish-knives?” she heard Sara saying.

She turned.

“Who was the man I sat next?” she asked.

“Sir Matthew Mayhew,” said Lady Pargiter.

“Who is Sir Matthew Mayhew?” said Maggie.

“A most distinguished man, Maggie!” said her mother, flinging her hand out.

“A most distinguished man,” Sara echoed her.

“But he is,” Lady Pargiter repeated, smiling at her daughter whom she loved, perhaps because of her shoulder.

“It was a great honour to sit next him, Maggie,” she continued. “A great honour,” she said reprovingly. She paused, as if she saw a little scene. She looked up.

“And then,” she resumed, “when Mary Palmer says to me, Which is your daughter? I see Maggie, miles away, at the other end of the room, talking to Martin, whom she might have met every day of her life in an omnibus!”

Her words were stressed so that they seemed to rise and fall. She emphasised the rhythm still further by tapping with her fingers on Sally’s bare arm.

“But I don’t see Martin every day,” Maggie protested.

“I haven’t seen him since he came back from Africa.” Her mother interrupted her.

“But you don’t go to parties, my dear Maggie, to talk to your own cousins. You go to parties to —”

Here the dance music crashed out. The first chords seemed possessed of frantic energy, as if they were summoning the dancers imperiously to return. Lady Pargiter stopped in the middle of her sentence. She sighed; her body seemed to become indolent and suave. The heavy lids lowered themselves slightly over her large dark eyes. She swayed her head slowly in time to the music.

“What’s that they’re playing?” she murmured. She hummed the tune, beating time with her hand. “Something I used to dance to.”

“Dance it now, Mama,” said Sara.

“Yes, Mama. Show us how you used to dance,” Maggie urged her.

“But without a partner —?” Lady Pargiter protested.

Maggie pushed a chair away.

“Imagine a partner,” Sara urged her.

“Well,” said Lady Pargiter. She rose. “It was something like this,” she said. She paused; she held her skirt out with one hand; she slightly crooked the other in which she held the flower; she twirled round and round in the space which Maggie had cleared. She moved with extraordinary stateliness. All her limbs seemed to bend and flow in the lilt and the curve of the music; which became louder and clearer as she danced to it. She circled in and out among the chairs and tables and then, as the music stopped, “There!” she exclaimed. Her body seemed to fold and close itself together as she sighed “There!” and sank all in one movement on the edge of the bed.

“Wonderful!” Maggie exclaimed. Her eyes rested on her mother with admiration.

“Nonsense,” Lady Pargiter laughed, panting slightly. “I’m much too old to dance now; but when I was young; when I was your age —” She sat there panting.

“You danced out of the house onto the terrace and found a little note folded in your bouquet —” said Sara, stroking her mother’s arm. “Tell us that story, Mama.”

“Not tonight,” said Lady Pargiter. “Listen — there’s the clock striking!”

Since the Abbey was so near, the sound of the hour filled the room; softly, tumultuously, as if it were a flurry of soft sighs hurrying one on top of another, yet concealing something hard. Lady Pargiter counted. It was very late.

“I’ll tell you the true story one of these days,” she said as she bent to kiss her daughter goodnight.

“Now! Now!” cried Sara, holding her fast.

“No, not now — not now!” Lady Pargiter laughed, snatching away her hand. “There’s Papa calling me!”

They heard footsteps in the passage outside, and then Sir Digby’s voice at the door.

“Eugénie! It’s very late, Eugénie!” they heard him say.

“Coming!” she cried. “Coming!”

Sara caught her by the train of her dress. “You haven’t told us the story of the bouquet, Mamma!” she cried.

“Eugénie!” Sir Digby repeated. His voice sounded peremptory. “Have you locked —”

“Yes, yes, yes,” said Eugénie. “I will tell you the true story another time,” she said, freeing herself from her daughter’s grasp. She kissed them both quickly and went out of the room.

“She won’t tell us,” said Maggie, picking up her gloves. She spoke with some bitterness.

They listened to the voices talking in the passage. They could hear their father’s voice. He was expostulating. His voice sounded querulous and cross.

“Pirouetting up and down with his sword between his legs; with his opera hat under his arm and his sword between his legs,” said Sara, pummelling her pillows viciously.

The voices went further away, downstairs.

“Who was the note from, d’you think?” said Maggie. She paused, looking at her sister burrowing into her pillows.

“The note? What note?” said Sara. “Oh, the note in the bouquet. I don’t remember,” she said. She yawned.

Maggie shut the window and pulled the curtain but she left a chink of light.

“Pull it tight, Maggie,” said Sara irritably. “Shut out that din.”

She curled herself up with her back to the window. She had raised a hump of pillow against her head as if to shut out the dance music that was still going on. She pressed her face into a cleft of the pillows. She looked like a chrysalis wrapped round in the sharp white folds of the sheet. Only the tip of her nose was visible. Her hip and her feet jutted out at the end of the bed covered by a single sheet. She gave a profound sigh that was half a snore; she was asleep already.

Maggie went along the passage. Then she saw that there were lights in the hall beneath. She stopped and looked down over the banister. The hall was lit up. She could see the great Italian chair with the gilt claws that stood in the hall. Her mother had thrown her evening cloak over it, so that it fell in soft golden folds over the crimson cover. She could see a tray with whisky and a soda-water syphon on the hall table. Then she heard the voices of her father and mother as they came up the kitchen stairs. They had been down in the basement; there had been a burglary up the street; her mother had promised to have a new lock put on the kitchen door but had forgotten. She could hear her father say:

“ . . . they’d melt it down; we should never get it back again.”

Maggie went on a few steps upstairs.

“I’m so sorry, Digby,” Eugénie said as they came into the hall. “I will tie a knot in my handkerchief; I will go directly after breakfast tomorrow morning. . . . Yes,” she said, gathering her cloak in her arms, “I will go myself, and I will say ‘I’ve had enough of your excuses, Mr Toye. No, Mr Toye, you have deceived me once too often. And after all these years!’”

Then there was a pause. Maggie could hear soda-water squirted into a tumbler; the chink of a glass; and then the lights went out.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01